Early last spring, I spoke with a veteran Democratic operative I called “Mister X,” an individual with more than twenty years’ experience on national political campaigns, then consulting for one of the remaining presidential hopefuls. (See “Inside the Democratic Race, Part 1 and Part 2.”)
That interview from March 2020 now reads like it could have been conducted in 1820.
At the time, with Super Tuesday looming, the big question was whether it would be Bernie or Biden, with great anxiety among the center-left that it would be the former (indeed, a significant part of that interview was devoted to how the Democratic Party could go about winning if Bernie were the nominee), and great anxiety on the left-left that Mike Bloomberg was going to step in and buy the nomination.
That’s right (not a typo): that interview was from an epoch when Mike Bloomberg figured in the national conversation.
Obviously, neither of us knew at the time that the entire world was about to be turned upside down. So I thought now—15 days out from Election Day, with more than 20 million early votes already cast—would be a good time to circle back. I spoke with Mister X, who is currently consulting on the Biden campaign, by Zoom from my own quarantine location (a former Minuteman missile silo, deep beneath the Rocky Mountains).
UNCLE JOE VS. THE CHARLATAN
MR. X: I can see that we both need haircuts.
THE KING’S NECKTIE: Yeah—I haven’t been this shaggy since 1979, when I had a Doobie Brothers LP on my turntable. I’ve been saying that I’m going to let it grow until the election, and then If Biden wins, I’ll shave my head, and if he loses I’ll slit my throat.
MR. X: Either way, you use the same tools.
TKN: The last time we talked was one of my last blog posts before COVID hit. I went back and re-read it yesterday. It feels like it was from a completely different planet.
MR. X: Yeah. First of all, Joe Biden was penniless and ran a campaign which frustrated me to no end in that he won states going away where other people spent months in the field, and with no media, and he would just show up at the end, like, “Hi, I’m here today,” and win by 60%.
TKN: All true. But at the time no one knew that circumstances would conspire such that he could not be a more perfect candidate for us to have at this moment.
MR. X: Especially since he is this historical moderate. You want to attack him for wanting to defund the police, which he pointedly doesn’t even want to do? But wait, you also want to attack him for the (1994) crime bill and the term “super predators”? Which is it?
He just doesn’t fall into the traps that Republicans would like to set for him. Saying he’s AOC’s stooge is just not gonna do it, and “Sleepy Joe” is just not as interesting an insult as Crazy Bernie or Crooked Hillary. The reason you want to define your opponent early is so it sticks and the race is not about you, it’s about them. But in this case, Trump just never could do that.
TKN: For once it’s nice to have a candidate of our own who’s made of Teflon.
So how are you feeling?
MR. X: This is looking like a Mondale-level wipeout for the Republicans. Of course, we’re almost exactly where we were in the race four years ago, with grab ‘em by the pussy, and back then I was like, “Oh my God, he’s done.” So we can’t relax. But there’s no Comey letter and there’s no email server thing that they’ve been beating on for eight months. They really tried to hit Biden hard—I mean, they got impeached for it. But they never could pin him. And the idea that they’re now gonna come at Kamala Harris, so they can have a liberal African-American woman to attack, means they’re down to wooing the 17 white guys that are in the Michigan Militia. If you don’t have them already, why are you even in this race?
TKN: To what extent do you think, Joe was insulated by his 47 years in politics? I know the GOP keeps attacking him for those 47 years, saying he got nothing done, he’s part of the swamp, etc. etc., which is a canard anyway and the height of hypocrisy. But even so, you just can’t re-define a guy that America’s already so comfortable with.
MR. X: The fun that people have made of Biden—the aviator glasses or driving a Camaro—is all stuff that’s sort of avuncular and sweet. He’s Uncle Joe. He’s certainly cast a lot of bad votes over the course of 47 years, and been on the wrong sense of a lot of issues, which is almost impossible to avoid in five decades of public service. But we just know him. People knew Hillary, too, or thought they did, but what they knew they didn’t like. I’m not saying that because I hate Hillary Clinton—I worked for her—but because the Republican Party and its media allies spent 25 years assassinating her character, and very successfully too.
Biden, on the other hand, the public generally likes enough, for a politician. Trump’s personal numbers are at like minus 17 or something, if that. It was easier for Trump when he and Hillary were vying for who is the most-disliked person in America. This time it’s a choice between Uncle Joe and the charlatan. It’s a very different thing.
FLOAT LIKE A BUTTERFLY
TKN: That’s what I mean about how he’s the perfect candidate for this moment. Lucky for us. Because let’s say Bernie had prevailed, or Elizabeth Warren, even though I liked her very much. If that had happened, I don’t think we’d be in such a strong position. The Republicans would have been able to demonize either of them in a way they just haven’t been able to do with Joe. Right now the idea of a comfortable, grandfatherly, very calm guy who looks and sounds like the presidents we’re used to—even with all the white male privilege that entails—is like comfort food that we are desperately craving.
MR. X: Absolutely. People will only change horses if they’re given a real option and Biden is absolutely all the things you’re describing. Also, people are just sick of this fucking weird game show that we’ve been watching for four years.
Biden is the exact contrapositive to Trump. In the debate, when Trump attacked Hunter, and Biden got pissed and said, “My son has a problem, but he’s trying to solve it,” he was talking to 150,000 people in the Ohio River Valley who also have a kid who’s got an opiod disorder, whose aunt may have died from addiction, and so on. So even that was ground in Americana, without being too flag-waving.
TKN: I don’t know if that response regarding Hunter was calculated, or if they prepped for it or not, but it felt totally genuine. And it played like you just described: like a dad defending his kid. And that was great.
MR. X: Yes. And I will say this: one thing that Biden has done by being in the basement in Delaware for so long—which Trump has been attacking him for—is that he has spent that time training, like he’s Muhammad Ali in Pennsylvania before going to Zaire for the Rumble in the Jungle. He was focusing, doing his homework, and being grilled and testing stuff, so that when it comes to the high points of the campaign—the convention speech, and the first debate, and to a lesser degree subsequent debates—he’s ready. That’s exactly the kind of preparation that you want from people who take this seriously.
TKN: Speaking of the debate, I hesitate to ask, but what was your take?
MR. X: It was like the 2000 debate on steroids—literally. If you remember that debate, Gore had more makeup on than a drag queen, and every time Bush would say something, he’d be rolling his eyes and sighing. That was nothing compared to Trump, of course, because I buy the notion that he was absolutely filled with steroids to keep him erect, and pump up his testosterone, given that we now know he already knew that he’d been exposed to COVID.
TKN: This from the guy who had been insisting Biden was the one on Lance Armstrong-brand PEDs. Projection, as always, is the classic Trump tell.
MR. X: He was like this caged animal that was always on the attack in ways that just didn’t help him. Even Republicans were like, “You set a trap and you wait for them to fall into it.” You don’t set a trap and then yell, “Look: there it is! Jump into it!” Just like, shut up, man.
TKN: Speaking of, clearly one of the better lines Biden got off in the debate was when he said, wearily, “Will you shut up, man?” Because that’s what a lot of people feel.
MR. X: Yes. And then there’s Rick Santorum on CNN, saying, “Oh, they were both throwing brickbats.” Please.
It was just a absolute disaster for Trump, and the numbers afterwards have shown it. Even with four years of practice, he didn’t look like someone you’d want to lead the country….. he looked more like a petulant second grader. And getting COVID right after just undercut his entire argument of the last six months. It was like a trap door that opened up underneath him, and I just don’t see how you can get back up from that. Maybe you can close the gap a little bit, but you only get a few of these chances, and that was his time to reintroduce himself to the public, and he blew it. Of course, that’s my point of view from this side of the aisle.
Because he watches only Fox News, Trump I think has this notion that he can mention the first three words of any crisis, and everyone will know what he’s talking about, and that’s just not true. You really need to tell a story. But he just goes, “Benghazi! Benghazi! Benghazi!” It was like he only read the topline of each of his talking points, and not the second and third beats, which is what happens when you’re amped up on steroids. It only made sense to people who are inside QAnon and follow this stuff every day.
TKN: Well, that raises the question of strategy. I always hesitate to give Trump credit for twelve dimensional chess, because I don’t think he operates with that kind of foresight. But it did seem like he was not trying to win over any new voters so much as just energize his existing supporters so that if he loses, they’ll get behind him when he makes his power grab.
MR. X: Yeah. But that’s not the game. You can’t just build your base. You can turn out and turn out and turn out, but when you do everything you can to offend women….Maybe I’ll be surprised later, but this is a zero sum game where there’s just two people on the ballot.
TKN: But what I’m saying is that he’s not thinking about winning the election at all. He’s thinking about how he can steal the election, how he can claim victory regardless, or get it thrown in the courts, and have an angry third of the country ready to accept that.
MR. X: That’s true when you lose by two and a half points. But if you lose by nine points, that’s a bridge too far.
TKN: So do you think Trump is going to lose? In the Electoral College, that is?
MR. X: Yes. As I said, I think we’re on the verge of landslide numbers, and I say that because he’s having to go shore up his support in states that should already be locked down for him: Ohio, Iowa, Florida, North Carolina. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in Missouri next. It’s like in ‘84, when you had Walter Mondale doing a rally in Times Square.
The places that are on a razor’s edge always going to the challenger. And we’ll see, but if they’re only leading by a point in Georgia right now, then North Carolina is probably a Democratic state. Virginia and Colorado are no longer swing states; those are blue states. The states that Hillary lost by 80,000 votes—Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan—those are back to blue too. The question is, what other states does Biden add that make this really ugly for Republicans? He probably won’t win all of these states that are on the edge, but he could win Arizona, North Carolina, Florida. I wouldn’t put Georgia or Texas there, although I think a lot of people wish they could. Old people walking away from Trump will hurt him hugely in a place like Florida, or Arizona for that matter.
TKN: And what about the impact of mail-in ballots? The other thing that people are super worried about.
MR. X: They should be. Who knows? But this is how I see election night going, for what it’s worth.
Some states count the mail-ins early, so when you walk in, everyone will be like, “Oh, Biden won.” But we still have tonight’s votes to come in. So those votes come in and the balance changes, but then we still have the mail-in votes from states that weren’t pre-counting. And that’s the phase, the one they call the Red Mirage, which is going to be the ugliest possible time.
That’s why the hope is that Biden’s close enough to 270 that we don’t have this huge crisis……that Trump is at 140 and Biden’s at 255, let’s say. And hopefully the press has done a good enough job of prepping people beforehand that we won’t know the answer tonight.
COUP COUP COUP JOOB
TKN: So let me pose this scenario to you that’s in line with what you just described. Let’s say that the vote on November 3rd is close, which it might be, or maybe it isn’t. But either way Trump declares victory, which I think he’s going to do no matter what the numbers are….
MR. X: Absolutely.
TKN: ….and the mail-in ballots are coming in and being counted, and everybody knows that it’s not over till it’s over, because we’ve been prepared for that. But regardless of a Blue Shift or a Red Mirage, Trump continues to claim victory. How does that stop? Who is the person, or the group of people, who says at last, “Okay, fun’s over, it’s clear you’ve lost. You’ve got to go.” Who does that?
MR. X: Well, you know, the Transition Integrity Project did these tabletop exercises back in June, and basically got to the point of opposing militias in the streets. And when the question was asked, who won?, they were like, “We didn’t get there.” This is from The Atlantic article by David Frum (“Where the System May Break,” July 31, 2020). So it’s incredibly hard to know who’s the one who says, “Enough—you’re out.”
There may be insurrection style stuff going on in this time, but the military seems to have said we are staying the fuck out of this, and that’s good. And there are important signifiers like retired flag officers—the Michael Haydens of the world, the Michael Chertoffs of the world, even the Ben Ginsburgs of the world, the Republican election lawyer—saying “Hold your horses.” It’ll be the Trumpers versus the rest of the country.
TKN: That’s what I’m worried about. It could be a fucking blowout for Joe, but if Trump—who’s got the nuclear football—says, “No, I won,” or “The election doesn’t count, because like I told you, the mail-in votes are all fraudulent. It was rigged; don’t believe the numbers—I won.”
Do you doubt he’ll do that?
MR. X: No, I don’t doubt he’ll do that. The question is how strident will he be.
If you look at how this has worked in other countries, we may have to be in the streets for days. Would days be enough, or would it have to be longer? It may take a general strike or something like that to stop him. Then you’d have this sort of breakdown where very quickly Charlie Baker (the governor of Massachusetts) and some of the other reasonable Republicans like Mitt Romney start to put pressure on him and chip away at his position.
He doesn’t have the news behind him. Yeah, he’ll have Fox News, but the preponderance of Americans don’t believe his coronavirus statements, they don’t believe him about race, they don’t believe him on the economy or what he’s saying about a V-shaped recovery. He’s lost the public trust. So the hope is that the numbers are such that the American people sort of turn away from him. If all the media except Sinclair and OANN declare this thing for Biden, it’s really hard in America, I think, for Trump to do what we’re talking about him doing.
TKN: Can you believe we’re even talking about this?
What I’m worried about is that if it comes down to the so-called grownups in the Republican Party having to be the ones to break ranks and push him out, then we are really in trouble. Because even if it’s very clear to all sane observers that he’s lost, I think he’ll continue to cling to power until he’s forced out. And like you say, I think it’s gonna take people in the streets and a general strike to do that, and all the media turning against him except Fox and OANN and Breitbart, and even that may not be enough.
MR. X: So the American people I’m talking about, the suburban moms who marched like hell on the 21st of January, 2017, and all the people who marched for Black Lives Matter, and everyone else who cares about this country: there could be 15 million people in the streets. And that would be a moment for the Republicans to say, “Uh, sir, what are you gonna do—gun them all down? Put them all in jail?”
TKN: I want to believe you. But I have trouble picturing Mitch McConnell or Lindsey Graham or Jim Jordan or any of these other bozos ever having a moment of clarity where they do the right thing and stand up and say to Trump, “For the good of the country, you’ve got to go.” I just can’t see them doing it.
MR. X: No, no, I agree with you completely. Our hope is that we’re not leaving it in their hands, that the American people are seeing this shitstorm of hate and poor governance and saying, and, and truly voting with their feet…..
TKN: I’m not disputing that the American people are going to vote like crazy. I’m saying, what happens when Trump gets beaten 420 electoral votes to whatever’s left, and he still won’t go? Then what?
MR. X: That is a question the Framers left out. And so….
This is the end of the American experiment in democracy.
If Trump were to do that, and you were Senator Ted Cruz, and you don’t like him in the first place, and then he malinged your wife, and your dad, and you were given the chance to put the stake in him? God, I hope you’d do it.
TKN: I would hope so too. But I would’ve thought they would have done it long ago.
MR. X: I hear you, but here’s the thing. In politics, when you’re riding high, no one touches you. Once you’re wounded, they never knew you. So if he loses by landside numbers, what is the Republican Party at that point? This will be an interesting moment. I thought this would take place in 2016, after Trump went down, but he didn’t.
If it’s close and questionable, that’s one thing. You can fudge it, but some things are just unfeasible and a big win would be that, I think. I hope.
As we talked about in the spring, if I were a Republican, it’d be such a sigh of relief to get rid of this guy, to not have my feet held to the fire every day in every way. If you’re a Republican Senator, you gotta wake up each morning checking Twitter to see what piece of shit do I have to scrape off the wall today? I mean, can’t be fun.
Of course they can’t say that out loud. So while I’m not expecting Republicans to come out of the woodwork like, “Ding dong, the witch is dead,” I think that the wisdom would be maybe we can live longer if we aren’t under the yoke of a dictatorship.
The thing is that the more dissension and uprising there is, the more Trump locks into this law-and-order / “I need to stay here” thing. So it’s like we’re trapped in a way.
CIVIL WAR FOR THE WEAK AND LAZY
TKN: We did talk about this exact issue back in March—I went back and checked. In fact, we’ve been talking about it since 2017. But then it was still sort of a longshot concern; now it’s front and center.
Graeme Wood just had a great piece in The Atlantic called “He Won’t Concede, but He’ll Pack His Bags,” where he argued that Trump is too lazy to really preside over a violent constitutional crisis. The money quote was:
“A civil war sounds like a lot of work. The easiest path is also the most lucrative. Get on Marine One, protesting all the way, and spend the rest of your days fleecing the 40 percent of Americans who still think you are the Messiah, and who will watch you on cable news, spend their money on whatever hypoallergenic pillow you endorse, and come to see you whenever you visit their town.”
MR. X: And then there’s Ross Douhat. I don’t like Douhat, and I think that in this recent column in the Times (“There Will Be No Trump Coup,” October 10, 2020) he missed hugely the stuff that Trump has really done to undercut democracy, but I do agree that Trump is an incredibly weak figure. Probably too weak to pull something like this off.
TKN: Yeah, I read that column. I agree with Douhat in terms of Trump’s weakness, compared to a true autocrat—a Putin, or an Orban, or even a Duterte. But like you, I thought he grossly understated the things Trump has done. For instance, he said the most egregious thing he’s done in terms of defying Congress is to reallocate some funds for the border wall…..totally ignoring his wanton obstruction of Congress during an impeachment, for example, which is about as abusive and imperial a thing a president can do.
I want to believe he’s right about what will happen after the election, but I’m not quite so sanguine.
MR. X: Trump has spent a lot of time searching for support for this de facto coup. But he didn’t get it from the military, and he didn’t get it from other places, so he’s built in DHS a third tier personal army, with militarized law enforcement like Customs and Border Patrol et cetera, and this acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf to do his bidding. You look at what they did in Portland in the name of defending federal buildings, when they were nowhere near any federal buildings, except in the way like in tag, when you’ve got like one finger on base and you’re like stretching all the way out.
I mean, the DHS: we built that thing in 2002 and everybody knew it was a time bomb. The feds said, “Oh no, we’ll be careful with it,” but then along came Trump who decided to use it like a private army loyal only to him. And that’s incredibly scary. And while the idea that the US military won’t step in and interfere in an election is great in some ways, the idea that it won’t step in to stop this private army and resolve a consitutional crisis is also worrying in its own right, and actually ends up fueling the danger.
TKN: The other wild card is the Supreme Court. If we’re in this kind of constitutional crisis, and he gets a Supreme Court ruling on his side, that’ll bolster him—
MR. X: That would finish it. If he were to get a Supreme Court ruling on his side, it wouldn’t just bolster him—it would finish it.
TKN: And that’s why he’s so desperate to get ACB on the Court. It might be 5 to 4 against us. I don’t see Thomas or Alito surprising us; they’re in the tank. But I think Roberts would do the right thing….
MR. X: So do I…
TKN: I don’t know what Gorsuch and Kavanaugh would do, and I don’t know what an Amy Coney Barrett would do either, but I’m not optimistic. I’m worried about it.
MR. X: It would be such an egregious power grab. I’m sure the conservatives on the Court don’t like Biden, but does that mean that you throw the entire board game up in the air because you lost one election? Maybe they do. I hope not.
If the Supreme Court does end up ruling on anything, it will probably be on a set of very specific technical issues—I hope—that might turn a state or two, or three perhaps. I don’t know; I’m not an expert about this. But the states determine their electors, and in places where there’s a mix, like Wisconsin, it’s possible that the Republican-controlled state legislature could decide to send their electors and Tony Evers could send his own electors. Biden should win handily there; it should not be a question. But it’s still not a scenario you want.
TKN: People forget that in 2000, as much of a shitshow as it was, the Supreme Court didn’t say Bush was the winner: all it did was stop the recount in Florida. Gore could have continued to fight, but instead he did what you’re hoping the Republicans will do this time, which is concede out of respect for the peaceful transfer of power.
Many people at the time thought he should have kept fighting, especially in hindisght when you look at what happened under the Bush administration.
MR. X: Well, after all, we are the party that brings a petition to a gunfight.
TKN: I do think that this time, in a ruling like that, the Democrats would continue to fight, and they should. And I will also say that, if it comes down to a decision by the Court that effectively awards the election to Trump, if that decision feels unjust, I don’t think the American people will stand for that the way they did in 2000, regardless of what the DNC does. I think there will be a popular uprising.
MR. X: But the Supreme Court really does respond to the will of the people. That’s why you get Dred Scott in one era and Plessy vs. Ferguson in another, and then Brown vs. Board of Education. Trump is trimming along at like 40% support, and if he gets beaten soundly, and the GOP wants to set the country on fire basically, then the better part of valor for the Court is to make the right choice and split the difference in a way which will favor the person who got the most votes in the most States.
TKN: This is a topic for another day, but we have some systemic problems if the only way we can avoid a coup d’etat is by a landslide.
MR. X: You’re right. Except that Carter walked away, George H.W. Bush walked away….
TKN: Even Nixon walked away! But Trump makes Nixon look like Cincinnatus. That’s what I’m saying: the system depends on the goodwill of the players. There’s no mechanism to force compliance.
MR. X: And like the famous line says, and I actually buy it, if there had been Fox News in 1974, Nixon never would have had to leave.
TKN: That’s what I’m worried about.
In Part 2 of this interview, coming soon, Mr. X discusses what the GOP will look like if Trump loses, what America will look like if he wins, how much to trust (or distrust) the polls, the odds of South Carolina having two black senators, and what Trumpism and smallpox have in common.
Illustration: Edel Rodriguez