In much the same way that a charming children’s song becomes creepy if an orphan sings it in a horror movie, a quote that’s been bouncing around my head these past few months has gradually morphed from optimistic to ominous. I can’t remember where I first read it—in a book of quotations probably, or a card, or a calendar—but it’s this line from Maya Angelou: I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
And that, to me, is the most important thing I’ve learned about politics in all of 2020.
As someone who never liked Donald Trump, not even when he was doing cameos in ’80s movies, I’ve tried really hard to understand what someone else might like about him. From a policy perspective, I saw right-wing judges and deregulation. From a spectacle perspective, he’s a relentless entertainer, and his racism and sexism have the illicit thrill of the politically incorrect. In his 2016 campaign, he had an incisive critique of the Democratic Party’s neoliberalism, as well as a plan, it seemed, for a kind of gonzo anti-capitalism. He was ready to go after big business on behalf of the little guy.
But then he didn’t. By the time Trump ran for reelection in 2020, he had amassed a fairly typical Republican record of tax cuts and anti-labor policies along with an unusual personal record of norm-breaking, vulgarity, and crime. He was, I thought, an unpopular standard-bearer for an unpopular set of policies. Maybe that would be enough to hold onto the hard-core devoted faithful who genuinely approved of his performance in office, but that, it seemed from polls (ah, polls), was only around 42 percent of the country. All we needed to do was unite the disapprovers in favor of someone else.
What I and many other people couldn’t see was that, in addition to keeping his old fans, Trump was, like any good multilevel marketer, building his #brand. He was out there winning new ones. We’re still waiting for all the votes to be counted and I’m wary of offering a hot take that will cool poorly, but the numbers suggest that he was able to sway millions of new American voters to his side.