For as long as we’ve had elections, voters have been in a running debate about whether to support the candidate who best serves their own interests or the candidate who best serves the republic as a whole. For many partisan voters, there’s no real debate: Their own interests and their beliefs about the greater good overlap quite a bit.

But voters who aren’t in love with either party or either nominee will rationalize their choices in different ways. And with a lot of voters falling into that category this year, those lines of thinking could decide the election.

Some voters will respond to aspirational appeals about what’s in the best interests of America abroad or what’s in the best interests of the country as a whole. Others will be persuaded to rationalize their votes based on pure transactional feelings: This person will keep taxes low, this person will stay out of the way of business — or, like my great-grandfather used to imply about voting in Chicago mayoral races in the ’50s and ’60s, this candidate will guarantee the garbage gets picked up — especially if the entire neighborhood shows its support for “the machine.”

In 2020, I’d argue, Joe Biden benefited from both types of vacillating swing voters, the aspirational and the transactional. The aspirational Biden voter saw the choice of a second term of Donald Trump versus a first term of Biden as a directional tell to the rest of the world about who America is and isn’t — and whether America could be a reliable ally or a rogue superpower.

The transactional voter of 2020 appeared to slightly favor Biden, too. Many of these normally right-leaning voters saw the chaos and intentional divisiveness of the Trump years (coupled with his erratic management of the pandemic) as simply bad for business and for their own lives. Biden wasn’t necessarily whom these folks wanted to be appointing the regulators of government, but they were exhausted from the daily headaches that Trump’s words and actions would cause them or their families or co-workers. They voted for Biden in an attempt to turn the page on the Trump era and start anew.

Now, in 2024, the same arguments are hitting the slice of voters who will be decisive — the so-called double haters. These are people who tell pollsters they have negative views of both Biden and Trump. The double haters leaned Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, and they leaned Biden over Trump in 2020.

So where does this debate stand in 2024? I’ve become more engrossed by this question as I’ve noticed the increased traction the transactional argument is getting in some of the wealthier corners of the country. Specifically, this line of thinking is quite acute in the tech community.

I’ll confess that what triggered this column idea was the following X post from Elon Musk last week, which was endorsed by Silicon Valley investor and Netscape founder Marc Andreessen.

What I see in this post is deep cynicism about society as a whole. The online world is a debate of extreme ideas, not nuanced ones, so perhaps I should simply view this post as one of those extreme reactionary posts that clutter most social media feeds.

But it’s worth singling this out because of how much influence the tech world can have on the country’s social conscience. And one thing I’ve noticed coming from the tech community in particular is a transactional mindset coated with a thick layer of cynicism that says there really isn’t a greater good — we are all just participating in a game of survival of the fittest. Musk and Peter Thiel are probably the two best avatars of this line of thinking. And just how deep that line of thinking goes could be important in the election.

Look, I struggle between the pull of the rational and the aspirational, especially when it comes to foreign affairs. The concept of realpolitik was a highly successful mindset for American foreign policy in 20th century, at least from the perspective of what was best for the U.S. But the same concept wasn’t exactly great for those who were victims of repressive regimes that the U.S. propped up simply because it was in the best interests of the U.S.

Adding a dash of morality to our foreign policy is a hopeful goal for many of us, but when and how we get there is also up for reasonable debate.

There’s probably no set of relationships more transactional than the ones the U.S. has with various Gulf states (think Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar), which, of course, is all tied up with the price of energy for Americans.

I’m not denying the need for true pragmatism from time to time, in which the concept of “the ends justify the means” rules the day. But I think there’s a line. And for me, it’s when the transactional becomes informed by the cynical.

I think Trump’s basic pitch, especially to the business community, is: “I’m just like you — I’m ambitious for money and power, so I understand you and I’ll work with you. But make no mistake, you have to deal with me, and if you don’t, I have no problem making your life miserable.”

In a way, the straightforwardness with which Trump has telegraphed how to lobby him fits in with this cynical ideology that has taken root in some circles.

Another Trump term would mean the cynical view of politics as nothing but a transaction would get more mainstreamed. And one of Biden’s challenges is to make these cynics believers in aspirational governance again.

Many in the tech world have given up on Biden — “he doesn’t get the real world,” “he’s naive,” “he’s being influenced by the woke class” and so on. The allure of Trump for these folks is simply that he is who he is. They know there’s always a way to get to Trump, and they know that Trump isn’t going to judge them on how they do business and how they make money.

Why doesn’t Trump judge them? Because Trump doesn’t want to be judged by others on how he acquired his wealth or power. The ends justify the means, period. Success is success to Trump, whether people did it the hard way or the right way or whether they inherited their wealth and power or acquired it under the table.

Ultimately, I believe elections are won by the candidate who projects the most optimism about America going forward. It’s why I’m skeptical that Trump’s very negative messaging is going to succeed in the end. But if it does work and the less optimistic candidate wins over this last slice of swing voters, it could be a sign we are moving to a different type of governance and politics.

I’m not naive — I know money and power will always have an outsize influence on our politics. But if they’re not mixed in with some morality and some optimism about creating a greater good, then I don’t think we are going to like the outcomes that come from governing via this mindset.

That having been said, Biden has to prove to these cynical voters that politics can have a heart again and that Washington can govern both strategically and morally.

Given how our politics has been lacking this for some time, it’s easy to understand why some voters are giving up on the idea of aspirational governance. Biden did a good job of this when he wasn’t in office; he’s had a much harder time selling this idea as president, with the border being the best example of debate between the aspirational (America is a nation of immigrants and a protector of the oppressed) and the transactional (we have to focus on those who are here and keep them safe first).

In many ways, what’s on the ballot in November is how we view ourselves and how we view the game of life.

Seriously or literally … again

To say the coverage of the coverage of Trump’s use of the word “bloodbath” was overdone is an understatement. The debate about covering Trump is never going to end. What do you cover in what he says versus what don’t you amplify is a debate that is likely never to get resolved — especially on social media!

Here’s a simple North Star for everyone who believes they are members of the media: focus on covering what Trump did in office and what he plans to do in office the next time. Sadly, you can’t take Trump’s word at face value … ever. He says he’s for one thing one day, only to backtrack the next. TikTok and whether to ban it is only the most recent of many, many, many examples. That’s why it’s a waste of time and energy to simply focus only on his rhetoric.

Now, when the rhetoric is matched with actions, that’s another story. Then the rhetoric is potentially as newsworthy as the action itself. Bottom line: Debate his policies, debate his actions, but at this point, every dumb or incendiary remark he makes pales in importance to the question: What will he do in a second term?

From the overcovered to the undercovered

As much attention as “bloodbath” garnered, the bigger story in the last week — and perhaps the most consequential development of the last week — was former Vice President Mike Pence’s public announcement that he won’t endorse Trump for a second term.

For whatever reason, it hasn’t captured much attention, at least not yet. But when this campaign gets to the end and the fight for the “double haters” and other undecided voters is most acute, a potentially powerful ad will be the montage of first-term Trump appointees who all now say he’s, essentially, unfit for a second term.

The list is getting quite long: his vice president, at least one attorney general (William Barr), two secretaries of defense (Jim Mattis and Mark Esper), two national security advisers (John Bolton and Henry McMaster), two chiefs of staff (John Kelly and Mick Mulvaney) and one former ambassador to the United Nations (Nikki Haley).

There are others who could end up on this list: Former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao hasn’t endorsed and probably won’t, but she hasn’t said anything about Trump since she denounced his anti-Asian rhetoric. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also is someone who has simply chosen not to say anything of late. Former National Intelligence Director Dan Coats hasn’t used the word “unfit,” but he did endorse Pence in the primaries.

This list won’t persuade anyone in the GOP base that the Trump era needs to end. But this list and the testimonials included with it could be quite effective with that voter who really has issues with the Biden-Harris ticket. Whatever you think of Biden, at least he governed competently enough not to drive the top members of his own party away from this presidency.

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