Celebrate good times? C’mon? The last week has been a roller coaster ride of emotions — from the anxiety of the long vote count blended with frustration over right-wing victories down-ballot, followed by Saturday’s somewhat surprising eruption of joy, tempered now by the increasingly dangerous moves of a wildman who’ll still be in the White House for 71 more days. Did someone forward you this email? Sign up to receive this newsletter weekly at inquirer.com/bunch, as we plunge into this brave new world.
Watching the presidency of Donald Trump these last four years has been a lot like viewing a Hollywood horror flick, so you just know that right near the end of the movie — as the bruised, breathless protagonists breathe a sigh of relief over the corpse of his political career, the monster would pop back up one final time.
Monday — just 48 hours after all the major news orgs declared Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States and his joyous supporters danced in the streets of Philadelphia and other cities — was one of the strangest days I’ve experienced in nearly 40 years of writing about politics.
On your TV screen, President-elect Biden was acting all presidential — rolling out a coronavirus task force with the kind of scientific and medical experts who’ve been shunned by the Trump administration, amid news of a possible vaccine breakthrough and a skyrocketing Wall Street. The news anchors occasionally mentioned the vote tallies that showed the Democrat en route to a comfortable win with more than 300 Electoral College votes. And while Trump was characteristically refusing to concede, what could he possibly do about it?
Trump, backed by the same spineless Republican Party that has aided and abetted his authoritarian rise since 2016, could do a lot of things, as it turned out.
First, he fired his Pentagon chief, Defense Secretary Mark Esper — whose alleged crimes against Trumpworld included refusing to deploy troops against protesters on American soil — and replaced him with a more pliable acolyte. Around the same time, his Attorney General William Barr was holding a highly unusual meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (we’ll get back to him), and not long after that, “Trump’s Roy Cohn” made the norm-busting announcement that he was authorizing his U.S. attorneys to probe 2020 voter fraud. Neither McConnell or other top GOPers congratulated Biden or even acknowledged his victory, and the government bureaucrat who frees up money, office space, etc., for Biden’s transition is refusing to do so.
This is all bat-guano crazy. Yes, for months Trump has telegraphed his post-election strategy as his popularity declined — that he would scream fraud about mail-in ballots, possibly employ Barr to halt the vote count and crush any protests in the streets, and enlist friendly lawmakers in state capitals or in Congress to game the Electoral College. The giant flaw in that plan is that there was literally no voter fraud to scream about. Trump’s only legal win so far has been to allow observers in Philadelphia get closer to the vote count, so they could see nothing was amiss.
And yet, on Monday afternoon the Trump campaign went into court to halt any certification of Biden’s apparent Pennsylvania win, while supportive GOP lawmakers in Harrisburg called for an audit of the results — the prelude to a nightmare scenario in which the Republican-led state legislature would seek to ignore your millions of votes and simply, by fiat, instead send a pro-Trump slate to the Electoral College.
What the actual ...?
There’s two working theories here. The first one says that there’s a Machiavellian method to the Republican madness, but it doesn’t involve the president channeling his inner Lukashenko and sending tanks into the pothole-filled streets of D.C. This idea says the motivations for GOP dead-ender resistance are a) McConnell’s realization that his future as the real center of power in Washington suddenly hinges on two run-off Senate elections that will be held in Georgia on January 5, and his two GOP incumbents will lose unless their voters are jazzed up by conspiracy theories rather than demoralized by Trump’s loss and b) the president’s realization that his corrupt, free-spending campaign is deep in debt, and his need to keep raising money from all the little people in the dark. Add a pinch of Trump sycophants feeding his narcissistic delusions.
But there’s also a darker thought. In 2016, millions of us watched in disbelief as an it-can’t-happen-here scenario — voters in so many key states, pledging allegiance to a dangerous and racist demagogue — played out before our stunned eyes. The 2020 version of this could be the willingness of high-ranking Republicans and Trump’s rabid base to support the kind of blatant anti-democratic, or fascist, power grab that we’d deluded ourselves into thinking just wasn’t possible in these United States.
Right now, I lean slightly toward the first explanation, and the savvy but utterly amoral machinations of Mitch McConnell, mush-mouthed crusher of American democracy. But I also think that Trump’s coup maneuvers needed to be taken both literally and seriously — by Team Biden and leading Democrats, and by everyday citizens — and must be forcefully resisted at every possible step. Esper, for his part, told the Military Times that if his replacement is “a real yes man” then “God help us.” The very real threat of neo-fascism in our country is a beast whose death cannot be celebrated until the closing credits of this nightmare on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Question: Why were liberal leaders able to stand up to Joseph McCarthy, who became powerful and overstepped, but not McConnell, who is powerful and also overstepping? — Via @DionysosPint on Twitter
Answer: First of all, it took liberal politicians, the media (including legendary Edward R. Murrow) and even President Dwight Eisenhower four agonizing years to stand up to the bullying and “red-baiting” of Sen. Joe McCarthy, even as many lives were ruined. And the Wisconsin senator was a disorganized drunk, while McConnell is a much savvier and more disciplined authoritarian than either McCarthy or Donald Trump. Which is why, if you care about democracy — and most readers of this newsletter do — it’s important to see these two Georgia January runoffs as an all-hands-on-deck situation. An unfettered Trump could have destroyed America in the 2020s, but an unimpeded McConnell could be just as bad.
“I don’t even recognize this person!!” my Sunday afternoon editor, who’s been moving my weekend rants for nearly four years, emailed me after editing this past weekend’s piece, which was an ode to both Philadelphia and the unbridled joy of Biden’s victory. Hey, writing about the crisis caused by Trump and the very real threat that he and his supporters posed to American democracy itself was, frankly, the story I had prepared myself my whole life to cover (despite hoping that I never would). His defeat — which I believe is official, Washington coup-plotting notwithstanding — raises the inevitable question for this columnist: Now what?
My answer: You’d be surprised. For one thing, as someone who a) started my career as a blogger, with Attytood, was highly critical of Joe Biden over his 2005 pushing of a pro-credit-card-company bankruptcy bill and b) lined up these last two elections with the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren progressive movement, I’ll be watching Team Biden like the proverbial hawk, and won’t hesitate to go off at the first hint of selling out, which for all I know could come with his first Cabinet pick.
Second, during the Obama years I got highly worked up over the systemic problems in America — mass incarceration, police brutality, and fracking are three big ones — that demand our attention regardless of which party is in the White House. This summer, I inked a deal with William Morrow to (in my spare time ... heh) write a book about the role that the now-dysfunctional American way of college has played in causing our bitter political divide...and how to fix it. Simply put, there’s a lot of work to do — and I hope you’ll keep reading.