The Coronavirus Election

How the global pandemic has upended the race.

Posted Oct 20, 2020

Looking at cold statistics, it seems the Trump-Biden race in 2020 is where the Trump-Hillary race was in mid-October 2016. Hillary had an approximately 10 point advantage in national polls; Biden has an 11 point lead in several national polls.

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Democrats are rightly nervous and running scared, not taking anything for granted this time around in the battleground states. Former V.P. Joe Biden has been conducting scenic bus tours, long train journeys, and drive-in rallies throughout the countryside to avoid crowded settings due to coronavirus health guidelines, and to gather much needed suburban and rural voters.

President 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 where as many as 34 of his staff members may have been infected and his own diagnosis of two weeks ago, from which he claims 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.

Strapped for cash and short on time, the Trump campaign has pushed for herd-immunity at MAGA rallies to get out the vote (GOTV), which will likely lead to countless infections and many more deaths.   

Will the election of 2020 be a repeat of 2016? Probably not.

First, global 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.

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MAGA Rally
Source: David Todd McCarthy/Unsplash

Pope Francis likened the recent pandemic to “recent fires and floods,” a natural response to the world’s ambivalent reaction to climate change. He said, “There is an expression in Spanish: ‘God always forgives, we forgive sometimes, but nature never forgives.”

We are living through a global health crisis — a pandemic 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 WWI when the world had retreated from a global turning point into worldwide conflict.

Trump is seen as responsible for the mismanagement of the response to the pandemic, wherein almost 60% disapprove of his leadership, according to the polling website FiveThirtyEight. More than 220,000 people have perished, and signs indicate the surge will continue unchecked in the winter months. At this point, the President might as well be running against the novel Coronavirus as much as he is running against V.P. Joe Biden. In battlegrounds states like Florida, Wisconsin, and Arizona, the elderly and women voters are shifting away from him.

Second, Trump is no longer an outsider, a disrupter who railed 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 U.S. history.

 Obi Onyeador/Unsplash
Washington, D.C. is empty during the pandemic
Source: Obi Onyeador/Unsplash

Politifact reported on administrations with most indictments: "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; Clinton (Democrat) — 2.”

Trump supporters claim the “deep state” is out to get their chosen leader; the deep state is coded language for “the administrative state”, including the spy agencies of the U.S. Government (e.g., FBI, CIA, DNI). There are two systems of justice, claimed Rick Gates recently (a Paul Manafort aid, both of whom were indicted in the Russian interference case), one for conservative Republicans, and the other for liberal Democrats.

The country is deeply polarized at this time; ardent Trump supporters don’t believe the President contracted the coronavirus, which led to his hospitalization. “It’s all a hoax,” according to some rural voters even in a traditionally liberal state like Massachusetts, not to mention traditionally Republican states below the Mason-Dixon line.

We are living through one of those flagrantly “hyper-paranoid moments” in U.S. history, as described by Richard Hofstadter in 1964 when the rise of McCarthyism took hold of the American psyche. This time "the paranoid style of the American politics" is taking shape in the echo chambers of Fox News, right-wing talk shows, social media chat rooms, and alt-right websites. It is partly a reaction to the demographic changes at home and the forces of globalization 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 has been the subject 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 (e.g., CDC), the undecided voters may have either been completely misinformed or totally disgusted with their representatives in government. Or, they are simply lying to pollsters about their intent to vote for their chosen candidate, “the Bradley Effect.”     

In an October surprise revealed by the President’s personal lawyer Mr. Guiliani, former Mayor of New York City (just like Hillary Clinton’s emails were found on her aid Huma Abdin’s former husband’s laptop around mid-October in 2016, which led to Hillary’s downfall), the FBI is now investigating Joe Biden’s son’s contacts with Ukrainian and Russian officials on a laptop that was dropped off for repair at a computer shop in Wilmington, Delaware.

The U.S. intelligence agencies had warned the White House of a disinformation campaign against the Biden campaign months ago, where Russians were trying to influence Mr. Guiliani, but the White House ignored the warnings. President Trump had welcomed such help from foreign actors openly on the media airwaves and in several high-profile news shows on television, including on ABC with George Stephanopoulos.

At the town hall meeting on Oct 15th, which was held in lieu of the in-person town hall debate, the President declined to denounce Q-Anon, a conspiracy theory that claims that Democrats are running a pedophile 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, D.C., to personally investigate the human trafficking ring and fired three shots inside and at the pizzeria frequented by local families with children. Given the theory had been totally debunked, he didn’t find any sex-trafficking in the basement of the pizzeria, allegedly run by Hillary Clinton or her then advisor John Podesta. Yet the supporters for Q-Anon conspiracies have been growing on the Internet and spreading to right-wing groups in Germany and other locations.

Recently, the President also retweeted that Osama Bin Laden had actually not been killed; like Elvis, Tupac or Biggie, he is living large, incognito. The original tweet stated, “Biden and Obama may have had Seal Team 6 killed,” and that the man killed in the Obama-directed raid lead by Seal Team 6 was actually a body double. When asked by Ms. 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 Americans have embraced more outlandish conspiracy theories, it would be safe to assume the leadership style at the top both evokes and reflects the divided state of American politics 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,” “Black Lives Matter” movement, affordable healthcare, and women’s reproductive rights.

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Black Lives Matter
Source: Nick Sparkman/Unsplash

Finally, former V.P. Joe Biden has emerged in the media as the avuncular Mr. Rogers from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a public access TV show that epitomized post-civil rights tolerance, empathy, and racial harmony, apparently an anathema to groups affiliated with his opposition. Picking Senator Kamala Harris, as a V.P. candidate for the ticket, which most ethnic groups, especially, Black women and Asian voters see as a positive step, many Trump voters see as a regressive 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 multiethnic minority background from India (Portuguese/Goan Catholic from Southwestern India).

Yet, the support from the larger Asian and South Asian, Caribbean community, and the Black voting electorate seems to be encouraging, which may put Biden-Harris ticket over the top, unlike what happened with Hillary Clinton four years ago. Given race and gender are still one of the most animating forces in the minds of American voters, the choice of Senator Kamala Harris has been a huge plus for the Biden campaign.

I would even venture a retrospective analysis: If Hillary Clinton had picked someone like Senator Cory Booker four years ago (an African-American politician with a charisma to match Barack Obama's), who was on her V.P. short-list she could have carried the day in 2016, notwithstanding Mr. Comey’s letter 10 days before the election, which opened up another investigation on her email server. Alas, we will never know how that ticket could have panned out.

Biden-Harris Campaign
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris
Source: Biden-Harris Campaign

In any case, South Asian voters held a block-party on Oct 14th for “the Aunty,” Senator Kamala Harris, which I attended via Zoom. It included a star cast of actors and personalities in the Twitter-sphere and on TikTok: 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 have arrived as a serious force in American politics. This remains to be seen; as Aasif 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 2% of the overall electorate).

It will all depend on voter mobilization, who turns out the most voters on election day and in early voting during weeks leading up to Nov. 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 onto power, including confirming a Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, who might help overturn not only disputed electoral outcomes, but reproductive rights for women, Roe v. Wade, and the recent healthcare law, ACA or Obamacare, in the midst of a once-in-a-century global pandemic.