There May Be No Bottom

Now that the voters have almost certainly chosen Joe Biden as our next president, I looked at some of the stories I’ve been avoiding. These are all headlines from The Atlantic:

“A Large Portion of the Electorate Chose the Sociopath: America will have to contend with that fact.”

“The American System Is Broken: It should not take the largest voter turnout in U.S. history to guarantee that a president rejected by the majority . . .  stops being president.”

“Trump Is Powerless to Stop the Count: The president has run up against something he cannot control.”

“The Polling Crisis Is a Catastrophe for American Democracy: If public-opinion data are unreliable, we’re all flying blind.”

But there are two articles that are especially disturbing. The first is “Trump Won’t Accept Defeat. Ever: His forever campaign is just getting started” by Anne Applebaum:

While you watch Dxxxx Txxxx’s presidency stagger to what appears to be its ugly end, always keep in mind how it began: Txxxx entered the political world on the back of the “birther” conspiracy theory, a movement whose importance was massively underestimated at the time. Aside from its racist undertones, think about what a belief in birtherism really implied. If you doubted that Barack Obama was born in the United States—and about a third of Americans did, including 72 percent of registered Republicans—then that meant you also believed that Obama was an illegitimate president. That meant, in other words, you believed that everyone—the entire American political, judicial, and media establishment, including the White House and Congress, the federal courts and the FBI, all of them—was complicit in a gigantic plot to swindle the public into accepting this false commander-in-chief. A third of Americans had so little faith in American democracy, broadly defined, they were willing to think that Obama’s entire presidency was a fraud.

That third of Americans went on to become Txxxx’s base. Over four years, they continued to applaud him, no matter what he did, not because they necessarily believed everything he said, but often because they didn’t believe anything at all. If everything is a scam, who cares if the president is a serial liar? If all American politicians are corrupt, then so what if the president is too? If everyone has always broken the rules, then why can’t he do that too? No wonder they didn’t object when Txxxx’s White House defied congressional subpoenas with impunity, or when he used the Department of Justice to pursue personal vendettas, or when he ignored ethics guidelines and rules about security clearances, or when he fired watchdogs and inspectors general. . . . 

Not all of this was Txxxx’s doing. Many Americans had lost trust in democratic institutions long before he arrived on the scene. One recent survey showed that half of the country is dissatisfied with our political system; one-fifth told pollsters that they would be happy to live under military rule. Txxxx not only exploited this democratic deficit to win the White House, but he expanded it while in office. And now his political, financial, and maybe even emotional strategy requires him to damage America’s faith in its democracy further.

He is launching that strategy right now. . . .Txxxx is no good at governing, but he has long understood, with the intuition of a seasoned con man, how to create distrust, and how to use that distrust to his advantage. . . . 

Now, having spent months talking darkly about the rules being rigged against him, he has laid a set of traps designed to discredit and demean the electoral system so that some Americans, at least, lose their faith in it. This has been said by others, but it bears restating: That Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan did not finish counting their votes on Tuesday night is no accident. In all of these states, Republican legislators prevented their election boards from counting postal votes before Election Day. In the midst of a pandemic that Democrats take more seriously than Republicans do, after Txxxx himself told his followers that voting by mail was suspect, the partisan gap between in-person and postal voters was always likely to be stark.

Txxxx anticipated that vote totals might begin to shift in Joe Biden’s favor. That was why, when he spoke at 2:20 a.m. on Election Night, before results were even remotely clear, he declared the vote “a fraud on the American public” and announced that “we don’t want them to find any ballots at 4 o’clock in the morning and add them to the list.” That’s why Republicans had already launched a rash of frivolous lawsuits, designed to create the appearance that something was wrong. . . .

This is a carefully planned strategy, not a temper tantrum, and it may have several stages. The first could take the form of a Hail Mary pass, a brazen and illegal attempt to stay in office. . . . Both the rhetoric and the flurry of ridiculous lawsuits are intended to create a misleading impression of electoral fraud so deep that some Republican state legislators could even be tempted to ignore the ballots and simply appoint an Electoral College delegation to vote for Txxxx. The head of the Pennsylvania Republican Party mentioned this as one of his “options,” although the Republican majority leader of the state Senate explicitly shot that idea down.

But even if Txxxx’s Hail Mary pass quickly fizzles, even if his attempt to stay in the White House is drowned out by the reality of the vote count and a tsunami of “Biden won” headlines, that doesn’t mean Txxxx will admit that the election was fair—ever. . . . It is in Txxxx’s interest, and a part of the Republican Party’s interest, to maintain the fiction that the election was stolen. That’s because the same base, the base that distrusts American democracy, could still be extremely useful to Txxxx, as well as to the Republican Party, in years to come.

. . . Just as Txxxx once helped convince millions of Americans that Obama was illegitimate, so he will now seek to convince Americans that Biden is illegitimate. “Biden Is Fake” Facebook groups will be used to gin up Republican votes and support for Republican causes; emails with “Phony Biden” in the subject line will be used to raise money. Txxxx’s campaign has already blasted out a fundraising text with the following message: “Pres Txxxx & VP Pence: It’s so urgent we BOTH texted you. Dems & the Fake News want to STEAL this Election! 1000%-MATCH to FIGHT BACK! Act NOW” . . . Laura Ingraham of Fox News is already engaging and enraging her millions of followers by tweeting about the “continued abuse of our electoral system by corrupt Democrat officials.”

Other Republicans will join this cause, because they too can raise money and attract breathless fans by indulging that latent distrust. The newly elected senator from Alabama . . . Tommy Tuberville is already tweeting . . . that the Biden campaign is cheating: “It’s like the whistle has blown, the game is over, and the players have gone home, but the referees are suddenly adding touchdowns to the other team’s side of the scoreboard.” Never mind that the game is not over . . . Tuberville can now use the myth of Biden’s “illegitimacy” as an excuse not to cooperate with the new president, not to help pass any further pandemic-relief legislation, not to make the coming four years a success for Biden—or for America.

The Txxxx family being what it is, expect the illegitimacy myth to be exploited for commercial purposes too. Paradoxically, Txxxx’s loss may well increase the loyalty of his most ardent fans, who will be angry that he has been unfairly deprived of his rightful role. They will now become loyal purchasers of flags, ties, MAGA hats, maybe even degrees at a revived Txxxx University. They could become the customer base for Txxxx TV, a media company that will set itself up as the rival to [Fox News].

As the financial and legal pressures now bear down on Txxxx—the hundreds of millions of dollars he owes, the tax and fraud investigations that are on their way—he will need a political base more than ever. Expect Txxxx and his children to portray any and every legitimate legal action against them as political persecution: “They are trying to get me because I oppose the fake president.” Expect them to continue to seek headlines, day after day, with out-of-control press conferences, carried live on Txxxx TV, streamed on Facebook, featured on the front page of the New York Post. . . . 

Above all, though, the Biden illegitimacy myth will function as a prop for Txxxx’s own fragile ego. Unable to cope with the loss of the presidency, unable to accept that he was beaten, Txxxx will now shield himself from the reality of defeat by pretending it didn’t happen. His personal need to live in a perpetual fantasyland, a world where he is always winning, is so overpowering that he will do anything to maintain it. In his narcissistic drive to create this alternative reality, he will deepen divisions, spread paranoia, and render his supporters even more fearful of their fellow citizens and distrustful of their institutions. This is a president who never had America’s interests at heart. Do not expect loss to change him [or make him go away].

The second article is related: “Fox News Hits a Dangerous New Low: The most-watched news network in America is choosing to mislead its viewers about the state of the election” by Megan Garber:

Here are some of the things that happened yesterday evening on the most-watched news network in America: The minority leader of the House of Representatives announced, absolutely falsely and with no pushback, that “President Txxxx won this election.” A former speaker of the House argued that, in the name of democracy, the U.S. federal government should “lock up” state election workers. One of the most-watched TV hosts in the country implied to the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee that the GOP-controlled Pennsylvania legislature should override the will of the state’s voters to appoint its own electors. Lindsey Graham responded, gravely, “Everything should be on the table.”

Fox News, which spent years flattering Dxxxx Txxxx and his fictions, is finishing what it started. The network that first helped bring Txxxx to political power is now working—despite a fair election that seems poised, as of this writing, to be won by his opponent—to keep him there. Fox’s popular prime-time opinion programs, throughout this week, have functioned as a Txxxx-campaign ad by another means. But last night’s shows reached a dangerous new low. The Fox News Channel, this week, had the opportunity to reckon with reality; instead, the network chose to mislead its viewers about the state of the election, and to foment mistrust in the workings of the American electoral system more broadly. It chose the fate of Dxxxx Txxxx—and the ratings that come from the viewers who love him—over the fate of American democracy.

“As poll workers continue to slowly tabulate results,” Sean Hannity said last night, “we have serious reports of irregularities and fraud and not allowing vote counters to observe counting. Which is a matter of law. And they continue to come in, these reports, from all over the country.”

The reports have been coming from the Txxxx campaign itself. They have not been validated. They have been, in some cases, thoroughly debunked. “Txxxx,” The Washington Post noted yesterday, in an extensive summary of his campaign’s long-running attempts to claim voter fraud where there is none, “has offered no evidence that the election’s integrity has been compromised, and none has been found. In fact, cybersecurity experts in the Txxxx administration and local officials say the process has been smooth despite the unusual historic circumstance of a deadly pandemic.”

That did not stop the misinformation on the news network. On Wednesday evening, Laura Ingraham—who had spent part of the day in the White House with the Txxxx campaign—claimed that Democrats were trying to “destroy the integrity of our election process with this mail-in, day-of registration efforts, counting after the election is over, dumping batches of votes a day, two days, maybe even three days after an election.”

The election results trickled in as they did because the pandemic has changed the logistics of how Americans vote: New circumstances led to new systems, as they should. And the lag in vote counting is partially attributable to Txxxx himself: His campaign, operating on the conventional wisdom that in-person and same-day voting favors Republicans, spent months telling its base not to vote by mail. [And as noted above, Republican legislators in some states made sure the counting would be delayed.]

None of that was explained to Fox’s viewers. In fact, if you watched only Fox to get election results, as so many Americans do, you could reasonably forget that America is currently living through a steadily worsening pandemic. Instead, on Fox this week, “fraud” has been a refrain. Political actors who have various vested interests in a second term of Txxxx have filled the network’s air with baseless claims of Democrats’ malfeasance and, consequently, the wide-scale failures of a free and fair election.  . .  Fox’s viewers were . . . told, again and again, that an election whose outcome they might not like is the same thing as an election that has been stolen.

Senator Ted Cruz: “What we’re seeing tonight, what we’ve been seeing the last three days, is outrageous. It is partisan, it is political and it is lawless. We’re seeing this pattern in Democratic city after Democratic city, with the worst in the country right now is Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.”

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich: “You have a group of corrupt people who have absolute contempt for the American people, who believe that we are so spineless, so cowardly, so unwilling to stand up for ourselves, that they can steal the presidency … No one should have any doubt: You are watching an effort to steal the presidency of the United States.”

Senator Lindsey Graham: “The allegations of wrongdoing are earth-shattering … So Senate Republicans are going to be briefed by the Txxxx campaign Saturday, and every Senate Republican and House Republican needs to get on television and tell this story.”

[Their statements] worked to create a fog of uncertainty and indignation around the election. During an exceptionally fragile week in America, [they are] taking a line from Steve Bannon’s old playbook—flood the zone with shit—and modifying it for the present circumstances. They are flooding the zone with “fraud.”

They are also, in the process, undermining the “news” element of Fox News. [The] news-side anchors who have been leading much of the network’s election coverage this week, have spent much of their own airtime pushing back against daytime guests who have echoed the Txxxx campaign’s baseless claims of fraud. They have repeated the need for evidence when it comes to validating those claims; they have emphasized, as well, how absent that evidence has been. . . .

But those most basic efforts at checking the president’s lies mean little when, on the same network, powerful members of the United States government, encouraged by Fox’s opinion hosts, are talking openly about arresting poll workers and staging coups. . . .