David Bell – The Most Unhinged General Election

25 January 2024

Donald Trump’s greatest gift, if you can call it that, is an unparalleled ability to focus attention on himself. That attention may be appalled. It may be admiring. But it is all on him, and his victories in Iowa and New Hampshire have only reinforced his apparently unshakable place at the center of almost every American news cycle. The attention is in large part justified, given Trump’s extraordinarily destructive impact on American politics. But it also distracts from some of the other forces at work in the 2024 election.

Is it simply because of Trump that the races for the major party presidential nominations have ended almost before they even properly began? Iowa and New Hampshire have traditionally marked the start of these races, not their conclusion. Not so in 2024. Joe Biden has not had serious opponents. Trump has had several, but his triumph in New Hampshire, a moderate northern state where Trump-skeptical independents can vote in the Republican party, has now disposed of the last of them, Nikki Haley. She is vowing she will stay in the race — it won’t be for long. Ron DeSantis said the same thing after his humiliation by Trump in Iowa, right up to the moment he dropped out.

It is normal enough for an incumbent president to glide to renomination without serious opposition. But why did the race on the Republican side end so soon? For many American commentators, the explanation is simple: the Republican party is no longer a normal political party, but a fascist or quasi-fascist cult (see examples here, here, here, here, and here). No matter what Donald Trump says, no matter how erratic his record as president, no matter how many times he is indicted, no matter what revelations come out about him, the “MAGA faithful” will stick with him, share in his thirst for revenge, and applaud his worst instincts and criminal plans. Some of them literally see him as God’s anointed.

This explanation is too simple. To be sure, the men and women who throng to Trump’s rallies and festoon their homes and vehicles with Trump flags give off cultish vibes. But only a minority of Trump voters (if a large one) fits into this category. For the rest, the reasons for their choice are more prosaic. They see Trump as having had a successful record as president, and as being the strongest candidate to take on Joe Biden. They do not take his wild rhetoric seriously. As for the impeachments, indictments, and attempts to overturn the 2020 election, while they don’t subscribe to Trump’s version of events, they don’t accept the mainstream media’s either. Fox News, and a host of right-wing radio hosts and websites, have muddied the waters with so much disinformation, misdirection and conspiracy theorizing that many relatively moderate Republicans find it very easy to dismiss the charge sheet against Trump as unproven, or with the thought that Democrats do the same, or worse. In short, they are voting for Trump for relatively “normal” reasons.

What about the general election campaign that is now effectively beginning, nine months ahead of the election? It is likely to be the most expensive, the most divisive, and the just plain most unhinged that the United States has ever seen. Is this also something we can blame on Donald Trump? Undoubtedly, in part. But not entirely. There is another, more structural reason at work as well: a fatal collision between America’s ridiculous system of presidential elections and the steadily increasing importance of social media.

For Americans like myself, who have grown up with our method of choosing a president, it is easy to forget just how deeply weird and nonsensical it really is. The campaigns start in earnest nearly two years before the election, as candidates form exploratory committees and start raising money in earnest. But most of the credible candidates drop out before a single primary vote is even cast because of poor polling or fund-raising (this year the group included a former Vice-President, Mike Pence). An inordinate degree of attention is then paid to the Iowa caucuses, a contest in which fewer than one out of eight Republican voters who live in this disproportionately white Midwestern state actually cast a ballot. Attention then turns to the equally unrepresentative Northeastern state of New Hampshire, where fewer than half the people eligible to vote in the Republican primary actually vote. This year, the Republican race has been effectively decided after only about 450,000 people voted: well under one percent of the American adults who identify as Republican.

In the general election campaign, both candidates devote a vastly disproportionate share of their campaigning to just a handful of states. This year, it will be seven states which, combined, comprise less than 20 percent of the American population: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In most of the other states, one party or the other already has an unshakeable majority, so the candidates mostly ignore them, thanks to the Electoral College. Joe Biden could win California by a margin of one or by a margin of 15 million. He will get the same number of electoral votes either way. Quite possibly, Trump will again win the election while losing the popular vote.

Every four years, the same defenses of this absurd system get trotted out. For a job as difficult as the presidency, it is said, the duration of the campaign provides a necessary stamina test. The emphasis on Iowa and New Hampshire forces candidates to make personal contact with voters and engage in “retail politics.” The Electoral College protects the interests of smaller states. And the United States, in any case, is not a democracy but a constitutional republic. 

None of these arguments hold any water. Other democracies manage perfectly well with shorter campaigns. Why should personal contact with the same small number of deeply unrepresentative voters every four years weigh more heavily than giving any other voters a real say? Why should the interests of small states weigh more heavily than those of the vastly more populous large ones? (California has more inhabitants than the smallest 22 states combined). And, yes, the United States was indeed founded as what Alexander Hamilton called a “representative democracy.” While the founders distrusted unrestrained democratic politics, they wrote the Constitution so as to encourage a responsible form of majority rule. The system we have today has not only produced victories for the minority in two out of the six elections held in this century but has excluded the vast majority of American citizens from any meaningful role at all in the electoral process. 

In this convoluted and absurd system, victory depends on two things: boosting turnout, and persuading swing voters, principally in the small number of “battleground states.” The first mostly involves persuading voters already inclined toward a candidate to show up at the polling place. The second depends on reaching voters who have mostly paid little attention to the campaign and probably have little knowledge of the issues. In both cases, the most effective technique is to appeal to primary emotions, especially fear. If the truth needs to be distorted, bent, broken, or smashed to pieces to fear-monger more effectively, well, that is the price of victory.

And this is where social media comes in. Americans under 44 now get their news from social media more than any other source. And social media has two features which are guaranteed to exacerbate the unhinged fear-mongering which the electoral system already does so much to promote. First, it puts all “news sources” on the same level, tempting users to assign them the same degree of credibility. A story from a reputable mainstream news outlet will appear in the feed sandwiched between a video from a crazy conspiracy theorist and a mendacious campaign ad. And second, the sites are designed to give users more of what they like. If you watch one clip from Fox News it will give you six more, all reinforcing the view of Joe Biden as a cunningly evil dictator (although also a senile fool). These features are there by profit-driven design, have been tweaked and retweaked to deliver the strongest response, and do so with ferocious efficiency. And the same sensationalist, fear-mongering pieces of video aimed in the first instance at apathetic and undecided voters in the battleground states will circulate all over the country, raising the political temperature and deepening even further the political gulf between the parties.

In the fear-mongering competition, both Democrats and Republicans have an advantage of sorts. The Democrats, to put things simply, have a greater degree of truth on their side. Donald Trump genuinely is a menace to the republic: a pathological narcissist and criminal who lies as easily as he breathes and seeks power at any cost. The Democrats do not need to exaggerate in the least to make this case. The Republicans, however, benefit from a far slicker and more powerful media operation, headed by Fox News, that has no compunction about blatantly lying so as to portray Biden and the Democrats as the true threat. Predictions of impending apocalypse, accompanied by ominous basso music and florid images of violence and ruin are already flying from both sides. What will the result be? It is still far too early to tell. But unhinged is far too polite a word for the situation. And while Donald Trump has hugely exacerbated it, the blame does not lie entirely with him. Even when he (finally) leaves the stage, things will not return to “normal.”

Tags: , , , , ,

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *