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21 October 2020updated 28 Jul 2021 5:38am

As the presidential election approaches, the US is still haunted by the shock of 2016

But this election is remarkable not for the ways in which it is like 2016, but for the ways in which it is different.

By Emily Tamkin

Perhaps the year would have taken on a ghoulish quality even if it were not to be concluded with a presidential election. We are, after all, in the grip of a pandemic – one spectacularly mishandled in the United States, which is now experiencing its highest level of Covid-19 infections since the summer. Many people are trapped in their homes, existing but hardly living, in a kind of weird and uncanny state of non-death. Others are forced to work in jobs that cannot be done from home, exposing them to the virus. The whole year has felt like a gothic horror.

According to the literary scholar David Punter, the gothic genre is one in which “the past can never be left behind, that it will reappear and exact a necessary price”. That captures something of the American mindset as we approach the presidential election on 3 November. The last election in 2016 was so shocking that it haunts the national imagination like a ghost. 

This is partly because, as the incumbent, Donald Trump is using much of the same rhetoric and material that he deployed as a candidate four years ago. The secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has defended calls by the president to release emails sent by Hillary Clinton, a throwback to the scandal over Clinton’s private email server four years ago. Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, gave the New York Post a hard-drive that supposedly contains embarrassing and compromising emails sent by Hunter Biden to his father, Joe Biden.

Some in the press asked Biden about the emails; others noted that in doing so they were demonstrating how little they had learned from 2016, when the story of Clinton’s emails was amplified into a national scandal and helped Trump become president. In 2016, candidate Trump would not say whether he would accept the results of the election; in 2020, President Trump will also not say whether he will accept the results of the election.

The haunting of 2020, then, is not subtle and chilling, but overt and alarming. Yet there is another, less obvious parallel between now and 2016: the polls. Biden is, at time of writing, polling significantly ahead of Trump nationally and in most swing states, including Pennsylvania and North Carolina. But Clinton, in October 2016, was polling ahead too; the New York Times gave her a 91 per cent chance of winning.

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To scroll through Twitter in the US is to see paid and armchair commentators saying that the polls, which in 2016 failed to account for Trump’s rural support, should not be trusted; this election might go the same way.

As I have written previously in this column, Trump could win on 3 November. I understand the idea that history is repeating itself; that we are, collectively, getting it wrong again and will have to endure four more years of Trump.

But this election is remarkable not for the ways in which it is like 2016, but for the ways in which it is different.

To focus, for example, on how Trump has once again threatened to ignore the election result is to ignore the new and more alarming ways he has jeopardised American democracy. He is the most powerful person in the US –and perhaps the world – and is using his position to sow doubt and discord throughout the electorate regarding the elections. He has cast aspersions about the legitimacy of voting by mail; he has called on his supporters (many of whom are armed) to observe the polls on election day, which could be heard as an incitement to intimidate voters. That is not history repeating itself; that is new and dangerous territory.

Similarly, focusing on the possibility of a silent majority for the incumbent, undetected by the polls, is to ignore that Trump, in 2016, was running as an outsider. Then, his campaign was an improbable challenge to the political status quo, one that spoke to, as Trump called them, the forgotten (white) men and women in the American heartlands. But Trump is no longer an outsider. If his supporters were once – as the US sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild described them –  “strangers in their own land”, they are now the most visible presence on the American political scene, exhaustively profiled by the media over the past four years. If they propel him to a second term, it will not be an upset, but a victory for a president who called on his supporters to win the culture war and a people who managed to entrench minority rule over the US.

There are also differences between now and 2016 that, while related to Trump, go beyond him. QAnon, an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that began in 2017, now has at least one believer running for Congress (she is likely to win). In 2016, when Trump ran a digital ad featuring Hillary Clinton’s face and what looked like a Star of David against a backdrop of a pile of money, it was a controversy. On 17 October, Giuliani said that opposition to Trump’s political project is led by the Jewish billionaire philanthropist George Soros because Soros wants to create a socialist country – the comment  passed with the day’s news cycle.

So, 2020 is not 2016. The candidates are not the same; nor are the acute levels of racism and white supremacy; nor is the voter suppression; nor is the role of the federal government; nor are the realities of voting, complicated by a pandemic; nor, if early voting numbers are any guide, will voter turnout be the same.

As Marx wrote in 1852, the past “weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”. But to focus on the ways in which history might be repeating itself is to miss the dangers unfolding around us now. It is tempting to follow the spectre of 2016 wherever it may lead. But chasing ghosts of the past will distract us from understanding the present, and of being cognisant of those threats that the republic faces in the near future. 

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This article appears in the 21 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Ten lessons of the pandemic