Donald Trump is on his way out, even while he uses every means the law gives him to challenge the result. Does his defeat – not least in the popular vote – mean that the year that has just ended was a bad one for the American populist right? Not quite.

Trump lost and his defeat is explicable, even though he won a record number of votes, more than Barack Obama at his zenith. On some scores, he is the most successful Republican candidate since 1972.

He held on to voters who flocked to him in 2016 and who had voted Democrat in 2012. He strengthened his position among Republicans and conservatives (not quite the same thing). But he lost independents and centrist voters to Joe Biden, who, in turn, greatly improved the votes he won with voter-segments with whom Hillary Clinton had already done well in 2016 (better than Obama in 2012).

Given that the Democrat base is larger than the Republican one, Biden had an in-built advantage. As do Democrat candidates generally, with demographic trends pointing in their favour. The Democrats have won the popular vote in seven out of the last eight presidential elections.

How is this not plainly bad for the populist right? Three reasons.

One, Trump lost a referendum on himself but Biden didn’t help the Democrats gain any seats. They actually lost seats in the House. The results of the Georgia Senate election aren’t in yet (as I write) but even if the Democrats take both, no one expects the Democrat control over the legislature to last more than two years (when the next round of elections is due).

Second, the presidential election result is under a shadow. It’s not just that 75 per cent of Republicans think it was stolen. So do, according to one poll, about a third of Democrats.

Don’t blame Trump for this. The sentiment would be there even if Trump himself weren’t convinced he’s been robbed.

Doubts about the election result would persist simply because of the constellation of special factors.

Biden has had two runs at the presidency before 2020 and never impressed the voters. This time, he scored the highest number of votes ever – while running a campaign so seemingly lethargic that it had many Democrats in jitters right till the end (despite the polls giving Biden the advantage).

Biden hardly campaigned or spoke to the press. The ground game (canvassers knocking on doors) was poor in key states. He’s the first candidate since 1960 to win without the votes of either Florida or Ohio. (And, strictly speaking, not even 1960 counts with Republicans since John F. Kennedy is said to have won only thanks to vote-rigging by the Texas and Illinois Democrat machines.)

So, a serially unprepossessing candidate won the most votes ever by running a campaign that goes against established conventional wisdom. Usually, a genial campaign manager steps up to take a bow and be hailed by the press – Karl Rove in 2004; David Axelrod in 2008; Brad Parscale in 2016. This time, there’s no one.

Biden, the candidate, takes all the credit. Another first. And the press is hardly interested to find out more. The media act as though they’re avoiding discussing the winning strategy itself.

You can understand, in these circumstances, why suspicions will linger. Even if, as is the case, every specific claim about cheating has so far been debunked.

Nothing motivates activism more than the feeling of being the victim of cheats- Ranier Fsadni

Finally, Trump supporters have good reason to believe that, even if the voting was fair, the circumstances in which the election was held was not.

It’s one thing for the mainstream media (bar Fox News) to be anti-Trump in their commentary. But, whether or not you like Trump (and I don’t), there’s no denying that the news itself was doctored against him.

Do you believe that Trump described white supremacists, who yelled “Jews will not replace us”, as “fine people”? He didn’t. He explicitly ruled out he was referring to them. (Of course, he would: his daughter and her children are Jews.)

There’s a transcript of his full remarks available, which makes this clear. But if you follow CNN, you would only have an edited quote that suggests the opposite.

Did Trump actually urge Americans to drink bleach? In the presence of doctors who said nothing? That never happened. The full footage makes clear what did.

Trump was referring to a medical procedure by which light could be used as a ‘disinfectant’. He was probably ad libbing about something he barely understood (it was just a medical hypothesis at the time). That would explain why he never returned to the subject, not even in self-defence during the presidential debates.

The full footage explains both his behaviour (as he suggested disinfectant he looked at the expert, Deborah Birx, as though for confirmation) and that of the experts, who let it pass. You don’t need to believe that, incredibly, doctors would stand by quietly while someone advises drinking bleach.

Yet, thanks to an edited clip, that is the narrative that CNN pushed. And, generally, only very motivated Republicans would look for the full clip.

The news and social media also suppressed the story – still developing – about Biden’s son, Hunter, and his dubious international lobbying practices. During the campaign, the story was called baseless, without being discussed. Now we know that Hunter Biden is indeed being investigated (by authorities that do not fall under Trump).

In doing all this, the news media were,  no doubt, reacting to their own role in giving Trump much free publicity in 2016. But in 2020, they stopped being news organisations the moment they distorted what a political opponent said and covered up for another one. They became political activists.

Though they played a role in winning Biden the presidency, they will probably prove to be important recruiters to the right-wing populist cause in 2022 and 2024. Nothing motivates activism more than the feeling of being the victim of cheats.

It will be too late for Trump, whatever his aspirations are today. But do not discount the chances of a smoother right-wing populist, better able at assuaging the concerns of independents, in 2024. Next time round, the news media will not be able to count on their credibility.

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