The Existential Vote: A Socially-Distanced Post on the 2020 U.S. Election

The first of a two-part article on the nature of the 2020 U.S. Election campaign, the narrative of the campaign, and the possibilities for those writing a first draft of history.

“It has long been a grave question whether any government, not too strong for the liberties of its people, can be strong enough to maintain its existence in great emergencies. But the election, along with its incidental and undesirable strife, has done good, too…” — Abraham Lincoln, on the 1864 Election

The annals of the Trump era stand alone. Over 20,000 lies and falsehoods in office; 500 political appointee resignations or dismissals; 250,000 Coronavirus deaths by the end of November; a Special Counsel investigation, an impeachment, $421 million (if not over $1 billion) in personal debt liability by the president, including tens of millions owed to persons unknown. The most litigious and litigated candidate to ever take the office; one of the most financially-compromised persons in the United States as a private citizen and an unparalleled disruptor of the entire judicial system as executive office-holder. Only Trump’s position as president has shielded him from an impending tidal wave of civil and criminal cases in federal court, and separate (federally un-pardonable) charges from the State of New York and potentially other jurisdictions. The Atlantic’s story on 3rd September 2020, detailing Trump breaching a once-unthinkable barrier; insulting U.S. military veterans and the glorious dead, not even obliquely or carelessly, calling soldiers “losers” and “suckers”, would have fatally wounded previous candidates and office-holders. The story barely registered in the opinions polls. If voters were won or lost on this revelation, they were not visible.

The first-draft of historical narrative written throughout the entire Trump presidency has carried with it a sense of nihilism and despondency in both the writing about the presidency and the response of Trump and of Trumpism as a movement. The despondency is found not least among journalists and the fourth estate, historians, political scientists, professional writers and non-professional political commentators engaged in responding to Trump’s policies and conduct. Starting in January 2020, a study by political scientists Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan found that approximately 80–85% of Americans followed politics “casually or not at all”. Whilst the most significant partisan divides in the United States are shaped by race, geography and urban versus rural development, perhaps the most significant and under-studied phenomenon is the disparity between the cultures of political obsessives versus the vast majority of ordinary Americans.

Conversely, on the subject of the 2020 campaign itself, there are no shortage of opinions, takes, well-informed, ill-informed, incautiously optimistic and overconfident projections made throughout the election cycle. All such predictions, projections and proclamations are made hostages to fortune by their makers. This applies no less, indeed if not more so, to those of us non-Americans writing from outside the United States.

This article is an attempt at an informed, despondency-free first draft of history as the campaign enters the final 7 days.

I. No Way Out

“It’s boring, at this point, to talk about the cost of living with Donald Trump as president… The actual psychic toll on our mental health is crippling. The lost sleep, the grinding anxiety, the escalating fears don’t just represent squandered time… And so here we are back in the narcissist’s loop, fueling his need to be at the center because, well, there he is at the center.” — Dahlia Lithwick, 21st August 2019

Photo: Barack Obama, Donald J. Trump and Joseph R. Biden at the 2017 Presidential Inauguration. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“The most mocked man in American history” could accompany the obituary of Donald Trump when it comes to be written. This will only follow should his mortality precede the mortality of the republic which he has repeatedly threatened to subdue beneath his own limitless terms of office (often though not always expressed by non-joke jokes and Sartrean deniable absurdities), and the imprisonment of his political and personal opponents and critics. The term could, in an expanded clause, apply to the political and cultural opposition which failed to anticipate his ascension to power; failed to restrain him whilst in power; and may still yet fail to convince enough voters to deny him the second term which he has repeatedly stated will be only the start of a lifetime term, given the opportunity.

The 330 million inhabitants of the United States are following a script and set of rules written for competitive elections in a previous age which disregards the contemporary demographics and true capabilities of the country. The popular majority will undoubtedly vote for Biden; the question of whether Trump will eke out another Electoral College win invades the subconsciousness of anyone following the election closely — from inside or outside the country. As well as the inescapable psychic presence of the incumbent president, this process has contributed substantially to the overall sense of exhaustion which has built up over several recent election cycles.

Aside from the self-satisfying proclamations as to how Trump would prematurely leave office, the sustained and fruitless liberal fantasies of the 25th amendment or Robert Mueller dragging Trump from the Oval Office, or the well-organised but ultimately doomed 2019 impeachment vote; there was never any way for the Trump presidency to end except by the ballot. Trump’s voluminous record of erratic, bizarre and disturbing behaviour will provide sufficiently-interested voters with substantial evidence of his unfitness. Robert Mueller really did outline 10 potential counts of obstruction of justice. But there was, is and will no deferral, no strike-out by default, no deus ex machina which absolves the electorate and the U.S. political system as a whole of resolving the Trump question definitively. The only resolution was and is by the ballot.

Contrary to the widely-held belief among many progressives in the Democratic primary and among a majority of younger Democrats, there was scant evidence during the primaries that Bernie Sanders would be outperforming Trump at this stage in the race, and considerably less reason to think this now. The polls have been remarkably consistent. Lost the cacophony of horserace campaign coverage is the salient fact that Joe Biden’s poll lead over Trump have been consistent since 2019. This did not deter the take-making confidence of columns stating that Biden was and would remain a “dangerously poor candidate” whose campaign was “without organization, money or enthusiasm”, or the proliferation of takes, podcasts and punditry speculating on precisely what would doom Biden’s candidacy. As Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post summarised on 21st September 2020, “in the wildest year, the only constant is Biden’s lead”. From Biden’s momentous comeback victory in South Carolina, to his enviable position at the end of the campaign, Biden’s candidacy made a mockery of both the professional pundit and progressive activist consensus as it stood at the beginning of the year. Biden’s flaws were known to the voters from the start. There was the necessity of acknowledgement for personal mistakes and having transgressed personal space through years of ‘handsy’ expressiveness towards others, particularly women. Such acknowledgements were themselves flawed and unsatisfactory to many. This personal aspect accompanied the political need to show evolution from and recompense for serious policy missteps over a 36-year-long career as a Senator and 8 years as Vice President. But the predictions of defeat in the primaries, immiseration by scandal or destruction in the debates all failed to be realised. Biden did not blow it.

Concerted efforts were made in the first half of 2020 by online activists in both the pro-Trump and pro-Sanders online spheres to disparage Biden as being both an impaired dementia sufferer and a predatory sex offender (those specific allegations have now mostly disappeared from the campaign cycle). Character attacks on Biden have invariably fallen flat with an unconvinced and disinterested public. Those who support Trump and revile Biden are already convinced, and there is no cause to expect more will be convinced before the end of voting on November 3rd. Bernie Sanders himself, though not disclaiming the more aggressive actors within his campaign, refused to promote or endorse the character attacks made against Biden from the left. Having maintained a years-long positive rapport with Biden, Sanders had no desire to denounce Biden as a dangerous predator in rapid cognitive decline. By Sanders’ own account, “I have a better relationship with Joe Biden than I had with Hillary Clinton”. The eventual loss to Biden came with less personal animosity and greater respect for the winner of the Democratic primaries than against Hillary Clinton in 2016; Sanders’ endorsement of Biden came only five days after suspending his own campaign and avoided the protracted bitterness of the 2016 primaries.

There still continues the Ukraine dirt-manufacturing schemes involving Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Russian intelligence assets; both prior to the 2019 impeachment and more recently with hacked and stolen emails laundered through the New York Post. Intended partly as character-assassination to paint Biden as corrupt and compromised, and partly psychological warfare to exploit Biden’s relationship with his surviving adult son, the claims have now been discredited to point of absurdity. They have also failed to make any impact on Biden’s standing with the electorate.

Biden’s strengths considered, his presence could only prevent the Democrats from losing by their own weaknesses. The USA Today Editorial Board, having never endorsed any presidential candidate in its 38-year history, made a unanimous endorsement of Biden which explicitly framed the election as a referendum on Trump. Most other endorsements of Biden by traditionally non-endorsing newspaper editorials including the Orlando Sun-Sentinel (“because he can get us out of Trump’s mess”), the Palm Beach Post, the Arizona Daily Star, and the Austin-American Statesman, were made in similar terms; vaunting Biden’s character but making the endorsement in response to the record of the incumbent. Other institutions, individuals and groups giving their first-ever endorsement to a Democratic candidate adopted comparable framing. With the incumbency advantage and a record to defend, the election inevitably was fought, and will be won or lost, as a referendum on Donald J. Trump.

II. Pandemic and the Epistemic

“‘You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.’ — Donald Trump to CBS News journalist Lesley Stahl, November 2016

Photo: Biden 2020 yard signs and Trump 2020 yard signs in Ohio. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Trump presidency has justifiably been called the “nothing matters” presidency, and was identified as such even before the 2016 election and the beginning of Trump’s term of office. The term ‘nothing matters’ (or “LOL nothing matters”) is at once a cry of cynicism from liberals and opponents of Trump despairing at the inability of any wrongdoing or failure to visibly damage the president, and also a mocking snarl by Trump apologists lauding the man and the movement’s ability to live without accountability. The Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau Chief David Lauter exposited on the trope in the September 11th 2020 article, ‘Why nothing matters to Trump voters’. Following the “losers” and “suckers” story coming to light, and based on analysis of PEW Polling research data, Lauter concluded:

“Many Democrats find the lack of reaction baffling. Surely, they say after each new revelation, this piece of evidence will be the one to cause Trump supporters to abandon their candidate en masse.

At this point, that counts as a form of self-delusion. The coronavirus, itself, a pandemic that has killed more than 190,000 Americans, only shifted voting intentions by a few points. In comparison to that, what’s the impact of a quote from a new book?”

This phenomenon was visible from at least the start of the Trump administration, if not earlier — though his approval in 2016 were briefly dented by the Access Hollywood tape, the base which Trump relies on has not and will not be swayed by efforts to affect his standing with them. The “losers” and “suckers” story dwarfed the scale of any questions raised over the fidelity and martial values of Michael Dukakis, John Kerry or other failed candidates for high office in modern US history. It was, the former conservative columnist Max Boot said, the latest episode of the ‘nothing matters’ presidency. No story, no scandal, no amount of investigative reportage, no tell-all-books, no sworn testimony or defections by presidential appointees and the GOP’s own pantheon have any measurable impact. The crashing of Richard Nixon’s approval ratings to 25% during Watergate or the disaster-driven collapse of George W. Bush’s approval to 25% by the end of his second term, could and would not be repeated.

In November 2016, only weeks after Trump’s shock Electoral College victory in the election, the Lawfare blog editor Quinta Jurecic wrote:

“It’s not for nothing that the phrase “lol nothing matters” became somewhat of a refrain among political reporters on Twitter this campaign season every time Trump produced an obviously false or ridiculous statement. The point was not only that Trump was operating without relation to truth, but also that his glib idiocy would have no effect whatsoever on the success of his campaign. It’s also a reminder of how close bullshitting is to nihilism: nothing matters.”

Those considering a career in journalism could be inspired by the work that has been produced in the Trump era; see the Pulitzer Prize-winning magnificence of Washington Post journalist David Fahrenthold’s forensic excavation of Trump’s financial abuses as businessman, charity donor and trustee, and as Commander-in-Chief. The New York Times’s multi-year investigation into Trump’s tax returns could alone inspire legions of applicants to study political and business journalism.

But this could equally leave would-be journalists and commentators, along with comics, satirists and writers or chroniclers of any medium, in a state of ennui or purposeless despair. For those motivated by a desire to expose Trump’s wrongdoing to his die-hard supporters or more politically inactive voters, on a scale any higher than marginal differences in approval impacted by many factors, the task could rightly seem pointless.

The 2018 documentary The Fourth Estate showcased some of the intrepid and at times genuinely heroic work of the New York Times journalists working in Washington on the various Trump administration beats. But a depressing cycle soon emerges; journalists break a story on the NYT website, it trends on Twitter, the authors are invited on MSNBC and CNN to discuss the story and what this means for Trump, the GOP and the country at large; then nothing of consequence seems to occur beyond this. The cycle begins again with a new story; the reporters exercise their skill, but are constrained by the consumptive and epistemic closures of the population within their echo chambers, to the exclusion of any possible change of opinion. The very fact that stories are broken and then discussed on cable news seems feted to ensure the stories will never reach beyond an audience of the already-persuaded.

In 2010, the libertarian author Julian Sanchez coined the term ‘epistemic closure’ to describe an ideology and media ecosystem which did not merely create an echo chamber, where contradictory information was never heard; but a system in which contrary information could be heard and rejected axiomatically by those within the closure. Sanchez revisited the concept in August 2020 and argued for the power of the epistemic closure for explaining the Trump era. Events that would have embarrassed and drained support from former presidents — the mass departure of cabinet officials, generals and career professionals from government, the abuse and absence of security clearances, the warnings of lifelong Republicans against voting for Trump — has instead only reinforced the convictions of Trump supporters. Trump being denounced and his opponent Biden being endorsed by his own administration’s former staff, his own former Communications Director and those who worked closest to him, is only further proof of the depths of the ‘Swamp’ which Trump is draining, and of the ‘Deep State’ which Trump is heroically engaged in destroying.

Tump himself is famously driven by the need for attention and affirmation. Then-FBI Director James Comey’s 2017 private meetings with Trump gave him the impression of “emptiness” a “hunger for affirmation”. The practice of cabinet members, civil servants and professionals (including health officials during the Covid-19 pandemic) engaging in public praise and gratitude for the president’s leadership and wisdom, are one of the more disturbing and authoritarian expressions of this compulsion. Trump’s continuous need to be among the true believers and the already-convinced has characterised and quite plausibly jeopardised his 2020 re-election campaign from the start (discussed further in Part IV). But the need to be in an arena of affirmation and comfort could accurately apply to the political and social behaviour of a significant number of conservatives and liberals across the U.S., as well as other democracies.

The Financial Times journalist Adrienne Klasa warned after the November 2016 U.S. election that liberals, journalists and the cultural industry in the United States and Britain had become complacent and cloistered. Her experience of Election Night at an event in London packed with “100 or so urban, left-wing millennials” is one that was reflected by many who observe, comment and follow politics either for a living or as a reason for living. As the news of Trump’s victories in the swing states rolled in, Klasa recalled:

“One would think the Brexit vote in June would have taught us something… At around 1am, I got on stage. One of the first thing I asked was: how many people in this room are UK Conservative voters, or GOP supporters, or would have voted for Donald Trump? Two people raised their hands, furtively. And I said: This is the echo chamber. This is part of the problem…

Yes, it is our self-curated social media feeds and the media outlets we trust. But it is also the friends and family we keep close, the public voices we listen to because they echo our own. It is the unpalatable, dissonant views we push away by un-friending or un-following. It is the acquaintances we cut off and the family we distance ourselves from because they don’t share our values….”

The echo-chamber and its closure becomes not merely self-reinforcing but self-amplifying and intensifying. Photography and video footage of the increasingly-normalised political violence of the era, even when not lethal, provides constant visual reinforcement of the existential threat posed by the unconstrained violence of the other side. In a July 2019 profile of a right-wing social media content creator who specialised in culture war topics, the BuzzFeed journalist Joseph Bernstein wrote:

“Over the past three years, the streets of downtown Portland have played host to a serialized civil war in miniature between armored combatants from the far right and far left. Under the evergreens, weekend gladiators in bike helmets and gas masks beat the sap out of each other, scoring pinfalls to document and then distribute to sympathetic online mobs.”

As troubling as it seems for the health of democracy, the “weekend gladiators” on the far-right and far-left are an outlier. The increasingly ubiquitous, camouflaged, gun-toting paramilitaries at right-wing protests and their growing but less substantial far-left equivalents; the militias who stormed State Capitol buildings under the guise of ‘protest’ against Covid-19 lockdowns and terrorised lawmakers with impunity; the costumed cosplaying militants engaged in near-weekly rituals of clashing protests in Portland; these are very visible hyper-partisan extremities. But they are not reflective of how most partisans behave. The “weekend gladiators” at the very least will meet, interact with and clash with their opponents, if only as part of a gratifying public performance. But the persons most polarised by their feelings towards Trump are more likely than ever to never interact with one another at all. They will not attend protests or public events, or even entertain the most limited social contact (whether requiring social distancing or not).

According to technology journalist Kevin Roose, Conservatives and conservative-leaning voters quantifiably inhabit a “parallel media universe” on Facebook with 80–90% of the top-performing posted links from US Facebook users frequently coming from entirely partisan right-wing sources or content aggregators. Roose considers that the posters and consumers of this media universe just may, at least by information consumption, comprise the “real silent majority”. What the average Facebook user sees day-to-day is a more contentious subject. However, the hope by many liberals that sharing just one more link to a Trump-related scandal will dent or diminish his standing and support remains forlorn.

The gap between what is being discussed at any given moment by the politically-engaged and being discussed by the average American voter, is almost unfathomable. The news shared by trusted friends and relatives, through the vector of social media or otherwise, constitutes a far more significant source of new information for the majority of voters than cable channels with an average of less than 4 million viewers, or newspapers with print and digital circulation under 3 million readers.

The enclosure of liberals and progressives from Trump-supporting or even right-of-centre friends and relatives follows from many causes. The simple desire to avoid argument or a sense of personal injury from exposure to views that are intolerant or hateful are the reasons given by many; often denounced is the expectation that liberals should remain friends or have any social contact with those who “deny” the human rights or the “existence” of minority groups impacted by Trumpism and right-wing politics generally. But as Adrienne Klasa’s article from November 2016 concludes;

“… that means not cutting off our Trump, or Brexit, or Marine Le Pen supporting family and acquaintances, as tempting as that might be right now. Those links are lifelines… tomorrow we need to wake up and start breaking out of the echo chambers of liberal consensus we have built for ourselves, because that is part of the reason this has all gone so terribly wrong. We already cut off half of America, and this election is the result.”

It is clear that the detail and sheer scale of Trump’s failure and wrongdoing has simply not penetrated into the awareness vast majority of those who cast ballots for him. Their own epistemic closure precludes any story originating from the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, or the opinions and experience of any number of career professionals in national security, justice or even Trump’s own former staff and servants, from being credible. As depressing as this conclusion may appear for those whose hopes rest upon the changing of minds in the election, hope may be found in the much larger picture of U.S. politics in the long duration.

Continued in Part II

Writer. History and Law graduate