Toward the beginning of a wise and beautifully stated essay about American partisanship and the response to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, the lawyer and political commentator David French wrote, “I have never in my adult life seen such a deep shudder and sense of dread pass through the American political class.”
I don’t think the shudder was confined to the political class. And the day after Ginsburg died, I felt a shudder just as deep.
That was when Trump supporters descended on a polling location in Fairfax, Va., and sought to disrupt early voting there by forming a line that voters had to circumvent and chanting, “Four more years!”
This was no rogue group. This was no random occurrence. This was an omen — and a harrowing one at that.
Republicans are planning to have tens of thousands of volunteers fan out to voting places in key states, ostensibly to guard against fraud but effectively to create a climate of menace. Trump has not just blessed but encouraged this. On Fox News last month, he bragged to Sean Hannity about all the “sheriffs” and “law enforcement” who would monitor the polls on his behalf. At a rally in North Carolina, he told supporters: “Be poll watchers when you go there. Watch all the thieving and stealing and robbing they do.”
Color me alarmist, but that sounds like an invitation to do more than just watch. Trump put an exclamation point on it by exhorting those supporters to vote twice, once by mail and once in person, which is of course blatantly against the law.
Is a fair fight still imaginable in America? Do rules and standards of decency still apply? For a metastasizing segment of the population, no. That’s the toxic wellspring of the dread that French mentioned. That’s the moral of the madness in Virginia.
Right on cue, we commenced a fight over Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat that could become a protracted death match, with Mitch McConnell’s haste and unabashed hypocrisy potentially answered by court packing, among other acts of vengeance, if Democrats win the presidency and the Senate.
That’s a big if, because we’re also hurtling toward an Election Day that may decide exactly nothing — and I don’t mean that night. I mean for months. I mean forever.
Talk about a shudder: On Wednesday Trump was asked if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power in the event that he lost to Joe Biden. Shockingly but then not really, he wouldn’t. He prattled anew about mail-in ballots and voter fraud and, perhaps alluding to all of the election-related lawsuits that his minions have filed, said: “There won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation.”
We’re in terrible danger. Make no mistake. This country, already uncivil, is on the precipice of being ungovernable, because its institutions are being so profoundly degraded, because its partisanship is so all-consuming, and because Trump, who rode those trends to power, is now turbocharging them to drive America into the ground. The Republican Party won’t apply the brakes.
The week since Ginsburg’s death has been the proof of that. Many of us dared to dream that a small but crucial clutch of Republican senators, putting patriotism above party, would realize that to endorse McConnell’s abandonment of his own supposed principle about election-year Supreme Court appointments would be a straw too many, a stressor too much and a guarantee of endless, boundless recrimination and retribution. At some point, someone had to be honorable and say, “Enough.”
Hah. Only two Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, broke with McConnell, and in Collins’s case, there were re-election considerations and hedged wording. All the others fell into line.
I don’t blame it on a lack of courage. I attribute it to something worse. Most politicians — and maybe most Americans — now look across the political divide and see a band of crooks who will pick your pocket if you’re meek and dumb enough not to pick theirs first. The person who leaves his or her wallet out in the open, as a gesture of good will, can’t complain when he or she winds up broke.
“It’s the Wild West,” said a Republican strategist who is no fan of Trump’s but was using that metaphor to defend McConnell to me. I had reached out to the strategist to vent my disgust.
“It’s all about situational power dynamics,” he continued. “If the situation were reversed, the Dems would be doing the same thing.” He argued that Chuck Schumer and McConnell “play the same game. McConnell just plays it a little better.”
So the lesson for Democrats should be to take all they can when they can? That’s what some prominent Democrats now propose: As soon as their party is in charge, add enough seats to the Supreme Court to give Democrats the greater imprint on it. Make the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico states, so that Democrats have much better odds of controlling the Senate. Do away with the filibuster entirely. That could be just the start of the list.
I wouldn’t begrudge the Democrats any of it. The way I’m feeling right now, I’d cheer them on. But Republicans reach back to Harry Reid’s actions when he was the Democratic majority leader of the Senate to justify their wickedness now. Democrats will cite that wickedness to justify the shattering of precedents in the future. Ugliness begets ugliness until — what? The whole thing collapses of its own ugly weight?
And who the hell are we anymore? The world’s richest and most powerful country has been brought pitifully and agonizingly low. On Tuesday we passed the mark of 200,000 deaths related to the coronavirus, cementing our status as the global leader, by far, on that front. How’s that for exceptionalism?
On Wednesday The Atlantic rushed its November cover story onto the web with an explanatory, almost apocalyptic note by its editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, that some journalism is too important to wait. The article is about the very real chance — essentially confirmed hours later by Trump’s “continuation” comment — that he might contest the election in a manner that keeps him in power regardless of what Americans really want.
“The coronavirus pandemic, a reckless incumbent, a deluge of mail-in ballots, a vandalized Postal Service, a resurgent effort to suppress votes, and a trainload of lawsuits are bearing down on the nation’s creaky electoral machinery,” the article’s author, Barton Gellman, a Pulitzer winner, wrote. “The mechanisms of decision are at meaningful risk of breaking down. Close students of election law and procedure are warning that conditions are ripe for a constitutional crisis that would leave the nation without an authoritative result. We have no fail-safe against that calamity.”
Just a few days before those words screeched across the internet, The New Yorker published a similar, equally chilling opus by one of its star writers, Jeffrey Toobin, who explained how this election might well degenerate into violence, as Democratic poll watchers clash with Republican poll watchers, and into chaos, as accusations of foul play delay the certification of state vote counts.
Several hours after Gellman’s article appeared, Slate published one by Richard Hasen, a professor at the University of California-Irvine School of Law, with the headline: “I’ve Never Been More Worried About American Democracy Than I Am Right Now.”
Sometimes an overlap of alarms like that reflects groupthink. Sometimes it signals hysteria. This isn’t either of those times.
“The republic is in greater self-generated danger than at any time since the 1870s,” Richard Primus, a professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School, told me, saying that Trump values nothing more than his own power and will do anything that he can get away with.
I spoke with Primus, fittingly enough, as he drove home to Michigan from Washington, where he was paying tribute to Ginsburg, for whom he was a clerk two decades ago.
“If you had told Barack Obama or George W. Bush that you can be re-elected at the cost that American democracy will be permanently disfigured — and in the future America will be a failed republic — I don’t think either would have taken the deal.” But Trump? “I don’t think the survival of the republic particularly means anything to Donald Trump.”
What gave Primus that idea? Was it when federal officers used tear gas on protesters to clear a path for a presidential photo op? Was it when Trump floated the idea of postponing the election, just one of his many efforts to undermine Americans’ confidence in their own system of government?
Or was it when he had his name lit up in fireworks above the White House as the climax of his party’s convention? Was it on Monday, when his attorney general, Bill Barr, threatened to withhold federal funds from cities that the president considers “anarchist”? That gem fit snugly with Trump’s talk of blue America as a blight on red America, his claim that the pandemic would be peachy if he could just lop off that rotten fruit.
The deadly confrontations recently in Kenosha, Wis., and Portland, Ore., following months of mass protests against racial injustice, speak to how profoundly estranged from their government a significant percentage of Americans feel. These Americans have lost or are losing faith that the system can treat them fairly.
“Tribal,” “identity politics,” “fake news” and “hoax” are now mainstays of our vocabulary, indicative of a world where facts and truth are suddenly relative. Yours may contradict mine, eroding any common ground and preventing any consensus. Yes, there were conspiracy theories and there was viciously ugly feuding before — there were duels! — but there were no Facebook or Twitter to accelerate the sorting of people into ideological cliques and to pour accelerant on the fires of their suspicion and resentment.
Those fires are burning hot, with dire implications for what happens after Nov. 3. Sizable camps of people in both parties don’t see any way that the other could win honestly and won’t regard the ensuing government as legitimate. Trump has essentially commanded his followers to take that view.
And he’s foreshadowing legal shenanigans by his team that would leave many Democratic voters feeling robbed. Try this on for size: Litigation to determine the next president winds up with the Supreme Court, where three Trump-appointed justices are part of a majority decision in his favor. It’s possible.
“Things that seemed off-the-wall are now on-the-wall,” Hasen told me. Last February he released a book, “Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust, and the Threat to American Democracy,” the title of which now reads, if anything, as understated.
What’s the far side of a meltdown? America the puddle? While we await the answer, we get a nasty showdown over that third Trump justice. Trump will nominate someone likely to horrify Democrats and start another culture war: anything to distract voters from his damnable failure to address the pandemic.
Rush Limbaugh — you know, the statesman whom Trump honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom earlier this year — has urged McConnell not even to bother with a confirmation hearing for the nominee in the Judiciary Committee and to go straight to a floor vote. Due diligence and vetting are so 2018.
Some Democrats have suggested boycotting the hearing in protest and in recognition of the (usually) predetermined outcomes of these grandstanding sessions. Some floated the impeachment of Barr (who deserves it) to gum up the timetable.
You know who has most noticeably and commendably tried to turn down the temperature? Biden. That’s of course its own political calculation, but it’s consistent with his comportment during his entire presidential campaign, one that has steered clear of extremism, exalted comity and recognized that a country can’t wash itself clean with more muck.
He’s our best bid for salvation, which goes something like this: An indisputable majority of Americans recognize our peril and give him a margin of victory large enough that Trump’s challenge of it is too ludicrous for even many of his Republican enablers to justify. Biden takes office, correctly understanding that his mandate isn’t to punish Republicans. It’s to give America its dignity back.
There is another school of thought: Maybe we need some sort of creative destruction to get to a place of healing and progress. Maybe we need to hit rock bottom before we bounce back up.
But what if there’s bottom but no bounce? I wonder. And shudder.