Frank Bruni: We still don’t understand Trump. Or America.

(Ben Wiseman | The New York Times) "I’m mindful that Trump often profited by caricaturing Democrats as scolds who constantly told people that they and America didn’t measure up. Trump refused to be judged. Plenty of Americans liked that," writes opinion columnist, Frank Bruni.

Like many Americans demoralized by the softness of the spanking that voters just gave President Donald Trump, I spent the past few days in search of answers. Why were so many of my fellow citizens so content to continue spoiling him? And what happened to the comeuppance due Republican lawmakers for not giving him timeouts?

Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat who represented deep-red North Dakota in the Senate from 2013 to 2019, had a theory.

“COVID cut both ways,” she said when we spoke Thursday. She noted that while Trump was supposed to be punished for his downplaying and mismanagement of the pandemic, it may have redounded to his and his party’s benefit in some fashion.

Democrats, including Joe Biden, limited public events, minimized contact with voters and rarely removed their masks. It was the morally right, responsible thing to do.

But among some Americans, Heitkamp wondered, did it come across as finger-wagging? Preachy? She wasn’t saying that Democrats should have dispensed with science and prudence. She was just trying to make sense of it all.

“People in this country don’t like being told what to do,” said Heitkamp, who knows a thing or two about Trump’s popularity between the coasts and beyond densely populated metropolises. “People don’t like being judged.” That’s why some maskless Americans lash out at the masked, she added. They regard face coverings as an “implied judgment.”

Did Democrats' approach to campaigning provoke a similar response?

“When you aren’t out there doing the handshaking, people see that as a judgment on their behavior,” she suggested. And perhaps it played into their larger qualms about the Democratic Party as a disapproving arbiter of how they speak and how they live.

As I said, it’s a theory, one of many pinging around right now. But it’s also more than that: a reminder of how differently a given situation — or a given person, Trump being the perfect example — can play in different parts of America and among different groups of Americans. Those of us surprised by Trump’s and the Republican Party’s showing in this election keep being blinded by our arrogance. We keep extrapolating from our own perceptions.

Of course Trump lost in the end, no matter what nonsense he continues to spew. Biden has now secured the Electoral College votes he needs — he may reach 306 when all is said and done — and he’s on track to win the popular vote by perhaps 5 million ballots or more. Most presidential elections since (and including) 2000 have been closer than that.

But many battleground states were squeakers. The predicted Democratic takeover of the Senate looks unlikely: It requires victories in both Georgia runoffs. And the Democrats' House majority shrank.

How? Since Democrats' strong showing in the 2018 midterms, Trump was impeached. A plague struck. Tens of millions of Americans lost their jobs and huge chunks of their savings. Trump responded with tantrums, lies and intensified attacks on democratic traditions.

That Democrats didn’t triumph even bigger in 2020 seems impossible — unless and until you do what Heitkamp did and reexamine your assumptions through a lens other than the one you’re partial to.

Before Election Day, I kept hearing, reading and thinking that Trump was self-destructing. Watch how he set himself on fire in the first debate. Look at his ludicrously theatrical return to the White House after being hospitalized with COVID-19. Marvel at the fight he picked with Lesley Stahl. Something was wrong.

But other things were right. Those of us obsessed with what a miserable person he is lost sight of what a mighty candidate he is.

“I’ll make a declarative statement,” Doug Sosnik, a Democratic strategist who was the political director in President Bill Clinton’s White House, told me. “There has never been a person in history who got elected for president owing fewer people. Trump didn’t get elected because of his campaign organization. He didn’t get elected because of endorsements. He didn’t get elected because of donors. He did the whole thing on his own. That’s a spectacular political achievement, as much as I dislike him.”

And Trump 2016 lived in Trump 2020. He demonstrated the same knack for correctly identifying and mercilessly exploiting his opponents' vulnerabilities. (He’s like a sadist who knows precisely where to press his finger to cause the most excruciating pain.) This time around, that meant a warning that Democrats — and, by extension, Biden — were in thrall to socialism, intent on enfeebling the police and about to abolish anything and everything that runs on fossil fuel.

Overblown? Absolutely. But what mattered was that it seemed to resonate with some voters, probably because of other developments between 2018 and now. A group of House Democrats unveiled the Green New Deal, with its astronomical price tag and dizzying reach. The party held a presidential primary in which, at the start, most contenders called for the decriminalization of unauthorized border crossings and health insurance for immigrants living in the country illegally.

And some of the party’s freshest and, as it happens, most progressive faces became brand-defining stars. During much of the past two years, Trump trained his fire not only on the Democrats who might get the party’s presidential nomination but also on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar.

During an intensely emotional, three-hour conference call for House Democrats on Thursday, some moderates complained that the party had left itself open to attack.

“We need to not ever use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia admonished her colleagues, according to an article in The Washington Post by Rachel Bade and Erica Werner.

Many political analysts have attributed the defeat of two Democratic House incumbents in the Miami area to voters' concerns that the party had moved too far left.

That dynamic may also have helped Rep. Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican, prevail over his Democratic challenger, Kate Schroder, in a race in the Cincinnati area that The Cook Political Report had labeled a tossup. Corry Bliss, a Republican strategist who consulted on Chabot’s campaign, noted that Chabot, in his ads, hung the Green New Deal around Schroder’s neck. He ended up winning by more than 7 percentage points.

“In the eyes of the suburban voter, the Democratic Party of 2020 was much more radical than the Democratic Party of 2018,” Bliss told me. “In 2018, it was a brand-new candidate with no record who wanted you to have better health care. In 2020, it was Bernie Sanders, Liz Warren and AOC.”

But politics is complicated: In some places, that reorientation benefited the Democratic Party, which is left with the paradox that the very priorities that most excite its base give serious pause to swing voters and potential converts. Biden, for example, performed much better in the suburbs of Detroit that are represented in Congress by Rashida Tlaib, one of Ocasio-Cortez’s close allies in the House, than Hillary Clinton had, and the turnout of progressive voters there was a critical building block of his victory in Michigan, which Clinton narrowly lost.

What’s uncomplicated is Trump’s mastery of one of the most potent political tricks: whipping people up. Love him or hate him, he’s mesmerizing.

“He’s got this swagger,” Heitkamp said. “If you read the stories about the rallies, they sound like fun events. People have fun there. That’s one thing the Democratic Party should take from Donald Trump.”

And in the final weeks of the campaign, Trump was able to dominate the stage, because Biden, concerned about the safety of big events, ceded it. That was its own considered political statement, its own strategy, but it’s not easy for absence to compete with presence. Quiet with loud. Prohibition with permission.

Trump committed to a furious schedule of his signature rallies in the homestretch, and, ever shameless, exploited Americans' fears of new shutdowns amid an uptick of coronavirus infections by saying that he would liberate the economy while Biden would strangle it. According to a survey conducted by The Associated Press, 50% of voters who made their decisions in the days or minutes before they cast their ballots chose Trump, while 38% chose Biden.

I found one of the most intriguing takes on Trump’s appeal in the book “Trump’s Democrats,” by college professors Stephanie Muravchik and Jon Shields, published in late September. It closely examined voters in three communities — one in Rhode Island, one in Iowa and one in Kentucky — that were firmly Democratic until Trump came along.

And it contended that Trump’s style and character — more than his America First promises of renegotiated trade deals, a fortified southern border and new jobs — were the core of his appeal, because these voters didn’t interpret them the way his detractors did. Trump was a take-charge, take-no-prisoners badass who knew how to win: What was wrong with that? He tortured condescending elites who needed to be brought down a peg or three anyway. He lied, but in the service of standing up for himself.

If you use that Rosetta Stone for recent months, Trump’s ostensible meltdown wasn’t so slushy. His post-COVID bravado wasn’t recklessness and delusion. It was perseverance and strength. His release of “60 Minutes” interview footage before CBS aired it wasn’t puerile. It was what those priggish establishment types deserved. Trump was the enemy of these voters' enemies, which made him their friend.

“His appeal is very identity-based,” Shields said when I touched base with him after Election Day. He added that four years into Trump’s presidency, “these voters feel a real kinship with him because he seems deeply familiar to them, and because they feel he’s one of them, they’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Plus, they’re listening more and more to conservative media, so a lot of their information is not inconsistent with their own intuition about him.” The devastation wrought by the coronavirus was the work of fate. Fate and the Chinese.

Shields said there were 206 counties in America that flipped from Barack Obama to Trump in 2016. Pending final results, 19 are poised to flip back to Biden. That’s partly why Biden did as well as he did, but it’s also why Trump didn’t do worse.

And it speaks to what Sosnik said may be the lesson of the 2020 returns. “A lot of people thought that Trump’s win in 2016 was a bug in the system as opposed to being a central part of the system. But he wasn’t a bug.” The racism and xenophobia that he tapped into, the conspiracies he tilled, the resentments he stoked: These weren’t one-offs, and politicians, including him, aren’t done exploiting them.

Democrats (and many Republicans) who braced for a Biden landslide forgot that an incumbent president is always at an advantage, that the economy reliably shapes presidential elections and that voters gave Trump good marks for managing it. Democrats couldn’t really change that.

But what adjustments can and should they make going forward? The 2020 election provides some validation for progressive policies: Even as voters in Florida chose Trump in greater numbers than in 2016, they approved an increase in the statewide minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026. Voters in Arizona endorsed a tax increase on the wealthy.

So I wonder if the overreach of other policies — and the tone of some Democrats — turns many Americans off. I wonder, as Heitkamp does, if some Democrats leave these people feeling more shamed than inspired. I wonder about that word that Heitkamp kept using: judgment.

And I’m mindful that Trump often profited by caricaturing Democrats as scolds who constantly told people that they and America didn’t measure up. Trump refused to be judged. Plenty of Americans liked that.

Frank Bruni (CREDIT: Earl Wilson/The New York Times)

Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.