Democracy Will Survive This, With Damage


Donald Trump will lose, but afterward the Republic will be weaker and more vulnerable.

Almost as soon as President Obama took office, his opponents began trying to delegitimize his presidency. He couldn’t really be president, they claimed, because he wasn’t really an American, or at least not a native-born one, as the Constitution requires. Within two months of his inauguration, the Oath Keepers organization was formed, for the purpose of encouraging members of the military and the police to disobey the “unconstitutional orders” they were sure would soon come from the new tyrant.

It’s tempting to believe this is just how partisan politics has always worked, but in fact it’s new. In 2000, by contrast, there were very legitimate questions about whether George W. Bush had really won the election. But Al Gore conceded graciously, and when 9-11 happened ten months later, Democrats rallied around their president. As recently as 2008, John McCain politely corrected supporters who raised bizarre theories about his opponent. “No ma’am,” he told one elderly woman, “He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign’s all about.”

After Obama was sworn in, though, everything changed.

Conspiracies. Every month or two for the last eight years, the fringe of the conservative media has found some new reason to tell its audience that we are on the brink of martial law or some other illegal seizure of power. FEMA is setting up camps to hold dissidents. ObamaCare is establishing death panels to eliminate the unworthy. New executive orders will soon confiscate guns. Obama plans to start a race warcancel the 2016 elections and stay in office forever. He’s secretly running ISIS from the White House. On and on.

Somehow, this apocalyptic mindset has achieved eternal youth. No matter how many times the predicted coup or edict or confiscation fails to materialize, the next one is absolutely going to happen, even if you’re hearing it from the same people who told you all the others. To conspiracy mongers like Alex Jones, the American Republic is like Kenny in South Park: Somebody has always just killed it, but with no explanation it will be back next week, when somebody else will kill it in a different way.

Occasionally — as with last summer’s Jade Helm 15 exercise — the mainstream press notices enough of the craziness to let the rest of us laugh at it. But usually these stories pass beneath most people’s radar until some uncle or cousin forwards them an email warning of the looming disaster.

GOP fellow travelers. Republican leaders have occasionally winked and nodded in the direction of this lunatic fringe. Maybe they “joke” about Obama’s citizenship, or pass laws to make sure that all future candidates have to present their birth certificates, or add legitimacy to one of these issues in some other way, without actually promoting them in so many words. They know these people are crazy, but they’re part of the Republican base, so why alienate them?

But the answer to that question ought to be obvious: Democracy only survives in a country as long as the overwhelming majority of people believe that it is working, or that it could work with some achievable revisions. The more Americans who believe in the kind of crazy crap that can only be corrected by an armed rebellion, the more fragile our whole system of government becomes.

The Trump normalization. Particularly since the conventions, Donald Trump has moved these fever-swamp issues into the spotlight, normalizing them as beliefs respectable Republicans might hold.

From the beginning of his candidacy, Trump has specialized in saying wild and dangerous things that draw media attention, whipping up white Christian anger, and flirting with violence. The sheer volume of bonkers things he says has overwhelmed the fact-checkers, [1] and can overwhelm our own ability to process each new outrage.

But it’s important to notice the recent shift in the kind of crazy he’s been promoting. As long as he was doing well (or could convince himself he was doing well), he played the bully, targeting politically weak groups like immigrants or Muslims. But as the polls turn against him, he has devoted more and more of his effort to undermining democracy itself.

Consider the claims in this week’s three major Trump stories:

  • He can’t lose this election, he can only be cheated out of it. [2]
  • Obama and Clinton are “founders of ISIS“, i.e., working for our enemies and against the American people.
  • If Clinton wins, only “Second Amendment people”, i.e., gun owners, will be able to stop her from “abolishing” constitutional rights. [3]

It’s hard to lay things out much more clearly than that: If Trump loses, then democracy has failed and it’s time to move on to more violent forms of resistance. After all, once an election has been stolen, what’s the point of waiting around for the next election? On the lunatic fringe, that message is coming through loud and clear.

This kind of talk goes far beyond fantasies about Mexico paying for a border wall or claims to have personally witnessed events that never happened. It strikes at the legitimacy of the government — or at least of any government that Trump doesn’t head himself. After he loses, a substantial number of his supporters are going to go on believing what he said about cheating and implied about violence. And that sets up a lot of bad things in the future.

We’ll get through this, this time. It’s important not to over-react. Despite his authoritarian and nativist tendencies, Trump is not Hitler. (As a friend recently pointed out to me, Hitler was more talented and more dedicated to his cause.) And all the signs currently point to him being soundly rejected by the American people. The more dangerous he sounds, the more likely it is that the electorate will turn out en masse to vote against him. Even many Republicans are disturbed by the idea that they are now in the party of Alex Jones.

In the short run, Trump’s loss might make things better. Mainstream Republicans seemed to have no answer for him in the primaries. But if Trump-like candidates appear in 2020, sane Republicans can at least say, “We don’t want to do that again.” A sound thrashing this fall might well send the Republican establishment back to the drawing board. Maybe they’ll conclude that pandering to the crazies wasn’t such a good idea after all.

But what about the sizable minority that will come out of the election believing what Trump said? That will be far fewer people than the 40-45% who will vote for him, but what if it’s 10%? What if 10% of the American electorate comes to the inauguration believing that their candidate legitimately won the election, but had it stolen? What if 10% believes that election fraud is not just a one-off event, but is how America works now? That our enemies are now in charge, that everything the government does is illegitimate, and that violent resistance is the only way for justice to prevail?

I don’t believe that there will be riots, assassinations, and civil war. As many people as might fantasize such things, I think few will try to carry them out. But Trump’s legacy could leave a very fertile ground for the next demagogue to mix politics and violence in a brownshirt fashion. As I said, Trump is not Hitler. But we may look back on him as Hitler’s warm-up act.

[1] The Week‘s Paul Waldman was already complaining about this in March:

The real genius of Trump’s mendacity lies in its brazenness. One of the assumptions behind the fact-checking enterprise is that politicians are susceptible to being shamed: If they lie, you can expose the lie and then they’ll be less likely to repeat it. After all, nobody wants to be tarred as a liar. But what happens when you’re confronted with a politician who is utterly without shame? You can reveal where he’s lied, explain all the facts, and try as hard as you can to inoculate the public against his falsehoods. But by the time you’ve done that, he has already told 10 more lies.

[2] Adding on to widely debunked comments he made last week, Trump said this Friday in Altoona:

Is everybody [here] voting? [Cheers.] If you do that, if you do that, we’re not gonna lose. The only way we can lose — in my opinion, I really mean this — Pennsylvania, is if cheating goes on. I really believe that. Because I looked at Erie and it was the same thing as this. And I’ve been all over the state, and I know this state well. I know the state well. But let me just tell you, I looked all over Pennsylvania, and I’m studying it, and we have some great people here, some great leaders here, of the Republican Party, and they’re very concerned about that. And that’s the way we can lose the state. And we have to call up law enforcement, and we have to have the sheriffs and the police chiefs and everybody watching. Because, if we get cheated out of this election, if we get cheated out of a win in Pennsylvania, which is such a vital state. Especially when I know what’s happening here folks — I know it. She can’t beat what’s happening here. The only way they can beat it, in my opinion, and I mean this 100%, [is] if in certain sections of the state, they cheat.

We’re gonna watch Pennsylvania. Go down to certain areas and watch and study and make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times. The only way we can lose, in my opinion – and I really mean this, Pennsylvania – is if cheating goes on. I really believe it.

His I-can’t-really-lose claim flies in the face of the last four polls of Pennsylvania, all of which have Clinton up by double digits. And that ties the “cheating” claim to another bogus claimall the polls are skewed against Trump. (Romney supporters claimed the same thing before the 2012 election, and the results proved them wrong.)

Think about what this means: After Trump loses Pennsylvania — which he will — his supporters will have already denied any basis for claiming that he lost legitimately. The polls were biased, the election results were fraudulent — all that remains is Trump’s pure feeling that he would have won a fair election.

The substance of the fraud claim also deserves to be addressed, particularly since Sean Hannity and others have been backing Trump up on it. They have nothing. There is no reason to believe voter fraud played any role in 2012 or will play a role in 2016. 

Trump and Hannity discussed the fact that Mitt Romney got zero votes in 59 precincts of Philadelphia as evidence that some kind of fraud must have happened. Ryan Godfrey, an independent (former Republican) election inspector in Philadelphia, explained in a tweetstorm just how ridiculous that accusation is to anyone who understands the process.

Here’s how it looks to anyone who understands journalism: Hannity has been complaining about those 59 precincts since 2012, as if he were not part of a news organization and is helpless to investigate any further. But if in fact fraud happened in Philadelphia, it would not be hard for a real journalist to come up with solid evidence. That’s the beauty of that zero result: If you can turn up anybody who claims to have voted for Romney, that’s evidence of fraud.

So Sean, here’s how you could do it:

  1. First, get access to the Romney campaign’s get-out-the-vote data for these precincts, and see if they were expecting anyone to vote for him. (That’s how GOTV works: You compile databases of the people you expect to vote for you, then on election day you remind/cajole/nag them until they vote.) If there are no such people, then you’re done; the zero-vote outcome is credible.
  2. If there are, check publicly available records to see if any of them voted. (Again, if none did, you’re done; there’s no story.)
  3. If you still have some names on your list, contact them and see if they will testify that they voted for Romney in a precinct where no Romney votes were recorded. One person might be explained away, but if you get a half-a-dozen-or-so such witnesses, you can probably send somebody to jail and maybe get yourself a Pulitzer.

The Philadelphia Inquirer tried something like this immediately after the election: They went looking for registered Republicans in the zero-for-Romney areas. They didn’t find them. (In Godfrey’s tweetstorm, he notes that some of those areas didn’t record any votes in the Republican primary either.)

Take North Philadelphia’s 28th Ward, third division, bounded by York, 24th, and 28th Streets and Susquehanna Avenue. About 94 percent of the 633 people who live in that division are black. Seven white residents were counted in the 2010 census. In the entire 28th Ward, Romney received only 34 votes to Obama’s 5,920. Although voter registration lists, which often contain outdated information, show 12 Republicans live in the ward’s third division, The Inquirer was unable to find any of them by calling or visiting their homes.

… A few blocks away, Eric Sapp, a 42-year-old chef, looked skeptical when told that city data had him listed as a registered Republican. “I got to check on that,” said Sapp, who voted for Obama.

That’s real journalism: You go out, talk to people, and get answers, rather than just raise questions because you think something smells off. The fact that Hannity, after four years of suspicions, still can’t point to anything more solid than his feeling that zero can’t be right, tells me that he knows there’s no real fraud here. Either he has so little confidence in the charge that he didn’t even think it worthwhile to do the follow-up work, or he did the work, turned up nothing, and decided his listeners didn’t need to know that.

This is a general pattern in election-fraud stories: Somebody does just enough research to find something that sounds suspicious, and then runs with it. Either they never do the follow-up investigation that seems called for, or when somebody else does, it turns up nothing — like this case in South Carolina, which I told you about in 2013.

[3] This also deserves a lengthy discussion. Here’s the quote:

Hillary wants to abolish — essentially abolish — the Second Amendment. By the way, if she gets to pick [booing from crowd] if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don’t know.

The official Trump-campaign explanation — that he meant gun-rights supporters could use their political power to make sure Trump wins — is obviously nonsense. The scenario Trump had laid out in “if she gets to pick her judges” assumed she’d already been elected.

My favorite response was tweeted by Sarah Milov:

Maybe 19th amendment people can do something about Trump

(The 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote.)

Paul Ryan interpreted the quote as a joke gone bad, and if you watch the video, Trump’s tone and phrasing is consistent with a joke. But English-professor-turned-lawyer Jason Steed, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the social function of humor, explained in a tweetstorm that

Nobody is ever “just joking”. Humor is a social act that performs a social function (always).

A joke, he explains, defines an in-group that laughs and an out-group that doesn’t.

If you’re willing to accept “just joking” as a defense, you’re willing to enter [the] in-group, where [the] idea conveyed by the joke is acceptable.

This is why you should never tell a racist joke, even if everybody in the room knows that you’re joking: The joke itself normalizes racism; by laughing, your audience ratifies that normalization.

Rolling Stone‘s David Cohen connected Trump’s “joke” to the important notion of stochastic terrorism: when you mark someone for attack by the wackos that you know are out there, while keeping your distance from the attack itself. Last November, after a mass shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, Valerie Tarico explained the process:

1. A public figure with access to the airwaves or pulpit demonizes a person or group of persons.
2. With repetition, the targeted person or group is gradually dehumanized, depicted as loathsome and dangerous — arousing a combustible combination of fear and moral disgust.
3. Violent images and metaphors, jokes about violence, analogies to past “purges” against reviled groups, use of righteous religious language — all of these typically stop just short of an explicit call to arms.
4. When violence erupts, the public figures who have incited the violence condemn it — claiming no one could possibly have foreseen the “tragedy.”

Previous examples include the role Bill O’Reilly played in the assassination of the Kansas abortion-provider Dr. George Tiller, and Byron Williams, who shot two California policemen when stopped on his way to attack the Tides Foundation, which had become central in Glenn Beck’s fantastic theories.

BTW: Hillary Clinton has never called for “abolishing the Second Amendment” — essentially or otherwise. Here’s her list of proposals on guns, all of which are within current Supreme Court interpretations of the Second Amendment.

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  • Kaci  On August 15, 2016 at 8:46 am

    Apologies for having the first post be so irrelevant, but now I’m wondering: What’s the ingroup/outgroup/social function when the jokes are puns?
    – Kaci

    • Larry Benjamin  On August 15, 2016 at 9:31 am

      There are different types of humor. Jokes that ridicule a particular group, be it a race, religion, profession, kind of animal, etc., definitely fall into the in vs. out group model. Puns, on the other hand, are the kind of humor that depends on the unexpected. Other examples of this would be funny faces, absurd behavior, and the like.

    • weeklysift  On August 15, 2016 at 12:17 pm

      I’ve been trying to think of a way to answer this with a pun, but I give up. I submit that as a challenge to the commenting community.

      Puns can serve an in/out function if they rely on specialized knowledge: jargon from a particular field, references to cult movies, etc.

      • FeRDNYC  On August 15, 2016 at 3:30 pm

        So… then, you don’t intend to address the irrelephant in the room?

      • Guest  On August 16, 2016 at 5:02 pm

        We can agree that while on the surface such innocent jokes don’t appear to serve an in/out function, there can often be devastating punintended consequences. No less an authority than 2 Corinthians tell us how bad things can get when two people are unequally joked.

  • weeklysift  On August 15, 2016 at 8:46 am

    Someone just pointed out that Peter Daou is making a similar point here. “His plan is working, not to win the White House, but to change America — and the world — by triggering a white nationalist uprising and becoming a ‘heroic’ figurehead in what his followers see as a defining war against inexorable demographic shifts.”

  • fmanin  On August 15, 2016 at 9:51 am

    My favorite part about the “Second Amendment people” incident (various people have pointed this out) is how condescending it sounds. You don’t refer to a group as “the X people” unless you think they’re a bit outré and ridiculous.

    • JJ  On August 15, 2016 at 3:47 pm

      And there’s the possibility that he meant “Second Amendment, people” – the comma gives it more the meaning of “hey, people – use the second amendment” – more the way Sharon Angle used it…

  • Herb  On August 15, 2016 at 11:58 am

    Again, you treat Trump too lightly. His “IDEAS”
    incite violence in those unable to discern the truth. And we live in a country where violence by individuals is accepted. So some will die because his lies will ring true to a few and he can speak as the Republican Party Presidential Candidate.
    Clearly not the America I served or the Republican Party Eisenhower was a member of.

  • Abby  On August 15, 2016 at 4:51 pm

    A slight disagreement. Trump and the GOP were already moving in this direction at the time of the GOP convention. The duly elected delegates of the Republican party were chanting “Lock her up!” in unison from the convention floor, with DJT at the helm. When a major-party nominee is calling for the jailing of the leader opposing party, (and the convention enthusiastically joins in) then no one is safe. It makes it clear that if DJT were to become president, then people who opposed him or crossed him would wind up either in jail, or mysteriously disappearing. So this was going on even when Trump thought that he was winning.

  • R. L. Synthesis (@RLSynthesis)  On August 16, 2016 at 8:46 am

    It’s not just the alt-right that will have lost faith in the American electoral process come November, a whole new generation of progressives already have.

    Election Justice USA, a “National non-partisan team of seasoned election integrity experts, attorneys, statisticians, and journalists” released a 96 page extensively researched report that “established an upper estimate of 184 pledged delegates lost by Senator Bernie Sanders as a consequence of specific irregularities and instances of fraud. With a shift of that many delegates, Bernie Sanders would have won the pledged delegate race.”

    Click to access Democracy_Lost_Update1_EJUSA.pdf

    • Larry Benjamin  On August 16, 2016 at 10:04 am

      I haven’t read the report yet, but going by the table of contents, it doesn’t address the inherently undemocratic caucuses, which give disproportionate weight to candidates like Sanders, who had small numbers of highly committed supporters, over Clinton, with larger numbers of lukewarm supporters.

      Caucuses are undemocratic because they exclude voters who cannot travel long distances, cannot take time off work or from other obligations, are disabled, or otherwise cannot participate in the lengthy caucus process, as opposed to simply casting a vote in a primary. One demonstration of this is the Washington State caucus, that Sanders won, compared to the non-binding Washington primary, that Clinton won.

      Caucuses are no better than a poll tax – a system deliberately designed to exclude potential voters. I’m in favor of any system that allows as many people to vote as possible, without excluding anyone based on logistical issues or lack of enthusiasm.

      Regarding complaints that independent voters were prevented from voting in a partisan primary, my response to that is to point out that political parties are private organizations, and unless they place unnecessary obstacles in the way of people joining them, they should be able to limit voting to actual party members and exclude outsiders whose sole purpose is to interfere with the process. Since Trump was the effective nominee by the time California voted, it stands to reason that the California Democratic party would want to prevent independent Trump supporters from voting for Sanders solely as a spoiler. In 2008, with McCain’s nomination virtually confirmed, Rush Limbaugh advised his listeners to vote for Clinton for the sole purpose of needlessly lengthening the nomination process in an effort to deny Obama a mandate.

      • R. L. Synthesis (@RLSynthesis)  On August 16, 2016 at 11:05 pm

        My concern is the numerous “irregularities and instances of fraud” seen in state after state throughout this primary – enough to fill a 96 page Election Justice report – have already resulted in a new generation of progressives “believing that their candidate legitimately won the election, but had it stolen” and that “election fraud is not just a one-off event, but is how America works now”. It also provides ample fodder for Trump’s preemptive claims, and the inevitable loss of faith his supporters will have when Trump looses.

        Your points, while valid, are not particularly relevent to this concern.

    • Larry Benjamin  On August 17, 2016 at 7:08 am

      My points are valid because if voters are disenfranchised, it is meaningful if the process is a legal one. If tactics such as requiring women to bring proof of name changes, requiring students to vote where their parents live rather than where they live themselves, closing polls on Sundays, and other practices deliberately designed to exclude Democratic-leaning voters are employed, those practices have an effect despite the fact that they may very well be perfectly legal. Caucuses fall into the same category.

      The Russian email hack of the DNC revealed that staffers may have favored Clinton over Sanders; nothing illegal happened but that isn’t going to placate Sanders supporters who feel that their man was cheated.

      If you’re going to rerun the Democratic primary, the entire process should be examined, not just a narrow definition of “fraud” that may not have even taken place everywhere it is claimed. Clinton beat Sanders by millions of votes, and it’s inconceivable that this was entirely due to fraud. I’m convinced Clinton would have won by an even larger margin if caucuses had been replaced by primaries.

    • weeklysift  On August 18, 2016 at 10:23 am

      Like Larry, I haven’t read the entire report. But in the parts I have read, I’ve been struck by the ways evidence has been bent to indicate harm to Sanders, without consideration of other interpretations. For example: “In a statistical model which controlled for neighborhood/location and precinct size, the percentage of purged voters was a significant predictor of Clinton’s vote share, demonstrating that Senator Sanders was disproportionately affected by the purges.”

      This conclusion only makes sense if the purgers knew far in advance who people would vote for, which I find unlikely. If you don’t make that interpretation, then it seems logical that the purges hurt Clinton, not Sanders, since voters tended to be purged in precincts that favored Clinton.

      • Larry Benjamin  On August 18, 2016 at 10:35 am

        The analysis you describe corresponds to what I’m seeing from other Sanders supporters. Several people have told me that they suspect the DNC targeted potential Sanders voters for purging, based on opinions they expressed on Facebook. There’s an uncomfortable congruence between the anti-Clinton forces on the extreme right and the extreme left and their shared penchant for conspiracy theories that ascribe almost supernatural powers to the Clinton campaign. One person I know, who is as left-wing as they come, didn’t seem to have a problem posting a meme from the very right-wing Congressman Joe Wilson.

      • weeklysift  On August 19, 2016 at 6:32 am

        And they were making those individual judgments by the tens of thousands, apparently. That’s a pretty big conspiracy not to have anybody go public.

      • R. L. Synthesis (@RLSynthesis)  On August 19, 2016 at 10:23 pm

        Statistical models for detecting potential election theft have been honed by researchers for over a half-century, typically examining third world elections.

        If the purges were a random “election-day glitch”, you would not expect to find a correlation between % of voters purged and Hillary’s winning margin – why would random purges hit more pro-Hillary precincts harder? However, by exploiting known demographic divisions, for example targeting younger voters in general and older voters that switched their registrations to Democrat after Sanders announced, you could plausibly implement a purging strategy to achieve that very result.

        Suspicious purges are nothing unique to this election. Greg Palast has probably written more about election theft in this country than any other investigative journalist. He estimates Gore would have won Florida, and therefore the election, in 2000 were it not for purges that disproportionately targeted African-Americans. He also has quite a few articles on his blog about this past primary.

        I’m not saying Sanders would have won otherwise, I’m just saying the next generation of progressive voters are better informed about the allegations collected in this 96 page report having lived through them – and these experiences have harmed their faith in American democracy.

      • weeklysift  On August 20, 2016 at 7:32 am

        I’m still not seeing how the correlation is explained by the anti-Sanders conspiracy theory. If you targeted likely Sanders voters, then you’d purge more voters in precincts that had a lot of Sanders voters. So the correlation would run the other way.

  • Rubye  On May 29, 2017 at 6:51 am

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  • By From the Beginning | The Weekly Sift on August 15, 2016 at 11:41 am

    […] week’s featured posts are “Democracy Will Survive This, With Damage” about the even-darker turn in the Trump campaign, and “It’s not just Freddie […]

  • […] identity will still be here. Particularly if they buy into Trump’s ego-saving excuses about skewed polls and voter fraud, or if he starts an alt-right Trump News to continue pandering to their worst fears, they may come […]

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