Sinclair Lewis may or may not have written that "(w)hen fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." Regardless of who said it first, that sentiment has captured the revulsion many Americans have long felt when far right leaders cloak their bigotry, cruelty and anti-democratic policies in false patriotism and Christianity. As the tragedy of the Trump administration continues, it is evident that Lewis’s sentiment, while still resonant, should be modified somewhat. Under Trump, democratic rollback is wrapped in a clown suit and is carrying a smartphone.
The Democratic presidential debates on Wednesday and Thursday nights were without precedent. Twenty potential nominees, which did not even represent the full field, debated with each other over the course of two evenings. This field of twenty will be winnowed in the next months with a nominee emerging somewhere between April and mid-July of 2020. The debates are only one component of what will be a long campaign, but they are the most important and high profile to date.
The consensus that has emerged from Mueller’s statement his that rather than indict the President, he has given Congress a mandate to pursue impeachment. This allows Mueller to present himself like an institutionalist, suggesting that our Constitutional processes can kick into gear and right the wrongs of the Trump campaign administration. The problem with this ostensibly patriotic notion is that anybody who has been paying attention knows that congress will never remove Trump from office because there will never be 67 votes in the GOP controlled Senate to convict him. Thus, by pushing the responsibility to Congress, all Mueller really accomplishes is to create a political conundrum for Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House and leader of the Democratic Party in Washington. If Mueller was not aware of this, it is not because he eschews politics, but because he is appallingly ignorant. For that reason, it is likely he was aware of the consequence of what he was doing, which raises the question of why he did it.
Over the last few election cycles we have learned pretty definitively that we know a lot less about electability than we think we do. Our last two presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, were both viewed as axiomatically unelectable when they began their campaigns for the White House. Moreover, most candidates have both positive and negative and electoral traits so their overall electability becomes a post facto assessment rather than having any predictive value. For example, in 2016 Hillary Clinton was very electable until she wasn’t. Similarly, had John Kerry beat George W. Bush in 2004, the punditry would have explained that as a war hero with years of experience he was the perfect candidate, but he lost narrowly, so we have been told he was a northeaster liberal with limited charisma and therefore a week candidate. Given this, when somebody tells you they think a particular primary candidate is electable, what they usually mean is simply that they are supporting that candidate.
In the years since the 2016 campaign, various media figures and institutions, including the New York Times,haveapologizedfor their shoddy coverageof that election and of Donald Trump. The gist of these sentiments have been that media outlets made a mistake by allowing themselves to be pulled like moths to the flame that was Donald Trump’s strange, unconventional and sensational candidacy, while failing to give enough coverage to his primary opponents and creating a false equivalency between Trump’s scandals and those related to Hillary Clinton. Despite these mistakes, most of the media similarly botched their coverage of Attorney General William Barr’s letter to congressional leaders summarizing the final report by Special Investigator Robert Mueller.
The Mueller report is an important historical document that scholars will study closely in future decades, but as a political document it was always going to going to have a limited impact. Based on the indictments and information we have learned in the 20 months of the investigation, it is clear that Trump had, at the very least, an untoward relationship with Moscow that should make any American, regardless of party, deeply concerned. It was also clear that even if the report had called for indicting the entire Trump family, Trump’s Tweets about “witch hunts” and “no collusion” were going to be believed by the third or so of the American people that are now his praetorian guard.
It may be that in 2016, it was not Sanders who consolidated the anti-Clinton sentiment, but Clinton who consolidated the anti-Sanders sentiment. As the primaries went on voters who found Sanders too far left, did not like his inability and seeming unwillingnessto connect to non-white voters, or chafed at the sexism of many in his campaign, had nowhere to go but to Clinton. In 2020, according to this view, the vote that went to Clinton will be dispersed among all the other candidates while Sanders will hold his base. If that happens, Sanders will be in a very good position to win the nomination.
For decades, one America’s most valuable assets in the economic, security and foreign policy sectors, was its stability. This is why the dollar became the most trusted currency in the world and why the US was able to lead the way in crafting alliances and relationships that benefited our allies as well as ourselves. Trump has destroyed that stability. Today our European allies look at the Trump administration and recognize if the US can elect somebody like him once, it can do it again. The forces in American society that elected Trump are unlikely to go away simply because a Democrat wins an election in 2020. Those forces have been cultivated and activated by this administration and in the 2016 campaign, but they are here to stay. As long as that is true, the trans-Atlantic alliance is under threat and America can never be trusted the way it once was to honor its word and fulfill its commitments to its allies.
While recent events are a reminder that racism and anti-Semitism are problems that do not know partisan boundaries, the faux earnest concern about anti-Semitism from Republican leaders who have quietly sat through the festival of intolerance that is the Trump administration are not just hypocritical, but offensive. Those who see the anti-Semitism in Omar’s Tweets, but not in actions, associates and messages of the Trump administration, care about settling political scores, not about ridding America of this ancient, but sadly persistent, hatred.
During the past few weeks, two American billionaires have floated their name as presidential candidates. Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks, has indicated his interests in running an independent candidacy in 2020, while Michael Bloomberg, the former Mayor of New York City, has suggested he may run in the Democratic primary. At first glance, these two men seem to have a lot in common. Both of these men, who have built extremely successful businesses, are offering a message that their business skills make them uniquely poised to solve the problems facing the US while presenting a vision of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism that is popular among some segments of the educated elite, but has no traction beyond that. Additionally, both have attacked the more economically progressive elements within today’s Democratic Party. Lastly, they are both very unlikely to ever be President.
This means that rather than turning to our attention to who might win Iowa, which candidate is racking up the most endorsements, the latest great speech, gaffe or negative story about a candidate, we might be better off paying attention to a different set of issues. The question of whether or not the 2020 election is likely to be conducted freely, fairly and democratically is much more central to the future of our country than whether Kirsten Gillibrand or Corey Booker is in third place in Iowa or other such inside baseball campaign dynamics. The questions of which states are passing more restrictive voting laws, which of these laws are being upheld in the courts, why the federal government continues to do nothing to protect our elections from further Russian interference like what we saw in 2016, and the extent to which major media outlets traffic in lies and fear-mongeringare among the much extremely critical issues that too easily get overlooked as we all handicap the Democratic primary.
The impeachment hope rests on the belief that Mueller will find something out that is so extraordinarily bad about the President that almost half of the Republicans in the Senate will vote to remove Trump from office. To hold out hope that will happen is to believe that Republicans in positions of leadership do not already know about Trump’s involvement in Russia and will be shocked when they find out, but given the last two years that is not plausible. The only way Republican senators will vote to remove Trump is if their constituents demand it, but many Republican senators come from strongly red states where Trump is still quite popular.
As Donald Trump’s presidency careens into its third year leaving a wake of avarice, cruelty and enduring damage to American democracy and America’s standing in the world in its wake, it is still difficult for many Americans to believe this can go on much longer. Some hold out for Robert Mueller III to be a deus ex machina whose findings will lead to impeachment and removal from office for the President, but that is very unlikely. Others believe that the Donald Trump will tire of the office and the ongoing investigations and resign after securing a promise of a pardon from Mike Pence, who as vice-president would assume the presidency in such a circumstance, but that ignores the likelihood that Trump would then face legal problems from state Attorneys General, particularly in New York. Still others believe that Trump will lose the 2020 election. That is a real likelihood, but there is no certainty that Trump would leave office even if he loses. Despite all this, Trump will not be President forever. Ultimately, an election defeat in 2020 could push him out of office. Similarly, if he is reelected, he would probably leave after his second term. Moreover, Trump is a man in his mid-seventies who is overweight, eats a poor diet and rarely exercises. There are some actuarial realities in that area that cannot be ignored.
For the second time in twenty years, a major national election outcome hangs in the balance as election officials in Florida count votes, bicker over the counting of the votesand, in some cases, try to prevent the counting of the votes. The stakes are different in 2018 from what they were in 2000. Eighteen years ago, the presidency itself would be determined by whether George W. Bush or Al Gore was awarded Florida’s electoral votes. Now a US Senate seat and the governorship are being contested. That is not the same as the presidency, but with the GOP likely to have a slim majority in the Senate, the difference of one seat there will make a difference. Additionally, given the history of voter suppression in Florida and the potential challenges around the recently passed Amendment Four, which returns voting rights to many felons who have served their time, the difference between a pro-voting rights Democrat and a voter suppression oriented Republican as governor could have a big impact in the 2020 when Florida will again be the country’s biggest swing state.
The turnout assertion is also intellectually lazy and, if believed, unhelpful for democracy. Focusing too much on turnout suggests that nothing else is important. If everything comes down to turnout, then there is no need to probe issues, look at why some voters are undecided or even to campaign outside of a party’s political base.
The murder of eleven people at the Tree of Life Synagogue was horrific. The were killed by a vicious anti-Semite who had proclaimed that “all Jews must die.” These killings are a terrible blew to the Squirrel Hill community in Pittsburgh, all Jewish Americans, and indeed our entire country. It also feels like a turning point for American Jews and for the slowly unfolding civil conflict in the US. The killings came only days after bombs were sent to several high profile critics of President Trump by a deranged supporter of the President. More importantly, it comes following weeks of Republican candidates, pundits and propaganda organizations warning the American people that a shady Jewish billionaire is funding caravans of brown people to invade our country. It also occurred during the presidency of a man who, despite his hawkish support for Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu campaigned on ancient anti-Semitic themes, has surrounded himself with anti-Semitic advisors and has never spoken out against the anti-Semites who are among his supporters.
With the midterm elections only two weeks away, we have seen Donald Trump return to his message that Democrats are committing widespread vote fraud, primarily through allowing non-citizens to vote in large numbers. For example, on October 20th, Trump Tweeted “All levels of government and Law Enforcement are watching carefully for VOTER FRAUD, including during EARLY VOTING. Cheat at your own peril. Violators will be subject to maximum penalties, both civil and criminal!” He has also riffed on this theme, which dovetails with Republican fear mongering around immigration in recent speeches. We should remember that implicit in all the right wing talk about caravans crossing the border, although not the border into the US, are that those people will come here and cast illegal votes for the Democratic Party.
Although the midterm election is almost upon us, many pundits have already begun to look towards the 2020 election. Correspondingly, something of a cottage industry has developed around earnest warnings that Donald Trump is in a good position to get reelected in 2020. These warnings are better understood as conservative talking points, or pundits enjoying sparking debate, rather than rigorous political analysis. While it is extremely unlikely that 2020 will be a Democratic landslide, the Democratic nominee, whoever that may be, will likely be in a much stronger position that these warnings indicate.
A good midterm for the Democrats is necessary for the future of democracy, but it will not solve all, or really virtually any, of our problems. A Democratic victory will bring some modest change, slow down the damage being done to our country and allow advocates for democracy to, metaphorically speaking, live to fight another day, but a Republican sweep will strengthen the emerging cult of Trump and perhaps take American democracy to a tipping point from which it cannot recover.
At the core of this very revealing, and for many upsetting, hearing was the radically different approaches the two parties take to knowledge. The Democratic Senators seemed comfortable is the realm of science and the reality that human memory is complex and that some moments remain deeply imprinted while others may fade away. The Republicans pursued a different course, one that was more grounded in a subjective sense of Kavanaugh’s character and honesty.