The Slow-Motion Riot

More than twenty years ago, in Paris, it was staying up all night watching CNN-International in the hotel room. That was December 12, 2000. Somewhere in the middle of the night there was Al Gore on the screen, conceding the presidential election to George Bush. Fine – at dawn it was a long walk in the December rain – it always rains in Paris. It was over. And the French shrugged. Americans…

But there was no other option. Gore knew he might somehow win if he forced the issue and fought and fought and fought on this or that set of facts. But he knew that would tear the country apart. If he could somehow prove he had actually won, which was possible, he would seem utterly evil, or unbelievably stupid, to half the country. They wouldn’t believe any of that. They’d claim he wasn’t really the president. They’d shut down the government, and thus the country, or they’d say that they would. The 2000 presidential election would never end. That would paralyze the country, and that paralysis would never end.

Gore understood that and accepted the consequences of conceding the election. Democrats were outraged. This wasn’t right. They were told to get over it and eventually did, for the good of the country. They didn’t forget the details of what had happened, and they never forgave anyone who had been part of that mess, but they moved on. They let George W. Bush do his thing, and when, after eight years of Iraq and then the Katrina debacle and then the total collapse of the economy, they won back the presidency with Barack Obama. There was no question this time. John McCain never claimed he had really won. He wished Obama well and stepped aside. Four years later, Mitt Romney wished Obama well and stepped aside. Four years after that, Hillary Clinton wished Donald Trump well and stepped aside. They all knew better. Elections can’t last forever.

But now they can, and do. Ed Kilgore has the details:

People who are fond of democratic norms have been hoping that the widespread Republican mistrust of the fairness of the 2020 elections that Donald Trump created before, during, and after Election Day would fade, another vestige of four aberrant years yielding to something approaching “normalcy.” So far, it hasn’t, according to a new survey from CNN, which shows that 70 percent of self-identified Republicans do not believe “Joe Biden legitimately won enough votes to win the presidency.”

That’s just a tick below the 75 percent who felt that way in a January CNN survey. In what the pollsters took to be an encouraging sign, the percentage of Republicans who think “there is solid evidence that Biden did not win has dropped from 58 percent in January to 50 percent now.”

But that’s only because “solid evidence” just isn’t an issue anymore:

The mistrust of Trump voters about the fairness of the election, of course, was the rationale for MAGA efforts to stop Joe Biden’s certification as president-elect by Congress on January 6. Since that mistrust persists, we are beginning to glimpse the possibility of an unfounded suspicion of foul play that cannot be dispelled or even rebutted because it has never really been articulated except in nonsense legal proceedings that every court has instantly rejected, and in chaotic and sometimes incoherent arguments from Trump and his hirelings.

And remember, Democrats are not Republicans:

Polling as of January 2017 found 65 percent of presumably disappointed Democrats expressing confidence in the 2016 results, pretty close to the 71 percent of presumably thrilled Republicans who thought likewise. Keep in mind that some of the 28 percent of Democrats who were not confident the votes had been fairly and accurately counted were probably bitterly opposed to the Electoral College which gave Trump the White House despite Hillary Clinton’s decisive popular-vote margin, or had heard a lot about possible Russian interference in the election on Trump’s behalf. Add in the sheer shock Democrats experienced and never quite overcame at the sheer implausibility of someone like Trump becoming president, and it’s surprising that doubts about the integrity of the election weren’t significantly higher in that quarter…

Yes, there were challenges in those years, but they were scattered, expressly justified as symbolic gestures, and most of all were not endorsed, much less encouraged on an hourly basis for months, by the losing candidate.

That was then, but this is now:

A troubling and distinctive thing about the post-2020 Republican angst is that unlike Democrats in 2016, they have to believe in a lot of fraud to think more Americans supported their candidate than his opponent. Yes, Trump came close to pulling off another Electoral College win. But all the talk among Republicans about the need to respect the 74 million Americans whose votes were counted for Trump involves some pretty serious disrespect for the 81 million Americans whose votes were counted for Biden. The Democrat’s 7,054,000 popular-vote margin was, after all, larger than the winning margins in 1988, 1992, 2000, 2004, 2012, and 2016. Even if Republicans believe Trump was somehow counted out in a few critical states, they sure can’t believe their man was robbed of some popular mandate.

So you have a major political party whose rank-and-file members overwhelmingly believe, without specific evidence and without much justice in the broader scheme of things, that the president of the United States is a usurper who should have never been allowed to take office. That these same people (or certainly their elected representatives) are furious that Biden won’t significantly compromise on his key legislative priorities is grimly amusing. But you have to worry about today’s GOP mistrust in democracy becoming permanent.

That’s what Al Gore worried about all those years ago. Now we see why:

In 2024, how much of a Democratic margin will be necessary to give a Democratic winner truly bipartisan legitimacy? 10 percent? A minimum of 5 percent in every battleground state? Does the loser get to decide if the winner can actually claim victory? How about if the loser has said for months that any defeat must be the product of a “rigged” election? What if the Republican candidate is again Donald Trump?

In the long run, this phenomenon is a bigger threat to democracy than the thuggish but sometimes farcical insurrection on January 6. And like a slow-motion riot, the threat remains ongoing.

And this unending slow-motion riot would paralyze the country.

That paralysis is starting. The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker and Marianna Sotomayor report this:

Debra Ell, a Republican organizer in Michigan and fervent supporter of former president Donald Trump, said she has good reason to believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

“I think I speak for many people in that Trump has never actually been wrong, and so we’ve learned to trust when he says something, that he’s not just going to spew something out there that’s wrong and not verified,” she said, referring to Trump’s baseless claims that widespread electoral fraud caused his loss to President Biden in November.

In fact, there is no evidence to support Trump’s false assertions, which culminated in a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. But Ell, a Republican precinct delegate in her state, said the 2020 election is one of the reasons she’s working to censure and remove Jason Cabel Roe from his role as the Michigan Republican Party’s executive director – specifically that Roe accepted the 2020 results, telling Politico that “the election wasn’t stolen” and that “there is no one to blame but Trump.”

“He said the election was not rigged, as Donald Trump had said, so we didn’t agree with that, and then he didn’t blame the Democrats for any election fraud,” said Ell, explaining her frustration with Roe. “He said there was no fraud – again, that’s something that doesn’t line up with what we think really happened – and then he said it’s all Donald Trump’s fault.”

Start with the assumption that Trump has never actually been wrong, about anything, and the rest follows, logically, given that premise. That’s what is happening:

Nearly six months after Trump lost to Biden, rejection of the 2020 election results – dubbed the “Big Lie” by many Democrats – has increasingly become an unofficial litmus test for acceptance in the Republican Party. In January, 147 GOP lawmakers – eight senators and 139 House members – voted in support of objections to the election results, and since then, Republicans from Congress to statehouses to local party organizations have fervently embraced the falsehood.

This is the dangerous and somewhat embarrassing slow-motion riot:

In Washington, normally chatty senators scramble to skirt the question, and internal feuding over who is to blame for the Jan. 6 insurrection has riven the House Republican leadership, with tensions between House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 House Republican, spilling into public view. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is facing a Trump-aligned primary challenger in her 2022 race, inspired by her call for Trump to resign after the Jan. 6 attack and her later vote to convict him over his role in inciting the insurrection.

Local officials, too, are facing censure and threats – in states from Iowa to Michigan to Missouri – for publicly accepting the election results. And in Arizona’s largest county, a hand recount of 2.1 million votes cast in November is underway by Republicans who dispute the results, in yet another effort to overturn the results of the November contest.

But the danger is not the death threats. The danger is ridicule and national paralysis:

The issue also could reverberate through the 2022 midterms and the 2024 election, with Trump already slamming Republicans who did not resist the election results. For Republicans, fealty to the falsehood could pull the party further to the right during the primaries, providing challenges during the general election when wooing more-moderate voters is crucial. And for Democrats, the continued existence of the claim threatens to undermine Biden’s agenda.

And an additional danger is absurdity:

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both Republicans, resisted direct pressure from Trump to overturn their state’s election results in favor of a Trump victory. The backlash was swift: Trump called for Kemp to resign and endorsed Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), a challenger to Raffensperger, for Georgia secretary of state.

“Jody will stop the Fraud and get honesty into our Elections!” Trump said in a statement shortly after Hice announced his challenge.

After the 2020 election, in which Georgia went for Biden – and later elected two Democratic senators in a runoff in January – Kemp signed a sweeping law that critics say restricts voting access in the state. The new law provoked a public outcry from voting rights activists and major corporations – Major League Baseball moved its 2021 All-Star Game out of Atlanta in response – but also proved an insufficient step for many Republicans who still say the election was stolen.

“There’s no Republican that I know of, that I’ve spoken with, who has come to me and said, ‘Biden won fair and square,’” said Salleigh Grubbs, the newly elected chair of the Cobb County Republican Party in Georgia. “I absolutely do believe that there were irregularities in the election. I absolutely believe that our voices were shut out.”

This is a matter of belief. Facts hardly matter now. Things become uncomfortable:

In Washington, McCarthy has backpedaled from his original reaction to the Jan. 6 attacks, when he said that Trump “bears responsibility,” defending Trump’s response in a recent “Fox News Sunday” interview. At the House Republicans annual policy retreat last week, he also pointedly declined to say whether Cheney – who has publicly criticized Trump’s refusal to accept the election results – was a “good fit” for the party’s leadership team.

“That’s a question for the conference,” McCarthy said, while also saying that anyone criticizing Trump over the Capitol riot, as Cheney had done, was “not being productive.”

Productive? That word may not mean what he thinks it means. This is getting embarrassing:

Last week, Republican senators remained reluctant to weigh in on just how much accepting Biden’s presidency as legitimate is becoming a key question for party stalwarts. National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott (Fla.), one of the eight senators who voted against certifying the election results, said the former president’s election falsehoods are not resonating with voters.

“They’re worried about the border crisis and worried about their schools opening,” Scott said. “They’re worried about men playing in women’s sports, they’re worried about the job market, watching them kill the Keystone pipeline.”

How would he know? But he does want to talk about those LBGT kids – those perverts that everyone hates – and that oil pipeline that even the oil industry doesn’t want now – banning all of Doctor Suess and the tragedy of Mister Potato Head and Biden outlawing hamburgers – just not this. Trump lost. Trump will make them all look like idiots.

Trump is their problem. The Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne sees this:

Donald Trump never had a popular majority behind him, but he was the Great Disrupter. By shattering old assumptions, he clarified the battlefield for the future.

Trump sped up two trends that began gathering steam in the 1990s: the steady shift of well-educated and professional voters toward the Democratic Party, and the move of White working-class voters to the GOP. Biden won in 2020 partly because he cut into Trump’s working-class margins a bit, but largely because he swept increasingly diverse suburban areas that were at the heart of the Democrats’ gains in the 2018 midterms.

This raises two questions: Can Republicans begin to claw back some of the upscale, well-educated voters they lost under Trump? And can Democrats expand on the inroads Biden began to make among voters who didn’t attend college?

Democrats hold the initiative, and not just because they control the presidency and narrow congressional majorities. As long as the vast majority of GOP politicians refuse to break with Trump, they will be tethered to his minority coalition. A comeback will be tough if moderate middle- and upper-middle-class professionals continue to associate the party with Trump, far-right extremists and the Jan. 6. attack on the Capitol.

Their only option may be reducing the size of the electorate. Those who see them as jerks should not be allowed to vote. But it may be too late for that:

This creates a vulnerability Biden hopes to exploit. It’s hard to imagine that any Republican will win more of the White, non-college-educated vote than Trump did, so some parts of that electorate are up for grabs. Democrats do not need to carry this group; a shift of five or 10 points among these voters would put the GOP on its heels.

This is the upshot of a new report by Aliza Astrow, a political analyst for the centrist Democratic group Third Way. The report is both a warning and a promise. As long as Democrats stay weak among non-college-educated voters, she argues, they will have trouble holding, let alone strengthening, their control over the House and Senate. And they will continue to face agonizing fights to win the electoral college, even with large leads in the national popular vote. But modest shifts toward the Democrats among voters without a college degree would change the game.

But that could happen now:

The two models she cites of Democrats who succeeded in winning non-college-educated voters in states Trump carried represent different wings of the party: moderate Gov. Roy Cooper in North Carolina and progressive Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio. Both, she said, campaigned on jobs for blue-collar workers, job training and infrastructure. Those who heard Biden’s speech last week will notice something familiar.

Something new is going on here:

The ongoing debate among pollsters is whether economic policies can really move the numbers among White working-class voters. After all, their ballots for Trump were largely explained by issues related to race, culture and immigration.

But Biden’s intuition is that economic questions unite less economically privileged voters across racial lines – and that many non-college-educated voters think the Democrats have stopped talking to them altogether. By addressing their concerns explicitly and sympathetically, as he did last week, Biden hopes first to close this communications gap and then deliver tangible benefits.

There’s certainly a case that American politics are now so fluid that sturdy realignments are impossible. But with Republicans stranded on Trump Island, Biden has an opportunity to hold his party’s base and begin poaching the GOP’s core voters. He’s made no secret of his intentions.

Trump Island? That’s a smaller and smaller place. That’s their almost comically absurd Gilligan’s Island. And they face what Catherine Rampell explains here:

Biden has proved a challenging adversary for Republicans to vilify. He’s a generally congenial and empathetic politician, who has a compelling personal story rife with loss. He has working-class bona fides and has resisted conscription into Republican-framed culture wars. Republicans have tried caricaturing him as old and ineffectual – yet also somehow unusually effective at transforming the country into a socialist hellscape.

Yes, that makes no sense:

GOP strategists appear aware that these critiques are somewhat at odds. So, Republicans keep returning to a Swift-boat-like attack: Strike at his strength – his compelling message of “unifying” the country – and portray it as a devious ploy to divide Americans instead.

Republicans argue that Biden offered a bait-and-switch, that he ran on healing our divisions but now plans to… pass a bunch of social programs benefiting the poor and middle class.

What? Don’t ask:

If you’re wondering how that latter agenda supposedly contradicts the former, you’re not alone. The connective tissue, according to Republican officials, is that programs redistributing money to help the poor and middle class are somehow inherently divisive (class warfare!), regardless of the polls suggesting their popularity; or, in the GOP telling, only the programs Republican lawmakers vote for should count as unifying.

In other words, Republicans have decided that the test of Biden’s desire to unify the country is whether Republicans themselves defect from the project – and they have made clear their decision to always do so. As Republicans learned during the Obama years, the easiest way to ensure a president fails at achieving promised cooperation is to refuse to cooperate.

So that’s what they’re doing, including on initiatives that they’d previously supported (under another president, of a different party), such as investments in child care, paid leave or infrastructure. Even when Republicans have announced a supposedly reasonable compromise or counteroffer, they were clearly not serious attempts to negotiate.

And they want to be admired for that? That’s unlikely. They’ve been outfoxed:

Biden doesn’t make inflammatory references to “American carnage,” or fearmonger about invading foreigners. There have been no lists of those who aggrieve him, or attacks on kneeling athletes, or media personalities, or high-profile politicians of color – really nothing demonizing political enemies, real or perceived. The few contingents that Biden has framed as adversaries were terrorists (domestic and abroad), the violent mob that sieged the Capitol, and countries with whom we compete for economic and political influence; all others within the United States, or hoping to someday immigrate here, were portrayed as deserving of fellowship.

Even as he makes an aggressive case for his agenda, even as he lays out disagreements with political opponents and tries to win them over, Biden has consistently portrayed Republicans as potential partners operating in good faith.

You might call the approach unifying.

Or else he’s a sneaky bastard. He’s being reasonable. The other side has chosen their never-ending slow-motion riot. They expect to be admired. They expect everyone to agree that Donald Trump is still the president now.

He isn’t. This is over. This slow-motion riot will eventually subside and end. Then it’s back to Paris. That’s where Camus and Sartre invented the absurd. They can have it. We don’t need it.

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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