The Razor’s Edge

Bro Adams
15 min readNov 12, 2020

William D. Adams

ON THE EVENING OF THE DAY OF THE 2016 ELECTION, I left my office near the National Mall in Washington around 7 pm and walked to a restaurant in the Navy Yard, several blocks south of Capitol Hill and not far from my apartment. I had a quick drink and dinner before hurrying home to watch the election returns and the inevitable triumph of Hillary Clinton.

A faint shadow of doubt hovered just outside the edges of my happy mood. This was a presidential election, after all, and nothing was perfectly certain. But I was blanketed in the prevailing wisdom of the Democratic establishment in Washington that it would be very difficult for any Republican, never mind Donald J. Trump, to prevail in the electoral college. The blue wall. And then there were the polls and the predictive models, all pointing toward a decisive Clinton victory. As voting places closed in the eastern United States, The New York Times proclaimed that Hilary Clinton had an 82 percent chance of winning the election.

It did not take long for the shadow of doubt to become a major cloud and then a sinking feeling in the belly. Trump was declared the winner in Ohio around 10 pm, and Florida followed a few minutes later. And then, in quick succession, Utah, North Carolina, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. By midnight, the sinking feeling had turned to freefall. Finally, at 2:35 am, the Associated Press called the state of Wisconsin, and the presidential election, for Donald Trump. I was in total shock and disbelief. I turned off the television and went to bed, but all I could do was stare at the ceiling. I got up and watched the beginning of the post-mortems. The reporters on cable and network news channels looked utterly dazed and defeated. And worried.

Exhausted but restless, I decided to go to work. I walked up New Jersey to Independence Avenue, turned left at the Capitol, and headed down the Mall toward 7th Street and Constitution Center. Against the enormous eastern wall of the Capitol, work on the inaugural platform continued, with new and ominous significance. Traffic on the major streets was surprisingly light, more like a weekend than a frantic workweek morning. At the agency where I worked, colleagues trickled in slowly, and many opted not to come in at all. The mood was funereal.

In the weeks that followed, Washington was a weird, disoriented place. It was as if NASA had announced the discovery of an enormous asteroid heading directly toward the earth. Everyone knew that the end was coming, but in the meantime, life went on in a half-hearted, distracted way. Trump’s hastily organized transition teams eventually arrived and fanned out among the federal agencies. The air turned cold. The inaugural platform at the Capitol was finished and decked out with giant banners in red, white, and blue. The asteroid approached.

On the day of the inauguration, my wife and I got up early and walked the circumference of the National Mall. Busloads of ticket holders clogged adjacent streets and the Metro disgorged thousands of excited Trump supporters. As the ceremony began, we found ourselves behind the security fence between the Washington Memorial and the White House. From jumbotrons and giant speakers arrayed across the landscape, we occasionally caught snippets of Trump’s speech: “forgotten men and women,” “American carnage,” “winning again.” Steve Bannon’s audio balloons floating on the breeze above the Mall.

Later, when the gates reopened and the fences started coming down, we walked down the middle of the Mall toward the Capitol. It was nearing mid-afternoon. Near 4th Street, not far from the Grant Memorial, Marine One suddenly appeared above the Capitol dome, lifting the Obamas into their new lives. A lingering young male Trump supporter watched the departure with a snarky look of pleasure and contempt, waving goodbye with a raised middle finger. It was a stark reminder of how much the Obamas were hated in parts of the country.

The next morning, we met friends from out of town near the Supreme Court and donned our pink pussy hats for the Women’s March. Just as the day before, the Metro was clogged with enthusiastic participants, and busses rolled in from around the region and beyond. We walked down the Mall, now completely clear of inaugural fences and seating, hoping to hear the featured speakers. But the crowd was already immense, and we could not get anywhere near the platform. And so we kept on going, down the Mall toward the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool.

As the crowds continued to grow, spontaneous marches formed in the streets and headed off into surrounding neighborhoods. We fell in and eventually found ourselves passing by the White House, where a huge crowd was chanting and roaring and taunting the new occupants. Near the end of the afternoon, we found ourselves on 8th Street near Gallery Place, walking slowly downhill toward the National Gallery. In every direction and as far as we could see down Washington’s broad boulevards, great waves of people moved across the landscape, back and forth, up and down, in mesmerizing unison. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. At that moment, surrounded by so much defiance and outrage and hope, it seemed inevitable that the America on display in Washington that day would rise and reclaim the presidency four years hence. Donald Trump would then fade away like a bad dream, an unhappy but brief interlude in the haltingly forward progress of the country.

AS THE RESULTS OF THE 2020 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION unfolded on the evening of November 3rd, memories of 2016 lurked just beneath the surface of the night. It did not take long for them to reemerge, like ghosts.

There had been some good news earlier in the day. As with early voting, election-day turnout across the country was huge, and disruptions at polling places were few and far between. But as voting concluded in much of the eastern United States, it became clear almost immediately that there were problems with the last batch of pre-election polls, which consistently showed substantial, sometimes eye-popping Biden leads, both nationally and in the key swing states that would decide the election. Likewise, new states, red states, were thought to be in play for Democrats — Georgia, Texas, Arizona, Iowa. Pre-election polling also suggested that the Democrats had a good chance of retaking the Senate and expanding their advantage in the House. As in 2018, there was talk of a blue wave, even among Republicans.[1]

A very different reality now came into view. Trump was overperforming in key swing states — Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin — and some of the red states that were thought to be in play suddenly were not. The polling, apparently, had badly underestimated the extent and enthusiasm of Trump’s support in deep-red states as well as in contested states. The dreaded sinking feeling once again set in. How could the pollsters, chastened and reformed by 2016, have missed again? And what did that mean? About Trump? About the election? About polling? About the country?

My nervousness and dismay deepened as the evening wore on. The Associated Press called Florida, Iowa, Texas, and Ohio for Trump before midnight, and the margins in those places were not nearly as close as anticipated. And in Michigan and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, the races were extremely tight. I started to entertain the possibility that Trump might win, something that was nearly unthinkable only hours earlier. Shell shocked and depressed, my wife and I finished the no longer celebratory bottle of wine and went to bed.

This time I slept, though fitfully and briefly. I got up early and went straight to my phone. I was relieved to see that the picture had improved somewhat during the early morning hours. Biden had been declared the winner in Wisconsin, and he had carried the states of New Mexico and Colorado with impressive margins. Michigan looked a bit better, and Pennsylvania, too. Perhaps Biden would win after all. And yet, my anxiety and dismay from the night before were hard to shake. It now seemed clear that a Biden victory in the Electoral College, if it came at all, would be very narrow, and that it would take days, perhaps longer, to confirm. It did not help that Trump was already acting up, asserting fraud in Wisconsin and questioning the fundamental integrity of the election almost everywhere.

In this frame of rapidly contracting expectations, I also understood that what I had been so desperately wanting in this election was not simply a Biden victory, but a clear, resounding, and historic repudiation of Donald Trump. Unlike in 2016, when it may have been possible to imagine that Trump the president would be different from Trump the candidate, this time there was not a shred of doubt about who Trump was and where he wanted to take the country. During four long and troubling years, we had come to know intimately his personal pettiness, mendacity, and narcissism. We had seen how at every possible turn he chose to govern by driving sharp objects into the troubled regions of our national life, and in the process releasing our worst political impulses and emotions. Racism, xenophobia, and an angry nationalism were his primary instruments. Abroad, we had watched as the United States became an object of scorn, derision, and even pity. Meanwhile, Trump played the strongman, openly admiring and befriending fellow nationalists and populists around the world and weakening democratic processes and institutions at home. Against this distressing backdrop, the election was our best chance at redemption.

For me and many others, this hope for repudiation and redemption was the first and most important casualty of election night and the anxious days that followed. The popular vote in the country was on track to break records and it seemed certain that Biden would win that vote by a substantial margin. But the increase in turnout among Trump voters was virtually a mirror image of the increase among voters for Biden. Counts in key swing states — Michigan and Pennsylvania especially — were moving in Biden’s direction, but with agonizing slowness and razor-thin margins. As more and more heavily democratic absentee ballots were counted, Georgia and Arizona appeared to be holding as bright spots, but the margins there, too, were incredibly thin. On Wednesday and after, hopes for a Democratic majority in the Senate faded, and it appeared likely that Democrats would have a pared-back majority in the House of Representatives. In my home state of Maine, Biden was heading toward a decisive victory, but Susan Collins appeared likely to retain her seat in the Senate by a margin that exceeded substantially the pre-election polls.

As the days crept by — Wednesday, Thursday, and into Friday morning — the election hung in the balance, with multiple pathways to victory still available to each candidate. And then on Friday morning, two breakthroughs and some relief. In Georgia, Biden moved ahead of Trump, with thousands of ballots from Atlanta still to be counted. A few hours later, the networks reported that Biden had moved ahead of Trump in Pennsylvania for the first time, with many ballots from Philadelphia and Allegheny county outstanding. It was also encouraging that Nevada was trending strongly for Biden, while his lead in Arizona, though shrinking, seemed likely to hold. For the first time in three days, I felt something approaching optimism.

On Saturday morning I was near the end of an indoor cycling workout in my apartment in Portland when my cell phone displayed a call from a friend in Virginia. We had communicated intermittently about the election, and I sensed instantly that something important had happened. I looked quickly at The New York Times app on my phone and saw that CNN had declared Biden the winner in Pennsylvania and in the Electoral College.

Later in the day, my wife and I watched television news reports of the spontaneous demonstrations erupting in cities around the country. One of the largest was in Washington, where thousands of happy Biden supporters danced in the streets near the White House. The images brought back memories of the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration. The dream of turning Trump out of office that had been so prominent that day had indeed come to pass, though without the vehemence and finality we had imagined. Before dinner, we walked the streets of Portland with friends. The mood was noisy and festive; horns blaring, cheers of relief and solidarity, even joy. It was not redemption, but it still felt good.

THE DAY AFTER THE NETWORKS CALLED THE ELECTION for Biden, the Associated Press published a piece by Michael Tackett titled “Message of Election 2020: Trump lost, but Trumpism did not.”[2] Tackett’s argument is now becoming something close to common wisdom in the tsunami of election post-mortems. Trump’s defeat was a clear rejection of his leadership style and tone, but not of the core political program of his administration. Bombast, anger, narcissism, and general chaos would now leave the building, but the issues that Trump brought into focus — immigration, globalization, middle-class decline — would persist, along with the support of the more than 74 million people who voted for him. Trumpism.

There is some truth in this argument. We all know traditional Republicans and independents who appeared to vote for Biden because they were tired of Trump’s antics and the chaos he brought to the White House. Down-ballot results in the House and Senate races, and the strength of the Republican turnout generally, suggested much the same thing. But there are other ways in which the separation of Trump’s leadership style and tone from Trumpism obscures the meaning of the movement he leads and that now survives his presidency.

Trump is a demagogue, and like all genuine demagogues, he derives his political power from an emotional bond with his supporters, or at least a very substantial portion of them.[3] What Trump understands better than anything is the importance of political passion and how to give it voice through his own person and personal expression. In this sense, Trump’s leadership style and tone — the bombast, the anger, the incivility, the steady stream of grievance — is not incidental to Trumpism. It is the core, the vital heart of the movement. As Yale political theorist Bryan Garsten observes, “The language Mr. Trump uses, his willingness to insult, his refusal to follow the standard conventions of polite society or decency — his crudeness — is not a superficial sideshow. It is his defining trait… a giveaway that he is a demagogue.”

Demagogic style and expression are of a piece with the importance of performance in Trump’s political toolkit. In the frenzied final weeks of the campaign, Trump did almost nothing but perform — in debates, in his coming and going from Walter Reed Medical Center, in his chaotic press encounters, and in the more carefully staged and sedate Supreme Court dramas on the lawn outside the West Wing. These performances were almost never about policy or specific issues or things to be done. They were emotional transactions, extended moments of call and response, where the leader and led explored and amplified their shared emotions. Even more than in 2016, the closing strategy of Trump’s 2020 campaign was to intensify the emotions of the base in the hope of increasing voter enthusiasm and turnout. It almost worked. And Trump is still at it. Legal challenges to the legitimacy of the election are also performances, arranged to focus and sharpen the painful feeling that something has been taken away.

Here is the critical point: the demagogue does not invent the passions he excites and exploits, implanting them in some mysterious way in the hearts and minds of his supporters. They are out there in the world, circulating in the political landscape, as real as tariffs, farm subsidies, and immigration quotas, anchored in history and everyday experience. Trump’s demagogic gift is to see the political emotional landscape in its disorganized form and to imagine how it might be made coherent, how the inchoate can be made choate, how raw emotion can be made into politically focused energy. The emotional ingredients precede him, and they will be there when he is gone.

The emotional landscape that Trump has been most successful at organizing is the landscape of resentment. We are by now painfully familiar with its key domains: immigration, race relations, and social and cultural hierarchies. In each domain, Trump has found a way to focus, articulate, and stoke resentment by modeling, voicing, and encouraging it. In the process, our social and political landscape has become ever more deeply divided, volatile, and dangerous. This is not likely to change anytime soon.

Thinking about things in this way, seeing Trumpism simultaneously as a movement constructed out of political emotions as well as political positions, is important because it alerts us to the fact that the especially problematic emotions that Trump has targeted — fear of immigrants, racism, the contempt for elites and for privilege, angry nationalism — will continue to haunt our political life. It is hard to imagine anyone as skillfully demagogic and completely shameless as Trump coming along anytime soon. But the political emotional terrain is ready and waiting, should someone show up. And many will be tempted.

This also speaks to another notable aspect of Trumpism — the many ways in which cultural issues and values seemed to supersede economic interests among Trump’s most avid supporters. The trade war is a good example. In Maine, lobster fishermen were pummeled by retaliatory tariffs that China placed on the lobster industry.[4] Nevertheless, many in the industry strongly supported Trump, including Jason Joyce, a fisherman from Swan’s Island in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, who spoke at the Republican National Convention in August. Likewise, farmers throughout the Midwest also suffered because of Trump’s trade wars, but they voted heavily for Trump in the election. Hundreds of millions of dollars in tariff offsetting subsidies did not hurt the cause, but Trump’s carefully cultivated cultural bona fides — champion of family, religion, country, and rural traditions — were just as important.

For fishermen, farmers, and many other rural and small-town voters, the emotional and cultural elements of Trumpism find their ultimate unity in the sweeping, militant nationalism that has been the affective center of the movement from the beginning. Notwithstanding the painful effects of the Great Recession of 2008–09 and the accumulated damage of globalization in parts of the country, the insistence on a return to a time of American greatness has always been a deeply sentimental and nostalgic project, largely untethered from the realities of American life and the position of the United States in the world. The militant nationalism of Trumpism is not so much a reflection of reality as it is a belligerent call to political communion: caravans of pickup trucks parading through American cities with flags snapping in the breeze; protesters armed with automatic weapons and flags outside election facilities and Statehouses; Trump’s raucous, flag-waving rallies.

The Biden administration will have many problems to tackle in its first months, but finding a way to speak to and about Trumpism after Trump will be by far the most difficult and important. It will require the imaginative pursuit of policies and programs that seek to change some of the underlying economic foundations of Trumpism. Post-election analyses suggest that the Red-Blue economic divide widened in 2020.[5] But it will also require addressing the emotional register of Trumpism. This will not be easy. There are no straightforward paths to soothing the various forms of resentment that dominate the movement. Biden is betting on de-escalation, redirection, and the resuscitation of a demilitarized sense of national political community. That makes sense, but the fractious emotions of Trumpism are powerful, and they will not be easily transformed.

There is much talk already about the elections of 2022 and 2024, and they will be on top of us before we know it. Given the narrowness of Biden’s victory and the disappointments in the House and Senate, Democrats must not underestimate the risk of substantial Republican victories at every level, including the presidency. Biden’s lead in the national popular vote count now exceeds 6 million, but that will not significantly alter the dynamics in the Electoral College. And Trumpism may still be bathing in the grievance and anger of an allegedly stolen election.

In the lead up to the next round of elections in this fraught time, we should be especially careful not to be lulled into confidence by polling, as many of us were in 2016 and again this time around. There have been numerous analyses of the inaccuracies of the polls leading up to November 3rd, which exceeded in some cases the inaccuracies in 2016. Several explanatory theories have been advanced, some quite technical in nature. But there is a far simpler explanation to be extracted from an open and honest look back at what just happened. Despite what our intricate and voluminous pre-election and post-election quantitative analyses might otherwise suggest, our elections are not mathematical processes that can be played out in advance, if we only have the right inputs. They are unique and unprecedented events in which all the untidy features of large-scale human endeavors — powerful emotions, anticipation effects, conflicting motives, shame, feedback loops — are always and everywhere in play. In this messy but inescapable domain, the only certainties are unpredictability and surprise.

[1] Nate Silver, “Trump Can Still Win, But the Polls Would Have to Be Off Way More than 2016,” FiveThirtyEight, October 31, 2020,; Giovanni Russonello, “What the Last Pre-election Polls Reveal About Where Things Stand,” The New York Times, Nov. 3, 2020; Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin, “Election at Hand, Biden Leads Trump in Four Key States, Polls Show,” The New York Times, November 1, 2020.

[2] Michael Tackett, “The Message of Election 2020: Trump lost, but Trumpism did not,” The Associated Press, Sunday, November 8, 2020.

[3] Bryan Garsten, “How to Protect America from the Next Donald Trump,” The New York Times, November 9, 2020.

[4] Jeffrey J. Schott, “EU lobster deal may be too little too late for Maine,” Petersen Institute for International Economics, August 26, 2020.

[5] Jed Kolko, “Election Showed a Wider Red-Blue Economic Divide,” The New York Times, November 11, 2020.



Bro Adams

William Adams lives and writes in Portland, Maine, and Puyloubier, France. He served in the Obama administration as Chair of NEH from 2014 to 2017.