Is it really be necessary to state that elections matter? Really—you needed that reminder? After November 8, 2016?
We need not reiterate (nor debate) how or why a washed-up game show host and degenerate grifter wound up in the White House. Historians will mull it for generations to come, while satirists will bow down before its tragicomic majesty and their own abject inability to match it with fiction. We can talk about the antiquated, anti-democratic institution of the Electoral College. We can talk about Russian interference (yes, Virginia, it’s real), or the far less discussed and never properly investigated issue of actual vote tampering. We can talk about economic discontent and about the roles of racism and misogyny. We can talk about how Hillary didn’t visit Michigan, Wisconsin, or Ohio enough, or how WikiLeaks dumped a ton of stolen emails the day the Access Hollywood “pussygrabber” tape dropped, or how Comey decided, gee whiz, I’m gonna come out with a statement announcing the re-opening of the investigation into Hillary’s email server just days before Americans go to the polls.
That’s about a thousand doctoral dissertations right there.
But at the end of the day, Donald J. Trump did get in, to almost everyone’s surprise (his included) and everyone who voted for Jill Stein, or Gary Johnson, or thought Hillary was a shoo-in and stayed home played a part in putting him there, not to mention those who went ahead and actually voted for the Con Man from Queens.
But there was another national election since then, the 2018 midterms, and that one was just as instructive.
So in the final essay in this four-part survey of the post-Mueller landscape, let us examine whether the coming presidential election can get us out of the fine mess that the last one got us into.
WILL THIS BE ON THE MIDTERM?
At the risk of sounding pedantic, let me recount what the midterms did for us. (Get it?)
Without a Democratic majority in the House, the delivery of the Mueller report would have been exactly what Mitch McConnell wants to pretend it is—“Case closed”—notwithstanding its underlying damnations that Bill Barr tried to spin away. There would be no ongoing Congressional investigations of Trump, no subpoenas, no court fight over his tax returns, no possibility of Barr being held in contempt of Congress, or of Don McGahn or Robert Mueller testifying on national television, no chance of us seeing any of the unredacted report.
We would still be in a constitutional crisis—and make no mistake, we’re in one—but it would be a one-sided fight with not much we could do about it.
But luckily, the resistance got its shit together sufficiently last November, which is the only reason that Jerry Nadler, Adam Schiff, Maxine Waters, Elijah Cummings, and the rest are able to do the things they’re doing. True, Trump is still running roughshod over the rule of law, but it would be much much worse if Nancy Pelosi didn’t own the gavel. As Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times:
The handling of the (Mueller) report underscored once again the consequences of the last election in delivering control of the House to the Democrats. Were Republicans in charge of both the House and the Senate, the findings could have been the end of the matter. But with Democrats holding House committee chairmanships, they do not seem at all willing to let the issue go. They were further motivated by what they saw as an egregious attempt by Attorney General William P. Barr to run political interference for the president.
I can think of no more powerful positive example in modern American politics of how much elections matter.
For negative examples, we have an embarrassment of riches.
For one especially inverted view we need only look to Georgia, which under Republican Governor Brian Kemp recently passed abortion laws straight out of The Handmaid’s Tale—laws which a Governor Stacey Abrams could have vetoed even if the state legislature was comprised of misogynistic monsters, which apparently it is.
Blessed be the fruit indeed, if the fruit is a fucking peach.
I cite Georgia rather than Alabama or Missouri or Ohio or any of the other states trying to take us back to the Age of Coat Hanger because, as you may recall, Kemp slid into office under the most outrageous of circumstances, to wit:
In the gubernatorial race last fall, he was not only the Republican candidate but also the state official IN CHARGE OF THE ELECTION, which would have already been howlingly outrageous even if he didn’t have a history of voter suppression and fraud, which he did. (And sure enough there was widespread evidence of voter suppression in that race, and even outright tampering with the vote.)
No self-respecting banana republic would dare try to get away with a shameless farce like that. But having spent a good hunk of my childhood there, I can tell you that the state of Georgia can only aspire to the status of a banana republic.
Prior to 2016 itself, surely the most infamous example of electoral consequences was 2000, when a razor thin margin and polling place chaos allowed the GOP to grab the White House via a party-line vote in the Supreme Court (dealing a blow to the Court’s credibility from which it has never quite recovered). It does not require a deep dive into counterfactual alternative history to wonder how different the modern world would be if Al Gore had taken the oath of office in January 2001 instead of George Dubya Bush.
There are myriad more examples of course; the value of the vote is painfully self-evident. Which is why perhaps the single most worrying threat to our democracy is the current right wing campaign to undermine the electoral process by multiple means: by hyper-gerrymandering at a level far worse than the routine map-fucking in which both parties traditionally engaged; by partisan-driven suppression of the vote; by fearmongering over nonexistent “voter fraud” and the concomitant cry for voter ID laws that are nothing but a smokescreen for mass disenfranchisement; even by the willful acceptance of foreign interference. (What??? No, you say!)
So to the point raised in the title of this essay, how do you tell that elections matter?
Because the bastards are doing everything they can to sabotage them.
NO MATTER WHO YOU VOTE FOR, THE GOVERNMENT ALWAYS GETS IN
In 2006 I made a feature film called Land of the Blind, a political satire starring Ralph Fiennes and Donald Sutherland. At one point, their two characters contemplate the merits of democratic reform versus violent revolution, prompting Sutherland’s character to quip, “If voting could really change anything it would be illegal.”
It’s a cynical line, and an old one (I don’t know where I first heard it), but it reflects a justifiable pessimism about how much the powers-that-be are truly committed to democracy in almost any society that you care to name. And the modern GOP is doing its level best to be a living embodiment of that dynamic.
Faced with unresponsive, unacceptable, or even openly tyrannical leaders, the American people have two chief avenues of recourse: the courts and the ballot. It is therefore no coincidence that both are the targets of intense Republican efforts to lock down control, even in defiance of the public will. (The other avenues of public recourse—like peaceful protest, civil disobedience, and in the most extreme circumstances, revolution—exist outside the formal parameters of the law, rather than codified in the Constitution, except under the umbrella of freedom of expression. Which PS is also under attack.)
At least since the time of the Bork debacle, the Republican Party has been trying—pretty successfully— to pack the courts at every level with hardline right wing judges, an effort masterminded by people like Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society. Under Trump (in a discreet under-the-radar campaign engineered by Don McGahn, for you fans of irony), it has ramped up that effort to a record pace. The GOP’s attempts to neuter the vote have been even more outrageous, and among the scariest of all its myriad crimes against the republic, which is saying something. The Republican Party has done lots of terrible things, but to screw with the ability of the electorate to express its will at the ballot box strikes at the very heart of representative democracy.
An out-and-out autocracy is one thing, but at least it’s honest about its tyranny; the illusion of free elections is worse in its way, and certainly more insidious. But that has become the fig leaf of choice for the modern police state. (Looking at you, Vlad.)
Are we in the good ol’ USA that far off from the transparent sham of a cult-of-personality regime where the despot in question is habitually reelected with 99.9% of the vote? You scoff, but the net effect is not really different when the loser of the popular vote somehow wins the race—which has happened twice in the past 16 years, not coincidentally, both times with Republican candidates.
The GOP hypocrisy on this issue is breathtaking. Don’t talk to me about how scrapping the Electoral College would be so unfair to the citizens of Wyoming (all seven of them). I’m sure Fox Nation would be totally cool with it if the EC continually put Democrats in the White House even though they lost the popular vote. Which may be why Barack Obama, in collaboration with Eric Holder, has made a piece of that issue—an anti-gerrymandering campaign—the centerpiece of his post-presidential mission.
But trying to undermine the vote makes perfect strategic sense for the Republicans, of course, as their electoral power is dwindling, demographically speaking, not to mention their fetish for authoritarianism and unfettered plutocracy, and the fact that they really have no interest in principle, or democracy, or equality, or justice in the first place.
A SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECY
I say all this not just to vent about the crime syndicate that the GOP has become (not just), but to make the point that fair elections are one of the things autocrats fear most. Therefore, they are also one of the most powerful weapons we have, if we can maintain their integrity.
Short of Russo-Republican ratfucking, Trump is eminently beatable in 2020. Hell, he lost the popular vote in 2016 by almost three million votes, and only won the Electoral College because of some 10,000 votes in Michigan (out of 4.5 million cast) that could very easily have gone the other way, to cite just one scenario. And he is far less popular now than he was then. His approval ratings have been historically abysmal and never broken 50%……and this with a soaring economy. (Which he rightly gets no credit for, not matter how much he tries to grab it, as the boom began under Obama. If anything, Trump has done his level best to wreck it with things like trade wars, a ballooning deficit, and general global panic-making.)
Even accounting for the usual statistical weirdness, head-to-head matchups show Trump losing to almost every Democratic nominee, which ought motivate everyone to get behind whoever the nominee is, even if it’s your not personal favorite (he said pointedly).
That fact also ought to help dissuade us from risky assumptions about who is or isn’t “electable,” a beartrap which several smart observers have recently addressed.
Writing in The New Republic, Alex Pareene had a thoughtful piece about that myth and the pitfalls it presents as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pareene points out that after Barry Goldwater got crushed by LBJ in 1964, the Republican Party didn’t run from right wing extremism, it doubled down on it, nominating Nixon four years later and eventually moving both the party and the whole country hard to starboard, going on to win not only with Tricky Dick but with Reagan, Dubya/Cheney, and Trump as well. They only lost when they played it safe with “mainstream” nominees who promised broader appeal, like Dole, McCain, or Romney.
By contrast, in Pareene’s view, the Democratic Party is still traumatized to this day by McGovern’s landslide defeat in ’72, which led to such timid and allegedly acceptable to the mainstream choices as Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, and the not so-safe but supposedly inevitable Mrs. Clinton.
In the Times, Michelle Goldberg recently had a similar column about Joe Biden, and whether he would be a reprise of such previous “safe bets,” or if we might be better off with a less orthodox candidate who inspires more passion. On that front, Rebecca Solnit has a tour de force piece about the brilliant and brave Elizabeth Warren, and the way misogyny and anti-intellectualism have conspired to create the canard of her as “unlikable.” (Hey, she drank a beer, right? That was enough to get a dolt like George Bush elected. But he had a penis.)
In other words, electability is as electability does. Cravenly discounting candidates because we’re worried they’re too bold for the middle-of-the-road voter is a Christmas present to the other side, when we can just as easily create our own political reality, in the words of conservative writer David Priess, whom I quoted at length last week. Who initially thought a biracial center-left first term senator named Barack Hussein Obama was “electable”? Or a Georgia peanut farmer named Jimmy? Or an obscure, saxophone playing Arkansas hillbilly (smooth and fantastic though he was, in the words of John Mulaney). For that matter, who thought Donald fucking Trump was electable, marking perhaps the only thing 44 and 45 have in common, polar opposites that they are?
So who’s to say then that Elizabeth Warren, or Mayor Pete, or Kamala aren’t be “electable”?
I get the “comfort food” aspect of Biden, and I’m as susceptible to it as anyone. Sure, I’d like a more progressive candidate, and a fresher face—and how about a woman, and a person of color, to really put a knife in Trump’s heart, not to mention, oh yeah, making a statement about what this country stands for. But I will enthusiastically support Joe if at the end of the primaries he turns out to be the candidate best positioned to beat Trump like a conga. Like Ricky Ricardo pounding out “Babalú.” Like Keith Moon on Live at Leeds. Like Gene Krupa on crystal meth.
The same goes for the whole slate of Democratic presidential aspirants. A year ahead of the midterms, we saw a preview of our ability to motivate the progressive electorate and carry the day in the special elections in Virginia and Alabama, which were both inspirational and a roadmap to November 2018, where we did it again. (See Sic Semper Tyrannis: The Lessons [and Limits] of Virginia, November 10, 2017). Let’s stay the course, to coin a phrase.
Let’s not give the GOP a gift by eating our young. Call me a pollyanna, but I believe the Democratic primaries can be a constructive and civilized process, not a self-destructive one, and reveal who is best equipped to take on Trump: in other words, where that aforementioned passion really lies…..and it may be Biden after all, or it may be Bernie, or Klobuchar, or whoever. (All we know is that it won’t be the Blaz.)
Whoever emerges from that process, can we all please pledge to put aside our intramural differences and support whomever the blue team nominee proves to be? As Diana Kane of Persisticon pointed out in these pages a few weeks ago, the differences in their policy positions are not even that extreme, and certainly not compared with what the current administration is pursuing. Let us remember that “Perfect is the enemy of the good”…….that ANY ONE of the approximately 2,457 current Democratic candidates would be infinitely better than Trump….that a rotten, two-week-old hardboiled egg would be better.
As I’ve said before, in order to beat Hitler the US had to ally itself with Stalin. So I think all of us in the so-called resistance ought to be able to find common ground.
(Note to Republicans: Yeah, that’s right, I made a casual comparison between Adolf and Donald. You got something to say about it? If so, put down your tiki torch and send me an email.)
Trump can absolutely be beaten in November 2020, but only if we all pull together and make it happen. The other side has shown that it will turn out in droves, and they fight dirty. So let’s put everything we have into stomping this mofo and leave it all on the field with nothing left to give, shall we?
PAGING SHONDA RIMES
All of which brings us back to the topic we discussed in this space last week: the Big I.
In case it wasn’t clear, I am of the opinion that the US Congress has a moral and constitutional responsibility to impeach Donald Trump or else torch its own credibility and open the door to even worse neo-authoritarianism, wanton criminality, and contempt for the rule of law. The potential damage to the republic by not doing so is terrifying to contemplate.
Commenting on last week’s blog post, a savvy reader with the handle of snowinla wrote:
One thing we have seen with Trump is that he continues to amp things up. If he gets away with something once, he is sure to do it many more times. If the Dems just let his infractions go and think that they will “let the voter decide,” they are assuming that he will not do something more egregious to ensure his win in 2020, even if it involves open fraud. If they don’t try to take action, they will have no one to blame but themselves, will have no moral standing or, arguably, no Constitutional standing since they abdicated their role….
While it seems like there is a choice, there really is not.
Well said. Our system is not built for someone who openly flouts the rule of law, especially when the courts refuse to enforce it and one of the two political parties abets him. Even Nixon wasn’t this brazen. Until the American people stand up and express outrage—or in some cases, even experience outrage—we’re not going to be able to get out of this nightmare.
But regardless of whether one thinks impeachment is a viable means of removing Trump or not, no sane person would pursue it at the exclusion of trying to defeat him at the polls. And there’s no reason even to contemplate such a strategy, as it’s not by any means a binary choice, as Bill Barr likes to say.
As I wrote last week, pursuing impeachment and mounting the most formidable possible electoral campaign for 2020 are not mutually exclusive paths to evicting Donald Trump from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. We can walk and chew gum at the same time, right? Indeed, I believe that even beyond the reasons of pragmatism that militate for it, and the reasons of principle that demand it, impeachment will profoundly benefit the Democratic cause in the 2020 election. The mere fact that the GOP keeps insisting otherwise ought to clue you in that that is so.
As many pundits have noted, Nixon’s approval ratings were not bad (higher than Trump’s) and public support for his impeachment very low before the nationally televised Watergate hearings began. But when they were done, Dick’s goose was cooked. We Americans are a nation of anti-intellectual illiterates (I say that with love); the arcane 448 pages of the Mueller report will never have the same impact as the TV miniseries adaptation.
So bring it on—I need something new to binge now that “Veep” is over.
In terms of the looming legal battles over Trump’s stonewalling, we are told that an active impeachment will prompt the courts to look more kindly on Congress’s demands for testimony and documents. As Greg Sargent wrote in the Washington Post, Trump’s own flagrant obstructionism on these investigations is all but forcing an impeachment, which would compel him and his administration to cooperate, and load the Democratic nominee up with ammo going into the general election.
Seen in that light, far from being an either/or choice, impeachment and the election are inextricably intertwined.
Many have noted that an electoral defeat would be a more resounding and definitive rejection of Trump than impeachment, which would further divide the country and invite tinfoil hat grumbling about a Deep State conspiracy, and pedophile pizza parlors, and maybe even violent right wing insurgency. (Don’t we have that already?)
True enough. But it’s still the right thing to do. And does anyone doubt that MAGA Nation is going to go that route no matter when or how Trump leaves office, even if it’s in 2024 when he’s unable to repeal the 22nd Amendment and run for a third term?
To that end, several bright sparks have correctly noted that the real constitutional crisis still awaits us if Trump loses his bid for re-election and decides not to surrender power. And I am not of the school that thinks he will only make that stand if the count is close, or that a resounding loss would dissuade him from doing so. Not in a million years. Are you kidding? (See WIll Trump Ever Leave Office [Even If He Loses in 2020]?, July 23, 2018.)
We saw in 2016, when he expected to lose, that Trump is prepared to challenge any loss……and now he REALLY has a reason to do so, given that the presidency is the only thing keeping him out of jail. In his report, Mueller pointedly noted that Trump can absolutely be indicted for obstruction after he leaves office, not to mention a whole slew of other charges currently in the works in the SDNY and elsewhere, including bank, tax, and real estate fraud, and another one, felony campaign finance violations, for which his former lawyer just went to prison and in which Trump is an unindicted co-conspirator (“Individual 1”).
To avoid this kind of post-presidential prosecution, our insane clown president is therefore more incentivized than ever to stay in office at all costs. Already he is talking about Jerry Falwell Jr.’s call for injury time—“reparations” for the unconscionable pain and legislative inertia he suffered as a result of the special counsel probe. (“Two more years! Two more years!”) Wait till he is looking down the barrel of a couple dozen criminal and civil indictments that will eviscerate his phony business empire, leave him broke, disgraced, and possibly being fitted for matching orange jumpsuits alongside his children.
But just to get to the point of that particular bunker situation, we first have to vote him out, or impeach him, or both. I don’t really care which.
In announcing his campaign, Joe Biden framed the 2020 election as a historic decision point, with one fork leading to a narrative in which Trump is an aberration, the other to the end of the American experiment as we know it. Whether you think Uncle Joe ought to be the Democratic nominee or not, he’s slam on target about that. The institutions that distinguish American democracy are barely hanging on going into the back half of four years under Trump; we may not survive eight.
From the start of Trump’s rise some have ridiculed this kind of thinking as alarmism, a critique that has come both from the right and the left. In its first show after the 2016 election, “Saturday Night Live” memorably had Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock lampooning white people’s angst that this was the worst thing that ever happened in America. The most painful—and worrying—part of that sketch wasn’t being called out for white privilege, but the idea that anti-Trump resistance might be riven along racial or other lines, rather than focused on a common goal.
But times have changed. Trump has been a lot worse even than most people imagined back then. Chappelle has since recanted his call to give they guy a chance (which he made in the monologue immediately preceding that sketch), concluding that we did and he failed.
In this blog I have often cited the great Rev. William Barber II to the effect that, as bad as Trump is, his regime is not the worst thing the United States has ever suffered, that we can get through this, and emerge stronger. We don’t need to get into an atrocity competition; comparing Trump to Jim Crow, let alone slavery, is apples and carburetors. But no serious person can doubt the uniquely dangerous threat that this administration poses to the future of American representative democracy, one that requires a concerted, united effort to defeat.
The damage Trump & Co. can do in a second term will be exponentially worse and more longlasting than if he is one-and-done, and in every category—from the environment, to the economy, to foreign affairs, to the judiciary, to a free press, to the rule of law itself. Imagine a SCOTUS with three or four Trump appointees on it.
Why do I bother even saying this? Is an argument why we need to defeat Trump even necessary? Undoubtedly not, unless you think Tucker Carlson is the second coming of Edward R. Murrow. But I want to stress the stakes, and just how bad it would be.
Apart from the terrible practical consequences, re-election would also make a profound statement about who we are as a people, which is a big part of Biden’s point. Electing this monster not once but twice would make it impossible to say that it was a fluke, or the result of temporary insanity, or that the Russians made us do it. It would say that, even if a majority of Americans actually oppose Trump, our system is so broken and dysfunctional and fundamentally anti-democratic, and that the resistance so disorganized and the forces of white supremacy and neo-authoritarianism so strong even if they are a minority, that we are not sufficiently competent as a nation to chuck this jackass out of office.
It would say that Trump is not an aberration but the very soul of America.
(Many on the far left have been saying that for years, of course, and take issue with the whole Bidenist premise.)
Any way you look at it, I don’t think Americans traveling abroad will still be able to count on the goodwill and sympathy of the rest of the world, who so far seem to feel bad for us and largely assume that we got screwed. That will no longer be so if we give Trump a second term.
As if getting sneered at by taxi drivers in Spain is our biggest worry.
And as we have noted over and over in this blog, even the end of Trump will not mean the end of the scourge which has afflicted our body politic—not by a longshot, for he is but a symptom and not the cause. That scourge will only be eradicated when we address the toxic brew of white supremacy, misogyny, nativism, pluto-kleptocracy, and Orwellian contempt for truth that the contemporary Republican Party embodies.
Anyone with good ideas for how to do that, please feel free to speak up.
WITHER DEMOCRACY? (SIC)
Thus concludes our four-part opus on the state of play in the immediate post-Mueller world. To sum up: we have a demonstrably criminal president flouting every attempt to hold him accountable, a Republican Party shamelessly protecting him, an opposition party trying to use constitutional mechanisms that the president and his accomplices are working furiously to undermine, and a looming election that Trump and the Republicans are brazenly trying to fix via voter suppression and an open invitation to foreign meddling, and oh yes, show every sign of defying if it doesn’t go their way.
So there’s that.
The next seventeen months ought to be pretty interesting. We’re about to see whether the American people have the kind of integrity and backbone that we flatter ourselves to think we have, and whether or not we can stand up and—one way or another—rid ourselves of the worst and most destructive presidential administration since 1865.
Fire up your office pools, my friends.
The King’s Necktie will (probably) be on hiatus next week, letting the laptop keys cool off. Unless Trump pardons a bunch of accused war criminals on Memorial Day.
See you in June.
Photo from Politico.