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Where the Weekly Summary Is

Here. Due to a technical glitch, WordPress thinks I published it two days ago.

The Increasingly Desperate Attack on Democracy

In Congress and behind the scenes, Trump and his allies try to hang onto power, in spite of both the voters and the law.

Whenever dealing with a Trump story, I like to take a moment to remember how things were before his regime took power. Otherwise, it’s easy to forget how unusual and un-American these last four years have been.

According to the procedures established in the 12th Amendment and the Electoral Count Act of 1887, every four years a joint session of Congress meets on January 6 to formally receive and tally the electoral votes of the states. Typically this is a non-event; you probably don’t even remember it happening in 2017 or 2013. In 2005, two Democrats — Barbara Boxer in the Senate and Tubbs Jones in the House — used it as a stage to call attention to voter suppression in Ohio. The Senate defeated Boxer’s challenge 74-1, and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry refused to endorse it. No one viewed it as a serious attempt to undo the election.

The only other challenge was in 1969, and concerned whether or not to count the vote of a faithless elector. Whichever side won that challenge, Richard Nixon would become president.

In short, the United States has a long tradition of respecting the elections held in November. Until now.

This is the first time since 1877 that we have arrived at January 6 with the loser of the election claiming that he won, and pressuring the system to put him in office. It is the first time ever that an incumbent president has used the power of his office to push such a claim.

Normally, we have an election in November, the votes are tallied, and the loser concedes as soon as the outcome is clear. It took a little longer to count the votes this time, but the outcome has been clear since November 7. This election was not close: Biden won the popular vote by more than 7 million, and carried the Republican-biased Electoral College 306-232.

But Trump’s effort to hang onto power illegitimately continues on multiple fronts.

The extortion call. Until yesterday, “Trump’s extortion call” would have referred to his July 2019 conversation with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, the one where he asked for a “favor” in exchange for releasing desperately needed military aid appropriated by Congress. He got impeached for that, and would have been removed from office if not for Republican partisanship in the Senate. Susan Collins famously voted to let him off, speculating that he had “learned a pretty big lesson“.

Yesterday, we found out what lesson he really did learn: He can get away with extortion calls.

Sunday, the Washington Post released excerpts, a full recording, and a transcript of a call Trump made Saturday to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who oversaw the certification of the election in which Trump lost Georgia and its 18 electoral votes.

In the call, Trump insists that “I won this election by hundreds of thousands of votes. There’s no way I lost Georgia. There’s no way. We won by hundreds of thousands of votes.” And he pressures Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we [need to win the state]”. (Trump actually says “have” rather than “need”, but it’s clear what he means.) He tells Raffensperger “there’s nothing wrong with saying that, you know, um, that you’ve recalculated.”

In claiming that he’s entitled to these votes, Trump rehashes a laundry list of debunked conspiracy theories, which Raffensperger rebuts:

I don’t believe that you’re really questioning the Dominion machines. Because we did a hand retally, a 100% retally of all the ballots and compared them to what the machines said and came up with virtually the same result. Then we did the recount, and we got virtually the same result. So I guess we can probably take that off the table.

Trump deflects but does not acknowledge reality: Dominion machines did switch votes, he claims, but he doesn’t need those votes because he has other claims, all of which are equally groundless.

He makes a series of vague threats of mob violence in Georgia or prosecution of Raffensperger: “The people of Georgia are angry. … I hate to imagine what’s going to happen on Monday [when Trump has a rally in Georgia] or Tuesday, but it’s very scary to people. … [I]t is more illegal for you than it is for them because, you know what they did and you’re not reporting it. That’s a criminal, that’s a criminal offense. And you can’t let that happen. That’s a big risk to you and to Ryan, your lawyer. … But I mean, all of this stuff is very dangerous stuff. When you talk about no criminality, I think it’s very dangerous for you to say that.”

Raffensperger and his lawyer Ryan Germany calmly rebut all Trump claims, and stand by the accuracy of the election results: Trump lost Georgia. Trump refuses to accept this, and pressures them to release privileged voter data to his lawyers. (I believe this would allow Trump to know how individual people voted.) Germany replies “I don’t think we can give access to data that’s protected by law.” Trump lawyer Kurt Hilbert suggests an illegal work-around: “[I]s it possible that the secretary of state could deputize the lawyers for the president so that we could access that information and private information without you having any kind of violation?”

Crime or insanity? I have to agree with Mark Hamill:

Listening to the entire phone call is like discovering a long-lost episode of The Sopranos.

Trump never says: “I need you to cheat for me and bad things will happen to you if you don’t.” — just like Tony Soprano never says, “I want you to murder that guy.” Instead, the call is full of innuendo and falsehoods: not cheat for me, but believe these outrageous lies and act like they’re true.

Lots of mobsters are behind bars for conversations like this. If the intention is clear, the literal meaning of the words doesn’t necessarily matter. Several legal experts have said Trump violated the law by pressuring an election official to reverse an election. Here’s former Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Bromwich:

Unless there are portions of the tape that somehow negate criminal intent, “I just want to find 11,780 votes” and his threats against Raffensperger and his counsel violate 52 U.S. Code § 20511. His best defense would be insanity.

Lawrence Lessig allows for the possibility that Trump really believes all the nonsense he’s spouting. In that case, insanity would be more than just a legal ploy.

When you listen to the tape, what’s most striking is that he really sounds like he believes that he’s been robbed of the election. Like he really believes there were hundreds of thousands of ballots stolen or reversed — and is pleading with the SOS to reverse a crime. If that’s true, this doesn’t evince a crime. It evinces that the man has no connection to reality. Impeachment isn’t the remedy for that. The 25th Amendment is.

Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein is not a lawyer, but draws the obvious political conclusion:

In any other conceivable moment in US history, this tape would result in the leadership of both parties demanding the immediate resignation of the President of the United States.

Raffensperger. Raffensperger has already spoken out about being pressured by Trump’s allies. In November, he said that Lindsey Graham had pressured him to find a way not to count legally cast mail-in votes. Graham denied doing that, which is why Raffensperger decided to make a recording this time.

So why not record the call with the president, Raffensperger’s advisers thought, if nothing else for fact-checking purposes. “This is a man who has a history of reinventing history as it occurs,” one of them told Playbook. “So if he’s going to try to dispute anything on the call, it’s nice to have something like this, hard evidence, to dispute whatever he’s claiming about the secretary. Lindsey Graham asked us to throw out legally cast ballots. So yeah, after that call, we decided maybe we should do this.”

Raffensperger held the tape until Trump mischaracterized the call:

I spoke to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger yesterday about Fulton County and voter fraud in Georgia. He was unwilling, or unable, to answer questions such as the “ballots under table” scam, ballot destruction, out of state “voters”, dead voters, and more. He has no clue!

As with the Ukraine call, the Raffensperger call is just the one we happen to know about. We can only wonder: How many other calls has he made to pressure election officials into breaking the law for him?

Shenanigans in Congress. On Wednesday, Congress meets to officially receive and count the electoral votes. Ordinarily this is a formality that the public barely notices, but we’ve never before had an autocrat pulling out all the stops to stay in power (and quite likely to stay out of jail). Back in August, when I was considering Trump’s options for overthrowing democracy, I circled this date:

Here’s something I have great faith in: If the joint session of Congress on January 6 recognizes that Joe Biden has received the majority of electoral votes, he will become president at noon on January 20 and the government will obey his orders. Where Donald Trump is at the time, and whatever he is claiming or tweeting, will be of no consequence.

The inauguration itself is a tradition, not a constitutional requirement. Biden has to take the oath, but he could do it in his basement in Delaware. (After the Kennedy assassination, Vice President Johnson took the oath of office on Air Force One.) Congress’ recognition of his election signals to the rest of the government that Biden becomes president on January 20.

It appears there will be a challenge. Dozens of Republican congresspeople have said they will challenge the electors of various states, possibly including Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Saturday, seven current Republican senators and four who will take their seats in the new Senate announced their support for Trump’s coup attempt. This is not a formality or a protest: Trump is claiming that he should remain in office in spite of the state-certified election results, and these Republicans are backing that claim.

This has never happened before in American history.

According to their joint statement, the senators are demanding that Congress

immediately appoint an Electoral Commission, with full investigatory and fact-finding authority, to conduct an emergency 10-day audit of the election returns in the disputed states. Once completed, individual states would evaluate the Commission’s findings and could convene a special legislative session to certify a change in their vote, if needed.

This would keep the drama going right up to January 20, when the Trump and Pence terms end. If no successor has been recognized by then, we’re in uncharted territory. In that scenario, probably Nancy Pelosi has the best claim on the office.

The statement cites “unprecedented allegations of voter fraud, violations and lax enforcement of election law, and other voting irregularities” as a reason for this Commission, which the statement suggests should be modeled on the one that delivered the presidency to Rutherford Hayes in 1876 (as part of a deal that ended Reconstruction and set the stage for the Jim Crow era in the South).

Coyly, the senators make no actual allegations, and provide no evidence that there was any significant fraud — because there is no such evidence. Trump’s allegations have been raised in the appropriate venues and have been rejected at every turn by state and local election boards, secretaries of state, and state and federal courts at all levels. Often, when they get to court, Trump’s lawyers have refused to make the claims Trump makes, or that the same lawyers make to the media. There are, after all, consequences for lying to judges, but none for lying the American public.

Many of the officials who rejected the claims are Republicans (like Raffensperger) and many of the judges were appointed by Republicans, including some by Trump himself. Trump administration officials, including Attorney General Bill Barr, have found no evidence of the kind of fraud that could have decided the election. Trump has urged Republican legislatures to overturn their states’ elections, and none has done so.

Instead, the statement justifies the Election Commission by quoting polls showing that large numbers of Americans believe Trump’s lies — and the echoing lies of some of these same senators — that the election was rigged. Ben Sasse summarizes:

Right now we are locked in a destructive, vicious circle:Step 1: Allege widespread voter fraud. Step 2: Fail to offer specific evidence of widespread fraud. Step 3: Demand investigation, on grounds that there are “allegations” of voter fraud.

Facts don’t matter. It should be obvious that if such a 10-day Election Commission is convened on January 6, on January 16 we’ll be right back where we are now: The Commission might rehash some fanciful tales of fraud, but it will find no evidence (because there is no evidence). No legislatures will replace their electors. Trump will continue to say the election was rigged, and his sheep will continue to repeat his claims. Worse, he and his followers will use the very existence of a commission to claim that there was something uniquely suspect about the 2020 election. Rather than restore public confidence, the Commission would dignify Trump’s conspiracy theories.

If this were a dispute about facts, a fact-finding commission might resolve it. But the facts have been clear for a long time. (Ben Sasse has summarized them pretty well too.) Trump and his followers don’t want to accept the facts, and no one can make them. They want to overturn the election so that Trump can have a second term — and probably stay in office for life. Nothing else will satisfy them, so they will have to go unsatisfied.

Republican pushback. Fortunately, this effort to turn America fascist will fail on Wednesday, with both the House and the Senate declaring Biden the winner. Trump’s supporters will probably riot in response — so much for law and order — but they will achieve nothing.

The effort will fail because not all Republicans are going along with it. Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse have been the most vocal critics in the Republican Senate caucus, but Lindsey Graham, Tom Cotton, Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski have also made statements against the challenge. Prominent Republicans not currently in office have also denounced the move. Paul Ryan, for example, was blunt:

Efforts to reject the votes of the Electoral College and sow doubt about Joe Biden’s victory strike at the foundation of our republic. It is difficult to conceive of a more anti-democratic and anti-conservative act than a federal intervention to overturn the results of state-certified elections and disenfranchise millions of Americans. The fact that this effort will fail does not mean it will not do significant damage to American democracy.

And then? Once Congress has recognized Biden’s election, Trump has no more cards to play within the American political system. His only option then is to attempt a violent revolution. This could be why all living former defense secretaries — including Trump secretaries James Mattis and Mark Esper — issued a statement urging current Pentagon officials to cooperate in the Biden transition (which Trump’s people have not been doing).

Acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller and his subordinates — political appointees, officers and civil servants — are each bound by oath, law and precedent to facilitate the entry into office of the incoming administration, and to do so wholeheartedly. They must also refrain from any political actions that undermine the results of the election or hinder the success of the new team.

My personal prediction is that Trump will back down from starting an armed conflict that he will lose, just as he has lost everywhere else. Instead, I expect that after Congress votes and the Proud Boys riot, he will enter the bargaining stage of his defeat: We’ll start hearing about all the horrible things he could still do, and what he wants in order to restrain himself from doing them.

The Yearly Sift 2020: State of the Sift

One annual tradition of this blog is to take a look back at the numbers and assess the Weekly Sift’s popularity. It’s sort of a compromise with myself: I avoid the tendency to focus week-by-week on how the posts perform, as well as the temptation to pander to a wider audience at the expense of my regular readers. But at the same time, the point of doing a blog is to have readers, so I need to notice what does or doesn’t get a response.

One event that pulls this question into focus happened in 2011, when “Six True Things Politicians Can’t Say” suddenly hit it big with over 50,000 page views in a single day — still a Sift record. For a long time, it was the blog’s most popular post, with more than double the number of hits of posts I thought were more substantial. (No doubt one-hit-wonder bands feel the same way.) Not that there was anything wrong with “Six True Things”, but I had the hunch that its popularity had more to do with its formulaic clickbait title than with its content. For months afterward, I resisted the temptation to come up with “Six More True Things Politicians Can’t Say”. (I still use the X-things format when appropriate, like this year’s “The Four Big Lies of the Republican Convention“.)

So anyway, I think about these things once a year.

As I’ve explained in previous years, various measures of this blog’s popularity have been in contradictory trends for several years: Year after year it has more regular readers but fewer (and less explosive) viral posts. I think the lack of viral posts is largely the result of changes in Facebook’s algorithms, which make it harder for a link to spread without paying Facebook to promote it (which I never do). That certainly is a factor that has been felt across the blogosphere, but it’s hard to say if that’s the whole explanation. Maybe I just don’t write ’em like I used to.

So anyway, if you look at total hits on the site, as measured by WordPress, that statistic peaked at 782K in 2015, and then declined each year until it hit 188K in 2019. 2019’s numbers would have been even lower without “How Should We Rewrite the Second Amendment?“, which got 17K hits because a Google algorithm called it to the attention of people interested in the Second Amendment, who positively hated it. It picked up 303 comments, almost all of them negative. (“Take this article, crumble it up nice and tight and shove it up your ass.”) I believe this is my only post that ever went negatively viral, by spreading from one hater to another. (Though 2011’s “Why I Am Not a Libertarian“, with 28K hits and 283 far more mixed comments, was arguably another one.) I picture gun-nuts all over the country sending each other the link with a comment like: “Look at this! Can you believe this shit?”

This year, driven by the election and the amount of quarantine time we all spent browsing the internet, total hits rebounded to over 200K, and should wind up around 205K. Comparisons to 2015 tell a clear story: Over 400K of 2015’s hits came from two viral posts: “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party” (which posted in 2014, but got most of its hits in 2015) and “You Don’t Have to Hate Anybody to be a Bigot“. “The Distress of the Privileged“, which came out in 2012, chipped in another 50K.

Those kind of single-post numbers have been out of reach for a long time. “Not a Tea Party” and “Distress” garnered an additional 14K hits in 2020 — I have no idea what sets them on new runs — but the most popular new posts of 2020 had far more modest numbers: “Ten Principles that Unify Democrats (and most of the country)” (6.6K), “The Underlying Differences Between Liberals and Conservatives” (5.9K), and “In the Land of ‘No We Can’t’” (3.7K). “Opening Thoughts About the Trump Voter” (2.9K) came out two weeks ago and hasn’t finished its run yet, so it should go over 3K in the next day or two.

On the other hand, WordPress also tells me that 6032 people now follow the blog. I have no idea exactly what that number includes, how often those six thousand folks read the posts WordPress emails them, whether they forward those emails to their friends, or how many people read the Sift through some other blog-following service. But the apples-to-apples on that 6032 is 3820 in 2015. I started noticing Facebook numbers in 2018, when the Sift’s page had 978 follows; it now has 1166.

A mixed measure of readership is hits on the homepage, Those hits are of two types: (1) regular readers who have the blog bookmarked so they can check it regularly, and (2) people who come across some viral post and then look at the homepage to see what else the blog does. I have no idea how to separate the two. That number peaked at 101K in 2016, then declined each year to 66K last year before rebounding somewhat this year to around 69-70K.

Hits on the weekly summaries — which again are mainly read by regulars — are up significantly. Years ago, 300 hits was a good number for a summary, but much higher numbers are common now: April 20’s “Off the Table” got nearly a thousand views.

Finally, the number — and I would argue, the quality — of the comments has been going up for some while. The Sift now has what I said I wanted several years ago: a commenting community. There are now discussions I don’t feel I need to get involved in, because I had my say already and you guys are doing fine. A few years ago, I felt like I had to respond whenever a commenter pushed a false right-wing talking point, because otherwise the blog would be a vehicle for disinformation. But these days, there are regular commenters who take care of that.

There were 1407 comments in 2015 (again, most of them responding to the small number of viral posts). This year had somewhat more: 1540 with a week to go; 1570 if you count the last week of 2019 to make a full year. So a smaller number of hits on the website is leading to more comments. Substance is hard to quantify, but my impression is that in the past more comments were pretty simple agreements or disagreements. If you look at “Opening Thoughts About the Trump Voter” from two weeks ago, the comments are almost more interesting than the post.

Next year, I’m going to face the same problem as all political media: How do I draw attention without the five-alarm dumpster fire of the Trump presidency? I’m thinking about it. Maybe it’s finally time for “Six More True Things”.

Republicans Start Reaping the Whirlwind

Republican officials who want to recognize reality, do their jobs, and follow the law are finding themselves branded as Republicans In Name Only.

Early in the classic movie A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More is arguing with zealous young William Roper about the importance of the Law. Roper asks whether More would extend the benefits of the law even to the Devil himself, and More turns the question around: “What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?” Roper allows that this would be a fine idea, that he would be willing to “cut down every law in England” in order to pursue the Devil. And More responds:

And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?

In the weeks since the election, Republicans like Arizona’s Governor Doug Ducey, Georgia’s Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, and even Trump appointees like Attorney General Bill Barr, and cybersecurity czar Christopher Krebs have been learning a similar lesson, not about Law, but about Reality.

For decades, Republicans have been motivating their base voters by dabbling in fantasies and conspiracy theories. But they have always imagined that the craziness could be put back in its bottle after it had served its purpose. In the waning days of the Trump administration, however, the fantasy world has taken over and demanded fealty. Republican officials who want to recognize reality, do their jobs, and follow the law are finding themselves branded as villainous turncoats, Republicans In Name Only.

Few in the GOP have the courage to stand up to that pressure. A Washington Post survey this week found that only 25 Republicans in Congress (later rising to 27) are willing to admit that Joe Biden won the election.

Two Republicans consider Trump the winner despite all evidence showing otherwise. And another 220 GOP members of the House and Senate — about 88 percent of all Republicans serving in Congress — will simply not say who won the election.

And soon-to-be-former President Donald Trump responded to that report by wanting to know who those disloyal Republicans are.

25, wow! I am surprised there are so many. We have just begun to fight. Please send me a list of the 25 RINOS.

And it’s not just the Stolen Trump Victory fantasy, it’s also the Covid Isn’t a Big Deal fantasy. Ohio’s Republican Governor Mike DeWine is facing calls for impeachment from his own party, because he insists on taking action to save his citizens’ lives. Viewed from the Conservative Fantasy World (CFW), his attempt to slow the spread of a deadly virus

promotes fear, turns neighbors against neighbors, and contracts the economy by making people fearful to leave their homes.

Other Republicans have taken note. South Dakota’s Governor Kristi Noem has seen Covid burn through her state like a wildfire through a dry grassland, and done essentially nothing to stop it. With visions of national office, Noem does not dare tie herself to reality.

At the end of the Trump administration, the CFW is not just one or two fantasies, it is many: Antifa is burning down our cities! Hunter Biden did [I can never quite figure out what]! The Deep State invented the Russia hoax! Joe Biden has dementia! The DNC server is in Ukraine! Bill Gates is trying to micro-chip us all! Anti-Covid restrictions are a plot against religion! Democrats are protecting an international pedophile ring! George Soros is financing a migrant caravan invasion of our country!

It’s not just an occasional rabble-rousing slogan any more, not just a Willie Horton ad or a food-stamp-lobster story that can be set aside after the inauguration. Republicans now live in a 24/7 fantasy world, and if anyone attempts to leave it, there are consequences.

As in the extreme branches of Islam, apostasy will not be tolerated. And the apostate cannot seek the protection of facts or logic or law, because in the zealous pursuit of liberal devils, all those barriers have been cut down.

Georgia. The consequences are most visible in Georgia, which Joe Biden won by just under 12,000 votes. That margin has held up through three recounts, including a hand recount (which would have corrected any problem with the voting machines).

In the CFW, however, Trump did not lose by seven million votes nationwide, but in fact won a resounding landslide. If only “legal” votes were counted, Trump would win 410 electoral votes, carrying even California. Former three-star general and pardoned felon Michael Flynn recited the catechism:

There is no doubt in my mind that he won this election. Hands down. In a landslide. I believe that at the end of the day we’re going to find out that he won by a massive landslide and he’ll be inaugurated come this January.

That landslide victory has to include Georgia’s 13 electoral votes, so anyone involved in verifying the vote totals or certifying the election must be part of the Biden Steal, including Kemp, Raffensperger, Republican state election official Gabriel Sterling, and a 20-year-old computer geek working for Sterling. All of them, including the 20-year-old, have been getting death threats. This set off Sterling, who delivered an epic rant (video, transcript).

Joe diGenova today asked for Chris Krebs, a patriot who ran CISA, to be shot. A 20 something tech in Gwinnett County today has death threats and a noose put out, saying he should be hung for treason because he was transferring a report on batches from an EMS to a county computer so we could read it. It has to stop. Mr. President, you have not condemned these actions or this language. Senators, you have not condemned this language or these actions. This has to stop. … This is elections. This is the backbone of democracy. And all of you who have not said a damn word are complicit in this. It’s too much.

The “senators” he is addressing are David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, the ones involved in the January 5 runoffs, where Republicans need to win at least one seat to retain control of the Senate. Both are in a tricky position that prevents them from upholding reality, or even denouncing the threats of violence against fellow Republicans. They need the full support of Trump’s personality cult if they’re going to win their elections. But they also need the suburban voters who did in fact put Biden over the top last month.

At a time when Republicans need to unite, they are attacking each other. They are also asking their voters to believe contradictory things: Trump is going to win a second term, but Perdue and Loeffler need to win to keep President Biden from having a Democratic Senate. Republicans should come out and vote, even though the rigged voting machines will flip their votes to Democrats.

How did this happen? The Republican reliance on fantasy has grown tremendously in the last four years, but it didn’t start with Trump.

Back in 2012, in “Five Pretty Lies and the Ugly Truths They Hide” I picked out these bits of political whimsy:

  • Raped women don’t get pregnant.
  • The uninsured can get the medical care they need in the ER.
  • Tax cuts pay for themselves.
  • Gays can be “cured”.
  • Obama’s election proved that racism is over.

Of course, even then that was far from a complete list. “People who work hard aren’t poor,” is a perennial favorite, and you can always find some (white, of course) Republicans ready to tell you that slavery wasn’t really so bad. An entire genre of fantasy falls into the form “The real victims of discrimination are X” where the choices include all manner of privileged groups: men, whites, Christians, straights, and so on. And who can forget the Atlas-Shrugged vision of the productive rich, whose largesse provides for the rest of us by “giving” us jobs?

In addition to fantasies about how the world works, the CFW has included fantasies about events, like Saddam’s mobile chemical-weapons labs, the Benghazi stand-down order, Barack Obama’s birth in Kenya, and ObamaCare’s death panels.

The CFW is marked as much by what it leaves out as what it invents. Global warming isn’t real, and neither is systemic racism. Science has no more claim to authority than any other belief system, and evolution is “just a theory”. The human failings of the Founders have been airbrushed away, as have any unworthy motives behind American wars, or any economic contributions made by undocumented immigrants.

Trump’s advantage. None of that is new. But the key insight of Donald Trump, the one that allowed him to push aside so many better qualified and better connected Republican rivals in 2016, was that the balance of power between Fact and Fantasy had decisively shifted in favor of the unreal. Pre-Trump Republicans had treated the CFW the way an imperial power treats a colony: They went there when they needed something, like votes or campaign contributions. But when it was time to staff a government, Republicans like the Bushes or McCain or Romney would draw from the same expert class Democrats did. Considerable effort might go into explaining policy in fantasy-world terms, but the behind-closed-doors discussions that shaped those policies happened in the real world.

And don’t think that the full-time denizens of the CFW didn’t notice. They may be deluded, but they’re not stupid. They understood very well the phoniness of reality-based Republicans who merely humored them. Trump, on the other hand, stood out as more authentic, precisely because he had given himself whole-heartedly to the fantasy.

TrumpWorld. In exchange for his undivided loyalty to the fantasy other Republicans only exploited, the true-believing base awarded Trump the power to define that fantasy. Today, the CFW is what Trump says it is. If Trump’s ego will not allow him to face his defeat, then he didn’t lose. Anyone who says he did is a RINO, and any media outlet that reports the facts is Fake News. In the absence of any reliable independent source of information, any story is as good as any other. The only difference is who you trust and what you want to believe.

This kind of loyalty is an asset beyond the dreams of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. But unfortunately for those Republicans who have hitched themselves to Trump’s CFW-defining power, he does not believe that he is hitched to them. He cares nothing for how loyal you have been in the past, but only about whether you support what he is saying now. If you don’t, he will turn ’round on you.

And how will you stand upright in the winds that blow then?

Can I Get Over Donald Trump?

Maybe the healing America needs should start with me.

This week, the third one since the presidential election, I — like almost everybody else in America — spent more time thinking about the loser of that election than the winner.

If you don’t remember previous transition periods, it’s hard to get across just how strange that is. At this point in his administration, every previous one-term president in my lifetime — Bush the First, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, LBJ — was already starting to fade into history. Even exiting two-term presidents — Barack Obama, Bush the Second, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan — were planning their moves back to wherever and leafing through proposals for their presidential libraries.

As for media coverage, it’s supposed to be like the Eagles’ song:

Where you been lately?
There’s a new kid in town.

All previous presidential transitions brought in lots of new kids. People from the victorious campaign, veterans from previous administrations, and prominent governors or members of Congress were either getting new positions or maneuvering for them. Remember Mitt Romney going to Trump Tower in hopes of becoming Secretary of State? That’s the kind of story that usually makes headlines in the weeks after an election.

Even the members of your party most skeptical of your candidacy come around like Flatnose Curry after Butch Cassidy wins the knife fight: “I was really rootin’ for you, Butch.”

And Joe Biden is playing his part. He has named his Covid-19 task force and his chief of staff. Cabinet nominations are due to start rolling out this week. Reportedly, the foreign policy team is already chosen: Antony Blinken will be secretary of state Linda Thomas-Greenfield ambassador to the UN, and Jake Sullivan national security advisor. (You remember, that’s Mike Flynn’s old job.) A treasury secretary is coming soon — quite possibly the first woman ever to play that role.

And yet, what are we talking about? Trump.

Why won’t he concede? Will he ever let the Biden transition officially begin? What’s going on with all these absurd lawsuits, rolled out by people who ought to be in asylums (Sidney Powell ) or in jail (Rudy Giuliani)? Is he staging a coup? Can it possibly work? (No.) Why is he calling local election officials and meeting with Republican legislators in states Biden won? Why is he replacing the leadership in the Pentagon?

Now, it’s hard to claim we shouldn’t pay attention. Trump is breaking the norms of democracy, sabotaging the next administration, and just generally putting his own interests ahead of the country’s — like he always does. If nobody paid attention to his coup attempt, it might even work.

These three weeks have been a microcosm of the last four years. Nobody wanted to read stories about the American government ripping children away from their parents and stashing them in cages, or about our President standing on a stage with an enemy dictator and siding with the dictator against our own intelligence services, or about that President’s even-handed assessment of Nazis and anti-Nazis.

This really happened.

But we felt we had to pay attention; public pressure was the only tool we had to set things right — or at least keep them from getting worse. Arguably, the reason the administration still hasn’t found the parents of hundreds of the children it kidnapped is that we let ourselves lose focus; after Trump’s people announced that the policy had been reversed, we moved on.

I feel the same way about covering Trump’s inept coup: People do need to pay attention to this, and to appreciate the disregard for American democracy it demonstrates.

And yet, when I introspect, I can tell that there’s more going on inside me than just the public interest. The news about Trump is intense. It makes me feel things — anger, frustration, fear. I don’t think he can overthrow democracy, but what if I’m wrong?

The Biden news, by contrast, seems flat. His Covid team consists of doctors and public health experts, without a charlatan in sight. He’s not going to be taking his advice from a radiologist or the My Pillow guy. Nobody’s pushing quack cures. They’re trying to get you to wear a mask and wash your hands, like experts have been saying for months and months. Nobody is telling you to inject bleach or lying about the death statistics or promising that the virus will go away like magic.

That’s all very sensible, but what should I feel about it?

Similarly, Biden’s foreign policy team is made up of foreign-policy types. They believe in alliances and treaties and international law. None of them have been making public appearances with Vladimir Putin or taking money from Turkey. They don’t come from corporations that stand to make billions if Russian sanctions get relaxed.

How does any of that keep my adrenaline pumping?

For four years now, I — and I think a lot of my readers as well — have been stuck in a relationship with the President of the United States that has not just been dysfunctional, it’s been downright abusive. Day after day, I have approached my news sources by armoring myself against attack. I have expected that each day I will somehow be insulted by my President, or that he will do or say something that will make me feel ashamed of a country I used to take pride in. He will involve me in sins that I can never make right.

Day after day, I’ve had to overcome a sense of “He can’t do that.” Again and again, I’ve been surprised as he disregarded some norm of democracy and good government that I had come to take for granted. He can’t ignore Hatch Act violations up and down his government. (Oh yes he can.) He can’t make a deal to commute Roger Stone’s sentence in exchange for Stone’s continued silence about collusion with Russia. (Oh yes he can.) He can’t dangle a pardon in front of Paul Manafort to induce him not to cooperate with the Mueller investigation. (Oh yes he can.) He can’t get the Justice Department to defend him in a lawsuit filed by a woman he raped. (Oh yes he can, but a judge can turn DOJ away.) He can’t ruin the careers of government officials in revenge for their role in exposing Russia’s effort to get him elected or his Ukraine extortion scheme. (Oh yes he can.)

As a result, I’ve walked around with a sense of dread. What else can he do that I have thought was impossible?

It will be a great relief to be rid of that dread, which I’m sure has pushed down my mood even when I wasn’t consciously thinking about it.

And yet … those strong emotions are so addictive. It’s typical not to know what to do with yourself when you first come out of an abusive relationship. If you’re lucky enough to form a new relationship with somebody sane and sensible and good-hearted (like Joe Biden), it’s hard to take it seriously. If you don’t cry over your relationship at least once a week, are you really in love? If nothing you do makes your partner crazy enough to send you to the emergency room, does he really care about you?

After that dysfunctional intensity, sane relationships seem flat. That could be why victims of abuse so often go back and give their abusers another chance. Or why ex-members of cults feel themselves being drawn back in.

I remember how it felt when my wife’s nine-month breast cancer treatment program drew to a close, and it started to look like she might beat this thing. (That was more than 20 years ago, and she’s doing fine.) For most of a year, we had lived with the constant awareness that some test we were waiting for could come back with a death sentence, or that some treatment could induce a disastrous side effect. And then suddenly there were no more tests and no more treatments. “Come back in six months.”

Normal life, long periods of time without life-and-death questions to answer — what do you do with that?

Soldiers return from war to confront a world where nobody will die if they make a mistake. A “bad day” means you got stuck in a traffic jam, or the team you root for lost a playoff game, or the report that was due Friday won’t actually come out until Monday. What do you do with that?

After four years of wondering whether we were living through the end of American democracy, can we really return to normal politics? If TV networks have to go back to discussing deficits and interest rates and cost overruns on the new weapons system, will anybody watch?

Matt Yglesias makes fun of the difficulties he faces as he starts a new for-money blog in the post-Trump era:

Tomorrow’s post is going to defy the woke censors and speak some plain truths about interest rate policy from five years ago. Trigger warning: Will feature some discussion of the difference between core and headline PCE inflation.

Joe Biden has begun his transition to the presidency by talking about healing. Most of us have jumped to the conclusion that healing has to start with attempts to make peace with the 70+-million Americans who voted for continuing the march towards fascism. Maybe Biden should seek peace by pardoning Trump like Ford pardoned Nixon. (Or maybe that’s a horrible mistake.)

Maybe we need another round of reporters visiting small-town diners and talking to Trump’s faithful, or more books like Hillbilly Elegy. Maybe we need to see that Trump voters are not deluded cultists brainwashed by Q-Anon, but thoughtful people whose interests and points of view we aren’t properly appreciating.

Here’s what I think: The very violence of my feelings about those questions tells me that healing really needs to start somewhere else. It needs to start with me, and maybe with you also.

The first step I can take towards healing America is to get over Trump. I need to stop looking to him for my political intensity, and stop looking for some new source of intensity to replace him.

I’ll be healed when I can begin a day without feeling an overhang of dread, without anticipating some new insult or threat or shame coming to me from the White House. I’ll be healed when I can appreciate the lack of intensity in our politics, and not experience it as a flatness or an eerie moment before the storm. I’ll be healed when a news cycle that doesn’t demand my immediate emotional response feels open and free rather than dull. I’ll be healed when I look forward to such days and think about how I want to shape them, now that I am not being constantly trolled and my feelings are truly my own.

When that day comes, then I’ll be able to look outward and think sanely about the next steps in healing America. But until then, I suspect that all my efforts will be contaminated by my continued entanglement in Trump

So I’d better start working on that.

Hard Looks

I think Biden will win. I also think the problem in this election is not the polling industry getting it wrong, it’s the fact that this many Americans took a hard look at Trump and determined “yeah, I want four more years of that”

Ben Rhodes, 8:30 a.m. Wednesday

This week’s featured post is “Sitting With the Weirdness“.

This week everybody was talking about the election

Most of what I have to say about the election is in the featured post: This was a genuinely weird election that doesn’t fit anybody’s model. I think if we force-fit it into our prior beliefs, we’ll miss a chance to learn something.

While I am relieved that Trump will be out in January (and he will be), I’m disappointed to learn that 70 million Americans would be happy to keep marching towards fascism. Paul Waldman made that point at more length:

If Biden becomes president, as it looks like he will, we can let out a sigh of relief. At least the daily horrors emanating from the Trump administration will cease, and at least we won’t have to care what Trump himself is thinking and tweeting from hour to hour.

But if you believed Biden when he so often responded to some new misdeed by pleading, “This is not who we are. We’re better than this,” you were wrong. This is who we are. We are not better than this. And we won’t be for a long time to come, if ever.

To no one’s surprise, Trump is not going gracefully. Rather than conceding, he has launched a barrage of baseless lawsuits, for the purpose of creating enough delay and fog to allow Republican legislatures in states like Pennsylvania to award him their electoral votes in defiance of the electorate.

Again and again, for example, Trump has been claiming that Republicans were not allowed to observe vote counting. This is just false.

There have been no reports of systematic irregularities with poll watchers anywhere in the US. There is no evidence supporting the President’s claims that GOP poll watchers were shut out of the process, and Trump’s campaign still hasn’t backed up this broad claim in court.

CNN has reporters across the country following developments at polling places on Election Day and the ongoing vote-counting process, and saw nothing resembling Trump’s allegations.

Ezra Klein points out that if this were happening in a third-world country, we’d have no trouble calling it an attempted coup.

That this coup probably will not work — that it is being carried out farcically, erratically, ineffectively — does not mean it is not happening, or that it will not have consequences. … This is, to borrow Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar’s framework, “an autocratic attempt.” That’s the stage in the transition toward autocracy in which the would-be autocrat is trying to sever his power from electoral check. If he’s successful, autocratic breakthrough follows, and then autocratic consolidation occurs. In this case, the would-be autocrat stands little chance of being successful. But he will not entirely fail, either. What Trump is trying to form is something akin to an autocracy-in-exile, an alternative America in which he is the rightful leader, and he — and the public he claims to represent — has been robbed of power by corrupt elites.

He will not keep Biden from taking office. But he will make it much harder for Republicans to cooperate with the new administration. To do so, they will have to leave the Trump alternate reality, and so be seen as disloyal by the Trump base.

So far, thank God, none of Trump’s inflammatory lies have led to violence.

Fox News has had a split personality this week: The daytime journalists are playing it fairly straight, reporting Trump’s accusations of vote-counting fraud while clearly stating they have seen no evidence to support those claims. Meanwhile, the nightshift propagandists have been all but called for an uprising.

Trump’s shenanigans are already monkey-wrenching the transition.

This week, all eyes are on the Trump-appointed General Services Administration administrator, Emily W. Murphy, to recognize Joe Biden as the president-elect and release funds to the Biden transition team through a process called ascertainment. This would mark the first formal acknowledgment from the Trump administration that Biden has in fact won the election, and would unlock access to national security tools to streamline background checks and additional funds to pay for training and incoming staff.But nearly 48 hours after the race was called by numerous news organizations, Murphy has not yet signed off. A GSA spokesperson declined to provide a specific timeline for when ascertainment would take place, a clear signal the agency won’t get ahead of the President.

Best meme I’ve seen:

and the virus is truly out of control now

Remember how everybody was going to quit talking about “Covid, Covid, Covid” after the election? I don’t think so.

Cases had been rising since a mid-September low of around 25K new infections per day. But this week showed an abrupt rise: We’ve now had five consecutive days over 100K. Deaths always lag cases by about a month, but we also had five consecutive days over 1,000 deaths, after getting down to about 700 per day in mid-October. It’s a reasonable guess that by next month we’ll be hitting 2,000 deaths in a day.

But there is good news on the vaccine front: Pfizer reports that its vaccine is 90% effective — far higher than previously expected. That’s from an interim analysis of its Phase 3 trials, which are not finished. The company plans to ask the FDA for emergency use authorization in about two weeks.

That doesn’t mean you can get vaccinated by Thanksgiving. Production and distribution is still a huge logistical problem. But it is good news.

The Onion captures the absurdity of anti-mask protests: “Anti-Jacketers Rally Outside Burlington Coat Factory To Protest Liberal Cold Weather Conspiracy“.

and we have to think about what happens next

One big decision that has to happen in the next few months: Should federal prosecutors enforce the laws that Trump and his minions have been violating? Or should the new administration declare bygones in hopes of bringing the country together?

I’m firmly in the enforce-the-law camp. It’s still debatable whether President Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon was correct, but that was a very different situation: Nixon had resigned after Republican senators told him they could no longer defend him. In other words, he was in disgrace and would never make a comeback. Also, he was seen as an anomaly. Post-pardon, we could implement reforms to keep his abuses from happening again, and otherwise stop thinking about him.

But Trump still has his party behind him and has admitted nothing. If the facts against him are never presented to a court, he will claim that all the accusations against him were political. And he’ll be back in 2024.

I’m also hearing a lot of talk about dialog with the 70 million Trump voters, to find out who they are and what they want. I’m not very optimistic about that dialog, though, because I don’t see any indication that they want to talk to or understand us.

After 2016, there was a small industry of books about rural whites and Southern Evangelicals. News organizations sent a steady stream of reporters to hang out in diners in Ohio and Indiana to find out how the locals viewed the world.

Does anybody expect Fox or NewsMax reporters to start hanging with black women in Atlanta? Is Barrio Elegy going to rise up the bestseller lists? Will Liberty University researchers study the folks who frequent public libraries and science museums? I don’t think so. They don’t want a dialog, and until they do, I don’t see much hope for one.

and you also might be interested in …

Puerto Rico passed a referendum in favor of statehood. There is no precedent in American history for governing this many people as a territory for this long. Statehood would be a no-brainer but for two considerations: Republicans don’t want to admit a state that will probably vote Democratic, and white supremacists don’t want a state full of brown people who speak Spanish.

If these were English-speaking white people with Republican sensibilities, they’d have been a state a long time ago.

With a Democrat in the White House, the budget deficit will be back on center stage. For four years, it was like the debt never existed, but now it will become an existential threat to the nation again.

and let’s close with something delightfully nasty

I usually keep politics out of the closings, but this one is hilarious. (And yes, I know they misspelled Führer.) A clip from the last-days-of-Hitler movie Downfall has had its German subtitles replaced by Trump-loses-the-election lines. I’ve seen this clip labeled Donfall.

Sitting With the Weirdness

If you want to learn something from this election,
don’t be too quick to explain it.

Every election is followed by a spate of what-it-all-means commentary, and usually what it means is that the commentator was right from the beginning: I saw this coming. I warned everybody. If people had just listened to me it all would have turned out better.

So I want to start this post out by saying clearly that I did not see this coming, I did not warn everybody, and I’m still not sure what we all could have done better. I think a lot of genuinely weird things happened in this election, and I don’t want to explain them away too quickly. Instead, I want to sit with the weirdness for a while and see if there’s something to learn.

Because I don’t have a this-explains-everything interpretation of this election, I’m going to wander a bit. So let me start with a quick list of the surprises I want to think about:

  • Donald Trump is not as unpopular as I thought, or as I think he ought to be.
  • The highest-turnout election in living memory did not result in a Democratic landslide.
  • Polling still had the problems that pollsters thought they had fixed since 2016.

Trump should be unpopular. My view coming in to this election was that Trump’s 2016 win was a fluke: He faced an unpopular opponent in a low-turnout election during a news cycle that was breaking against her. He got only 46% of the vote, but it was perfectly distributed to give him an Electoral College win, despite losing the popular vote by 2.8 million.

Since taking office, it seemed to me that he had done nothing to appeal to the 54% who hadn’t voted for him, and several things to alienate some of the 46% who had. His job-approval had stayed consistently low, though it never reached the depths that Richard Nixon or George W. Bush hit by the end of their presidencies.

The Trump administration has been marked by incidents and practices sharply at variance with what I saw as traditional American values: taking children away from parents who committed no crime other than coming to our border legally seeking asylum; siding with a hostile foreign dictator against our own intelligence services; lumping Nazi and anti-Nazi demonstrators together, even after the right-wingers killed someone; demanding that the attorney general arrest his political opponents, while protecting his own henchmen from the legal consequences of their actions; abusing his power to extort a personal political favor from Ukraine; showing zero empathy as nearly a quarter million Americans died of the pandemic.

His administration has been a failure not just by my standards, but by its own. Not much of his wall has been built, it’s costing more than he said it would, and Mexico has not paid a dime of it. ObamaCare has not been repealed or replaced; despite repeated promises, no replacement plan has even been announced. America’s international prestige has plummeted. Even before the pandemic, economic growth chugged along at the Obama-era pace, with no acceleration. Fewer people have jobs now than when he took office. GDP is at the same level as 2018. The trade deficit has gone up. The budget deficit Trump inherited from Obama had nearly doubled before the pandemic, and the 2020 deficit by itself is larger than the total deficit from Obama’s second term.

Trump had a disastrous performance in the first debate, and in general ran a terrible campaign. He never presented a second-term vision, to the point of not even bothering to produce a 2020 GOP platform. He mismanaged money, and wound up getting outspent down the stretch. His Hunter Biden conspiracy theories never got traction.

Going into the election, the news cycle was breaking against him. The third Covid wave was hitting, and his plan for dealing with it was for us all to go back to normal life, as if thousands of Americans weren’t dying week after week with no end in sight. Worse, he was going around the country actively spreading the disease by drawing his supporters together for big maskless rallies.

So the polls that showed him down by double digits seemed very credible to me. Sure, some of the people who supported him in 2016 will never admit they were wrong, but given all that has happened, why wouldn’t he lose in a historic rout?

Well, he didn’t.

Trump didn’t just increase his vote total (from 63 million to 71 million counted so far) he got more votes than Barack Obama did in his 2008 landslide. Wednesday, Ben Rhodes put his finger on something important:

I think Biden will win. I also think the problem in this election is not the polling industry getting it wrong, it’s the fact that this many Americans took a hard look at Trump and determined “yeah, I want four more years of that”

This is one of the mysteries I still need to wrap my head around. Trump attracted millions of millions of voters who didn’t vote for him in 2016. If you consider the number of votes still uncounted and how many of his older voters have died since 2016, he probably got 10 million or more new votes.

What did they see? What are they thinking?

I had hoped for a result that killed Trumpism forever. Instead, Republicans can attribute their loss to bad luck: If only the pandemic had waited until 2021 to show up, Trump might be set up for a second term.

Who killed the Blue Wave? Don’t get me wrong. Biden did fine. If you had promised me during the primaries that some Democratic candidate could hold all the Clinton states, win back Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, and add Arizona and Georgia, I’d have been been happy to see that person get the nomination. Biden got an outright majority of the popular vote, has a 4.4 million vote margin so far, and (with so much of California and New York still to be totaled) his ultimate margin is likely to be in the 5-6 million range. The turnout was historically high, so his vote total is the largest ever recorded.

But the October polls had me hoping for more: For Florida, North Carolina, and maybe Texas or Ohio. For a 10-point win that would demonstrate to Republicans that Trumpism is a dead end, and send them looking for a new paradigm. No Trump 2024. No passing the torch to Don Jr. or Jared or Ivanka. No Trump 2.0 like Tom Cotton or Tucker Carlson.

The polls had me hoping for a Senate majority that even had a little slack, so that we could fix the structural problems with our democracy: end the filibuster, admit D.C. and Puerto Rico as states, pass voting rights legislation, end gerrymandering, and perhaps even add justices to the Supreme Court.

Now, none of that is going to happen.

The final polls had a Biden margin of around 8%, and that gap had not been particularly volatile. Instead, Biden is winning by about 3% nationwide. In Wisconsin, where he had an 8.3% polling lead, he won by less than 1%. He had a 2.5% polling lead in Florida, and lost by 3.4%. (On the other hand, polls accurately predicted narrow Biden wins in Georgia and Arizona.)

In spite of efforts to fix the polling mistakes of 2016, the error in Trump’s favor grew, and showed up in precisely the same places.

I think we need to resist the temptation to read this as some kind of Biden failure or Democratic failure. The hoped-for Blue Wave didn’t collapse, it was never really there. Looking backwards, I think we have to reevaluate everything we thought we knew about public opinion. Those four years of Trump’s low approval ratings — why should we trust them? Maybe Trump was never as unpopular as we thought.

Ditto for those polls about the popularity of Medicare for All or any other policy. Why should we believe them?

I think Democrats need to resist the urge to point fingers at each other. Centrist and Progressive Democrats are like heirs who discover Grandpa’s estate isn’t nearly as big as they expected. The problem isn’t that one or the other of them took the money, it’s that the old guy wasn’t as rich as he appeared to be.

Sit with the weirdness, progressive version. My social-media universe skews left, so I’m seeing a lot of articles claiming that a candidate with a more progressive message would have done better than Biden. I’m skeptical. The post-2016 version of that argument was that Hillary’s centrist message failed to inspire the turnout Democrats needed to win. This year we got the big turnout, just not the landslide that was supposed to go with it. And I’m not buying that Medicare-for-All supporters showed up at the polls and voted for Trump because Biden would only propose adding a public option to ObamaCare.

I’m still waiting for progressive versions of Doug Jones and Joe Manchin and Claire McCaskill: candidates who have won elections in places where Democrats aren’t supposed to win. If the progressive theory of the electorate is true, such examples should be everywhere, but they’re not.

And I’m not satisfied with conspiracy theories about the DNC. The RNC didn’t like Trump either. But he turned out voters, so they had to accept him.

Progressives have proved that they can raise money, so lack of support from the big donors is not the problem either. If they can run candidates in purple-to-red districts and win, the Establishment will take notice. But if they can’t, it won’t.

Sit with the weirdness, centrist version. One big failure of this election was that Biden’s Republican endorsements didn’t turn into any sizeable number of Republican votes. I loved all those Lincoln Project ads, but who did they convince?

The biggest loser of this cycle is the old GOP Establishment. The huge Trump turnout indicates that there is no appetite for a Jeb Bush comeback, and no buyer’s remorse over Trump. If Trump is healthy and still not in jail in 2024, he’ll be on the ballot again. (My politically savvy nephew predicts that Don Jr. will be his VP. You heard it here first.)

In short, there is no pool of disaffected Republicans waiting for a conservative-enough Democrat to win them over. The 20th-century notion of a bell-curve electorate, which can be captured by shifting left or right to chase the peak, really seems obsolete. I don’t know what replaces it.

Just as I’m skeptical of Bernie-would-have-won-bigger articles, I’m also skeptical of articles that villainize progressives. Jill Stein and Bernie-or-Bust were just not a thing this year. Progressives came through for a candidate who wasn’t their first choice; they deserve some gratitude.

In short, the two wings of the Democratic Party both need to sit with the weirdness of these results, rather than repeat the same points they made in the primaries.

The problem with polling. The upshot of these persistent polling errors is that some segment of the population appears to be unpollable. We can’t know where they are or what they think until they show up to vote.

The assumption at the root of all polling is that you can assemble representative samples. If you ask 1500 people what they think, the differences between those people and everybody else are supposed to be random. 1500 other people might not give you exactly the same results, but the outcomes from different samples should follow the laws of statistics.

And so, if your sample doesn’t include enough Hispanics or non-college whites or people named Fred, you can adjust the weighting of that subsample. The Freds who responded, you assume, are like the Freds who didn’t; you just didn’t happen to find enough of them.

Instead, it appears that people who respond to polls are different from people who don’t. You can’t fix that with statistical weighting.

I think I know where this is going, and I don’t like it: If the issue that makes your polling sample unrepresentative is consent — consenting voters are fundamentally different than non-consenting voters — then you need to stop asking for consent. Rather than calling people up and saying, “I’m from Gallup, would you like to answer my questions?” you root through the involuntary data trove of Google or Twitter until you are confident you know how your chosen person will vote. Maybe Facebook plants stories in people’s news streams to see who likes them or comments on them, or maybe it does network analysis on Friend lists. Proprietary algorithms chug through that data until they spit out an accurate — but completely opaque — prediction of the vote.

Trending Terms

Schadenfreude was our top lookup on October 2nd, by a very considerable margin, following President Trump’s announcement that he and the First Lady had tested positive for COVID-19.


This week’s featured posts are “Schadenfreude, and seven other reactions to Trump’s illness” and “About Those Taxes“.

This week everybody was talking about Trump getting covid

That gets covered in one of the featured posts.

and that horrible debate

I feel like it’s my responsibility to watch things like this, or review the video later, or at least read the transcript. But in fact, I have done none of those things. The next morning (Wednesday), I watched the first ten minutes, plus the clips the media wanted to show me, and decided that life is too short.

In early September, Politico did an article on Trump’s debate strategy, and it rings pretty true: The point of all the interruptions and other antics was to provoke Biden into an embarrassing stuttering incident. It didn’t work. However, it did hide the fact that Biden has plans for his administration and Trump doesn’t.

A post-debate Politico article “Trump Is Not the Man He Used to Be” compares this debate performance to his 2016 debates, particularly the one with Hillary Clinton right after the Access Hollywood tape threatened to derail his entire candidacy.

With his back to the wall, facing scrutiny like no presidential hopeful in memory, Trump turned in his strongest stage performance of 2016. He was forceful but controlled. He was steady, unflappable, almost carefree. Even his most noxious lines, such as suggesting that Clinton belonged in jail, were delivered with a smooth cadence and a cool smirk, as if he knew a secret that others didn’t.

On substance, I thought he lost that 2016 debate, as he lost all the Clinton debates. But he restored an image that just enough voters found appealing: the mischievous boy thumbing his nose at authorities and all their stupid rules. The supposed “gaffes” of 2016 — calling Mexican immigrants “rapists”, refusing to be impressed by John McCain’s war-hero status, mocking a reporter’s disability, telling his supporters to “knock the hell” out of protesters at his rallies, and so on — were delivered with an air of “look what I can get away with”.

A certain kind of voter, particularly the white male non-college voter Trump was hoping to turn out, loved that. (Rush Limbaugh appeals in the same way, for example, when he tries to see how close he can come to saying the N-word on the radio.) To them, it was fun. While Trump was often compared to a bull in a china shop, his base saw something equally destructive but much more humorous, like the Blues Brothers driving a stolen police car through a shopping mall, leaving a trail of broken glass and crushed mannequins. Sure, it’s wrong and would make a lot of people mad, but wouldn’t you love to get away with something like that?

It might be hard to remember through the fog of these past four years, but the animating sentiment for Trump during his first run for the presidency wasn’t hatred or division. It was fun. He was having the time of his life. Nothing Trump had ever experienced had showered him with so much attention, so much adulation, so much controversy and coverage. He loved every moment of it.

But that look-at-me-I’m-a-bad-boy attitude was completely absent from the Biden debate. He seemed more like the bad boy who gets caught and then whines about his punishment.

The president wasn’t enjoying himself last night. … There was no mischievous glint in his eye, no mirthful vibrancy in his demeanor. He looked exhausted. He sounded ornery. Gone was the swagger, the detached smirk, that reflected bottomless wells of confidence and conviction. Though described by Tucker Carlson in Fox News’ pregame show as an “instinctive predator,” Trump behaved like cornered prey—fearful, desperate, trapped by his own shortcomings and the circumstances that exposed them. He was a shell of his former dominant self. … Watching the president on Tuesday night felt like watching someone losing his religion. Trump could not overpower Biden or Wallace any more than he could overpower Covid-19 or the cascading job losses or the turmoil engulfing American cities. For the first time in his presidency, Trump appeared to recognize that he had been overtaken by events.

You might think denouncing violent white supremacists would be an easy call for any American politician, but Trump couldn’t get it done during the debate. Prodded by Chris Wallace to ask the Proud Boys to “stand down”, Trump instead asked them to “stand back and stand by” because “somebody has to do something about Antifa and the left”.

After considerable pearl-clutching (but no sharp criticism) from Republican senators, Trump backed off, sort of. In his last interview before announcing his Covid infection, Trump told Sean Hannity:

Let me be clear again: I condemn the KKK. I condemn all white supremacists. I condemn the Proud Boys. I don’t know much about the Proud Boys, almost nothing, but I condemn that.

Let’s parse all this a little. Antifa is largely a right-wing myth. (We’ll discuss below the possibility that something else is going on.) As FBI Director Christopher Wray has explained: “It’s not a group or an organization. It’s a movement or an ideology.” Even if somebody needs to “do something” about Antifa (and I suspect nobody does), that “somebody” should be local law enforcement, not armed gangs of right-wing vigilantes.

But let’s say Trump really didn’t know anything about the Proud Boys Tuesday night, and still knew “almost nothing” about them after two days of controversy. Then why was he giving them instructions on national TV?

and the Barrett nomination

How many senators can the GOP lose to quarantine and still get Barrett on the Court before the election?

So far, three senators — Ron Johnson, Mike Lee, and Thom Tillis — have tested positive. Two of them — Lee and Tillis — are on the Judiciary Committee that needs to hold hearings on Barrett. Two others — Ted Cruz and Ben Sasse — are self-quarantining.

The first obstacle for Republicans may be the committee vote, tentatively planned for Oct. 22.

To report out a nomination, a majority of the 22-member committee will need to be present, and Democratic senators will not help Republicans make quorum, aides said Sunday. Although proxy voting is allowed in the Judiciary Committee, it works only when there is a quorum present and the proxy votes don’t change the outcome of the vote, according to committee officials.

I am sure we will see many procedural maneuvers between now and November 3, and I don’t want to predict how they will play out.

but let’s think about undecided voters

Several people this week have asked me some version of: “After everything we’ve seen these last four years, how can anybody be undecided in this election?”

Given my advanced case of male answer syndrome, of course I have a theory: I picture two kinds of undecided voters: the apathetic and the torn.

To understand apathetic voters, think about some level of government you don’t usually pay attention to. For example, maybe you don’t have kids, and school board elections go by without you noticing. Or maybe you just moved to a new town, and haven’t found a reason yet to care about who your alderman is.

Probably you hear something about these elections, but it just goes in one ear and out the other. You know some of your neighbors care, but to you it just sounds like a bunch annoying people yelling at each other.

That’s how apathetic voters are about national politics, and the media’s both-sides-do-it narrative feeds their inclination to stay ignorant. “Some people love Trump, and some people hate him, but they’re all crazy and I steer clear of them.”

if these people do end up voting, it’s a last-minute decision. The night before or the morning of Election Day, they’ll look up some issue they care about on the internet, or talk to some friend they think is well informed, and that’s how they’ll make up their minds. They’re highly vulnerable to misinformation, so they’re largely who the Russians target with their social-media bots. But I think Biden does have a persuasive last-minute message to offer them: “Given the 200,000 dead of coronavirus, the restrictions on what the rest of us can safely do, the high unemployment, the enormous budget deficit, and the growing racial tensions in our country, do you think America is better off than it was four years ago? Has Trump kept his promise to make us ‘great again’, or should somebody else get a chance to lead us?”

Torn voters are fighting an internal battle. Some part of them has an irrational attraction to or repulsion from one of the candidates, but they don’t know how to justify giving in to that urge. (I irrationally wanted to vote for John McCain in both the 2000 and 2008 New Hampshire primaries. In 2000 I did.)

I believe torn voters were the key to Trump’s 2016 victory. They knew Hillary Clinton would be the better president, but they didn’t like her, and wouldn’t it be a hoot to have that other guy? And since he wasn’t going to win anyway, what harm would it do to vote for him? The Crooked Hillary meme and the last-minute Comey announcement about her emails gave them the permission they needed, and so the Undecideds all broke to Trump at the last minute.

This year, I think a lot of the undecided are Trump’s 2016 voters who now are torn. They know he’s a bad president, but they don’t want to admit they were wrong. I think a lot of them will break to Biden at the last minute, largely because of the point made in the Politico article I quoted above: Trump isn’t fun any more. On Election Day, the thought “All this bullshit could just be over” will ripple through the electorate.

and you also might be interested in …

Three big-name constitutional lawyers — Neil Buchanan, Michael Dorf, and Lawrence Tribe — debunk some of the scarier scenarios for the election.

Without getting into the legal weeds, the bottom line is that there is no way to throw the election into the House — where the Republicans would win if they could hold their current 26-24 advantage in state delegations — without either a 269-269 tie or a third candidate getting electoral votes. If some votes are thrown out, the candidate with the most electoral votes still wins, even if the total falls below 270.

Texas Governor Gregg Abbott engaged in some serious voter suppression this week: He limited each county to one mail-in-ballot dropbox.

Mail-in ballots, of course, are designed to be mailed. But if you aren’t confident in the mail delivering your ballot on time — say, because Trump is intentionally sabotaging the Post Office — you might set your mind at ease by taking your ballot to a dropbox that election officials will open themselves.

Except in Texas, apparently.

The rule affects mainly a few populous counties, including Harris, home of Houston, which had set up twelve collection spots for its 2.4 million registered voters.

The highly populated counties are exactly the ones where Democrats need a big turnout. Abbott claimed his order will “help stop attempts at illegal voting”, without presenting any evidence that illegal voting is a problem. But the move is certain to reduce attempts at legal voting, if courts let it stand.

Another underhanded scheme comes from Michigan, where two Republican operatives face charges in a robocall campaign to scare people out of voting by mail.

The calls told the recipients falsely that voting by mail would put their information in databases used for arrest warrants, debt collection and “mandatory vaccines.” … According to Thursday’s announcement, the robocalls went out to nearly 12,000 residents in Detroit. Attorneys general offices in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois also told [Michigan Attorney General Dana] Nessel that there were similar calls in their states, Nessel’s announcement said.

If Covid forces Bill Stepien to step down as Trump campaign chair, would you want to replace him, given what’s happened to your predecessors? Paul Manafort is serving a prison term (at home, due to Covid), Steve Bannon is under indictment, Brad Pascale is in the middle of some kind of personal crisis that has seen him arrested and hospitalized, and now Bill Stepien has Covid. Corey Lewandowski is the lucky one, so far: the misdemeanor battery charge against him was dropped.

I hadn’t been taking seriously the possibility that Iowa Senator Joni Ernst could lose, but apparently I should: A recent poll has her down 51%-39%.

The NYT’s Farah Stockman drew attention to a fairly obscure blog Public Report by Santa Monica photographer Jeremy Lee Quinn. Quinn has been studying anarchist groups that have been trying to turn Black Lives Matter protests into riots.

Mr. Quinn began studying footage of looting from around the country and saw the same black outfits and, in some cases, the same masks. He decided to go to a protest dressed like that himself, to figure out what was really going on. He expected to find white supremacists who wanted to help re-elect President Trump by stoking fear of Black people. What he discovered instead were true believers in “insurrectionary anarchism.”

These folks appear to be the root of what Trumpists call “Antifa”, but really they are something different. Quinn offers this Venn diagram., and writes: “Anarchist action is distinct from Antifacist action in which counter-demonstrators clash with the right wing to actively counterprotest their rallies”

I hope to have time to examine this better in coming weeks.

and let’s close with something weird

Weird Al Yankovich turned the presidential debate into a song with a catchy title: “We’re All Doomed“.

About Those Taxes

Bad as it is, what we know so far about Trump’s taxes may not be the worst of it.

One persistent problem of 2020 is that it’s hard to hold an issue in your mind for any length of time. The New York Times revealed Trump’s taxes just a little over a week ago, and since then two other big stories — the debate disaster and the White House coronavirus outbreak — have all but washed the tax issues out of the news. I think they deserve a little more attention than that.

Narratively, the problem with the tax story is that it’s a bunch of smaller stories, none of which encompasses the whole thing. It’s certainly about tax avoidance, maybe legal and maybe not. But it also could be about laundering money for people we can’t identify.

$750. The headlines that came out of the original NYT article were how little Trump has paid in taxes: $750 in each of 2016 and 2017, and nothing at all in many other years. And that certainly is scandalous, whether or not it turns out to be legal. I pay considerably more than that every year, and probably you do too. Nobody thinks Joe Biden is a billionaire, but he paid $299,346 in 2019.

Trump famously said “that makes me smart” when Hillary Clinton accused him of not paying his fair share of taxes in 2016. But that’s the same kind of “smart” that got him excused from Vietnam with bone spurs — unlike the “suckers” and “losers” who died for their country. It’s similarly “smart” to stiff your contractors, trade in your wives when they start to age, hire illegal immigrants to tend your golf courses, create a phony university and a phony foundation, and do a lot of the other things that have kept Trump safe and rich and feeling pleased with himself.

But I don’t think most Americans want to be led by someone with those kinds of smarts. Trusting “smart” people like Trump will usually get you outsmarted eventually. Someday, it will be smart to screw you the way he has screwed everybody else.

The bad businessman. The other headline from the NYT article was that many of Trump’s most famous properties are money-losers, and always have been.

The second article in the NYT series (the newspaper claims more are coming) showed how the windfall of income related to his TV show “The Apprentice” bailed him out of the financial difficulties created by his other business failures. In other words: His ability to play a successful businessman on TV covered up the fact that he actually isn’t one.

He sold his image in a variety of ways, many of which were harmful to the people who trusted him. The NYT finds he was paid $8.8 million to promote ACN, a multi-level marketing company that promoted what were essentially pyramid schemes.

The NYT paints a picture of a man who gets big windfalls (the first one being at least $400 million from his father), and then proceeds to fritter them away.

Debt. Trump owns a lot of assets and has taken out a lot of loans against them. The NYT estimates that about $400 million of loans come due in the next four years. We know some of the lenders (Deutsche Bank), but not all of them.

Nothing Trump is doing as a businessman is generating much cash. So during his prospective second term, he will either need to get new loans or sell assets. The security vulnerabilities here are obvious: If he gets loans or finds buyers, particularly from abroad, we will never know whether there is a bribe hidden somewhere in that money.

Ivanka? One way Trump lowered his taxes was to claim millions in “consulting fees” as business expenses. In at least some of those cases, it looks like he was funneling money to his kids, who shouldn’t be getting consulting fees from businesses that also list them as employees.

This resembles an apparently illegal scheme that Trump’s father used to funnel money to him.

The Times traces about $750K that went to Ivanka via this path. But CNN speculates about the other $25 million in consulting fees:

So we don’t know who received the other $25-ish million that Trump wrote off to “consulting fees” during that time. (Worth noting: The Times reports that Trump wrote off roughly 20% of all income he made on projects over that time to “consulting fees.”) Given the apparent payment to Ivanka Trump revealed by the Times, however, it’s not terribly far-fetched to wonder whether all (or much) of those “consulting fees” went through a similar process: Paid to one of Trump’s offspring who were serving as both managers of these operations for the Trump Organization and as consultants to the projects as well.

Money laundering? The most serious accusation is speculative, but the speculation explains transactions that are otherwise mysterious. A tweetstorm by author Adam Davidson delves into one Trump property (his golf course in Scotland) in detail, and finds some strange bookkeeping.

The thing everyone reports is the losses–the shareholder (Trump) has lost more than £7M. But the interesting stuff is the fixed asset value and the creditors — over one year. Trump is all of them: he owns the asset, lends the money, owes the money, is owed the money. …

There’s much more to say–each line here is fascinating. But the overall picture is crystal clear: Every year, Trump lends millions to himself, spends all that money on something, and claims the asset is worth all the money he spent.

He cannot have spent all that money on the properties. We have the planning docs. We know how much he spent — it’s far less than what he claims. The money truly disappears. It goes from one pocket to another pocket and then the pocket is opened to reveal nothing is there.

… These financials are clear: this is not a golf business, it’s a money disappearing business.

… If this is a money disappearing business and it is not only tax fraud, then he is making money disappear for somebody else and charging some sort of fee. Which might explain why a money-losing golf course pays huge fees to its owner.

Two obvious questions:

  • What would happen if Trump’s other money-losing properties came under similar scrutiny?
  • Didn’t the Mueller investigation look into all this?

The answer to the first is that we don’t know. And the answer to the second, we now know, is no. Mueller did not follow the money.

Trump had also done lots of business with Deutsche Bank, and although Mueller issued his subpoenas secretly, word somehow leaked to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. When the White House asked Mueller’s team what they were examining, Mueller responded that Manafort, not Trump, was the target.

“At that point, any financial investigation of Trump was put on hold,” writes Andrew Weissmann, a veteran federal prosecutor who played a senior role in Mueller’s investigation, in a new book. “That is, we backed down — the issue was simply too incendiary; the risk, too severe.

Schadenfreude, and seven other reactions to Trump’s illness

Of all the things I hold against Trump, this is the one I will have the hardest time forgiving: He has made me realize how spiteful I can be.

Schadenfreude and karmic justice. I wish I could report that when I heard about Trump testing positive for the coronavirus, I felt a wave of human compassion. Because politics is one thing and life is another, and we’ve got to hang on to our humanity.

But what I actually thought was: “Maybe there really is a just God.” It wasn’t exactly schadenfreude, which would be more like “I’m glad that bastard is suffering.” (Coincidentally, Merriam-Webster reported a 305-times increase in the number of searches for schadenfreude on October 2.) But it’s close: Hearing about his diagnosis made the Universe seem like a safer, saner place.

This is the kind of thing a good person would never say about another human being, but (in both a karmic and a practical sense) nobody had this coming like Trump. Practically, he has been ignoring precautions, running around the country maskless, not enforcing sound workplace hygiene practices at the White House (which The Atlantic’s Peter Nicholas presciently described as “a petri dish” in August), and doing everything he could to discourage others from taking precautions (like berating a White House reporter for wearing a mask to a briefing).

Karmically, nobody — or at least no American — bears more responsibility for the spread of Covid-19 than he does. He consistently pressures state and local governments to relax their health restrictions too soon, encourages his followers to flout mask mandates, pushes the CDC to relax its guidelines, advocates for less testing, pushes misinformation about the virus, promotes quack “cures”, and even travels around the country holding super-spreader events, one of which seems to have gotten Herman Cain killed (just to put a face on a larger phenomenon).

How many of America’s 214K-and-counting coronavirus deaths are Trump’s fault? It’s impossible to say precisely, but here’s how I think about it: Culturally and economically, the country that best resembles the US is Canada. Canada currently has 251 Covid deaths per 100K people. The US has 647. If our government could have handled the virus as well as Canada’s, and kept our deaths-per-100K down to 251K, we’d have only 39% of the deaths we currently have, or 83K rather than 214K.

That calculation would say that about 131K American deaths are on Trump. That’s about 33,000 Benghazis or 44 9-11s. If you make Germany or Australia the reference country, the number gets even bigger. If you use Japan, practically all the deaths are his fault.

So, am I rooting for him to suffer and die? No. But a Universe where he skates along unaffected by the damage he causes just feels wrong to me.

BTW, if you find yourself feeling guilty about your own lack of sympathy for Trump, take a look at how he responded during the 2016 campaign when Hillary came down with pneumonia.

The philosopher Aaron James has defined a technical term to describe people who want to claim the benefits of rules governing politeness and propriety, while always holding themselves exempt from the duties, inconveniences, and sacrifices those rules impose: They are assholes.

Is he really sick? On Friday, just about everybody I talked to was asking this question, and wondering if the Covid thing was a play for sympathy or an excuse for ducking the rest of the debates or a way to divert attention from his taxes or keep Biden out of the headlines. It’s crazy that we even have to consider the possibility of a presidential health hoax, but we do. Trump has lied about everything else, so why not this?

In general, though, I don’t believe in big conspiracies, and the longer this goes on, the more people would have to be in on it. So by now I’m pretty sure that he really is sick.

But even Friday morning the hoax explanation seemed unlikely, because catching Covid undermines so many things Trump has been working to accomplish. For months, he’s been trying to induce voters to think about anything else. He’s been telling his rallies that the pandemic is fading. Plus, he wants to present an image of larger-that-life strength. Trump aims to inspire awe and love in his supporters, and hate and fear in his enemies. People like me wondering if we ought to feel sorry for him is the last thing he wants.

His scandalous response. It’s not a scandal that Trump caught the virus, but what he did next is: After he knew he had been exposed, he continued to meet people who were not warned about the risk. (What the Wall Street Journal is reporting is even more damning: He had already seen a positive test before phone interview with Sean Hannity Thursday evening, but pretended he hadn’t.)

There’s been a lot of controversy about the timeline, but we do know this much: Hope Hicks was diagnosed Wednesday, so by Thursday afternoon Trump knew that he (and probably a lot of his staff) had been exposed and might be carrying the infection; his positive test was announced several hours later. Nonetheless, he went to a fund-raiser at his club in New Jersey and schmoozed with his donors. He traveled there with his staff on Marine One, a close-quarter helicopter without proper ventilation.

The fund-raiser included a round-table photo op with 18 quarter-million-dollar donors, few (or perhaps none) of whom were wearing masks. A larger photo op was held for mere $50K donors, and there was an outdoor event for the low-rollers who may have only given a few thousand. In all, we’re talking about hundreds of people. They aren’t his enemies; they’re the people he’s depending on to get him a second term.

Friday, the campaign emailed attendees to tell them about Trump’s positive test. The email did not recommend that they quarantine or get tested themselves, but merely said they should contact their doctors if they developed symptoms.

If you ever need an example to back up the point that Trump cares about no one but himself, here it is. He doesn’t even care about his staff, or the people who give big donations to his campaign.

And if you need an example to make the case that Trump is typical of an entire generation of conservative assholes, use Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. Friday, he went to a fund-raiser after he had a positive test.

What if he can’t go on? One question on everybody’s mind: What happens if illness causes Trump to withdraw or die? The Washington Post has it covered:

The bottom line is that the RNC would determine who the replacement candidate would be, should it come to that unfortunate situation. And Republican slates of electors in states the president won, because he remains on the ballot, would very likely follow the RNC’s recommendation.

But one last possibility to ponder: If the RNC were deeply divided, and Republican electors then did not coalesce around a single replacement candidate, there might not be a majority winner in the electoral college. In that case, the House would choose the president from among the top three vote getters in the electoral college. In that process, each state delegation gets one vote.

The Atlantic surveys the same ground with more emphasis on the chaotic scenarios. That article also reveals history I didn’t know: Presidential candidate Horace Greeley died between the 1872 election and the date when electors cast their ballots, and VP candidate James Sherman died before election day in 1912. Both were on losing tickets, so the course of the nation didn’t hinge on how the rules were interpreted.

The White House cluster. After learning that the President and First Lady were infected, the next question was “Who else?” Many political movements fail by believing their own rhetoric, and Trump has been saying for a long time that the virus isn’t a big deal; we should all just get back to normal as fast as possible. Among Trumpists, mask-wearing and other good public-health practices are looked on as wimpy, as “living in fear“. (Packing heat at the supermarket, on the other hand, is just a reasonable precaution.)

Here’s a little more from that August article by Peter Nicholas:

when I arrived at the White House this morning, I was struck by the lack of safety protocols in place. The most famous address in America now feels like a coronavirus breeding ground. … Some of the West Wing desks are spaced so closely together, and some of the offices are so cramped, that it’s tough to see how people avoid exposure at all. In one small office today, two aides stood and spoke to each other without masks. Young aides sat at desks in an open bullpen-style space without masks. Walking through the hallways accessible to the press, I wore a mask, but I haven’t been tested for COVID-19; had I removed my mask for some reason and coughed or sneezed, there was no hint of a mask patrol prepared to whisk me out the building. The vibe was shockingly lax.

Apparently nothing is going to change. The White House is saying that CDC guidelines make mask-wearing optional, so that’s what they’ll stick with.

So, who else has been infected so far? Hope Hicks was the first person whose infection was announced. Subsequently: KellyAnne Conway, presidential assistant Nicholas Luna, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel, campaign manager Bill Stepien, Senators Mike Lee, Thom Tillis and Ron Johnson, debate coach Chris Christie, and Notre Dame President John Jenkins, who attended the Rose Garden announcement of Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination. Barrett herself, it turns out, already had the virus during the summer.

How is he doing? This gets into the breaking-news area I try to avoid. (I can’t compete with CNN, and you shouldn’t get your breaking news from a weekly blog anyway.) But the striking thing about this weekend’s announcements was how much bullshit you had to wade through to find out anything. Had the President needed oxygen? The doctor kept dodging the question and repeating that he wasn’t on oxygen now. Had his x-rays revealed any pneumonia or lung damage? Another dodge.

Eventually we found out that he did spike a high fever at some point. (How high? They won’t say.) He had a couple of episodes of low blood oxygenation. He has received multiple cutting-edge treatments, some of which are only recommended for severe cases. That raises three possibilities:

  • He’s sicker than the White House is letting on.
  • Doctors are being super-aggressive because he’s the President.
  • Trump is a victim of “VIP syndrome”, where doctors yield to the judgment of an important patient rather than doing what they think is best.

Photo ops. Whatever energy Trump does have has been devoted to controlling the narrative, rather than getting well or running the country. He has released two Twitter videos from Walter Reed Hospital, and Sunday he had two Secret Service agents risk their lives to drive him around the building, so that he could wave to his fans.

George Washington University professor and Walter Reed attending physician Dr. James Phillips tweeted:

Every single person in the vehicle during that completely unnecessary Presidential “drive-by” just now has to be quarantined for 14 days. They might get sick. They may die. For political theater. Commanded by Trump to put their lives at risk for theater. This is insanity.

… That Presidential SUV is not only bulletproof, but hermetically sealed against chemical attack. The risk of COVID19 transmission inside is as high as it gets outside of medical procedures. The irresponsibility is astounding. My thoughts are with the Secret Service forced to play.

So file this with the other examples of Trump not caring about anyone but himself.

During the Trump Era we tend to forget that America has had previous presidents who behaved differently. But it’s worth thinking about that now. It’s not crazy for a president to want to reassure the country that he’s OK and that America is still in good hands. But other presidents would have used their limited energy to do work, not pull a stunt.

For a normal president, it would make perfect sense to, say, be on the phone lobbying senators to support his Supreme Court nominee, or urging members of Congress to work out their differences and send him a stimulus bill. Mark Meadows could tell us he was doing those things, and the people he was calling could verify how on-the-ball he was.

Instead, he had to leave the hospital and wave to his adoring public.

Political impact. Something you have to bear in mind is that prior to announcing his infection, Trump was losing the presidential race pretty badly. So anything that shakes up the race at least interrupts a story that was trending against him. 538’s national polling average has Biden up by 8%, and polling above the magic 50% mark that Hillary couldn’t get to, no matter far ahead she was. Ditto for the RCP average, which has Biden up by 8.1% at 50.6%.

Focusing on the Electoral College, 538’s most likely tipping-point state is Pennsylvania, where Biden is ahead by 5.3%, and its tipping-point status depends on Trump also winning Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, and Ohio, where Biden has smaller leads.

For comparison, Texas is closer than that: Trump is ahead by only 4%. So a landslide where Biden takes Texas (and Iowa and Georgia) is currently more likely than the narrowest possible Trump win.

If anything, the more recent polls, taken after Tuesday’s debate but before Trump’s positive test was announced, were even worse for Trump: Biden was up 14% in an NBC/WSJ poll released Sunday.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the short-term effect of Trump’s diagnosis is a small sympathy bump. But long-term I don’t see how it serves him. Anything that keeps the pandemic in the headlines is bad for him, because he has bungled our government’s response so badly. Anything that makes him look weak is bad for him. Cancelling rallies is bad for him. I don’t think his first debate performance did him any good, but cancelling the remaining two debates would remove opportunities for him to turn things around.

So no. Even if he recovers completely, I don’t think getting sick does Trump any good.