13 min read

Why is Biden Losing to Trump? Plus, Leadership and Politics in an Age of Collapse, & What Democracy Needs to Do Now

Why is Biden Losing to Trump? Plus, Leadership and Politics in an Age of Collapse, & What Democracy Needs to Do Now

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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  1. Donald Trump’s Pants-Pissingly Terrifying Plans for a Second Term (Vanity Fair)
  2. Trump versus Biden: what the rematch could mean for three key science issues (Nature)
  3. Biden’s State of the Union challenge (WaPo)
  4. Biden Needs to Stop Hiding (New Republic)
  5. What Brookings scholars hope to hear in President Biden’s 2024 State of the Union address (Brookings)
  6. Ghosting is ruthless. So why are we all doing it? (LA Times)
  7. Beyond Efficiency: A More Human Economics (IMF)
  8. Captive democracy (El Pais)

A big thanks to all you lovely people for joining me here!

Today, we’re going to begin with a question from the comments, which is on many many minds lately. It’s going to be long, painful, but maybe, hopefully, a little illuminating.

Nobody Should be Losing to…Donald Trump. So Why is Biden?

“Umair, please shed light on recent American polling finding that 40% of Americans believe Biden's policies PERSONALLY hurt them while the same percent believed they they were better off during the Trump administration (a million extra, needless COVID deaths, tax cuts for the rich, high inflation handed off to Biden, the death of Roe v. Wade thanks to 3 Trump appointed Justices). 

I can't believe it's all down to "messaging" because the GOP has NO accomplishments to tout. Are Americans just useful idiots? Are we that stupid/hateful/civically illiterate? More so than at any other time in our history? Why???”

I saw this poll too—I’d guess many of us did. Let’s talk about it. It’s OK to take this poll with a grain of salt—the sample size was pretty small. But for now, I imagine, it captures the sentiment behind Trump’s resurgence, and Biden’s lackluster showing. After all: nobody should be losing to Donald Trump.

So why is this happening? We’ll start big, and then zoom in.

What’s happened in the world over the last few years? Think about some of the macro-trends we often talk about. Now we’re going to use them.

  • There was a cost-of-living crisis, the sharpest in recent memory, that’s coming up on half-a-decade by now.
  • There was a pandemic, of course, that sharply dislocated economies and societies.
  • The mega-scale impacts of climate change begin to strike, raising costs and prices (think of insurance, for example.)
  • The world began to disintegrate, in terms of trade, economics, and international relations, as a nationalist slash authoritarian wave rose, which is a growing part of the reason prosperity’s slumping.
  • Generations now face downward mobility, from America’s Gen Z to China’s “lying flat generation.”
  • All of this is part of Big-P Progress, in the largest sense, going into reverse.
  • Those are all quantitative facts, by the way.

This is the world Biden inherited. We’ll come back to America in just a moment, but consider just that small set of macro-trends. It’s not even the complete list. And already you can see what a challenging situation we’re in. That’s an understatement—put it all together, and this is a turning point for us all, societies, nations, civilization itself.

Now think of the average person. What do we know about them? Are they somehow immune from the effects of all this? Of course not. Here are a few more macro trends.

  • Negative sentiments like anxiety, despair, and fear have soared off the charts over the last decade plus.
  • Trust in institutions, among societies, and between people is breaking down, in many places, catastrophically fast.
  • Pessimism is the predominant outlook in the world today, which is profoundly and sharply pessimistic.

These things aren’t coincidences. Of course they’re linked. The world is going haywire, and it’s affecting all of us. And that brings me back to Biden.

In my estimation, and if you grapple with the above, I think what’s happening goes like this. People blame Biden for “hurting them” because all of these negative trends are now accelerating. By contrast, the Trump years look relatively rosy and stable. There wasn’t a cost-of-living crisis then (never mind the concentration camps, I guess.) The mega-scale impacts of climate change had yet to arrive. Pessimism and distrust weren’t quite so rife and rampant. Never mind the concentration camps, I guess.

To the average person, even the recent past looks a lot rosier than right now, as we approach a capital-T civilizational level Turning Point. Think of a top spinning. And one can hardly blame them for feeling that way. We’re in what I call “The Modern Crisis of Being,” and that means that people’s well-being is flatlining or falling, as human progress itself goes into reverse, and…I’m coming to that 

But it’s sort of ridiculous to blame Joe Biden for all that.

The Age of Collapse, or Why This is a Turning Point in History

We’re in a tumultuous phase in history—far more so than we’re really understood yet. Scholars call it a “polycrisis,” and we’ve discussed that before. This is stuff that affects the world, from the cost-of-living crisis, to climate change making it worse, to progress and well-being going into reverse. 

And like I said, for that reason, it’s sort of ridiculous to blame Joe Biden for all that. Or any single leader, really. And yet that appears to be just what’s happening. People are looking around, seeing their lives stagnate, even decline, and feeling immensely disoriented, upset, and hopeless about it. 

Then they make a mistake, commit a sort of everyday, mundane, cognitive error. They turn around and blame the nearest democratic leader for it, who, in this case, is Biden. This isn’t a defense of Biden, or an apologia for him, by the way—we’ll come to criticism in just a moment. But the point is that when the world is melting down, and people around it are gripped by fear, anxiety, and despair, it’s obviously not just Joe Biden’s fault. 

So why is Biden being blamed by so many Americans for “hurting them”? Think about it. Right now, many, many people’s lives are indeed in tenuous shape. What else do we know? 70% of Americans feel “financially traumatized.” More than half of young people say they’re “completely overwhelmed, "numb, “paralyzed.” The average person’s living standards, especially in America, are going into free-fall. People even at the median—in the former middle class—are turning more and more to debt just to make ends meet. It’s a bleak picture, and even just a few years ago seemed better to many.

And in this sort of situation? What’s needed is leadership.

I know. People hate that word. It draws mockery and scorn. So let me summarize. The world is going haywire, things are going to hell in a handbasket, and people are turning around and blaming figures like Joe Biden for it all. Biden didn’t make that world, though, he just inherited it. It’s hardly his fault that a cost-of-living crisis struck the globe, or living standards fell, or progress itself went into reverse at a civilizational level. 

But it’s easy, and maybe, human, to point the finger of blame at the nearest democratic leader, in situations of desperation, and flee to safety in the arms of a screaming dunce. And yet in that moment, there’s a difference between “a leadership position, and “leadership.” 

Leadership (and Politics) in an Age of Collapse

What’s leadership? It’s about two things, in a rudimentary sort of way. Substance, and communications, or “messaging.” Substantively, Biden’s been a good President—with many accomplishments, some even striking ones, like an industrial strategy for America, a world first. Even if I disagree with him on Gaza and so forth, credit should be given where it’s due. But it’s not enough to be a leader, versus just fill a leadership position, to wave one’s hands in the air, saying “look what I did!”

That brings me to the “messaging,” or communications challenge, of leadership. You have to help people understand how things went so bad. Why. Enlighten them, teach them, help them understand. Without that, really, all is lost.

Now think about our side, the democratic one—versus the authoritarian one. What does our side do? It refuses to even acknowledge, too often, that things are bad. For many, maybe even most, people—which is certainly how they feel.

Meanwhile, the authoritarian side is out there making hay out of…the very world it’s making…go haywire. So for example Trump now bellows daily “America’s a third world country!” And in many ways, he’s right. Go to poor parts of the nation, and life expectancy’s dismal, not to mention maternal and infant mortality, not to mention diets, education, infrastructure, and so forth. 

And so of course people connect with Trump. They trust him, and even though the next part is the Big Lie—and it’s all the fault of women, gays, immigrants, who have you—the bond of trust makes him seem credible, even though he’s a fraud, cheat, liar.

People feel bad about the world these days. Cheated. Abandoned. Neglected. By the very figures they hoped, once upon a time, would lead them to better places. And when people feel that way, they need to be seen, heard, acknowledged, and then taught. 

What Democracy’s Side Could Do Better

What does that mean, in practice? Our side, the democratic one, does something truly strange, when you think about it. After failing to acknowledge how bad things are, feel, to people, there’s nowhere…to go. It can’t then explain the world to people. 

And say, for example: “Your life? I know it sucks right now. I know you’re feeling the pain. The pressure is immense right now—financial trauma, becoming relationship stress, turning into career pain, becoming lost generations and decades. It sucks. But you know what? These are problems that are affecting the world. All of us. Civilization. They’re not just our problems, or their problems, but collective ones. And so the only way that we can solve them is together.”

Then you delve into some of the macro trends, to really make it clear to people how their world has changed. What the source of all that pain and anxiety and fear is. That it’s not just theirs, but sort of a shockwave, pulsing across civilization itself. Then you can begin speaking to people in their adult minds again. Not just their terrified, panicked, regressed baby ones, which is how demagogues keep their masses so weirdly mesmerized.

Our side never does any of that.

Tonight, in the State of the Union, Biden’s going to…talk up the economy again. If you understand all the above, that’s not going to resonate. It’s going to fall flat. People don’t believe the economy’s doing that well for a very good reason. It’s not. What is an economy? GDP? Share prices? Corporate profits? Sure, all those are doing just fine, but that’s capitalism, literally, as in capital income. The economy is better thought of as people’s living standards, their well-being, and that is in sharp decline, especially in America, but also around the globe.

When you do that, what do you earn? When you tell people something’s great, in some abstract and theoretical sense, even though their experience is struggle, strife, and uncertainty? You earn their distrust. Their skepticism. You lose credibility. Who do they turn to? This is how Biden is losing to Trump. So while it’s not fair that Biden’s so unpopular, if you ask me, neither is the world.

Let me shade that in. Bidenomics, I’ll often repeat, is a wonderful thing—visionary, intelligent, wise. But it’s a long-term idea and strategy. It’ll take a decade to deliver. In a couple of years? The average person isn’t going to see much of anything. And so when Biden talks Bidenomics, the average person just sees crushing inflation, sky high interest rates, shrinking disposable income, and a future barely hanging on by a thread. Of course they roll their eyes at that.

This is terrible “messaging.” And whether we like it or not, messaging is a crucial part of leadership. As is understanding people—in a deep way, as in, how do they feel, and why do they feel that way? If you want to change an organization—and anybody that’s ever tried to do it knows—you can’t just give a speech, talk about how great your vision is, how much you’ve accomplished, and walk away. You need to delve into how people feel, and understand if they feel good about it. Yet. Otherwise, you’re not going to change much of anything. And if they lack confidence, if they’re still afraid, if they’re anxious, hesitant, tenuous—you need to address it head-on, and listen. Then explain, enlighten, educate, help them understand.

Are people idiots? It’s better to put it this way. Americans, of course, lean heavily conservative, in global terms. But hard times do strange things to people. The rational mind stops working very well. And asking people to be rational is a stretch in itself, because of course we don’t live in an ideal world, just a human mess. Put those two things together, and you have this wave of epic, head-exploding idiocy. The irrationality of hard times, driving people out of their minds. And in those moments, we must connect with people at a deeper people than mere rationality—through emotion.

That’s not some kind of sentimental appeal or trick. It’s just how the world is, what human nature is, and how we must approach building coalitions, or fail to gain relevance and meaning, and end up falling by the wayside, losing even political contests we should win. When the rational mind shuts down, you must connect at an existential-emotional level, or else fail to connect at all.

The Existential Despair of a World Going Haywire

Our side does none of this, and it’s killing us. This is why the authoritarian wave is so dramatically successful, even though it shouldn’t be—history teaches us time and again, after all, where it always ends, and so does grade school, by now. And yet here the world is, ignoring those very lessons. Why?

Because we are losing credibility. We lack trust. We are failing to connect with people. We can’t go on pulling a Biden—telling people things are great, when they’re not. Look around and tell me things are great in the world. Come now—a little forced, isn’t it? Tell me things are great for the average American. They don’t see anything like a fair share of that “growing” GDP, and barely 1 in 10 can afford to put money in that booming stock market, never mind young people, whose lives are in such sharp decline they’re traumatized. 

Things aren’t great! If they were, the world wouldn’t be turning to authoritarians in the first place. Think about it: in good times, people don’t turn to crackpots, lunatics, violent bigots. They happily and peacefully live their lives, mostly, focusing on work, family, hobbies—all that pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness stuff. 

So when waves of authoritarianism erupt, it tells us things are going wrong. Has there ever been a point in history when happy, cheerful, optimistic people suddenly turned to…Hitlers and Caesars and Trumps? Of course not. We have to hear this message. The democratic side is tuning it out, fingers in its ears, because we don’t want to hear it. It’s uncomfortable for us. It makes us ask hard questions. Do much harder work than policy and meetings, but actually understanding people, and connecting with them. But until we face this challenge, we are going to keep losing.

You think I overstate the case perhaps. Think about how rosy the predictions were for Biden not so long ago. Trump was finished. Biden would sail to victory. And now? All along, I tried to warn—people don’t feel good, and when people feel bad, you can’t just keep telling them, “but things are fine!” You need to start from where they are, and lead them.

Leaders, Demagogues, Scapegoats, and Masses

That’s what leadership is, after all. Our side is failing at that. Biden’s been a good President, but the problem is that he’s not accepted by Americans, at least enough of them, as a leader. Part of that is certainly because the media barely covers his accomplishments—but the harder truth is even that wouldn’t be enough, though it’d help. The world is going haywire, and people feel terrible about it. Being a leader—being accepted as a leader—begins by connecting with people at that level, their lived experience, how their lives are going, not just abstract indicators and theories or datapoints. The macro trends we’ve discussed, after all, are real.

The demagogues, sadly, end up as accepted as leaders for a simple and powerful reason. They connect with people’s pain and suffering, in these dire and difficult times. That’s just what Caesar did, for the starving, impoverished Roman. What Hitler did, for Weimar Germany. What Stalin did for the bewildered Russian. Our side is preaching to them a vision of the world that seems not just comedic, but worse, almost sinister: things are great. Hey, wait, why is my life falling apart? Why can’t I have a comfortable, stable life, despite playing by the rules? What about my kids?

So along comes a demagogue, blaming it all on innocent scapegoats, and before you know it, they’re Papa Trump, the Savior of Mankind—but only because they connected with people at that sort of existential level, first.

Our civilization is on the brink. We’re at a turning point in history, all of it, and maybe the biggest. What are our economies, if they’re not based on carbon and exploitation? What’s a social contract, if it’s not just “the strong survive, and the weak perish?” What’s a democracy, in an age where nature needs rights and constitutions, too? What about a society itself, if it’s not just some inheritance of blood and soil? Who’s going to survive the mega-scale impacts of climate catastrophe—and who’s going to pay the price? These are existential questions, and we’re in despair about them.

All of us. We might imagine that despair is just personal—hey, my life is going haywire, what do I care about the planet, democracy, society, etcetera? But all those things are connected, of course. A less democratic planet is a less prosperous one, with fewer possibilities, and life goes more haywire, in conflict, rage, and pain. A burning cinder of one is a far, far less prosperous one, pushed past the limit, economies reduced to negative-sum games. It’s all connected, right back to living standards, progress, civilization. 

Our side does a terrible job of explaining that to people. So poor it barely even tries. Can you remember the last figure who tried to teach people about all this? Was it maybe JFK or RFK? MLK? FDR, in his own way? That’s leadership. It’s always about the Big Stuff—pain and despair, togetherness and triumph, purpose and meaning, truth and progress. When we get back to that calibre of thinking, doing, feeling, being—then we’ll do better fighting the bad guys. But until we do? It’s going to be an uphill struggle, the way it is now. 

Thanks for the question, sorry for this absurdly long essay of a reply, and let me know (all of you) your thoughts! 

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