If You Care About American Democracy and the Truth

The Atlantic magazine isn’t afraid to publish long articles. Today they published one that every American who cares about the future of this country should read, or at least skim (or, if you happen to be reading this, trust your humble blogger to summarize. The Atlantic article is 13,000 words long. This post, with my contributions in italics, is 2,600).

The article is called “T____’s Next Coup Has Already Begun”. Its subtitle is “January 6 was practice. [The] GOP is much better positioned to subvert the next election”. Its author is Barton Gellman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. It’s truly scary if you care about democracy. Here’s how it begins:

Technically, the next attempt to overthrow a national election may not qualify as a coup. It will rely on subversion more than violence, although each will have its place. If the plot succeeds, the ballots cast by American voters will not decide the presidency in 2024. Thousands of votes will be thrown away, or millions, to produce the required effect. The winner will be declared the loser. The loser will be certified president-elect.

The prospect of this democratic collapse is not remote. People with the motive to make it happen are manufacturing the means. Given the opportunity, they will act. They are acting already.

Who or what will safeguard our constitutional order is not apparent today. It is not even apparent who will try. Democrats, big and small D, are not behaving as if they believe the threat is real. Some of them, including President Joe Biden, have taken passing rhetorical notice, but their attention wanders. They are making a grievous mistake.

“The democratic emergency is already here,” Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law and political science at UC Irvine, told me in late October. Hasen prides himself on a judicious temperament. Only a year ago he was cautioning me against hyperbole. Now he speaks matter-of-factly about the death of our body politic. “We face a serious risk that American democracy as we know it will come to an end in 2024,” he said, “but urgent action is not happening.”

For more than a year now, with tacit and explicit support from their party’s national leaders, state Republican operatives have been building an apparatus of election theft. Elected officials in Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and other states have studied D____ T____’s crusade to overturn the 2020 election. They have noted the points of failure and have taken concrete steps to avoid failure next time. Some of them have rewritten statutes to seize partisan control of decisions about which ballots to count and which to discard, which results to certify and which to reject. They are driving out or stripping power from election officials who refused to go along with the plot last November, aiming to replace them with exponents of the Big Lie. They are fine-tuning a legal argument that purports to allow state legislators to override the choice of the voters.

By way of foundation for all the rest, T____ and his party have convinced a dauntingly large number of Americans that the essential workings of democracy are corrupt, that made-up claims of fraud are true, that only cheating can thwart their victory at the polls, that tyranny has usurped their government, and that violence is a legitimate response.

Any Republican might benefit from these machinations, but let’s not pretend there’s any suspense. Unless biology intercedes, D____ T____ will seek and win the Republican nomination for president in 2024. The party is in his thrall. No opponent can break it and few will try. Neither will a setback outside politics—indictment, say—prevent T____ from running. If anything, it will redouble his will to power.

As we near the anniversary of January 6, investigators are still unearthing the roots of the insurrection that sacked the Capitol and sent members of Congress fleeing for their lives. What we know already, and could not have known then, is that the chaos wrought on that day was integral to a coherent plan. In retrospect, the insurrection takes on the aspect of rehearsal.

Even in defeat, T____ has gained strength for a second attempt to seize office, should he need to, after the polls close on November 5, 2024. It may appear otherwise—after all, he no longer commands the executive branch, which he tried and mostly failed to enlist in his first coup attempt. Yet the balance of power is shifting his way in arenas that matter more.

T____ is successfully shaping the narrative of the insurrection in the only political ecosystem that matters to him. The immediate shock of the event, which briefly led some senior Republicans to break with him, has given way to a near-unanimous embrace. Virtually no one a year ago, certainly not I, predicted that T____ could compel the whole party’s genuflection to the Big Lie and the recasting of insurgents as martyrs. Today the few GOP dissenters are being cast out. “2 down, 8 to go!” T____ gloated at the retirement announcement of Representative Adam Kinzinger, one of 10 House Republicans to vote for his second impeachment.

T____ has reconquered his party by setting its base on fire. Tens of millions of Americans perceive their world through black clouds of his smoke. His deepest source of strength is the bitter grievance of Republican voters that they lost the White House, and are losing their country, to alien forces with no legitimate claim to power. This is not some transient or loosely committed population. T____ has built the first American mass political movement in the past century that is ready to fight by any means necessary, including bloodshed, for its cause.

Gellman then writes in detail about a typical proponent of the Big Lie: a retired New York City Fire Department captain, 61 years old, who has no doubts about the 2020 election:

“There ain’t no fucking way we are letting go of 3 November 2020,” he said. “That is not going to fucking happen. That’s not happening. This motherfucker was stolen. The world knows this bumbling, senile, career corrupt fuck squatting in our White House did not get 81 million votes.”

This retired fire fighter is totally immersed in the Big Lie and related propaganda. Gellman then explains who showed up in Washington on January 6 and are among the Big Lie’s most ardent supporters:

The findings were counterintuitive. Counties won by T____ in the 2020 election were less likely than counties won by Biden to send an insurrectionist to the Capitol. The higher T____’s share of votes in a county, in fact, the lower the probability that insurgents lived there. Why would that be? Likewise, the more rural the county, the fewer the insurgents. The researchers tried a hypothesis: Insurgents might be more likely to come from counties where white household income was dropping. Not so. Household income made no difference at all.

Only one meaningful correlation emerged. Other things being equal, insurgents were much more likely to come from a county where the white share of the population was in decline. For every one-point drop in a county’s percentage of non-Hispanic whites from 2015 to 2019, the likelihood of an insurgent hailing from that county increased by 25 percent. This was a strong link, and it held up in every state. . . . 

What [researchers saw] in these results did not fit the government model of lone wolves and small groups of extremists. “This really is a new, politically violent mass movement,” he told me. “This is collective political violence.”

In other words, white people, average age 40, who think they, the real Americans, are being replaced by people with darker skins. It turns out that Gellman’s NYFD retiree fits the bill. He lives in The Bronx, an urban area with changing demographics, and is filled with resentments about minorities being given preferential treatment (even though he got a job with the NY City Fire Department and rose to the rank of captain).

Next, Gellman delves into the way T____, his lawyers and supporters tried to fix the 2020 election by getting courts and state legislatures to intervene and by interfering with the election’s certification by Congress on January 6. T____ and his movement didn’t get it done, but learned a lot in the process. They plan to do much better next time:

A year ago I asked the Princeton historian Kevin Kruse how he explained the integrity of the Republican officials who said no, under pressure, to the attempted coup in 2020 and early ’21. “I think it did depend on the personalities,” he told me. “I think you replace those officials, those judges, with ones who are more willing to follow the party line, and you get a different set of outcomes.”

Today that reads like a coup plotter’s to-do list. Since the 2020 election, Trump’s acolytes have set about methodically identifying patches of resistance and pulling them out by the roots. Brad Raffensperger in Georgia, who refused to “find” extra votes for Trump? Formally censured by his state party, primaried, and stripped of his power as chief election officer. Aaron Van Langevelde in Michigan, who certified Biden’s victory? Hounded off the Board of State Canvassers. Governor Doug Ducey in Arizona, who signed his state’s “certificate of ascertainment” for Biden? T____ has endorsed a former Fox 10 news anchor named Kari Lake to succeed him, predicting that she “will fight to restore Election Integrity (both past and future!).” Future, here, is the operative word. Lake says she would not have certified Biden’s victory in Arizona, and even promises to revoke it (somehow) if she wins. None of this is normal.

Arizona’s legislature, meanwhile, has passed a law forbidding Katie Hobbs, the Democratic secretary of state, to take part in election lawsuits, as she did at crucial junctures last year. The legislature is also debating an extraordinary bill asserting its own prerogative, “by majority vote at any time before the presidential inauguration,” to “revoke the secretary of state’s issuance or certification of a presidential elector’s certificate of election.” There was no such thing under law as a method to “decertify” electors when T____ demanded it in 2020, but state Republicans think they have invented one for 2024.

In at least 15 more states, Republicans have advanced new laws to shift authority over elections from governors and career officials in the executive branch to the legislature. Under the Orwellian banner of “election integrity,” even more have rewritten laws to make it harder for Democrats to vote. Death threats and harassment from T____ supporters have meanwhile driven nonpartisan voting administrators to contemplate retirement. . . . 

Amid all this ferment, T____’s legal team is fine-tuning a constitutional argument that is pitched to appeal to a five-justice majority if the 2024 election reaches the Supreme Court. This, too, exploits the GOP advantage in statehouse control. Republicans are promoting an “independent state legislature” doctrine, which holds that statehouses have “plenary,” or exclusive, control of the rules for choosing presidential electors. Taken to its logical conclusion, it could provide a legal basis for any state legislature to throw out an election result it dislikes and appoint its preferred electors instead. . . . 

Four justices—Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Clarence Thomas—have already signaled support for a doctrine that disallows any . . .  deviation from the [explicit] election rules passed by a state legislature [such as a judge extending voting hours]. It is an absolutist reading of legislative control over the “manner” of appointing electors under Article II of the U.S. Constitution. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s last appointee, has never opined on the issue. . . . 

T____ is not relying on the clown-car legal team that lost nearly every court case last time. The independent-state-legislature doctrine has a Federalist Society imprimatur and attorneys from top-tier firms like Baker Hostetler. A dark-money voter-suppression group that calls itself the Honest Elections Project has already featured the argument in an amicus brief.

“One of the minimal requirements for a democracy is that popular elections will determine political leadership,” Nate Persily, a Stanford Law School expert on election law, told me. “If a legislature can effectively overrule the popular vote, it turns democracy on its head.” Persily and UC Irvine’s Hasen, among other election-law scholars, fear that the Supreme Court could take an absolutist stance that would do exactly that.

Gellman’s conclusion:

There is a clear and present danger that American democracy will not withstand the destructive forces that are now converging upon it. Our two-party system has only one party left that is willing to lose an election. The other is willing to win at the cost of breaking things that a democracy cannot live without.

Democracies have fallen before under stresses like these, when the people who might have defended them were transfixed by disbelief. If ours is to stand, its defenders have to rouse themselves. . . . 

Biden’s list of remedies [is] short and grossly incommensurate with the challenge. He expressed support for two bills—the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act—that were dead on arrival in the Senate because Democrats had no answer to the Republican filibuster. He said the attorney general would double the Department of Justice staff devoted to voting-rights enforcement. Civil-rights groups would “stay vigilant.” Vice President Kamala Harris would lead “an all-out effort to educate voters about the changing laws, register them to vote, and then get the vote out.”

And then he mentioned one last plan that proved he did not accept the nature of the threat: “We will be asking my Republican friends—in Congress, in states, in cities, in counties—to stand up, for God’s sake, and help prevent this concerted effort to undermine our elections and the sacred right to vote.”

So: enforcement of inadequate laws, wishful thinking about new laws, vigilance, voter education, and a friendly request that Republicans stand athwart their own electoral schemes.

Conspicuously missing from Biden’s speech was any mention even of filibuster reform, without which voting-rights legislation is doomed. Nor was there any mention of holding T____ and his minions accountable, legally, for plotting a coup. . . .  Absent consequences, they will certainly try again. An unpunished plot is practice for the next.

T____ came closer than anyone thought he could to toppling a free election a year ago. He is preparing in plain view to do it again, and his position is growing stronger. Republican acolytes have identified the weak points in our electoral apparatus and are methodically exploiting them. They have set loose and now are driven by the animus of tens of millions of aggrieved T____ supporters who are prone to conspiracy thinking, embrace violence, and reject democratic defeat. Those supporters, [the] “committed insurrectionists,” are armed and single-minded and will know what to do the next time T____ calls upon them to act.

Democracy will be on trial in 2024. A strong and clear-eyed president, faced with such a test, would devote his presidency to meeting it. Biden knows better than I do what it looks like when a president fully marshals his power and resources to face a challenge. It doesn’t look like this.

The midterms, marked by gerrymandering, will more than likely tighten the GOP’s grip on the legislatures in swing states. The Supreme Court may be ready to give those legislatures near-absolute control over the choice of presidential electors. And if Republicans take back the House and Senate, . . .  the GOP will be firmly in charge of counting the electoral votes.

Against Biden or another Democratic nominee, D____ T____ may be capable of winning a fair election in 2024. He does not intend to take that chance.

Unquote.

Maybe the president, the vice president, the attorney general, your senators, your member of Congress, your governor, your state legislators and people you know personally need to be more concerned about what’s happening and do something, anything, to stop it. There’s no better time than the present to act.

Presidential Approval in a New Gilded Age

I wrote about a long book last month, The Republic For Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865 – 1896, and noted how some of that period’s major issues were much like ours. Jamelle Bouie of The New York Times writes about Biden’s approval rating and how its recent decline of roughly 11% shouldn’t be surprising. (The hysterical reaction to our withdrawal from Afghanistan was a major factor.)

One of the most consistent findings from the past 20 years of public opinion research is that each new president is more divisive than the last. George W. Bush was more divisive than Bill Clinton; Barack Obama was more divisive than Bush; D___ T___ was more divisive than Obama; and Biden may well end up more divisive than T___, at least in terms of approval rating by partisan affiliation. Some of this reflects circumstances, some of it reflects the individuals, but most of it is a function of partisan and ideological polarization. Modern presidents have a high floor for public opinion but a low ceiling. [I think he means their approval ratings stay in a narrow middle range, not very low and not very high.]

This is a major change from the 1970s and 1980s, when the public was less polarized and numbers could swing from the low 30s (even the 20s) to the high 60s and beyond. At the peak of his popularity, in the wake of the Persian Gulf War of 1991, George H.W. Bush had a job approval rating of 89 percent, including 82 percent among Democrats and 88 percent among independents. Those numbers are just not possible in today’s environment.

Biden’s slide is noteworthy, but it is also exactly what we should expect given the structural conditions of American politics in the 21st century. But this cuts against the unstated assumption that a president should have an approval rating above 50 percent. It’s an assumption that, as Sam Goldman, a professor of political science at George Washington University, observed, is “another example of how we’ve adopted the deeply exceptional midcentury interlude as our baseline — partly because it remains our vision of normality, and partly because that’s when reliable data start.”

The “deeply exceptional midcentury interlude” — roughly speaking the years between the end of World War II and the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 — is the source of a lot of our normative understandings of American politics, despite the fact that the conditions of that period are impossible to replicate. When politicians and political observers pine for an era of bipartisanship, they are pining for the 1950s and 1960s (and to an extent the 1970s).

If we were to look farther back in time, to say, the late 19th century, we might find an era that, for all of its indelible foreignness, is closer to ours in terms of the shape and structure of its politics, from its sharp partisan polarization and closely contested national elections to its democratic backsliding and deep anxieties over immigration and demographic change.

We don’t have polling data for President Grover Cleveland. But we do know that he won his victory in the 1884 election by 37 votes in the Electoral College and a half-a-percent in the national popular vote. His successor, Benjamin Harrisonlost the popular vote by a little less than 1 percent and won the Electoral College by 65 votes. Those narrow results suggest, I think, a similarly narrow spread for presidential approval — high floors, low ceilings.

American politics eventually broke out of its late-19th-century equilibrium of high polarization and tightly contested elections. In the 1896 presidential election, William McKinley became the first candidate in decades to win more than 50 percent of the popular vote, beating his Democratic opponent, William Jennings Bryan, by 4.3 percent. He won re-election in 1900 and after his assassination the following year, his successor, Theodore Roosevelt, would win in 1904 by the most lopsided margin since Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 re-election victory.

What changed in American politics to produce more decisive national victories? Well, that’s not a happy story. Suffrage restrictions of immigrants in the North, the rise of Jim Crow in the South, and the success of capital in suppressing labor revolt and setting the terms of political contestation had removed millions of Americans from the electorate by the turn of the 20th century. Political power was concentrated and consolidated in a bourgeois class (mostly) represented by the Republican Party, which, with the exception of Woodrow Wilson’s twin victories in 1912 and 1916, held the White House from 1897 to 1933. It would take another catastrophe, the Great Depression, to change that landscape.

As for the tectonic force that might break our partisan and ideological stalemate? It is impossible to say. Oftentimes in history, things seem stable until, suddenly, they aren’t.

Unquote.

We might think their failure to deal with the pandemic, now amounting to actual sabotage, would destroy the approval ratings of Republican officials. Or their refusal to accept Biden’s win, followed by insurrection at the Capitol, which some of them now celebrate. Or their longstanding denial of the climate crisis. Or coddling the rich. But none of that seems to be making a difference, not these days.

This Really Is Breaking News

There’s talk about the impeachment trial ending this weekend, but that might not be possible. New accounts of what happened are appearing daily. In terms of the impeachment, this story is, to put it mildly, explosive. Maybe some Republicans in Congress want to give members of their party the courage to convict and disqualify the creep. That could result in the House managers calling witnesses. From CNN:

In an expletive-laced phone call with House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy while the Capitol was under attack, then-President Donald Trump said the rioters cared more about the election results than McCarthy did.

“Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” Trump said, according to lawmakers who were briefed on the call afterward by McCarthy.

McCarthy insisted that the rioters were Trump’s supporters and begged Trump to call them off.

Trump’s comment set off what Republican lawmakers familiar with the call described as a shouting match between the two men. A furious McCarthy told the President the rioters were breaking into his office through the windows, and asked Trump, “Who the f–k do you think you are talking to?” according to a Republican lawmaker familiar with the call.

The newly revealed details of the call, described to CNN by multiple Republicans briefed on it, provide critical insight into the President’s state of mind as rioters were overrunning the Capitol. The existence of the call and some of its details have been previously reported and discussed publicly by McCarthy.

The Republican members of Congress said the exchange showed Trump had no intention of calling off the rioters even as lawmakers were pleading with him to intervene. Several said it amounted to a dereliction of his presidential duty.

“He is not a blameless observer, he was rooting for them,” a Republican member of Congress said. “On January 13, Kevin McCarthy said on the floor of the House that the President bears responsibility and he does.”

Speaking to the President from inside the besieged Capitol, McCarthy pressed Trump to call off his supporters and engaged in a heated disagreement about who comprised the crowd. Trump’s comment about the would-be insurrectionists caring more about the election results than McCarthy did was first mentioned by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican from Washington state, in a town hall earlier this week, and was confirmed to CNN by Herrera Beutler and other Republicans briefed on the conversation.

“You have to look at what he did during the insurrection to confirm where his mind was at,” Herrera Beutler, one of 10 House Republicans who voted last month to impeach Trump, told CNN. “That line right there demonstrates to me that either he didn’t care, which is impeachable, because you cannot allow an attack on your soil, or he wanted it to happen and was OK with it, which makes me so angry.”

“We should never stand for that, for any reason, under any party flag,” she added, voicing her extreme frustration: “I’m trying really hard not to say the F-word.”

“I think it speaks to the former President’s mindset,” said Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, an Ohio Republican who also voted to impeach Trump last month. “He was not sorry to see his unyieldingly loyal vice president or the Congress under attack by the mob he inspired. In fact, it seems he was happy about it or at the least enjoyed the scenes that were horrifying to most Americans across the country.”

As senators prepare to determine Trump’s fate, multiple Republicans thought the details of the call were important to the proceedings because they believe it paints a damning portrait of Trump’s lack of action during the attack. At least one of the sources who spoke to CNN took detailed notes of McCarthy’s recounting of the call.

Trump and McCarthy did not respond to requests for comment.

It took Trump several hours after the attack began to eventually encourage his supporters to “go home in peace” — a tweet that came at the urging of his top aides.

At Trump’s impeachment trial Friday, his lawyers argued that Trump did in fact try to calm the rioters with a series of tweets while the attack unfolded. But his lawyers cherry-picked his tweets, focusing on his request for supporters to “remain peaceful” without mentioning that he also attacked then-Vice President Mike Pence and waited hours to explicitly urge rioters to leave the Capitol.

It’s unclear to what extent these new details were known by the House Democratic impeachment managers or whether the team considered calling McCarthy as a witness. The managers have preserved the option to call witnesses in the ongoing impeachment trial, although that option remains unlikely as the trial winds down.

The House Republican leader had been forthcoming with his conference about details of his conversations with Trump on and after January 6.

Trump himself has not taken any responsibility in public. [Actually, he’s said his behavior was “totally appropriate”.]

The Only Thing He Didn’t Say

It’s not a criminal trial and he isn’t charged with a crime. The legal requirement to prove somebody incited a riot isn’t relevant (although this case, beyond a reasonable doubt, meets that requirement). This is the formal evaluation of a leader who took an oath to faithfully execute his office. The senators are supposed to determine whether he lived up to that oath and should ever hold a similar office again.

Nor is he “some guy” who showed up at a demonstration and made a speech. Rep. Jamie Raskin explained today why the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech doesn’t apply to a government official, even a public school teacher, who says inflammatory things and as a result loses their job. It certainly doesn’t apply to a president of the United States who continuously lies about the result of an election and tells an angry crowd to go to the Capitol in a last ditch effort to stop the legitimate transfer of power.

The only thing going for the defense — aside from the fact that the jurors aren’t impartial and don’t get to cast secret ballots — is that the creep didn’t explicitly say something like “Now I want you to go to the Capitol and do whatever you can to get inside the building and stop the certification”, followed by “It’s crucial to the future of our country that you show no mercy”.

Mob bosses rarely give such explicit orders. Prosecutors don’t need a boss to have issued explicit instructions to rub somebody out if the boss said enough to get the job done. Bosses say things like “take care of it” or “you know what to do” or “he brought this on himself”. In this case, a leader told his followers to “stop the steal”, “fight like hell” and “be strong or you won’t have a country anymore”. This was at the very moment, a few blocks away, that Congress was doing something he’d fought against every way possible for months. 

So we can all take a break tomorrow when the creep’s lawyers spin their web of distraction and deceit. If you watch much of it, good luck and congratulations on your fortitude.

The “And” Defense Doesn’t Work

I’m trying to say less about our former president and his minions — including the entire Republican Party — now that they have a lesser role in our lives, but a correction to the previous post is in order. Therein I considered the argument that a president cannot be impeached after leaving office because of the way the Constitution is worded. Two law professors explain why this is clearly wrong (I apologize for not noticing what they point out):

. . . Some have argued that the constitutional clause providing that “Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust, or Profit under the United States” implies that any consequence of conviction must consist of both removal and disqualification from future office — which could happen only in the case of sitting officers.

That is not what the clause says. It says the judgment may not “extend further” than these two sanctions. It does not say that both sanctions must be imposed in every case. Indeed, most convictions over the years involved only one, removal from office.

Clearly, if punishment cannot extend beyond X and Y, it means that X and Y are both allowed, but nothing else is. The Senate can’t add punishment Z to the mix, but they can apply either X or Y or the two together.

In this particular president’s case, it means that, although it’s too late to remove him from office, he can be barred from a future government position. Unfortunately, however, he can’t be forced to shave his head and wear a dunce cap.

Despite the above, Republican senators will still argue that he’s beyond punishment. They fear the former president’s radical supporters. But it’s good to understand why they’re wrong about the Constitution.

(Note: I still say we need to add “andor” to English, so we can easily say “this andor that”, while leaving “and” to mean “both” and “or” to mean “either this or that, but not both”.)