On Feb. 26, 1993, Ramzi Yousef detonated a bomb under the World Trade Center, killing six, injuring over 1,000 and forcing the evacuation of more than 50,000 people. In the wake of the first terror attack on U.S. soil in living memory, a climate of fear overshadowed recovery of the site by the Port Authority.
The Port Authority brought in public relations experts to convince tenants and their employees that it would be safe to return. To near-universal objections, the public relations pros insisted on first taking 36 hours to interview survivors. Everyone knew the message survivors of a terrorist attack needed to hear – better security. And everyone was wrong.
Survivors saw it differently. They had found themselves holding hands in a chain of people feeling their way down countless steps in the dark, the stairwells filling with smoke. To return, they wanted assurances about updated lighting, ventilation, sprinklers, emergency power, evacuation and training. They needed to hear about better safety. Stressing building security, their secondary concern by far, would have talked past them and failed.
The empathetic dissonance of those in charge – their inability or refusal to recognize the life experiences, needs and concerns of their charges – is a recurring theme of history. The bread and circuses of Roman emperors, the let-them-eat-cake mindset of European monarchs, the learn-to-code attitude of contemporary mandarins. America was founded in a revolt against the detached rule of King George III. At times when the gap between the governing elites and the people has become intolerable, latent American populism has roused itself to fill the void.
Into just such a void Donald Trump famously descended on the golden escalator to announce his presidential bid. Candidate Trump recognized that for 30 years the people had been laboring in the economic stairwell of American life amid steadily deteriorating conditions of wage stagnation, withering industries and expatriated jobs. He sensed that the sharp recession under President George W. Bush and the anemic recovery under President Barack Obama – the worst economic performance since Hebert Hoover – had brought popular frustration with government to a boil.
On tax cuts, deregulation, fair trade and a crackdown on illegal immigration, candidate Trump spoke to working people and business owners about their greatest daily concern – making a living. His agenda struck a chord with Americans whose daily lives are governed by an immutable law; cover your cost of living and doing business or face financial distress, liquidation of assets and a remorseless deterioration of life for you and your family. The nightmare descent that is the yin to the yang of the American dream.
Trump understood the political implications of this prosaic reality – that the popular barometer of government is a gauge of the pressure it places on making a living. Regardless of one’s income, color of collar, race, religion, political or sexual preference, anything government does that raises costs and depresses income makes life more difficult, even scary. Anything that cuts costs and boosts income improves it. This Trumpian insight carried a political interloper to an improbable victory over scions of the Bush-Clinton dynasties and a cast of lesser Washington luminaries.
President Trump delivered on his promise to improve the economic lot of the American people. Unemployment fell to 3.5%, the lowest in half a century, with record-low joblessness among blacks, Hispanics and women. More than 7 million new jobs were created. People were able to make a living again and employees in a hot job market gained the upper hand in negotiating with employers.
On the cost side of the ledger, Trump cut taxes and the burden on average taxpayers fell by $1,400 which, together with increased pre-tax income, left an extra $5,500 in their pockets. He also slashed costly regulations, ordering federal agencies to eliminate eight old rules for every new one.
On the income side, the fastest wage growth in over a decade drove median household income up 6.8% to more than $65,000 – a new record. Young people (13.4%), blacks (7.9%), Hispanics (7.1%) Asians (10.6%) and people without high school degrees (9%) shared in the upside.
The most transformational experiences were at the bottom of the economic stairwell. A historically low poverty rate of 10.5% lifted up over 4 million people. Poverty among black Americans fell below 20% for the first time.
Opponents dismiss Trump’s economic record and insist that the election will be determined by his handling of the coronavirus crisis. Real-life experience suggests otherwise. According to Johns Hopkins, the coronavirus infected 9.1 million Americans, about 2.8% of the population. Of those infected, 230,336 unfortunates died, or 0.07% of the population. The empirical truth is that 97.2% of Americans have been unaffected by the virus, but everyone has been hit by the lockdown.
People were forced to sacrifice their livelihoods and pull their children out of school. Families, businesses and communities are suffering financially, educationally, socially, physically and emotionally. Mental health professionals have reported a surge in substance abuse, depression, domestic violence, and suicide. The refusal to acknowledge that making a living is a matter of life and death is the emblematic empathetic dissonance of the pandemic.
From the perspective of the vast majority, the election is likely to be determined not by COVID-19 the disease, but by COVID-19 the lockdown. Economic survival depends on resuming the life people led before the lockdown just eight months ago. The election offers them a clear choice: Joe Biden who advocates extended and even expanded restrictions or Donald Trump who stands for a return to work, school and civic life. A pick between lockdown and breakout.
The other existential hole card in this election is how millions of voters will react to the violent protests of 2020. An inexhaustive tally based on a review of multiple news accounts results in 44 cities that were hit by rioting with a total population of 33 million, not counting outlying suburbs. At least 19 died and countless others were injured, including police. Businesses and homes were looted and burned, with property damage estimates ranging up to $2 billion, the largest insurance event in history. People stuck in traffic and dining outdoors were attacked and menaced. The violence spread quickly to suburbs and even to rural towns.
Physical safety is the primary concern of all people. At a fundamental level, the election will test whether Americans fear anarchy more than the pandemic. The answer is suggested by the dramatic increase in gun sales during 2020, which includes 40% by first-time buyers. On the other hand, only 50% of people polled say they would get vaccinated against the virus. Voters anxious about violent civil unrest have a clear choice: Joe Biden, who says the protests are peaceful and sympathizes with those wreaking havoc. Or President Trump, who calls for law and order, pressures recalcitrant governors and mayors to take action, sends in federal agents and deploys the National Guard.
More broadly, the rioters’ assault on the American heritage has cast a fin-de-siecle pall over the election. Mobs have torn down statues, defaced monuments, burned flags and demanded the dismantling of American institutions. Historically, people afraid for their country look to strong leaders, continuity of leadership and a confident, reassuring vision. This does not bode well for Biden, who is obviously failing in body and mind. Even worse, he is waging an angry, gloomy campaign conjuring democracy on its death bed, a dark winter with the plague at every door and a looming climate apocalypse. Is this a winning message or advantage Trump?
Political, media and cultural narrators brush such arguments aside with the trope that the American people cannot stand the president’s brusque personality and harsh treatment of critics and opponents. But the Donald Trump running today is the same abrasive New Yorker who ran in 2016 – a spectacularly successful producer of reality shows who knows his audience and has tuned his rhetoric to popular disgust with the establishment of both parties.
The revulsion could hardly have waned in the peak political vitriol of the president’s first term. His willingness to fight back appeals to his supporters – a welcome change from the defensive crouch of the Republican establishment. Might at least as many people be offended by the unhinged acrimony toward Donald Trump as are put off by his tweets? More importantly, in the quiet of the voting booth or over a write-in ballot, will the president’s demeanor really trump the people’s concerns for their economic safety and personal security?
The conventional view is that the electorate is divided along partisan lines and the race will be determined by a sliver of independent voters in the battleground states. This analysis fails to take into account the disruptive effect of a candidate such as Trump, whose anti-elite populism appeals to disaffected voters of both parties. The remarkably high turnout of non-Republicans at Trump rallies – at some events over 20% of the audience – bears witness to this dynamic. As do polls showing the president gaining ground among blacks and Hispanics, with double-digit increases over his 2016 levels of support.
More than ever, the narratives of the political, tech, media and cultural elites are powerful influencers of public opinion. But in extreme times, the reality on the ground matters more. Today the American people are stuck in the stairwell of life, the building is burning and the foundations are being shaken. Voters in personal extremis are highly likely to change the electoral calculus of normal times. In 2020, so-called shy voters who conceal their choice from pollsters are not bashful, they are scared. And this November’s surprise will be that they are not just Republicans, but anxious Democrats and Independents too.
Andrei Bogolubov is a public relations expert and entrepreneur based in New York.