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How to think about Tuesday
The Ruffian Special Edition: Notes on the US Election
Not this again. On election night in 2016, I was at a party. This time I was in bed, having set the alarm to wake at 2am when the good news was due to start rolling in. Instead - Florida, oh fuck - I spent two hours on my phone doom-scrolling Twitter in a cold sweat. Adrenaline ran riot; I felt like poison was coursing through my veins. Next to me, my wife knew the news was bad without opening her eyes, just from the way I was breathing (she proceeded to suffer her own panic attack in silence). I spent most of Wednesday not even daring to look at the news in case I had to deal with the worst. Then, gradually, I started to feel hope again. By Friday - hey, this actually looks pretty good…
I won’t offer some grand theory of the election here, but I have a few notes.
(ps if you have zero interest in American politics - fair enough - then skip to the end for a miscellany of non-election links).
He’s gone. Almost. That’s the most important thing.
So many seemingly smart takes on this election were proved wrong on Tuesday night. The result might have been the one we foresaw but so much about the way it happened was a surprise. We shouldn’t forget that feeling of being confounded. It’s a chance to recalibrate our mental models of US politics, or indeed just politics. Trump’s support proved much stronger than I or many others imagined - as if we needed another lesson that here, even more than in the movies, nobody knows anything. You can be very clever and know lots and be wrong. You can follow the wisest political observers on the planet and be misled. So don’t put too much stock in what you read over the next few weeks (including this of course).
Daniel Kahneman: “Whenever we are surprised by something, even if we admit that we made a mistake, we say, ‘Oh I’ll never make that mistake again’. But, in fact, what you should learn is that the world is difficult to anticipate. That’s the correct lesson to learn from surprises: that the world is surprising.”
Jesus but the guy is almost impossible to destroy. Drive a dozen stakes through his heart - watch him repeatedly shoot himself in the head - and still he leaps back up to give us an almighty fright.
When I say “He’s gone” I don’t mean it literally, of course. Most of the time I view the US’s two and a half month transition period as an eminently sensible way to arrange a transfer of power. Right now, I long for that “don’t let the door hit your fat arse on the way out” moment that we have in Britain.
The closeness of this election (at least, relative to expectations - it may not turn out to be close by modern standards) guarantees that Trump will remain a highly influential figure in American politics. Every Republican presidential hopeful will have to make the trip to Mar-a-Lago in hope of a papal blessing which may in the end be reserved for the pontiff himself; the odds of him returning in 2024 as the Republican nominee are higher than they were on Monday. If American politics resembles a garish TV series this is the perfect moment to round off Season One, the villain defeated but not destroyed, a lingering question over whether he will return.
Electorally successful politicians have some mix of attributes: likeability, gravitas, tactical nous, and so on. If I was to upgrade just one in importance, based on Trump’s bizarrely strong appeal, I’d choose demonic energy. Even if you hate him, you must see that he has this kind of unstoppable vigour. In those last few days he was doing speech after speech and talking for hours at a time and only occasionally sounding tired. That video of him dancing - I mean, his recovery from Covid-19 was nothing short of remarkable. Trump is only a few years younger than Biden but he seems far more vital, albeit in a terrifying way. The candidate who appears physically stronger will always stand a good chance of victory, no matter how terrible they are. Our preferences for leaders are shaped by quite primal psychology.
If this election isn’t a big thwack over the head for those of us easily seduced by the idea that data provides a perfect picture of what’s going on in politics, and can somehow make everything predictable, than I don’t know what else we need apart from an even bigger thwack.
I really like Nate Silver and his team and value their analysis highly but their forecast model is the least useful thing they do. It relies on inputs - polls - which aren’t accurate enough to justify the precision their model implies. Actually I like listening to Silver because he doesn’t rely wholly on data when forming views but employs his own judgement and intuition.
Smug with information, I believed that the people who said “But he’s going to do it again” were being superstitious. Maybe they were, but as it turns out they also weren’t far off being right. Superstition has its own, deeper rationality; a way of hedging against the unknown unknowns.
The 2016 explanations of Trump’s appeal were based around the theme that a vote for him was a scream of pain, a shout of hear this. OK - but the millions who voted for Trump in 2020 were not just making a protest vote. They were making a positive choice. Trump isn’t just a cipher for people’s frustrations - they actually like the guy. Worse - they think he’s a good president. This is the hardest part to come to terms with. This excellent piece from the Guardian, published shortly before the election is worth reading. It was prescient of them to foreground non-white Trump supporters. I never fully bought the ‘Trump as white supremacist’ idea - even in 2016 he did better with minorities than Romney, and he put blacks and Hispanic supporters front and center at the GOP convention this year. Tactically driven, yes, but what kind of white supremacist does that?
I’m wary of drawing political lessons from one country to another but given that Covid-19 is such a universal there might be one here, which is that “pandemic management” doesn’t matter as much as we have assumed. I believed (and bear in mind one of my now slightly shaky priors is that competence in government matters to voters) that any government seen to have mismanaged this crisis would pay a big price at election time. But despite US voters naming it as their top issue in polls and despite them giving Trump bad marks for it, he doesn’t seem to have lost as many votes over it as we expected. In the UK, the government is neck and neck or just behind the Opposition - not bad for one year into term - despite Johnson being generally regarded as having done a poor job on Covid-19. Voters seem to be cutting leaders a lot of slack on this problem even when they are critical of them.
After 2016, liberals gravely told each other that we hadn’t taken enough time to understand Trump voters and everyone read Hillbilly Elegy. Then we got bored, decided that Trump was a fascist tyrant and well, that was that. We became obsessed - deranged - by conspiracy theories about Russia. We reverted to our comfortable default that anyone who votes for Trump is a bigot and therefore not worth making the slightest effort to understand (labelling people racist is a form of energy-conservation). No wonder we were shocked when he increased his margins with blacks and Hispanics across the country. How could they?
Zadie Smith: “I think the hardest thing for anyone is accepting that other people are as real as you are.”
Are we right to see this as closer than it should have been? In 2016, blinded by that orange glare, we forgot to note that the outcome was relatively normal and predictable: after two terms of a president from one party, voters usually go with the other (especially when the governing party’s nominee is unpopular). In 2020, the normal outcome would have been a Trump victory. Incumbent presidents usually get re-elected (only 11 out of 44 have tried and failed to do so). That’s even more likely when a president is rated highly on the economy, as Trump was. Looked at this way, it’s our expectations that were abnormal, not the result.
Biden has been deemed a disaster waiting to happen for the whole two years but somehow just kept seeing off every opponent he faced, right up to this one. It looks like he is on course for a vote share equal to or exceeding Obama in 2008 and he ran ahead of his party in swing states. Rather impressive for such a loser. The truth is that Trump would probably be celebrating victory now if he had faced anyone else. I don’t know but perhaps it is time to acknowledge that, as a candidate at least, Biden was Not Bad and maybe even Quite Good?
The Democrats took the White House because they picked Biden and yet I doubt they will pick anyone like Biden ever again, and they do not seem in good shape as a party. 2020 feels like a precarious victory. But nobody knows anything.
Let’s take a moment to recognise that in a world where populists seem to be winning everything the ultimate populist outsider was defeated by a 100% establishment centrist institutional insider.
I hope I’m not speaking too soon but after all the doomsday predictions I think we’re going to see a peaceful albeit graceless transition of power. America’s institutions are resilient. Also, for all those hysterical op-eds and books, Trump was never an autocrat-wannabe. Autocrats crave power and love to exercise it, Trump craves only status, and is deeply averse to governing.
I didn’t enjoy Tuesday night but let’s remember that being surprised by elections is a wonder and a privilege. When the result of a presidential election in Russia is announced I very much doubt that Russians go around saying “Fuck me, can you believe it - Putin’s done it again!” (At least, not un-ironically). It’s also reassuring to know that we use all the science we want but what voters are about to do remains impenetrably mysterious. Democracy is humbling. It offers frequent, often painful reminders that other people exist - people who don’t think, talk or act like us - and that they have the same rights we do. It’s also a reminder that however smart you feel, you really don’t know much at all.
Finally. I can think of many reasons that this doesn’t solve everything that’s wrong with the world and so can you. I too wish that this election had delivered more, particularly in the Senate. But you know what? HE’S GONE. (Almost. For now.) We know that.
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I’ve been puzzled that the government has communicated so little about its plans for vaccination. It was infuriating to read that Kate Bingham, the head of the vaccine task force, told investors on a fricking webinar more than we’ve heard. However it turns out that’s not quite fair. The government has actually sponsored a podcast series all about its plans - they just haven’t told anyone about it. A friend of mine who is doing a deep dive into the topic turned it up. I listened to it this week and you know what, it’s terrific. Listen to episode 7 (‘When Will We Have a Vaccine?’). It features Bingham along with some of the experts who are on the case. It’s hugely illuminating. The discussion is open and candid, the host asks good, direct questions. There’s no sense of being sold an ‘official narrative’. And even though the experts admit to myriad doubts and uncertainties (we don’t know which vaccines will work or how they will work on different sections of the population; much will be have to be worked out as we go) the overall effect is rather reassuring: the sound of clever, capable, decent people quietly figuring out solutions.
A survivor of the Titanic recollects his experience. It’s like encountering a ghost. He is such a gentleman, too. The sad English music of his voice.
This is so wonderful. I admire the wide range of jobs (not just white collar ones!). What a boy and what a dad.