A defeat for Donald Trump in next month’s election is unlikely to banish the cultural divisions he has stoked © Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

Though few will dare admit it, much of America is preparing to celebrate the end of Donald Trump. Not only would his defeat bring the curtain down on an administration they regard as the worst in modern US history. In their eyes, it would also dispel the MAGA hat-wearing, militia-sympathising deplorables who make up the US president’s base.

It would be a moment of redemption in which not only Mr Trump, but Trumpism also, will be written off as an aberration. After four years of unearned hell, America could pick up where it left off.

That would be a natural reaction. It would also be a blunder. Should Mr Trump lose next month, it would be with the support of up to 45 per cent of expected voters — between roughly 60m and 70m Americans. Even now when Joe Biden’s poll lead is hardening into double digits, a Trump victory cannot be discounted.

Even if he loses, it is highly unlikely to match the sweeping repudiation that Walter Mondale suffered against Ronald Reagan in 1984, or Barry Goldwater to Lyndon Johnson in 1964. America is too militantly divided for that.

A victorious Biden camp would need to take three concerns into account. The first is that the Republican party is Mr Trump’s, even if he departs the scene. Five years ago, many evangelical voters still felt distaste for Mr Trump’s libertine personality. They quickly learned he was the kind of pugilist they wanted.

Line chart showing how Trump and Biden are doing in the US national polls

The likely Supreme Court confirmation next week of Amy Coney Barrett, and that of Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch before her, are testaments to that. America’s Christian right has embraced its inner Vladimir Lenin — the end justifies the means.

The same applies to professional Republicans. Self-preservation might imply they would distance themselves from Mr Trump as his likely defeat drew nearer. The opposite has been happening. As an Axios study shows elected Republicans have become steadily more Trumpian over the past four years.

Partly this was because a handful of moderate representatives either retired in Mr Trump’s first two years, or were ejected by hardliners in primaries. Mostly it was because of the visceral power of Trumpism. It turns out there is not much grassroots passion for fiscal conservatism in today’s Republican party — if there ever was. The impetus is with those who fear that America will cease to be America, partly because of the US’s growing ethnic diversity.

Swamp notes

In the countdown to the 2020 election, stay on top of the big campaign issues with our newsletter on US power and politics with columnists Rana Foroohar and Edward Luce. Sign up here

The second point is that America’s information culture is far more degraded today than in 2016. Democrats often blame Mr Trump’s victory on the Russians. Maybe so. But whatever disinformation Russia spread was dwarfed by home-grown material. According to a study this week by the German Marshall Fund, the amount of fake, or disguised fake, news that Americans consume on their social media has more than tripled since 2016.

Facebook is a much greater vehicle for disinformation today. More importantly, US consumer demand for news that is either distorted or plain false — about the pandemic, for example — continues to grow. A dark conspiracy cult such as QAnon would have been hard to imagine a few years ago. Today it reaches tens of millions of Americans.

The evermore disruptive impact of digital technology on public culture makes governing increasingly difficult. A Biden presidency’s first priority would be to roll out a national coronavirus strategy to flatten America’s curve. Little else can happen before that.

Much of its success would depend on Americans following rules such as wearing masks, avoiding crowds and complying with contact tracers. But a Trump defeat is unlikely to banish the cultural divisions he has stoked. Large numbers of Americans say they will reject a vaccine and view masks as a surrender of their freedom. Mr Biden’s fate will partly hinge on the degree to which he can marginalise those sentiments.

Trump vs Biden: who is leading the 2020 election polls?

Use the FT’s interactive calculator to see which states matter most in winning the presidency

His final concern should be on the conditions that gave rise to Trumpism. The ingredients are still there. Hyper-partisanship, blue-collar deaths of despair, the China threat and middle-class insecurity are all worse, or as bad, as four years ago. Most of those looking to follow Mr Trump, such as Mike Pompeo, his secretary of state, or Tom Cotton, the Arkansas senator, are harder-line versions of him without the caprice. The fixes to America’s problems are manifold, complex and painstaking. A vaccine will not suddenly banish the pandemic. Nor would Mr Trump’s defeat magically bring an end to Trumpism.

edward.luce@ft.com

Get alerts on Donald Trump when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article