Election 2020: What an emotional roller-coaster

Election day 2020 was yesterday and votes are still being counted. Biden is on track to win 270 electoral votes if he maintains his lead in AZ and NV and creeping closer to Trump’s totals in other battlegrounds such as GA, PA and NC as well, winning any of which would nail the election for Biden. True to form, the Trump campaign is lashing out, leveling completely unfounded allegations of voter fraud and irregularities and filing court cases.

In my 20 years in the US, I have witnessed Bush v. Gore in 2000 as a fresh-off-the-boat poor immigrant student, Bush vs. Kerry in 2004 (my first time attending a campaign rally – to hear Howard Dean speak at UMD campus and later,¬† John Kerry speak in DC), Obama vs. McCain in 2008, Obama vs. Romney in 2012 and of course Trump vs. Clinton in 2016 (when I cast my first vote as a newly minted US citizen). I vividly recall watching the Bush v. Gore presidential debates and wondering, they sound so similar to each other! At that time, I did not understand what Democrats and Republicans stood for or even what the acronym GOP meant. When the election went to Bush after the supreme court stopped the Florida recount, I remember Gore’s gracious concession speech, urging the country to come together and move on. As I understood more of politics, and the world in general, I started forming my own political opinions, which could be summarized as mildly libertarian – belief in well regulated free markets and social liberalism (let people decide what to do with their bodies or who to love). The issue I care about most is climate change, an existential threat before which all other political squabbles and policy disputes pale in comparison. If we don’t have a habitable planet to live on, nothing else matters.

However, never have I felt so emotionally invested in the outcome on an election as that of the 2020 election. Just as they failed to foresee the depth of support for Donald Trump in 2016, the polls once again grossly underestimated Trump’s support in 2020. Most polls were predicting a resounding repudiation of Trumpism by a Democratic sweep in 2020. I had organized a small election day watch party and had a few friends over, hoping to celebrate Biden’s victory. However as the polls closed and results started coming in, it became clear that no democratic sweep was underway. Trump easily carried Florida, Ohio, Texas and was up in NC, PA. Voter participation in 2020 stood at a historic high, but this wasn’t all to Biden’s advantage. Although Biden expanded his support among women, senior citizens and in suburban areas, Trump not only held onto his white, blue collar base but seemed to have expanded his support in his traditional strongholds of rural America. He held rally after rally in the days preceding the election to turn out his vote and the strategy seemed to have worked.

As I went to bed on the night of election day, Trump appeared to be on his way to winning a second term. I felt a sense of deep gloom, intense distress, sadness, and emotional exhaustion. I had to pop in a Melatonin to get a few hours of sleep. I woke up several times that night to check on the latest updates..

Fortunately, things looked better in the morning for Biden and brightened as the day progressed. The big reason was the earlier vote count reflected ballots cast on election day, which leaned heavily republican. A lot of Democratic vote came via. mail-in absentee ballots which wasn’t yet counted in many states. As those votes were added to the tally, things started looking up for Biden and he steadily closed the gap with Trump in battleground states, eventually passing him. By the end of Wednesday, MI and WI had been called for Biden and he was leading in AZ and NV.

This graphic (made using Biden/Trump odds of winning) speaks perfectly to my state of mind:

Image may contain: text that says 'Biden Odds and Trump Odds 100 009t Biden Odds Trump Odds Odds data source: 00% e 0.00% 00% 0.00% Time ET Pre-election day Election day Results start coming in. Trump wins Absentee ballots start getting Biden's going to Democracy! FL, oH, TX, big leads in PA, MI, WI. counted, chipping away at Trump's win big! Deep gloom. F'ing pollsters.. margins. Things start looking better..'

This made me feel so much better. The thought of living through 4 more years of constant falsehoods, incompetence and divisiveness of Trump was deeply distressing. In a way it is strange that I felt so invested in the outcome of the election, though I lead an AI team at a financial services company, and have no direct connection with politics or the government. I’m a right-of-center person who believes in free markets, limited government and fiscal responsibility, but liberal on social issues and believe that climate change is an existential threat that needs action from governments all over the world. Perhaps, for that reason I can’t understand for the life of me the hold Trump has on nearly half this country, particularly on conservatives. He has proven himself time and again to be an inveterate liar, who retweets conspiracy theories, gleefully fans the flames of division and discord, picks fights with our allies and coddles our adversaries, conducts foreign policy with an entirely transactional mentality, devoid of a strategic framework and without regard to long-held American values of championing democracy, freedom and human rights.

I often from my Republican friends – “ignore his crazy behaviour, look at the results he has achieved”. I find that argument difficult to understand as well. It is true that Trump appointed boatloads of conservative justices (including three supreme court justices), passed tax reform and the economy did well in his first 3 years (although I’d argue that was because of a sugar high of lower corporate taxes and loose monetary policy, than a fundamental improvement in productivity), however these are things any Republican president would have done. The Republican party didn’t have to nominate a characterless rabble rouser like Trump to get any of this done. And, there is much that Trump had promised but failed to do. He failed to negotiate good, win-win trade deals (trade is a good thing because it uses the concept of comparative advantage to enhance the prosperity of both trading parties, rather than being a zero-sum game), engaged in counter-productive trade wars with our allies, managed to alienate even close allies like Canada by imposing steel and aluminium tariffs, oversaw a massive increase in national debt (remember the Republican deficit hawks? they have been radio silent in the last 4 years), withdrew from carefully negotiated international agreements such as the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). The list goes on and on. On social issues, he consistently fanned the flames of bigotry and division, promoted baseless conspiracy theories and incited strife and division by promoting false narratives, falsehoods and sometimes outright lies. Trump’s paranoid, impulsive and egotistical management style made it difficult for competent people such as General Mattis, John Kelly, Rex Tillerson and others to work in the administration and contain his worst instincts. Several of his former staffers and cabinet members such as John Bolton wrote scathing rebukes even while he was in the office. I haven’t even mentioned impeachment, glaring conflicts of interests, refusal to release his tax returns under the guise of “going through an audit”..

Despite all of these failures and glaring character flaws, Trump still managed to beat expectations in the 2020 election. What explains his vice-like grip on Republican voters? Trump did identify correctly that a large part of the country, specially blue color workers living in industrial mid-western states had been left behind by globalization and major industry relocation. Many such workers were left with poor prospects in formerly prosperous towns, now a shadow of their former selves. Workers with higher levels of education left for jobs in the knowledge economy on the thriving coasts, creating a intellectual vacuum where people who were left behind were surrounded by others like them. This created a fertile ground for group think, conspiracy theories, a sense of aggrievement and resentment and a tendency to blame others for their misfortune. These voters lapped up Trump’s snake oil like message of “I’ll bring your jobs back!” and “I’ll take on China”.. They never paused to ask Trump – exactly how are you going to do any of that? It was enough for them that Trump cared. His carefully cultivated image of a successful businessman added credibility to his claims. As was said after his shock 2016 victory, Trump’s supporters took him seriously but not literally while his detractors did the opposite.

The rapidly changing cultural composition of the country was another big factor of which Trump took full advantage. His promise of “building a wall” on the US-Mexico border and keeping out Muslims assuaged the racial anxieties of white voters uneasy about the browning of their formerly lily white communities with dark skinned people with foreign customs moving in their midst.

A final big factor was the polarized media landscape and echo chambers created by social media, where people get their information only from sources that reinforce preexisting notions, demonize the other side, portray opposing ideas as dangerous and assign loaded but vacuous labels such as “unamerican” or “socialist” that inhibit an honest discussion.

With his celebrity, name recognition, reputation (entirely undeserved) as a successful businessman and a brash, unscrupulous, win-at-all-cost personality, Trump was uniquely positioned to take advantage of these trends. With his crude, simplistic language, crass name-calling, labeling political opponents as enemies, Trump appealed to the deep sense of grievance many voters harbored, who saw in Trump a pugilist who would fight for them and take on a Washington establishment that had failed to protect their interests. Trump vanquished a large and distinguished crop of candidates in the Republican nomination contest to win the nomination and then carried the electoral college by a whisker in 2016, despite losing the popular vote by a big margin.

In a sense, Trump held a mirror before the country and exposed the shallowness of many long-held American ideals, particularly Republican ones. Conservatives claim to believe in limited government, fiscal responsibility and America’s role as a beacon and protector of freedom all over the world. Trump didn’t even pay lip service to these values. He seems to have exposed that what conservatives really¬†care about is keeping the country white, appointing conservative justices, mindless cutting of taxes and regulation with no regard to the societal costs of behavior that regulation is designed to prevent and fighting Democrats as if they were enemies rather than fellow Americans who merely happen to hold different policy ideas.

As a right-of-center person, I actually agree with many conservative ideas. I believe a culture of gritty individualism, hard work, entrepreneurship, respect for law and order and well-regulated free market system is largely responsible for America’s horn of plenty. As an immigrant, I believe that immigration law should be followed and it is unfair to legal immigrants patiently waiting for work visas and green cards to regularize the status of millions of illegal immigrants by diktat. It also creates a perverse incentive by encouraging future illegal immigration. However I also believe that government has a role to play in regulating markets, leveling the playing field and creating opportunities for historically underprivileged segments of the population, ensuring that everyone gets a fair start in life by access to good educational opportunities in well-funded public schools and perhaps most importantly, taking collective and concerted action to slow down climate change. In my mind, there is SO MUCH middle ground between Democrats and Republicans waiting to be exploited.. however the electorate seems intent on punishing moderates who want to bridge the gap and walk the middle ground by electing disruptive, incompetent extremists like Trump (and some on the left too). As Churchill said (or is believed to have said), “in a democracy, you get the government you deserve”.

Living through Trumpism holds an important lesson for all of us. The US constitutional system of government is a superbly designed system of checks and balances that has resulted in the most successful and prosperous country in the history of mankind that has withstood the convulsions of slavery and civil war, two world wars, massive industrial and social changes and absorbed millions of immigrants from all over the world. I find it astounding that a document written in 1789 has only needed to be modified 27 times in the last 250 years. No wonder Americans revere the constitution, even though some of its institutions such as the electoral college are archaic and serve no purpose anymore. However, no system, no matter how well designed, can work unless there is a basic desire to observe norms, respect others and protect the integrity of basic democratic institutions such as the electoral system. Disrupters like Trump who care only for their personal interest and spineless politicians (primarily in the Republican party unfortunately) who fail to speak up against his worst transgressions can bring down the system by chipping away at its foundations, undermining trust in basic institutions and pitting people against each other. We all have a responsibility to guard against this.

Now four years later, despite his failure to grow into the office he was fortunate to be trusted with, trashing America’s reputation internationally, a mixed economic record and disastrous and tragic mismanagement of the covid-19 pandemic, Trump has still managed to win the votes of nearly 70 million Americans, a large fraction of who voted for him not grudgingly as a “less bad of two bad” alternative, but enthusiastically.

An explanation of some of this is single issue voters for whom abortion, gun control and religion outweighs anything else. That still leaves a large swathe of Republican voters who are not religious or gun right zealots but still enthusiastically support Donald Trump. I suspect the black lives matter and other social justice movements and the social unrest we saw earlier this year is responsible for a chunk of Trump’s support. Such voters saw in Trump someone who’d keep their neighborhoods safe from marauding mobs. Honestly, “defund the police” was a terrible slogan for those clamoring for criminal justice and police reform. It did their cause little favour, while pushing many middle of the road suburbanites in the camp of Donald Trump. I have a few smart and well-meaning friends who are Trump supporters. Their attitude is – the president is a leader, not a pastor. Don’t look at his crazy tweets and antics, look at what he’s done, the conservative justices he has appointed and the results he has achieved. I fundamentally disagree with that point of view. A president is not just a policymaker, he represents our country. The damage that Trump has done to American values by his transactional attitude, and the element of risk created by the fact that American voters can elect as president someone like Trump not only once and nearly twice, will take a long time to undo. It will increase America’s risk premium, and limit our ability to influence others by the force of our example. With his casual relationship with the truth, disrespect for democratic norms and his recent incessant attacks on voting by mail as somehow fraudulent is perhaps more insidious still.

While Biden seems to have won (already ahead in GA and PA), Trumpism is alive and well. The highly anticipated and widely expected repudiation of Trumpism didn’t take place. Biden didn’t convert too many Trump supporting parts of the country to his side. He won mainly by expanding his support in traditional democratic strongholds of cities and suburbs and turning out his supporters. Republicans gained seats in the house and look likely to keep their majority in the senate. Next four years under Biden are likely to be fraught with intense partisanship. But at least we won’t have to deal with Trump’s constant barrage of nonsense, falsehoods and outright lies, attacks on core American institutions, fomenting division and distrust, and breathtaking incompetence. And, one can hope that some day this fever of Trumpism will pass and common sense and rationality will return.

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