What Trump Revealed About Ourselves

A Reflection on the 2020 US Election Results

Graphic from POLITICO on the two-party system.
The two-party system is failing America. Source: POLITICO.

There is a Mark Twain quote that gets shared on social media every so often. “No amount of evidence will ever persuade an idiot.”

It’s usually someone on the far-Right which shares fake news, but this one belongs to the Left. People take time out of their days to commit what they think are virtuous acts. But instead, they are naively engaging in a hyper-level of tribalism that doesn’t help their side nor does it change the view of the person they think they’re on the internet.

So, this begs the question, who’s the idiot? Because what I want to explore in this piece is not Trump, but the people. Those who voted for him; those who didn’t. Both equally polarised by the world of economics and politics they live in.

There are idiots, of course. But I don’t think it is wise to presume someone who voted differently to you is one. Especially over 70,000,000 of them.

Human beings are flawed. We’re all searching for the solutions to our problems — thinking we know best for one another. Placing one’s trust in a Republican or Democrat. You may find he addresses your concerns and she, mine.

It’s easier to disagree and disregard. Sure, your opinions do fall on deaf ears if you do try and change minds. But I cannot stress enough, we are all on the same venture.

Albert Einstein enjoyed talking about humans. He explained that “striving for morality in our actions” is the most important endeavour. That “ordinary objects of human endeavour — property, outward success, luxury… seemed contemptible [to him].”

Those are quotes. And I share them to allude on how we got here.

Neoliberalism for the past 50 years only reinforced the idea that life revolves around the pursual of those ordinary objects. Simultaneously, it made them harder to reach for most of us.

Gluttony and greed have been allowed to grow. When the top 1% makes a costly mistake (financial crisis 2007–8), the bottom 80% pays for it (austerity). Those in between the two just, kind of, enjoy the free ride.

We live in a world where the CEO pay compared to the typical worker’s is 278:1. In 1965, this ratio was 20:1. No one is happy about how rigged the system is. And those on both sides of the aisle have seemingly done nothing about it.

How the American People Voted

And the winner is… Source: Morning Consult.

They definitely voted, that’s for sure. Over 140m of them managed to cast their ballots, the highest in a century, albeit a pandemic being on. It’s possible that this just mirrors the all-time high partisan divide in America right now. Energised and never felt the stakes were higher.

Both Biden and Trump achieved the two highest vote counts ever for presidential nominees in history, even though the former was meant to be an uninspiring candidate. Personally, I bought what Biden was selling.

And obviously, so did the American people. It might not have been by the widest of margins in certain states, but Biden beat Trump by a lot in the popular vote. This feat should not be underestimated. The incumbent usually wins a second term — only ten previous presidents haven’t.

Trump is the eleventh lame duck.

It isn’t a complete repudiation of him when almost half of those who turned out voted in his favour. You could even argue that Trump would have got re-elected if COVID-19 didn’t happen. But it did.

In my opinion, he was gifted a booming economy from Obama and his tax cut for the rich provided a short-term economic boost. The US would have likely seen higher GDP growth in the past four years, but Trump couldn’t resist a trade war or two that hampered it.

Dropping the ball isn’t good enough when you’re president, even if the way votes are counted is in your favour. Since 1992, Democrats have won the popular vote in seven out of the last eight presidential elections (including Hillary versus Trump). They have only held the highest office for 16 of those years and the Republicans, 12.

The electoral college is not democratic. Fortunately, those on the Left wanted Trump out so badly they voted for Joe Biden en masse; those undecided preferred a return to normalcy that Biden offered over the extreme that Trump guaranteed.

Nothing on the map really changed. Polls seemed to be way out when predicting a Biden landslide. He managed to win back states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, whilst surprisingly winning states like Arizona too.

Instrumental in securing Biden the presidency, it was those states that Hillary lost to Trump. Full of people who feel like they have been left behind by the political elite. So when someone who wasn’t a politician offered them a glimmer of hope in 2016, they took it.

Unfortunately, it was a lot of rhetoric and little substance.

The Democratic Party made the right choice. Biden won them the election and I think if they had gone with Bernie Sanders, they would have lost. I would have preferred Bernie but there’s no point having a progressive leader if they can’t get elected.

We witnessed this in action on election night. The Democrats were confident that Florida, a swing state, would be highly competitive this year. In fact, Trump won by an even wider margin than in 2016. One of the reasons for this was because he could paint Biden as a socialist figure.

Trump expanded his Hispanic and Latino support. The man who demonised Mexicans and scapegoated immigrants understood what they cared about: economic individualism, religion and law and order. America is meant to be the Land of Opportunity, if they wanted socialism then they would have stayed in Cuba, Colombia and elsewhere in South America.

Not only did those who are seeking a better life in Florida and across America vote for him, but the rich also did. Almost what you could call a tolerance of Trump, so they wouldn’t be taxed by Biden.

Trump managed to grow his share of Black male voters too. Biden made gaffes but it was the economic and law and order promises once again that helped Trump make gains. Even in the aftermath of the BLM protests, they either bought into his vision or tolerated him for it.

I think a lot of people don’t believe things can be better. People ask “what more could he have done?” when questioning the response by Trump to the pandemic. The answer is quite a lot. But battered egos, financial insecurities and dampened hopes created by the capitalistic economic system we live in has made us think there is no alternative.

. Something like the BLM protests or the pandemic is entirely situational. We’re fucked whoever is in charge. But that’s not the case. It’s just the population is so disenfranchised that’s how they feel.

This is where the two extremes of the Left and Right differ. No one believes Bernie when he says America can afford free healthcare; everyone believes Trump when he says Mexico is going to pay for the wall.

We long for yesterday and not think of tomorrow. In 2016, voters chose to . In 2020, they chose to go back to what they knew before Trump.

I genuinely think Biden will be a great president. Bernie has even said that Biden has the potential to create “the most progressive agenda since FDR.” It just depends on what happens with the remaining Senate races.

But as long as the rigid two-party system exists in America, it is not about getting the most votes. It is about Democrats being able to win votes in rural America as they do in urban areas.

What We’re Buying

Screenshot of the Dollar Street website.
Screenshot of the Dollar Street website.
Showing how families live around the world. Source: Dollar Street.

Have you heard of Dollar Street? Imagine the world as a street, ordered by income. The poorest to the left and the richest to the right. Everybody else in between. That is Dollar Street.

The organisation behind the project, Gapminder, came up with the idea to rid of country stereotypes. Collection of photos of families and homes from around the world show we’re more alike than we think. It is mainly our level of income that differentiates us.

I first came across Dollar Street when reading the book by Hans Rosling.

Hans, who has now passed, wrote the book with his son and daughter-in-law. It came with many, but a simple lesson I took away from the book was that even if things are good or bad, they can still be getting better.

That’s more than wishful thinking too. We live in a time when the economic possibilities to make life better for everyone have never been greater.

Going into the US election, 90% of supporters of Biden and Trump believed electing the opposing candidate would lead to lasting harm to the country. The political divisions have never been deeper. It will be Biden’s challenge to unify the country.

It wasn’t Trump who created these divisions though; he may have accelerated them, allowed them to flourish, but they have been in the making for two centuries. Racial divisions caused by slavery, segregation and Jim Crow laws for 150 years. Inequality caused by free trade and no protections in the last 50.

I believe it is the to buy into things that makes those who did vote for Trump and those who didn’t similar.

We have been living in a world of meritocracy, where you’re encouraged to pursue education upon education and accumulate debt in order to have a better life. Work as hard and as often as possible and life will reward you. So, it’s no wonder people look for solutions elsewhere when those promises turn out to be hollow.

The issue is those who bought into meritocracy judge Trump voters for buying into populism.

Imagine yourself as a person in rural America. You are a 55 year old white male with a high school education and a good paying job at a manufacturer. Now, your company is merging with a foreign company and they’re making staff redundant to reduce costs and increase profits. You and thousands of others lose your jobs. Share values look good though.

You’re struggling to find work. Most manufacturing is done in other countries and it seems America was happy to move on without you. The majority of jobs are being created in cities. The jobs that are left would either require you to take a pay cut or to retrain. You consider relocating but your town is all you’ve ever known. Being forced into early retirement and claiming some sort of disability benefits is becoming more plausible by the day.

Whilst all of this is happening, you’re simultaneously being exposed to media that causes you to compare yourself to others, blames the government and globalisation for your misfortunes, and that immigrants are stealing all the jobs. And then someone comes along and says

The people who don’t look like you, those who maybe live in cities, aren’t that different. They’re also told that if they work hard, they will have a good life. But racism, poverty, sky-high rent, exposure to crime and everything else reduces their chances of achieving that too.

Financial Times graph showing an increase in US household real incomes.
Financial Times graph showing an increase in US household real incomes.
Everyone’s getting richer, but at different speeds. Source: Financial Times.

Now, I’m not saying that every midwesterner has fallen on hard times. We know that US households of every social class have seen their incomes increase since 1979. The top 1% by over 250%; the poorest by almost 100%. It is the middle class who have seen their income rise the slowest (<50%).

There is resentment. The rural versus urban divide has never been deeper. Economic, cultural and geographic differences have split the country in two. Intensified and taken advantage of by traditional media, social media and far-Right politics.

“For example, Republicans estimate that 32% of Democrats are LGBT when in reality it is 6%; Democrats estimate that 38% of Republicans earn over $250,000 per year when in reality it is 2%.”

The two don’t understand each other. They watch something on Facebook and think they know everything there is to know about someone they’ve never met.

In Hans warned of the them versus us attitude. It is mainly a perception and not a reality, when we are more alike than different.

And it’s really interesting to see that even though Biden only got just over half of the vote, the 477 counties he won equated to 70% of GDP. The 2,497 counties Trump won equated to 30%.

Graph showing counties that voted for Biden or Trump by GDP measurement.
Graph showing counties that voted for Biden or Trump by GDP measurement.
The money is with Biden. Source: BROOKINGS.

Biden won counties which typically have diverse, often college-educated workers in professional and digital services occupations. Trump’s counties are whiter, less-educated, and more dependent on “traditional” industries.

But there can’t be a return to the past. The US is a developed country and like other developed countries, it has moved on to being a serviceseconomy. Why mine for coal when more value comes from ideas, concepts, people?

Those industries were left behind for a reason. And when they elect a populist, an authoritarian, who promises to bring them back, they are only inflicting economic harm upon themselves.

It has always been the duty of the government to inject morality into the market, but this hasn’t been happening. Now, it is up to Biden to convince those who feel left behind to embrace modernity.

We all want the same things — those ordinary objects Einstein was obviously too smart for—property, outward success, luxury. The system has set our goals for us. It has also made them difficult to achieve.

America is no longer a place where you can . The Land of Opportunity now ranks 27th on the Global Social Mobility Index. As long as that is the case, it will be vulnerable to future authoritarianism and populism.

Lessons to be Learnt

The choice is between progressive politics or populism. Source: TIME Magazine.

The most justifiable thing that could be done now is for the GOP to burn bridges with Trump. Leave him and his values behind. But it is him who energised voters, got their agenda across and implemented generational Republican policies.

So, they’re calculating — deciding to either stick with Trumpism or go back to more traditional conservatism. But the clock is ticking.

America as a whole is becoming better educated. It is becoming more progressive.

We saw places like Florida vote for a Republican president and overwhelmingly vote for the minimum wage to be increased. Voters across America support the right to abortion, ACA and stricter gun regulations. But, single-issue politics means many of them fall in line. They’re always choosing between Democrats or Republicans.

Until the electoral college stops granting disproportionate voting power to certain states, America runs the risk of being susceptible to minority rule.

The short-termism of politics has bled into society. And now at a time when people think , they have never wanted their to win more. (I am hopeful Trump’s refusal to concede and the rise of coronavirus cases will irreversibly damage his legacy).

Democrats will have their own decisions to make too. Will they stay in the centre or continue their shift to the Left? Biden promised to invest trillions in fighting climate change and still got elected, I don’t think it’s necessarily the policies which are the issue.

Americans don’t want socialism. They don’t want to defund the police. But they do want real change. It is vital that Democrats remain progressive and change people’s lives, all while improving their messaging so they win future elections.

These lessons can be applied anywhere too. We have seen Labour reattempt Blair’s success through Miliband by going austerity-lite, almost doing a watered-down version of what the Tories were offering in Britain. They lost. And then they pursued real progressive policies under Corbyn, but he wasn’t the man for the job either.

Starmer may end up being another uninspiring candidate that can bring those on the far-Left, who are desperate to get the Tories out, and those swing voters together.

Getting into power is only half the job.

Progressive policies must prevail. Otherwise, populism returns.

Politics and poetry, mostly. Also some economics, interesting ideas, and social issues.