In 2016, I was one of those people who didn’t think Donald Trump could win the presidency. Like many, I studied the polls and believed they showed a comfortable margin voting against him. I thought people would see through him. He was just too weird, too vulgar, utterly ignorant about most policy issues and pathologically incapable of telling the truth, even about trivial things. During the 2016 campaign, for example, he claimed that he had met Vladimir Putin, something that was easy to disprove.
But I think what convinced me most that Trump would lose was that I believed in a different America. Trump had catapulted himself onto the political stage with birtherism — a shameless effort to exploit White prejudice against the first Black president, Barack Obama. Trump announced his campaign for the White House by making slurs against Mexicans. He proposed a “total and complete shutdown” of the nation’s borders to all Muslims from anywhere in the world. Throughout the campaign, his rhetoric toward foreigners and minorities was insulting.
I didn’t believe Americans would go for this. I arrived in the United States in 1982, in the midst of a deep recession, as a brown-skinned student on a scholarship with a strange name, no money and no contacts. I found a country that welcomed me with open arms. I still remember being stunned at how friendly and genuinely warm people were to me. I had been more aware of being Muslim in India than I was in America.
Perhaps I lived a sheltered life in New England college towns and New York City, but I saw very little of Trump’s brand of naked racism. I knew that it existed, of course, had read about it in books and newspapers, seen it on television and in movies, but I didn’t truly understand the magnitude of the phenomenon. So I placed less weight on the evidence for Trump’s victory than I should have. I simply couldn’t believe someone with his racially charged worldview could win over the nation.
And here’s the thing: I still don’t. First, many Americans voted for Trump despite his race-baiting, not because of it. But more important, a majority of Americans disapprove of Trump and have for almost his entire presidency. His average approval rating throughout his term is the lowest of any president since we started counting. As the New York Times’s Nate Cohn has said, Trump’s luck was that he ran against the second-most unpopular presidential candidate in modern American history (after him). Because of the electoral college and small margins in three states, he was able to capture the White House.
There are parts of Trump’s coalition who are anxious about the country’s future — and their own place in it — and are thus susceptible to the snake oil being peddled by a clever salesman. The United States is changing. If you consider the core of Trump’s support — Whites without a college degree — you see that they are shrinking as a share of the adult population. If you take the core of Joe Biden’s support — Whites with a college degree and minorities — they are growing in even greater measure. The New York Times analyzed the data and found that in Florida, the core Trump voting bloc of non-college-educated Whites has fallen by 359,000 since 2016, while the Biden coalition has grown by 1,579,000 people. In Pennsylvania, Trump’s base shrank by 431,000, while Biden’s grew by 449,000.
If Biden wins, his challenge will be to make all Americans understand that the country has always been a grand experiment, an attempt to create the first universal nation. Today, living up to that ideal means embracing all kinds of people — Black and White, native-born and immigrant, gay and straight, and many more. It’s a messy process, and it can seem disruptive and disorderly. It sometimes gets bogged down in squabbles over terminology and political correctness. But it is all part of a noble effort to ensure that everyone in this country finally feels they are included in the American Dream. Ever since the nation’s birth, it has gradually expanded the idea of liberty and democracy, making America great by surging forward into the future rather than lapsing back into nostalgia for the past.
Meanwhile, I will take my chances and once again predict that Trump will lose this election. Humbled as I am after these four years, I would still rather bet on — and believe in — the best in America.