A Bad Goon is Rising

We are at a critical juncture in our country’s history. We are forced to ponder: Could a dictator take control of our government — after first assuming power by winning a legitimate national election? Or after overthrowing the results of an election they lost (as almost happened in 2020)? The answer is YES! We know this because it’s happened before in other countries. Many times.

Even if we limit ourselves to the 20th and 21st centuries, the surprisingly large group of “elected” dictators includes: Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Viktor Orbán of Hungary, Juan Peron of Argentina, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Benito Mussolini of Italy, and Adolf Hitler of Germany. Yes, that Hitler. The Nazi. The man whose name has become almost synonymous with evil. He “emerged as Germany’s chancellor” in 1931, after an election — and “proceeded to consolidate unlimited power before anybody realized what was happening.”

The list is by no means complete. Sadly, it may soon include one more name: Donald J. Trump. Trump’s own words make this intent clear. And, as confirmed by a growing number of pundits, “a Trump dictatorship is increasingly inevitable.” Or, to put it another way: “There’s no reliable way to prevent bad or incompetent people from gaining power.”

Poll results

Of course, in order for this dismal prediction to come true, Trump must first win in November. That’s why I find a recent New York Times poll so unsettling. It strongly suggests Trump is on a trajectory to victory. I remain skeptical of polls, especially this early in the election season. And even if they are accurate, there is still ample time for trends to reverse. But I believe it would be a mistake to entirely dismiss the ominous warnings contained in this poll. Here are the key take-aways:

• Biden is very unpopular…and continues to get more unpopular as time goes on: “The share of voters who strongly disapprove of Mr. Biden’s handling of his job has reached 47 percent, higher than at any other point in his presidency.” Even Democrats are “deeply divided about the prospect of Mr. Biden, the 81-year-old chief executive, leading the party again.”

• Trump is also highly unpopular. However, he “is winning 97 percent of those who say they voted for him four years ago, and virtually none of his past supporters said they are casting a ballot for Mr. Biden. Mr. Biden, in contrast, is winning only 83 percent of his 2020 voters, with 10 percent saying they now back Mr. Trump.”

• Biden is losing support among key groups of his 2020 coalition — including women, Blacks, Latinos and “nonwhite voters who did not graduate from college.” 

• “Only 23 percent of Democratic primary voters said they were enthusiastic about Mr. Biden.” For Trump, the number was more than double: 48%.

• “Mr. Trump’s policies were generally viewed far more favorably by voters than Mr. Biden’s.” This is true despite the fact that Trump has no policy agenda at all — other than grievance and retribution. Meanwhile, Biden has a strong record of accomplishment. Yet, people continue to assume Trump will handle the economy and immigration better than Biden.

• “Mr. Trump was winning 70 percent of those who backed Israel” in the Gaza war. It’s one of several political paradoxes in play today: It almost certainly means that a significant number of Jews are supporting Trump, despite his tacit support for anti-semitism.

• Voters in the latest poll are less likely to view Trump as having committed serious federal crimes than those polled a few months ago (53% now vs. 58% last December). At either level, in yet another quasi-paradox, this means that a significant number of voters simultaneously believe Trump is a criminal but still intend to vote for him. Trump’s infamous prediction that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still not lose any support now seems eerily prescient. It’s also an ominous sign of the public’s tolerance for a Trump dictatorship. Indeed, according to a Harris poll: “56 percent of those surveyed at least somewhat agree that Trump will act like a dictator if given a second term.” Yet he may still win.

Nate Cohn summarized the central paradox, in an accompanying Times article:

“Joe Biden should be expected to win this election. He’s an incumbent president running for re-election with a reasonably healthy economy against an unpopular opponent accused of multiple federal crimes. And yet President Biden is not winning.”

Surprisingly, there appeared to be one glaring omission in the poll results. The words “insurrection,” “autocracy” or “dictator” never showed up. At all. Where were the voters’ concerns about this? Perhaps the poll didn’t ask the right questions. Or perhaps it’s because, despite all the alarm bells going off for the past three years, the public at large remains unconvinced that Trump is the threat to democracy that he clearly is. If so, it’s a further sign of how much trouble we are currently in.

What to do

If we have learned anything at all these past years, it’s that our government will not save us from Trump. Congress won’t do it (having passed up two chances to convict him after impeachment), the executive can’t be counted on to do it (as evident by the fizzle of the Mueller report and the reluctant start to the current Trump investigations) and the courts certainly won’t do it (as evidenced by Trump’s success in delaying trials until after the election — and the Supreme Court’s willingness to assist him in this effort).

If Trump is to be stopped, we must do it ourselves — by convincing the public of the danger Trump poses and making sure he loses in November. It’s a job made even harder because the other side is not wasting any chance to tilt the odds in their favor, often employing tactics of questionable legality. At the same time, we have to combat a much larger more long-term problem: the right wing’s dismantling of agreed-upon facts and the related spread of disinformation (read this Atlantic article for a superb analysis of what’s happening here).

Dealing with all of this effectively is a tall order. But we have no other choice but to try. It’s time to pull out all the stops. This is a five-alarm fire. Whatever else you’re doing now, it’s almost certainly not as critical as doing this.

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The GOP Implosion

What a horrible week to be a Republican. A week full of embarrassment and humiliation — as even most Republicans would agree.

First, there was the Republican “Presidential” Debate. The cringe-worthy “unmitigated disaster” showcased candidates bickering amongst themselves, spewing nonsense, apparently in hopes of getting a cabinet position in a Trump administration. Certainly they weren’t hoping to become President. Not one was willing to directly attack the missing-elephant-in-the-room and runaway leader of the pack. There was nary a mention of Trump’s legal troubles. Even Ron DeSantis admitted: “If I was at home watching that, I would turn the channel.”

Next up: The government shut-down. A group of MAGA Republicans in the House are holding the entire GOP (and the country) hostage — withholding approvals on what should be routine votes — not only willing to risk a shut-down but appearing to welcome one. Their actions are so immature and dangerous that Speaker-of-the-House McCarthy accused them of wanting to “burn the place down.”

Not satisfied with two humiliations, the GOP teed up a third: the Biden Impeachment hearings. Incredibly, at this self-inflicted wound, two of their star witnesses testified under the oath there was currently no evidence warranting an impeachment. But wait…there’s more: The lowlight of the day was when AOC revealed that Congressman Byron Donalds had fabricated an image he had presented earlier, falsely purporting to show evidence against Biden. One day into the so-called hearings and they’re already forced to make things up!

As if all of this was not enough, the GOP had to contend with their leading candidate for President advocating that Mark Milley, the retiring Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, be executed for treason. Which is why he now requires a security detail. The response from the GOP here was predictable: almost total silence. Oh, let’s not forget that Trump’s mountain of legal woes got higher this week: A judge ruled that Trump had committed financial fraud by having “lied to banks and insurers about his assets” for years. Added to this are his four pending indictments (with charges ranging from illegal retention of classified documents to attempting to subvert the 2020 election) as well as having been held liable for sexual assault. Yet none of this appears to present the slightest obstacle to the GOP lauding Trump as their preferred choice for President.

An outside observer assessing all of this could only reasonably conclude that the GOP was imploding. Unless they changed course, they were surely headed for a political shipwreck. How could anyone view it any other way? Apparently, if you’re Sean Hannity on FOX News, it’s quite easy. On his show this week, GOP impeachment leaders “offered false, baseless or debunked claims to which the Fox News host offered absolutely no pushback.” And the MAGA faithful that watch Fox News (and nothing else), lap it all up like a cat slurping cream. Which is why, incredibly, Trump and the GOP still have a path to victory in next year’s elections.

Welcome to America in 2024.

Democracy is on the ballot. It’s up to us to make sure it wins.

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The Left Dodges a Bullet

Well…wow! The Democrats did better…much better…than expected on Tuesday. As of now, with 3 seats still undecided, they are favored to retain control of the Senate. The GOP advantage in the House will almost certainly be within single digits. Democrats actually made gains in governorships and state legislatures. Very few election deniers, for key offices like Secretary of State, were able to win.

This was more than an impressive showing for Democrats — and more than the absence of “the red wave” that nearly every pundit and every poll was predicting. Compared to what typically happens to the party in power at a midterms election, 2022 was an historic victory for Democrats.

Part of the reason why? Exit polls indicated that voters’ concerns over threats to democracy and GOP extremism were much higher on people’s mind than pre-election polls had suggested.

As an added plus, the threat of wide-spread election day and post-election chaos never materialized. There were no notable reports of violence anywhere. Almost all losing candidates conceded defeat without making a fuss. 

There is no other way to paint this: The midterms were a defeat for the GOP and a near complete disaster for Trump. We dodged a bullet — a hail of them. The left may have brought a knife to a gunfight — but that appears to have been sufficient. Whew!

Perhaps I should I have titled this column: Democracy Dodges a Bullet. Because that was the big winner in last week’s midterms. We can briefly breathe a collective sigh of relief: we still have a free country.

Don’t be fooled however. The danger has not passed. Donald Trump is still a powerful force in the Republican Party. And, after his impressive re-election, Ron DeSantis is looking especially strong as a possible alternative — which many on the left fear would not be an improvement.

More generally, Trumpism remains alive and well in the GOP. Outright lies about stolen elections, disinformation about nearly everything and increasingly overt support for racist beliefs remain at the forefront of Republican strategy. The 2024 race is likely to prove at least as fraught with peril as this one. And even with a small GOP majority in the House, we can still expect an attempt to impeach Biden — and other very dubious investigations — in the months ahead.

The Democrats may have done well this week. But the country remains almost evenly divided — with entrenched partisanship seeming to only get stronger as time passes.

Finally, what does all of this say about my contention (in my prior post) that traditional grassroots efforts, such as phonebanks, are declining in value? Although it’s hard to draw a direct line from A to B, one can make a case that the grassroots helped turn the tide in several close elections. At the very least, my expectations of a midterms disaster were (happily) not realized. As such, I am preparing a small serving of roast crow for the holidays.

But one can just as easily make the case that grassroots efforts had little, if any, effect on the final results. And that a failure to effectively counter the tactics of the right made numerous races closer than they otherwise would have been. The left represents the clear majority in the country; this was not sufficiently reflected in the election results.

Either way, the 2022 midterms were just one battle in an ongoing war. Neither side is close to claiming victory. Buckle up. And get to work. 2024 is just two years away.

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The Left Brings a Knife to a Gun Fight — and Democracy Hangs in the Balance

One of my Indivisible t-shirts boldly asserts: Register & Phonebank & Canvas & Vote & Win. Under the rubric of “phonebank,” you can add textbanks and letter-writing. Taken together, these form the foundation of the progressive left’s grassroots volunteer efforts to win elections — including next week’s midterms. The hope is that, via these actions, we can (1) persuade independents to vote for the candidates we support and (2) energize our base of supporters to make sure they get out and vote.

Although it’s difficult to measure exactly how effective these strategies are, there is good evidence to believe that they can make a difference. They may even have been determinative in the Blue Wave of the 2018 midterms. But that is already a long time ago — a time when the country’s outrage with Trump was at its peak and people were eager to mobilize. Long-term victory seemed within our grasp. Not so much anymore. Today, despite our best efforts, the country is more in the grip of Trumpism than it was even two years ago. Whatever we’re doing, it doesn’t seem to be working.

That’s why I believe phonebanks and such are no longer a viable grassroots tactic. Certainly not a sufficient one. It’s not that these progressive efforts are less effective than they were before. It’s that they are increasingly not up to the challenge of countering what the other side is doing. Since the rise of Trump and the MAGA movement in 2016, the rules of engagement have dramatically shifted. Anti-democracy trends that have been developing for decades in our politics, have finally reached a critical mass. The left now finds itself bringing a knife to a gun fight — like the swordsman in the classic scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. And we know how that turned out.

More specifically, I see two troubling political trends at work here. One is old and familiar. The other is newer but far more dangerous.

The older trend is the increasing power of the minority — due a combination of the election rules laid out in the Constitution and more recent dramatic demographic shifts. Because each state gets two Senators, less-populated states have disproportionate power in Congress. That’s always been true — but never more so than now. For example, the population of California is approximately equal to the population of the 20 least populous states. Those combined states have 40 Senators while California has only 2. Less populous states tend to be rural and have traditionally leaned right. This gives the GOP a built-in advantage going into any Senatorial election. This same trend similarly means that, with the GOP in control of the majority of state legislatures, gerrymandering of Congressional districts has led to more “safe” House seats for Republicans than Democrats.

Finally, the Electoral College allows for a Presidential candidate to win office with only a minority of the country’s popular vote. Again, this has always been a possibility. But it has only happened twice from the birth of our nation until 1999. Yet, thanks to the aforementioned demographic shifts, it has happened twice since — and in both cases the Republican candidate won. This is how the GOP increasingly depends on winning. Barring a dramatic change in voting preferences, the GOP may rarely, if ever again, win a presidential election with a majority of the popular vote.

I don’t believe the framers of the Constitution envisioned a time when the demographics would be this extreme — and lead to such lopsided divisions. But here we are. It’s an uphill battle for left-wing phonebanks and canvassing to affect the outcome of an election — when faced with this handicap. But it’s possible, especially in a tight race. Unfortunately, things gets worse.

The second more recent trend is that a major part of the GOP’s election strategy is to oppose elections altogether. Instead, they are in engaged in a series of activities designed to disrupt elections and, if they lose the vote anyway, declare the results as fraudulent. 

You might naively assume that both sides are equally engaged in phonebanking and canvassing. Unfortunately, the assumption is in error. Only the left seems focused on these grassroots efforts. Case in point: I did a Google search for “Phone banking for Republicans.” Over 90% of the search results listed left-wing sites aimed at stopping Republicans! I kept trying different terms and kept getting similar results. I can’t discount that Google may be filtering my results based on my previous searches. Still, it strongly suggests that the GOP is not heavily invested in these mainstays of the left.

So what are they doing instead? They are disseminating a toxic brew of disinformation, conspiracy theories and lies spread by social media. As a recent example, check out the vicious lies that popped up almost within minutes in the wake of the attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband. These lies continue to be disturbingly effective. I’m not saying Democrats never engage in these actions — but it’s pervasive among the GOP in a way that dwarfs whatever the Democrats may be doing.

Beyond that, right-wing activists are pushing voter intimidation actions, planned election day disruptions and subsequent election challenges. Abetting these efforts, the GOP itself has pushed to enact voter suppression laws (eliminating ballot boxes especially in Democratic districts, unnecessary voter ID requirements, etc.) — even going so far as to allow (Republican-held) state legislatures to overturn the popular vote. To make all of this easier to do in future elections, the GOP has put forward hundreds of election-deniers to fill offices across the country — in every position from Secretary of State to Senator. Hanging ominously over all of this is the threat of escalating violence.

Taken together, these tactics amount to a potent combination of unethical, potentially illegal actions that allow GOP candidates with minority support to none-the-less attain or claim victory — especially so in critical swing states. Eagerly adopted by an energetic cadre of MAGA supporters — it is proving to be an effective counter-strategy. Phonebanks can’t help win an election — if your supporters can’t vote. And you can’t protect your right to vote if the election officials are all right-wing election deniers.

What’s the solution? What can/should we do differently to combat these trends?

One possible approach is to do nothing different from what we have been doing — other than try to do it better. In the short term, the hope is that our efforts will be at least good enough to stave off complete disaster. Over the long haul, the hope is that the GOP’s Trump-fever eventually breaks and politics returns to some degree of normality. Unfortunately, as long as the current GOP tactics lead to success, I doubt that will ever happen.

This could well mean a descent in autocracy — but I doubt that will deter the GOP. It doesn’t even matter if the GOP honestly doesn’t want to see the end of democracy. They will go down this road anyway. The lure of near-certain short-term success will win out over potential long-term threats (just ask those fighting to save the planet from a climate-change catastrophe).

A second alternative is to play copy-cat: Fight back with the same strategies that the right is employing so effectively. Aside from the fact that it likely won’t work if we don’t control enough state governments, most on the left would reject the idea anyway. It’s morally reprehensible. A classic case of two wrongs very much not making a right.

What’s the third alternative? I don’t know. I am not wise enough to have a sure answer. I’m not sure there is one. At least not a good one. Prepare for civil war? Maybe. It’s a bit like asking what can we do to prevent Putin from using nuclear weapons. Actually, there is a lot we can do — but if Putin is determined to use them even if it risks an “apocalypse” — there is ultimately nothing we can do. Returning to politics, this is what keeps me up at night, fretting about the future of our democracy.

I don’t mean to imply that the success or failure of Democrats is entirely dependent on grassroots actions. Far from it. It obviously depends as well on the actions of the Democratic Party and their candidates — including fund-raising and television ads and rallies and such. And at this level, I believe Democrats have a serious messaging problem. They still haven’t adequately absorbed the key lesson from George Lakoff (Don’t Think of an Elephant): winning a political debate is not simply a matter of assembling the “best” facts. It’s a matter of emotional appeal as well. That’s never been more true than it is today — when the country is divided into silos each with their own “alternative facts.” The GOP gets this; the Democrats don’t.

It would also help if, for the critical issues of most concern to the electorate, Democrats are not almost always playing defense. It’s not enough to say: “No, we are not in favor of defunding the police. No, we aren’t trying to tell today’s school children they are racists. Yes, inflation is bad but it’s not Joe Biden’s fault. Yes, we are sensitive to coal miners losing their jobs due to green energy. Yes, crime is on the rise, but it’s not nearly as bad as the GOP claims.” The GOP has become expert at framing the debate and forcing Democrats to react. We need to turn the tables. We need to be more aggressive and force the GOP to defend. We managed to do this on the abortion debate this year — but that is not typical. Bernie Sanders, as usual, has offered some helpful ideas.

Finally, zooming out to the larger picture, the problems go way beyond the confines of the left. We live in frighteningly partisan and divisive times. Racism and anti-semitism are on the rise. The current popularity of extreme views is as great as it has ever been in our history. We have faced crises of extremism before (see Rachel Madow’s Ultra podcast for one example) — and have emerged relatively unscathed. But that offers no guarantee that we will see the same result this time. Our Democracy is not guaranteed. It only survives if we all agree to support it. When one political party abandons that agreement we are in deep trouble.

We now live in a country where a near-majority continues to believe the total falsehood that Donald Trump was the rightful winner of the 2020 election…where, despite Trump’s cornucopia of crimes and lies, he could still be our next President…where Fox News remains the dominant cable TV news outlet…where absurdly unqualified candidates like Herschel Walker, Mehmet Oz and Kari Lake have a good chance of winding up in the U.S. Senate or in a Governor’s mansion. And, if election results do not go the way the GOP is hoping, we can expect an upsurge in conspiracy theories and violence. This does not omen well for our future.

It may already be too late to stop this train. The 2022 midterms may turn out to be the tipping point from which there is no turning back. As Rachel Madow put it: “Our vote this year is about whether we ever get to vote again.”

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