The Pessimistic View May Be Realistic

A headline this morning in The Washington Post:

Trump uses power of presidency to try to overturn the election

Fintan O’Toole is an Irishman who teaches at Princeton. This is two-thirds of his article for The New York Review of Books:

At 2:23 AM on the morning after Election Day, Txxxx turned the key and locked American democracy into an undetermined, perhaps indeterminable, condition. When he declared an election that was still very much alive to be a dead thing, over and done with—“Frankly we did win this election”—he made the United States a liminal space in which a supposedly epic moment in its history both happened and did not happen.

Txxxx has long framed the immediate post-election period as a temporal no-man’s-land. Neither in his first nor in his second campaigns for the presidency did he ever commit himself clearly to accepting the result of the vote. Asked in the third presidential debate of 2016 whether he would do so, he replied, “What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense. Okay?” What is being suspended now is both the disbelief of his supporters in the possibility of his defeat and the very concept of a transition of power.

In this frame of mind, there can never be a result of the 2020 election. One thing we can be sure of is that for Txxxx and his followers there are not five stages of grief, leading from denial to acceptance. The furthest their sense of it can go is to the second stage, anger. Just as there is “long Covid,” there is long Txxxx. The staying power of his destructiveness lies in the way that disputed defeat suits him almost as much as victory. It vindicates the self-pity that he has encouraged among his supporters, the belief that everything is rigged against them, that the world is a plot to steal from them their natural due as Americans.

He has created for them a wide space to occupy, that great prairie of paranoia that stretches between what happened and what really happened. What really happened is what always occurs in every Txxxx story: he won big. Losing, for Txxxx, is not possible. It is a category of humanity that he calls in The Art of the Deal “life’s losers.” As he exclaimed to his fans at one of his final rallies in Grand Rapids, Michigan, after showing them a video of Joe Biden stammering, “The concept of losing to this guy!” When you define your opponent as a contemptible wretch, that thought is inconceivable.

Usually, at this point, we get the postmortem. But there is no body. The malignant presidency of Dxxxx Txxxx seems moribund, but also vigorously alive. . . . We have, after all, already witnessed the Good Friday and Easter Sunday of Donald Trump. In a grotesque parody of the Christian narrative, Trump presented his contraction of Covid-19 not as a consequence of his own narcissistic recklessness but as a Jesus-like self-sacrifice—he caught the virus on behalf of the people. Trump “died,” was in the “tomb” of Walter Reed hospital for three days and then rose again and appeared to many. This fable seems to have worked for his supporters, electrifying them with its evidence of their leader’s indefatigability. The deaths of others—230,000 victims of Covid-19 by election day—did not prompt a turn against the president who presided over them. His base acted, rather, as the foil for his miraculous, manic display of vivacity in the last days of the campaign.

During the pandemic, Txxxx defied death but did not acknowledge it; Biden acknowledged death but did not pretend to defy it. Txxxx’s demeanor and bluster sought to suggest that the US had barely been touched by the virus, Biden’s to show that he himself had been deeply touched by the suffering it had inflicted. These were physical contrasts—swagger versus caution, masked against unmasked. But they also played out as starkly different attitudes toward death and time. Txxxx, at his first rally after his resurrection, posed as an immortal (“I went through it. Now they say I’m immune. I feel so powerful.”)

. . . Biden’s whole bearing, on the other hand, spoke of vulnerability and mortality. This dichotomy may have been accidental but is also highly expressive of a deeper divergence: autocracy (as it imagines itself) is forever; democracy’s outcomes are always temporary. This is where the election has ended up, as a clash between Txxxx’s immunity to its results and Biden’s fragile appeal to democratic decency.

It is impossible not to think, in this in-between moment, of Antonio Gramsci: “The crisis consists . . . in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born. . . .” Something is dying, but we do not yet know what. Is it the basic idea of majority rule or is it the most coherent attempt to destroy that idea since the secession of the Confederacy? Something is trying to be born, but we cannot yet say what it is either. Is it an American version of the “managed democracy” or “electoral autocracy” that is the most rapidly expanding political form around the world? Or is it a radically renewed republic that can finally deal with the unfinished business of its history? The old is in a state of suspended animation; the new stands at a threshold it cannot yet cross.

In 1974 upon his inauguration as president, just half an hour after the resignation of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford declared, “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.” [He] suggested that Nixon’s departure had left the country in a good place: “Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men.” With its institutions intact, the US could quickly return to its natural condition of mutual benevolence: “Let us restore the golden rule to our political process, and let brotherly love purge our hearts of suspicion and of hate” . . . .”

But long national nightmares do not end in real life as they do in Oz. Dxxxx Txxxx himself crawled out of Nixon’s political grave, more lawless, more shameless, more openly unhinged. And he will not lie down. Joe Biden, like Ford before him, hoped to arrive in the Oval Office, not just as a healer, but as an exorcist, driving out the evil spirits of suspicion and hate. For many of those who voted for him, the end of the Txxxx regime, like the banishing of Nixon, would prove that, after all, “our Constitution works.” There could be a great sigh of relief: the system has corrected itself. That was not really true in 1974 and it is emphatically false now. . . .

The American republic has come close to being overthrown by a discontented multimillionaire. Biden failed to say with sufficient force that America needed . . . to wake up to the urgent meaning of that threat. . . .

Its core appeal is necromantic. It promised to make a buried world rise again: coal mines would reopen in West Virginia, lost car plants would return to Detroit. Good, secure, unionized muscle jobs would come back. The unquestionable privilege of being white and male and native would be restored. Txxxx did not manage to do any of this, of course. But, in a sense, that very failure keeps the promise pure, unadulterated by the complexities of reality. We have seen in Txxxx’s triumph in Ohio and very strong performance in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania that it still has great purchase on the imagination of millions. . . .

Txxxx, in 2016, was the child in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” with the twist that rather than blurting out that the monarch was walking around naked, he shouted out the truth that, as a force capable of winning presidential elections, the Republican Party was extinct. He held its cadaver up before his baying crowds. And he presented himself as its sweet (or rather extremely sour) hereafter. Whatever else the 2020 election shows, it proves that he was right.

Txxxxism now is the GOP’s death warmed over. Like a political remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it has fully assimilated the outward appearances and forms of the dead Republican Party to a new body, a duplicate that looks the same but that has in fact been hollowed out. Txxxx’s White House speech on election night made explicit that what has been excised in this process is the most basic assumption of electoral democracy: that the majority wins and the minority, however, disappointed, accepts the legitimacy of its victory and its right to govern.

This invasion is thrilling for Republicans because it is also a kind of liberation. As the agonized tone of the 2013 autopsy report [commissioned by the party’s leadership] makes clear, the transformations of gender, class, race, and ethnicity necessary for them to be reborn as the voice of a genuine national majority, even if they had been possible, would have been extremely painful. Txxxx’s delivery of the death certificate freed the GOP from this torment. There was nothing to revive. What Txxxx stumbled on was that the solution to the party’s chronic inability to win a majority of voters in presidential elections was to stop trying and instead to embrace and enforce minority rule. This possibility is built into the American system. The electoral college, the massive imbalance in representation in the Senate, the ability to gerrymander congressional districts, voter suppression, and the politicization of the Supreme Court—these methods for imposing on the majority the will of the minority have always been available. Txxxx transformed them from tactical tools to permanent, strategic necessities.

As we are now seeing, the difference for a democracy is existential. A tactic of maneuvering to hold power against the wishes of the majority of voters is contingent, opportunistic, reactive. It is innately time-limited. It will advance when it can and retreat when it must. But when the tactic becomes the strategy, there can be no retreat. A program of consolidating the means by which a minority can gain and retain power must try to institutionalize itself, to become so embedded that it can withstand the majority’s anger. To do that, it must not merely evade the consequences of losing the popular vote in this or that election. It must, insofar as it can, make those elections irrelevant.

This is the most important thing to understand about the postmortem Republican Party. The logic is not that a permanently minority party may move toward authoritarianism but that it must. Holding power against the wishes of most citizens is an innately despotic act. . . . When Txxxx said on Fox & Friends at the end of March that Democrats want “levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” he was openly redefining the meaning of the vote. Voting, in this formulation, is something to be “agreed to”—or not—by Txxxx himself. Democracy is no longer rooted in the consent of the governed, but in the contingent permission of the indispensable leader.

In all the noise of the 2020 election, it was easy to miss the signal that was not being sent. The incumbent president made no effort even to go through the motions of presenting a future open to deliberation by citizens. He had no policy agenda for a second term—the GOP merely readopted its platform from 2016, without even bothering to delete its multiple attacks on “the current president.” Why? Because arguments about policy are the vestiges of a notion that Txxxx has killed off: the idea that an election is a contest for the support, or at least the consent, of a majority of voters. Such arguments implicitly concede the possibility that there is another, equally legitimate choice. That is precisely what the posthumous Republican Party cannot and does not accept.

This refusal is shaped by a functioning redefinition of “we, the people.” When Txxxx spoke on election night about “a fraud on the American public,” he meant that the “public” consists only of his voters. . . .

This is the election behind the election—the GOP’s decision to imaginatively dissolve the American majority and elect another. This has been done in two ways, coarsely and a little more subtly. The coarse method is to simply deny that the majority exists. This is what Txxxx did on election night and the probability is that his supporters believe it to be true. After the 2016 election, he obliterated the majority by claiming that “in addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” A plurality of his voters actually believed that there was no “if” about it. A Politico/Morning Consult poll of Txxxx voters in July 2017 found that 49 percent believed that he really did win the popular vote. Now, in 2020, it is not just that the majority does not count, it is that it is actively criminal, engaged as it is in a vast conspiracy to steal his victory.

This could be written off as the usual despotic delusion were it not buttressed by the slightly subtler method of choosing another “people.” The method is to shift between two implicitly contradictory meanings of the same word: elect. Without a capital E, it indicates what is supposed to happen in a democracy—all citizens can vote and whoever wins the most votes is the president. Capitalize the initial letter and it signifies the righteous, those chosen by God for salvation. . . .He himself generally does this in a secular form: the typical populist slippage from “the people” to “the real people.” Before he ran for president, when Txxxx tweeted about “Patriots,” it was almost always in relation to the football team. After 2015, it was almost always about the “great American patriots” who attend his rallies. The anti-Txxxx majority is neither great, nor patriotic, nor in fact American.

This exclusion overlaps with a religious version promulgated most notably by the attorney general, William Barr, according to whom religious belief is the entire foundation of the American political community, so those who are not religious (in a very narrow sense) cannot properly belong in the polity.

In effect, of course, the secular and religious versions overlap and support each other. The majority, deficient in both patriotism and sanctity, is unworthy. If it seems to have won, that can only be because, being outside the polity, it has subverted the real polity by fraud. To deny its validity is both patriotic and righteous. Voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the use of the Supreme Court to hand electoral victories to the Republicans are no longer dirty tricks. They are patriotic imperatives. They are not last resorts but first principles.

The great comfort of this mentality is that, when the majority can be conjured out of existence, so can the whole idea of defeat. The old norm, whereby the beaten party retreats into a period of reflection and considers why it lost, is gone. The only possible response to Biden’s apparent victory is that of Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost:

All is not lost; the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield . . .

If [Note: when] Txxxx is eventually removed from the Oval Office, the study of revenge and immortal hate, not sober self-criticism, will be the response in Txxxxworld. There will be no chastening, just a further injection of resentment and conspiracy-mongering.

This is zombie politics—the life-after-death of a former conservative party. And as Gothic stories tell us, it is very hard to kill the undead. One half of a two-party system has passed over into a post-democratic state. This reality has to be recognized, and a crucial aspect of that recognition is to accept that the claim Ford could make in 1974—“Our Constitution works”—no longer applies. After the long national nightmare of Watergate, America could rub its eyes and awaken to a renewed confidence in its system of checks and balances.

But the Txxxx presidency has been no nightmare. It has been daylight delinquency, its transgressions of democratic values on lurid display in all their corruption and cruelty and deadly incompetence. There may be much we do not yet know, but what is known (and in most cases openly flaunted) is more than enough . . . There can be no awakening because the Republicans did not sleep through all of this. They saw it all and let it happen. In electoral terms, moreover, it turns out that they were broadly right. There was no revulsion among the party base. The faithful not only witnessed his behavior, they heard Txxxx say, repeatedly, that he would not accept the result of the vote. They embraced that authoritarianism with renewed enthusiasm. The assault on democracy now has a genuine, highly engaged, democratic movement behind it.

. . . But Biden, by contrast, is explicitly transitory. In April he said: “I view myself as a transition candidate.”

His reasons did not need to be stated. . . . It is not just that a Biden presidency would, presumably, accept the limits placed on the office by constitutional propriety and common decency. It is that it is limited by the remorseless effects of time on the body.

Yet in this very temporal constraint, there is a danger. The idea of a transitional presidency implies a drawing of breath, a period of calm after the Txxxxian tempest, America as a giant field hospital devoted to the binding of wounds. This would be a reprise of Ford’s emollient speech in 1974: our self-correcting system has worked its magic and now we may all love one another again. Biden’s entire political persona has been shaping itself toward such a moment. But it cannot be. Txxxx will not allow it, and the whole structure of permanent minority rule that he has brought to the fore works against it. Biden must continue to fight Txxxx and, if and when he takes power, he must dismantle that structure, piece by piece.

The historic question that must be addressed is: Who is the aberration? Biden and perhaps most of his voters believe that the answer could not be more obvious. It is Txxxx. But this has been shown to be the wrong answer. The dominant power in the land, the undead Republican Party, has made majority rule aberrant, a notion that transgresses the new norms it has created. From the perspective of this system, it is Biden, and his criminal voters, who are the deviant ones. This is the irony: Txxxx, the purest of political opportunists, driven only by his own instincts and interests, has entrenched an anti-democratic culture that, unless it is uprooted, will thrive in the long term. It is there in his court appointments, in his creation of a solid minority of at least 45 percent animated by resentment and revenge, but above all in his unabashed demonstration of the relatively unbounded possibilities of an American autocracy. As a devout Catholic, Joe Biden believes in the afterlife. But he needs to confront an afterlife that is not in the next world but in this one—the long posterity of Dxxxx Txxxx.


Or maybe that’s too pessimistic. Maybe America will finally tame the virus, the economy will rebound, the Democrats will add seats in Congress, changes will be made in support of majority rule and the 2024 presidential election will be relatively sane. Otto von Bismarck was no dope and he once supposedly said: “God has a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America”. We shall see.