Whistling Past The Graveyard
Nearly a year ago, the ever prescient Sarah Kendzior wrote about the already divergent views of next year’s election, describing “the one of 2020 candidates running in a flawed yet essentially stable future US. And the current reality: a constitutional crisis, a catastrophic federal shutdown, and an existential threat to our country’s survival”. The Democratic debates are an illustrative example of the former view, with detailed policy discussions about what the candidate will do when he or she becomes President. And that certainly makes sense in that the candidates are right now vying for the nomination of the Democratic party. But there is a jarring disconnect between these debates and the reality of the current environment and the 2020 election. As @jerusalem_santa aptly put it, “We’ve had five dem presidential debates containing 10+ minutes on healthcare. Not one of them contained any discussion whatsoever about the creeping tide of authoritarianism/fascism in the country, or strategies and ideas to halt its advance. It’s like the entire Democratic establishment thinks that if it plugs its ears, talks about healthcare coverage and affordable education, and wins the presidency, then the fascist movement in this country will just disappear. It’s a dangerous, naive game of pretend”.
In fact, it is equally remarkable just how much our functioning democracy and the rule of law has already collapsed and how much the political establishment and large swaths of the media simply pretend that is not the case. It’s already pretty clear that the 2020 election will be anything but a free and fair election. Instead it will be sabotaged on multiple fronts by Trump, the Republican party, and foreign powers. And Trump and the GOP will continue to consistently deny the legitimacy of any Democratic power and perhaps any oversight power at all.
Whether or not you agree that Trump colluded with the Russians in 2016, there is no doubt that the Russians interfered on his behalf. The attempted extortion of Ukraine was Trump’s overt attempt to replicate the foreign help he received in 2016 for 2020. In addition, Trump has publicly pleaded with China to intervene on his behalf and investigate Biden. We also know that Russia is currently reprising its 2016 efforts for the 2020 election. US intelligence agencies are warning that China and Iran also have plans to meddle in 2020. And we have no idea what plans other countries that Trump has what could be described as unique relationships with, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel, might have up their sleeve. Nor do we know how emboldened Trump will become in seeking foreign interference in 2020 after he is presumably acquitted of impeachment in the Senate. After all, he still has his new fixer, Rudy Giuliani, wandering around Ukraine searching for dirt on Biden even as his trial for exactly that crime begins.
Beyond expanding the corrosive effects of domestic money in politics, the Citizens United decision has opened up another avenue for external threats to our elections. In 2018, Rudy Giuliani’s partners in crime, Parnas and Fruman, were used to illegally funnel money from a Ukrainian oligarch to both Trump-supporting PACs and individual Republican campaigns using another corrosive and abused financial tool, pass-through LLCs. George Nader ran a similar scheme in 2016 which illegally poured $3.5 million from the United Arab Emirates into various, primarily Democratic campaigns, including $1 million to Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC. Basically, the 2020 election will be a free-for-all for foreign interests trying to buy access and influence, if not directly effect the outcome of the election.
We also know that the Russians targeted the voting systems of all 50 states in 2016. While there is no evidence that vote totals were actually changed, there are multiple states where they were able to access the voter rolls and in a handful of cases “were in a position to delete or change voter data”. If the Senate Intelligence Committee report is to be believed, the Russians for some unknown reason decided not to use that capability. As Charles Pierce notes, “Remember when we were all told that it was only a couple of precincts, then a couple of cities, then a couple of states? Remember when it was just data? Now, as far as we can read between the blacked-out lines, we are being asked to believe that the Russian ratfckers could have deleted ‘voter data,’ that they ‘were in a position’ to jack around with it, but, having achieved this monumental intelligence triumph, they didn’t do anything with it?” I think we can assume that they will actually use that capability if they have it in 2020.
Preventing that possibility has not been a priority for the Trump administration or congressional Republicans. In 2017, their idea of election security was the infamous Commission on Election Integrity which was created to bolster Trump’s claims of millions of illegal votes against him and focused on the mythical problem of voter fraud. The Commission itself turned out to be relying on fraudulent data and was merely going to be an instrument for further voter suppression. Finally in 2018, Republicans relented and provided a paltry $380 million for increased election security, an amount that the Brennan Center described as “not nearly enough for states to make the investments needed to secure our elections, including replacement of antiquated, insecure voting equipment susceptible to hacking”. In 2019, Mitch McConnell refused to let any action on election security come to the Senate floor for a vote. Finally, an additional $480 million was allocated as part of the year-end budget deal. But, at this late date, that money may not be able to be effectively deployed in time for the 2020 election.
Domestically, the Republican party will do what it has done since the turn of the century, and especially since the Supreme Court, in another of its democracy-destroying decisions, gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. A senior official on the Trump campaign basically admitted as much when he matter-of-factly stated, “Traditionally it’s always been Republicans suppressing votes in places. Let’s start protecting our voters. We know where they are…Let’s start playing offense a little bit. That’s what you’re going to see in 2020. It’s going to be a much bigger program, a much more aggressive program, a much better-funded program.” The official unconvincingly brushed off the idea that he was advocating increased voter suppression by saying he was instead talking about talking advantage of the lifting of a consent decree that prohibited the Republican National Committee (RNC) from engaging voter verification and so-called “ballot security” measures that basically amount to voter intimidation at polling stations. In other words, the Trump campaign official was announcing that the RNC had another tool in its arsenal of voter suppression and was preparing to use it.
The Trump campaign official conveniently made this statement while addressing a group of Republican lawyers in the battleground state of Wisconsin. In particular, he said that the campaign would focus this new voter intimidation tactic in the state’s mid-sized cities where he believes the Democrats “cheat”. Of course, there is no evidence of any kind of voter fraud in those areas.
But the GOP is not forgetting about their traditional voter suppression efforts either. They are now abetted by another disastrous Supreme Court ruling in 2018 that allowed states to purge the voter rolls of those who had not voted in the last few elections. While there is no doubt that a significant number of voters are properly purged from the rolls because they have moved or died, the real issue is the smaller but still significant percentage of voters who are improperly purged and often do not realize they are technically ineligible to vote until election day. The harm to those voters would seem to outweigh the fact that there are voters on the list who will no longer be voting in that specific precinct, especially when no significant amount of voter fraud has been discovered, but the Court ruled otherwise.
Wisconsin is now in the process of purging over 230,000 voters from the rolls, over 7% of the electorate and over 12% of the voters in the heavily Democratic city of Milwaukee. According to Mother Jones, “55 percent of those on the purge list come from municipalities where Hillary Clinton defeated Trump in 2016. Nine of the 10 areas with the highest concentration of voters slated to be purged voted for Clinton. Milwaukee and Madison, the state’s two most Democratic areas, account for 14 percent of the state’s registered voters but 23 percent of those on the purge list”. Similarly, Ohio is now purging over 200,000 from its rolls in a process that has been ongoing for the last six years. The original purge list that the state produced somehow included 40,000 voters who actually met the criteria for being an active voter. Ohio is also another example of the Republicans’ distortion of democracy as it is so badly gerrymandered that it only took 52% of the vote for the GOP to win a whopping 75% of the US House seats in the state in 2018.
The same process is playing out in Georgia where over 300,000 voters are being purged, about 4% of the electorate. Since 2012, over 1.5 million voters in that state have been purged. In 2018, over 70,000 of these purged voters re-registered to vote and about 45,000 of those appear to have been improperly purged to begin with. In 2018, then Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who was running for governor, illegaly purged 340,000 voters, most of whom were restored under a court order.
Georgia, in fact, is the poster child for our electoral dysfunction. A new study by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed that the relocation of polling places and the elimination of others resulted in anywhere from 54,000 to 85,000 Georgia voters being unable to cast ballots in last November’s election. Since the 2013 Supreme Court ruling, Georgia has closed 8% of its polling stations and relocated 40% of its electoral precincts, resulting in longer travel distances and longer lines for eligible voters. Unsurprisingly, the majority of those effected are African American and presumably strongly Democratic voters. That particular voter suppression tactic has been repeated in states that were previously covered by the protections of the Voting Rights Acts, with over 1,600 polling stations being closed in those states since 2013. In Texas, 10% of the polling places have been eliminated and in Arizona that number is 20%.
In addition, a cyber security expert found that Georgia’s entire voter database, which is maintained in a sweetheart deal on servers at Kennesaw State University, was easily vulnerable to hacking. The state’s voting machines provide no paper trail so there is no real way to audit election results. Voters in the 2018 gubernatorial election reported that the machines were recording their votes improperly, switching their selection from the Democrat to the Republican, and provided affidavits to the courts asserting that. The lack of a paper trail became significant when trying to determine the cause of the statistically improbable undervote in the 2018 election for Lieutenant Governor.
Finally, in August of this year, a judge ruled that the state must have voting machines with a paper trail installed for the 2020 election. The initial rollout of those machines presented newer problems. According to the Washington Post, “bystanders could easily see the screens from 30 feet away, presenting serious privacy concerns. In some counties, elections officials reported that programming problems led to delays in checking in voters, and in some precincts, the machines unexpectedly shut down and rebooted.”
Looming above all this disenfranchisement and dysfunction, of course, is the small state bias of the Senate and the legacy of slavery, the Electoral College. In 2018, even when you exclude the overwhelmingly Democratic state of California where Republicans couldn’t even field a candidate to make it to the runoff round, Democrats won 54% of the votes for Senate but still only managed to win two seats. Four year earlier, Republicans won just 52% of Senate votes but gained nine seats. Right now, less than 10% of voters are represented by enough Senators to acquit Trump in his impeachment trial. Senators representing as little as 18% of the population can maintain a filibuster, By 2040, just 30% of the voters will control an impregnable 70 Senate seats. The last two Republican presidents have been originally elected with a minority of the popular votes. NBC News has laid out a scenario where Trump could win 5 million votes less than his opponent in 2020 and still get re-elected.
Increasingly, America is coming to resemble a “managed democracy” which has all the appearances of a real democracy but the result is almost always foreordained. In fact, America engaged is such a managed democracy from the end of Reconstruction with the emergence of Jim Crow until the Civil and Voting Rights Acts in the mid-1960s. It now appears that we are reverting to such a similar state.
And, as in the 1870s and other managed democracies, there is the possibility of violence. In Washington state, a state representative and leader of the Republican caucus has been found by a commission empaneled by his own peers to have engaged in domestic terrorism. That representative was also working with local militia groups; advocating for eastern Washington to secede into a 51st state; and promoting the manifesto “Biblical Case For War” that advocates killing those who favor abortion rights, same-sex marriage, “idolatry”, and communism. He has declared that “liberty must be kept by force” and appeared with another secessionist-minded leader who stated that “How many of you have pulled your trigger on your AR-15 in the fight we are in yet? Not one. But there is a fight. Right now. The war is here.”
In Virginia, far right Second Amendment fundamentalists are preparing to fight against common sense gun restrictions likely to be passed by the now Democratic Virginia House and Senate and signed by the Democratic governor. Those laws will possibly include requiring background checks on all gun sales, banning assault weapons and bump stocks, limiting gun purchase to just one a month, immediately reporting lost or stolen guns, red flag laws, making it illegal to leave loaded and unsecured guns around children under 18, and allowing localities to decide whether guns should be banned inside their municipal buildings. Gun rights advocates in Virginia are busy creating Second Amendment sanctuaries where the state laws will not be enforced. Tazewell County passed a resolution to establish a militia which would allow residents in that county to possess firearms as part of the militia and provide a force to resist any enforcement from the state.
Trump himself suggested in 2016 that “Second Amendment people” could block Hillary Clinton from appointing the next Supreme Court justice. Later in that campaign, he again threatened Clinton, saying, “Now, you know she’s very much against the Second Amendment, she wants to destroy your Second Amendment…I think that her bodyguards should drop all weapons, they should disarm…Yeah, take their guns away. She doesn’t want guns. Take their – let’s see what happens to her”. Today, Trump supporters are threatening violence if he is actually convicted in his impeachment trial. At a recent rally in Pennsylvania, one supporter declared, “I think it [Trump’s removal] would cause physical violence in this country that we haven’t seen since the first Civil War. I think it would become the second Civil War”. Another seconded that thought, saying, “My .357 Magnum is comfortable with that. End of story”. ABC News has documented at least 36 cases of violence where Trump was invoked, only seven of which involved defiance of the President. It’s safe to say that Trump will only escalate his inciteful rhetoric as the 2020 elections draws closer, especially if polls show him significantly behind.
The final wild card for 2020 is, of course, the media. To be fair, none of what I’ve written above would be possible without the dedicated and talented reporters who work all over this country. But far too often, those stories simply stand on their own, without context. The mainstream media has still not figured out how to cover Trump properly and has never really reckoned with its abject failure in 2016 where it focused like a laser on Hillary’s emails and totally missed the story of the depth of criminality and corruption in Trump’s businesses and personal affairs as well as his campaign’s collusion with Russia. Since then, the failure to move beyond the “both sides” narrative has made the media an enabler of both Trump and an increasingly anti-democratic Republican party. This failure is especially problematic when one side consistently lies and spouts propaganda, especially when that is supported by what has essentially become a party-run national television network and a vast array of social media mouthpieces and trolls.
When KellyAnn Conway declared in the early days of the Trump administration that they had “alternative facts”, she was making it entirely clear that administration’s media strategy would be to lie, often and about everything. Yet it took years for mainstream outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times to actually declare the President’s statements lies. As Margaret Sullivan aptly describes it, “In an unceasing effort to be seen as neutral, journalists time after time fell into the trap of presenting facts and lies as roughly equivalent and then blaming political tribalism for not seeming to know the difference.”
The archetypical Washington talking head, Chuck Todd, barely seems to be beginning to grasp the fundamentals of Trump and the current Republican party. When asked about the constant lies from the administration, he responded, “I guess I really believed they wouldn’t do this. Just so absurdly naive in hindsight…So I mean, look, if people want to read my answer to your question, ‘Boy, that Chuck Todd was hopelessly naive.’ Yeah, it looks pretty naive.” Of course, that’s because it is.
Todd followed that up by showing he still totally misunderstands the current Republican party, saying, “Look, I’ll just be honest, when I had the third senator [to spread Russian disinformation], Senator Ted Cruz, come on my show and do this — who I did not expect to do this — I started to think, he wants the confrontation. He wants to use this for some sort of appeasement of the right. I didn’t know what else to think. I was stunned because he’s a Russia hawk. So the reason I, and I’m sorry I ever showed an expression, the reason that the expression on my face went viral, I think, I was genuinely shocked. And by the way, they came to us. They came to us saying they wanted to come on this week. And I really naively thought, maybe he wants to remind people that with Russia [and blaming Ukraine] this is getting ridiculous. And it turned out not to be the case.” So Todd basically provided a platform for Russian disinformation and yet he is sorry that he reacted to the fact that he had done it. That pretty much says it all. Even worse is that Todd still believes his GOP guests would be concerned about anything other than keeping their own power, which at this point means always supporting Trump. He has either forgotten that Republicans would not even give Merrick Garland a hearing or simply considers that abuse of their constitutional duty to be just another example of political tribalism that is part of the normal course of business in Washington.
The Burisma/Biden story is merely a repeat of the Bannon-funded Clinton Cash from 2016 which the NY Times fell for hook, line, and sinker. The book’s sole purpose was to create enough media discussion about possible abuses in the Clinton Foundation so that the media would be able to use that to create the false equivalence between Trump’s obvious corruption and Clinton’s potential abuses. Burisma/Biden is designed to create a similar false equivalence between Trump’s use of his office for self-dealing and Biden. And the sad reality is that, even after the whole sham operation to get Ukraine to announce an investigation is exposed, this tactic will probably work, thanks to the power of the GOP propaganda machine and the media’s need for the “both sides” narrative.
The reality is that Trump is uniquely unfit to be President. His total obstruction of any House investigation is an attack on the core constitutional principle of separation of powers. He has an avowed white supremacist in the White House who is putting innocent children in cages to die. He consistently uses the presidency to benefit his personal businesses. He is campaigning with an apparent war criminal that he pardoned. When Trump goes off on an unintelligible rant about wind energy, saying, “But they’re manufactured tremendous — if you’re into this — tremendous fumes. Gases are spewing into the atmosphere. You know we have a world, right? So the world is tiny compared to the universe. So tremendous, tremendous amount of fumes and everything. You talk about the carbon footprint — fumes are spewing into the air. Right? Spewing. Whether it’s in China, Germany, it’s going into the air. It’s our air, their air, everything — right?”, we get articles from the Washington Post actually trying to tell us that this is normal, that Trump will often “follow whatever train of thought is headed out of the station, letting his speeches spiral well out into the countryside before he brings them back in”.
Basically, the current rules of American journalism do not allow the media to accurately describe our reality. As Paul Campos writes, “Trump and the Republican party can indeed be defended, even in the impeachment context, but only by arguments that are too brutal for anyone in the respectable media to make straightforwardly.” Similarly, the media can never confront the reality that presents itself in the 2020 election and the danger of managed democracy. Instead, we are all being asked to pretend this is all perfectly normal, just the typical antics of political tribalism. But the massive voter suppression, the influence of foreign money, the foreign-deployed social media bots, the attacks on the separation of powers, and the cult-like Republican defenses of Trump’s indefensible actions can not and should not be treated as normal.
Republicans called 2016 the “Flight 93 Election”. But 2020 will be an actual existential election for Republicans, Democrats, and our democracy. The election will probably be the dirtiest, most vicious election we have seen in our lifetimes. Trump is an historically unpopular President and he will be focused on making his opponent equally unpopular and turning off as many as he can from voting. Far right Republicans see Trump as the only defense against white replacement and socialism. A massive Trump defeat that also wipes out down-ballot Republicans could lead to years in the wilderness as the national party is finally forced to rebuild. A Democratic loss will mean an emboldened and empowered Trump who will continue to dismantle the restraints on executive power. It will also mean that the GOP can use the 2020 Census to increase their efforts at gerrymandering, redistricting using citizenship instead of population, and perfecting their methods of voter suppression, leading to a decade where Democrats gain no political power despite winning a majority of votes or losing razor-thin elections and ensuring the establishment of a managed democracy. And history has shown that once a group in power can create an effective managed democracy, it is very difficult to dislodge. In either case, or in the case of a very close election, the structural defects of our electoral system will be highlighted and faith in actual democracy will continue to diminish.
For Democrats, the lessons of other countries that have attempted to throw off the yoke of managed democracy are instructive. Unity is paramount. If Biden is the nominee, the progressive candidates must still get their younger voters to the polls. If Warren, Sanders, or Buttigieg are the nominee, Biden and Obama must get black voters to the polls. Democrats must build a movement, just like those in Hong Kong who are fighting for their democracy or those who led the Arab Spring, which largely failed over time, illustrating just how difficult it is to raise democracy when it is lost. To win in 2020, those opposing Trump must put aside their differences and build a mass movement dedicated to restoring the rule of law and dedicated to true spirit of the principle embodied in “one person, one vote”. It will take nothing less.