By Dinesh Sharma
LOOKING at the cold statistics in the US presidential election, it seems the Donald Trump-Joe Biden race in 2020 is where the Trump-(Hillary) Clinton race was in mid-October 2016.
Clinton at the time had a nearly 10-point advantage in the national polls; several nation-wide forecasts have Biden ahead by 11 points.
The Democrats are rightly nervous, and not taking anything for granted this time around in the battleground states. Former vice-president Biden has been conducting scenic bus tours, long train journeys, and drive-in rallies throughout the countryside to avoid crowded settings due to Covid-19 health guidelines, and to gather much-needed suburban and rural voters.
Trump, on the other hand, is going back to what worked for him in 2016 – airport-hanger rallies, despite “the super-spreader effect” at the White House, with 34 of his staff members contracting coronavirus and his own diagnosis of two weeks ago, from which he claimed he has fully recovered. His administration is pushing “the herd-immunity theory” for dealing with the pandemic, even though there is no viable or approved vaccine available yet.
So will the election of 2020 be a repeat of 2016? Probably not.
First, pandemics have a way of cutting through the morass and picking winners and losers, especially as we face a surge in new cases with the opening of the fall school season. We are living through a global health crisis, the likes of which we haven’t seen in more than 100 years. The Spanish Flu in 1918 took an estimated 50 million lives worldwide and about 675,000 in the United States, during the same period as the first world war.
Trump is seen as responsible for the mismanagement of the response to the pandemic in the US, with an almost 60 per cent disapproval of his leadership, according to FiveThirtyEight, a polling website. More than 220,000 people have died, and the signs indicate the surge will continue unchecked in the winter months. In battlegrounds states such as Florida, Wisconsin and Arizona, the elderly and women voters are fleeing from him like the plague.
Second, Trump is no longer an outsider, a disrupter railing against the corrupt establishment. He is the incumbent president who promised to drain the swamp of corrupt Washington insiders. Yet, there have been a total of 215 indictments in his own administration, a record-breaking number not seen in recent US history. Politifact reported on administrations with most indictments. The numbers were staggering: “Recent administrations with the MOST criminal indictments: Trump (Republican) – 215; Nixon (Republican) – 76; Reagan (Republican) – 26. Recent administrations with the LEAST criminal indictments: Obama (Democrat) – 0; Carter (Democrat) – 1; [Bill] Clinton (Democrat) – 2.”
Trump supporters claim the “deep state” is out to get their chosen leader. The ‘deep state’ is code for “the administrative state”, including the spy agencies of the US government (FBI, CIA, DNI). There are two systems of justice, claimed Rick Gates recently (Gates is a Paul Manafort aide, both of whom were indicted in the Russian interference case), one for conservative Republicans, and the other for liberal Democrats.
The country is so schizophrenically polarised that ardent Trump supporters don’t even believe the president contracted the Covid-19 virus. “It’s all a hoax,” according to some rural voters in a traditionally liberal state like Massachusetts, not to mention the Bible belt.
We are living through one of those flagrantly “hyper-paranoid moments” in US history, as described by Richard Hofstadter in 1964 when the rise of McCarthyism took hold of the American psyche. This time the paranoia is taking shape in the echo chambers of Fox News, right-wing talk shows, social media chatrooms, and alt-right websites. It is partly a reaction to the rapid demographic changes at home and the forces of globalisation abroad.
Why aren’t we surprised by the chants of “Lock her up” again? This time they are directed at the Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, who was the target of a kidnapping and assassination plot by a white nationalist militia group, according to the indictments made public last week by the FBI. After four years of attacks on the media, intelligence and spy agencies, and all other credible institutions of the government, ‘undecided voters’ have either been completely ‘brainwashed’ or are totally ‘disgusted’ with their representatives in government. Or, they are simply lying about the intentions to vote for their chosen candidate, ‘the Bradley Effect’.
In an October surprise revealed by Rudy Guiliani, the president’s personal lawyer and former mayor of New York City, the FBI is now investigating Biden’s son Hunter’s contacts with Ukrainian and Russian officials on a laptop dropped off for repair at a computer shop in Delaware. It is just like Clinton’s emails being found on her aide Huma Abedin’s former husband’s laptop around mid-October in 2016, which led to the candidate’s downfall.
If you think this is like a John Le Carré novel, it gets even better.
The US intelligence agencies had warned the White House of a disinformation campaign against the Biden campaign months ago, where Russians were trying to influence Guiliani, but the White House ignored the warnings. President Trump had openly welcomed help from foreign actors in the media and on several high-profile TV news shows.
At a town hall meeting last Thursday (15), which was held in lieu of the in-person town hall debate, the president declined to denounce Q-Anon, a conspiracy theory generated on the dark web, which claims that Democrats are running a paedophile sex-traffic ring in the heart of the capital.
In 2016, this led to ‘Pizzagate’, where a man drove from North Carolina to Comet Pizza in the suburbs of Washington, DC, and fired three shots inside and at the pizzeria frequented by local families with children. Given that the theory had been totally debunked and discredited, he didn’t find any sex-trafficking in the basement of the pizzeria, supposedly run by Clinton or her then advisor John Podesta. Yet, support for Q-Anon conspiracies have been growing on the internet.
Recently, the president also retweeted that Osama bin Laden had actually not been killed in 2011. The original tweet stated, “Biden and Obama may have had Seal Team 6 killed,” and that the man who died in the Obama-directed raid led by the Navy Seals was actually a bin Laden body double. When asked by Savannah Guthrie of NBC during the town hall, “But you’re not somebody’s crazy uncle?” the president didn’t disavow his retweet.
If you were to conclude that the US electorate has become increasingly “paranoid” and “unhinged,” it would be safe to assume the leadership style at the top both evokes and reflects the divided state of the nation today. As the so called Henry Luce’s “American Century” comes to a crashing halt, it seems everything is on the line in this election, especially the state of American democracy or “the soul of the nation,” the Black Lives Matter movement, affordable healthcare, and women’s reproductive rights.
Finally, Biden has emerged in the media as the avuncular Mr Rogers from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a public access TV show that epitomised post-civil rights tolerance, empathy and racial harmony, apparently an anathema to some groups affiliated with the opposition. Biden picking senator Kamala Harris as a vice-presidential candidate, which most ethnic groups, especially black women and Asian voters, see as a positive step, many Trump voters regard as a regressive, head-spinning move.
Dinesh D’Souza, a prominent conservative writer, has questioned how senator Harris can claim to be both black and Indian, while he himself is of a multi-ethnic minority background from India (Portugese/Goan Catholic from southwestern India).
Yet, the support from the larger Asian and south Asian, and Caribbean communities, as well as the black voting electorate, seems to be very encouraging, which may just put the Biden-Harris ticket over the top. Given that race and gender are still some of the most animating forces in the minds of American voters, the choice of senator Harris has been a net plus for the Biden campaign.
I would even venture a retrospective analysis – if Clinton had picked someone like senator Cory Booker four years ago, an African-American with a charisma to match Barack Obama who was on her vice-president shortlist, she could have carried the day in 2016, notwithstanding then FBI director James Comey’s letter 10 days before the election to open another investigation into her email server.
South Asian voters held a block party last Wednesday (14) for “the aunty” senator Harris, which I attended via Zoom. It included Mindy Kaling, Kumail Nanjiani, Lilly Singh, Aasif Mandvi, Aparna Nancherla, Sendhil Ramamurthy, Sakina Jaffrey, DJ Rekha, Preet Bharara, Maulik Pancholy, D’Lo, Reshma Saujani, Liza Koshy, Anjula Acharia, Ravi Patel, Janina Gavankar, Tiya Sircar, Payal Kadakia Pujji, Manish Dayal, Deepica Mutyala, Nabela Noor, Nik Dodani, Madhur Jaffrey, Siddhartha Khosla, Madame Gandhi, and Rolex Rasathy.
Their message was clear – south Asian voters are a serious force in US politics. This remains to be seen. As Mandvi said, we are 1.8 million strong in battleground states to make a key difference in the close elections – yet, in total, south Asians are less than two per cent of the overall electorate. It will all depend on voter mobilisation, who turns out the most voters on election day and in early voting during the weeks leading up to November 3.
Almost two weeks before the election, estimates are that one-third of the ballots (approximately 50 million) would have been cast in early voting, where Democrats have an edge. But Trump supporters will pull out all the stops to hold on to power, including ramming through a Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, who might help overturn not only disputed electoral outcomes, but also reproductive rights for women (Roe v Wade), and the recent healthcare law, ACA or Obamacare, in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic.
Dr Dinesh Sharma is director and chief research officer at Steam Works Studio, an education-tech venture in Princeton, New Jersey.