Why Trump won in 2016 and lost in 2020

Donald Trump would have won the 2020 election if not for the Covid pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests, according to political scientist Thomas Ferguson.

He explained why in an academic paper he co-wrote in November and an interview a couple of days ago on Paul Jay’s theAnalysis podcast.

Ferguson is known for his “investment theory of political parties.”  He sees American politic as a conflict between powerful economic interests, not between voting blocs.  The economic interests select and invest in candidates; the public gets to choose between the candidates the investors select.   

Trump was on the verge of losing in 2016 and was saved by a last-minute surge in campaign funding by wealthy donors who feared he would take the Republican Party down with him, Ferguson said.

Trump got campaign support from the oil and gas, coal mining, timber, agri-business industries, which he favored, The Koch brothers, for example, get their wealth from energy and other resources industries. 

I notice that these industries are based in parts of the USA in which states are over-represented in the Senate and Electoral College in proportion to their populations.  This was a big factor in 2020.

While Trump appealed to racial and nativist prejudice, Ferguson said this did not determine the outcome.

His protectionist trade policies were popular with industrial workers as well as manufacturing CEOs.  He got support from farmers because his administration compensated them for losses as a result of trade wars with China.  

All these things, together with the relatively good performance of the economy, put Trump in a good position to win in 2020, Ferguson said.

But his ineffective response to the Covid crisis cost him support from corporate executives and also college-educated Republicans who otherwise might have voted for him out of party loyalty.

The voters’ response to the 2020 strikes and protests movements is interesting and not easy to explain.  Usually, when there are civil disorders, there is a backlash in favor of the police and law-and-order.  This time was different.

Ferguson’s analysis showed that there was a correlation between counties in which there was an upsurge in Black Lives Matter, environmental and others kinds of protests, and counties in which there was strong support for Joe Biden.  The only exception to this were counties with large Hispanic populations.  Also, there was no correlation between Biden voting and wildcat labor strikes.

The point is that it is premature to count out Donald Trump and his followers.  President Biden and the Democrats need to do more than just be anti-Trump if they are to retain office.  They can’t afford to let the economy falter or Covid spread. [*]


Is the USA a democracy?

Paul Jay asked Ferguson whether he thinks the USA is a democracy.  Ferguson said democracy is an “honorific” term, not an analytical term.  No voting system, in and of itself, can empower the public to overcome the enormous concentration of wealth that exists in today’s USA, he said.

He said wage-earners in the USA and other rich Western countries do still have more rights than they do in Russia or China (although Ferguson acknowledged China’s economic achievements.)

And political disorder in the United States has not yet reached the point as it did in the late Weimar Republic, where political killings by para-military militias were an almost daily occurrence.

Ferguson has frequently pointed out that the United States has never had a political party, like the British Labor Party or the French Communist Party, that claims to specifically represent the interests of wage-earners.  This includes the Democratic Party in the New Deal era.

President Franklin Roosevelt was sworn in at a time when the USA was in political crisis and torn by labor strikes and other protest movements.  He did not instigate or lead these movements.  What distinguished him from President Hoover was that he chose not to crush these movements, but let them play out.

FDR broadly speaking was opposed by labor-intensive business interests and supported by capital-intensive business interests.  The second group were more interested in restoring prosperity and consumer spending than they were suppressing the labor movement.

There is at least a possibility of a version of this under President Biden, Ferguson said.  Biden is a passive leader, but Ir’a poaaivlw he will passively accommodate organized labor if there is a resurgence of the labor movement.

The USA faces multiple crises—a financial system on the verge of crashing, loss of jobs in a global economy, increasing concentration of wealth at the top, and a government that doesn’t respond to public needs and wishes.

 Ferguson thinks this is a good opportunity for the U.S. labor movement if its leaders take advantage of it.  But there is great danger to the shaky U.S. system if they don’t.


Is the USA a Democracy?, transcript of an interview with Tom Ferguson on theAnalysis news.

The Knife Edge Election of 2020: American Politics Between Washington, Kabul and Weimar, a Working Paper by Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen and Jei Chen for the Institute for New Economic Thinking.  Lots of good detail for those who care about such things.

[*12/17/2021] Paragraph added for clarification. 

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2 Responses to “Why Trump won in 2016 and lost in 2020”

  1. Struggles with democracy – Some View on the World Says:

    […] Why Trump won in 2016 and lost in 2020 […]


  2. From Flanders battlegrounds to American prairies & the Demise of democracy | Marcus Ampe's Space Says:

    […] Why Trump won in 2016 and lost in 2020 […]


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