The Existential Vote: Part II
The second part of the longform article ‘The Existential Vote: A Socially-Distanced Post on the 2020 U.S. Election’.
III. Bankruptcy Protection from the Devil
“The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The Devil will come, and Faustus must be damn’d.
O, I’ll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?” — Marlowe, Doctor Faustus
“In the United States, except for slaves, servants and the destitute fed by townships, everyone has the vote and this is an indirect contributor to law-making. Anyone wishing to attack the law is thus reduced to adopting one of two obvious courses: they must either change the nation’s opinion or trample its wishes under foot.” — Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume I, Ch. XIV (1835)
It is often said that the Republican Party, and specifically its white evangelical religious base, has struck a Faustian bargain with Trump. Rare and notable defections aside, such as the evangelical magazine Christianity Today calling for Trump’s removal from office, white evangelicals and white conservative Catholics have remained the most dependable base of not merely support, but intellectually rationalised support for Trump. David A. Graham summarised in the article ‘Why Christians Support Trump’:
“A huge majority of evangelical Christians has lined up behind Trump, as have white Catholics. (A May poll by PRRI showed the president’s standing slipping among both groups.) Trump has repaid them with devoted attention to issues such as abortion, school vouchers, and religious liberty. There’s little outward sign of any kind of religious devotion on Trump’s part, and seldom any indication of inward reflection on any topic by the president”
By embracing the vulgar, gold-encrusted adulterer, perjurer and charity-swindler as an avatar for their political goals, the rewards include a wave of conservative judges appointed to lifetime positions and the preclusion of institutional change reflective of a changing electorate. Moreover, evangelicals gain a protector from the perceived existential menace of persecution by non-evangelical culture.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama travelled across the full Faustian spectrum in personal and professional immersion in the bargain; his decision to embrace a bargain with Trump resulted in a spectacular public fall from his prior standing. The first sitting U.S. Senator to endorse Trump, he served as U.S. Attorney General before being publicly denounced, humiliated and fired for his failure to end the Mueller investigation. Sessions was cast into the wilderness, now bereft of his former Alabama Senate seat, his fate sealed in July 2020 after Trump endorsed a rival primary contender. But Sessions remains still an ardent defender of the president and the necessity of continued evangelical support for him.
In discussing a profile of Sessions by New York Times Magazine author Elania Plott, David A. Graham considered the role of Trump as the ‘strongman’ protector of white evangelicals fearful of persecution:
“Sessions suggests that the president’s own religious convictions are irrelevant, compares him to the dictators Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Bashar al-Assad, and makes the case for choosing a strongman who can defend Christians over democratic politics… The analogy to beleaguered Egyptian Christians underscores both the depth and the absurdity of that feeling…”
Absent persecution in the present or recent past, white evangelicals and Republicans more broadly are conscious that, if equally represented, the demographics of the country in the near-future robustly favouring their opponents. The pursuit of judges across all levels of the federal bench, the dominance of the Supreme Court, and the Holy Grail of overturning Roe v Wade, has blunted the white evangelical base against any scandal which may impede support for Trump. Institutionally, the Republican Party in the legislative branches regard Trump as a vanguard against an existential demographic threat posed by a diversifying population and a clear Democratic majority across the electorate.
The Republican grip on institutional political power at the federal level is now entirely counter-majoritarian, preserved by archaic mechanisms from the age of musketry, slavery and Jim Crow. Republicans now must rely on preventing voting wherever possible; limiting the electorate with rebranded poll taxes, literacy tests and racially-coded disenfranchisement is indispensable to the GOP arsenal for survival. As Adam Serwer has written in his magisterial article in The Atlantic on the role of the US Supreme Court in voter suppression, the Republican efforts to exclude and reshape the electorate in its own image is not a campaign tactic, but an existential strategy:
“Republican opposition to court packing, moreover, is hard to credit. The party has pursued the technique to shape state courts all over the country… Instead, their objection appears to reflect the belief that Republicans can do what they want because they are the only legitimate governing party. Their hope is that the capture of the Supreme Court will ensure for generations that they never have to answer to an electorate they have deliberately sought to disenfranchise…
The conservatives on the Court have signaled that they are eager participants in this project… the GOP is seeking to use the high court to insulate itself from a changing electorate…”
Whilst Trump has made repeated spurious claims to “get to do whatever I want” via Article II of the U.S. Constitution, the Republicans have made effective and lethally anti-democratic use of Article I, section 3. In the later 20th and early 21st century became both more likely and increasingly dependent on holding federal power solely through the counter-majoritarian mechanisms of the Electoral College and the Article I, section 3 clause requiring two Senators per state. But the sheer scale of population increases in the swing states of the Electoral College and in formerly Republican strongholds including Arizona, Georgia and Texas, threatens to defeat even this decades-long strategy. The Electoral College value of Texas alone has the potential to lock Republicans out of the White House indefinitely. This is the fearful knowledge of Sen. Ted Cruz and most senior Texas Republicans; Cruz told The Hill, in a plea to Republican voters, “if the Democrats take Texas, it’s all over.” The comprehensive and widespread use of judicially-sanctioned voter suppression is seen as the only hope to prevent the party being subsumed beneath shifting tides of demography.
Deals which result in catastrophe for the self-justifying maker do not simply apply to evangelical and institutional conservative support for Trump. In a different light, the true Faustian bargain is the deal which Trump has struck with his own most destructive impulses and pathologies. Trump can win power through a coalition of only 35%-40% of the electorate across the swing states and the states most over-represented in the Electoral College. He can survive scandal after scandal and endure tsunamis of negative press which would have destroyed most former presidents. But this endurability has come with the same Faustian terms.
The impact which Trump will feel the most on and after 3rd November 2020 will be from the limitations his conduct has imposed. The organising and laboring of the Biden campaign and the Democratic operations across the U.S. will be undoubtedly significant; the much-maligned figures of the Democratic machine have presided over an impressive and consistent advantage in public opinion and campaign finances throughout the 2020 election cycle. However, a defeat for Trump will not merely be the loss of a battle to a superior opponent — it will be a political death by his own hands.
IV. Event Horizon
“What I see is that he’s a person who has a death wish that’s always been there, a self-destructive impulse… The way he views the world is that nearly everyone now is out to get him. And what he does is he creates the evidence to reinforce the view. It’s like a vicious cycle. So he’s constantly making true what he in his paranoid way fears is true…. he is bringing his worst fears to life by doing what he is doing.” — Tony Schwartz, co-author with Donald Trump of The Art of the Deal, 24th October 2019
The spirit of fatalism increasingly underpinned Trump’s linguistic dodges, non-answers and indifference to carnage throughout the presidency. The phrases “it doesn’t matter” and “we’ll see what happens” became less associated with question-ducking and more as harbingers. Trump’s repeated refusals to accept a potential election loss or commit to a peaceful transition of power with variations of “we’ll have to see what happens” was the response of a non-answer which provided alarming clarity. But a double-meaning to both the “nothing matters” trope and the Faustian bargain of the evangelicals may be found in one of Trump’s pre-presidential statements about how he dealt with stress. Trump told CNN’s Larry King in 2004 that in response to stressful events and experiences:
“I try and tell myself it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. If you tell yourself it doesn’t matter, like you do shows, you do this, you do that and then you have earthquakes in India where 400,000 people get killed. Honestly, it doesn’t matter. That’s how I handle stress.”
This strategy having clearly failed as stress-management, it nevertheless exhibits the approach which has underpinned Trump’s responses to the events around him. Though it may be considered self-absorbed to the point of solipsism or sociopathy, the effects of Trump’s externalised fatalism are, in the fullness of time, proving to be self-destructive.
As political bargains with Trump made by others almost invite comparisons to Marlowe as a truism, Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis on or about 30th September 2020 brought a rush of Shakespearean invocations of uneven quality. The unobstructed visibility of the comparison perhaps invited rushed and unconsidered allusions. Yet a more considered comparison was made by Elliot A. Cohen denying any hint of a ‘tragic’ nature in a villain with emotional or intellectual depth appreciable to audience. Cohen analogised Trump to the much-despised and rarely-sympathised Richard II:
“The feckless king is intoxicated with his kingship, which he sees not as a weighty responsibility or as stewardship on behalf of the people of England, but as a matter of personal possession and divine right. And that overweening sense of his rightful and absolute claim to the throne — his equivalent of Trump refusing to recognize the possibility that he might lose an election and his repeatedly expressed unwillingness to live by its results — ends up contributing to his fall.”
Trump’s eternal recurrence to the comfort zone of his rallies has been an exercise in psychic security more than generating new support. On 20th October 2020, CNN White House Correspondent John Harwood described Trump and his now-lethally dangerous super-spreader tour dates; from the disastrous Tulsa, Oklahoma rally in July to the October rallies which followed Trump himself contracting Covid-19:
Trump has flaunted his recklessness at packed, mostly maskless campaign rallies. That gleeful abandon, as he bleeds support from voters fearing he hasn’t taken the pandemic seriously, makes no political sense. But it makes perfect emotional sense for a president who craves the applause of a zealous minority…
His hunger for affirmation explains much about his conduct of the presidency — and why it may soon come to an end… He prefers the safety and comfort of audiences that already embrace him over the uncertainty and risk of encountering those who don’t.
Trump’s seemingly tragic pathos was of the ruler who denied and did nothing about a crisis; demanding to seize the offices and wealth of others built with abilities and fortitude unknown to him; sacrificing those possessed of nobler character, declaiming responsibility whilst grasping for unconstrained power, and then sickened (if not mortally wounded) by the consequences of his misdeeds. Trump’s sickening by Covid-19 was the conclusion of his refusal to discharge the most basic duties of the office.
But this was not born of the pandemic; the same pathos had existed throughout his presidency and is now visible in the final weeks of the 2020 Election cycle as he remains unable to surpass Biden, to win tangible new support, or gain anything resembling an advantage from his incumbency. The deal which was struck by white evangelicals with Trump, and the foreboding outcomes for the bargainers, is mirrored in Trump’s arrested development as an executive office-holder.
Trump did not suffer a catastrophic loss of approval from several military failures in Yemen and West Africa or the humiliating sudden departure of U.S. troops from Syria and the abandonment of Kurdish allies. Equally, Trump did not gain any measurable long-term boost from the military operations which resulted in the deaths of the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Qasim al-Raym, the Al-Qaeda figurehead Hamza Bin Laden (the son of Osama), the ISIS Leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi or the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Leader Qasem Soleimani. The deaths of all four figures; all operational terrorist leaders responsible for the deaths of U.S. troops and attacks on U.S. allies; came within only four months between October 2019 to February 2020.
These operations and others, taken together, could have been marshalled by an effective 2020 re-election campaign into a narrative of signature military and national security achievements. Trump was further unable or unwilling to make effective, measurable gains from foreign policy achievements relating to Bahrain and the UAE establishing diplomatic relations with Israel in the months prior to the election. Trump’s approval ratings remained visibly unaffected by these events (the same can be anticipated for the eleventh-hour news of Sudan making similar diplomatic change towards Israel on 23rd October 2020). Possessed of a steady hand and disciplined campaign, an effective communicator could have taken the same decisions and cut a story of foreign policy victory from which a re-election campaign could benefit substantially. Trump is denied the approval-rating rewards and accolades that his administration’s achievements, divorced from his myriad failures and boundless capacity for self-delusion, may have won lasting applause for other leaders.
Trump cannot lose his core base of support and he cannot expand beyond it. One of the most-repeated cliches of Trump’s conduct and the news coverage of it throughout his term has been the need to “shore up his base”. Entire policies, contrived culture-war events, geographically irrational and virologically dangerous public rallies, and seemingly unhinged social media rants at all hours, have been seemingly done with the goal of maintaining or impressing the base which is already fanatically committed to supporting the president. One must ask in the face of such apparent fear of desertion whether Trump believes that without continuous reassurance and his own omnipresence, his most loyal supporters will fade away if left untended.
As the 2020 campaign has reached the final stretch, Trump has begun to slide further and further in the polls in swing states; the “shoring-up” continues unabated. It has become starkly apparent, were it ever in doubt, that the ‘base’ Trump most needed to keep has not been the most fanatically engaged rally-goers, those increasingly enmeshed in the mass delusion of QAnon, but the type of 2016 Trump voter who attended no rallies, wore no red cap, and simply cast a ballot without becoming engaged in the president’s day-to-day activities. Those Republican voters who cast ballots for Trump but have not often thought about him since, to the extent that any person can dispel Trump from their consciousness for more than a few hours; they will be at the apex of any successful election strategy by the Trump or Biden campaigns.
The failure of Trump’s apparent military and foreign policy successes to impact even marginally on approval ratings or voting preferences exemplifies the bargain he has taken with himself. Trump has chosen a course of drinking the proverbial unicorn blood for his political survival. It has kept him alive and perpetually revived, but he lives a cursed life in stasis, and never gain the accolades and recognition of his predecessors and contemporaries.
V. The Book of Lichtman, The Prophet
“That he seems rapt withal. To me you speak not.
If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favors, nor your hate.” — Banquo, Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3
“But what a fool believes, he sees
No wise man has the power to reason away
What seems to be
Is always better than nothing.” — The Doobie Brothers (1978)
Over 90 million Americans who are provisionally eligible to vote, or at least register to vote in 2020, will not vote. Few, if any that do vote will be true ‘crossover’ or converted voters persuaded by the arguments of their former opponents. A diminishing number of true ‘undecided’ voters form a microscopic obsession of the horse-race model of U.S. politics; the “incredible shrinking undecided voter” was being profiled in 2012. But the presence of an estimated 5–6% of true “undecideds” among a 95% partisan electorate makes for an egregiously distorted campaign process. It is near-universally held that the polls were wrong in 2016, (or rather, the polls were mostly right, but the inferences, forecasts and projections were wrong), the greatest failing being in the study and weighting of non-college-educated white voters. This experience leaves Democrats scarred and pessimistic, Trump supporters with a cause for optimism and reason to reject the polls in 2020, and the rest of the US electorate (if not the rest of the world) with no reliable guide to the path ahead. What could possibly make for a worthy investment of trust, time and even confidence?
The most quantifiably vindicated author in American political history may be the U.S. political scientist and historian Allan Lichtman, the ‘predictions professor’; the keeper of The Keys to the White House. The Keys and Lichtman’s application of them have been used to successfully predict the outcome of every U.S. election starting in 1984. Several predictions of party (not candidate) victory have been made more than a year or two years in advance. The model, based on the science of earthquake predictions, has entered its 10th election cycle. There is no other comparison in predictive power and a proven record of success. Lichtman is not without critics; he has had a sharply-worded and seemingly escalating multi-year feud with Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.
The polarising impact of Lichtman’s model and the professor himself were explained in a profile in The Washingtonian:
“He has a flare for showmanship that can be off-putting to critics… A misfit in either camp, Lichtman is still largely ignored by both [historians and data gurus] — his primary suitors today are media personalities, while political wonks and academics still tend to cast his work as “suspicious” and “hyperbole…. And yet, doubtless to the annoyance of many, Lichtman continues to get it right.
Comprised of 13 yes/no questions, the Keys inform predictions that are based primarily on incumbent performance and credibility. Lichtman predicates the turning of the Keys on the assumption that American voters (or enough of them) base their decisions pragmatically on the performance of the party holding the White House. Most are objective measurements; the presence of ‘incumbency’, ‘recession’, ‘short-term’ and ‘long-term’ economic growth, and incumbent primary contests. Others are subjective judgement calls; whether ‘scandal’ affects the incumbent party to significant degree, or whether an incumbent or challenger is ‘charismatic’ and broad-appealing. The 13 Keys reject and defy the conventions of campaigns, election media coverage, all polling and punditry, and are used to case a prediction for the re-election of an incumbent party or a challenger party candidate.
Lichtman and his model faced ridicule and ostracism by mostly-Democratic friends as well as rival forecasters between 23rd September 2016 and 9th November 2016 for the offence of predicting a Trump win against almost all polls and predictive models at the time. But Lichtman’s prediction of Trump’s victory made him a vindicated prophet in the wake of the earthquake he forewarned without being heeded. Lichtman even received a note from Donald Trump; a signed printout of a Washington Post article in which Lichtman made his prediction, with Trump’s endorsing that he had made a “good call”, scrawled on the page “in big Sharpie letters”. However, Trump had ignored a further prediction that Lichtman had made in the same article.
Whilst the November 2016 votes were still being counted, Lichtman predicted that Trump would be impeached. This was 3 years before the October 2016 announcement of the Impeachment Inquiry and the subsequent House vote to impeach the 45th president of the United States in December 2019. Indeed, just as Lichtman determined the ‘scandal’ key had not been fully turned prior to 2019, he predicted that impeachment, done effectively, would complete the turn. Nancy Pelosi knew what she was doing even as the impeachment was written-off as dead on arrival. Lichtman opined during the middle of the impeachment process that “in fact it’s probably essential — necessary, if not sufficient — would be to turn the scandal key, by making Donald J. Trump only the third president in U.S. history to be impeached by the full House.” Impeachment in 2019 was a political success for Democrats not because the Senate trial was ever expected to succeed, but because the key-turning on Trump would prove decisive in 2020.
On 5th August 2020, Lichtman outlined the Keys turning on a 7–6 ratio in favour of Biden, and predicted that Trump would lose the election in November 2020.
On 24th October 2020, Lichtman doubled-down on the prediction:
Lichtman’s model and its track record offer an oasis of relative certainty and a reliable basis for expectations as to the outcome of the 2020 race. Total confidence is neither required nor warranted. A significant measure of the success comes from the now-73-year-old Lichtman’s application of the Keys and confidence in putting the predictions on record since 1982. An inherent risk is that the Keys and their proper application may not outlast Lichtman himself. Absent the long-lived professor, the predictive system may fail if its application were entrusted to others. But for so long as he lives, Lichtman carries a more reliable record than likely any other prognosticator in U.S. political history.
There are more imminent causes for doubt and reservation; as Sheldon H. Jacobson has discussed in an exposition of Lichtman’s model, the Covid-19 pandemic could ‘upset’ the Keys and Lichtman’s 2020 prediction by the sheer scale of disruption to votes case by Democrats in large population centres. The effects of foreign interference and voter suppression during and after the casting of ballots are considerations that Lichtman recognises and warns could disrupt or “destroy” the Keys in the 2020 and future cycles.
The shock of 2016 and the partisan immersion of once-casually engaged observers into deeper reaches. Civic participation and voter turnout increased significantly by the 2018 midterms cycle and is on track to be markedly higher in 2020 despite the chaos and uncertainty caused by the pandemic. But increasing attachment to partisan identities, political hobbyism and general interest in current events has led to a seemingly exponential expansion of the economy of ideas. The Extremely Online left and right (now including the Trump campaign itself), have been wrong about the 2020 cycle more often than not, and rarely if ever reflected the involvement or sentiments of the wider and even the politically engaged electorate. Lichtman’s analysis has been closer to the public spirit and serves as the only truly reliable benchmark for prediction, insight and knowledge, against all odds. It is the opposite of the epistemic closure and echo-chamber-feeding that has defined the 2020 cycle. And Lichtman’s achievements in relentlessly non-partisan and accurate prediction provide better reasons for confidence than any other source.
What one more take or prediction will add, not least from an outsider to the United States, is worthy of doubt and skepticism. This contribution is made for the historical record.
My own tentative prediction, made with great reservation, is that Biden will win the presidential race and win the Electoral College by not less than 290 but not more than 319 votes. Biden will win Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida and the Nebraska 2nd District. The Democrats will retake the Senate with a majority of 51.
Trump will refuse to accept the outcome and will contest the ballot count in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida, and attempt to litigate the election in those states to the Supreme Court.