Epistemic status note: I can’t be bothered to look any of this up. I’m just ranting.
I voted for Biden/Harris — crucially, I voted against Trump with a song in my heart — and unexpectedly wept during their first big post-victory speeches in Wilmington. Harris’s speech was excellent, Biden’s was adequate; both gave me hope, which has been in short supply.
Donald Trump is a vicious incompetent criminal quisling who has been incalculably harmful to the world and is directly responsible for tens of thousands of Covid-19 deaths, with many more to come.
Biden will be an ordinary mainstream Democrat in the Clinton(s)/Obama mode: a centrist neoliberal who panders to ‘progressives’ without being one.
I believe it’s important to understand why people voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020.
Our mixed feelings
The first and most important step to understanding Trump-voter behaviour — for me and (I’m willing to bet), with small variations, for every Biden voter under the age of 50ish — is this:
I voted for Warren in the primary, supported Biden in the general with mixed feelings, expect to disagree with many of Biden’s policy preferences, and frankly don’t think he will be anything but a competent caretaker president, hamstrung by inevitable Republican subversion led by Mitch McConnell, while Kamala Harris prepares to run in 2024.
I also cannot imagine failing to support Biden in the general election, am truly glad that I did so, look forward to his administration, and (as I mentioned above) felt a rush of such intense joyful relief when he and Kamala Harris came out to acknowledge their victory a couple of evenings after the polls closed.
In other words, I am conscious of a complex mix of feelings:
- intellectual disagreement with every wing of the Democratic Party
- visceral hatred of the ‘New Democrats’ who came into power with Bill Clinton
- hatred, too, of the fundamentally antidemocratic late-capitalist identitarianism that Biden has shown nonzero willingness to pander to
- awareness of Biden’s mixed record in the Senate
- awareness of Biden’s mixed record as VP
- personal affection and sympathy for Biden-from-afar as an authentically practicing Catholic grandfather who seems implausibly genuine in both his love of family and his (American liberal) faith
- desperate desire for a return of bipartisan cooperation in the name of shared national interest
- utter lack of faith in the degraded, cancerous national Republican Party’s intentions
- utter lack of faith in the degraded, bumbling national Democratic Party’s competence
- a deep belief in the scientific method, rational inquiry, learned disputation, and dialectical thinking and cooperation, all of which the Trump administration and its enablers reject out of hand
- horror — though not surprise — at the GOP’s eager embrace of Trump’s criminality, venality, and ‘light treason’
- a deep abiding hatred of the hypercapitalist villains who continue to poison every aspect of American life
- total alienation from the thoroughly corrupt D.C. government
- total sympathy for the civil servants who somehow keep the wheels turning
- an intense, ugly, frankly unwelcome desire to see the forces of reaction, bigotry, and resentment not just defeated but beaten down for what they continue to do to this country and this world
- creeping fear that the ongoing climate catastrophe makes all of this both more pressing and ultimately irrelevant
This list is not comprehensive.
(I also feel, but want to mark separately, a deep ambivalence about Harris, an extraordinarily impressive but machine-approved political maneuverer who’s shown both principled seriousness and worrisome incompetence in her political career, whom I expect to run again in 2024 and have a hard time beating a Republican woman.)
In summary, I voted for Biden, but I voted against Trump just as much, and while I’m happy to participate in his victory — and even happier to live in an America that turned out in record numbers to repudiate the imbecilic anti-American criminal Trump, even while maintaining a predictable split in terms of party-line voting — I’m not under any illusion that he’ll be great. He’s a Democrat, for Christ’s sake; they’re a mess.
An imaginative exercise
If you’re a Trump voter, I’d encourage you to make a similar inventory of your responses and motivations re: Biden/Harris and Trump/Pence — and, while I’ve got your attention, to read about other countries’ responses to Covid-19. (Trump really has catastrophically fucked it up in every possible way.)
But if you’re reading this then you’re probably not a Trump voter. In that case, think this through with me:
Biden voters can acknowledge, amongst ourselves, that ‘our guy’ was a limited, imperfect, compromise candidate in 2020 — it’s not as if any but a tiny handful of Americans voted for him in Democratic Party primaries in 2008, when he was comparatively spry! — and still back him with an eagerness bordering on the unseemly in a 2020 election. We’re going to tell and our kids for the rest of our lives that we did the right thing, that Trump was a world-historical threat to democracy, that Biden differed in kind from Trump, that ‘decency prevailed’ and so forth.
We believe these things because doing so feels better than the alternative, and because we’ve been told to, by NPR or The Economist or a professor we happen to like or a handful of Twitter nonentities retweeting one another’s ‘takes.’
Let’s be frank, we’re all friends here: you don’t read position papers or policy briefs or even entire NYT articles, do you. You don’t read scientific papers before developing Feelings about them, of course (maybe an occasional abstract/conclusion survey and a quick look at the graphs, if you have an advanced degree). And you ‘don’t watch TV news’ either, right? Because that’s for losers and you’re not one. Needless to say, you eagerly watch hours and hours and fucking hours of stupid context-free video clips of TV news, drink them up like wine knowing exactly how they’ll make you feel. Indeed their predictability is the reason you watch them.
Plus the occasional John Oliver episode, even though it’s those same video clips plus jokes. Because he’s funny and because the English accent gives you the vicarious thrill of standing juuuuust a bit outside The System.
You came by your political beliefs secondhand, almost certainly, like I did. And our political beliefs differ not because one or both of us bravely pursued a path of intellectual independence, but because different options caught our eyes at the ideological buffet and we invested emotional and maybe even intellectual energy in affiliating ourselves with them.
If you’re less than 50ish years old you probably ‘hate-read’ and ‘doomscroll’ and I’m happy to bet that you ‘support’ organizations whose beliefs and political/cultural positions you can’t name and would be horrified to discover — leaving aside the Democratic Party itself…
…but THEY are much worse
There is a ‘They,’ everyone has a ‘They’ and ‘Them,’ and what makes them Them instead of Us is that They are fucking terrible dupes and/or complicit, corrupt, sellouts and opportunists, compromisers and fantasists, intellectually or physically lazy, emotionally stunted, less (or worse-) educated, resentful, hateful, bad — and y’know, We might be imperfect but we are Trying and Hopeful and In Progress and really Engaged and Community-Minded and Good and Thoughtful and we Do the Homework and really we’re here to Support One Another and blah blah blah stop lying.
A couple of weeks ago Biden quoted Obama’s ‘not Red states and Blue states but the United States’ line and its purpose was to trigger your memory of feeling really good when you heard Barack Obama say it in 2004 (or on Youtube in 2016 or whatever). Crucially, you probably didn’t believe Biden but wanted to — if you’re anything like me, and you are (only less good-looking and impressive), you’re keenly aware of massive cultural and political divisions in this country and you’re never quite sure, from day to day, how the similarity/difference balance will work out in a given interaction, on a given issue, under a given circumstance. But because you’re not completely stupid and evil you understand that it’s important to both acknowledge our similarities and attend to our differences, i.e. to participate in a shared struggle and understand that we share a destiny even with those we think of as our opposites. Not just in the grave, but before then, right here on the rapidly sickening earth.
Apply the Golden Rule: do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.
What do you suppose the experience of voting for Trump was like?
Fools, liars, and us
What was Trump, to his voters in 2015-16? Different.
Different from Hillary Clinton — because she married power, and resents her ostensible allies while holding her ideological opponents in humourless contempt; plus her husband’s a sex criminal and the Clinton Foundation is a ‘charitable concern’ run by rich jet-setters so only a sucker would give it or them the benefit of the doubt.
Different from Jeb Bush — because he’s a Bush and nothing more.
Different from Obama — because Obama campaigned on his opposition to Middle Eastern wars he then escalated and widened, and was The Kind of Person who tells coal miners (my neighbours, my friends, my dad) to ‘retrain’ for new jobs instead of ever being able to relax a fucking day in their lives, and because he came to work in custom-fitted suits but actually expected voters to believe he ‘cared about (some of) the poor,’ and because he gave money to Wall Street criminals hand over fist and then didn’t prosecute a motherfucking one of them. Because he is the definition of hypocrisy, and if you’re open to his self-justifications then why wouldn’t you give the benefit of the doubt to the self-justifications of a man like Trump, who ‘earned’ ‘billions’?
Trump was different because he wasn’t a politician (all politicians are bad), and because he told the truth about things that everyone knows (e.g. militarist USA foreign policy is, among other things, the biggest moneymaking scam in the history of the world). He was different because he didn’t recite lines, he’d spit freestyle; even Obama’s stump speech was canned, y’know. He was funny (and remained so in 2020, when talking to friendly/captive audiences) — and sometimes ‘funny’ is mean, get over it.1
Trump was different because he didn’t pander; some people he was gonna help, some people he intended to fuck over, and you knew who they were. For once, what you knew to be true and what They were telling you were the same. And as a bonus, you could convince yourself it was He and not They. No invisible forces, no invisible hand.
Trump is obviously a grifter, but Americans love grifters, as long as they’re soaking off the right people. And Trump would tell you exactly who he was going to go after! He donates to both parties because the game is rigged in favour of the rich! He knows how to play political games because he’s part of the unindicted-criminal cohort that owns the politicians! He is exactly as corrupt as every other asshole in his gated tax(-avoidance) bracket, and for once you didn’t have to lie about it! He said that shit on television!! Trump is obviously a liar, but Americans love liars, because they tend to reveal certain truths along the way too…
You ‘know’ that all politicians lie. They avoid, they evade, they elide, they shade, they talk openly with megadonors (think of Hillary Clinton’s extraordinarily lucrative Wall Street talks; think of the fact that all her friends give the same talks) and with contemptuous false sincerity tell everyone else what they want/need to hear.
Trump voters ‘know’ these same things. They watch their ‘viral’ video clips, you watch yours; they read their pundits, you read yours; they recite their stupid transparently nonsensical ideological mantras, you recite yours. They hold The System in the same contempt you do — moreso, in many cases, for complex reasons. And in the end, they vote for the party and the figurehead that they feel affirm their deeply personal private cluster of tribal beliefs/practices, just like you do.
I grew up an hour south of Buffalo; to give you a sense of its rural character, The Buffalo News was our ‘local’ paper. The Southern Tier is deep in the Republican part of NYS — there aren’t enough folks out there for their votes to matter in a statewide election, but maddeningly they continue to exist. It’s a nice place to grow up, assuming you’re not from one of the many families who slipped into penury as the Rust Belt rusted. It’s the kind of place whose young people either stick around to get buried next to their grandparents, or leave early and never ever come back.
A Trump voter in my village looks at the News, or more likely USA Today (or The Today Show, frankly), and sees coastal-elite cultural consensus, bipartisan financial predation, climate inaction coupled with scolding rhetoric, the steady collapse of American Christianity,2 a wholesale rejection of liberal norms like guaranteed freedom of speech, a thriving financial sector just a decade out from unprosecuted crimes that nearly shattered the entire global economy…a shitshow, in other words, presided over by the Ruling Party.
A Trump voter in my village looks at Trump and recognizes him — from a TV game show — and looks at Clinton, or Biden, and recognizes them from the nakedly false world of onscreen political news.
Trump’s a self-dealing criminal who ‘tells it like it is’ and the Democrats, as most Democrats will tell you, are ‘Good People’ who lie to your face about their agenda. (After all, ‘everyone knows’ Obamacare was both an insurance-industry giveaway and a statist power grab, and where did you have to go to hear the truth about that…?)
And if you’re the average American, if you have a typical education and typical viewing/reading habits, then you have no media access to an honest accounting of the truth of things — except your intuition. Y’know, that gut that pig-ignorant but expensively educated 20somethings make fun of you for trusting.
The ideological machine considers you deplorable, frankly. The machine hates you and it’ll never stop until there’s no more blood to drain. But Trump doesn’t hate you — he hates Them.
For right-wingers and millions of others, Trump ran in 2015-16 as a protest candidate. This is hard for lefties to understand, because in standard terms he had no business being on the debate stage. But be honest: what qualifies you to get up there? What the hell was Jeb Bush doing running for president? (Remember ‘Please clap’?) Ted Cruz daily betrays the legal profession and is only loyal to his own self-interest; Marco Rubio has literally no principles or ideas, not one. Rand Paul’s allowed to run on behalf of glibertarian nuts, Carly fucking Fiorina is allowed up there if she can find the debate venue — even Mike Huckabee is allowed to pretend to be a thoughtful adult for as long as he can manage the charade. Trump absolutely belonged onstage in that crowd of buffoons and grifters…
…and what set him apart was, he told the truth about their game. It’s rigged in favour of (transnational) capital; it’s played for real in private rooms offscreen; it’s ultimately built on elite conspiracy. Ted Cruz doesn’t care about your job, Jeb Bush doesn’t ‘feel your pain.’
Trump doesn’t either! To be clear: Trump is the most nakedly hateful president since Reagan.
But remember the Lucky Strike scene in Mad Men? Don Draper pitches an ad campaign to a cigarette maker:
DON: This is the greatest advertising opportunity since the invention of cereal. We have six identical companies with six identical products… We can say anything we want. How do you make your cigarettes?
GARNER: We breed insect-resistant tobacco seeds, plant ‘em in the North Carolina sunshine, grow it, cut it, cure it, toast it, treat it–
DON: There you go. (He writes on the board: ‘LUCKY STRIKE — IT’S TOASTED’)
GARNER JR: But everybody else’s tobacco is toasted.
DON: No, everybody else’s tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strike is toasted.
Trump told the truth about the losers first; after that, anything they said about him was sour grapes: mere political speech.
And of course, anything the Democrats said about Trump was that too. Admit it, the Party only took notice of him because of his political influence — everything else he’s ever done, every evil he’s perpetrated, every crime he’s committed was fine (was Someone Else’s Problem) until he got in Hillary Clinton’s way.
Trump is a drug-addled, unprecedentedly ignorant, unashamedly racist piece of shit. He was a rapist, a money launderer, and a thief long before he entered the race in 2015 (with no intention of winning) — indeed, long before his ‘birther’ horseshit, which came as naturally to him as breathing.
But the President isn’t a person, he’s a symbol. And to his supporters, Trump symbolizes something wholly different from any of the meanings the mainstream media have attached to him.
The Republican Party and Democratic Party differ essentially at the cultural level. The Democrats embody the belief that how you play — the meaning of victory, if you luck into it — is more important than whether you win.
Republicans like winning.
Republican voters love beating Democrats. Why do they vote for policies that punish them, over and over and over? Because they win. Because winning feels good right now — so good that you might think it’s a kind of universal Good in itself. You could start to think that. You could get behind a man, even a liar and a thief, who seems to be selling the platonic ideal of Winning.
Democratic voters are told by their Party, over and over again, that each small victory, each compromise measure, means a Bright Future. But victory is now. You win or lose now, and if you win a competition then someone else loses, and if you lie about who loses then you’re a piece of shit.
You might argue that the Democrats are the Party of emancipation and so it’ll always be that way. But you’d be a sucker.
Mitch McConnell won’t live to see the fruits of his labours and doesn’t mind. McConnell is rotten to the core, one of the worst living Americans. His support of Donald Trump, a man he obviously loathes, demonstrates McConnell’s fundamental, pathological emptiness. He’s a quisling and collaborator and in a just world (borrowing a phrase from Malcolm Tucker) he’d be hounded to an assisted suicide.
What Mitch McConnell wants is to win (on behalf of Power). And he does, over and over, because unlike the Democrats he chooses victory over ‘honour’ every time, without exception. Which is why his wife has a Cabinet job that Trump oddly hasn’t fired her from.
(McConnell’s in a ‘mixed marriage,’ did you know?)
Nationally, the Democrats are punished by the vicious antidemocratic politics of the American republic, but because they chase the same (antidemocratic) money as the Republicans, it’s not as if they can push for fundamental change. But they wouldn’t anyway.
Biden has won as expected, but McConnell — an enemy of American democracy and a threat to the Republic — controls the Senate. Trump gained ground among voters whose support Democrats took for granted. Biden will have to govern a nation half-full of Republicans, just like Obama and Bush and Trump. It’s going to be a bad time for everyone.
Trump himself is both stupid and evil, but it does no good to pretend that only stupidity and evil explain Americans’ support for Trump. The Republican Party is flirting with fascism, yet it doesn’t have to sell fascism to its voters — it just has to seem preferable to the alternative at election time.
The Democrats make that easier than it should be. Theirs is the saner political party, in most ways, but they don’t ‘deserve’ to win. What a grotesque idea.
The Democrats should be trying to win over everyone. ‘Undecided’ voters are rare at election time, but 6-12 months from now there will be millions of them again. And it’s not like there’s any mystery to it! Helping working people without explicitly demonizing them for being The Wrong Kind of Working People is not actually difficult. Fighting for climate justice plays well if you make it about working people’s job- and food-security rather than ‘Prius owners pretending to be scientists, scolding vo-tech rubes in Carhartts.’ If Democratic policies are good, tell the truth about them; if not, get better policies, i.e. serve better masters. Every American hates this System that’s very obviously aligned against people in favour of transnational capital; abjure the easy money and do the right fucking thing!
The Democrats won’t, of course. The money’s too good. They’re a center-right party that caters to ‘progressives’ on a made-for-TV subset of cultural issues and tramples on workers whenever Capital says to.
People voted for Trump because they preferred Trump to the Democrats and the Republicans, and after four years of malign incompetence and decent stock market performance, he got more votes than any candidate in history (except Joe Biden).
It’s a problem. Today’s Republican Party is a problem. The only workable short- to medium-term solution is a better, more honest Democratic Party.
I’m not holding my breath.
- Trump is seen as an unfunny bully by the national ‘news’ media and his ideological opponents, while his supporters see him as a funny bully — discomfort and unfamiliarity make him brittle, because he’s a cowardly narcissist, and nothing is more unfamiliar and uncomfortable for him than having to answer substantive questions about policy from ‘political’ ‘journalists.’ (I use scare quotes because TV interviewers barely qualify as either.) This is why it’s so dangerous that mainstream news outlets endlessly recycle the same couple of clips from every Trump media appearance, helping convince lazy liberal/progressive viewers that there’s no way a sane person could ‘fall for’ Trump’s routine. Millions of people love it because it’s good entertainment. Evil? Stupid? Yes. But good entertainment. ↩
- You’re probably rooting for Christianity to go away, since you’re reading my blog, but you should remember that the disintegration of the central ordering principle of a society is a terrible thing — no matter what’s on its other side. ↩