Tag Archives: 2020 election

The Capitol Invasion is Both an End and a Beginning

Naive Trumpism is dead, but the right-wing insurrection is just getting started.

A history of violence. Of course the Trump administration would end in violence.

Trump’s brand of populism has had a violent undercurrent from the beginning, and Trump himself has done little to reject that tendency or even tone it down. Only a couple months after he descended the escalator in 2015, he made excuses for two of his fans beating a homeless Hispanic man with a metal pole, describing his supporters as “very passionate … They love this country and want it to be great again.” When neo-Nazis chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans in Charlottesville, and one of them murdered a counter-protester, he talked about the “very fine people on both sides“. He gave a presidential shout-out to Kyle Rittenhouse’s self-defense claim, ignoring the fact that people were chasing Rittenhouse because he had already killed someone.

I won’t attempt a more complete accounting of Trumpist violence — the guy who mailed all the pipe bombs, the guy who took Trump’s “invasion” rhetoric so literally that he murdered Hispanics in an El Paso mall, the plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor — because Vox already did that.

Of course, politicians never have complete control over their followers. But there are responsible and irresponsible ways to react when your people cross the line. Bernie Sanders, for example, said this in 2017:

I have just been informed that the alleged shooter at the Republican baseball practice is someone who apparently volunteered on my presidential campaign. I am sickened by this despicable act. Let me be as clear as I can be: Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms. Real change can only come about through nonviolent action, and anything else runs against our most deeply held American values.

You will search in vain for a similarly unequivocal rejection by Trump of pro-Trump violence. After a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer was foiled, Trump muddied his denunciation of the plot with criticism of Whitmer and an endorsement of the plotters’ political goals.

I do not tolerate ANY extreme violence. Defending ALL Americans, even those who oppose and attack me, is what I will always do as your President! Governor Whitmer — open up your state, open up your schools, and open up your churches!

Occasionally, handlers have pressured the President into putting some kind of distance between himself and the most thuggish elements of the MAGAverse. But his heart has never been in it — such statements became known as Trump’s “hostage videos” — and he would quickly walk them back with much more fervor, lest any of his brownshirts feel unappreciated.

And then he lost the election.

It wasn’t close. Biden’s 7-million vote victory wasn’t quite as big as Obama’s 2008 landslide, but before that you have to go back to Bill Clinton in 1996 to find a similar margin. The Electoral College rigs presidential elections in Republicans’ favor, but even that outcome was convincing: 306-232. The media’s delay in calling the election was due to the Covid pandemic and the number of mail-in votes, not any narrowness in the results.

Trump has long threatened violence if he didn’t get what he wanted. In March of 2016 he warned that “you’d have riots” if the Republican Party found a way to deny him the nomination. That fall, he would only commit to accepting the election results “if I win“. Asked in September of 2020 if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power in case he lost, Trump replied “We’ll have to see what happens.” When challenged to break with the violent white-supremacist Proud Boys, Trump told them to “stand back and stand by“.

Stand by for what? Wednesday we found out.


The Big Lie. Even more pronounced than his affinity with violence has been Trump’s habit of saying things because he wants them to be true, a self-serving exaggeration of the power-of-positive-thinking religion he was raised in.

Some of his self-flattering fictions have been petty and inconsequential, like his insistence that his inaugural crowd was larger than Barack Obama’s. Others have been more significant, like his claim that 3-5 million non-citizens voted illegally in 2016, a total that conveniently accounted for Hillary Clinton’s margin in the popular vote. He wanted the Mueller report to “totally exonerate” him, but it did not. And we will never know exactly how many additional Americans died because of Trump’s lies about the coronavirus — that it was just the flu, that doctors inflated the death statistics, that it was under control, that masks don’t work, that business closures aren’t necessary, that hydroxychloroquine is a miracle cure — but it’s probably in the tens or hundreds of thousands.

Among his tens of thousands of lies since taking office, his claim that he won “by a landslide” in the election that he actually lost by a wide margin, but that his victory was “stolen” from him by Democratic fraud, was Trump’s Big Lie, the kind of lie Hitler described in Mein Kampf.

in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.

Historian Timothy Snyder made the connection to the current situation:

The force of a big lie resides in its demand that many other things must be believed or disbelieved. To make sense of a world in which the 2020 presidential election was stolen requires distrust not only of reporters and of experts but also of local, state and federal government institutions, from poll workers to elected officials, Homeland Security and all the way to the Supreme Court. It brings with it, of necessity, a conspiracy theory: Imagine all the people who must have been in on such a plot and all the people who would have had to work on the cover-up.

Trump’s electoral fiction floats free of verifiable reality. It is defended not so much by facts as by claims that someone else has made some claims. The sensibility is that something must be wrong because I feel it to be wrong, and I know others feel the same way. When political leaders such as Ted Cruz or Jim Jordan spoke like this, what they meant was: You believe my lies, which compels me to repeat them.

Trump was already setting up this lie before the election even happened, telling his supporters that he could only lose by fraud, and that voting by mail was inherently rife with fraud. On election night, he falsely claimed victory, and subsequently, as recounts, hand recounts, signature audits, and every other kind of verification knocked down his baseless allegations, his claims just got wilder. In the January 6 speech that sent the mob heading towards the Capitol, he told lies already long refuted: that in Pennsylvania “You had 205,000 more ballots than you had voters.” In Detroit, “174,000 ballots were counted without being tied to an actual registered voter.”

The conspiracy to deny him a second term grew and grew: It now had to include not just Biden’s people, not just Democrats, but his own appointees like Christopher Krebs and Bill Barr, Republican election commissioners, Republican secretaries of state and governors, and ultimately even Mike Pence.

The attack on the Capitol. Even the most talented liar sometimes faces a confrontation with reality that can’t be explained away. A key part of Trump’s Big Lie wasn’t just that he should have won, or that the Democrats had stolen the election, but that they would not get away with it. The fraud would be exposed, the election results reversed, and a Trump second term inaugurated on January 20.

Something had to give eventually, because on January 20 Trump either would or wouldn’t start a second term. For two months, the date of MAGA salvation kept getting pushed back and the mechanism changing. At first, the story was that Trump’s election-night lead in key states would hold. When that didn’t happen, he claimed that the states would refuse to certify Biden’s win. When they did — even the ones like Georgia and Arizona with Republican officials — he said the courts would intervene, culminating in a showdown before a Supreme Court with three Trump appointees and a 6-3 Republican majority. When the Supreme Court wanted no part of his scheme, he told his followers that Republican state legislatures would throw out the elections and appoint Trump electors. But on December 14, Biden’s 306 certified electors voted, and there was only one remaining possibility to overturn the People’s will: when Congress counted the electoral votes on January 6.

At that point, new elements of the fantasy emerged: Congress had the power to throw out a state’s certified electoral votes, in spite of the 12th Amendment, which empowers it only to “open” and “count” the votes sent by the states. As the official presiding over this opening and counting, Vice President Pence had the power to recognize alternative slates of Trump-supporting electors — a power that, if it existed, would guarantee that no party in power ever lost the White House. In 2001, Al Gore could have recognized the Democratic electors from Florida and declared himself president. Joe Biden could have tossed Trump’s slates in 2017 and appointed Hillary Clinton.

Imagine that you believed all this nonsense, and think about how your anger might have risen as you heard that Mike Pence was refusing to exercise his power to count the votes however he wanted, and Mitch McConnell would not rally Republican senators to “stop the steal” of Trump’s landslide. Cowardly Republicans refused to seize this moment, and instead would let Joe Biden’s radical socialism destroy America.

Unless the People rose up.

From the beginning, Trump’s January 6 “Save America” rally had violence written all over it. When Trump promoted it in a December 19 tweet, he said “Be there, will be wild!” After Trump stooge Louie Gohmert lost his insane lawsuit to disenfranchise millions of Americans, he said the court’s message was “You have to go to the streets and be as violent as antifa, BLM.” Violent pro-Trump groups plotted openly on social media platforms.

More than 80% of the top posts on TheDonald on Wednesday about the Electoral College certification featured calls for violence in the top five responses, according to research from Advance Democracy, an independent, nonpartisan organization. And it wasn’t just fringe websites. On Twitter, Advance Democracy found more than 1,480 posts from QAnon-related accounts about Jan. 6 that contained terms of violence since Jan. 1. On TikTok, videos promoting violence garnered hundreds of thousands of views.

Trump certainly could or should have known all this when he spoke to the crowd he had assembled and instructed it to march on the Capitol. Quite likely he did know. But he spoke to rile the crowd up, not to keep it under control. After the violence began, he resisted for hours requests that he call the mob off. When he did ask them to go home, he did not denounce what they had done, but repeated the Big Lie that motivated them.

We now know that the incident could have been far worse than it actually was. A scaffold was set up, and some of the invaders chanted “Hang Mike Pence.” They killed a Capitol policeman. What might they have done if they’d gotten hold of people Trump frequently has demonized, like Speaker Pelosi or Rep. Adam Schiff?

They went into the Capitol, as Congress was counting electoral votes, equipped to take hostages—to physically seize officials, and presumably to take lives. … If the rioters had been a little quicker through the doors; if senators and representatives hadn’t just moved from their joint session into separate chambers to debate the Arizona challenge and had instead still been packed into one harder-to-evacuate room; if any number of things had happened differently, the three people next in the line of succession for the presidency might have been face to face with those zip-tie guys. And then: Who knows.

The Republican divide. The overt violence at the Capitol, putting the lives of even Republican members of Congress at risk, means that it is no longer possible to ignore what Trumpism is. “Naive Trumpism”, the idea that Trump throws a lot of red meat to his base, but that traditional Reagan/Bush Republicans can work with him within the constitutional order to cut taxes and appoint judges, is dead now. If you’re still a Trumpist today, you support ending democracy and overthrowing the constitutional order.

Historian Timothy Snyder divides the GOP into “gamers” (like Mitch McConnell) and “breakers” (like Trump).

Right now, the Republican Party is a coalition of two types of people: those who would game the system (most of the politicians, some of the voters) and those who dream of breaking it (a few of the politicians, many of the voters). In January 2021, this was visible as the difference between those Republicans who defended the present system on the grounds that it favored them and those who tried to upend it.

Until Wednesday, opportunists like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley could blur that distinction and appear to be on both sides. Going forward, such a position will no longer be tenable. The people who invaded the Capitol are either freedom fighters or traitors. There is no middle ground.

Democracies have to defend themselves. This is one of the lessons I glean from my reading about Hitler’s rise to power. The Weimar Republic fell, at least in part, because it lacked the will to defend itself, or to defend the government’s monopoly on the use of force. Hitler himself first drew national attention by leading the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923. It was his first attempt to take power, and it earned him a five-year sentence for treason. He was released after nine months, having learned that treason against the democratic government was just not that big a deal.

In subsequent years, brownshirt violence was often winked at by German law enforcement, which tended to be conservative and to dislike the same people the Nazis were beating up. Similarly Wednesday, while most police at the Capitol risked their lives to defend Congress, at least a few policemen seemed to be on friendly terms with the invaders.

The Capitol Insurrection may mark the end of naive Trumpism, and split the GOP into gamers and breakers. But it also marks the beginning of a darker campaign of right-wing violence that the Biden administration will have to confront. We don’t know what further violence may erupt on Inauguration Day, or between then and now. But the end of Trump will not be the end of the movement. The Whitmer kidnapping plot may be a model for future actions, and I’m sure others have noticed that a 50-50 Senate can be flipped back to Republican control with a single bullet.

Paul Krugman’s first column after Wednesday’s riot didn’t invoke Hitler or the Nazis by name, but warned:

if history teaches us one lesson about dealing with fascists, it is the futility of appeasement. Giving in to fascists doesn’t pacify them, it just encourages them to go further.

I hope Joe Biden has learned that lesson.

This Week in the Trump Coup

The big thing to note is that the Electoral College is voting today, and that none of the 306 electoral votes Biden won in the election has been taken away by Trump’s 50+ lawsuits.

During impeachment, Republicans argued that Congress would overstep if it removed Trump so close to an election, because that was for the voters to decide. But of course, now that the voters have decided by a wide margin to remove Trump themselves, Republicans hold that decision to be invalid too.

Remember how this started: Biden’s victory became clear the Saturday after the election. When Trump didn’t concede right away, as all other losing candidates in living memory have, Republicans said we should give him time to adjust to his loss. Then they argued that he had a right to pursue all his legal options until the states certified their votes. Then they pushed back the date until the electoral votes were cast.

But of course this isn’t the end of it either. Now they’re talking about challenging the electoral votes when Congress meets to count them on January 6. That challenge will fail too, and then we’ll see what else they come up with, and how long they can keep this going.

In the meantime, it’s turning into a good scam for our conman-president. He has collected nearly a quarter billion dollars from his sheep to “fund” this challenge process, which costs only a fraction of that total. The longer he can tell supporters that he has a chance to win, the longer the cash keeps rolling in.

The downside, of course, is that people believe him. They believe Biden is stealing the election, but that Trump will still prevail. And as they catch on to the fact that Trump isn’t going to prevail, they’re going to become increasingly violent.

We saw that beginning to happen this weekend, with the Proud Boys and other Trump supporters rioting in D.C. and various other cities.

Police in Olympia, Wash., arrested an armed right-wing protester and charged him with shooting a counterdemonstrator during protests on Saturday night.

In the nation’s capital, at least four people were stabbed, including someone who is now in critical condition, and 33 more were arrested, after rallies supporting President Trump descended into chaos fueled by white nationalists. D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham estimates that as many as 700 Proud Boys and their confederates roamed downtown streets looking to start fights, clashing with about 200 anti-Trump protesters.

In Michigan

Michigan’s 16 electors will convene at 2 p.m. Eastern inside a heavily guarded state capitol in Lansing to cast their ballots for Joe Biden to become president and Kamala Harris to become vice president.

A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R) said in a statement overnight that the entire capitol complex will be closed to the public based on “recommendations from law enforcement” amid “credible threats of violence.” Police will escort each of the electors from their cars amid what’s expected to be a large “Stop the Steal” protest outside.

The week’s most horrifying story was also one of its most absurd: The lawsuit Texas filed asking the Supreme Court to overturn the presidential election results in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The suit itself was ridiculous, because how one state chooses its electors is not any other’s state’s business — which is what the Supreme Court said when it tossed the suit for lack of standing. The absurdity and insubstantiality of it didn’t stop 17 other state attorneys general from joining the suit or 126 Republican members of Congress from signing an amicus brief supporting it.

Let’s be clear about what would have happened if Texas had won: American democracy would be over. The voters could cast 81 million votes against a sitting president, defeat him by seven million votes, and even jump the hurdles of the archaic Electoral College — and he could hang onto power anyway. It is hard to imagine how future elections could proceed, once the Supreme Court had reduced them to an empty exercise. It’s also hard to imagine the Union hanging together. Why should blue states stay in a Union where their votes don’t count?

A barrage of other Trump suits got tossed in various state and federal courts, and I’m not going to go into them all. What it comes down to is that there is no court in any state that endorses Trump’s claim that Biden’s win is fraudulent. In most of the suits, Trump’s lawyers didn’t even really make that claim; the “evidence” they kept crowing about in public and social media wasn’t anything a court would recognize.

I agree with Amanda Marcotte’s interpretation: 2/3rds of Republicans don’t “believe” Trump really won the election any more than they believed President Obama was born in Kenya. The election-fraud conspiracy theory simply justifies a position they don’t want to state in so many words: To hell with democracy. Their side should be in power no matter what the majority of Americans want.

it’s important to see those who support Trump’s coup for who they are: People who have been radicalized, through racism, hateful propaganda, and a sense of perpetual grievance, against democracy. They aren’t going to change their minds because of new facts, because the underlying belief — which is that they deserve to be in power, no matter what — is the problem here. It’s a rising American authoritarianism, and we underestimate it at our peril.

This is a good time to revisit one of my favorite Jen Sorensen cartoons, which she drew in 2015.

Arguably the most disturbing thing about the Texas lawsuit was the 126 Republicans in Congress signed an amicus brief supporting the suit. New Jersey Rep. Bill Pascrell has proposed a hardball way to punish them:

Pascrell cites Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution in the letter, which “gives each chamber of Congress the ultimate authority to decide their membership.”

“Stated simply, men and women who would act to tear the United States government apart cannot serve as members of Congress,” Pascrell writes, adding that they were attempting to make President Trump “an unelected dictator” by endorsing the lawsuit.

Most Democrats don’t want to go that far, preferring to keep the moral high ground as the Party of Fair Play as opposed to the Party of Power At All Costs. And as a practical matter, the worst possible outcome would be for Speaker Pelosi to attempt something like this and fail for lack of a Democratic consensus.

However, I could get behind a halfway measure, which I would view as a shot across the Fascist bow: Make an example out of the 19 of those 126 Republicans who were elected from Wisconsin (1), Pennsylvania (7), Michigan (4), and Georgia (7). After all, they were on the same ballot as Biden and Trump, so the brief they signed alleges that the very election that qualifies them to sit in Congress was tainted by what the brief calls “unconstitutional ballots”. It would make perfect sense for the House to investigate this allegation before seating them. Coincidentally, this investigation should last until the Inauguration, at which point Speaker Pelosi could report that allegations of fraud were unsupported by evidence.

Opening Thoughts about the Trump Voter

Whenever I come across an idea that seems promising, I face a dilemma: Do I tell you all as soon as I start thinking about it, or do I wait until I’ve done the research to flesh it out properly? This blog’s most successful posts are the ones where I’ve taken time, done a bunch of background reading, and thought things through carefully. Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party is a prime example. I thought about it for months, and it has gotten more than half a million hits in the last six years. Around 200 people looked at it last week.

But at the same time, there’s the question of topicality: If I know a lot of you are thinking about a question right now, shouldn’t I let you know that I’m thinking about it too? And if I have some preliminary conclusions that you might find useful, maybe I should pass them on, even if I don’t have all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed yet. So that’s what I’m doing in this post.

The 74 million. As has been clear on this blog since Election Day, I was deeply disturbed to see 74 million Americans vote for a Trump second term. After everything he’s done these last four years, 74 million Americans — millions of whom didn’t vote for him in 2016 — said, “Stay. Get some more of us killed. Finish the job of destroying American democracy.”

Blessedly, 81 million Americans said, “No. Get the hell out of here.” And despite Trump pulling every lever of presidential power to defy the People and stay in office, the institutions of democracy have held. The Electoral College is voting today, and 306 electors are pledged to Joe Biden. On January 20, Trump will become an ex-president.

And yet, those 74 million Trump voters are still with us, and many of them are still believing every ridiculous thing he says, like that he really won in a landslide, but that Biden managed to manufacture vast numbers of fake votes — under the nose of a sitting president, whose Justice Department noticed nothing. In Georgia and Arizona, this vast fraud supposedly happened under the noses of Republican governors and secretaries of state, who also noticed nothing. Trump’s claims of fraud have failed to convince judges in over fifty lawsuits, including judges Trump appointed himself.

And still they believe him. Largely because of his influence over the base voters, droves of Republican elected officials have abandoned their integrity: Eighteen state attorneys general and 126 members of Congress signed on to an insane lawsuit asking the Supreme Court to throw out the 2020 election and hand Trump a second term in spite of the voters. (All three of his Supreme Court appointees refused.) If this suit had succeeded, if defeating Trump by seven million votes (in an election that Trump appointee Christopher Krebs called “the most secure in American history“) isn’t enough to take power away from him, then all future presidential elections would be meaningless. Democracy would be over in America, and quite possibly the Union would break up.

And that’s what the Republican Party supports these days.

So what do we do? How should we understand Trump voters? How should we talk to them? How do we manage to hang on to our constitutional republic in spite of them?

I’ve been thinking about those questions a lot this last month.

The too-easy answers. There are lots of explanations of the Trump voters that strike me as too easy and too satisfying to the liberal self-image. Like:

  • They’re just stupid.
  • They’re insane.
  • They’re in thrall to a mind-numbing, reality-rejecting version of Christianity.
  • They’re in Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”: racists, sexists, homophobes, xenophobes, and Islamophobes.

I admit, none of these explanations is entirely baseless. Trump’s support is concentrated in the less-educated portion of the population, and his supporters regularly swallow his incredible (and often self-contradictory) lies. Increasingly, they are taken in by Q-Anon or similar conspiracy theories that ought to sound crazy. White supremacists are front-and-center at Trump rallies, and Trump supporters in general love to demonize Black Lives Matter or leading women of color (like AOC). The Christian leaders who back Trump (in spite of his complete ignorance of Christianity and lack of any Christian virtue) are also likely to deny evolution, climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, and other well established aspects of reality.

Perhaps the best reason to believe these pejorative theories of Trump support is that Trump himself seems to believe them. Like conmen everywhere, he does not admire his marks. For example, whenever he needs a distraction from something he has bungled, he picks a fight with some prominent Black person, like LeBron James or Don Lemon, or he tells the Squad to “go back” where they came from. He knows that playing a racist or sexist is a good look for him.

Restoring democracy. I resist these theories, though, because they seem self-defeating to me. If 74 million voters are just stupid or crazy or incurably bigoted, then why exactly do we want to save democracy? Shouldn’t we just disenfranchise them before they disenfranchise us? If Biden could stage a coup of his own, ignore the anti-democratic Senate, and start dictating sensible policies to mitigate climate change, guarantee health care, and reduce economic inequality, wouldn’t that be a good thing?

I reject that scenario. Messy and inefficient as democracy can be, I want to find a way back to it. I believe that when you start cutting large numbers of people out of the process, it doesn’t turn out well, even if you get some good things done in the short term.

Restoring democracy in such a way that it survives into the distant future involves reversing the polarization of recent years and shaping some kind of national consensus about who we are and what we’re trying to do. (It also involves recognizing that we have to do more than just “restore” democracy, because large swathes of the citizenry were cut out of the governing process in whatever era we might imagine going back to.) We can’t do that if we begin by writing off 74 million voters.

The answer I want. So before I even start, I have to confess that I’m looking for an answer of a certain shape: I want to find something in the Trump voter (or at least in a large number of Trump voters) that I can sympathize with and imagine making common cause around. If the core of what they want is to lock immigrant kids in cages, then I can’t go there. If the essence of Trumpism is restoring the patriarchy and sending gays back to the closet, there’s no deal to be made. But what if that’s not it?

Trump’s appeal. I view Trump’s appeal as being rooted in resentment and wounded pride, which Trump has exploited in destructive ways. Trump has turned that resentment against precisely the groups Hillary’s basket-of-deplorables quote describes: against Blacks, women, gays, immigrants, and non-Christians (especially Muslims). And Trump has offered his followers a restored pride in their race, their religion, and the power of their nation to bully other nations.

But what is that resentment and that wound really about? As I see it, Blacks, women, and the rest didn’t really do anything to the MAGA-hatters; they’ve just been offered as scapegoats. Same-sex couples haven’t harmed opposite-sex couples. Trans folk haven’t stopped the rest of us from identifying as men or women, if that’s what we want to do. Every American-Christians-are-persecuted story I’ve ever looked at has fallen apart under examination.

The key to bridging the gap — not all the way to the neo-Nazis, but to a lot of ordinary Americans who voted for Trump — ought to be finding an interpretation of that wound and that resentment that doesn’t demonize the people who feel it.

The progressive account. The progressive movement offers such an explanation, but I’m not satisfied with it. Bernie Sanders and his allies will tell you that the wound is economic: Trump supporters — particularly non-college-educated white people in rural areas — feel themselves slipping out of the middle class through no fault of their own.

The best description of that economic anxiety comes from Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book Strangers in Their Own Land.

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black — beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.

There’s a long discussion about white male privilege to be had here. (The implicit assumption is that “you” deserved the spot you had in line, and so the Blacks and women and immigrants who got moved ahead of you are interlopers.) But the essence of the problem is the unmoving line. If you’re making good progress towards the Dream, and you know you’ll get there soon enough, then who really cares if somebody else gets there a little ahead of you?

So the progressive solution is to get the line moving again by taxing the wealthy and using the money to relieve the stresses of working-class life (through government-financed health care, a higher minimum wage, and a strong safety net) and to open more avenues for upward mobility (free college and revitalized infrastructure).

Do all that, the progressives say, and working-class people will realize that Democrats are back on their side, so the Trump movement will fade away.

That seems plausible, but I don’t see much supporting evidence. I think progressives were fooled by the support Bernie got in the 2016 primaries from working-class white voters in rural areas of, say, Michigan and Wisconsin. But in 2020, when Bernie was running against a man rather than a woman, those counties flipped to Biden. It was never about the progressive economic agenda.

Depleted social capital. Timothy Carney’s book Alienated America (which I did a mini-review of in a weekly summary in 2019) is a conservative look at the Trump phenomenon. Carney argues (with data to back him up) that the core Trump voters — the people who supported him in the 2016 Republican primaries over more traditional Republican candidates like Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio — were not the people struggling economically. Instead, they tended to be successful people in failing communities. Not the guy who lost his job when the factory moved to Indonesia, but the guy who runs the Chevy dealership that sold trucks to guys who lost their jobs when the factory moved to Indonesia, or the guy whose plumbing-and-heating-contractor business is surviving, but hasn’t been nearly as prosperous since the local factory moved to Indonesia.

So Carney’s solution to the Trump-voter problem is to shore up the social capital of the small towns and rural areas in America’s heartland. This seems a little closer to the mark, though exactly how to do it is a little trickier. (James and Deborah Fallows’ book Our Towns, which highlights successful small towns, might be a place to start thinking about that.)

When I picture the view from my Midwestern hometown (Quincy, Illinois), Medicare for All and free college are nice, but they don’t really solve the problem. They make it easier for people to survive as individuals, and to educate their kids so they can move away and succeed in places that still have opportunity. But they don’t provide a vision of how Quincy itself thrives into the future and makes opportunities for its children to put down roots without moving away.

What all of this leaves out, though, is the kind of resentment we’re seeing right now, directed at doctors and the government officials who listen to them. The people who make a scene at Target because they don’t want to wear masks — that’s not economic anxiety or even community-social-capital anxiety. That’s something else.

It’s related to the own-the-libs anger that shows up on social media. These are the people who positively rejoice when Trump makes fun of the disabled or claims that he couldn’t possibly have molested all the women who accuse him, because they’re just too ugly. That’s not about fear that immigrants will take your job, or concern that you won’t be taken care of if you get sick, or worry that your grand-kids will have to grow up in San Francisco.

Caste. So there are two other pieces of the puzzle I’m trying to integrate in, and this is where I’m going to need some time to get the fit right. Both are related to books I finished reading this week. One is Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, which makes the observation that a caste system provides a sense of security to people who aren’t in the bottom caste, because they know someone will always be below them. That isn’t just (or even primarily) an economic security, it’s a social and psychological security.

So the guy who believes that he’s white trash takes comfort in the idea that he’s at least white trash. As long as whites are on top, he has some claim to self-worth.

Wilkerson raises the idea that poor and working-class whites whose votes for Trump seem to run against their economic interests (because Trump’s policies may take away their health insurance and won’t raise their minimum wage) may have a broader view of their interests than just economics. They may see their whiteness as a birthright they aren’t willing to sell.

Something similar might be going on with the Christians who refuse to sell cakes or do floral arrangements for same-sex marriages. It’s absurd to believe that God cares about these lines in the sand. (Neither cakes nor flowers play any sacramental role in Christian marriage rituals.) But if these people’s self-worth comes from the social supremacy of Christianity, then making a stand that says “We’re still on top” will be important to them.

This isn’t bigotry in the hating sense. The person who feels an attachment to everybody staying in “their place” may not have any conscious animosity towards people who are assigned to different places. But the current system gives that person a “place” somewhere that isn’t the bottom, and if the system falls apart, he doesn’t know where he’ll be.

So now the question becomes: What alternative self-worth do we have to offer such a person? And how can we communicate this offer to him or her?

Defining reality. One of the hardest things for me to accept about Trump supporters is their willing acceptance of all sorts of absurdities. As various Facebook memes have been putting it lately: The pandemic is a hoax, but Trump deserves credit for producing the vaccine that I’m going to refuse to take.

Bill Barr was wonderful until he refused to go along with the Biden-stole-the-election lie, and now he’s part of the Deep State. Amy Coney Barrett has gone from savior to villain in just a few weeks. The only way to know what’s real these days is to follow Trump’s tweets, and be prepared to change your mind as he does, from one moment to the next.

The 2019 book Democracy and Truth by Sophia Rosenfeld has some clues about what’s going on here.

Every society has some process for reaching consensus on what is real, what is possible, what categories people need to keep track of, and so on. (One key element of “wokeness” is recognizing the social construction of both race and gender. Yes, there is an underlying physical reality: Some people’s skin is darker than other’s, and some people have organs that other people lack. But the exact boundaries of these categories and what — if any — significance they have varies from one society to another.) Different people play different roles in this process, with some being more empowered than others. One of the not-well-understood aspects of Trumpism is that Trumpists feel alienated from the reality-defining class.

This has been an issue for years when it comes to Christianity and evolution. The scientific community had a debate in the 1800s, and settled on the consensus that Darwinian evolution really happened, while the young-Earth account of Genesis is just a myth. Lots of Christians don’t like that conclusion, and have tried for years to argue that their definition of reality deserves as much or more deference than the scientists’ definition.

The same thing happens with climate change and all sorts of other ideas that get less attention: There’s an expert class that defines the social consensus about reality, but lots of people are in rebellion against its conclusions. At a mundane level, this plays out on the front page of The New York Times every day: Some things are really happening while others aren’t. And some things are happening but aren’t worth noting.

In general, different people are involved in different reality-defining processes. And even if you’re not involved in any of them, you might feel some connection to the people who are. For example, I play no role in deciding whether the various Covid-19 vaccines are safe. But I have friends who are biologists, and they have friends are are involved. I’ve also participated in a different research community (mathematics), so I have a general grasp of the peer-review process, and so forth. In addition, there was a point in my life when I was deciding what field to specialize in, and if I had made a different choice, I might be working with Dr. Fauci today. (Or at least I believe that.)

But many people in society feel completely separated from that process. They have opinions on the subject, but nobody cares. In fact, nobody cares about any of their opinions about what’s real and what isn’t. They don’t know anybody who decides what’s real, and they aren’t aware of ever having had a chance to enter the reality-defining class. People like them don’t define reality. Somebody else does.

That’s the kind of alienation that makes you throw a fit in Target. This mask isn’t a moon rocket, it’s a piece of cloth. Why is your opinion about it better than mine?

That alienation will also lead you to conspiracy theories, where reality gets defined by an alternative community in alternative ways. The folks in Q-Anon care what you think. Dr. Fauci doesn’t. He thinks he’s better than you are.

Trump consistently stands up for these alienated folks by thumbing his nose at the reality-defining class as a whole. There’s a pandemic? Maybe, maybe not. Doctors say masks help, but I think hydroxychloroquine is better. My friend the My Pillow Guy has a theory; why don’t we listen to him?

So here’s a thought I’m still wrestling with: How do we make the reality-defining class more accessible? Or more transparent? Or at least less off-putting?

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?

The Electoral College, the Trump Coup Attempt, the Georgia run-offs, and Other Post-Election Reflections

The results. Georgia and Arizona finally got called, completing the map of the 2020 presidential election. Joe Biden is the winner, 306-232, the exact same margin Trump won by in 2016.

All the Senate races have also been called, with the two Georgia races resulting in run-offs. The make-up of the new Senate is 50-48, pending those two Georgia races.

A few House races are still being determined, but the shape of the outcome is clear: Democrats will retain control, but with a slightly smaller majority.

Measuring the bias built in to the Electoral College. Since 2016 and 2020 resulted in exactly the same 306-232 split in the Electoral College, we can see just how big a Republican bias that system has compared to the popular vote. Trump was able to get his 306 electoral votes while losing the popular vote by 2.8 million. In order to get his 306 EVs, Biden had to win by a margin that so far is 5.6 million and continues to grow as the final votes are tallied.

In each case, a relatively small number of votes in a few states determined the outcome. Hillary Clinton would have won in 2016 if she had gotten 10,705 more votes in Michigan, 44,293 in Pennsylvania, and 22,749 in Wisconsin, for a total of 77,747.

Using the currently available returns, Trump would have won this year if he had gotten 10,378 more votes in Arizona, 14,173 in Georgia, and 20,547 in Wisconsin, a total of 45,098. (That would have resulted in a 269-269 Electoral College tie, which would have thrown the decision into the House. Each state gets one vote in the House, and Republicans control 26 House delegations, so Trump would have been chosen.)

Think about that: If Trump had gotten those 45K votes, he still would have lost nationally by at least 5.5 million, and probably quite a bit more. But he would be president for four more years.

Admittedly, though, a scenario where a candidate gets exactly the votes he needs in exactly the states where he needs them is far-fetched. So here’s a more plausible variation: What if Biden’s margin were just 3/4% smaller across the board?

Biden won nationally 50.9%-47.3%, a 3.6% margin. But he won Wisconsin by .7%, Arizona by .3%, and Georgia by .3%. So in my 3/4%-less scenario, Biden carries the country 50.525%-47.675%, a margin of 2.85% or 4.4-million votes. He still has a popular-vote majority — not just a plurality — but he loses all three of the closest states, so Trump gets a second term.

I don’t see any way to justify that outcome. The Electoral College has to go.

Trump’s coup attempt. Just because it isn’t working doesn’t mean that it isn’t a coup. This week, Trump has been trying to create the conditions for him to hang onto power in spite of being rejected by the voters. For the most part, the Republican Party has been cooperating with his effort to overthrow American democracy.

Going into the election, various observers were laying out what Trump might do to subvert an election defeat. Here’s Barton Gellman in The Atlantic from September:

The worst case, however, is not that Trump rejects the election outcome. The worst case is that he uses his power to prevent a decisive outcome against him. If Trump sheds all restraint, and if his Republican allies play the parts he assigns them, he could obstruct the emergence of a legally unambiguous victory for Biden in the Electoral College and then in Congress. He could prevent the formation of consensus about whether there is any outcome at all. He could seize on that un­certainty to hold on to power.

Gellman detailed the plan: deny the validity of mail-in ballots, tie the vote-count up in litigation, delay resolution until Republican state legislatures in Pennsylvania or Wisconsin feel justified in appointing their own pro-Trump electors. Make Congress or the Supreme Court — not the voters — decide who the real electors are. (Vox’ Andrew Prokop points out all the obstacles in the way of this scenario.)

So far, Trump has been carrying out that plan, and the majority of elected Republicans have been playing along with him. Fortunately for American democracy, Election Day went relatively smoothly and Biden’s win is not that close, so Trump’s litigation strategy has little to work with and a lot to accomplish: He needs to overturn — or at least cast doubt on — margins in the tens of thousands in at least three states.

He also needs to reverse the public perception that Biden won. This is why Fox News projecting a Biden victory and referring to him as the President-elect has so outraged Trump. He needs his followers to believe that the election is still undetermined.

It’s not working, and it’s not going to work — judges need to see some kind of evidence before they block certification of the election results, and Trump has none — but Trump and the Republicans should get no credit for that. They’ve been trying to overthrow American democracy; they just haven’t succeeded.

The non-transition. No one really expected Trump to make a gracious concession speech, as all previous losing candidates have done for the last century or so. Fundamentally, Trump is still that fragile-ego kid you knew in first grade: the one who never admitted a mistake and couldn’t lose at anything without claiming that the winner cheated.

(John McCain not only gave a very gracious speech in 2008, he joked about his loss later, claiming that after his election-night concession, he went to bed “and I slept like a baby. I woke up screaming every two hours.”)

But Trump has pushed his innate immaturity several steps down the road to assholery: He’s refusing to let his administration face the reality that Biden won the election and needs to get ready to take control of the government. This would be a problem in the best of times, but given that Trump is leaving Biden a broken economy and a plague running out of control, his petulance is becoming unpatriotic.

And so, the General Services Administration has not yet issued the ascertainment memo that releases funds for the transition process, providing office space and government resources like computers and email accounts. For comparison, the Obama White House issued a detailed transition memo on November 10, 2016, two days after the election.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Trump administration is refusing to meet with Biden’s people until GSA gives its OK. Biden is also not getting access to current intelligence reports like the Presidential Daily Brief. CNN reports:

Less than 10 weeks before Biden will take office, his team is locked out of crucial Covid-19 pandemic data and government agency contacts, which threatens to hamper the federal response amid peaking coronavirus cases and the expected mass distribution of a vaccine.

Again comparisons are in order: Bill Clinton began sharing PDBs with George W. Bush while the Florida recount was ongoing, “just in case” he happened to win. There is no downside to this, unless you suspect the possible next president of being a security risk.

Promoting unrest. Saturday, pro-Trump demonstrators came to Washington to join in the fantasy that Biden is stealing the election. Journalism Professor Jay Rosen used the WaPo’s coverage as an example of what not to do:

On stark display in the nation’s capital were two irreconcilable versions of America, each refusing to accept what the other considered to be undeniable fact.

What’s wrong here? The Post is acting as if actual reality is unknowable; we just have different groups saying different things. Rosen suggests saying this instead:

A militant faction had come to the nation’s capital to march for a fantasy, and to reject any institution that disallowed it, including for now Fox News.

The ongoing scam. Meanwhile, convincing the Trump personality cult that he still has a chance opens a new opportunity to scam them.

I’ve been on the Trump/Pence email list since 2016, but I’d never clicked one of the “Contribute” buttons until Thursday. That got me to a page with the following disclaimer in the fine print at the bottom:

Contributions to TMAGAC made by an Individual/Federal Multicandidate Political Committee will be allocated according to the following formula: 60% of each contribution first to Save America, up to $5,000/$5,000, then to DJTP’s Recount Account, up to a maximum of $2,800/$5,000. 40% of each contribution to the RNC’s Operating account, up to a maximum of $35,500/$15,000. Any additional funds will go to the RNC for deposit in the RNC’s Legal Proceedings account or Headquarters account, up to a maximum of $213,000/$90,000.

The marketing is all about election fraud; the email was asking me to contribute to Trump’s “Official Election Defense Fund”. But that’s not where the money would go until after $5,000 had gone to Save America and another big sum to the RNC. If I’m giving less than $8,000, none of my money would go towards funding recounts and/or lawsuits.

So what is Save America? It’s a “leadership PAC”, which means Trump has wide latitude on how to spend it. Open Secrets says:

Leadership PACs are used to fund expenses that are ineligible to be paid by campaign committees or congressional offices. Those costs can include travel to raise a politician’s profile, for instance. … Politicians often use their PACs to donate to other candidates because they are considering seeking a leadership position in Congress, a higher office, or leverage within their own party as they show off their fundraising ability.

So basically Trump is using his “election fraud” scam as a way to raise money so that he can continue to fly around the country having rallies, while continuing to skim large chunks of cash into Trump Organization properties.

BTW: Trump’s “voter fraud hotline” has shut down due to prank calls.

Georgia and the Senate. Georgia election law requires a Senate race to be decided by a majority: If nobody gets a majority, the top two candidates meet in a run-off. So both of this year’s races are going to a run-off on January 5. Incumbent Senator David Perdue will face Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff in one race, and Republican Kelly Loeffler (who was appointed to fill out the term of Republican Senator Johnny Isakson, who retired for health reasons) and Democrat Raphael Warnock are running in the other.

If Democrats win both races, the Senate is split 50-50, leaving new Vice President Kamala Harris to break the tie in the Democrats’ favor. That would mean that Chuck Schumer becomes majority leader. But if either Republican wins, Mitch McConnell stays in power.

Predicting what will happen here is beyond me. Biden narrowly won Georgia, while Perdue narrowly outpolled Ossoff. Warnock got more votes than Loeffler, but was far away from a majority (33%) in a multi-candidate race, and the third-place candidate was a Republican.

Given what we’ve just seen, it’s hard to trust polls. The contests will come down to turnout, which is also hard to guess: Will voters motivated by love or hate of Trump turn out when Trump isn’t on the ballot? With Biden headed to the White House, will voters want a Republican Senate to block him? Or will they vote against gridlock and give Biden a chance to govern? As reality dawns on the Trump personality cult, will they be angry and vote or depressed and stay home?

In Democrats’ favor, I think the Ossoff/Warnock combination works well: Warnock should get Black voters in Atlanta to turn out, while Ossoff should attract suburban women. But the temptation to be “independent” by voting for one Republican and one Democrat works against them.

What’s at stake in Georgia. It’s important to get the significance of the Georgia run-offs right, because the the Right will try to distort it.

A Mitch McConnell Senate will block virtually everything the Biden administration tries to do, including cabinet nominations. No new judges will get appointed. Every budget will be a brinksmanship drama, with a countdown to a government shutdown. Worse, McConnell will sabotage the Biden economy the same way he sabotaged the Obama economy, by forcing an inappropriately restrictive austerity. You can already see this happening in McConnell’s unwillingness to back any kind of pandemic stimulus.

But a 50-50 Senate will not be a nest incubating liberal overreach. VP Harris will break ties, but in practice the swing vote will be the 50th Democrat, who will usually be West Virginia’s Joe Manchin. If Manchin’s not for it, it’s not passing. So: no defunding the police, no government takeover of healthcare, no amnesty for illegal immigrants, no packing the Supreme Court, and no whatever else Fox News is rattling its viewers’ chains about.

In particular, a Manchin-centered Senate probably doesn’t end the filibuster, which means McConnell will retain a lot of blocking power. So the choice is whether the Senate will be mildly dysfunctional or totally dysfunctional.

Choose well, Georgia.

What Happens Tomorrow?

This year, Election Night is a lot more complicated than just watching the returns come in.

Ordinarily, on the day before an election I write about poll-closing times and what the experts expect in various states. When does it makes sense to start watching returns? What are some early indications to look for? How late will you have to stay up to see the race decided? Stuff like that.

But as in everything else, 2020 is different. This year, we have to think not just about when the polls close, but how the votes are counted. When do election officials start processing early and mail-in ballots? How long will various states wait for mail-in ballots to arrive? Will courts intervene?

And then there are the possibilities that often occur in third-world countries, but we never used to have to think about in America: Will there be violence? Will the President let the ballots be counted? Will either foreign or domestic agents launch cyberattacks, or use disinformation to create chaos?

Let’s look at the ordinary stuff first, then work our way out to the unusual.

What the national polls say. As of this morning, 538’s model says Biden has a 90% chance of victory. That’s far from a sure thing, but it means that unusual (but not impossible) things will have to happen for Trump to win.

Nationally, 538’s polling average has Biden ahead 51.9% to Trump’s 43.5%. Not only is that a much bigger lead than Hillary Clinton’s 45.7%- 41.8% in 2016, but there are fewer undecided voters, and Biden’s lead has been much steadier, staying in the 8%-10% range for the last month. (In late September, Clinton led by less than the 2% she ultimately won the popular vote by.)

The conventional wisdom has been telling us that the race would tighten down the stretch, as it did in 2016, but so far there is no sign of it. In addition, the large number of votes already cast leaves less room for last-minute shifts in the public mood.

Does that mean Trump can’t win? Of course not. But it does tell us what kind of unlikely event would be required: A late-breaking shift of undecided voters wouldn’t do it. “Shy” voters afraid to tell pollsters they’re for Trump wouldn’t do it. (It’s hard to believe many of them would claim to be for Biden. Wouldn’t they just say they’re undecided?) One or two “unlucky” polls choosing an unrepresentative sample of voters wouldn’t do it.

In order for Trump to win, there has to be a large structural failure in how polls are constructed across the entire industry.

BTW. On the shy-voter theory: If there were something uniquely embarrassing about supporting Trump, I would expect to see a gap between Trump’s performance in the polls and Republican candidates lower down the ballot. Voters afraid to say they’re for Trump would be telling pollsters they’re for Thom Tillis in North Carolina or David Perdue in Georgia or Martha McSally in Arizona. But they’re not.

State polls. Of course, we don’t vote nationally, we use the archaic, Republican-biased Electoral College. That’s what the 538 model is based on. (They give Biden a 97% chance of winning the national popular vote, but only a 90% chance of becoming president. No other advanced country would tolerate a system like this.)

Looking at each state individually produces 538’s snake chart, the key section of which looks like this:

The easiest path for Biden to get to 270 electoral votes is to win all the states Clinton won in 2016 (the most difficult will be Minnesota and Nevada), and recapture Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

The least likely state on this list for Biden is Pennsylvania, where 538’s model shows him with an 86% chance of winning, and predicts a 5.1% margin. That makes Pennsylvania the tipping-point state: the one most likely to make the difference.

If Biden should lose Pennsylvania, though, he still might win, because he also has smaller leads in Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and Georgia. Ohio is a toss-up and Biden trails narrowly in Texas (not pictured).

This again tells us what kind of unlikely event would re-elect Trump: Polls have to be off by around 5% across the board, in states as different as Pennsylvania, Florida, and Arizona.

Election night. Ordinarily then, I’d be telling you that polls close in Pennsylvania at 8 p.m. EST, so if Biden really has that 5.1% lead, we should expect to know that he’s won by 9 or 10 o’clock. He couldn’t pass 270 until California came in at 11, but we could go to bed early and still be pretty sure we’d wake up to a Biden victory.

Not this year. Nationally, more than half the expected number of ballots have already been cast. Naively, you might expect that to make the vote-count go faster, since states could already have half or more of the votes counted when the polls close. But you would be ignoring how Republicans intend to steal this election for Trump:

Behind in the polls, Republicans are becoming increasingly blunt about their plan to win the election: don’t let everyone’s votes be counted.

As Astead Herndon and Annie Karni reported for the New York Times Saturday evening: “Trump advisers said their best hope was if the president wins Ohio and Florida is too close to call early in the night, depriving Mr. Biden a swift victory and giving Mr. Trump the room to undermine the validity of uncounted mail-in ballots in the days after.”

Matt Yglesias sums up:

Republicans — not Trump, dozens and dozens of individual state legislators across multiple states — have acted to deliberately ensure slow counting of mail-in ballots so they can later complain that the slow dribbling in of mail votes looks suspicious.

Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania are all states where Republican majorities in the legislature have gerrymandered themselves into power. (A majority of voters in 2018 tried to give power to Democrats, but failed.) And they have prevented early vote-counting in each state. So Biden will not win Pennsylvania by 9 or 10, and probably not until Wednesday or Thursday — or later if the state is closer than polls predict.

Since Democrats have promoted early voting and voting-by-mail more than Republicans — in part because they take the pandemic seriously and Republicans do not — most likely the election-night totals will favor Trump, who will then try to declare victory and prevent further vote-counting.

I don’t expect that strategy to work, because Biden’s ultimate margin will be too big, and neither election officials nor judges are as corrupt as the GOP’s plan requires. But it does mean that you won’t learn much by watching Pennsylvania’s returns come in tomorrow night.

Instead, the first state to watch tomorrow night is Florida. Polls close at 8 eastern, and the early votes should be reported almost immediately. So Biden should have an early lead there, which will shrink over the next hour or two as the election-day votes come in. It’s possible there could be a result by 10.

Florida is a state where Biden has a small polling lead — 2.3% in 538’s analysis. As you see in the snake chart above, Biden can win the election without Florida. But winning Florida would be an early knock-out blow. If Biden holds the Clinton states and adds Florida, that’s 262 electoral votes. Trump would have to sweep all the other battleground states, including places like Michigan, where Biden has an 8.1% lead in the polls.

So Biden-wins-Florida is the go-to-bed-early scenario.

That said, Florida has been problematic for Democrats in recent elections. Clinton was favored there and lost. Ditto for Andrew Gillum in the 2018 governor’s race. Maybe pollsters have figured out what they did wrong in those races, but maybe not.

Polling errors have been running the other way in the Southwest: Kyrsten Sinema was projected to win her Senate race in Arizona by .7% and actually won by 2.4%. Ted Cruz was supposed to beat Beto O’Rourke by 4.9% and actually only won by 2.6%.

Other possible early knock-outs for Biden are North Carolina, Georgia, and (a little bit later in the evening) Arizona. Also worth watching is New Hampshire, a Clinton state Trump has campaigned in. Trump doesn’t need to win it and probably won’t. But the returns in New Hampshire could be an early clue as to whether he is getting the white-working-class surge he will need in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Ohio and Texas are stretches for Biden, but if they come in, the race is a landslide. Given the similar demographics, there is no way Biden loses Pennsylvania or Michigan after winning Ohio, or fails to take Arizona after winning Texas.

That said, Republican machinations have held open the most tense scenario: Trump takes Texas, Ohio, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Arizona on Tuesday, forcing Biden to count on the Michigan-Wisconsin-Pennsylvania path, which Republicans have intentionally delayed, and will now argue are taking too long.

Congress. Democrats expect to expand their House majority and have a good chance to take control of the Senate.

The current Senate is 53-47 Republican. Democrats expect to lose Doug Jones’ race in Alabama, so they need to pick up four seats elsewhere to get to 50-50. If Biden wins the presidency, Kamala Harris will hold the tie-breaking vote in the Senate.

Cook lists only one other Democratic seat in danger, Gary Peters’ in Michigan. But even that race it rates as “lean Democrat”.

Meanwhile, it rates two Republican seats — Martha McSally’s in Arizona and Cory Gardner’s in Colorado — as lean Democrat. Seven other Republican seats are toss-ups: Susan Collins in Maine, Joni Erst in Iowa, Thom Tillis in North Carolina, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler in Georgia, Steve Danes in Montana, and Lindsey Graham in South Carolina.

538 gives the Democrats a 76% chance of gaining control of the Senate, with a 51.6 seat projection.

The same Election-Night considerations apply as in the presidential race. The early indicator is probably the North Carolina race.

Out of the ordinary. Over the weekend we started seeing our first hints of disruption or violence. “Trump Trains” of flag-flying pick-up trucks slowed or blocked traffic in a number of places like the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey, the Mario Cuomo Bridge in New York, and the Capitol Beltway in D. C.

The Garden State Parkway on Sunday.

The most ominous such event was when a Trump Train surrounded and harassed a Biden campaign bus in Texas, resulting in one minor collision.

People in vehicles that were part of a “Trump Train” began yelling profanities and obscenities and then blockaded the entire Biden entourage, according to a source familiar with the incident. At one point they slowed the tour bus to roughly 20 mph on Interstate 35, the campaign official said. The vehicles slowed down to try to stop the bus in the middle of the highway. The source said there were nearly 100 vehicles around the campaign bus. Biden staffers were rattled by the event, the source said, though no one was hurt.

When Trump heard about this incident, he tweeted “I LOVE TEXAS!”. And the Texas Republican Party was similarly unapologetic. Its statement dismissed the incident as “fake news and propaganda”, and attempted to shift focus to “the real violence” on the left.

In all these incidents, the point seemed to be to cause trouble, not just to express enthusiasm. Will they escalate?

Ron Suskind explored that possibility in “The Day After Election Day“. What if, he wonders, the Proud Boys or the army of Trump volunteers out looking for non-existent voter fraud block or violently disrupt polling places?

Disruption would most likely begin on Election Day morning somewhere on the East Coast, where polls open first. Miami and Philadelphia (already convulsed this week after another police shooting), in big swing states, would be likely locations. It could be anything, maybe violent, maybe not, started by anyone, or something planned and executed by any number of organizations, almost all of them on the right fringe, many adoring of Mr. Trump. … If something goes wrong, the media will pick this up in early morning reports and it will spread quickly, increasing tension at polling places across the country, where the setup is ripe for conflict.

Conservative media could then say the election was being stolen, summoning others to activate, maybe violently. This is the place where cybersecurity experts are on the lookout for foreign actors to amplify polling location incidents many times over, with bots and algorithms and stories written overseas that slip into the U.S. digital diet. News of even a few incidents could summon a violent segment of Mr. Trump’s supporters into action, giving foreign actors even more to amplify and distribute, spreading what is, after all, news of mayhem to the wider concentric circles of Mr. Trump’s loyalists. Groups from the left may engage as well, most likely as a counterpoint to those on the right. … Violence and conflict throughout that day at the polls would surely affect turnout, allowing Mr. Trump to claim that the in-person vote had been corrupted, if that suits his purposes.

That violence could be Trump’s Reichstag Fire.

If the streets then fill with outraged people, he can easily summon, or prompt, or encourage troublemakers among his loyalists to turn a peaceful crowd into a sea of mayhem. They might improvise on their own in sparking violence, presuming it pleases their leader.

If the crowds are sufficiently large and volatile, he can claim to be justified in responding with federal powers to bring order.

The spark for all this might be, literally, nothing at all. In 2014, an organized disinformation campaign created a fake ISIS attack on a chemical plant in Louisiana. What if some foreign actor like Russia invents an Antifa election-day atrocity? Might the fake attack create real reprisals that then spiral out of control?

I don’t even know how to evaluate scenarios like that. Are they likely? Crazy? Will we all laugh about this stuff by Friday? I have no idea.

This I do know: We’ve never had to think this way before, and the difference this time around is Trump. All previous presidents have done their best to reassure the public. He is the first to actively try to destabilize the national mood, and push us all towards panic. No matter how this comes out, I will not forgive him for that.

Finally, I want to repeat what an anonymous national security expert tells Ron Suskind: “Just understand that you’re being manipulated.” Respond accordingly. No matter what you think is happening, stay non-violent as long as you possibly can. Check your sources before you pass on rumors, so that you don’t amplify disinformation.

And keep hoping that, like kids back from a horror movie, we all eventually have a good laugh about how scared we were.

I Want To Believe

Eight days from the end of voting, the signs are good. I know you’re still worried.

Politico sums up how this race might look to a dispassionate observer:

Trump is an unpopular incumbent saddled with a recession and an out-of-control coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 220,000 Americans. Meanwhile Biden has only seen his favorability ratings increase over time, emerging largely unscathed from Trump’s attacks on him and his son Hunter Biden. And Biden is outspending Trump down the homestretch almost everywhere

Those strategic observations are reflected in the polls: 538’s polling average has Biden up by 9.1% nationally, with few undecided voters: 52.0%-42.9%. And yes, the Electoral College rigs the system in Trump’s favor — the only reason he’s president now is that the electors overruled the voters in 2016 — but even that looks good: For some while 538’s tipping-point state has been Pennsylvania, where they project a 5.5% Biden advantage: 52.4%-46.9%. (That’s the margin in a model that projects ahead to election day. Their who’s-leading-now polling average is a bit bigger: 50.4%-44.7% or a 5.7% margin.)

If something goes wrong in Pennsylvania, Biden has other paths to victory. He’s also currently leading in North Carolina (2.5%), Florida (2.4%), Arizona (3.0%), Iowa (1.3%), and Georgia (.9%). (The model expects his leads to go away in Iowa and Georgia, but not in the other states.) And Trump’s leads are narrow in a number of states once thought to be safe for him: Ohio (1.4%) and Texas (tied).

That’s right: If you’re being all quantitative and wonky about it (like 538 always is), Biden currently looks way more likely to win Texas than Trump does to win Pennsylvania.

Feel better now? I didn’t think so.


Ghosts of 2016. Election Night 2016 was a trauma that Democrats may not recover from for a very long time. (I wonder if Republicans fretted this much about Eisenhower’s chances in 1952 after the Dewey debacle in 1948.) The Saturday before the election, the Princeton Election Consortium said Clinton had a 99% chance of winning. While other people’s speculations were less extreme — and Nate Silver’s election-eve estimate that Trump stood a 28% chance was probably about right; some unlikely things still had to happen, but everybody has gotten wet when there was a 28% chance of rain — few of us expected to see a President Trump.

And then it all fell apart: Florida and North Carolina early, and then Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

So why couldn’t that happen again?

If you insist on a strict interpretation of could, then sure: Everything could still go wrong. But this isn’t like the horror-movie sequel where only one character remembers what happened in the original. Everyone is out there looking for signs that the polls are wrong, or that subterranean forces are shifting the election under our feet. Nobody’s finding them.

What’s different now: non-college voters. 538’s Dhrumil Mehta explains the extent to which the polls were wrong in 2016 and what has been done to correct them in 2020. Nationally, the 2016 polls were pretty accurate; they only mildly overestimated Clinton’s 2% popular vote win. Late polls in Michigan and Pennsylvania showed Trump momentum, even if they still had a small Clinton lead. Only Wisconsin was a true polling failure.

Mehta explains a mistake that has since been corrected by many pollsters: They didn’t rebalance their samples for education levels.

What is rebalancing? When you already know the demographics of the population you’re sampling, you may notice that your sample is off in some way. Suppose, for example, that the electorate in some state is 14% black, but your sample is only 10% black. So you might adjust for that by counting each sampled Black person as 1.4 people.

In 2016, polls in the upper Midwest regularly undersampled people without college degrees. They didn’t intend to do that, it just happened. But it didn’t occur to them to rebalance for education, and the result was that more non-college people — and especially non-college whites — voted than anyone expected. That was Trump’s margin of victory.

Pollsters know about that mistake now, and are taking various steps to avoid it this time around.

So Trump doesn’t have some magical ability to conjure voters out of nowhere. We know where his 2016 margin came from, and we’re looking for it but not finding it this time.

What’s different: margins. Biden’s polling leads are bigger and broader than Clinton’s were. Clinton went into the election leading in the polls by 3 or 4%. Biden’s lead is running 8-10%.

What’s different: favorability. One reason the 2016 race went south at the end was that Hillary Clinton had very high unfavorable ratings. Many of 2016’s “undecided” voters were actually people searching for an excuse to vote against her, which the last-minute Comey announcement provided. (Trump’s negatives were also high, but that’s where we see the effect of sexism: A male president you dislike is unfortunate, but we’ve all disliked a male president at one time or another. A female president you dislike, on the other hand, may seem like an unimaginable horror.)

The same thing does not seem to be happening to Joe Biden.

He has emerged with more Americans viewing him favorably now than at this time last year, the opposite of the usual trajectory of a campaign and far different from the circumstances that faced Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Biden may not inspire dreams of a utopian future, but he’s hard to dislike. That’s why Trump keeps trying to run against somebody else, preferably some woman: Kamala Harris or AOC or Nancy Pelosi or Clinton again.

What’s different: the news. In 2016, Clinton’s weak spot was the suspicion of corruption. Largely that was the result of a decades-long Republican smear, and none of the so-called Clinton scandals subsequently amounted to anything. (Not even Bill Barr can find an excuse to “Lock her up!”)

But nonetheless, the final-week announcement that the FBI had found more Clinton emails and needed to examine them brought that weak spot to the fore.

The news cycle this time around is playing out very differently. The Trump tactic of insinuation-with-little-basis worked in 2016 largely because the country was doing pretty well. No urgent crises loomed that we had to picture Trump or Clinton trying to handle. “What have you got to lose?” Trump asked, and a lot of people had no compelling answer.

Right now, the country is in terrible shape, and the problems hit home every day. People worry about getting sick, they worry about their vulnerable relatives, they worry about their jobs. Nobody would ask “What have you got to lose?” now.

Trump’s weak spot is that he has completely bungled the only real crisis he’s faced: the pandemic. More than 220,000 Americans are dead on his watch, and he doesn’t seem to care. “It is what it is,” he says. We’ll have to “learn to live with it”. We should thank him because millions haven’t died.

And the news cycle is bringing that to the fore: The virus is surging precisely at the moment people are voting. There’s no way to put that out of the voters’ minds.

Election night. One more consideration that’s on everybody’s mind is what will happen on November 3. Will we actually know anything that night? Or will we be in painful suspense for days or weeks?

538 has a video where Galen Druke talks through what election night might look like, and in particular the question of whether we’ll know a winner. The upshot: Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona should count ballots fairly quickly, so we probably will know who wins those states (unless they’re very close). If Biden takes any of them, he’s going to win. If Trump takes all of them, it’s still a race, but the odds tip in Trump’s favor.

You can also play with the interactive tool Druke is using. When I do that, and give Trump FL, NC, AZ, but give the other states where Biden has sizeable leads to him, leaving only Wisconsin and Pennsylvania undecided, Biden is again favored.

So there’s a chance next Tuesday won’t be an ordeal. Or maybe it will.

Feel better yet? Yeah, I know.

Staying Sane in Anxious Times (without being useless)

Everything dies. But not today.

On this blog, I usually report news, analyze trends behind the news, and save pastoral counseling for my occasional talks at churches. But this week I’ve been sensing an unusual level of anxiety and depression in the people I interact with, and I imagine that Sift readers are sharing a lot of those feelings. So let’s address that.

If the election were tomorrow rather than five weeks from tomorrow, I think I’d tell you all just to suck it up and think about your own issues later. But five weeks is a long time to stay in the states of mind I’m seeing, and carries risks of longer-term psychological and psychosomatic damage. So I think it makes sense to take a little time to get our heads together before the home stretch.

The depression, I think, has been building for some while, as the virus takes away more and more of what we look forward to in life. (I’m currently wondering if my usual Christmas plans can work out this year. Will I ever get to travel again?) But the anxiety is largely election-related, and increased suddenly this week in response to Barton Gellman’s article in The Atlantic, “The Election that Could Break America“.

Worst cases. I’ll have more to say about the content of that article in this week’s summary post, which should be out a few hours after this one. For now, I’ll just sum up the gist: There are scenarios in which Trump hangs onto power despite the voters’ desire to be rid of him, and he seems to be angling to push the country into those scenarios.

The worries raised by Gellman’s article (and others with similar themes) go well beyond the usual election anxieties: that some last-minute surge of support could carry Trump to an ordinary victory, or even that he might repeat 2016’s dubious achievement of winning the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote by a wide margin. Those outcomes would be disappointing, and would have a number of horrible consequences. But at the same time, they would be part of the normal ebb and flow of American politics. If the American people show the bad judgment to re-elect Trump, we’ll just have to work harder to convince them to turn the country in a new direction in future elections.

But if Trump can totally circumvent the will of the people, then something fundamental has changed. In that case, it’s hard to say what we would need to do next time, because this time we already did what we thought we needed to do, and failed anyway. And if the ordinary limits on political power-seeking can be ignored without consequence, then who can have confidence that we will have a chance to do anything at all next time? By 2024, the United States might be the kind of country where the ruling party counts the votes itself, and proclaims that it has been re-elected (for a third term, and then a fourth) by a margin that no one really believes.

In short, if the worst outcomes Gellman pictures come to pass, the American experiment with democracy might be over.

Personally, I don’t believe the worst scenarios will play out. I think the margin Biden has in the polls is real, and that it will hold up as the election approaches. (It’s worth pointing out that we all had the same doubts about the polls going into the Blue Wave of 2018, which played out exactly as the polls predicted.) In 538’s analysis, the current tipping-point state is Pennsylvania, where Republicans have gerrymandered their way into a majority in the legislature. But it’s worth noting that Biden is currently favored in four states beyond that — Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio — any of which might put him over the top. (Arizona would leave Biden 1 vote short, which could come from either Nebraska’s or Maine’s second congressional district.) It’s one thing to imagine one cabal of local Republicans venturing into near-treasonous territory to give Trump another term, but overthrowing democracy in five states simultaneously would be much harder to pull off.

In short, Trump’s anti-democratic tactics may nudge the dial a little, or even more than a little, but still not enough to overcome a decisive message from the electorate. As Michelle Goldberg has pointed out, his strongman talk is a sign of weakness, not of strength.

Autocrats who actually have the power to fix elections don’t announce their plans to do it; they just pretend to have gotten 99 percent of the vote.

And as many people have observed: You don’t question the legitimacy of an election you expect to win. Further: “I’m going to stay in power no matter what you think” is hardly a closing message designed to convince undecided voters.

But having said that, I don’t deny the possibilities Gellman lays out, and I don’t recommend you simply put them out of your mind. There is a chance — not a likelihood, in my opinion, but a chance — that we are living in the last days of American democracy.

It’s no wonder that people are telling me they lose sleep about that. That loss of sleep is the problem I want to address.

Anxiety and denial. It’s not that you have nothing to worry about, but being low-level anxious all the time — or occasionally going into high-level anxiety and melting into a puddle — is not a useful response. No one is better off because you’re not sleeping.

So what’s a better response? Let’s start by thinking about what anxiety is and what it’s for. People in the middle of emergencies typically don’t get anxious. If your child starts to run in front of a car, you don’t get anxious, you reach out and snatch her back from the path of the car — and maybe shake for a while afterwards about what might have happened. When the wolves are chasing you, you just run, and your mind is filled with nothing but running.

In short, when you really can fight or flee, you fight or flee. Anxiety happens when you get a fight-or-flight reaction that you can’t immediately act on. You hear that a lay-off is coming at work, but who can you fight and where can you run? You just have to wait and see what happens.

Anxiety is fight-or-flight on hold. It keeps you keyed up in case you have to fight or flee soon.

And that was a fine reaction when our primitive ancestors saw a motion in the grass and had to wait a bit for more information about what it was. But it’s poorly adapted to civilized times, when problems play out over months or years. Staying keyed up for months or years will kill you just as surely as whatever might be hiding in the grass.

That’s why denial is such a popular alternative. As the 19th century philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce put it: “When an ostrich buries its head in the sand as danger approaches, it very likely takes the happiest course.”

The downside of denial is that it makes you useless, both to yourself and to others. That’s been the problem with the Trump administration’s response to coronavirus. From the top on down, they have assured us that it isn’t that bad and will go away soon, so nobody has to do anything they don’t want to do. And everybody is doing a great job, so there’s no need for recriminations and nothing to stress over. In the short term, their it’s-all-fine denial may be more pleasant than acknowledging the reality of the danger, but it has been a big factor in the deaths of more than 200,000 Americans.

The reason anxiety is unpleasant is that it’s a promissory note: We owe the future some action, and we’re keyed up so that we don’t forget.

Perhaps the most dysfunctional role for anxiety, though, is that it can become an end in itself: We’re not keyed up to do something, we’re keyed up to punish ourselves for not doing something. We hang the promissory note on the wall, not because we’re going to pay it, but so that we can feel guilty about not paying it.

That kind of self-punishment serves no one. You might as well be in denial. You’d be happier and the rest of the world would be no different.

So what should we do? The best response to chronic anxiety, in my opinion, is to kluge together a combination of action and denial.

Years ago, when I was first starting to make money I could invest towards retirement — thank you, younger self — I found myself worrying about my fledgling portfolio nearly every day. Not just checking stock prices, but wondering if my whole approach was right. Eventually I realized that daily reconsideration of my strategy was an extremely inefficient use of my attention. Rather than worry for a few minutes here or there every day, what I really needed to do was set aside some serious thinking time about once a quarter.

So I set a date to think things through in depth, and I kept that appointment. I did that every three months. In between, I might watch the market in a casual way, but I cut myself off every time I started to fret. “I have set aside a time to think that through properly, and that approach is going to work  better than anything I could figure out while I’m standing here waiting for the tea kettle to boil.”

I recommend something similar now. Using the stray moments of your attention to think about the looming end of American democracy is not going to serve either you or the nation. Instead, block out a time on your calendar (within the next few days, I suggest) to think seriously about the question: “What am I willing to do to keep Trump from hanging onto power?” Are you willing to send money to the Biden campaign or some other political group? Volunteer? Call your friends and encourage them to vote? Write or call your representatives in Congress? Write letters to the editor? Post on social media? Demonstrate against anti-democratic actions, either at your state capitol or in Washington?

Maybe all you’re willing to do is vote. OK, admit that and figure out how you’re going to do it. Are you registered? Where is your polling place? How does early voting or voting-by-mail work in your state? Don’t let your inability to take some grand action get in the way of the little you can actually do.

Once you have your list of actions, start doing them, and set aside another block of time in a week or two to think about how it’s going. Is it enough? Is it already more than I can handle? Should I correct my approach somehow?

But once you’ve decided what you’re doing and are in the process of doing it, tell your anxiety to go away. You’ve set aside a time to think about it, but that time is not now. So STFU, monkey mind. I’m working on it; it’s all going to be fine.

Plan. Do. Then do your best to put it out of your mind until it’s time to replan. Are you feeling guilty that you’re not doing enough? Make a note of that, so you can think about it during your next planning session. But don’t think about it now. You’ve already dealt with it.

When it’s time for me to be the fox, I’m the fox. But when it’s not, I’m the ostrich, and I take the happier course.

Accepting limitation. You may already be raising this objection: The problem with telling yourself “I’ve already dealt with that” is that you really haven’t. Write your check, make your phone calls, plan your march on Washington — and Donald Trump is still out there, still in power, and still plotting to hang onto power no matter what the voters want.

When you realize that, you may find yourself thinking: “As long as Trump’s coup is still possible, I haven’t done enough.”

That way lies madness. Because you are an individual, and the problems of the world are out of your scale. You’re not going to stop Trump by yourself, just like you’re not going to stop global warming or end racism. You can play a part in those stories and I hope you do. I hope you never stop looking for some way to play a bigger part (at sensible intervals, and not for a few minutes several times every day). But you are not the solution. At some point, you have to do what you’re going to do and let it go, trusting the rest of us to play our parts, and trusting God or the Universe or whatever powers work on higher scales to make things come out right.

Because you can’t guarantee a happy ending. The World is not Your Story.

So figure out what you’re going to do, do it, and then let it go.

Accepting fate. It may not shock you to learn that my midlife crisis was more philosophical than most. It wasn’t just that I had a growing bald spot or was losing my vertical leap, although those things were certainly happening. And it wasn’t even the realization that I was going to decline and die, which we all understand at some level, but don’t fully grok until the downhill path starts to open up in front of us.

My midlife crisis centered on the larger realization that none of the substitutes for personal immortality work either: All the people whose lives you change will die too. The organizations and institutions you serve may outlive you for some while, but not forever; in time, they also will collapse. Someday, the last of your descendants will die. Ultimately, civilization will fall, humanity will go extinct, the Sun will swallow up the Earth, and the Universe itself will go cold.

It’s the Ozymandias problem: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”

Why am I mentioning this now? Because the possibility of a Trump coup is causing a lot of Americans to see for the first time that our democracy is mortal. And that vision can raise a primitive terror even bigger than the prospect of living under some tinhorn dictator, as people around the world have been doing since the beginning of Time.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Ever. Not to us.

But it might.

My midlife crisis and its resolution were bracketed not by insights from deep philosophers, but by two quotes from TV shows. At some point in The X-Files, an otherworldly character makes a matter-of-fact statement to the series’ main character: “Everything dies, Mr. Mulder.”

And in Game of Thrones, young Arya Stark mentions to her swordmaster that she has been praying to the gods. “For us,” says the master, “there is only one god. His name is Death, and we have only one thing to say to him: Not today.”

These days, I always hold those two quotes in mind. The thought that we might be living in the last days of American democracy is indeed horrible. But it shouldn’t be unthinkable, because it’s going to happen someday. Everything dies, and that includes the Constitution.

But the inevitability of Death doesn’t undo the lives we are living. We can’t save anything forever, but we can say “Not today.” And we can struggle to make good on that vow.

American democracy will die someday, because everything does. But not today. Not on November 3. Not on January 20.

That’s what we’re fighting for.

So figure out what you’re going to do, and go do it. But then let it go and live, because you’re not dying today either.

Trump Despises His Supporters Too

By privately insulting veterans and servicemen killed in the line of duty, Trump has raised a suspicion many of his supporters try not to think about: What does he say about them behind their backs?

He says what he thinks. When his supporters try to explain what is so appealing about Donald Trump, one point that almost always comes up is: “He says what he thinks.”

If you don’t like Trump, that line has probably never made sense to you, because a lot of what he says seems so nonsensical that he can’t possibly believe it. Surely he doesn’t really think he’s been treated “worse than Lincoln“, when Lincoln was assassinated in office, or that he has “done more for Black Americans than anybody with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln — nobody has even been close”. He was already an adult when President Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, laws that made it possible for millions of Black Americans to vote and to begin living something that at least resembled a normal American life. Surely he doesn’t imagine that a few months of low Black unemployment compares to that, does he? Or that it balances his decades-long history of racism.

He doesn’t say those things because he believes them. He says them because he wants us to believe them.

But “He says what he thinks” is actually code for something else: “He says what I think.” People in Trump’s base, particularly older conservative Christian white men, have lived for decades under constant social disapproval for the little things they habitually do and the words that come out of their mouths. Put yourself in their shoes: Maybe you grew up saying the N-word — you didn’t mean anything by it, it’s just what Black people were called in your neighborhood. (I missed out on the N-word: I grew up in a time and place where good little children weren’t supposed to say it, and by the time I was an adult, no one was.) Maybe you said “fag” instead of “gay”, or referred to women in the workplace as “girls”.

Comments or pats on the butt that would once have been accepted as compliments suddenly because “harassment”. Overnight, jokes that everyone used to laugh at became offensive — racist or sexist or some other ist-word you’d never heard before. Affirmations of good Christian values became “homophobia”, and who knows what the heck “intersectionality” means? Every day there was a new set of toes you supposedly had been tromping on for years — so you’d better watch your step from now on. And it never stops: You can’t even make fun of transsexuals these days. Who knows what it will be next? You’ll never be free to just speak your mind.

And there was Trump, ignoring all those rules and not censoring himself. Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals and drug smugglers. America accepts too many people from “shithole countries” like Haiti or those places in Africa that were better off when the British or French ran things. When you thought stuff like that, you didn’t dare say so — but he did. That crippled reporter wrote bad things about him, so Trump just mocked him and his disability right out in front of everybody, with the TV cameras running. The Disability Police came after him with guns blazing, but did he apologize? No way. Women came out of the woodwork to say he harassed, abused, or even raped them. Did he let that intimidate him? Not on your life. He insulted them right back, said they were too ugly to be worth it. “Believe me, she would not be my first choice. That I can tell you.”

What’s more, you would also love to deny that you ever make mistakes, to blame everything that goes wrong on somebody else, and to claim that everything you do or say or own is the biggest and best and most wonderful thing ever. But you don’t, because people would laugh at you. Well, Trump does that, and people do laugh at him, but he just doesn’t care. How can you not love that?

The liberal media and all the people who have been pushing the new standards, they keep trying to bring him down. But they can’t. They try to make him a villain, but he beats them.

And that’s why he’s a hero.

Mean girls. One stereotypic character of high school dramas is the Mean Girl: From her perch at the top of the social pyramid, she can say whatever she wants about anybody — and what she wants to say is nasty. The more cruel or unjust it is, the more it proves her power. She can say anything, and everybody else has to accept it, because if you object, she’ll turn her fire on you. And if you want to be popular like she is, you can’t just silently go along, you have to praise her cleverness and insight. If you want to stay in the Queen’s court, you have to repeat her insults and push the party line. She tells you who’s in and who’s out, and then sends you off to work her will.

Being close to the Mean Girl can be exhilarating. All your life you’ve had to repress your own cruelty, and now it’s an asset — as long as she approves. If you come up with a particularly biting nickname for some rival queen-wannabee or for some kid who thinks he or she can get along outside the social structure, maybe the Mean Girl will start using it too. You’ll never get credit for it directly, but maybe you’ll rise in her esteem, until you’re almost a Mean Girl yourself.

But no matter how close you get to the throne, you never stop wondering: What does that cruel tongue say about you when you’re not there to hear?

In their heart-of-hearts, even Trump’s biggest fans must recognize how much Mean Girl he has in him. That champion-of-the-common-man mantle has always fit badly on someone who lives in a gilded penthouse. Do you think anyone who isn’t rich or famous has ever set foot in his Trump Tower residence except as a servant, a workman, or for sex?

He didn’t make that money by working his way up from the bottom; he inherited hundreds of millions from his father. He’s always been rich, he’s always been on top, and he’s always been a bully. Those famous Twitter insults — Pocahontas, pencil-neck Adam Schiff, Crooked Hillary — that’s not the language of presidents. It’s the language of the Mean Girl.

So even if you’re the most rabid MAGA-hatter in the world, deep down you have to wonder: When he’s with his real buddies — the billionaires or reality TV stars or whoever he likes to hang with — what does he say about you? Does he make fun of how gullible you are, that you think he cares about you and you believe all the crap he tells you?

No matter how much you may try to deny that possibility, silently in your own mind you know he does.

Trump U. Before Donald Trump ever ran for president, he was the founder of Trump University. The target market for Trump U was all the people who admired the great businessman they saw on The Apprentice, people who bought The Art of the Deal and wanted to be like the guy it described. And they didn’t just admire Trump, they trusted him. If he was ready to tell people how to get rich the way he did — which wasn’t to inherit a real estate empire from your Dad — they were ready to pay money to hear it.

They weren’t the Enemy. They weren’t what’s wrong with America. They were his biggest fans.

And he scammed them.

Trump U wasn’t a good idea that got out of hand. It wasn’t a generous impulse that turned bad after he handed it off to a corrupt subordinate. Trump U was a scam from Day 1.

One of the company’s ads said of Trump, “He’s the most celebrated entrepreneur on earth. . . . And now he’s ready to share—with Americans like you—the Trump process for investing in today’s once-in-a-lifetime real estate market.” The ad said that Trump had “hand-picked” Trump University’s instructors, and it ended with a quote from him: “I can turn anyone into a successful real estate investor, including you.”

In fact, Trump hadn’t handpicked the instructors, and he didn’t attend the three-day seminars. Moreover, the complaint said, “no specific Donald Trump techniques or strategies were taught during the seminars, Donald Trump ‘never’ reviewed any of Trump University’s curricula or programming materials, nor did he review any of the content for the free seminars or the three day seminars.” So what were the attendees taught? According to the complaint, “the contents and material presented by Trump University were developed in large part by a third-party company that creates and develops materials for an array of motivational speakers and Seminar and timeshare rental companies.” The closest that the attendees at the seminars got to Trump was when they were encouraged to have their picture taken with a life-size photo of him.

Trump U’s business plan was to constantly up-sell its marks. Drawn in by a free presentation, they’d be given a glowing description of everything they’d learn if they ponied up $1,500 for the three-day seminar. At the three-day seminar, they’d hear about the even more expensive “mentorship” program where they’d learn Trump’s real secrets.

There never were any Trump secrets in the program. He couldn’t tell them how to be born rich, he wasn’t going to tell them how to launder money for Russian oligarchs, and nobody wants to know how to go bankrupt running Atlantic City casinos — so there was really nothing to teach. Trump admirers paid upwards of $30,000 for that lesson, and Trump eventually had to give back $25 million to settle their fraud lawsuit.

Most of the victims of Trump U were people who couldn’t afford to lose that amount of money. But there was a hole in their lives that they thought they could fill by becoming real estate moguls like their hero Donald Trump. In other words, they were losers. And Trump was able to take advantage of their loser-ness (and their admiration of him) to turn them into suckers.

And if you think he’s only done that once, you’re wrong.

The Atlantic article. Thursday, The Atlantic published an article by its editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg: “Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers’“. The article made a number of startling accusations:

  • In 2018, while he was in France to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, he cancelled a planned visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris, the grave site of 1,800 American Marines who died at Belleau Wood, because “It’s filled with losers.” He also described the Marines as “suckers” for getting killed.
  • When tortured Vietnam POW John McCain had died a few months earlier, he said, “We’re not going to support that loser’s funeral.”
  • When he accompanied his Chief of Staff John Kelly on a visit to the grave of Kelly’s son, a Marine who died in 2010 in Afghanistan, he said to Kelly “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” A retired four-star general who is a friend of Kelly later told Goldberg, “He can’t fathom the idea of doing something for someone other than himself,. He just thinks that anyone who does anything when there’s no direct personal gain to be had is a sucker. There’s no money in serving the nation.”
  • After hearing Joint Chiefs Chairman Joe Dunford give a briefing, Trump said, “That guy is smart. Why did he join the military?”
  • When planning a military parade, Trump told his aides not to include amputees. “Nobody wants to see that,” he said.

Immediately, the White House tried its standard defense: Fake news, put out by a failing magazine. The story is “totally false”, and the anonymous sources Goldberg quotes are made up.

That explanation broke down almost immediately when other news organizations — AP , The New York Times, Fox News, CNN, and The Washington Post — had little trouble finding their own sources, who may or may not have been the same ones Goldberg found. If someone is making these stories up, it’s not Jeffrey Goldberg.

Worse, there was one obvious person who could have blown the whole thing up: John Kelly. If his son’s memory is being used to smear his former boss, you’d think he might try to put a stop to it. He hasn’t said a word. Trump knows what that means. So he attacked Kelly Friday at the White House:

I know John Kelly. He was with me, didn’t do a good job, had no temperament, and ultimately he was petered out. He got — he was exhausted. This man was totally exhausted.

He wasn’t even able to function in the last number of months. He was not able to function. He was sort of a tough guy. By the time he got eaten up in this world, it’s a different world than he was used to, he was unable to function. And I told him, John, you’re going to have to go. Please give me a letter of resignation. And we did that, and now he goes out and badmouths.

He has also lashed out at Fox News reporter Jennifer Griffin, who corroborated some of Goldberg’s accounts via her own sources, and added this anecdote:

According to one former senior Trump administration official: “When the President spoke about the Vietnam War, he said, ‘It was a stupid war. Anyone who went was a sucker’.”

Griffin, Trump tweeted, “should be fired for this kind of reporting” and added “FoxNews is gone.”

Other pundits and talking heads have pointed out the obvious: The quotes in the Atlantic article may be new and more extreme, but they sound like Trump quotes we already know. Early in his term, he called the military brass “a bunch of dopes and babies“. One of Candidate Trump’s first political flaps came when he bad-mouthed John McCain’s service: “I like people who weren’t captured.” He publicly contradicted the widow of a soldier killed in Niger.  He attacked the Gold Star parents of slain Captain Humayun Khan. He dodged the Vietnam draft by claiming bone spurs, a diagnosis provided by a doctor who owed his father a favor. Michael Cohen quotes Trump saying, “You think I’m stupid? I wasn’t going to Vietnam.” The only person in Trump’a family who did any military service was his black-sheep brother Fred Jr., who was in the Air National Guard. As President, Trump won’t even challenge Vladimir Putin for paying bounties to kill American soldiers. Putin counts; soldiers don’t.

So yes, it fits perfectly: He said these things. Trump and his flunkies can deny as vehemently as they want, but they’re not fooling anybody.

Why this story hit a nerve. Ever since he came down the escalator in 2015 talking about Mexican rapists, barely a week has gone by without some Trump-said-a-bad-thing story. They arise, people who never liked Trump anyway get upset about them, and they fade away in a day or two. Some political observers believe Trump uses or even engineers this process in order to distract the public from more damaging stories. For example, 1080 Americans died of coronavirus on the day the Atlantic article came out. What’s more important: a few quotes from 2018 or the equivalent of three simultaneous jumbo-jet crashes?

And yet, this time the story doesn’t seem to be going away. I think I know why.

Trump’s usual escape from he-said-a-bad-thing stories is to invoke tribalism. Both the people he insulted and the media that reported the insult are from the Other Side. Who are you going to believe: Trump or the New York Times? Whose side are you one: Trump’s or the Squad? Trump or some Muslim?

But the people he has insulted this time are in his own tribe, and even Fox News is reporting it. John Kelly was a good guy not that long ago, and he went away without making a fuss.

A key part of the Trump base are veterans, especially white veterans from the South or rural areas whose families have a tradition of military service. The kind of guy who goes to the cemetery on Memorial Day to put flowers on the grave of a father who died on D-Day or a grandfather who barely escaped from Belleau Wood — lots and lots of them are Trump voters. And he thinks they’re losers and suckers, just like the people he scammed at Trump U. Then he got his marks’ money, now he gets their votes. But does he respect them? Not at all.

And even if you’re not a veteran, or a veteran’s spouse or son or daughter, you have to know that your position in the Trump base is no more secure than theirs. If he talks that way about them, you know he’s talking that way about you too.

He’s not the hero you want to believe he is. He’s the Mean Girl who finds you useful as long as you do what she wants. He bears you no affection or loyalty, and the more you do for him, the more you convince him that you’re a sucker too.

The Four Big Lies of the Republican Convention

Creationism defender Duane Gish became famous for a debating technique now known as the Gish Gallop: tossing out so many lies, exaggerations, mischaracterizations, and other deceptions so quickly that your opponent simply can’t respond to them all. Debaters who try will just exhaust their own time (and the audience’s patience) on factual details without ever getting around to addressing the galloper’s main points, much less making their own case.

The trap of fact-checking. This week’s Republican Convention was essentially a four-day Gish gallop. Speaker after speaker gave fact-checkers a workout. CNN’s Daniel Dale listed 20 “false or misleading claims” in Trump’s speech from the White House lawn. FactCheck.org “didn’t find anything to fact-check from Sen. Kamala Harris’ speech accepting the Democratic nomination for vice president”, but made six corrections to Mike Pence’s speech. For example, he blamed Joe Biden for not denouncing “the riots in Oakland” that killed a federal officer.

But he didn’t explain that the death was unrelated to demonstrators protesting in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Federal prosecutors have charged a right-wing extremist with the killing.

Both Pence and Trump claimed Biden wants to “defund the police”, a position Biden has explicitly denied. The Washington Post’s Phillip Bump assessed that “Nearly every claim Trump made about Biden’s positions was false“.

The non-headline speakers were just as dishonest. Rudy Giuliani blamed the violence that coincided with some George Floyd protests on Antifa, a claim unsupported by evidence.

According to multiple reports, including a Washington Post fact check, there were no signs that that antifa was behind violence at these protests. As of earlier this month, federal prosecutors had not been able to link dozens of people arrested in protests in Portland, Ore., to antifa.

Nikki Haley falsely said that Biden wanted to “ban fracking”, while Eric Trump falsely claimed that “Biden has pledged to … take away your cherished Second Amendment.” In addition to dishonesty, speakers displayed appalling ignorance and sloppiness. Lara Trump used a fake Lincoln quote. And Trump Jr.’s girl friend Kimberley Guilfoyle said:

As a first-generation American, I know how dangerous their Socialist agenda is. My mother, Mercedes, was a special education teacher from Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. My father, also an immigrant, came to this nation in pursuit of the American Dream.

Guilfoyle, who introduced herself as a “proud Latina”, ought to know that Puerto Ricans are American citizens. So she’s not “a first-generation American” and her mother was not “an immigrant”.

So you can imagine how easy it would be to take the Gish-gallop bait: I could go on for screens and screens listing specific errors of fact and logic. And if you dislike the Republican Party anyway, you might read that list with a certain I-was-right-all-along satisfaction. [1]

The four big lies. However, that’s not the case that needs to be made right now. The RNC wasn’t like a Liar’s Convention or a Festival of Tall Tales. The week’s disinformation wasn’t a random scattering of fanciful notions. The point of the lesser lies was to support bigger lies, which often stayed in the background. So even if an undecided voter who watched the convention also read all the fact-checks, and came to understand that Puerto Ricans are citizens and Biden isn’t planning to defund the police, he or she might still come away believing one or more of these four falsehoods:

  1. Trump had an extraordinary economic record before the coronavirus hit.
  2. Trump is not responsible for consequences of the Covid-19 epidemic. The 200,000 excess deaths this year are not his fault, since he did everything that could have been done to control the epidemic. And since the epidemic is not his fault, he should get a mulligan for it. He should be judged by February’s economy rather than today’s, as if the last six months never happened.
  3. The unrest in America’s cities this summer is not a response to excessive police violence and a long history of racial injustice, but is due to a dark conspiracy of liberal anarchists. The way to control violence in our cities is with an overwhelming show of force, which Trump is willing to order and Biden is not.
  4. If Covid-19 was ever a serious threat, it no longer is. America should get back to normal as fast as possible; any additional sickness or death this causes is a price worth paying.

None of this is true. The convention’s little lies about who-did-what-when pale in comparison; they’re only relevant to the extent that they prop up these four big lies.

Correcting the first big lie: Even pre-Covid, Trump’s economic performance was nothing special. In 2016, Trump supporters argued that his amazing business acumen would translate from the private sector to government: Rather than creating wealth for himself, Trump as president would create wealth for all of us.

We now understand that the myth of Trump’s financial genius was false from the beginning. Far from the self-made man he purported to be, Trump became wealthy through inheritance from his father and tax fraud (including allegedly defrauding some of his relatives). After losing the money his father left him, he became rich again via money laundering for Russians and other former Soviet nationals, as well as profiting from schemes that created losses for people who trusted him.

But one thing has carried over: The same myth-making genius that created the image of Trump the Great Businessman has created a new myth of the Great Trump Economy. At the Convention, Larry Kudlow told this tall tale:

Donald Trump’s economic plan … was a roaring success. Inheriting a stagnant economy on the front end of recession, the program of tax cuts, historic rollback of onerous regulations that crippled small business, unleashing energy to become the world’s number one producer, and free, fair and reciprocal trade deals to bolster manufacturing, agriculture, technology, and other sectors. The economy was rebuilt in three years.

This is its own little Gish gallop that could be debunked phrase by phrase — for example, the US became the world’s top oil producer in 2013 under Obama — but it’s more important to look at the big picture: A graph of US GDP growth by year shows that from 2010 to the beginning of the Covid pandemic, growth was slow but steady, bouncing in a range between 1.6% and 3.1%. (Compare to 1966 or 1955, when GDP grew 6.6% and 7.1%.)The peak growth rate of that period came in 2015 under Obama. There was never a Trump boom, just the same kind of economic growth we had under Obama.

If the pre-Covid Trump economy felt different from Obama’s, that was because periods near the end of economic expansions have strikingly low unemployment rates. So in the Trump years the unemployment rate got very low, reaching 3.6% by November of 2018 and staying at about that level for more than a year. In February, it was 3.5%. [2]

However, if you look at a graph of the unemployment rate, you’ll see the same pattern as GDP: Trump inherited positive trends from Obama. The slow-but-steady growth that started in 2010 gradually knocked down the unemployment rate. That positive trend continued — without any acceleration at all after Trump became president — until the epidemic disrupted it. [3]

In some ways it’s surprising that growth didn’t improve under Trump, because Mitch McConnell loosened the purse strings once he had a Republican president. Even though it was late in the economic cycle — a time when conventional economic theory calls for government to run surpluses — Congress allowed Trump to stimulate the economy with deficits far larger than it had allowed Obama after his first term. [4]

So the gist of the pre-Covid Trump economic record is this: Until Covid, Trump managed to maintain the positive trends Obama had set in motion. And even this steady-as-she-goes result did not come about through an ingenious trade policy or business-friendly tax policy or cuts in regulation; he simply got to spend more money than Obama did.

Correcting the second big lie: Trump didn’t start the Covid-19 epidemic, but the length and depth of it is his fault. It is fairly typical for presidents to face unexpected and undeserved challenges during a four-year term. Obama didn’t create the Great Recession, but it dominated his first term and got in the way of all his plans. George W. Bush didn’t blow up the Twin Towers on 9-11. His father didn’t force Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait. Jimmy Carter didn’t invite the Iranians to hold our embassy staff hostage. JFK didn’t ship Russian nuclear missiles to Cuba. FDR didn’t attack Pearl Harbor. And so on. Unexpected things happen in the course of four years, and presidents are judged by how they respond to those challenges. We don’t give them mulligans for bad luck.

Covid-19 is the defining crisis of Trump’s term, and by any measure he has handled it very badly. The most obvious evidence for that is in this chart of Covid-19 cases per million people. (Enlarged version here.)

Not only does the US curve outrun all the others by a wide margin, it also has a different shape: The initial outbreak here was only slightly worse than in the European Union and Canada, which were also hard-hit. But only the US goes on to have a second hump bigger than the first. There are two simple reasons for that:

  • The Trump administration wasted the time bought by the March-May shutdown. While other countries developed national test/quarantine/contact-trace strategies, the Trump administration still has no plan other than to wait for a “miracle” vaccine. [5]
  • Trump himself pushed the states to reopen too soon, and undercut governors who tried to implement a more cautious policy based on science and standards. That second hump in our graph is a direct result of that too-soon reopening, and the June/July outbreak was centered in states like Florida and Texas, where Trumpist governors ignored the medical experts and re-opened too soon.

It is probably unfair to have expected the United States’ Covid-19 response to lead the world: Small island nations like New Zealand and Iceland are easier to protect and mobilize than a sprawling place like the US or the EU. So Trump should not get all the blame for the fact that our 565 (and counting) deaths per million is shamed by New Zealand’s 4 or South Korea’s 6 or even Japan’s 10.

But we still had less than 100,000 deaths on June 1, when it was first becoming clear that our curve was not collapsing the way that other nation’s curves were. It may be unreasonable to hold Trump responsible for all our Covid-19 deaths, which are now up to a world-leading 187,000. But certainly tens of thousands of those deaths are his fault, and I personally blame him for every death over 100,000.

Correcting the third big lie: The violence in our cities is happening because Trump has sharpened racial divisions and encouraged police brutality. It will only get worse if he is given a second term. After the racial violence that followed Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, the Obama Justice Department issued two reports: One examined the details of the shooting and determined that police officer Darren Wilson should not have been charged with murder. To that extent, it affirmed that justice had been done.

The other report, however, painted a very dark picture of policing in Ferguson: The city budget depended on squeezing fines out of poor Blacks, and the police department was tasked with making that happen. Ferguson police did not “serve and protect” its Black citizens. Instead, police and the Black community had a predator/prey relationship in which police were constantly on the lookout for violations to cite in order to raise revenue. The report also revealed widespread and blatant racism among Ferguson officers, who routinely mistreated Blacks they came into contact with.

In short, the Fox News portrait of Ferguson was wrong: The problem wasn’t the Black community’s short-term emotional reaction to its misperception of Brown’s death. Instead, the long-term racial injustice in Ferguson, and citizens’ inability to address that injustice through the system, created a situation in which some kind of violent outbreak was inevitable. Michael Brown was the spark, not the cause.

In combination, the two reports provided a ray of hope and a path forward: Incidents like Michael Brown’s death need not lead either to individual policemen being railroaded or to purely local investigations that sweep police violence under the rug. But at the same time, the long-term injustice at the heart of the problem can be addressed. The Justice Department soon worked out a consent decree with Ferguson and its police department to reform local practices. Similar decrees were negotiated in other sites of racial violence, such as Baltimore.

But when Jeff Sessions became Trump’s first attorney general, he quickly got to work closing off that path forward. And one of his final acts before leaving was to undercut the whole process.

Sessions’ memo will make it challenging to negotiate any effective police reform agreement going forward. It also makes it more difficult for the Justice Department’s civil rights lawyers to enforce agreements already in place.

Today, Black people oppressed by abusive police departments know that the Justice Department is not their ally. No one is coming to help them.

Police, on the other hand, know that no matter how they misbehave, Trump has their backs. He has famously encouraged police officers not to be “too nice” when they apprehend suspects. He told border patrol officers to break the law, and promised their chief a pardon if he were prosecuted. When Buffalo police assaulted an elderly protester in Buffalo, Trump falsely attacked the protester as an “ANTIFA provocateur”.

Meanwhile, Trump has been encouraging white supremacists. He defended the Nazi rally in Charlottesville. He stands up to support the Confederate flag and Confederate statues.

And now, Trump is openly encouraging right-wing violence. The Kenosha vigilante was in the front row of a Trump rally in January. Yesterday, Trump tweeted “GREAT PATRIOTS” about a caravan of trucks that pepper-sprayed demonstrators in Portland.

What in all of this is going to get better if Trump is re-elected? Has Trump ever been a peace-maker? Will he improve race relations? Will police stop murdering Black men and women, or stop shooting them in the back? Will Blacks trust that they can get justice through the system, without taking to the streets?

Obviously not. If Trump is re-elected, everything that has caused this summer’s violence will only get worse.

Correcting the fourth big lie: The Covid epidemic is still raging and is still killing Americans in large numbers. But Trump has learned nothing from his blunders in May. If he gets the responses he wants, we’ll see a third big hump in the case graph. During the Republican Convention, speakers often talked about the coronavirus in the past tense. “It was awful,” Larry Kudlow recalled. “Health and economic impacts were tragic. Hardship and heartbreak were everywhere.”

But in the real world, more Americans died of Covid-19 during the Convention’s four days than died in the 9-11 attacks. We are nowhere near herd immunity, and a vaccine probably won’t be widely available until spring — unless Trump once again follows Putin’s lead and ignores the usual safety rules to release a vaccine that hasn’t been properly tested.

Meanwhile, Trump is once again pushing states and cities to ignore medical guidelines and take big risks. In the same way that he applauded as states catastrophically opened bars and restaurants in May, he’s pushing for schools to open now, and threatening communities that want to be more careful. He has repeatedly promoted the myth that kids don’t get the virus or can’t spread it.

But now we are seeing virus outbreaks on college campuses, causing some schools to reverse their plans (including my alma mater, Michigan State). More than 1,000 University of Alabama students tested positive in the first two weeks of classes.

Trump’s speech Thursday night was not just an illegal use of the White House lawn, it was a public health hazard, as 1,500 or more people packed into a small area and mostly did not wear masks.

He encourages a return of large-crowd gatherings of all sorts: churches, movie theaters, and even football games, which he would like to see played in front of full stadiums. (“We want big big stadiums loaded with people. We don’t want to have 15,000 people watching Alabama-LSU.”) Inside the White House, masks are seldom worn, even when people work in close quarters.

We saw this movie in May, and we know how it ends: If the nation’s children return to in-person classes (which Barron Trump is not doing), if college campuses reopen, and if crowds return to major sporting events, we’ll have a third wave of Covid outbreaks — and more tens of thousands of deaths that will be Trump’s fault.

[1] I might also list all the RNC activities that were illegal, unethical, or based on trickery. That too would be satisfying. And while such examples should not go by without notice or objection, what really deserves notice is that Republicans in Congress are unwilling to condemn blatant law-breaking.

At the beginning of his term, when Trump saw no Republican pushback for ignoring the norms of our democracy (like refusing to divest his business holdings or take any action to avoid the resulting conflicts of interest), many imagined that there was a line beyond which Trump would lose his party’s support. We still haven’t found it. So it’s still an open question whether Susan Collins, Mitch McConnell, Joni Ernst, Thom Tillis, or any of the other Republican senators would lift a finger to stop a straight-out military coup to keep Trump in power.

[2] But even focusing only on unemployment, Trump did not oversee “the greatest economy in the history of our country“, as he often claims. Unemployment was 2.5% in 1953.

[3] This unemployment graph is not current — I couldn’t find one that was. There has been some recovery since. By the end of July, the 14.7% unemployment rate had come down to 10.2%, which is still alarmingly high.

[4] The 2020 deficit looks likely to top $3 trillion, and is already well past the $1.4 trillion record set by Bush and Obama in fiscal 2009.

[5] For a more complete play-by-play explanation of how Trump bungled even the initial reaction to the virus, see James Fallows’ article “The 3 Weeks that Changed Everything“. Just to give you a taste: Obama had an agreement with China that allowed us to have observers in Wuhan, where the virus first appeared. But Trump never bothered to appoint anybody to fill those roles.