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We don’t yet know the outcome of the election in key states. But we can formulate some preliminary thoughts.

The experts were wrong yet again. During my summer travels in the Midwest, I could tell that the electorate was frustrated, angry, and volatile. My conversations led me to conclude that predictions of a “blue wave” were ridiculous and that polling was wildly inaccurate. I did not know if Trump would win, but I could tell it was certainly within the realm of possibility.

The same holds for anxieties about election-night violence in the streets. The super-educated and “smart” people gamed out dire scenarios. Twitter (their substitute for actually talking to ordinary people) spread the doomsday contagion, just as it had when the virus came to our shores. 

Pundits talk about a dangerous loss of confidence in our political institutions. I’ve never believed this. In my experience, most Americans are proud of our constitutional system, even if they disdain the D.C. swamp and deride politicians. The peril we face is within the ruling class. The experts have lots of data but no common sense. And our elites don’t just misjudge the country; they also mistrust the citizenry. 

Another observation: Despite the demonization of Trump as a white supremacist and media hysteria about “systemic racism,” racially polarized voting moderated on Tuesday. This is an extraordinary outcome, given the relentless propaganda in recent months. Apparently black voters do not subscribe to the racial apocalypticism that dominates among the New York Times staff. Mark that down as good news for America’s future. 

The election seems to vindicate the basic proposition of today’s “populism.” It holds that the greatest threats to the body politic come from globalization, which has divided the country economically and culturally. The lockdowns have revealed the chasm between those who sit in front of computers and those who work on their feet. The former harvest more and more of the benefits of a globalized economy. The latter stagnate. At the same time, the “Anywhere” mentality derides the supposed xenophobia and lack of “creativity” among the “Somewhere” people.

Exit polls suggest that voters increasingly reflect that divide. The Democratic party is becoming the party of college-educated people, while the Republican party is gathering more and more votes from working-class Americans.

A huge amount of money was poured into the Biden campaign and Democrats’ senate campaigns. The media bias against Trump was another major factor pushing the scale in Biden’s favor. Not since the Goldwater campaign of 1964 has our establishment united so completely to ensure the defeat of a figure deemed a threat to all that is right and good in America. Given these factors, the fact that Biden did not win comfortably and we are counting votes the day after (and in all likelihood until the end of the week) is extraordinary. 

In its most general sense, “populism” describes a regime in which the leaders have lost the trust of those whom they purport to lead. This causes political turmoil as voters rebel, refusing to accept elite guidance. When pundits speak of populism as a “threat to democratic norms,” they are referring to this truculence. And not wrongly, for a democracy requires guardrails, and the guardrails are established by elite opinion, which limits political competition and guides the so-called “deep state” toward goals and actions in accord with electoral outcomes.

2016 shocked our leaders. Whatever the final outcome, this week reminds us that a substantial portion of the American electorate—enough to put a man in the White House—no longer takes guidance from our cultural and political establishment. As a consequence, these Americans are disenfranchised—not in an electoral sense (Trump may end up winning), but in a cultural and ideological sense. As the last four years have shown, this substantial element of the electorate is deprived of a richly elaborated and coordinated social and political agenda by which to focus their anger and frustration. 

Some try to fill the vacuum. Oren Cass has launched an important new initiative, American Compass. Others are working to re-orient foreign policy. First Things has made efforts as well. But in the main, the elite consensus on the American right remains discordant with Trump’s voters.

This is likely to remain the case. Which means that when Trump leaves the scene (whether in January 2021 or after a second term), a vast body of voters will remain available for Republican politicians who are willing to venture beyond the safety of elite-authorized views. The task for intellectuals and activists on the right is to craft a vision for the future of the country—one that addresses rather than ignores the reasons why so many voters chose someone thoroughly opposed by the Great and the Good.

R. R. Reno is editor of First Things. 

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