America Is a Lot Sicker Than We Wanted to Believe

Hmmm, a lot to take in over the past three days, and we will get to the heart of it shortly. But first, after four years, I think we owe it to ourselves to take just one moment to celebrate a singular, long-sought reality:

Donald Trump will be a one-term president, ejected from office by the American people.

This, as Joe Biden once told Barack Obama about the ACA, is “a big fucking deal.” Biden is on track to win the popular vote by an even larger margin than Hillary did in 2016—about 4 million votes. He will also receive more votes for president than any candidate in American history (though that is partially a simple function of growing population), about 73.6 million thus far to Trump’s 69.6. His final tally might approach 80 million. Kamala Harris will be the first woman Vice President, the first person of color in that office, as well as the first Black and South Asian one.

But numbers don’t really capture it. Consider this: Prior to this cycle, a challenger has unseated an incumbent president only four times in the past hundred years (FDR over Hoover in 1932, Carter over Ford in ‘76, Reagan over Carter in ‘80, and Clinton over Bush in ‘92).

So, yeah, a BFD.

On a practical level, Biden’s win is a major step forward in our efforts to stanch the bleeding of the last four years. To name just one consequence: given that we are still in the midst of a pandemic, it might be measured in hundreds of thousands of American lives saved in the coming months. Its repercussions are equally vast for economic equality, for racial justice, for a sane foreign policy, for the United States’ standing in the world.

Therefore, let us not underestimate for even a moment the impact of Joe Biden’s victory. This, we were told, has been the most important American election since 1864, and that was no hyperbole.

So why did this still feel like a loss for so many of us, at least initially?

That sense is abating a bit as the reality of Biden’s win sinks in, and the disappointment over the misplaced hope of a landslide fades. But the reason for that queasy feeling comes from the most profound takeaway of this election: The appalling number of our fellow Americans who, even at this late date, are still willing to stick by Donald J. Trump.

SICK AF

It should never have been this close, and it is deeply alarming that it was.

The Atlantic’s Tom Nichol, a professor at the US Naval War College, summed it up well with a piece concisely titled “A Large Portion of the Electorate Chose the Sociopath.”

I am certainly relieved. A Biden victory would be an infinitely better result than a Trump win. If Trump were to maintain power, our child-king would be unfettered by bothersome laws and institutions. The United States would begin its last days as a democracy, finally stepping over the ledge into authoritarianism.

A win for Biden would forestall that terrible possibility.

But no matter how this election concludes, America is now a different country. Nearly half of the voters have seen Trump in all of his splendor—his infantile tirades, his disastrous and lethal policies, his contempt for democracy in all its forms—and they decided that they wanted more of it. His voters can no longer hide behind excuses about the corruption of Hillary Clinton or their willingness to take a chance on an unproven political novice. They cannot feign ignorance about how Trump would rule. They know, and they have embraced him.

That is it in a nutshell. Four years ago, one could forgive a Trump voter for a naïve willingness to give him a chance. This time around a vote for Trump is, at the very least, an admission of complicity, and in many cases, a proud and thunderous affirmation of approval. And there were almost enough of them to return him for a second term.

The New York Times’ Matt Flegenheimer writes:

From the start of his 2020 campaign, Joseph R. Biden Jr. insisted that President Trump was an aberration, his norm-breaking, race-baiting tenure anathema to the national character. “It’s not who we are,” Mr. Biden often said, “not what America is.”

And at the end of the 2020 campaign, an anxious, quarrelsome country seemed to be turning a question back at him:

Are you sure?

The fact that we did not have a resounding nationwide repudiation of Trump ought to force an unmistakable reckoning: America, it seems, is a lot sicker than we wanted to believe.

There can be no more pretending Trump was an anomaly. Fully a third of our country continues to be totally onboard with the most vicious and vile racism, misogyny, and right wing authoritarianism, even to the point of negligent homicide on a mass scale, quisling subservience to a foreign power, and wanton corruption that doesn’t even bother to camouflage itself.

This isn’t who we are? I’m worried that it is.

The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser:

It never should have come to this. After nearly four years of Trump’s divisiveness and incompetence, the country has been beset by truly grave crises in 2020. With a deadly pandemic raging and an attendant economic catastrophe, more than seventy per cent of Americans said, in the latest Gallup poll, that they believed the country was headed in the wrong direction. In a previous era, Trump might have suffered a historic repudiation for what has happened to the nation on his watch.

(But) His base has followed him through impeachment and family separation, his “love” letters with North Korea’s brutal dictator and even his coronavirus denialism. If he leads them over the cliff of a constitutional confrontation between now and January 20th, we have to assume that they will follow him there, as well.

Nichol, a Never Trump conservative, writes that he did not expect a Biden landslide, or a real repudiation of Trumpism.

I know my former tribe.…..The party of national security, fiscal austerity, and personal responsibility supports a president who is in the pocket of the Russians, has exploded the national deficit, and refuses to take responsibility for anything. I had hoped, at the least, that people who once insisted on the importance of presidential character would vote for basic decency after living under the most indecent president in American history.

It’s clear now that far too many of Trump’s voters don’t care about policy, decency, or saving our democracy. They care about power…..Even the candidacy of a man who was both a political centrist and a decent human being could not overcome this sullen commitment to authoritarianism.

THE LANDSCAPE OF DORIAN GRAY

Yesterday, the day after the election, my filmmaking partner Justin Schein and I drove through rural Pennsylvania on our way to film a non-partisan “Count Every Vote” rally for the NGO Protect the Results. It was gorgeous country, in blazing autumnal colors, right out of a pastoral painting. But the scenery was thick with Trump signs. (A few Biden/Harris, but badly outnumbered.) I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it was chilling: this beautiful scenery and these salt-of-the-earth folks, blithely flying the flag of hate, bigotry, and deceit.

But lest you misjudge, this was not a pair of boozhy Brooklynites leaving their bubble, at least not entirely. That part of Pennsylvania is where my family has lived for more than 30 years; I lived there myself for several years, and I know it like the back of my hand. The rally we went there to film was in the county seat next to my hometown (such as it is), just a few miles from where my father and brother still live, and vote.

(I used to live in Germany too; the scenery in Bavaria is gorgeous as well. What it is about storybook landscapes that go so well with fascism?)

Masha Gessen, who has firsthand experience of fake democracy and Potemkin elections, quoted the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, from his 1933 poem “Stalin’s Epigram”: “We live without sensing the country beneath us.” (As a result of having written that, Mandelstam was arrested the following year and died in the gulag four years later. That’s real, Grade-A autocracy.)

I would not trade Trumpian authoritarianism for the Stalinist variety. But what we are facing is in some ways more than insidious than the outright banana republic power grab that we feared (a danger we ought not assume is safely past). That would have been horrible, but at least it would have been an obvious crime that all parties could have seen as such—except the Kool-Aid brigade. Instead, what we are faced with is the realization that the Kool-Aid brigade remains bigger and stronger than we ever thought.

Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale and author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, told Salon’s Chauncey Devega that “many Americans really like authoritarianism. Sure, the conventional wisdom says that Americans like freedom. Some of them do. Some of them do not. The Americans who do not like freedom are not going to be reached or otherwise have their minds changed. It is as simple as that.”

The election results make it hard to argue with that. Russian interference in our elections, real as it is, is not the true problem. We are doing this to ourselves.

George Packer writes, also in The Atlantic, “We are two countries, and neither of them is going to be conquered or disappear anytime soon.”

The outcome of the 2016 election was not a historical fluke or result of foreign subversion, but a pretty accurate reflection of the American electorate. The much-discussed Democratic majority that’s been emerging since the turn of the millennium is still in a state of emergence and probably will keep on emerging for years to come. The will of the majority is indeed blocked by undemocratic rules and unscrupulous politicians, but it’s a bare majority without enough numbers to govern.

Tens of millions of Americans love MAGA more than they love democracy. After four years of lawbreaking and norm-busting, there can be no illusions about President Donald Trump. His first term culminated in an open effort to sabotage the legitimacy of the election and prevent Americans from voting. His rallies in the final week of the campaign were red-drenched festivals of mass hate, autocratic self-absorption, and boredom, without a glimmer of a better future on offer—and they might have put Trump over the top in Florida and elsewhere.

Even as “freedom-loving people” came out in unprecedented millions to vote, their readiness to throw away their republican institutions along with their dignity and grasp of facts suggests that many Americans have lost the basic qualities that the Founders believed essential to self-government.

It doesn’t take away from this acknowledgment to point out that the election was not exactly a fair fight. As the author and musician Mikel Jollett tweeted, apropos of the Republican Party:

They gutted the Voting Rights Act, slowed the mail, intimidated voters, invested billions in disinformation, closed countless polling stations in Dem precincts and everyone is running around saying, “How did Republicans get so many votes?!”

So, interpolating, we can presume that in a fair election without rampant Republican suppression of the vote, the Democratic share would have been a bit higher. This is not to engage in still more denialism, or fail to reckon with the deep divisiveness in our country, or with the millions of our fellow Americans who passionately support Trump and Trumpism. Irrespective of higher Democratic turnout, we still have to face the fact that some 70 million American voters are totally down with Trump, significant numbers more who didn’t vote and aren’t even included in that figure. For that matter, even the GOP’s voter suppression campaign has depended on the support of that large chunk of the populace.

TODAY IN PLACEKICKING

I will leave the postmortem about the polls to others, except to say it feels like Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown. We were told that the forecasting problems of 2016 had been fixed, or were merely a matter of misinterpretation. But it now seems that the margin of error was even worse than four years ago. With the massive turnout in the early vote, what we thought was a public uprising turned against Trump turned out to be a display of equal passion by both sides. (Remember that stat about Biden winning the most votes in US history? The sad part is, Trump won the second most.)

Notwithstanding fantasies of a blue wave, the election unfolded almost exactly as we thought it would for most of the campaign: razor thin margins state by state, Trump sowing chaos and illegitimately claiming victory, and legal challenges that we will have to fight off. If the press had not convinced us in the final weeks of the race that Biden was going to win Wisconsin by 12, blow out Michigan, flip Texas and Georgia, etc etc, we would have gone into Election Day properly expecting a nail-biter. We would have had weeks to come to terms with notion that fully a third of our country are cheerleaders for autocracy and willing members of a literal death cult, and would have been overjoyed to escape with this relatively close win. Instead, many of us had to grapple with that shocking realization and the rottenness of our country in one night.

I know that many have sneered at this apparent naiveté among progressive Americans. The Washington Post’s Monica Hesse wrote that “for the past two years, the demographics in my inbox who most fervently believed in a 2020 blue landslide were White liberal men and occasionally White liberal women.”

Surely, they insisted, what had happened in 2016 was a blip. Hillary Clinton had been uniquely flawed, the country uniquely complacent, Donald Trump uniquely novel. The results didn’t really reflect America. Black women would save the party; Black women would save us all.

The Black women who wrote to me, meanwhile, were exhausted and often worried. To them, 2016 didn’t feel like a blip. It felt like the America they’d already been living in for decades was finally made visible to the rest of the country. Yes, it had always been racist. Yes, it had always been sexist. Yes, yes, yes.

If you, like Biden, have had the recurring privilege of sadly shaking your head and saying, “This isn’t who we are,” what you really meant was, “This isn’t who I’ve ever had to see us be.” What you really meant was, “This isn’t my America. . . . Crap, is it yours?”

Fair enough. (Though I’ll argue that I heard no deluded talk of a landslide over two years, only the last month.)

But it is completely possible to understand how deeply racist, repressive, and retrograde and at the same time be startled at how so many of our countrymen continue to stand by a man who criminally oversaw the unnecessary deaths of more than 200,000 Americans, who is a demonstrable vassal of a foreign power, who has treated the presidency as license to rob the country blind, to name just a few of his sins which are too numerous to list in full here. (See the previous 174 entries in this blog.)

Now we have to face it. Like a person with mental illness, the problem for America is that one of our ills is the lack of the very introspection we need to address those ills.

And it might have been a lot worse. As the Never Trump conservative Tim Miller pointed out, the pandemic offered Trump a golden opportunity. He famously declared himself a “wartime president”; sadly, it was Johnson in Vietnam. Miller sagely notes that had Trump even pretended to care about the well-being of the American people—not even really cared, just pretended to care—he likely would have cruised to re-election. Hell, he came pretty close even with the blood of 240,000 Americans on his tiny little hands. But such are the depths of his psychopathology that he could not manage even that. (And I thought sociopaths were good at faking it.)

By contrast, as I noted in my recent interviews with the Democratic operative Mr. X, with the onset of the coronavirus and its attendant ills, we got very lucky that a comfort food moderate like Biden was our nominee. As Tom Nichol writes, Trump would surely have beaten anyone to Joe’s left. Much as I like them, can you imagine the vitriol he would have whipped up toward a Sanders or a Warren?

That ought to put a stake in the Bernie bro complaint that our problem as Democrats is that we are just not leftist enough. Ironically, Trump’s absurd but successful efforts to tar Biden as a “socialist” essentially sank Joe in south Florida (and likely elsewhere), even as our own side bemoaned that he was insufficiently so.

That is not to say that we should not boldly own our progressive policies, be proud of them, and make the case to the American people of the benefits of a left-leaning agenda. But at the same time, it ought to be proof positive that, if we are interested in winning elections, such politics need to be presented to the American public in a way that takes into account the deeply entrenched reactionary strain in this country—not to mollify or try to appease it, but to find a way to outsmart, outflank, and outmuscle it.

IN TONIGHT’S PERFORMANCE, THE PART OF ROBERT MUGABE WILL BE PLAYED BY DONALD TRUMP

Luckily, even without a Biden landslide, Trump’s long-telegraphed and painfully transparent efforts to claim victory appear not to be gaining any traction. The press, the public, and even the Republican leadership are failing to go along and be shills for this con. I guess there are some limits to the power of the grift after all.

Of particular note, media and political figures (but notably, no Republican mandarins) publicly pushed back on the idea that the POTUS can just declare the vote over and himself the victor. (“Cincinnati Bengals Announce That They Have Won Super Bowl,” wrote satirist Andy Borowitz.) The subsequent speech he gave on Thursday night was an absolute nightmare, the ravings of a madman—a group not known for its abiding respect for the rule of law or the fundamentals of democracy.

Trump is also in court, of course, his usual go-to move, but here’s how ludicrous, desperate, and flailing that effort is. Trump and his supporters are howling for the counting to stop in some places (Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina), and for it to continue in others (Arizona, Nevada).

And here’s how sleazy they are. In Pennsylvania, Trump and the GOP are asking the courts to put an arbitrary end to the counting of mail-in votes three days after Election Day…..but most of those votes have been sitting there waiting to be tallied for weeks, because the GOP-controlled Pennsylvania legislature passed a bill blocking them from even being touched until 7 a.m. on the morning of Election Day.

Is that the behavior of a party that is interested in democracy?

Worse still are the acts of political violence that many feared. Already in Michigan we’ve seen an attempt to reprise the so-called Brooks Brothers riot of Florida 2000 as Republicans tried to storm a vote-counting location. (Fortunately, they were quickly and peaceably repelled by local law enforcement. Well done, fellas.) Even scarier, in Arizona—an open carry state—an angry MAGA mob has created a situation where poll workers require police escorts to leave the building at the end of their shifts. Most of these protestors were maskless, some were in body armor, and some were carrying long guns. (I lived there, and have a great fondness for Arizona, but even its residents will tell you it’s a crazy place.)

That mob, by the by, was chanting “Stop the count!” and “Fox News sucks!” When they turn on Fox, you know the end times are upon us. The Trump campaign, natch, expressed its support of the actions in both Michigan and Arizona, and Trump himself tweeted STOP THE COUNT!

(Elsewhere, of course, Trump supporters are chanting “Count every vote!” In some places, where Trump is behind, they are chanting the former when they should be chanting the latter.)

These spectacles, of course, were to be expected after the armed “Liberate!” mobs in Michigan, Virginia and Minnesota; White vigilantism from the likes of Kyle Rittenhouse; the plot to kidnap and execute MI Governor Gretchen Whitmer; and the Trump caravans last weekend that menaced the Biden/Harris bus in Texas and blocked highways in New York and New Jersey. And it may yet get worse before it’s over.

At a minimum, as The New York Times Editorial Board wrote, “Mr. Trump’s ugly rhetoric is a direct attack on American democracy. It could leave a poisonous legacy of bitterness among his supporters and erode the legitimacy of the US political system. But, by late Wednesday, his antics had yet to prevent an orderly, peaceful and lawful conclusion of the presidential election.”

Let us hope that remains true over the next 76 days until Joe Biden faces John Roberts and raises his right hand.

TWO CHEERS

One of the things that contributed to the phantom sense of defeat on Tuesday was the Democratic failure to take the Senate, a prize that was widely presumed by political professionals, even Republicans. It’s gutting—there’s no way to candycoat that. Incredibly, the GOP even netted a gain of five seats in the House, where they were expected to cede up to 20, losing not a single one race.

(There remains an outside chance that the Senate might flip, but it hinges on winning the race in Alaska—a longshot—and two runoffs in Georgia, including one where Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler will have an overwhelming advantage over Democrat Raphael Warnock if she can absorb most or all of those who voted for her now-eliminated Republican rival Doug Collins.)

Needless to say, for the new Biden administration, the fact that it will face an obstructionist Senate (and a far right federal judiciary is going make it hard to pursue its agenda—which is to say, to repair the damage of the past four years. Discussions of court packing, statehood for Puerto Rico and DC, and other agenda items are off the table for now, to say nothing of the Green New Deal, shoring up the ACA, or revoking the Robin Hood-in-reverse 2017 tax cuts. With Mitch McConnell’s creepy purple hands still around the throat of American democracy, we can expect a turbocharged sequel to the obstruction of the last six years of the Obama era (now with even better CGI!). We all remember how much fun that was, right?

But let us cross that Golden Gate-sized bridge when we get to it. It’s a scenario far preferable to the alternative. 

As of this writing, Joe Biden is on track to be the 46th President of the United States. But he may be the 47th, if Trump tactically resigns in the interregnum between now and Inauguration Day, so President-for-a-Day Pence can pardon him. Even then, of course, Donald will still have to contend with Letitia James and Cy Vance.

(I doubt he will resign. Trump doesn’t want to be known as only the second president to quit, and I suspect he is arrogant enough to roll the dice on a self-pardon. But watch this space.)

However it goes down, Trump’s departure will be a true walk of shame. The Bulwark’s Charlie Sykes:

Trump will be leaving the White House as a one-term president, rejected by the voters, stripped of power, and facing a world of legal and financial hurt.

He will also be trailing clouds of failure. It’s worth remembering this: Donald Trump began the year with his impeachment and trial for abusing his power; he badly bungled a pandemic that has infected more than 9.5 million Americans and killed 234,000 so far. His failures and corruption will have a long tail, lingering for years over our culture, economy, and lives.

None of it will look better in retrospect.

And yet, he will go still holding sway over a disturbing number of our fellow Americans.

In closing, let me go to Professor Nichol one last time:

American voters, including those who didn’t show up or who voted third-party in 2016, are now like drunks who have been bailed out of jail in the morning, full of relief as their lawyers explain that the police aren’t pressing charges. If Biden wins, we will have a second chance to keep our democracy intact. Some of us will have a moment of clarity. Most of us will just want to go home, throw up, change our clothes, and hope for the best. But many millions, eyes dimming and livers failing, are still reaching for the bottle.

Welcome to Al-Anon, your home for the next four years.

********

Photo: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), starring Jack Nicholson, directed by Milos Forman, based on the novel by Ken Kesey. Trump was pissed his part got cut. “He was just way too Method,” recalled Nicholson.)

One thought on “America Is a Lot Sicker Than We Wanted to Believe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s