washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

October 8: Prospects For Post-Election Violence Are Bigger Than Trump

The President has been doing everything he can to make Election Night and the days and weeks afterwards a dangerous and potentially violent juncture. But as I noted at New York, there are real and powerful differences at work as well:

In the wake of the beer-hall ambience of this week’s first presidential debate, it’s probably no surprise that a new study suggests a coarsening of political attitudes among Americans. But researchers want to make it clear that it’s not just crude talk or combative rhetoric that’s on the rise: it’s a bipartisan trend toward condoning potential violence after the election. It’s unclear whether, or how, the president’s COVID-19 infection will affect the atmosphere — it could be sobering, or it could increase tensions even more — but as a symbol of perpetually unsettling times, it’s just more of the new normal.

The violence study was authored by an unusually distinguished and bipartisan group of researchers whose work involves studying Americans’ political attitudes. As they explain in Politico, “Late last year, we noticed an uptick in the number of respondents saying they would condone violence by their own political party, and we decided to combine our data sets to get as much information as possible on this worrisome trend.” What they found was indeed disturbing:

“In September, 44 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of Democrats said there would be at least ‘a little’ justification for violence if the other party’s nominee wins the election. Those figures are both up from June, when 35 percent of Republicans and 37 percent of Democrats expressed the same sentiment.”

Perhaps more important, there’s a hard kernel of politically engaged Americans who might be the first in the streets if things go really bad:

“There has been an even larger increase in the share of both Democrats and Republicans who believe there would be either ‘a lot’ or ‘a great deal’ of justification for violence if their party were to lose in November. The share of Republicans seeing substantial justification for violence if their side loses jumped from 15 percent in June to 20 percent in September, while the share of Democrats jumped from 16 percent to 19 percent.”

The numbers almost certainly reflect a steadily increasing bipartisan belief that the other side is preparing to seize the presidency by illegitimate means. Most of that is attributable to the president, who has been alleging over and over that Democrats plan to “rig” the election via manipulation of mail ballots. Trump’s subsequent refusal to say anything reassuring about his willingness to accept an election loss has produced a countervailing conviction among left-of-center observers that he is planning to contest the results if he loses, perhaps by a premature victory declaration on Election Night, or maybe by preventing the full counting of votes in the courts or even by force.

And even among those who don’t necessarily suspect the other side of plans to steal the election, there is a growing awareness that resolution of this election could drag on for an unprecedented length of time as the parties battle in court over a bumper crop of slowly counted mail ballots. If the presidential contest is as close as most expect, this period of post-election uncertainty could violently spill over into the streets. While the roughly one-in-five voters in the new study who think violence might well be justified may not themselves take to the barricades, there will clearly be a large enough pool of sympathizers to make large-scale conflicts possible. Even peaceful protests could turn ugly.

What can be done to turn down the temperature? The study’s authors clearly think it’s a leadership issue:

“Recent research on the United States reaffirms this timeless truth: Leaders play an essential role in fueling the fire or extinguishing the flames of violence among their followers. Preliminary studies show that messages from Biden or Trump denouncing all violence can reduce mass approval of violence.”

Biden has already done that, and it seems unlikely that after having spent months and months relentlessly undermining the legitimacy of the election Trump is going to say “Just kidding!” or even “Yes, the election is rigged, but nobody should get too upset over it!” Calming the waters really isn’t his style.

But while Trump is clearly the arsonist striking matches in a bone-dry forest, let’s not pretend that partisan and ideological polarization in this country is all artificial or cynically manufactured. Trump is a master of exploiting Americans’ existing divisions, which reflect significant disagreements on values and priorities. I won’t go through an exhaustive list, but a moment’s thought conjures up many. Many millions of Americans believe legalized abortion is an American holocaust, while many millions more view revocation of reproductive rights as a barbaric relic of ancient patriarchy that reduces women to brood mares under state supervision. There is a growing conviction on the left that climate change is an imminent threat to the survival of civilization, and a growing conviction on the right that the discussion of climate change is a ruse to justify the introduction of socialism. One large segment of the population thinks systemic racism against Blacks and other minority groups is a cancer eating at American society, breeding inequity and injustice. Another thinks that this is tantamount to the destruction of white people, aided by “political correctness” and “cancel culture” wiping out free speech.

And much more fundamentally, American conservatism is dominated by those who believe that the “inalienable rights” that make the country what it is include property rights, religious rights, gun rights, parental rights, and of course a fetal “right to life” — all based on divine will, natural law, and the wisdom of the Founders — that no majority, however large, should ever be allowed to traduce. And an increasingly alarmed and dominant faction of American progressives believe a coalition of economic and cultural reactionaries are successfully mastering the tools of institutional and economic power to frustrate the popular will and entrench their own power perpetually.

These are not beliefs and fears that you can talk away or resolve with a blue-ribbon commission, although that is what, predictably, the authors of the violence report suggested:

“The best hope now to tamp down support for this potential political violence is to establish an independent, bipartisan third force—a broad commission of distinguished leaders and democratic elders of both parties and of civil society. Its mission would be to reaffirm and defend our democratic norms, especially the critical principles that every valid vote should be counted and that political violence is never justified in the United States. Congress should immediately appoint such a commission.”

This is not the sort of thing that a deeply divided Congress is likely to do, and while harmless, the suggestion is based on the idea that there is general acceptance of what “democratic norms” mean at a time when the president and his party argue that “every valid vote” excludes many millions of mail ballots. But more basically, papering over partisan and ideological differences misses the essential point of why they exist.

Minimizing their significance is actually an insult to the very idea of principled activism. Conservatives are not wrong to recognize that massive demographic, technological, and cultural trends threaten a way of life they desperately want to preserve, and progressives are not wrong to recognize the old institutional arrangements that kept politics ostensibly “peaceful” were intended to maintain a deeply unjust status quo.

If the president has his way, we may find out this very year how rickety the old institutional arrangements for presidential elections are, and how violently large numbers of people care about the outcome. I pray we can avoid pitched battles in the streets, and if we are lucky, avoid a contested election. But let’s not pretend people are ready to take matters into their own hands because of a frivolous partisanship that has no place in America. If we’ve learned anything in this plague year, it should be that politics matter, and that (as Trump rightly said in the first debate) elections have consequences. Violence can indeed set our country on fire, but the kindling is all around us.


Prospects for Post-Election Violence Are Bigger Than Trump

The President has been doing everything he can to make Election Night and the days and weeks afterwards a dangerous and potentially violent juncture. But as I noted at New York, there are real and powerful differences at work as well:

In the wake of the beer-hall ambience of this week’s first presidential debate, it’s probably no surprise that a new study suggests a coarsening of political attitudes among Americans. But researchers want to make it clear that it’s not just crude talk or combative rhetoric that’s on the rise: it’s a bipartisan trend toward condoning potential violence after the election. It’s unclear whether, or how, the president’s COVID-19 infection will affect the atmosphere — it could be sobering, or it could increase tensions even more — but as a symbol of perpetually unsettling times, it’s just more of the new normal.

The violence study was authored by an unusually distinguished and bipartisan group of researchers whose work involves studying Americans’ political attitudes. As they explain in Politico, “Late last year, we noticed an uptick in the number of respondents saying they would condone violence by their own political party, and we decided to combine our data sets to get as much information as possible on this worrisome trend.” What they found was indeed disturbing:

“In September, 44 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of Democrats said there would be at least ‘a little’ justification for violence if the other party’s nominee wins the election. Those figures are both up from June, when 35 percent of Republicans and 37 percent of Democrats expressed the same sentiment.”

Perhaps more important, there’s a hard kernel of politically engaged Americans who might be the first in the streets if things go really bad:

“There has been an even larger increase in the share of both Democrats and Republicans who believe there would be either ‘a lot’ or ‘a great deal’ of justification for violence if their party were to lose in November. The share of Republicans seeing substantial justification for violence if their side loses jumped from 15 percent in June to 20 percent in September, while the share of Democrats jumped from 16 percent to 19 percent.”

The numbers almost certainly reflect a steadily increasing bipartisan belief that the other side is preparing to seize the presidency by illegitimate means. Most of that is attributable to the president, who has been alleging over and over that Democrats plan to “rig” the election via manipulation of mail ballots. Trump’s subsequent refusal to say anything reassuring about his willingness to accept an election loss has produced a countervailing conviction among left-of-center observers that he is planning to contest the results if he loses, perhaps by a premature victory declaration on Election Night, or maybe by preventing the full counting of votes in the courts or even by force.

And even among those who don’t necessarily suspect the other side of plans to steal the election, there is a growing awareness that resolution of this election could drag on for an unprecedented length of time as the parties battle in court over a bumper crop of slowly counted mail ballots. If the presidential contest is as close as most expect, this period of post-election uncertainty could violently spill over into the streets. While the roughly one-in-five voters in the new study who think violence might well be justified may not themselves take to the barricades, there will clearly be a large enough pool of sympathizers to make large-scale conflicts possible. Even peaceful protests could turn ugly.

What can be done to turn down the temperature? The study’s authors clearly think it’s a leadership issue:

“Recent research on the United States reaffirms this timeless truth: Leaders play an essential role in fueling the fire or extinguishing the flames of violence among their followers. Preliminary studies show that messages from Biden or Trump denouncing all violence can reduce mass approval of violence.”

Biden has already done that, and it seems unlikely that after having spent months and months relentlessly undermining the legitimacy of the election Trump is going to say “Just kidding!” or even “Yes, the election is rigged, but nobody should get too upset over it!” Calming the waters really isn’t his style.

But while Trump is clearly the arsonist striking matches in a bone-dry forest, let’s not pretend that partisan and ideological polarization in this country is all artificial or cynically manufactured. Trump is a master of exploiting Americans’ existing divisions, which reflect significant disagreements on values and priorities. I won’t go through an exhaustive list, but a moment’s thought conjures up many. Many millions of Americans believe legalized abortion is an American holocaust, while many millions more view revocation of reproductive rights as a barbaric relic of ancient patriarchy that reduces women to brood mares under state supervision. There is a growing conviction on the left that climate change is an imminent threat to the survival of civilization, and a growing conviction on the right that the discussion of climate change is a ruse to justify the introduction of socialism. One large segment of the population thinks systemic racism against Blacks and other minority groups is a cancer eating at American society, breeding inequity and injustice. Another thinks that this is tantamount to the destruction of white people, aided by “political correctness” and “cancel culture” wiping out free speech.

And much more fundamentally, American conservatism is dominated by those who believe that the “inalienable rights” that make the country what it is include property rights, religious rights, gun rights, parental rights, and of course a fetal “right to life” — all based on divine will, natural law, and the wisdom of the Founders — that no majority, however large, should ever be allowed to traduce. And an increasingly alarmed and dominant faction of American progressives believe a coalition of economic and cultural reactionaries are successfully mastering the tools of institutional and economic power to frustrate the popular will and entrench their own power perpetually.

These are not beliefs and fears that you can talk away or resolve with a blue-ribbon commission, although that is what, predictably, the authors of the violence report suggested:

“The best hope now to tamp down support for this potential political violence is to establish an independent, bipartisan third force—a broad commission of distinguished leaders and democratic elders of both parties and of civil society. Its mission would be to reaffirm and defend our democratic norms, especially the critical principles that every valid vote should be counted and that political violence is never justified in the United States. Congress should immediately appoint such a commission.”

This is not the sort of thing that a deeply divided Congress is likely to do, and while harmless, the suggestion is based on the idea that there is general acceptance of what “democratic norms” mean at a time when the president and his party argue that “every valid vote” excludes many millions of mail ballots. But more basically, papering over partisan and ideological differences misses the essential point of why they exist.

Minimizing their significance is actually an insult to the very idea of principled activism. Conservatives are not wrong to recognize that massive demographic, technological, and cultural trends threaten a way of life they desperately want to preserve, and progressives are not wrong to recognize the old institutional arrangements that kept politics ostensibly “peaceful” were intended to maintain a deeply unjust status quo.

If the president has his way, we may find out this very year how rickety the old institutional arrangements for presidential elections are, and how violently large numbers of people care about the outcome. I pray we can avoid pitched battles in the streets, and if we are lucky, avoid a contested election. But let’s not pretend people are ready to take matters into their own hands because of a frivolous partisanship that has no place in America. If we’ve learned anything in this plague year, it should be that politics matter, and that (as Trump rightly said in the first debate) elections have consequences. Violence can indeed set our country on fire, but the kindling is all around us.


October 2: Trump Still Preaching Only To His Choir

After pondering the first presidential candidate debate, I noticed a telling habit of Trump’s and wrote about it at New York:

Viewers who endured to the end of the first Biden-Trump presidential debate in Cleveland did not come away with the impression that either candidate was a modern-day Demosthenes; indeed, there were long stretches in which a complete sentence was not uttered. But unlike Joe Biden, who was as intelligible as most people his age when forced to stay up late, President Trump exhibited an increasingly visible habit of speaking in a sort of shorthand or code. National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty explains it very well:

“By far Trump’s most self-defeating habit in these debates is to refer to stories rather than tell them. He speaks as if he’s talking to people who, like himself, spend hours a day watching Fox News and have a shared folklore of scandal stories that can be referred to in shorthand. He refers to events, like ballots found in a wastepaper basket, but doesn’t tell the story of where they happened, or why they matter.”

Sometimes Trump adopts characterizations from conservative media that are axiomatic to their audiences, but not to puzzled undecided voters. A good example from the debate was the follow-up to Trump’s charge that Biden wants to eliminate private health insurance, which he hotly denied (unsurprisingly to anyone who watched the interminable discussions of Medicare for All in the Democratic primary debates). Trump’s riposte was not entirely in the English language:

“Joe, you agreed with Bernie Sanders, who’s far left, on the manifesto, we call it. And that gives you socialized medicine.”

Trump is alluding to the policy recommendations of the “unity task force” set up by Biden and Sanders in the wake of their primary fight. In a Wall Street Journal column someone must have clipped for Trump, former Republican senator Phil Gramm called the agreement a “manifesto,” and claimed that Biden was accepting Medicare for All “on an installment plan.” In fact, the “unity task force” recommendations and his own campaign’s plans don’t go in that direction at all, which produced some bitter disappointment among single-payer health-care fans at the time

But Trump wouldn’t let go of it during the debate:

President Donald J. Trump:

Listen, you agreed with Bernie Sanders and the manifesto.

Vice President Joe Biden:

There is no manifesto, number one.

Chris Wallace:

Please let him speak, Mr. President.

Vice President Joe Biden:

Number two.

President Donald J. Trump:

He just lost the left.

Vice President Joe Biden:

Number two.

President Donald J. Trump:

You just lost the left. You agreed with Bernie Sanders on a plan that you absolutely agreed to and under that plan … they call it socialized medicine.

Convinced that he had nailed Biden for abandoning an imaginary deal with “the left” that conservative media invented, Trump seemed very pleased with himself.

At another juncture, the president showed an impressive ability to telescope multiple conservative myths about crime policy:

President Donald J. Trump:

You did a crime bill, 1994, where you call them super-predators. African-Americans are super-predators and they’ve never forgotten it. They’ve never forgotten it.

Vice President Joe Biden:

I’ve never said …

Chris Wallace:

No, no, sir. It’s his two minutes.

President Donald J. Trump:

So you did that and they call you a super-predator and I’m letting people out of jail now, that you have treated the African-American population community, you have treated the black community about as bad as anybody in this country.

Conservative media have gleefully seized upon progressive criticism of Biden and the Clinton administration’s sponsorship of a 1994 comprehensive crime measure that, among many other things, toughened mandatory federal sentencing for drug offenders. The bill at the time was attacked by Republicans as weak and loaded with liberal social spending (e.g., “midnight basketball” programs), not to mention gun control. Biden indeed never referred to anyone as “super-predators” (a term actually devised by crime policy maven John DiIulio, who later worked in the Bush White House), and Hillary Clinton’s single use of the term for members of gangs working for drug cartels came two years later.

The idea that Biden locked up Black voters while Trump is “letting people out of jail” comes from the claim by Trump and his fans that his single step toward criminal-justice reform, his signature on the First Step Act, executed reluctantly after he stalled more substantial legislation for years, was of revolutionary significance. Indeed, the idea that Trump single-handedly opened prison doors has been reinforced by some conservative attacks on “his” legislation.

It’s hard to imagine anyone who wasn’t familiar with this elaborate backstory understanding that exchange between Trump and Biden. But it was crystal clear compared to what the president did when the subject of election integrity came up at the very end of the debate, when Wallace asked the candidates: “What are you prepared to do to reassure the American people that the next president will be the legitimate winner of this election?”

Biden went first and assured viewers that he’d accept an election loss once all votes were counted, and that Trump would have no choice but to do the same. Here’s how Trump responded:

“So when I listen to Joe talking about a transition [he really didn’t], there has been no transition from when I won. I won that election. And if you look at crooked Hillary Clinton, if you look at all of the different people, there was no transition, because they came after me trying to do a coup. They came after me spying on my campaign. They started from the day I won, and even before I won. From the day I came down the escalator with our First Lady, they were a disaster. They were a disgrace to our country, and we’ve caught them. We’ve caught them all. We’ve got it all on tape. We’ve caught them all. And by the way, you gave the idea for the Logan Act against General Flynn. You better take a look at that, because we caught you in a sense, and President Obama was sitting in the office.”

This is an elaborate reference to the conspiracy theory known as “Obamagate,” the claim that the former president — along with his Justice Department, law-enforcement leaders, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden — conspired to persecute the Trump campaign and administration (and notably former national security adviser Michael Flynn) with fake charges of collusion with Russia, partly to cover up their own treasonous interactions with shadowy foreign powers. It’s been the go-to conservative counterpunch in response to the many investigations of the president in Congress and elsewhere, but it’s really not something you can even begin to grok unless you watch a lot of conservative media, as the Guardian noted earlier this year:

“According to research compiled by the Internet Archive, analysed by GDELT and released on Wednesday, since last week Fox News and Fox Business have mentioned Flynn, the FBI and Obama far more often than the coronavirus.

“Nor has such coverage just been pursued by opinion hosts like Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson. Hosts of supposedly straight news content have happily followed suit.

“Critics and other media outlets have been quick to call out the supposed scandal, which the former Obama adviser David Plouffe called a ‘sideshow to distract from the shitshow.’”

After his Obamagate digression, Trump dealt with Wallace’s request (to which Biden responded positively) about reassuring viewers that the election results would be accepted by both candidates by saying: “It’s a disaster … this is going to be fraud like you’ve never seen.” And he then related an assortment of anecdotal claims about alleged mail-ballot fraud along with the big lie that Democratic-controlled states are sending out ballots “all over the place” in order to manufacture fake votes for Biden after Election Day.

Trump has himself been the trendsetter in this area of conspiracy-mongering, but what he is alluding to was laid out starkly in the reliably Trumpy journal The Federalist (among many, many examples):

“[W]hen you go to your local precinct to vote this fall, remember that coming behind in many states will be bags full of ballots from unseen persons. There will be no guarantee they’ll arrive on time. No, we will be told that the new system takes a little longer, with some likely tallied long after election day. And if the margin is narrow, is there any question as to which way the vote count will drift?

“More than this year’s election contests will be at stake. We may be witnesses to the end of election integrity.”

Trump and his acolytes have been discussing such lurid (if completely fabricated) scenarios for so long that it’s no wonder he feels little need to explain it methodically. And that’s his biggest problem, not just as a debater, but as a presidential candidate behind in the polls and struggling to deal with a dubious record. He seems incapable of talking to anyone who isn’t already a member of his base, familiar with its rituals, its catchphrases, and its eccentric view of history and current events. It’s likely far too late in this election cycle for him to change.


Trump Still Preaching Only To His Choir

After pondering the first presidential candidate debate, I noticed a telling habit of Trump’s and wrote about it at New York:

Viewers who endured to the end of the first Biden-Trump presidential debate in Cleveland did not come away with the impression that either candidate was a modern-day Demosthenes; indeed, there were long stretches in which a complete sentence was not uttered. But unlike Joe Biden, who was as intelligible as most people his age when forced to stay up late, President Trump exhibited an increasingly visible habit of speaking in a sort of shorthand or code. National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty explains it very well:

“By far Trump’s most self-defeating habit in these debates is to refer to stories rather than tell them. He speaks as if he’s talking to people who, like himself, spend hours a day watching Fox News and have a shared folklore of scandal stories that can be referred to in shorthand. He refers to events, like ballots found in a wastepaper basket, but doesn’t tell the story of where they happened, or why they matter.”

Sometimes Trump adopts characterizations from conservative media that are axiomatic to their audiences, but not to puzzled undecided voters. A good example from the debate was the follow-up to Trump’s charge that Biden wants to eliminate private health insurance, which he hotly denied (unsurprisingly to anyone who watched the interminable discussions of Medicare for All in the Democratic primary debates). Trump’s riposte was not entirely in the English language:

“Joe, you agreed with Bernie Sanders, who’s far left, on the manifesto, we call it. And that gives you socialized medicine.”

Trump is alluding to the policy recommendations of the “unity task force” set up by Biden and Sanders in the wake of their primary fight. In a Wall Street Journal column someone must have clipped for Trump, former Republican senator Phil Gramm called the agreement a “manifesto,” and claimed that Biden was accepting Medicare for All “on an installment plan.” In fact, the “unity task force” recommendations and his own campaign’s plans don’t go in that direction at all, which produced some bitter disappointment among single-payer health-care fans at the time

But Trump wouldn’t let go of it during the debate:

President Donald J. Trump:

Listen, you agreed with Bernie Sanders and the manifesto.

Vice President Joe Biden:

There is no manifesto, number one.

Chris Wallace:

Please let him speak, Mr. President.

Vice President Joe Biden:

Number two.

President Donald J. Trump:

He just lost the left.

Vice President Joe Biden:

Number two.

President Donald J. Trump:

You just lost the left. You agreed with Bernie Sanders on a plan that you absolutely agreed to and under that plan … they call it socialized medicine.

Convinced that he had nailed Biden for abandoning an imaginary deal with “the left” that conservative media invented, Trump seemed very pleased with himself.

At another juncture, the president showed an impressive ability to telescope multiple conservative myths about crime policy:

President Donald J. Trump:

You did a crime bill, 1994, where you call them super-predators. African-Americans are super-predators and they’ve never forgotten it. They’ve never forgotten it.

Vice President Joe Biden:

I’ve never said …

Chris Wallace:

No, no, sir. It’s his two minutes.

President Donald J. Trump:

So you did that and they call you a super-predator and I’m letting people out of jail now, that you have treated the African-American population community, you have treated the black community about as bad as anybody in this country.

Conservative media have gleefully seized upon progressive criticism of Biden and the Clinton administration’s sponsorship of a 1994 comprehensive crime measure that, among many other things, toughened mandatory federal sentencing for drug offenders. The bill at the time was attacked by Republicans as weak and loaded with liberal social spending (e.g., “midnight basketball” programs), not to mention gun control. Biden indeed never referred to anyone as “super-predators” (a term actually devised by crime policy maven John DiIulio, who later worked in the Bush White House), and Hillary Clinton’s single use of the term for members of gangs working for drug cartels came two years later.

The idea that Biden locked up Black voters while Trump is “letting people out of jail” comes from the claim by Trump and his fans that his single step toward criminal-justice reform, his signature on the First Step Act, executed reluctantly after he stalled more substantial legislation for years, was of revolutionary significance. Indeed, the idea that Trump single-handedly opened prison doors has been reinforced by some conservative attacks on “his” legislation.

It’s hard to imagine anyone who wasn’t familiar with this elaborate backstory understanding that exchange between Trump and Biden. But it was crystal clear compared to what the president did when the subject of election integrity came up at the very end of the debate, when Wallace asked the candidates: “What are you prepared to do to reassure the American people that the next president will be the legitimate winner of this election?”

Biden went first and assured viewers that he’d accept an election loss once all votes were counted, and that Trump would have no choice but to do the same. Here’s how Trump responded:

“So when I listen to Joe talking about a transition [he really didn’t], there has been no transition from when I won. I won that election. And if you look at crooked Hillary Clinton, if you look at all of the different people, there was no transition, because they came after me trying to do a coup. They came after me spying on my campaign. They started from the day I won, and even before I won. From the day I came down the escalator with our First Lady, they were a disaster. They were a disgrace to our country, and we’ve caught them. We’ve caught them all. We’ve got it all on tape. We’ve caught them all. And by the way, you gave the idea for the Logan Act against General Flynn. You better take a look at that, because we caught you in a sense, and President Obama was sitting in the office.”

This is an elaborate reference to the conspiracy theory known as “Obamagate,” the claim that the former president — along with his Justice Department, law-enforcement leaders, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden — conspired to persecute the Trump campaign and administration (and notably former national security adviser Michael Flynn) with fake charges of collusion with Russia, partly to cover up their own treasonous interactions with shadowy foreign powers. It’s been the go-to conservative counterpunch in response to the many investigations of the president in Congress and elsewhere, but it’s really not something you can even begin to grok unless you watch a lot of conservative media, as the Guardian noted earlier this year:

“According to research compiled by the Internet Archive, analysed by GDELT and released on Wednesday, since last week Fox News and Fox Business have mentioned Flynn, the FBI and Obama far more often than the coronavirus.

“Nor has such coverage just been pursued by opinion hosts like Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson. Hosts of supposedly straight news content have happily followed suit.

“Critics and other media outlets have been quick to call out the supposed scandal, which the former Obama adviser David Plouffe called a ‘sideshow to distract from the shitshow.’”

After his Obamagate digression, Trump dealt with Wallace’s request (to which Biden responded positively) about reassuring viewers that the election results would be accepted by both candidates by saying: “It’s a disaster … this is going to be fraud like you’ve never seen.” And he then related an assortment of anecdotal claims about alleged mail-ballot fraud along with the big lie that Democratic-controlled states are sending out ballots “all over the place” in order to manufacture fake votes for Biden after Election Day.

Trump has himself been the trendsetter in this area of conspiracy-mongering, but what he is alluding to was laid out starkly in the reliably Trumpy journal The Federalist (among many, many examples):

“[W]hen you go to your local precinct to vote this fall, remember that coming behind in many states will be bags full of ballots from unseen persons. There will be no guarantee they’ll arrive on time. No, we will be told that the new system takes a little longer, with some likely tallied long after election day. And if the margin is narrow, is there any question as to which way the vote count will drift?

“More than this year’s election contests will be at stake. We may be witnesses to the end of election integrity.”

Trump and his acolytes have been discussing such lurid (if completely fabricated) scenarios for so long that it’s no wonder he feels little need to explain it methodically. And that’s his biggest problem, not just as a debater, but as a presidential candidate behind in the polls and struggling to deal with a dubious record. He seems incapable of talking to anyone who isn’t already a member of his base, familiar with its rituals, its catchphrases, and its eccentric view of history and current events. It’s likely far too late in this election cycle for him to change.


September 30: Trump Clearly Threatens Election Coup in First Debate

I was ready to write a muddy assessment of the first Biden-Trump debate, until the last question, which got my attention, as I wrote about at New York:

Viewers fatigued by the first Trump-Biden debate and the endless cross-talking punctuated by fights between debate moderator Chris Wallace and the president may have missed the final topic and its significance. But it was potentially a bigger deal than anything else discussed. Directly challenged to forswear an early victory claim based on his plenary dismissal of the legitimacy of slow-to-be-counted mail ballots, Trump refused, instead suggesting that the U.S. Supreme Court (buttressed by his nominee Amy Coney Barrett) resolve the election, after tossing a word salad of nearly incoherent complaints about voting by mail.

CNN reports the critical exchange:

“’Will you urge supporters to stay calm during this extended period not to engage in any civil unrest and pledge tonight that you will not declare victory until the election has been independently certified,’ asked moderator Chris Wallace.

“’I’m urging supporters to go into the poll and watch very carefully,’ Trump said tonight, beginning to slam vote by mail. ‘If it’s a fair election, I’m 100% on board. But If I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that.’”

Earlier today, I noted that Trump has been repeating several ludicrous arguments against voting by mail. In this one debate segment, he hit nearly all of them. He mentioned delays in counting mail ballots that his party is fighting in court to maintain, and that actually reflects an excessive focus on fraud. He touted a Pennsylvania incident of discarded military ballots that affected a grand total of nine votes. And he repeatedly suggested that random people are being sent mail ballots “without solicitation,” which isn’t true anywhere and isn’t even remotely accurate when it comes to any of the the battleground states.

Both candidates were asked by Wallace how they would reassure voters of the integrity of the election. Trump replied: “It’s a disaster … this is going to be fraud like you’ve never seen.” So much for reassurance.

Biden, by contrast, vowed to accept the results once all the ballots are counted, encouraged his supporters to vote in person if they can, and made this veiled threat to fight against any preemptive victory claim by Trump: “He cannot stop you from being able to determine the outcome of this election.”

Deliberately or not, Trump raised the stakes in the Barrett confirmation fight by admitting he’s counting on the Supreme Court to look at mail ballots, as the Washington Post reports:

“Noting that early voting has begun in many states, Wallace asked Trump: ‘Now that millions of mail-in ballots have gone out, what are you going to do about it? And are you counting on the Supreme Court, including a Justice Barrett, to settle in any dispute?’

“Trump answered: ‘I’m counting on them to look at the ballots, definitely. I don’t think we’ll — I hope we don’t need them in terms of the election itself. But for the ballots, I think so.’”

This represents more or less a presidential guarantee of a post–Election Day legal challenge to the legitimacy of mail ballots, which he expects the Supreme Court, to which he has appointed three members (assuming Barrett is confirmed by then), to address.

If you weren’t alarmed by Trump’s threats to fight against a full count of ballots before, it’s time to get worried.

 


Trump Clearly Threatens Election Coup in First Debate

I was ready to write a muddy assessment of the first Biden-Trump debate, until the last question, which got my attention, as I wrote about at New York:

Viewers fatigued by the first Trump-Biden debate and the endless cross-talking punctuated by fights between debate moderator Chris Wallace and the president may have missed the final topic and its significance. But it was potentially a bigger deal than anything else discussed. Directly challenged to forswear an early victory claim based on his plenary dismissal of the legitimacy of slow-to-be-counted mail ballots, Trump refused, instead suggesting that the U.S. Supreme Court (buttressed by his nominee Amy Coney Barrett) resolve the election, after tossing a word salad of nearly incoherent complaints about voting by mail.

CNN reports the critical exchange:

“’Will you urge supporters to stay calm during this extended period not to engage in any civil unrest and pledge tonight that you will not declare victory until the election has been independently certified,’ asked moderator Chris Wallace.

“’I’m urging supporters to go into the poll and watch very carefully,’ Trump said tonight, beginning to slam vote by mail. ‘If it’s a fair election, I’m 100% on board. But If I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that.’”

Earlier today, I noted that Trump has been repeating several ludicrous arguments against voting by mail. In this one debate segment, he hit nearly all of them. He mentioned delays in counting mail ballots that his party is fighting in court to maintain, and that actually reflects an excessive focus on fraud. He touted a Pennsylvania incident of discarded military ballots that affected a grand total of nine votes. And he repeatedly suggested that random people are being sent mail ballots “without solicitation,” which isn’t true anywhere and isn’t even remotely accurate when it comes to any of the the battleground states.

Both candidates were asked by Wallace how they would reassure voters of the integrity of the election. Trump replied: “It’s a disaster … this is going to be fraud like you’ve never seen.” So much for reassurance.

Biden, by contrast, vowed to accept the results once all the ballots are counted, encouraged his supporters to vote in person if they can, and made this veiled threat to fight against any preemptive victory claim by Trump: “He cannot stop you from being able to determine the outcome of this election.”

Deliberately or not, Trump raised the stakes in the Barrett confirmation fight by admitting he’s counting on the Supreme Court to look at mail ballots, as the Washington Post reports:

“Noting that early voting has begun in many states, Wallace asked Trump: ‘Now that millions of mail-in ballots have gone out, what are you going to do about it? And are you counting on the Supreme Court, including a Justice Barrett, to settle in any dispute?’

“Trump answered: ‘I’m counting on them to look at the ballots, definitely. I don’t think we’ll — I hope we don’t need them in terms of the election itself. But for the ballots, I think so.’”

This represents more or less a presidential guarantee of a post–Election Day legal challenge to the legitimacy of mail ballots, which he expects the Supreme Court, to which he has appointed three members (assuming Barrett is confirmed by then), to address.

If you weren’t alarmed by Trump’s threats to fight against a full count of ballots before, it’s time to get worried.

 


September 25: Pelosi Serves Up Stimulus Bait For Trump

The maneuvering over COVID-19 stimulus legislation has been going on for months, but as I noted at New York, Nancy Pelosi may have just made the definitive move:

It might be a symbolic gesture designed to placate vulnerable House Democrats who want to say they’ve voted on stimulus legislation recently. Or it might be a gambit designed to tempt the president to break definitively with his congressional allies and get some serious COVID-19 stimulus money out the door before facing voters.

Either way, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is signaling that House Democrats are formalizing a $2.4 trillion version (close to the $2.2 trillion compromise price tag she’s been offering for a good while) of the $3.4 trillion HEROES Act that the House passed way back in May, as Roll Call reports:

“Speaker Nancy Pelosi has directed House committee leaders to put together a more slender coronavirus relief package than the one that previously passed the chamber, in their latest offer in talks with the White House.

“The House could vote on that as-yet-unreleased $2.4 trillion bill as soon as next week if GOP cooperation doesn’t materialize, according to Democratic lawmakers. But Democrats say they’re hoping for renewed talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and a compromise agreement that can actually become law.”

There will have to be some nips and tucks, particularly since Pelosi now wants some items not in the HEROES Act (notably targeted aid for airlines and restaurants). But you can be sure it will include the key elements the White House has already signaled it could support — particularly a second round of 160 million $1200 stimulus checks — and some new small business money, along with as much state and local fiscal assistance as Democrats think the market will bear.

Yes, there’s talk of cutting a deal with Congressional Republicans: Number Two House Democrat Steny Hoyer told Forbes he wanted to “get an alternative [bill] sent to the Senate that is a compromise.” But Senate Republicans, having already made their pre-election gesture with the famously meager “skinny stimulus” bill, won’t be interested unless the White House forces enough of them to get on board. It’s all about Trump imagining his signature on those 160 million checks right before Election Day and taking the bait. And if he doesn’t? It’s no big deal for Pelosi, who can have her show vote for the benefit of vulnerable Members and then wait until after November 3 in hopes that Democratic leverage for more stimulus will only go up with a Democratic president and Congress on the way.


Pelosi Serves Up Stimulus Bait for Trump

The maneuvering over COVID-19 stimulus legislation has been going on for months, but as I noted at New York, Nancy Pelosi may have just made the definitive move:

It might be a symbolic gesture designed to placate vulnerable House Democrats who want to say they’ve voted on stimulus legislation recently. Or it might be a gambit designed to tempt the president to break definitively with his congressional allies and get some serious COVID-19 stimulus money out the door before facing voters.

Either way, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is signaling that House Democrats are formalizing a $2.4 trillion version (close to the $2.2 trillion compromise price tag she’s been offering for a good while) of the $3.4 trillion HEROES Act that the House passed way back in May, as Roll Call reports:

“Speaker Nancy Pelosi has directed House committee leaders to put together a more slender coronavirus relief package than the one that previously passed the chamber, in their latest offer in talks with the White House.

“The House could vote on that as-yet-unreleased $2.4 trillion bill as soon as next week if GOP cooperation doesn’t materialize, according to Democratic lawmakers. But Democrats say they’re hoping for renewed talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and a compromise agreement that can actually become law.”

There will have to be some nips and tucks, particularly since Pelosi now wants some items not in the HEROES Act (notably targeted aid for airlines and restaurants). But you can be sure it will include the key elements the White House has already signaled it could support — particularly a second round of 160 million $1200 stimulus checks — and some new small business money, along with as much state and local fiscal assistance as Democrats think the market will bear.

Yes, there’s talk of cutting a deal with Congressional Republicans: Number Two House Democrat Steny Hoyer told Forbes he wanted to “get an alternative [bill] sent to the Senate that is a compromise.” But Senate Republicans, having already made their pre-election gesture with the famously meager “skinny stimulus” bill, won’t be interested unless the White House forces enough of them to get on board. It’s all about Trump imagining his signature on those 160 million checks right before Election Day and taking the bait. And if he doesn’t? It’s no big deal for Pelosi, who can have her show vote for the benefit of vulnerable Members and then wait until after November 3 in hopes that Democratic leverage for more stimulus will only go up with a Democratic president and Congress on the way.


September 24: The Big Moment Has Arrived For the Anti-Abortion Movement and Its GOP Servants

Nothing that Republicans said in the wake of the sad news of Justice Ginsburg’s death should have come as a surprise. This moment was a long time coming, as I explained at New York:

Most mainline anti-abortion organizations and politicians had the decency, or at least the self-discipline, not to celebrate openly at the news of Justice Ruth Bader’s Ginsburg’s death on Friday night. For example, the hard-core anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List put out this statement:

“We offer our sincere condolences to Justice Ginsburg’s children, grandchildren, extended family, friends, and colleagues. The prayers of the Susan B. Anthony List team are with her family, as well as for our nation, at this time.”

But that didn’t keep the group’s chair from acknowledging an urgent call to arms in virtually the same breath:

“This is a turning point for the nation in the fight to protect its most vulnerable, the unborn. The pro-life grassroots have full confidence that President Trump, Leader McConnell, Chairman Graham, and every pro-life Senator will move swiftly to fill this vacancy.”

Similarly, Christian-right leader Franklin Graham tweeted, “Pray for the family of SCOTUS Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who passed away today. May God comfort her loved ones.” But he’s mostly focused on preparing for a Washington Prayer March on September 26, where I am sure the upcoming SCOTUS confirmation fight will be on many hearts and minds.

Perhaps the most intellectually baroque anti-abortion argument on the occasion of Justice Ginsburg’s death was from New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who suggested depoliticizing the Supreme Court by withdrawing its jurisdiction over such matters as abortion policy:

“[F]or many conservatives the high court eviscerated its own authority decades ago, when it set itself up as the arbiter of America’s major moral controversies, removing from the democratic process not just debates about sex and marriage and school prayer but life and death itself.”

But congressman and current U.S. Senate candidate Doug Collins of Georgia was about as subtle as a hammerhead shark:

RIP to the more than 30 million innocent babies that have been murdered during the decades that Ruth Bader Ginsburg defended pro-abortion laws. With Donald Trump nominating a replacement that values human life, generations of unborn children have a chance to live.”

Challenged by an Atlanta reporter for his lapse in etiquette in not preceding this attack with some token of respect for Ginsburg and her service to her country, Collins was having none of that:

“’I will never back [down] on life. It’s very personal for me. The truth was about being honest about where we’re going and what the president’s going to do,’ Collins said. ‘Sometimes in life, there’s just polite, and there’s just the truth. That was the truth.’”

Collins is locked in an intense competition with appointed Republican senator Kelly Loeffler, characterized by mutual efforts to out-Trump each other (Loeffler just ran an ad suggesting she is “more conservative than Attila the Hun”).

In the fever swamps of Christian-right opinion, commenters were far less diplomatic about Ginsburg’s death, expressing a blasphemy-risking willingness to credit God Almighty for smiting Ginsburg and giving Trump the opportunity to ban abortion. Peter Montgomery at Right Wing Watch has a good example:

“A group of ‘prayer warriors’ associated with the pro-Trump ‘prophetic’ network POTUS Shield is celebrating the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as an answer to prayer and a miraculous ‘move of God’ to allow President Donald Trump to name a third Supreme Court justice in his first term. Trump-supporting religious-right supporters have often prayed for God to ‘remove”’Supreme Court justices to give Trump the ability to name justices to the court who would overturn Roe v. Wade.

“POTUS Shield founder Frank Amedia, a former Trump campaign adviser, prophesied early in Trump’s presidency that God would give Trump three Supreme Court justices in his first term. Amedia has also been talking for months about a ‘prophetic’ dream he had in which he saw Trump sinking into a swamp until God reached down and with his thumb and forefinger plucked Trump out by the head, flinging him in the air. Amedia predicted this divine intervention would take place in September, and on Sunday, he called Ginsburg’s death ‘the first breath’ of the prophesied ‘blast’ that God has in store. ‘The blast has just begun,’ Amedia exulted….”

What all these opponents of legalized abortion have in common is that they don’t give a damn about the hypocrisy of Senate Republicans blocking Merrick Garland in 2016 and rushing through a Trump nominee this year. Indeed, they would be in the streets protesting furiously if Mitch McConnell or Trump hesitated a moment before taking advantage of this opportunity to “save the babies.” This is holy war, and the upcoming Supreme Court confirmation fight is Armageddon. And even if their own interest in the topic is limited, nearly all Republican members of Congress have signed on to the reserves in this battle by taking a position opposing abortion rights and accepting the loyal support of those who are avid to turn back the clock for good.


The Big Moment Has Arrived For the Anti-Abortion Movement and Its GOP Servants

Nothing that Republicans said in the wake of the sad news of Justice Ginsburg’s death should have come as a surprise. This moment was a long time coming, as I explained at New York:

Most mainline anti-abortion organizations and politicians had the decency, or at least the self-discipline, not to celebrate openly at the news of Justice Ruth Bader’s Ginsburg’s death on Friday night. For example, the hard-core anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List put out this statement:

“We offer our sincere condolences to Justice Ginsburg’s children, grandchildren, extended family, friends, and colleagues. The prayers of the Susan B. Anthony List team are with her family, as well as for our nation, at this time.”

But that didn’t keep the group’s chair from acknowledging an urgent call to arms in virtually the same breath:

“This is a turning point for the nation in the fight to protect its most vulnerable, the unborn. The pro-life grassroots have full confidence that President Trump, Leader McConnell, Chairman Graham, and every pro-life Senator will move swiftly to fill this vacancy.”

Similarly, Christian-right leader Franklin Graham tweeted, “Pray for the family of SCOTUS Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who passed away today. May God comfort her loved ones.” But he’s mostly focused on preparing for a Washington Prayer March on September 26, where I am sure the upcoming SCOTUS confirmation fight will be on many hearts and minds.

Perhaps the most intellectually baroque anti-abortion argument on the occasion of Justice Ginsburg’s death was from New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who suggested depoliticizing the Supreme Court by withdrawing its jurisdiction over such matters as abortion policy:

“[F]or many conservatives the high court eviscerated its own authority decades ago, when it set itself up as the arbiter of America’s major moral controversies, removing from the democratic process not just debates about sex and marriage and school prayer but life and death itself.”

But congressman and current U.S. Senate candidate Doug Collins of Georgia was about as subtle as a hammerhead shark:

RIP to the more than 30 million innocent babies that have been murdered during the decades that Ruth Bader Ginsburg defended pro-abortion laws. With Donald Trump nominating a replacement that values human life, generations of unborn children have a chance to live.”

Challenged by an Atlanta reporter for his lapse in etiquette in not preceding this attack with some token of respect for Ginsburg and her service to her country, Collins was having none of that:

“’I will never back [down] on life. It’s very personal for me. The truth was about being honest about where we’re going and what the president’s going to do,’ Collins said. ‘Sometimes in life, there’s just polite, and there’s just the truth. That was the truth.’”

Collins is locked in an intense competition with appointed Republican senator Kelly Loeffler, characterized by mutual efforts to out-Trump each other (Loeffler just ran an ad suggesting she is “more conservative than Attila the Hun”).

In the fever swamps of Christian-right opinion, commenters were far less diplomatic about Ginsburg’s death, expressing a blasphemy-risking willingness to credit God Almighty for smiting Ginsburg and giving Trump the opportunity to ban abortion. Peter Montgomery at Right Wing Watch has a good example:

“A group of ‘prayer warriors’ associated with the pro-Trump ‘prophetic’ network POTUS Shield is celebrating the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as an answer to prayer and a miraculous ‘move of God’ to allow President Donald Trump to name a third Supreme Court justice in his first term. Trump-supporting religious-right supporters have often prayed for God to ‘remove”’Supreme Court justices to give Trump the ability to name justices to the court who would overturn Roe v. Wade.

“POTUS Shield founder Frank Amedia, a former Trump campaign adviser, prophesied early in Trump’s presidency that God would give Trump three Supreme Court justices in his first term. Amedia has also been talking for months about a ‘prophetic’ dream he had in which he saw Trump sinking into a swamp until God reached down and with his thumb and forefinger plucked Trump out by the head, flinging him in the air. Amedia predicted this divine intervention would take place in September, and on Sunday, he called Ginsburg’s death ‘the first breath’ of the prophesied ‘blast’ that God has in store. ‘The blast has just begun,’ Amedia exulted….”

What all these opponents of legalized abortion have in common is that they don’t give a damn about the hypocrisy of Senate Republicans blocking Merrick Garland in 2016 and rushing through a Trump nominee this year. Indeed, they would be in the streets protesting furiously if Mitch McConnell or Trump hesitated a moment before taking advantage of this opportunity to “save the babies.” This is holy war, and the upcoming Supreme Court confirmation fight is Armageddon. And even if their own interest in the topic is limited, nearly all Republican members of Congress have signed on to the reserves in this battle by taking a position opposing abortion rights and accepting the loyal support of those who are avid to turn back the clock for good.