Thursday, June 11, 2020

History's Nasty Bite. . . .

Iv'e never been a triumphalist. Perhaps, somewhere deep inside I'm too superstitious. Fortuna's wheel can turn against you on a dime and certainly doesn't need any temptation to thwart your plans or wishes. Some people, of course, are triumphalists for a living, such as political media professionals. They have to continually talk in triumphant terms to project a sense of confidence. But, other than such professionals, I've noticed that the smarter people are, the less likely they are to speak in triumphalist terms. It appears to me that competent people are more likely to be cautious about potential outcomes, and less likely to talk boastfully about their victories. Such people are probably seldom caught in a psychological state of superstition, as I suspect I am. Rather, I think they are keenly aware that overconfidence tends to lead one to make mistakes, and boastfulness alienates potential allies. 

On the other hand, I've also noticed that people with little analysis (or to be less polite, stupid people) are often wildly triumphalist and nauseatingly boastful. And in politics, this correlation appears to be even more pronounced. I don't think I noticed this connection until later in life. This oversight is, I think, in part because I really tried to avoid listening to what rightwingers were saying, unless they were particularly bright and needed to be listened to for strategic reasons. However, the internet put an end to my ignorance fairly quickly because it is simply difficult to avoid the most rattled, shockingly ignorant opinions out there. I came late to the party and wasn't particularly struck by this rightwing triumphalism of ignorance until it looked like Justin Trudeau was going to run for the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. Everywhere I looked, Conservatives seemed downright giddy about the prospect of Trudeau leading the Liberal Party. They were so happy with the prospect that they kept talking in child-like triumphalist terms, saying things like "Please, please, please make Trudeau the leader of the Liberals because then the Conservatives will have the biggest majority in history." Now, I've never been a Liberal and the people I have voted for have, literally, never won an election. But I try to be as objective as possible about what might happen politically. And it seemed to me, at every objective level, that Trudeau was going to be a very popular candidate for the Liberals. He was young, personable, attractive and friendly - particularly when set against the Conservative incumbent, Harper, who was objectively (regardless of your politics) older, secretive, stand-offish, decidedly unfriendly, and (by most standards) less attractive. The distinction was so clear that I even cautioned many rightwingers online that their triumphalism was dangerous to their political goals and that underestimating a formidable opponent was a classic political mistake. The blinder and less informed these people were, the more they seemed to relish in facing a Trudeau-led Liberal party in the election. We all know the outcome of this story.

But no one is more triumphalist than the followers of a populist leader. And among this group, surely none are so wildly optimistic as Trump supporters. I can't tell you how many times I've seen Trump supporters on film or online bragging about the LANDSLIDE victory that Trump is going to have in the November election. And I really think most of them believe it. This phenomenon mystifies me. There have certainly been presidential elections that we can fittingly call "landslides," but many presidential elections are close run affairs. Even John Kennedy, who was a very popular president, only won election by less than one percentage point over Nixon. And, of course, because they have the antiquated Electoral College in the US, presidents can win the election while simultaneous losing the popular vote. I believe only five people have ever lost the popular vote and then won the election, two of them in my life time (George W. Bush, and Trump). And Trump's loss of the popular vote was by far the largest for anyone who then won the electoral college. In fact, there is really no comparison. Trump lost the popular vote by over 2.8 million votes. The next in line of infamy of minority victors is George W. Bush who lost by a mere 500k. Now, putting aside elections with strong third-party candidates, we can safely say that Trump is, in terms of pure numbers, the least popular man to win the White House. Hardcore Trump supporters who live with aluminum foil hats will, of course, deny this fact and scream about non-existent voter fraud etc. But let's live in the real world.

Thus, putting aside the real whackos, what would ever lead someone to a level of triumphalism to say that Trump is going to win by a landslide? Particularly given that Trump is the only president (since modern polls began) to never register above the 50% mark in popularity. Now, don't get me wrong - Trump could still win the next election, though it is hard to imagine, without some wildly unpredictable event, him winning the popular vote at this point. In fact, the only president who lost the popular vote and then went on to win a second term was George W. Bush, and his second election was by no means a landslide. And even though Trump is going up against someone who is, I think, a fairly poor candidate from an objective point of view (given his age, his baggage, his hapless tendencies, and corporatism at a time when the Democratic rank and file are leaning more to the left), I think there is almost no chance for Trump to win the popular vote. And, keep in mind, even to win the Electoral College vote Trump has to essentially get, at the very least, every vote he won last time (no easy feat for a president who has never broke the 50% mark of popularity and is arguably the least popular president since, at least, Herbert Hoover). Hoover, by the way, lost his second term election by an incredible %17 margin!

For now, given the potential company, I'm going to stick with my avoidance of triumphalism. Other than saying that  Trump probably won't win by a landslide, I don't know what the outcome of the next election will be. And, I will try to remember that it is hard to underestimate the intelligence of the American public. Meanwhile, I will watch the rightwing triumphalists and think, "be careful, history can turn on you when you least expect it." 

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