The Politics of Doubt

Think like an English teacher. Hamlet is useless. He mopes around. His father is dead. His mother remarried his father’s brother and something seems wrong. Did the two of them bump off his father for political reasons, to take over the kingdom, or sexual reasons, because they had the hots for each other and needed his father dead and gone? Hamlet isn’t sure, but what can he do about any of this anyway? He gets whiney-suicidal. To be, or nor to be – he’s not sure – and then his father’s ghost pops up. Enough of this moping. Do something, kid! So, the kid confronts his mother, but it’s all talk. Wait! There’s someone hiding behind the curtain! And then Hamlet does perhaps the first impulsive thing he’s done in in his life. He suddenly stabs whoever it is, through the curtain, and it’s the old busybody Polonius, now quite suddenly quite dead. That’s where everything changes. He stops moping and whining. He did something. And this unplugs the action. He can do what needs to be done. Yes, everyone dies in the end, but Hamlet gets the job done. He just needed to get unstuck. It’s hard, but it can be done. Do something. Move on.

And this was the day the nation moved on:

After weeks of delay, uncertainty and lawsuits, President-elect Joe Biden’s team plunged Tuesday into a formal transition, with Biden aides beginning to meet with agency officials in preparation for a head-snapping Trump-to-Biden shift throughout the vast federal bureaucracy.

Uncertainty remains over how much cooperation the Biden team will get from Trump’s political appointees – some of whom are embracing the false notion that the president could somehow still win reelection – as Biden hopes to rebuild a demoralized federal workforce and prepare it to implement his drastically different agenda.

But Tuesday marked a clear shift from delay to action.

Democrats no longer moped. Republicans no longer sneered. Everyone moved on, but of course that couldn’t be true. Jacob Pramuk reports on those still stuck:

Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election. Nearly every supporter of President Donald Trump thinks otherwise, according to a new CNBC/Change Research poll.

As the president makes unsubstantiated claims about electoral malfeasance and sows doubts about vote tallies, only 3% of Trump voters surveyed said they accept Biden’s victory as legitimate, the survey released Monday found. A staggering 73% of respondents consider Trump the legitimate winner. Another 24% said they are not sure.

A mere 3% of Trump voters believe he should concede to Biden and start the peaceful transfer of power. Another 31% want the president to fight in court until states certify results. Two-thirds, or 66%, think Trump should never concede.

This is a problem:

The findings will have little practical effect on the president-elect Biden’s path to taking office on Jan. 20. He will win the White House with 306 electoral votes, according to NBC News, flipping the states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia and Arizona along the way. The Trump campaign has repeatedly lost in court as it fails to show irregularities affected the results, and a hand count of votes in Georgia reaffirmed Biden’s victory.

But the poll underscores the potentially bigger harm Trump’s lies about the vote tallies have done to public faith in the electoral process. The president appears to have convinced many of his supporters he lost unfairly, even as state officials and judges have repeatedly shot down claims of fraud and wrongdoing.

Elections are now a joke. Don’t trust anything about them. But wait. That means that America is now a joke. Don’t trust anything about America? Do they believe this man? It seems that they do:

Loyalty to Trump runs deep among the respondents. Asked with whom they would identify if the president left the GOP, 72% responded Trump’s party, while 28% answered the Republican Party.

The New York Times’ Alexander Burns looks into this:

As President Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election have steadily disintegrated, the country appears to have escaped a doomsday scenario in the campaign’s epilogue: Since Nov. 3, there have been no tanks in the streets or widespread civil unrest, no brazen intervention by the judiciary or a partisan state legislature. Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s obvious victory has withstood Mr. Trump’s peddling of conspiracy theories and his campaign of groundless lawsuits.

In the end – and the postelection standoff instigated by Mr. Trump and his party is truly nearing its end – the president’s attack on the election wheezed to an anticlimax. It was marked not by dangerous new political convulsions but by a letter from an obscure Trump-appointed bureaucrat, Emily W. Murphy of the General Services Administration, authorizing the process of formally handing over the government to Mr. Biden.

For now, the country appears to have avoided a ruinous breakdown of its electoral system.

Yes, but Burns knows better:

While Mr. Trump’s mission to subvert the election has so far failed at every turn, it has nevertheless exposed deep cracks in the edifice of American democracy and opened the way for future disruption and perhaps disaster. With the most amateurish of efforts, Mr. Trump managed to freeze the passage of power for most of a month, commanding submissive indulgence from Republicans and stirring fear and frustration among Democrats as he explored a range of wild options for thwarting Mr. Biden.

He never came close to achieving his goal: Key state officials resisted his entreaties to disenfranchise huge numbers of voters, and judges all but laughed his legal team out of court.

But he came close enough:

Ben Ginsberg, the most prominent Republican election lawyer of his generation, said he doubted any future candidates would attempt to replicate Mr. Trump’s precise approach, because it has been so unsuccessful. Few candidates and election lawyers, Mr. Ginsberg suggested, would regard Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sidney Powell – the public faces of Mr. Trump’s litigation – as the authors of an ingenious new playbook.

“If in a few months, we look back and see that this Trump strategy was just an utter failure, then it’s not likely to be copied,” said Mr. Ginsberg, who represented former President George W. Bush in the 2000 election standoff. “But the system was stress-tested as never before.”

That test, he said, revealed enough vague provisions and holes in American election law to make a crisis all too plausible.

The next time the players might not be incompetent, so fix the flaws in the system:

He pointed in particular to the lack of uniform standards for the timely certification of elections by state authorities, and the uncertainty about whether state legislatures had the power to appoint their own electors in defiance of the popular vote. The 2020 election, he said, “should be a call for some consideration of those issues.”

That might be useful:

Barbara J. Pariente, the former chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court who oversaw the state-level battle over the 2000 vote, said it was essential for Congress to clarify the process by which elections are conducted and resolved or risk greater calamity in the coming years. Mr. Trump’s team, she said, had already breached fundamental standards of legal conduct by filing cases seeking to throw out huge numbers of votes “without any evidence of impropriety, and then asking a court to look further into it.”

“As I look at what is happening now, I think it’s a real attack on our American system of democracy, and it is causing tens of millions of Americans to doubt the outcome,” Ms. Pariente said. “It has grave implications, in my view, for the future of this country.”

But don’t expect much:

Even if Congress were to impose a clearer set of election procedures, however, there is reason to doubt whether the rules could reverse the total-war mind-set Mr. Trump has modeled. In failure, he has created a road map for his own party – or even, under certain circumstances, for a grievance-laden Democrat – to wage a bitter-end fight against an unfavorable election result, with the support of loud voices in the right-wing media and much of his party’s conservative base.

And it is that last cohort, the millions of voters who remain loyal to Mr. Trump and who appear largely indifferent to the facts of the vote tally and the niceties of legal procedure, that represents the most potent kind of weapon for this defeated president, or another executive who might follow his example.

It seems there are those who love Trump and hate democracy, when it does him dirt:

Shawn Rosenberg, a professor of political and psychological science at the University of California, Irvine, who has written pessimistically about the trajectory of American democracy, said Mr. Trump has been highly effective at exploiting the gap between the complexity of the country’s political system and the more rudimentary grasp most voters have of their government. For the average partisan, he said, issues of political norms and procedures were “very abstract” and far less important than simply winning – an impulse Mr. Trump stoked to the detriment of democratic institutions.

Mr. Rosenberg warned that while Mr. Trump’s political opposition had managed to unseat an incumbent – a rare feat in the nation’s presidential system – the election was not the kind of overwhelming rout that might have proven American democracy “invulnerable” to the kind of erosion on display in newer democracies like Poland and India. That was something of a disappointment to Mr. Trump’s critics on both the left and right, he said.

“Their hope was that he had gone so far that he would awaken this awareness and resolve in the American people,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “And clearly that was not the case for roughly 74 million of them.”

So, everyone is still stuck, which Toluse Olorunnipa and his team at the Washington Post see this way:

When President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in on Jan. 20, he will face a fundamental challenge unlike any incoming president before him: Tens of millions of Americans who doubt his legitimacy and question the stability of the country’s democratic traditions – in part because of his predecessor’s unprecedented attempt to set both ablaze before leaving office.

For the past three weeks, as President Trump has refused to concede the election, the federal government, the Trump campaign legal team and whole swaths of the Republican Party have worked in tandem to interfere with the peaceful transition of power.

By lodging baseless claims of voter fraud and embracing – or declining to reject – outlandish conspiracy theories about the electoral process, Trump and his allies have normalized the kind of post-election assault on institutions typically seen in less-developed democracies, according to historians, former administration officials, and lawmakers and diplomats from across the political spectrum.

Ah, we’re banana-republic stuck! Well, we are:

Lingering damage to the U.S. electoral system could be among the most consequential legacies of the Trump presidency, said Michael Chertoff, a homeland security secretary under President George W. Bush.

Trump’s effort to overturn the election results in the days after the race has so far proved unsuccessful, as Biden has moved ahead with hallmarks of a presidential transition such as building a Cabinet. But Chertoff and others said the harm inflicted on the democratic process since Nov. 3 should not be underestimated.

“We’ve now seen a blueprint, which has been road-tested in other parts of the world, being adopted by Donald Trump here in the U.S.,” he said, adding that Trump’s attempts have been ineffective in part because of their clumsiness. “But a more effective and a more skillful want-to-be autocrat could use the same playbook.”

Luckily, Trump was not that good at this sort of thing:

Trump’s GOP allies, despite multiple losses in court, have continued to press their case with the public – making an ever-growing list of specious allegations about fraud involving mail-in ballots, voting machines, signature-matching, late-arriving votes, poll workers in heavily minority cities, foreign interference, dead people casting votes, unbalanced voter rolls, nonresident voters, Sharpie-stained ballots and the traditional tabulation process.

But as Trump has tried unsuccessfully to win over judges and state lawmakers, Biden’s lead has remained secure – and has grown nationally as more ballots have been processed.

Ah, but there are those other people:

Trump’s repeated claims of election rigging have led many of the 74 million people who cast ballots for him to doubt the reliability of the voting process. Even as the transition proceeds – with the General Services Administration announcing late Monday that the administration could begin coordinating with Biden’s incoming team – Trump has continued his onslaught.

“What does GSA being allowed to preliminarily work with the Dems have to do with continuing to pursue our various cases on what will go down as the most corrupt election in American political history?” Trump tweeted Tuesday morning. “We are moving full speed ahead. Will never concede to fake ballots & ‘Dominion’…”

The claims about vote-changing machines and fraudulent ballots have been repeatedly rejected by judges, local officials and even the president’s own administration. Last week, Trump fired a top Department of Homeland Security official who had vocally dismissed allegations of widespread fraud in the Nov. 3 election.

That didn’t matter to those other people:

The lack of pushback from Republican lawmakers signaled a willingness by them to accept Trump’s post-election denial despite the danger it poses, said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University.

“This is the story of the Trump presidency,” he said. “The GOP not only stood behind the president, regardless of what he did, but even as he used his power to attack the basic element of the democratic process, very few took action.”

And that puts Biden in a bind:

Biden, who has said Trump’s denial of the election results is “embarrassing,” said Tuesday that he is willing to meet with the president.

“Of course, I would, if he asked,” Biden told reporters.

That seems unlikely to happen soon, as Trump and much of his party remain focused on continuing the effort to cast doubt on the election results.

That doubt is dangerous, as Ed Foley notes here:

The danger that America faces is not that the losing candidate will resort to litigation to overturn a clear election result. It’s that a cynical and unpatriotic candidate will deploy litigation as part of a broader political strategy – upping the pressure on state and local election officials, state legislatures, and Congress to negate the outcome.

In fact, litigation turned out to be the weakest part of Trump’s playbook. Since Election Day, courts have proved the most stalwart defenders of democracy. In case after case, in which the Trump campaign or its allies have asked judges to nullify the popular vote for president in a state, federal and state court judges have refused.

The lawsuits were so strained in their reasoning, and so lacking in supporting evidence, that they never seemed designed to achieve conventional courtroom victories. Instead, they seemed intended to cast just enough doubt on the election’s outcome for just long enough to let the political operation to gain traction.

In 2020, the plan backfired. The judicial shellacking of Trump’s fact-free claims gave backbone to these other political actors to withstand Trump’s all-out assault on letting the voters decide whom they wanted in the White House for the next four years.

And yet, it is important to recognize how vulnerable the electoral system remains to this kind of authoritarian pressure.

Trump did, after all, come close:

The core of Trump’s scheme was for state legislatures to appoint electors in defiance of the state’s popular vote. He took the extraordinary step of summoning Michigan legislators to the White House as part of his pressure tactics. They resisted this time, when there wasn’t even a colorable basis for claiming that the popular vote was corrupt. It’s when the pretext is more plausible that we should be really worried.

And then there’s the view from the outside:

Some foreign observers are also struggling to explain the U.S. political drama to their baffled friends and colleagues.

Beyond the usual questions about the electoral college and why anyone cares about the vote in Broward County, Fla., Barry Eidlin, a sociologist at McGill University in Montreal, keeps getting asked whether a country considered the beacon of democracy will have a peaceful transition of power come January.

“This year, it’s gone haywire, sort of on the Bush versus Gore level,” said Eidlin, a dual citizen who splits his time between California and Quebec. “It’s been a source of puzzlement and bewilderment. It’s on the level of, what on earth is happening? It’s definitely a more challenging place to explain.”

That is difficult:

The election that the president and his allies are disputing bears little resemblance to the observations by a mission sent over from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The United States is a member, and the State Department invited the group of more than 100 observers to come watch. In an interim report released the day after the vote, the OSCE praised poll workers and lambasted Trump for sowing doubt on the election’s legitimacy. Their criticism of the president has not ebbed.

Trump’s accusations distinguish this election from the previous eight the OSCE has observed, said Kari Henriksen, a member of Norway’s parliament who headed the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s group of observers.

“People have big expectations of the U.S. as a good, functional democracy,” she said. “Therefore, it is astonishing that we experience this kind of mistrust from a president when the U.S. is the leading country in the world regarding democracy. That is one of the issues that makes this very, very special.”

In this context, special is not good:

Even as some leading Republicans have started to publicly criticize Trump’s strategy, foreign analysts are looking at the long-term impact of the post-election impasse.

Krzysztof J. Pelc, a political science professor at McGill University, said Trump’s refusal to admit he lost and the GOP’s reluctance to publicly rebuke him suggest that the Trump phenomenon will not end when he leaves office.

“The spectacle of the past weeks implies that even if the White House becomes more open to greater cooperation with its allies, it may simply be unable to act on those good intentions,” he said.

“The great lesson that U.S. allies have drawn from the past four years is that the American ideals of democratic freedom and openness rest on a fragile basis. American political institutions have proven more delicate than most international observers thought. As a result, we are always one election away from U.S. commitments coming undone.”

And that’s the end. America fades away. Those on distant shores can hear the faint angry bickering from far away, the sound of a nation stuck, doubting everything and doing nothing. Hamlet does come to mind. But he wasn’t stupid.

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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