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Meanwhile, Let Us Freak Out About Donald Trump
It's not only the economy, stupid. Trump's high poll numbers point to a profound failure of both civic institutions and human psychology.
If you haven’t seen it, it’s got dire news for Joe Biden, who currently trails Donald Trump in five of the six battleground states likely to swing the 2024 election: Nevada, Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. If you care about American democracy, those numbers are bad — and shocking, because they reveal that a clear, present danger to American democracy is not being taken as seriously as it should be.
I’ll start with a few reasons not to freak out about these polls, then I’ll freak out.
First, it’s early. Anything could anything happen between now and a year from now – witness the Israel/Hamas war – and it’s far too early to panic. Not only that, but Trump personally could get sent to jail, which, these same polls suggest, would indeed affect his electoral chances (thank God?).
Not only is it early, but the Biden campaign is wisely biden-ing its time (sorry for that), accumulating piles of money and carefully testing out various approaches and messages. The Biden campaign is holding back, as well they should, since it’s early and there’s little point in advertising now. As a result, voters right now are like jurors who have only heard one side of a court case - and as the 2023 election results just showed, when they hear both sides, Democrats do well, often exceeding polling predictions. This poll is like the “Before” picture in a Before-and-After comparison shot.
More broadly, while Joe Biden may appear to some to be a genial old man, he’s been a canny politician – in the best possible way, if you’re trying to win an election – for over fifty years. He’s been counted out before, most recently in 2020. Don’t be fooled by the white hair; the guy is a shark, and that should give you comfort.
But still, let’s freak out a little.
Even if these polls are just a snapshot, still, what a snapshot. It’s daunting to see how many normal Americans seem ready to vote Donald Trump back into office, despite all of the obviously compelling reasons not to do so, from the Big Lie to the criminal charges against him; the incoherent streams of consciousness Trump issues every day to his chilling incitements to violence; the Supreme Court to Trump’s plans to vastly, terrifyingly expand presidential power; the isolationism that allowed Putin and Xi to expand their spheres of influence to the endless petty corruption of Trump’s entire family. It’s easy to lapse into hyperbole and hysteria around Trump, but it’s also foolish to blow off stated plans to radically transform American government.
And the lies… oh the lies. Trump lied more, and more audaciously, than any other president in the historical record, making 30,573 false or misleading statements during his four years in office. The Big Lie is well-known, but the little lies are even more telling. Pretending to be his own publicist, even using a fake voice. Printing fake copies of Time magazine with himself on the cover. And yes, even the combover, which journalist Michael Wolff finally explained in his 2018 book.
Given all this, I consider Trump’s positive poll numbers to represent a tragic, civilization-scale failure. Our news media, our culture, our educational system – if normal Americans are seriously considering voting for Donald Trump, all these have failed to inform them of who he is and what he stands for.
To clarify this point, by “normal Americans,” I am excluding the MAGA base, which is a vulgar, vitriolic cult of personality driven by rage, grievance, nihilism, and misinformation. These are the people who love Trump’s autocratic tendencies and laugh at his vulgarities; they’re why we now have candidates like Vivek Ramaswamy, aptly described by Nikki Haley as “just scum.” But at this point, this 15-20% of the American population is well understood (no matter how loudly they insist that they are not) and they’re not my focus here.
For good measure, I’m also going to exclude the Christian Right and White Christian Nationalists, who are driven by an apocalyptic faith (around three-quarters of these people say the end of the world will happen in their lifetimes) and terror of changing social mores. I’m excluding them because they, like the MAGA base, are basically incorrigible. And in a sense, they’re right. If you believe that widespread contraception and homosexuality are the most important issues facing America, then, sure, it’s logical to vote for Trump.
I’m even going to exclude people who, well, basically agree with Trump on various issues. If you own a factory farm or a petrochemical company, voting for Trump is probably in your economic interests, although the chaos he unleashes on the country may outweigh whatever benefits he brings to your bank balance. Likewise if you’re a hard-core Israel hawk, or really don’t like Mexican people for some reason, Trump’s your guy.
I’m excluding all these groups because what’s most disturbing about the Times/Siena poll is that centrist voters and voters in the Democratic base, appear to be treating Trump like a normal presidential candidate, assessing whether he’d be good for the economy or not, and so on.
For example, Biden leads Trump by only 1% among voters 18-29, and is only up 6% among nonwhite voters under 45. That is shocking. These are constituencies who overwhelmingly believe the climate crisis is real, that racial injustice persists on a systemic level, and that women should have the right to control their own bodies – and yet large numbers of them are ready to vote for someone staunchly opposed to all of those propositions. These are also constituencies who have been disproportionately harmed by Trump’s hard-right judges on the federal bench, the GOP’s refusal to forgive student loan debt, and the entire culture of white grievance that MAGA embodies. But above all, this is Trump, the raving septuagenarian who wants to make America great again (like in the 1950s? 1980s? Who was it great for, exactly?) and rants and raves incoherently, denigrating our politics to a level unseen for 150 years.
Do people not see this? Do they not comprehend what is at stake? As Trump might ask, what the hell is going on?
First, of course, it’s the economy, stupid. Despite the economy’s surprising resilience and the slowing down of inflation, people still feel anxious and concerned about their own livelihoods. The economic opportunities that Gen-Z faces are a ridiculous parody of those offered to Boomers and Gen-X. Yet on all these issues, Trump has absolutely nothing to offer. His administration’s economic policies made everything worse: they widened the wealth gap and blew up the deficit to pay for tax cuts for billionaires. Really, there is literally nothing that Donald Trump can offer non-rich people concerned about inflation or the economy in general. Please – name one thing.
Second, there are plenty of reasons for younger Democrats, who tend to be more progressive than older ones, to be disappointed in President Biden. Perhaps most importantly, this poll was taken October 22-November 3, and young voters are to Biden’s left on Israel/Palestine. But also shortcomings on climate change (despite the Inflation Reduction Act having been the most significant climate legislation in history, Biden has also green-lit numerous large energy projects) and many other issues on which Biden’s moderation is a liability rather than an asset.
And, yes, yes, the age thing — though I’ve argued we might want to check our ageism when it comes to broad assumptions about Biden.
But Trump’s numbers aren’t due solely to the economy and other issues. They’re due to shortcomings of the human mind.
Most people don’t follow the news and don’t vote on policy positions. As Drew Westen’s The Political Brain showed sixteen years ago, they vote for the person they trust, who they think understands them and will fight for them. Somehow, Trump, though obviously and transparently a con artist, excels at this — as, of course, all good con artists do. Along with Trump’s election denial, science denial, and climate denial, he seems to inspire a more profound form of psychological denial, as if all the bad stuff - the boxes in the bathroom, the commercial fraud, the insurrecting - is somehow unreal, and what is real is that this narcissistic millionaire cult leader gets it. We know he does this for his MAGA devotees; I think we underestimate how he appeals to people beyond his base as well. It is a profound lesson in demagoguery, and the vulnerability of the human mind. We seem engineered by evolution to be conned by powerful sociopaths.
And, of course, demagogues are uniquely attuned to emotional realities, even as they deny factual ones. There’s real pain and desperation out there, and Trump instinctively exploits it. Voters are feeling pretty bad right now – about America, about their own economic prospects – and they’re taking that out on the person “in charge.” Even though the person who was last in charge made matters significantly worse.
Again, there’s plenty of time for these numbers to move, and I tend to think they will. Shortcomings and age notwithstanding, Biden has actually been an excellent president on most issues younger voters care about: climate, economic policy, and social issues. And young voters turned out in droves for him in 2020. I think enough people will come to their senses.
But the fact that this election is even remotely close – that’s not reducible to Biden being old or Americans feeling uncertain. It points to a profound psychological, even spiritual, disconnect between perception and reality, and a clear failure of American institutions to convey the threat Donald Trump poses to American democracy itself. People should know this, but they don’t. It’s almost as if human nature is not up to the challenge of this 21st century demagogue, and we seem in serious danger of failing it.
Collectively, our national crisis isn’t simply about the MAGA and Christian nationalist fringes. It’s staring us in the mirror.
Thanks once again for the outpouring of support (and even non-support) I’ve received. Wherever you sit along our political spectrums, I hope you’re holding up okay.
In the Forward this week, I wrote about the wrongheaded and counterproductive censure of Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who said offensive things that are entirely appropriate for a politician to say. It occurs to me that this analysis will please no one.
Meanwhile, I’m trying to refocus my energy on the imminent publication of my new book, The Secret That is Not a Secret: Ten Heretical Tales, which will take place on December 5. Here’s a kind thing that Rabbi Abby Stein said about it:
More info on launch events will be coming soon. You can pre-order the book here and receive it on December 5. Thanks.