Built on Sand

The election of Donald Trump tore the country apart, because about half the country decided the country should be torn apart. The issue was big government that didn’t respond to the little guy – too many out-of-touch fat cats running things for their own benefit. The answer was to elect a vulgar and vindictive billionaire who would appoint other billionaires to all key cabinet posts, which would somehow “drain the swamp” – whatever that meant – because they would know nothing about how the government runs, or even what it does. They’d bring “fresh eyes” to everything, and they were “winners” – so they would make America “win” again. That might have been the top-level argument for a Trump presidency.

The second-level arguments were a bit more troubling. Muslims were ruining America, or the whole world, actually. Or it was Mexicans, or maybe all Hispanics, that were ruining America. Or it was the Black Lives Matter folks who hate the police who keep us all safe, particularly from them – or maybe it was all black folks, who still whine about unfairness even after they got their black president for eight years. Or maybe it was gays and urban hipsters who mocked Real Americans, as Sarah Palin once called those who live in small towns and on farms, away from the cities and coasts, those quiet straight white Christians into country music and whatnot. Perhaps the gays and urban hipsters weren’t mocking anyone, but they seemed to, by being who they are. Or it was all of those Asian tech CEOs in California, or California itself, or the Jewish bankers. Or it was women who didn’t know their place. Or it was political correctness – a white guy couldn’t call anyone a nigger anymore – no one was allowed to mock the disabled – no one could say what they wanted to say, even Merry Christmas. Of course anyone can say Merry Christmas any time they want, but no one wanted to feel guilty about it, even if no one told them to feel guilty. Or it was Obamacare – but not Medicare or Social Security. Or maybe it was Hollywood.

The list seemed endless. It all came into play. Donald Trump used it all. He said, over and over, that only he could fix all this. All it took was one strong leader willing to say the words that made him famous – “You’re fired!”

He’d say those words. He’d build that wall. He’d deport those eleven million people. He’d tear up all our treaties – no Paris climate deal – Iran could go back to building their bomb and we’d wipe them out – NATO and Japan and South Korea, if they wanted our protection, could pay us big bucks or forget about it. NAFTA would be gone. If Mexico and Canada wanted to trade with us, now they’d have to pay big bucks for that privilege and do what we want – period. And he’d jail Hillary Clinton.

As many have said, except for the alarmist press, no one took him literally. Unless he dissolved Congress and shut down the Supreme Court much of this could not be done. But people did take him seriously. Somehow he’d take care of what was ruining America. That would be gone. “They” would be gone. Hillary Clinton’s “Stronger Together” message wasn’t what people wanted to hear. People didn’t want to be “together” – not with those other folks. They’d had enough of that.

That’s what tore the country apart. That’s what Donald Trump tapped into. In his Thanksgiving message – not a national address, just a YouTube video – he said he wanted to be a president for “all” Americans. No one believed that for a moment. Who was this man, and what had he done with Donald Trump? This was just something someone had told him he should say. He looked bored.

It was too late for that. The damage had been done:

After a bruising presidential election featuring the two least liked major-party candidates in recent history, more than 8-in-10 Americans say the country is more deeply divided on major issues this year than in the past several years, according to a new CNN/ORC poll. And more than half say they are dissatisfied with the way democracy is working in the US.

The poll’s findings, released Sunday, also suggest a sizable minority personally agree with both parties on at least some issues, and nearly 8-in-10 overall hope to see the GOP-controlled government incorporate some Democratic policies into its agenda.

A sizable minority is still a minority, and the hope of that eighty percent is just hope, based on nothing anyone has seen so far:

The percentage in the CNN/ORC poll saying Republicans ought to incorporate Democratic policies into their agenda is lower than the percentage who thought the Democrats ought to do the same in 2008 when they took control of the White House and both houses of Congress. That’s largely because Republicans now are less likely to think their party’s leaders ought to work with the Democrats than Democrats were in 2008 to say that their leaders should bring in GOP policies (55% of Republicans say so now vs. 74% of Democrats who said so in ’08).

In fact, the country has been torn apart:

The sense that the country is sharply riven is near universal, with 85% saying so overall, including 86% of independents, 85% of Republicans and 84% of Democrats. It’s also sharply higher than it was in 2000 when the nation last elected a president who did not win the popular vote (64% thought the nation more sharply split then).

The share that sees deeper divides now tops 8-in-10 across gender, racial, age and educational divides. The biggest difference on the question comes across ideological lines, with 91% of liberals saying the country is more divided on top issues compared with 80% of conservatives.

Okay, Donald Trump “broke” America, but maybe it had all been built on sand all along. In July, there was Brexit – Britain voted to leave the European Union. They didn’t want to be together with “those” people anymore, no matter what economic devastation followed. There were similar movements all across Europe, with votes still pending, even if the whole idea of a European Union was based on the idea that those two World Wars had been a bad idea. An economic union, possibly followed by a political union, would end that nonsense. “Stronger Together” – that was the idea.

That notion didn’t work for Hillary Clinton. That didn’t work on the other side of the pond either, perhaps because the peace and prosperity after 1945 had also been built on sand. That’s what Josh Marshall argued at the time:

Autocracy is government based on fear, domination and insecurity. It is of course billed as the opposite. But it is born of these three horsemen and in turn breeds them. One of the shaping thoughts of the generation of actors and thinkers who emerged from the Second World War was the seared perception that stability, trust, peace and virtuous cycles of all sorts are not natural phenomena or human norms. In fact, they are brittle creations and perhaps abnormal in human affairs. Of course, these beliefs and the ambitions and goals which grew out of them led to their own follies. One can jump from 1945 to 1965 and see the wisdom of this recognition leading the same luminaries to walk into a folly of an entirely different kind. The men who built much of the world we live in today also built a world that was perpetually on the brink of cataclysmic nuclear annihilation. Their creation, let us say with some understatement, had real shortcomings.

And yet, for all that complicated history and all that human folly, basic realities they understood remain. Democracy, borders that are peaceful rather than armed and bloody … none of these things are natural states of being like a rock that rolls to the bottom of a hill and then stays there until some greater force than gravity and friction pushes it along or hauls it back up the hill.

So a stable post-war Europe was a brittle creation and perhaps abnormal in human affairs, built on sand with lots of nasty stuff underneath, ready to shift violently. Virtuous cycles are not natural phenomena or human norms. The same might be said of America:

In the United States we have Donald Trump, a man of erratic impulses and petty but intense grievances who has, like all demagogues, ripped at the existing fissures of our society in order to grasp political power. American institutions have preserved political order and domestic peace for going on a quarter of a millennium with the very notable and brutal exception of four years of civil war 150 years ago. Those institutions can in all likelihood weather four years of his mental instability and toxic incitement. But not necessarily. Britain’s exit from Europe, Scotland’s exit from the United Kingdom, the increasingly militarized border between ‘Europe’ and Russia can likely all be managed. But maybe not. Violence and instability can build quickly on themselves.

I believe generally in what Democrats believe in rather than what Republicans believe in. It informs almost everything I’ve written in almost twenty years as a professional writer about American politics. But both have been able to govern the country within a broad consensus of what we consider acceptable behavior.

Trump represents something quite different. The kind of menace he represents is amplified by the rise of complacent instability and reckless behavior we see today in Europe, in the conflagration in the Middle East and the still distant but rising specter of great power confrontation on the borders of Russia and in East Asia. The belief that we can roll the dice with no consequences, that we can provoke and act out with no consequences, is a dangerous illusion. We are indulging that illusion along with many other peoples across the globe. But there are consequences. They can come upon us suddenly, like a mugger in the dark and then multiply and spin out of control.

That may be where we are. There is no broad consensus of what we consider acceptable behavior any longer. Trump has shattered that, for better or worse, and now the whole idea of our election process is crumbling:

Donald Trump on Sunday used the platform of the presidency to peddle a fringe conspiracy theory to justify his loss of the popular vote, claiming without evidence that millions of people voted illegally Nov. 8.

Trump’s tweets marked an unprecedented rebuke of the U.S. electoral system by a president-elect and were met with immediate condemnation from voting experts and others. And they offered a troubling indication that Trump’s ascension to the highest political office in the United States may not alter his penchant for repeating unproven conspiracies perpetuated by the far-right.

The man likes to break things:

“In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” Trump wrote on Twitter. There is no evidence to support Trump’s claim and PolitiFact ruled it false.

Several hours later, he added more specifics, but again without any evidence: “Serious voter fraud in Virginia, New Hampshire and California – so why isn’t the media reporting on this? Serious bias – big problem!”

Nope:

Election law experts quickly rejected Trump’s claims as farfetched.

“There’s no reason to believe this is true,” said Rick Hasen, a professor specializing in election law at the University of California, Irvine. “The level of fraud in US elections is quite low.”

Hasen added, “The problem of non-citizen voting is quite small — like we’re talking claims in the dozens, we’re not talking voting in the millions, or the thousands, or even the hundreds.”

David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research and a former senior trial attorney in the Voting Section of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, agreed that widespread fraud was unlikely.

“We know historically that this almost never happens,” he said. “You’re more likely to get eaten by a shark that simultaneously gets hit by lightning than to find a non-citizen voting.”

Yeah, well, watch out for that shark that simultaneously gets hit by lightning, but that’s not the point:

A source close to the president-elect said he felt piqued by the Wisconsin recount demand of Green Party nominee Jill Stein, which Hillary Clinton’s campaign said it will participate in, so he hit back. Even though he’s won and it shouldn’t matter, he isn’t letting it go, the source said.

That’s just who he is and what folks love about him, but there’s a backstory:

The claims of voter fraud appear to have gained traction in conservative circle after Infowars, the conspiracy theory-laden website, published an article on Nov. 14 under the headline, “Report: 3 million votes in presidential election cast by illegal aliens.”

The story cites an analysis by Gregg Phillips, who claims to be the founder of a voting app named VoteStand and who was previously associated with Newt Gingrich’s Winning Our Future super PAC. Phillips has declined to provide any evidence to PolitiFact or reporters to support his assertions of fraud. But he tweeted Sunday evening that he would “release a comprehensive research study to the public, Attorney General [nominee Jeff] Sessions and all interested parties.”

Don’t expect that:

Radio host Alex Jones, who runs Infowars, has faced criticism for promoting unsubstantiated – and often bizarre – conspiracy theories, including that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which resulted in the death of 20 children, is a hoax, and that Hillary Clinton is a “demon from Hell.”

Trump called Jones just days after the election to thank him for his support.

There is no broad consensus of what we consider acceptable behavior any longer:

The president-elect has a long history of pushing debunked conspiracy theories, including the false claim that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States and that the election was “rigged” by global elites to assure Hillary Clinton’s victory.

And now he’s angry:

Hillary Clinton is now ahead in the popular vote by about 2.2 million votes, though Trump won the Electoral College by beating Clinton in key battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin.

Trump said on Twitter Sunday that he could have won the popular vote.

“It would have been much easier for me to win the so-called popular vote than the Electoral College in that I would only campaign in 3 or 4 … states instead of the 15 states that I visited. I would have won even more easily and convincingly (but smaller states are forgotten)!” he wrote.

To bolster his claims, Trump has cited a 2014 blog post in The Washington Post by the authors of a disputed study that estimated that “6.4 percent of non-citizens voted in 2008 and 2.2 percent of non-citizens voted in 2010.” That study has faced intense scrutiny from election experts, with one analyst telling factcheck.org earlier this year, “Their finding is entirely due to measurement error.”

Trump’s critics have argued that Clinton’s popular vote victory raises questions about whether Trump has a solid mandate to govern.

That seems to be the real problem here, but not the only problem:

Presidential historians said Trump’s comments have little precedent.

“Trump is the first winning candidate to question the legitimacy of the process that gave him the White House,” said Timothy Naftali, a history professor at New York University.

Princeton historian Julian Zelizer noted that in 1876, both candidates for president – Samuel J. Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes – claimed voter fraud. “But in that case, there was evidence of fraud and corruption in certain areas,” he said in an email.

“In this case, we see the victor making blanket accusation of fraud to delegitimize 2.5 million votes,” Zelizer said. “Given there is no evidence to support the claim, this is simply stunning and troubling as a sign as to what he will do as president.”

Kevin Drum puts that this way:

It’s just twisting Trump’s guts that more people voted for Hillary Clinton than voted for him. And this whole recount thing in Wisconsin seems to have driven him bananas. The result is a tweet alleging that the Clinton campaign orchestrated millions of illegal votes in 2016… This message went out to all 16 million of his followers, who will surely pass it along to another 16 million or so – and then the media will pass it along to yet millions more.

This is an obvious lie, and it will probably take a few hours for Trump’s TV shills to figure out how to defend it. That’s how it worked with the “thousands of Muslims celebrating on 9/11” thing. But eventually his spear carriers dug up a few internet factoids that provided them with a way to claim that Trump was right, and away they went. I’m sure the same thing will happen this time. I can’t wait to see how many will join in and exactly what dreck they’ll dredge up to justify it.

Alternatively, they could just admit that the Republican president-elect is an epically insecure liar who will say anything when his fragile ego is bruised. That’s not a very appealing alternative, is it?

And then there’s Michael Tomasky:

Let’s review: We have a president-elect who:

  1. Will end up having received around 2.5 million fewer votes than his main opponent.
  1. Whose campaign benefited, almost no one now disputes, from the help provided him by Russian intelligence agencies and other even more shadowy Russian actors – which is to say that foreign agents, whether Russian or any nationality, sought to influence this election to an unprecedented degree.
  1. Who is so tied up in compromises and conflicts because of his business dealings that past White House ethics lawyers, including at least one Republican one, say he will be in violation of the Constitution from his first day in office and argue that the Electoral College must not seat him.
  1. Has already told the American people that, with respect to number 3, his attitude is precisely that of Richard Nixon, back when Nixon declared the president to be by the very nature of the office above the law. Trump said that the president “can’t have a conflict of interest” – meaning, presumably, that it can’t happen simply because he’s the president.

This is a bit absurd:

Want to imagine any one of the above four statements applying to any Democrat, but especially to Hillary Clinton? Think about what we’d be hearing right now from Republicans if Clinton had won a substantial Electoral College victory but lost the popular vote by five more than Al Gore’s margin in 2000. Five hundred thousand was close, but 2.5 million isn’t, out of 137 million. It’s almost 2 percent. That’s a narrow win, yes, but a clear one – well above the threshold, for example, that triggers an automatic recount in the 19 states (plus the District of Columbia) that set such thresholds, which is most typically .5 percent or even .1 percent, but never more than 1 percent.

At the very least, we’d be hearing the right-wing radio people, some Fox hosts, and a fairly large number of prominent Republican senators and House members carrying on about the illegitimacy of Clinton’s victory. Recall back in 1992 when on election night itself, GOP Senate leader Bob Dole said Bill Clinton had no mandate because he didn’t win a majority of the vote. Bill Clinton won 43 percent of the vote, which was nearly 6 percent more than George H. W. Bush, and a whopping 370 electoral votes. But to Dole – and through him, to all Republicans, really, since he was the country’s top-ranking Republican at the time, and others echoed him – Clinton had no mandate.

So if Clinton had no mandate, does Trump?

That’s a good question. Who does? There is no answer. Virtuous cycles are not natural phenomena or human norms. The same might be said of America and its elections. Everything is built on sand, although Tomasky doesn’t want to believe that:

I hate to hear myself saying things like the electors shouldn’t vote for the person who did win under the rules. I don’t know if I can quite endorse that, yet. But by all means, these recounts should be pursued – whatever Jill Stein’s motives here, she’s stumbled into doing something right for once. Democrats from Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi on down should be raising every question they can about Trump’s legitimacy and conflicts.

Three simple points: He was not the choice of the people; he prevailed with the help of a foreign power, a power to which he will clearly be indebted; and he tells us straight up that he will do as he pleases with his business and that he is above the law.

The Democrats ought to be able to stand up and oppose that – not in the name of party, but in the name of country. The press ought to, too – not in the name of “liberalism,” but in the name of the values we purport to defend. We are in a crisis. The next few weeks will show us who’s up to recognizing and acting on it.

And who would do that? Who would dare? The nation is divided as it never has been divided before. There’d be riots in the street. Putin would laugh his ass off. The next few weeks might show us that Donald Trump actually broke America. It was all built on sand anyway.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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