“Analyzing the 2020 Election” Transcript
Betty Teng: Welcome to Mind of State, a podcast for both political junkies and armchair shrinks. I’m psychoanalyst and trauma therapist Betty Teng.
Jonathan Kopp: And I’m communications strategist and political hack, Jonathan Kopp. Join us as we welcome experts in politics and psychology to consider this, the state of our nation through the state of our minds and the mind of our state. Hi, Betty.
Betty: Hi, Jonathan. We did it.
Jonathan: We survived.
Betty: We slept after a week of not sleeping.
Jonathan: Here we are in post-election land. We’ve been waiting for this day. I’ve been waiting for this day for four years.
Betty: You have been waiting for this day for four years. I have been holding my breath for four years. I realized only Sunday after realizing how much more deeply I breathe now.
Jonathan: There was a national exhale, wasn’t there? There was like, it was a global exhale. I mean, when I looked at headlines from around the world and I got calls from friends all over the world, the world was watching and the world exhaled.
Betty: Yeah, I had to go to international news outlets just to see what, like, Fiji said and to Biden to congratulate him. I was like other people around the world know about this. This means it’s real. And I think that that’s a piece in it. Like it didn’t feel, for me at least, I know you’ve been predicting and you’ve been trying to keep us steady as she goes, Jonathan. But I didn’t feel it was real until I got the news from a text from a friend and I was in the middle of a park and I didn’t know what to think, you know. It hit me even though it was coming, but it still hit me.
Jonathan: Yeah. This was a fascinating thing. From election night forward, the results were the same, right? Biden was ahead. Biden was up. His gap only grew. And not only that, but it was exactly as it had been predicted. The Biden campaign was steadfast and consistent on this. The polling data was right. The numbers were coming in. Yet everyone seemed to need the validation from Pennsylvania. But even though we knew the result, and even though the news media play no official role in this constitutional democracy, somehow hearing anchors declare that a state had been called and that 270 threshold had been passed, that seemed to be what people needed. They needed to hear the validation from independent news outlets that a winner had been called.
Betty: And I hate the number 253. I will never forget that number for the rest of my life because it stuck there for 48 hours or something like that for Biden.
Jonathan: Well, don’t get too comfortable with 273 or 279 or whatever it is because it’s going to go to 306, is my guess.
Betty: Yeah, it’s not done. It’s still not over. You know, this is the process. So to help us process this, because we’re all needing to process, you know, I got my jolt from the Fiji Islands Prime Minister, but I need more. I’m going to introduce our next guest. Michael A. Cohen is a friend of yours.
Jonathan: Indeed he is. Michael and I go back to the 92 war room, in fact. So I’ll date myself and I’m dating him as well.
Betty: Oh you guys are evergreen.
Jonathan: It’s interesting because Michael Cohen went from being a partisan, trench warrior in partisan politics, and he switched over to journalism, to being an observer of politics. And I think that’s why we have him here on the show today, is because he is a keen observer of American and international politics.
Betty: So let me introduce him. Michael A. Cohen is a political columnist at The Boston Globe. He is the author of Clear and Present Safety and American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division. Michael has written for dozens of news outlets, including The Guardian and Foreign Policy. He previously worked as a speechwriter at the US State Department and has been a lecturer at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. Welcome to Mind of State, Michael.
Michael Cohen: Thanks. Great to be here.
Betty: So, Michael, we brought you on to be our post-election guest.
Betty: So you’ve got a big–
Michael: A lot of pressure right there, not going to lie to you.
Betty: We’re going to start with one that comes from my side of things. I am a trauma therapist and a psychoanalyst, and I see people all day long every day, and I talk to them in sessions. And this election week has been exhausting on top of a particularly exhausting election season.
Betty: You and Jonathan have both been former war room campaigners from way, way back. How does somebody from inside a campaign like this sustain the energy? And how do you recommend that we all sustain the energy past this moment? Because we’re not, we’re far from done.
Michael: Well, that’s a great question, actually. I mean, I guess the way you do it is you have to keep your eyes on the prize and know that, you know, that if you’re successful in what you’re doing, you’re going to, you know, elect the next president. And, you know, on a personal level, you may end up getting a job in the White House or working in the administration or having, sort of, achieving what you want to achieve. I think for the rest of us, you know, it’s funny, I was talking with somebody today about whether we felt joy or relief over this. And I think it’s a little bit more relief than joy to some extent. I mean, I obviously think a lot of people are pretty happy, pretty excited that Joe Biden’s president. But I think they’re even more excited that Donald Trump is no longer going to be president. And I think it’s been really difficult the last couple of weeks.
I think, you know, it’s funny, I had a, I was doing an interview with somebody a couple days ago, with a colleague of mine, and she asked this question like, what happens to the Democratic Party if Trump wins? And it kind of stumped me because I always thought, I didn’t even think about that. I hadn’t even thought about that possibility, because I think it’s just sort of too awful to consider. And not for the Democratic Party, but for this, for the future of the country. So I think, you know, I’ve sort of assumed for, you know, for several months now that Biden’s going to win. I haven’t really wavered in that belief. But, you know, the back of your mind, you like if I’m wrong, well there goes a pretty good democracy right there. So it’s not a small thing when you think about that possibility.
Jonathan: It’s kind of amazing too that, you know, there is no opportunity to stop and regain your energy, right. Because Trump is not stopping and I’m not even talking about his contesting the election and all of those silly distractions. I’m talking about he’s gearing up for 2024, like he’s already, you know, indicated, and we sort of knew where this was going, that he’s coming back. And we’re in the midst of, we’ve got run off elections, two run off elections, down in Georgia that are going to determine the control of the Senate. And so in a way, we can’t stop. There’s no stop. We move from one focus to the next. And it’s all about, as you said, keeping our eye on the prize. And the strategy will be different if we’re going into a divided government than if we’re going into a united government.
Michael: Right. Yeah, that’s true, but I think, you know, I don’t know. I personally feel a lot like a big weight is off my shoulders as far as national politics go, and you’re right, you still have Georgia coming up. But, you know, seeing today Trump, you know, with these silly tweets and how he won’t concede, it just feels like a temper tantrum. It doesn’t feel like anything real or substantial that’s going to affect the outcome. So I hear what you’re saying, but I think there’s plenty of time to get angst ridden over that. I think right now I just sort of feel that the country did what it needed to do, which was stop this president from four more years in office. I think that we should celebrate and that, I think, is a really momentous accomplishment.
Betty: Michael, you had spoken about, you know, there’s no time. You’re thinking about the White House if you’re in the campaign and if you’re in Biden’s campaign. And, Jonathan, you’re thinking about there’s no time. He’s going to launch a counterattack right now. Like, but for those of us outside of this world, it’s been a bombardment and it’s been overstimulating and overwhelming. You know, just last week alone from Monday through Saturday, everybody’s checking, checking, checking, checking. Doesn’t matter whose side you’re on.
Betty: So where do we find the time to make mental space? Because this is what, you know, I think Donald Trump precludes, mental space, which precludes the ability to think, which I think creates this reactivity, creates all of what we’ve been seeing in the divisions of things. So, and as you’re putting it, there’s a relief. So can we take some time to, I’m always advocating for time, you know, no sudden moves. So is it possible right now? I mean, both of you guys.
Michael: I mean, I personally had taken most a week off just to relax and decompress because I just don’t want to think about politics for a little while. I mean, I’m still a junkie, so I’m going to write about, you know, my sort of big takeaways from the election. But, you know, that for me is sort of enjoyable. It’s not so much I have to worry about what’s going to happen. And I think to your point about Trump being in all of our headspace, I mean, this election, I think looking back on it now, was so completely about Donald Trump in every possible way. And he’s been in our heads, at least if you follow politics like I do, he’s been in our minds for the past four years. And to not have to worry about what he tweets is an incredible sense of relief. I mean, I can’t be alone in feeling that way.
Jonathan: I think we are going to have the time and the headspace simply because we’re going to have a different president. And one of the reasons is this. Donald Trump has governed from a chaotic standpoint, right. From moment to moment there is nothing consistent, there is nothing predictable, there is nothing policy driven. There’s no long game with Donald Trump. He lives in the moment and speaks in the moment. Now we’re shifting to a political professional. It was reassuring to me and gave me headspace just to see yesterday that the transition website went up, the transition team came in place. Why? Because they’ve been planning for months, right. They’ve been planning for months and it’s predictable. And in a way, Joe Biden, I think, is going to instantly telegraph to the country and to the world, you don’t have to worry about five minutes from now because I’m going to lay out what the next three, six, nine, 12 months are going to look like. Here’s our plan. And that gives me peace of mind.
Michael: I agree with all of that. But I’d also sort of add too that it’s also a function of what happens to a president who’s a malignant narcissist like Trump, right, because everything for Trump is about Trump, right. Everything. He can’t live outside of his own ego. And for anybody who’s had an experience with a narcissist, as I have, not including Trump, it is the most, like, dislocating experience because you begin to question your own reality.
Michael: I think, you know, from my own experience, like it’s the amount of gaslighting that goes on, the amount of just deception and lying, the lack of accountability. I mean, everything about what’s happened in the past 24, 48 hours is so much about what narcissists are like, right. I mean, they just, they don’t take responsibility. They’re always the victim. They blame somebody else. There’s no introspection at all, no self-awareness. And, you know, we’ve been living in that world. And I think just to not have to live in that world any longer, to not care what he says, is just, to me, it’s such a relief, you know, and I can say for anyone else who has been in a relationship with a narcissist, it is incredibly difficult. And to be out of this is incredibly liberating.
Betty: Well, that makes me curious, Michael, because having had a relationship with malignant narcissists and covering one now for the past four years, this is like my patients who were traumatized. A lot of my patients are survivors of sexual trauma. They see a predator in the White House. They hear him talk and they see somebody who is railroading women, who is speaking over people. It’s triggering. What did you have to shut off to not, kind of, be sucked back into not only a world of Donald Trump, but a world of a person who just doesn’t see you, you know, just sees a hall of mirrors, denies your existence and just, you know, sort of overwhelms, which is what we’ve all kind of experienced. But you had to cover it, like, front line.
Michael: Yeah. And it’s, you know, obviously it’s exhausting. I think part of it is you kind of detach yourself from a little bit, but you also, I think, appreciate and understand why he does the things that he does. You know, I wrote a column like, I don’t know, five, six months ago when Mary Trump’s book came out and the column basically was like I said I feel sorry for Trump, which a lot of, you know, my liberal friends didn’t care for that argument. But my basic point was that this is just a very sad and broken man who does terrible things because he doesn’t understand why they’re wrong and why they’re terrible. And, you know, and I’ve understood that for a long time about him, and I’ve always said that about him. I feel a little sorry for him, which is again, I mean, I don’t like him, to put it mildly. But I also understand that his actions are somewhat uncontrollable and, I mean, by him.
And so in a sense, I feel I guess that makes it a little bit easier to write about it, to understand that this is not somebody who is almost doing this purposely, you know. And it’s also a case, though, where it means that my outrage for those who enable his behavior is so much greater. And that’s kind of where I focus a lot of my writing over the past couple of years is really on the enablers and the people who basically allowed this to happen. But I do think, I remember saying this like early on in the administration, after covering him on the campaign trail that, you know, the thing about Trump is you don’t need to be a political scientist to understand, you need to be a psychologist to understand him because there’s no relation to political science.
Jonathan: Over to you, Betty.
Betty: No, no, no. You really, you know, he really is a function of, as you put it, a malignant narcissism. I mean, he has no interest in politics.
Michael: None, none.
Betty: And so to your point, the enablers are a big part of this. And so how do you read what happened because the down ballot votes reflected a support of Republican ethos, policy. And yet, you know, when 68 million by the last count still voted for Trump. So–
Jonathan: Look, we’re a divided country, right. Maybe it’ll be 70 million that have voted for Donald Trump and that, to me, is disconcerting. We wanted a blue wave. We wanted to vanquish, not just beat, but vanquish Trump and the Trumpists, right. There’s no question that’s how we went in. But I think the Democratic Party is uniquely good at mourning a victory, right. And the fact of the matter is, we won with the largest popular vote in U.S. history. We will have won with the same Electoral College vote, most likely, that Trump had in 2016. We made gains in the Senate and we held on to the House. Yes, we lost some down ballot races. Of course we did. And we still got a long way to go. But the fact of the matter is, this was a win any way you slice it. And so I think we need to celebrate that win. And, of course, you know, within the Democratic Party, we’re always going to have the hand wringing about should we be more of the progressive wing of the party or should we be more of the centrist wing of the party. That’s not a new conversation. We’ve been having it after every single election as long as I’ve been in politics. We’ll continue to have it and it’s a good conversation for us to have. It’s the constructive conversation. I want Democrats to be fighting about should we be more left or should we be more center within the left?
Michael: Well, can I add to that two things? One is, I totally agree that this is a pretty substantial victory. I mean, it’s going to be the largest margin over the last, like, 30 years, I think, except for 2008. It’s going to be bigger than Obama’s victory in 2012. And so in that sense, I think it’s a repudiation of Trump on a personal level. Where I’m a little more glass half empty is that, you know, what this election showed by the fact that it wasn’t a landslide and the fact that a lot of Republican senators and congressmen candidates won is that partisanship is, and polarization, are the defining aspects of American politics today. And, you know, when I looked at the numbers, it was kind of crazy how much the vote of Senate candidates in red states, actually in red and blue states, mirrored the numbers for Trump. Trump brought out more voters. I mean, there’s no question Democrats brought out even more voters. That’s why they won. But the level of turnout from Republicans is something that none of us saw coming.
Jonathan: Yeah, you know, I was thinking about the turnout and what struck me is that, in a way, having a celebrity president, for better or for worse, and, you know my choice between those two poles. But having a celebrity president engaged more Americans in politics than ever before, and so the fact that we had such a large turnout of the electorate, I think it’s a reflection of the fact that we, this election was moved beyond policy and beyond politics to something that was at the level of celebrity. It will be interesting to see if we can sustain that level of engagement by the electorate now that we’re moving back into the professionalism of politics, we hope.
Michael: Well, I guess I’d say all to that point, like, the reason I think that Democrats did so well is because Donald Trump was on the ticket. The reason why Republicans did better than we thought is because Donald Trump was on the ticket. And I think the question that we really don’t know the answer to right now, and is going to be the defining question of the next two years and four years, is who is advantaged more by Trump not being on the ticket, Democrats or Republicans? Who’s, I’d say, who’s disadvantaged less, I guess is actually a better way to look at it. The question is will Republicans turn out, you know, in 2022 and 2024 if Trump isn’t on the ticket? And my guess is they won’t in the same numbers, but will Democrats be as motivated to come out and vote if they don’t have to vote against Trump? I mean 2018 and 2020 I think should be seen as backlash elections against Trump. That’s what defined American politics since 2016, 2017. It was basically Democrats coming out in big numbers because of Trump.
Jonathan: Do you think Trump is on the ballot in the Georgia Senate runoffs?
Michael: No, I don’t. But I think socialism is on the ballot and that’s probably a more powerful argument than, you know, we’re going to get the filibuster and we’re going to, you know, pass a Green New Deal or pass healthcare reform. I mean, unfortunately, I think the negative argument is going to play out a little more effectively than the positive argument in the Georgia Senate race. So I’m pretty pessimistic that Democrats are going to win either one of those two seats.
Betty: When you’re talking, Michael, about 2018 and 2020 being backlash elections, what I hear is this is about reactivity. You know, that we’re voting against Donald Trump rather than we’re voting for Joe Biden. You know, this is the resistance of both sides, this polarization. I mean, this is the challenge that I’m seeing from micro to macro, meaning from the one to one to the societal is how do people bridge this? You know, I mean, you guys are observers of this split. And we’ve been talking about divisions for months, if not years. You wrote about it in Clear and Present Safety that this was a threat to security because, you know, the United States is a less healthy democracy, which it absolutely is because of this polarization. You can’t do anything, like we’re already anticipating gridlock. But how do you see this as being bridged as an observer of politics, or is it something that you’ve considered?
Michael: I don’t think it’s going to be bridged. That’s the thing. I just don’t, I mean, I hate to be so pessimistic, but, you know, the best hope I think Democrats had was to win back the Senate and to make a bunch of systematic changes that would allow for a more democratic political system. And I don’t think that’s going to happen. You know, maybe in 2022 Democrats can pick up some Senate seats, they have a better map than Republicans do. But, you know, I’m not overly optimistic about that either. My Sunday column was basically making the argument that the election shows that this is a center left country. Seven of the last eight presidential elections have been won in the popular vote by Democrats. You know, that’s never happened before in American politics, ever. There’s no precedent for that.
Over and over again, Democrats win the popular vote, but because of the structural impediments to governing in this country, they have only only won the presidency five of those times. And, you know, the reality of this is that it’s not just a question of, like, the Electoral College disadvantages Democrats, the Senate disadvantages Democrats. You know, the entire political system. Somebody asked me like a while back, like, what’s the one change that you would make in the American political system? And I said I’d get rid of the Senate. That’s the one change that I would make. I’m serious and that would be the best thing you could do in American politics, to get rid of the Senate.
Jonathan: I just want to get rid of McConnell.
Michael: That’s fine. And I understand that.
Betty: Michael wants to take it one step further.
Michael: He’s a terrible person. But I, you must, exactly, get rid of the Senate. That would mean real change.
Betty: I mean, it’s the same as the Electoral College in the sense that it prioritizes or privileges minority rule like–
Michael: Yes, that’s exactly right.
Betty: You’ve got two senators from every state, no matter what the population is, which is really crazy when you think about California and New York as having the same Senate representation as Rhode Island and, you know–
Michael: Or Wyoming, which has less than a million people.
Jonathan: There’s no good argument in favor of anti-democratic structures or principles, right. I think everyone knows that. There were rationalizations, there were justifications for the Electoral College and for the Senate. But those are long since relevant.
Betty: And yet, as a realist, you know, because I argue from, you know, work from this position of Buddhism, not in a religious sense, but more in a philosophical sense, if we don’t deal with reality, then we go nowhere. So reality is this. How do people work to deal with this minority rule? How do we start to seek out the cracks in the pavement or seek out the bridges that are available to us, even though, as you say, Michael, on a national level, it’s not going to change. Okay, but, you know, do we then just stare and get stuck or freeze? And then–
Jonathan: And that’s a big question. So let’s cut to the break. And when we come back, let’s talk about how we bridge.
Jonathan: Okay, so now we’re back. Michael, how do we bridge?
Michael: I wish I had a good answer for you on this one and I just don’t. I mean, I’m sorry. I think sometimes, like you said a second ago, you have to sort of accept reality as it is. And I think there’s an uncomfortable reality that we have to consider, which is that at the end of the day, 70 plus million Americans thought that Trump should have four more years in office. And, you know, I saw a lot of people sort of criticizing Democrats for not doing a good enough ground game, not doing enough messaging. And I think those are certainly criticisms to be made. But at the end of the day, the voters do have a responsibility here. And the voters decided, many of them, particularly in red states, that they were okay with the way things are going in the country. They were okay with having a manifestly incompetent, you know, narcissist as president.
And, you know, I think about, I’m really kind of obsessed with, like, the Montana Senate race, which is, shows you just sort of how fun I am at parties. But this is a race in which, you know, the Democrats thought they could win and they recruited Steve Bullock, who’s the governor who’s won three times in a state, you know, what’s a red state. He, you know, raised a ton of money, more money than his challenger, and he lost by 10 points. And he, you know–
Jonathan: And he wanted to be president.
Michael: He wanted to be president. Yes. He couldn’t win the Senate race. And I think–
Betty: Yeah, what about that?
Michael: He did better than, so Jon Tester is the Democratic senator there now. He won two years ago for reelection to his third term. He won by about two and a half points. I mean, both did better than him in this election and both did better than Biden. He, I think he, the biggest gap between a Senate candidate and Biden, at least on the positive side for the Senate candidate, was in Montana. But the problem is that Republicans brought out about 75 thousand, 80 thousand voters more than they had in 2018. And I am convinced that that’s because of Trump. You know, and I look at something like South Carolina where, you know, everyone thought, oh Jamie Harrison’s got a chance. He lost by 10 points, almost identical to the margin that Biden lost by. At the end of the day, people said I’m voting with the if there’s an R or D next to their name and I’m not going to split my ticket. And it’s hard, I don’t know how you get past that if you’re Democrats. I don’t know how Democrats, if Steve Bullock can’t do well in a red state like Montana, who the, who’s going to do well there. I don’t know the answer to that.
Betty: And yet, like, the split ticket, which you did write about with Susan Collins and Biden in Maine, how does that work?
Michael: Okay, so I usually try to answer every question. I have no idea. That is the most bonkers result in this selection. Biden won Maine by nine points and then she wins by nine points in the Senate. It’s crazy.
Betty: And they predicted that she would lose.
Jonathan: Look, Sara Gideon didn’t run a great campaign, you know, and–
Michael: Maybe, yes.
Jonathan: And Susan Collins is, you know, sort of a Senate stalwart. And I don’t think we draw a trend out of–
Jonathan: Except for the fact that incumbency is damn powerful.
Michael: Well, as my colleagues at the Globe who cover Maine politics, basically they summed it up as basically saying Maine is weird. So that’s kind of why she won. I don’t mean it as a criticism if anyone from Maine is listening, and it’s not a criticism of the state, they just have idiosyncratic politics and they like to split their ticket and they like to be independent. And this gave them a chance to do that–
Jonathan: Even at the presidential electoral college level, they split, so–
Michael: That’s right, that’s right. They’re big into splitting. They’re big into splitting.
Jonathan: Michael, I want to shift for a second, if we can, from this moment of presidential politics to backtrack just a second to your last book, because I’ll come back to the present, but here’s my question. So you wrote Clear and Present Safety, an argument for why this world has never been in a more secure or safe, better place in the history of the world. It’s a great book. I enjoyed it. And then the pandemic happened.
Jonathan: You wrote pre-COVID about a lot of issues that we were struggling with in this past year in this country and in the world and issues that were thematic in this election. I guess what I’m wondering is if you were to rewrite the book today, what would the prologue be to the next edition of the book?
Michael: Okay so, the big thing I would say about that is that I would have included more in the book about the threat from pandemics. That’s what I would have added more on. But the key argument of the book was that Americans are scared of the wrong things. They’re scared about terrorism. They’re scared about nuclear weapons. They’re scared about Russia and China and North Korea, when in reality they should be scared about the fact that their healthcare system is terrible. They should be scared about the fact that they are politically polarized. They should be scared of the fact that we have too much gun violence and too much drug overdose deaths. And so pretty much everything that’s happened, unfortunately, for the past eight months, has confirmed that argument. It really has. I mean, the key thing was that we, the problems that we have are at home. They’re not overseas.
And yes, I understand the pandemic came from overseas, but many countries in the world figured out a way to deal with the pandemic and we didn’t. And why? Because we don’t have a health care system that can adequately respond to it. We are politically paralyzed so we couldn’t respond to it. And you know that, to me, that’s the, and we have an ethos that says we shouldn’t use the government to help people in times of need, which we are seeing right now play out across the country. So I think that unfortunately, you know, we’re going to spend half a trillion dollars on defense, more than that, way more than that this year, when by far the biggest threat we’ve ever faced as a country came from a virus and not something you can shoot down with a missile or something you can shoot down, you can, you know, a tank can take it on. And we were not ready for that. So that’s, I mean, I think to me, it confirms the argument.
Jonathan: But during this election cycle, we’ve seen that even a virus can become politicized and that wearing a mask has become a political signal. So–
Michael: Yeah, we made a big point of the book in saying polarization was a big threat to America. And I think this has proved it, this election.
Betty: Yeah. And in the book, you talk about national security as being this distraction and that really we want to think about human security.
Betty: And I wonder if security, and in our definition of security in different parts of the country, is what this election was about, like a way to read this. Like people see security as I want to have my freedom and I want to be able to not wear a mask or I want to be able to carry firearms. Security as a feature, I think psychologically, is interesting because it’s one of our basic needs. We all want to be safe. When we feel a threat to our physical selves, we react in all sorts of ways that we can’t even be totally conscious of. So I don’t know. I wonder what you think about that, Michael.
Michael: I mean, I’m just, sort of, spitballing here a little because that’s a great question and I haven’t thought about it. But one thing I would say that comes to mind is I think for a lot of people, security and identity have become somewhat conflated in the sense that after 2016, a lot of people talked about, you know, identity politics was a problem for Democrats, and I think what we’ve seen of the last four years, identity politics is so much stronger on the right than on the left. And it’s white identity politics. And I think I viewed in his, Trump’s rise, in a lot of respects, of white Americans feeling scared about, sort of, larger cultural changes in the country and wanting to resist those changes. And I think a lot of the problems that we have are about that fundamental conflict.
You know, I mean, I think the things about masks and not wanting to wear masks and it’s my freedom to wear masks is really more about I don’t want the government telling me what to do. I want to live, and not even just about like I don’t want government mandates. I don’t like where the country is going and if I give too much power to the government, then they’re going to take my power away somehow or take my influence away as a white person. I don’t, I have to think this out a little bit more, but I think there’s some kind of conflation there between identity and security. I don’t know, Jonathan, tell me if you agree with that. That’s kind of what I was, I mean, I think that’s a great question, by the way, and it’s something worth thinking about.
Betty: I think identity for people in a psychological sense is security. So if you take down my selfhood, then you sort of annihilate me. So I think this is maybe where the flex point is.
Jonathan: Well, first of all, I was just thinking about how heads must be exploding all around the Trump universe then, because between the between a woman vice president, a black vice president, an Indian vice president, and a Jewish second gentleman, a lot of glass ceilings were just broken and identity is split wide open once again. But I think, Michael, you’re probably right. It looks like Trump gained among whites, including white women, which, you know, go figure. It’s hard to even fathom that that is true. And this happens in the midst of, I should say, the Black Lives Matter ascendancy and the importance of this issue. It’s been in people’s faces and rather than seeing Black Lives Matter as a unification against an injustice, it is seen as a challenge to the lives of others, right. Black Lives Matter–
Michael: I’m going to disagree with you on this one. I’m going to disagree with you. And I–
Jonathan: Please go ahead.
Michael: We need to give white people some love. I really think we do. And I’m serious about this. If you look at what happened this election, the story of this election is black and Hispanic Americans not coming out in the same numbers as we expected for Biden and voting for Trump and the election being won in white suburbia. Okay, I take, for example, Detroit in Michigan, okay–
Jonathan: And Philadelphia too. Absolutely.
Michael: In Michigan, in Wisconsin, in Pennsylvania, in Florida, in Texas, in Georgia. I saw some number earlier today that there was a 10 percent increase in support for Biden in Atlanta proper. There was a 20 something percent increase in the suburbs outside. Now, I realize suburbs are much more diverse. I shouldn’t say white suburbia, like, as if all people in suburbs are white, but the majority usually are. In Michigan another example. In Detroit, Trump actually did better than he did four years ago, if you can believe that. The big source of votes for Biden came in Oakland County, which is just north of Detroit, which is about 75 percent white. In Dane County in Wisconsin, Biden got more votes there, relative to Clinton, than he did in Milwaukee. So, I mean, more increase in both, I should say. So I think that I disagree a little bit. I do think that one takeaway from the election is that the Black Lives Matter movement and the racism of Trump, there was a backlash amongst lots of white Americans, white males with college education Americans. But I think there’s even some evidence that Biden did better than Clinton did among white, non-college educated Americans. So I do think we should be looking at a positive note.
Jonathan: Well I, look, the electorate expanded, right. We had more people voting than ever before and so that threw off some of the dynamic, but Trump increased his share of white vote and white women vote. And while–
Michael: We don’t know that for sure, though, because we don’t know the exit, I don’t think we know for sure because the exit polls, I don’t know how accurate they really are. But I’m sorry, but you may be right about that. You may be right about that.
Jonathan: Okay, so we’ll stipulate. There’s still some data out there and no doubt there are plenty of white people who probably said, you know, we’ve had enough and this has gone too far and we have to dial this back, right. It was a repudiation of Trump in that regard. But at the same time, if you look at the factors that were driving Trump voters, aside from the the argument that somehow if they believe Trump is better for the economy, this argument about the looting and the rioting and the crime in the cities that was going on around what was largely peaceful demonstrations was a huge driver, right. People were concerned about socialism. They were–
Michael: I don’t know about that.
Jonathan: –concerned about the violence in the cities.
Michael: I don’t, you know what, but I think–
Jonathan: Well, not big enough because he didn’t win.
Michael: Well, that’s the point, though, right? I mean, if you look at Biden’s support among black and Hispanic voters, if based on those numbers alone, he would not have won, especially when you take into account the increase in vote totals, as you pointed out, that Trump got. So where do those additional votes come from that allow him to beat, and it came from mainly white college educated voters. I mean, some, I think, non-college educated, but mostly white, college educated voters. Whether that’s sustained, I don’t know. But I think it’s a pretty positive sign for Democrats that they were able to, you know, persuade a lot of voters who maybe didn’t vote for Clinton in 2016 or maybe stayed home in 2016 or, you know, just didn’t vote in general and come out and support their candidate.
Betty: And I think what you’re both saying is something that goes beyond maybe politics is that, you know, whatever you may say, people of color, white people, they’re not monolithic. And–
Michael: That’s right.
Betty: So I think there’s more to be read as to the people who did vote for Trump, white women, in where did they vote? Like what was their socioeconomic background and to bind what you were saying, Michael, like the identity politics, meaning who felt threatened, where, and how, in terms of their identity? Who felt like I’m going to have my way of life taken away from me? And it might offer a different kind of a story, because if your selfhood is under stress, which it is for many different reasons right now, but you’re going to put it on somebody, which is why I think, Jonathan, the looting and the rioting became overblown, partially because of the media, but also when people need something to hang on to, they’re going to go to that, whether it was truly a thing or not. Like it’s that thing that one of our guests, Robert J. Lifton, talked about, which is the narrative need of people, meaning people have a psychological need to, and that’s why they attach to Trump. They didn’t care whether he was saying fact or fiction because he gave them a reason to feel like they were viable in a time–
Michael: And they were recognized.
Betty: Exactly. Exactly.
Michael: And validated.
Michael: I want to point to what you said, I agree with all of what you said, but there’s an interesting Miles Coleman who’s at Crystal Ball, he put this map out on Twitter that was fascinating that showed that the vote shift in some of the northeastern counties above sort of the suburban counties in Pennsylvania, sort of white working class counties. And the vote shift was almost completely congruent with education levels. There was, so the more educated the community was, the more likely they were to vote for Biden. The less educated, the more likely they would vote for Trump. And so I think in a way, you’re seeing education become this really pretty clear dividing line. Now, that’s someone, you could argue well that’s, you know, lots of reasons why that’s the case. I think it has to do with economics.
Michael: If you don’t have a college education, your chances are, your job prospects are worse. And at least, I mean, and for both white and black Americans–
Betty: And you’re in a vulnerable position of stress.
Jonathan: How do you figure that Biden won folks earning 100 thousand dollars and less?
Michael: Because that’s mainly African-American, right. That, I mean, Clinton did the same thing in 2016. She won more of them than Trump did because those are largely minority voters. And so–
Jonathan: It certainly takes the air out of the argument that Democrats are a bunch of coastal elitists who are drinking cappuccinos, right.
Michael: It does.
Betty: Well, it also highlights the issue of economic disparity, which you did write about, Michael, like you said, that the economic disparity was a stressor in American democracy. And so is that something that we can address in a different way rather than deal with gridlock, which is unaddressable, really?
Michael: Well, but I think it, you know, there’s something that’s sort of relative to this. If you’re, I mean, black Americans tend, there’s a great study about this that black Americans, even if they’re worse off than white Americans, have been more optimistic about the economy because they come from a lower relative point. So they view their success in greater terms than white Americans do, who may have just been treading water or even declined. And so I think a lot of this is identity politics for black Americans, their identities wrapped in the Democratic Party, especially for black women, they’re very much conflated. I think, for white Americans, their image is, their identity is conflated with the Republican Party. But I do think that white Americans, black Americans might both be poor, or might both be lower class, but look at their relative position in very different terms. And I think that is a crucial, crucial difference in how we think about our economic opportunities in this country.
Jonathan: Where do you think the issue of gun control factored? Because it was not mentioned in the election, like it was barely, barely mentioned and pre-pandemic, gun control was still an issue.
Michael: I don’t think any policy issue really mattered in this election. I really don’t. I don’t think anything mattered. I think it all came down to whether you were with Trump or against Trump. That’s been my view from the beginning and I stick to that. I don’t think any policy issue mattered. I don’t think the debates mattered. I don’t think the conventions mattered. Maybe along the margins, sure. But in general, I don’t think anything really mattered more than, I don’t think even COVID mattered all that much, to be honest. I really don’t. I know it sounds crazy to say that, but, you know, Biden led every poll this year, every poll headed back to the fall of 2019. You know, the margin expanded because of COVID possibly. But, you know, there may have been a backlash from people who were pissed off about all the closings and pissed off about the economy being, not doing so well because of COVID. I think at the end of the day, none of that stuff really mattered all that much. I know that sounds crazy to say it, but I think that’s the case.
Jonathan: I think you’re probably right about that. I mean, COVID might have been a motivator for those who believed in healthcare for all, it might have been a motivator for Trumpist who are using COVID as an excuse for the economy going down. But either way, it was in reaction to Trump. It was not about COVID itself.
Betty: And it’s interesting. He goes out as he comes in making it all about him. And I think that that is a mark of his psychopathology, frankly, that he sucks the attention of every person, right or left. People could not stop watching him either in support of him or to make sure he doesn’t blow things up, you know, even further than he already had. His outrageousness just dominated, maybe to his own self-destruction, which is to your point, Michael, earlier, that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He is like a temper tantruming child.
Jonathan: So maybe the pivot here is that we’re going from a presidency about personality to a presidency that’s actually about policy. What do you see as the future? Joe Biden is not a personality president. He’s not a personality politician. He’s about policies for people. So what would–
Michael: Disagree again.
Michael: Because I actually think that the advantage that Biden brought to the table was his personality, was that he is seen as a good and decent man.
Jonathan: Oh, an empath, absolutely. So he brings trust, stability, confidence, that we have–
Jonathan: –a professional. Yes, absolutely. He’s an empath. But now going forward, that got him here and now he’s got to govern.
Michael: That’s the hard part. And the thing is, I think what it comes down to is results. You know, I think that, at the end of the day, if the economy is doing better in four years, I don’t know if he’ll be on the ticket in four years, but I think it all comes down to results. And that’s why I think it’s so disappointing that, you know, Democrats could have engineered a situation in two years where the economy is doing great and COVID had largely gone away, maybe they can get the latter one with his Pfizer announcement, but the former might be a little more difficult to pull off. Although, you know, the one thing I’ll say that Biden has going for him is that if this vaccine is real and if it can be rolled out next year, you will see people’s lives getting better and you will see the economy improve.
Betty: Yeah, movement will happen.
Michael: Not much that should improve, but it will improve. And I think that could bode well for Biden and that’s what I think he’ll be judged on. You know, did he get rid of COVID? Did he improve the economy? Those are the things that politicians are usually judged by. Now, Republicans won’t give him credit no matter what he does, right. But will he keep the voters who this time turned out for him? You know, possibly, possibly.
Betty: Michael, one of the things you said earlier on was that you’ve taken a break from politics this week, which as a political columnist, that is pretty significant because I’m going to take that–
Michael: I mean, it’s not a total break, but you know.
Betty: But no, I mean, I think that that’s healthy. I think that this has been a very, very intense and overwhelming time. And I have been counseling my patients to take a news diet from four years ago. And I think that that’s absolutely the case for professionals and amateurs alike. For those of us fixated on what’s been going on. You know, how are you going to maintain your equilibrium once you get back into it for real?
Michael: It’s a great question. I don’t know. I think that a lot of what fueled the things that I wrote about the last four years was outrage, was anger and frustration. And, you know, I was sort of honored to have and humbled to have a platform where I could express those ideas to people. I imagine that I will still be outraged by things. That’s–
Betty: That’s inevitable.
Jonathan: Safe prediction.
Michael: But when you write about, exactly. That’s right, that’s right. It’s inevitable when you write about politics. It’s inevitable when you’re me, frankly, like this is the thing if I’m being honest about it.
Betty: Political columnist, voice of outrage.
Michael: Right. But I think there’s a different kind of outrage. There’s the outrage you feel when you find out, when you hear that kids are being locked in cages, that’s a real outrage. But when Mitch McConnell is blocking legislation, I will be outraged, but it’s not the same kind of, you know, and I think I felt this way the last couple of weeks of this real sense of hopelessness, not hopelessness, helplessness. You know, that COVID numbers are going up, that Trump’s making it worse, nothing’s getting better. And you just feel like, how can this go on? And so I don’t know that I’m going to feel that sense of helplessness and that’s a pretty good feeling to have, I think, in terms of politics.
Jonathan: That is a fantastic upbeat to end on.
Michael: Glad I could give you a kicker there at the end, yeah.
Betty: Thank you so much for joining us.
Michael: That was a pleasure. I really enjoyed the conversation. It was a lot of fun.
Betty: Thanks for joining us on this episode of Mind of State. If you like this episode, you’ll find plenty more on Apple podcasts or anywhere else you get your podcasts.
Jonathan: You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at Mind of State Pod. Our website is MindofState.com.
Betty: Mind of State is produced by Alletta Cooper and Jenny Woodward. Special thanks to our co-founder Thomas Singer. I’m Betty Teng.
Jonathan: And I’m Jonathan Kopp. Join us next time on Mind of State.