One story of the past decade of my life has been a general failure of an attempt to escape the highs and lows of national politics. I’ve spun this yarn on this blog before, from the moment I realized I could be free in a park in Mexico City ten years ago to an attempt to say goodbye to all that at the start of the Trump Administration. I made halting progress at times, especially when events closer to home came to fill my life. But in 2020, that endless mirror of a Zoom call that forces us to stare at our faces and contemplate our warts, an election day that turned to an election week forced me to use every weapon in the arsenal in an attempt to stay sane. It worked, at the price of exhaustion that has carried through for another week.
The outcome of the 2020 election was clear enough from the moment the New York Times’ Needle, that data-mining triumph and harbinger of doom, flipped on Georgia on Tuesday night. The eventual result was clear by Wednesday morning, even though it took three more days for the networks to declare a winner. The polls have taken a justified beating for their inaccuracy, but the data people—especially, I think, when one leaves aside their attention-grabbing probability numbers and focuses instead on what they write—were otherwise by far the best sources of information as the count dragged on. The two sage Nates, Nate Cohn of the Times and Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight, laid it out clearly. The count was a simple math problem, and every piece of evidence showed that it would not be kind to Trump.
And yet, somehow, I couldn’t stop the endless refreshes in search of new results or interpretations. It was addicting, an endless string of hits off a drug. Part of it was the fact that I faced most of this alone: sure, my phone was blowing up incessantly, but there was no one right in front of me to distract me. Part of it is pent-up quarantine energy, restless at the tedium of life at home. In my work circle, a tacit pact emerged to enable this mindset: show up to your meetings and perform your basic tasks, please, but we don’t expect much more of anyone this week. We’re all in this together.
A descent into political obsession wasn’t all negative. My knowledge of the random county names across the U.S. has grown exponentially. The Twitters on my doom loop were universally insightful, with deep knowledge of random pockets of the country and instant, sharp analysis. At certain times of day, I learned to pull up the Twitter feed of a guy in Arizona with the avatar of The Count from Sesame Street who crunched numbers quickly. (“I cannot be stopped,” The Count calmly replied, after Trump emitted one of his “STOP THE COUNT!” tweets.) The endless stream of memes added some much-needed levity, with anything involving Nevada or Gritty taking the cake; the Four Seasons Total Landscaping adventure, meanwhile, will give me reason to chuckle years from now. I connected with old friends here and there, and enjoyed a socially distanced exhale on Saturday when our fate was, finally, sealed. Well, at least it was if you don’t live in the Trumpian fantasyland of unexamined conscience.
A lot of people thought Donald Trump was a descent into authoritarianism, and while he sometimes acted the part, it was only ever that: an attention-consuming act. Instead, his presidency was defined by weakness. It was a world-beating marketing campaign elevated by the puffed-up rhetoric favored by people whose self-confidence vastly outweighs their competence. Trump was never a third-world strongman: he was a reality TV imitation of one. His flaccid performance showed both the enduring power of American institutions and the overwhelming power of the entertainment complex to smother everything else.
The hoopla masked both the ineptitude and some of the more interesting nuanced achievement. We’re still waiting on that Obamacare replacement and that infrastructure package. The only major policy win was a milquetoast tax cut that any Republican could have pushed through, and Trump had the fortunate timing to get himself three Supreme Court picks in four years, while most recent presidents got two in eight. His foreign policy has been an incoherent slop, but it has avoided any catastrophic blunders and at times achieved some qualified successes. His trade policy likewise has proved a useful, if scattershot, corrective to the free trade bromides that dominated the previous quarter century. There’s reason to believe a more nuanced trade policy could be a point of agreement between Democrats and Republicans. The economy, which is usually beyond a president’s control, was good until it wasn’t, thanks in part to the Republicans’ drift away from their longtime fiscal and free trade orthodoxy. I expect them to rediscover it under the Biden Administration, but there is now potential common ground on a more middle-class friendly economic policy that didn’t exist four years ago.
If that were the extent of Trump’s legacy, it would be judged as fine, perhaps on par with other one-term presidents like Jimmy Carter and George Bush: a vital corrective to certain excesses, perhaps doomed by its heterodoxy and outside forces. But what will endure from the Trump Era is not any policy, but the scorched-earth warfare that politics became. It didn’t start with Trump, but it accelerated rapidly under him, enabled by the virtual world we increasingly inhabit: a barrage of tweets and own-the-libs raging that stayed relatively peaceful but opened the door to something different in the future. The left, in its sloppy and infighting-plagued and characteristic panic-over-anger fashion, responded in kind. American politics is now a battle between a Republican Party with no interest in being right so long as it wins and a Democratic Party with only a passing interest in winning because it must be right all the time.
The United States’ two major parties right now are reflective of a society scared of losing what it has built, scared of losing its culture, whether it’s that of a white settler nation with its myth of frontier liberty or a liberal empire bestride the world. Trump had a core of true believers who lapped up his rallies, but the vast majority of Trump voters I know are instead longtime Republicans who find the guy somewhat ridiculous but are willing to tolerate that because he more or less supported the causes that made them Republicans in the first place. (If you think abortion is murder or are scared Democratic policies are going to kill the industry that supports you or just value holding on to your own money above all else, a few nasty tweets aren’t a big price to pay.) The Biden campaign was perhaps an even more potent vessel of negative partisanship than the Trump campaign. It didn’t really matter what Biden stood for; it just mattered that he had the best odds of beating the other guy, which he did. Such is life under an empire teetering at the end of its apogee, at times calamitous but more often just decadent.
The coronavirus pandemic, for what it’s worth, did not prove much of a boost for Biden. Even people who know it’s bad just seem exhausted with it all now, few more so than those with kids. After reading of how low-income kids are falling through the cracks more than ever before and the extent of the mental health burden on kids who have lost their most formative years, I’m sympathetic to a desire to wish it all away. We live in dark times, and there will be lasting scars for many of us, especially our young. It is a great loss. But the fact that Trump’s approval did not rise, even as those of some relatively incompetent governors did, shows the emptiness of his effort. With leadership focused on resolve, we might have risen up united, as has happened in places like Germany or South Korea; clear expectations and national preparations could have at least this entirely predictable fall eruption. Instead, we got some tweets. Previous generations endured rationing, drafts, and mass mobilizations to endure wars with a vision of a better world; in 2020, people revolted at the notion that the government might tell them they need to wear a piece of cloth in public. That cue, of course, came from the figure at the top, not authoritarian but feeble and shallow, self-image elevated over real life, an American celebrity culture home to roost.
Given the polling errors, it is hard to know what exactly tipped this election. Biden surged in the polls after Trump bungled the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, but “defund the police” proved an effective talking point in the Republicans’ favor, particularly (and paradoxically, given their distance from urban unrest) among the rural white people who the polls missed again. A not insignificant number of Hispanics are religious and found something to like in the Trump economy and, as a reminder, came to the U.S. for a reason, and as such may be less inclined to view it as the sin-steeped failure that a binary discourse on race relations implies. Biden, meanwhile, enjoyed the suburban surge that turned Georgia and Arizona blue, and did enough to stop the Democratic bleeding in the Midwest. The race was remarkably stable in polls, suggesting that opinions on Trump and Biden (and, let’s be honest, it was mostly Trump) were baked in so long ago that no manner of outrage over 2020 could change much.
One theory that fits with this narrative suggests that, since polls about a year ago were pretty much spot-on, the virus didn’t change many votes, but it did change who responded to polls. With so many liberals stuck at home and more willing to socially distance, a group of people suddenly had the free time or flexibility to respond to answer phone calls or join the ranks of the Very Online. Once there, they became more and more ensconced in their algorithmic circles, deprived even of the brushing interaction with different swaths of the country. Oh, how I have felt this drift in my own life into that virtual realm over the past few months, an unwitting necessity that has had the expected consequences, even for someone well-attuned to the dangers.
A move away from a virtual life won’t cure all that ails America in 2020, least of all the virus that is now ravaging the American Heartland at unprecedented levels. But avoiding that path of least resistance can tamp down somewhat on the anxiety that comes with it, and it can offer something other than the echo chamber: perhaps some new pursuits, perhaps some dives back into old ones, perhaps some reckonings with the chambers in one’s own mind. National politics will lurch along, and I now accept that I won’t ever fully escape it. Nor should I want to: I am a political animal, and I have the tools to keep it all in perspective, to put my foot on the scales here and there.
And with any luck, a Biden Administration will feel somewhat less existential in its stakes. Four years of politics as a TV series culminated in a story to save for the grandchildren, a week I’ll never forget. But after it, I am ready to return to the joys and sorrows and the exhilaration and the tedium of good, old-fashioned reality.