This week, the second half of my interview with “Mister X,” a veteran Democratic operative currently consulting for the Biden campaign.
In Part 1, we discussed the state of the presidential race, the Teflon nature of Joe Biden, and who can stop Trump’s power grab. (Hint: it won’t be Moscow Mitch or the Supreme Court). In Part 2, Mr. X takes on what the GOP will look like if Trump loses, what America will look like if he wins, the odds of South Carolina having two black senators, what Trumpism and smallpox have in common, and the chances that—gulp—Trump will run again in 2024.
THE FUTURE OF AN ILLUSION
THE KING’S NECKTIE: Last time we talked about the very real possibility that Trump will try to defy the results of the election, and who will stop him, and how. I didn’t sleep for a week after that.
So in the interest of me getting some rest, let’s turn to a more pleasant scenario. Let’s say Trump does go, one way or another. What do you think is the future of the Republican Party?
MR. X: Well, after 2012, they had lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections (Ed.: 2016 made it six out of seven), and they were really questioning things, and they talked about what to do, but they didn’t follow it up. As soon as Trump came in, he blew it all to shit.
They know they have a problem. They are demographically dinosaurs and this election will be proof positive that even someone who is down on his hands and knees begging old poor white people to vote for him can’t win a general election. That will scream that they’re in the wrong place and they’re going to have to rethink it. If not, they’ll be like the Federalists who hung around until 1812, like three of them left in the Senate. They’ll be like the Know Nothings, basically. But this is just not very future-looking.
People have been talking about the demise of Republican Party since 2012, but the angry demographic that is the Republican Party now will live for a while, and there will still be states where they will win—which stuns me still—places where the majority of people believe that stuff: Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, the Southern states. But this is a country that’s becoming more and more of a mosaic of different cultures—if you go to Queens you see it in a perfect amalgam. Opposing that is just a terrible strategy.
So the GOP is going to have to find a way to open their hearts to polycultural America. That means that they’re going to have to figure out ways to appeal to an audience beyond just angry white people. They’ve got to figure out something that’s not just hate.
The other thing about those angry white people is that they’re actually some of the Americans who are most reliant on government. So it’s incredibly ironic. At some point that just can’t hold, but I don’t know what point that is.
TKN: Is there room for that reinvention to happen within the Republican Party? Or—and I’ll show my bias here—is the Republican brand so damaged by its association with Trump that a new conservative party needs to emerge that can occupy what used to be that center-right space?
MR. X: Well, because of the way the system is set up, it’s hard to make it out of the primaries without appealing to the hardened, right-wing white nutcases who want a marriage of George Wallace and Jerry Falwell.
TKN: That’s why I’m skeptical that a genuine, reasonable conservative faction can arise within the current Republican Party. They have to break away.
MR. X: So if anti-Trump conservatives were to build something like that, what does it look like and who would do it? Would it be the Lincoln Project people?
TKN: I think it’s the Lincoln Project / Bulwark folks, and their argument would be, “We represent real conservatism.” It would be an alternative: a third party. I think that would be healthy for the country, though I don’t know if it would work.
MR. X: The thing about that is for the last 170 years we’ve really calcified the two party system such that getting on the ballot for those people would be hard. They’d have to run more of a Working Families style thing, where they find a way to build a cadre within the Republican Party and retake the party, as opposed to being a third party just because the systems are set up in so many states to preclude that. Because basically the two parties colluded to create that situation.
Look, America elected Ronald Reagan just six years after Nixon resigned. Watergate was America’s national nightmare and the GOP brand was absolutely sullied. But we—meaning the Democratic Party—managed to screw it up, and when we did, the public turned right back to the Republicans, because the system is so binary. It works vice versa too. Barack Obama was elected because George W. Bush fucked it up so bad that John McCain didn’t stand a chance.
TKN: I’m sure you’re right, but it infuriates me that any Republicans who have stood by Trump think they can make us forget that….even though cowards like Ben Sasse are already trying.
I don’t ever want any of these Republicans to be allowed to forget for a minute that they supported Trump. I want that albatross hung around their neck for the rest of time. I want their heads shaved.
MR. X: I hear you. And the exciting part is that we may see some big ones drop. I don’t know that South Carolina is going to have two African-American senators, one from each party, but we’re certainly giving a scare to these Republicans. If there are no Republican senators in Arizona, none in Colorado, Alaska loses one, Susan Collins goes down, Gary Peters survives…..even if we end up with Tommy Tuberville in Alabama, people like Cruz who are slimy and smart will tack to the middle in order not to lose next time. I don’t think MJ Hegar is within spitting distance, but if she loses by five points and she’s not even a strong candidate, if I were Cruz I’d be scared to death. He already almost got taken down by Beto, which was not a small thing.
On the other hand, if a guy like Lindsey Graham does make it through and win re-election, he’s going to be so emboldened. He’s got a candidate against him (Jaime Harrison) who’s raised more money than any Senate candidate has ever raised in a given quarter, or something like that. If Graham survives, he’ll be like, “I can do anything!”
TKN: I don’t know if the Republican Party could ever convince me that it’s reformed—and I realize they don’t really care about me (laughs)—but if they wanted to convince me of that, they would have to go a long way. They would have to really transform that party, on the level of how the Democratic Party transformed from its Reconstruction-era self. It would have to be that different.
MR. X: And even if they succeeded in doing that, then the question is, where’s the space for that racist/fascist/white nationalist one-third of the country? Where are they going to go? They will never be stamped out entirely; there will always need to be a home for those people.
TKN: Especially when you’ve got 50% of Trump supporters buying into QAnon, and another third open to it.
But I take your point about how the ownership of the Republican name is valuable because of the way the two-party system is set up. So in that case, rather than the moderates splitting to form a new Conservative Party and leaving the Republican brand to the crazies, the moderates would get the GOP and the crazies would have to form their own new party. Call it the Nationalist Party maybe, or maybe just drop the charade and go ahead and call it the Trump Party.
WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION
MR. X: I’m going to turn the question around to you. Do you think we prosecute Trump after he’s out of office? Assuming he’s removed from office in the first place
TKN: Do I think we will, or do I think we should?
MR. X: Should.
TKN: Absolutely we should, and I think—unlike with Nixon—the pressure to do so will be insurmountable. I think the trick is to do it not only without appearing to engage in banana republic style reflexive prosecution of the opposing party, but genuinely without doing that.
In other words, the man ought to be prosecuted under the law, because if you don’t, that’s a precedent that’s just as destructive. What I’ve heard suggested as the best method, and Biden himself said this in his recent town hall, is that he as president take a hands-off approach and let the pros at the DOJ handle it. It won’t be like Trump saying “Lock her up.” He’ll still get grief, of course, but that’s inevitable. It’s the right thing to do.
MR. X: I agree with you. My hope is that it’s Letitia James (the New York state attorney general) who does it, and Cy Vance (the Manhattan DA). That would be the best way. It could also be death by a thousand cuts, with his financial crimes as well.
But in terms of the election, the fact that Trump is corrupt and crooked is not going to change any minds. That’s not news.
TKN: True. But I do think it’s great that Sue Craig and her colleagues at the Times on almost a weekly basis drop a new what-would-have-been-bombshell in the old days, keeping the pressure on, keeping those stories in the news.
MR. X: I only hope that it goes back to that. Because Trump was genius in figuring out that every other administration walks a tightrope, and one slip and everyone is pointing at the mistake, but he’s literally flopping off the thing and getting back up and falling again….and because he’s fallen so often, nobody’s even noticing. It’s the inverse of the Big Lie.
TKN: The Big Truth.
MR. X: Right. In this case, you don’t even need to deny it because there will be another story to overshadow it tomorrow. So why even follow it?
TKN: But these are the exact things—or among the things—that he’s done to destroy our country. So let me ask you the opposite question, which is much more pessimistic than where we started talking today. Let’s say he manages to hang on to power, legitimately or otherwise. What do you think four more years look like?
MR. X: Well, I will call you from Portugal and you can let me know.
(Laughter. Bleak, jet black laughter.)
What will they look like? Let’s look at recent history. After the impeachment, he was unbound. In fact, after the Mueller report he was unbound….
TKN: Right. He made the Zelinskyy call the day after Mueller testified on television, which was effectively the end of the Russia probe, and the day his escape was complete. He didn’t waste a second.
MR. X: So he was unbound after Mueller. Then Ukraine happens, and he gets away with that, and he’s even more unbound. Now he’s got this third rate private army he’s built at DHS, he’s talking about dispensing with Barr and looking for even more of a lackey as AG, and in a second term he’d be able do whatever he wanted because he’d have a compliant Congress, or at least one that can’t contain him. Congress actually has very little ability to check an administration. One way that they can is by having people show up and testify and embarrassing them, or having them turn over documents. He has flouted both those things.
TKN: Attention Ross Douhat.
MR. X: If he were able to rule that way, he wouldn’t be a president anymore, he’d be a monarch, and we’d be done. And we couldn’t expect that he would only rule like that for another four years: it would go on for however long he wants, or however long he can maintain it.
TKN: Because there would be no more elections.
MR. X: Trump’s re-election would in fact, I believe, be the end of American democracy.
TKN: The saddest part to me is that if Trump succeeds in doing that, it will have been done to us by the most inconsequential figure you can imagine. Putin is a murderous, amoral scumbag, but he is a proper, formidable villain. So are most of these guys—even Duterte. But to have two hundred some odd years of democracy destroyed by a D-list game show host would be a uniquely American thing. And really, really pathetic.
MR. X: I will say this: people are not voting against him because of his craven, horrible policies and absolute backward-looking view of women, the environment, racial issues, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. They’re voting against him because he’s incompetent. And it’s come back to bite him.
To be fair, you could argue that nobody could have done much about this pandemic, and you play the hand you’re dealt. But it also showed all of his incompetence and ineptitude, his stupidity, his willingness to change the story in midstream, his lack of interest in science at a time when technology and the environment are two huge issues. Ultimately, his lack of interest in trying to grow into the job is what’s killing him. And that’s on him.
TKN: No doubt. And as much as I would have liked to have won in 2016, I shudder to think what would have happened to Hillary if the pandemic had happened on her watch. Yes, we would have not had nearly the death toll, but we would have had some deaths. And even if there were only four, like in Benghazi, the right would have crucified her. And to your point about a binary system, God knows what kind of right wing landslide we’d have had in 2020, and the monsters it would have brought in. Perhaps even worse than Trump.
MR. X: If she had shut down the economy and avoided mass death, they would have said, “God, this was a non-issue! Nothing happened! Why did she destroy the economy over nothing!” It’s the old thing about standing under an umbrella in a rainstorm and saying, ”Why do I need this stupid umbrella? I’m dry!”
To still be without a mask in July and August and September is a crime against public health. For him to get the disease and then be helicoptered to Walter Reed just screamed, “Hey, nobody else gets this service. And even it can even hit me!” So it undercut the last shred of his argument about the most important issue in on the ballot.
It’s really stunning that this person at this moment could be president.
TKN: I think everybody’s tired. I don’t even remember what it was like when I didn’t come home and watch three hours of news every night on the edge of my seat. But I would like to go back and find out.
MR. X: I think the American people are sick of this. The 2016 election happened when the economic recovery had been going on slowly but surely for something like six and a half years, and things were generally quiet on the terrorism front, and we were in this scenario kind of like we were in 2000, at the end of the last eight-year Democratic run in the White House. People were spoiled, and like, “What do we have to lose trying this guy?” Now you can smell what you have to lose and it’s the dead fucking corpse next to you, rotting.
TANNED, RESTED, AND READY
TKN: If Trump does lose in November—or January—what do you think are the odds he might run again in 2024? Assuming he’s not in prison, or maybe even if he is. He’ll be 78, but Biden’s 77, and presumably Trump will still have the fanatical support of a third of the American people, plus whatever fake news media empire he builds after his presidency, and the benefit of four years of doing what he does best—screeching and flinging feces like a monkey in the zoo—without the bother of actually having to govern.
MR. X: Here’s something nobody on a competitive campaign would ever say within earshot of anybody with a tape recorder: “If we don’t win this time…”
First of all, it’s Steve Bannon talking this up—the guy on the hook for a felony for a phony build-the-wall scheme. Since he was ousted as Trump’s Karl Rove, he’s been in the wilderness and all he wants is to get back in. I think it’s a bit like rowing toward the Titanic, but it takes all kinds. The point is, all he wants is a little love from his patron, so he floats this garbage.
Second, should Trump lose this time, I have to think the respite the American people will have from this day-to-day craziness over the course of four years—the chance to have emotional moderation emanating from the White House for a change—will be something they realize they want to hold onto.
Anyway, politics is all perception, and Trump, you may recall, promised America we’d be winning so much that we’d be tired of winning. I’m tired all right, but it’s not of winning. “Winning” is the entirety of his brand. Winning, bullying, macho power trips, the whole nine yards. He loses—on the world’s biggest stage—and he becomes what he can’t stand, and the voters he attracts can’t stomach a loser. It wouldn’t tarnish the brand. It would shatter it.
Worse for Trump, if he can’t win with all the aces of federal power in his hand, how does he do it without them? I recognize that he had to win initially to grab that power, but ’16 was a different time with different atmospherics. I don’t dare say what 2024 will look like—I don’t dare say what November 4 will look like—but it’s really hard to make the souffle rise twice.
What worries me more is that the tricks that make up the Trump persona are already being adopted by his followers: Kemp in Georgia with the voter suppression, DeSantis with the anti-mask idiocy, Pompeo with his shameless abuse of the Hatch Act. If you liked Exorcist II: The Heretic, you’re gonna love how this next batch of neanderthals pumps new life into the old GOP storylines. Trump was the flawed prototype. Watch what happens when a pro or a true believer tries this stuff.
TKN: For sure. In fact, one of the earliest entries in this blog, almost four years ago, was called “Beware a Better Demagogue (Parts 1 and 2).” When Trump was running in 2016, and I was sure he would lose, my main fear was that he would create the playbook for a smarter wannabe despot—and he did. I just didn’t realize we’d also have to live through his administration first.
What about the Trump kids? Not that I think they fit the bill of a slicker demagogue—as far as Don Jr goes, it’s probably the opposite. I know he’s got fans, but so does Nickelback. I just don’t think he has his father’s skills as a carnival barker.
MR. X: Did you see Caroline Giuliani’s article in Vanity Fair? It was a little self-referential, but it was interesting to see her deep need to publicly distance herself from her pathological dad. Whoops. You didn’t ask me about that.
Hmm. The next gen Trumps in politics.
I just don’t see it. They may try. The father-son competition/repudiation thing is evidently super-strong in that family—beyond Bush-level strong, and that says a lot—but am not sure they get traction. They kind of have a reverse Buttigieg here in New York. The state’s really blue, so there’s no path. And while NYC has occasionally flipped for the right Republican in the past, a gun-toting, spittle-spewing Republican like Don Jr. is just not the right Republican.
Nationally, they don’t have the chops or the narratives to jump in at the presidential level. I heard that Don Jr. is thinking of running for Senate in PA, but carpetbaggers start with problems, and Bob Casey’s quietly kind of locked the place up. It’s always suggested that Ivanka’s the smart one, but I think her political appeal is limited by her Marie Antoinette attitude. And if Jared advises her as well as he has her father…..
The screenwriter in me sees some other desperate, down-in-the-polls Republican nominee in 2024 putting at Trump on the bottom of the ticket to try to capture that old Trump magic, then dying weeks into office (thanks, Vlad!), which would put the family back in the White House. It’s so clunky, circumstantial, and contrived that it’s probably exactly how this shit goes down.
TKN: Everybody that I know on our side has PTSD from last time and being overconfident about the polls. Although I read a great piece somewhere recently about how the opposite can be true too, that we were overconfident last time. and this time, this panic and refusal to believe in the numbers is equally misguided. So my question is: how much faith do you put in the polls?
MR. X: A month before the election in 2016 I was looking at the national numbers and they were like three or four in Hillary’s favor, but the state numbers looked like shit. So the blue wall, Wisconsin most pointedly—I didn’t think Pennsylvania is going to turn, or Michigan for that matter—but Wisconsin was like, “Jesus Christ, how can it be 0.5 points?”
But I’ve looked at these numbers this time around, only public numbers, and they generally aren’t showing what it looked like in ’16. The national numbers look a lot like the state numbers and vice versa. So that’s interesting. Florida is never going to be a layup for Democrats, but if we force the other side to have to spend money there, and he’s got to go to Ohio, and we talked already about him not having enough money……it’s almost like a magic trick. “You’re over here? Now we’re over here.”
In 2016 Trump drew an inside straight against a terrible candidate. Biden doesn’t have those vulnerabilities, and the same history of being battered by Republicans, and he’s not a woman.
TKN: So if I hear you correctly, you’re saying the numbers last time were never as good as the public thought they were, and this time they are. Which is actually comforting, in terms of this time around, and of faith in polls in general.
MR. X: Right. Nobody looked at the cross tabs; they just looked at FiveThirtyEight saying it’s 99% likely that Hillary wins the popular vote—and FiveThirtyEight was right about that, she did win the popular vote. But this is not a pure democracy where we directly elect our head of state; this is a set of states, and you gotta win enough of them.
It’s hard to run as a protest candidate if you’re incumbent. The Republican Party, going back to your earlier point, is not built to govern. It’s built to protest and throw bombs. Jim Jordan can do that for his whole life, but that doesn’t mean that when it comes time to pass legislation the Freedom Caucus is going to get anything done. They deposed three speakers or something like that, and drove another one out. These people are never going to be satisfied. And politics is about compromise.
That’s why I feel more confident this time. I don’t think that 2016 was the story of the polls not showing things correctly. 2016 was the story of people thinking this guy was a buffoon, nobody’s gonna vote for him, Hillary had better surrogates, better policies, more money, but Trump tapped into something. “Make America Great Again” is one of the best slogans of all time. If you look at what he’s running on now, it’s like, “America’s in flames. Don’t re-elect the president—vote for me instead!” Except, wait: you are the president.
TKN: That’s what I’m worried about if we win—and I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, and I’ll be happy to have this problem—but they do thrive on being bombthrowers from the outside, and I’m going to be infuriated when they do that and pretend they’re not responsible for putting us in this mess in the first place. And I’ll be even more infuriated if we let them get away with it.
But like I said, I’ll be happy to be in that position. Bring that on and we’ll deal with it.
MR. X: Yes. If we can have the executive branch and the Senate, we’ll have a much easier path.
We’re 13 days out, right? The next few days are the homestretch, because you can’t really release anything super damaging the Friday before the election; it just isn’t going to stick. So we’re just days from when the cake is baked—knock on wood— unless it comes out that Biden is actually from Venus or something. If they haven’t hit him with it yet, they’re not waiting with something.
TKN: Not counting this non-story about Hunter’s laptop, the Durham report I think was the last bullet in their chamber, and not only isn’t it coming out before the election, I don’t think it’s coming out at all, because it turned out there was nothing in it, despite all the pressure Trump and Barr put on John Durham.
I did suggest a few weeks ago that Trump might go so far as to try to have Joe Biden arrested. He hasn’t yet ordered Bill Barr to do that, although he clearly wants to, and he continues to tell the crowds at his rallies that Biden is the head of a crime family and ought to be in jail. Which is pretty damned close.
MR. X: Every day is crazier than the last. Your campaign manager embezzles $195 million and then is drunk and carrying a gun and crying to the cops that his wife wouldn’t have sex with him and he ends up in a mental institution….I don’t care how bad a script you write, it’s not as bad as this.
TKN: Nobody could make this up; it beggars fiction. We just had the Superman t-shirt thing….
MR. X: At least he didn’t do that. I guess somebody talked him out of it.
TKN: They couldn’t get it in his size.
TRUMPISM AS SMALLPOX
TKN: To me, the most valuable thing that’s come out of these past four years—maybe the only valuable thing—is an awareness, which I hope is permanent, that there is a sick fucking strain in this country that will never go away, as you pointed out earlier: a segment of the populace that are just plain racists and fascists. They will probably always be with us, though for a long time we thought they weren’t, and that turned out to be wrong and dangerous not to recognize.
Right now it’s running at about 40%. Hopefully it’s not always gonna be 40. If we can get it down to 25, then it’s like smallpox and we can control it.
MR. X: I may have told you this trip before, but in 2004 I flew out to the Plains side of Colorado, eastern Colorado, to do a Kerry thing. And I’m driving around gathering materials and getting my shit together and all the advance work I had to do, and I’m listening to the talk radio out there, and I’m like, “God, America has a crazy aunt. I can’t wait to remove the stairs and nail the door to the attic shut.” And then the election results came in and I realized, “Oh, wait: they’re not the crazy aunt—we are.”
I don’t think we’re a center-right country. I think that this is a progressive country. I hope so—that’s why I stay here and do the work that I do. But it’s very easy for people to get selfish, especially when times are good, and be like, “Fuck it. I want mine.” And those are times when we see the worst of America. The John Birchers came out of the most fulsome time in American history, the post-war years. There is a third of America that are just bonafide haters. Some of them were Democrats before (Lyndon) Johnson, and now they’re Republicans, but they have always been there and they just switched parties depending on who wants to hate others the most. But they’re tribalistic.
Look, for the first time in decades, the life expectancy of the American male has gone down. Opioid addiction, suicide—those aren’t diseases of hope, you know? It’s not like cancer or heart disease that that we’re dying of. We’re dying of stuff that’s self-inflicted because there’s some kind of misery going on. So a portion of these people are killing themselves with drugs and suicide, and then a portion of them are like, “Fuck it. I just hate women and blacks, goddam it!”
But the thing that’s interesting is that Biden is peeling off Catholics, peeling off people with college degrees both men and women, demographically he’s peeling this onion sort of brilliantly. Picking Kamala Harris was just done perfectly. She’s speaking to audiences that he can’t, or at least isn’t the best person to speak to. And the way they rolled her out, it’s was like magic as well, I gotta say. And I personally adore her, not for policies, but just because if that means more Maya Rudolph, then bring her into the White House.
TKN: She knows how to get off an airplane, I know that.
MR. X: Kamala Harris will have the best training any person could ever have to be president, and definitely be three lengths ahead for the next time there’s a contest. To be a party that’s pushing an African-American woman will be terrific, it will speak to a demographic that is both the baseline of the Democratic Party, and a great way to say, hey, America really is willing to be its best self. She’ll be the kind of vice president Joe Biden was, which was a helpmate, but have her own personality, and also be the person in the room who’s willing to tell him, “No, man, that’s fucking wrong.” Because Trump’s gotten rid of all the adults and nobody’s telling him when he’s wrong.
MR. X: And it’s one reason that this presidency is so off the fucking rails.
TKN: Well, let’s hope that we’re in that position, regarding Kamala. I’m guardedly optimistic—even though I’ve been pessimistic in this interview just to be the devil’s advocate—in truth I’m guardedly optimistic. I think we have a good chance, and we’ll see. If not, I’ll be one of those people with the opioid problem.
Photo: Getty Images
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