Monday, November 9, 2020

BTRTN: The Would-Be King is Gone, Long Live the Constitution. Now, How Do We Repair the Damage?

Steve finally exhales. But only briefly. Sure, this election solved the one huge problem… but it revealed so many others.

At 8:49 this past Friday morning, Steve Kornacki of MSNBC was punching the calculator on his iPhone  frantically, racing to interpret the latest tranche of votes coming directly off the Philadelphia voting website, and then he scribbled numbers in a madcap frenzy on the screen of his now famous “big board.” 

Joe Biden had just pulled ahead of Donald Trump in Pennsylvania.

At that moment, so many of us who had stood on vigil for three days finally began to allow ourselves to believe that it was actually, possibly -- just maybe -- perhaps even probably going to happen: the putrid reign of Donald Trump was going to end. 

Tuesday evening’s “Red Mirage” had wrought havoc with our brittle emotions, causing a gut-wrenching, soul-crushing anxiety that we were watching the worst imaginable remake: “Groundhog Day, 2016.” But on Friday morning, Kornacki the Magnificent spoke, and we allowed ourselves to believe that this cheap and tawdry would-be King would soon be gone. Trumpty Dumpty had had a great fall.

Sure, some Republicans who are lashed to the past may continue to play along with Trump's claims of widespread voter fraud so that they could court his base in the future. But without any evidence of the tonnage of fraud that could actually tip the balance in a number of states the election, Trump’s path to claim victory through judicial appeal was championed largely by his sons “Dumb and Dumber,” and interplanetary space traveler Rudy Giuliani.

On Saturday, CNN finally called it. We could scream and shout. We could enjoy dinner without MSNBC blaring, terrifying us every time they cue that thunderous “breaking news” musical flourish. We could take a walk without our iPhones, confident that Hickenlooper wouldn’t be texting for more money.  Breathe deeply. Smile. Trump is going away. He is on his way into the history books as the first President to be both impeached and not re-elected to a second term.

But the election, overall, was not the wonderful outcome we dared to dream of. 

Biden won, but we were also drenched by a sobering bucket of ice water: our nation refused to unequivocally repudiate the presidency of a racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, lazy, ignorant, and profoundly divisive criminal. Indeed, this country came close to re-electing him.

Flip just a microscopic one-tenth of one percent of 145,000,000 votes cast nationally in three states, and Donald Trump would have been re-elected for a second term.

Yep, say Trump holds on to win North Carolina, and Biden wins Arizona. Just switch somewhere in the vicinity of 30,000 votes from Biden to Trump  in Wisconsin, 15,000 in Georgia, and 70,000 in Pennsylvania, and you have just re-elected Donald Trump by changing less than one-tenth of one percent of the national vote.

One-tenth of one percent out of 145,000,000 votes is the entire difference between an America back on track toward factual reality, human decency, and global moral leadership… or the four years that could have actually ended democracy in America.

It came that close, and yes, there was that much on the line.

Make no mistake: Donald Trump’s administration has increasingly hewed to the trajectory of the worst authoritarian regimes: a willingness to use the government’s investigative, judicial, civilian law enforcement, and military muscle to silence political opposition, with violence if necessary. The blatant political bias and manipulation of William Barr’s Department of Justice, the governmental policies of torture and child abuse at our southern border, and the use of Federal troops to quell peaceful political protests in Washington, D.C., were all markers of a government drifting down the path of Mussolini, Stalin, and Putin.

In a second, utterly unchecked term, who knows how far down this path Donald Trump would have taken this country? Who knows how completely he would have crushed the separation of powers, turning Congress into an ineffectual afterthought… an American House of Lords. Trump could have turned the Supreme Court into an effete bench of henchmen, who, were they ever to attempt to rein in his reign of error, were powerless to contain their King.

And then there is the matter of the half of America that wanted to continue down Trump’s path.

This is the most sobering and chilling revelation of all.

Many Democrats fully expected that Tuesday’s results would be sufficiently resounding that it would constitute a broad scale and unequivocal repudiation of Donald Trump: his repulsive personal style of lies, insults, and self-worship, his attempts to demonize the voices of diversity in our society, and his intent to recast the Presidency as monarchy.

That unequivocal repudiation did not happen. Essentially half of America was unconvinced that the Democrats had anything better to offer than staying the course.

Sure, liberals have always viewed Trump to be an abomination, but we do understand the very real reasons why Trump won in 2016. Back then, a huge swath of Americans felt repeatedly betrayed by their government leaders – Republican and Democrat alike – as a bunch of intellectual elites who had allowed their jobs to be exported, who stole billions on Wall Street with impunity, and who seemed to get a lot more riled up about wind energy than putting a decent breakfast on the family table. Trump tapped into that anger and resentment, and very powerfully branded that grievance --- that Americans should be angry at the immigrants who steal their jobs, angry at the countries that take advantage of us in trade deals and military alliances, and angry at the government that exports their jobs and swims in a swamp of corruption.

Perhaps most important, he was politically incorrect, and his supposed “telling it like it is” made him different from every other politician, Republican or Democrat.  He was entertaining. He made complex topics simple, visceral, and compelling. Build the wall. Drain the swamp. Crooked Hillary.

But 2020 was supposed to be different. 

2020 was supposed to be the year that those Americans who had felt betrayed by government should have felt betrayed yet again, indeed, perhaps even more pointedly. Donald Trump did not deliver on the promises he made. There is no wall. The pandemic that is raging out of control is at its worst in many of the states that support Trump the most, and has wrought the most carnage in the poorer segments of the population that form a significant portion of Trump’s base. Trump supporters appear to have emerged believing that Trump’s stewardship of the economy was terrific, and that all 2020 economic setbacks are to be blamed on a virus that was not Trump’s fault. The argument that Trump’s botched response to the pandemic has acutely exacerbated our economic trauma seems to be a non-starter among Trump supporters.

The real issue is this: Trump had failed to deliver on the only question an incumbent must address... are you better off now than you were four years ago?  Somehow we could maybe understand that Trump supporters don’t care about the lying, the boorish behavior, the misogyny, racism, and xenophobia because Trump was coming through for them on the pocketbook issues.

But he was not, but Trump supporters still did not seem to care.

Sure, there are the 84-year-old grandmothers in places Big Springs, Texas, who simply have a congenital aversion to pull the Democratic lever in the voting booth. And there are the soulless people whose lives are utterly governed by the pursuit and preservation of wealth, and they would vote for anyone who promised to lower their taxes. These Trump voters will never be swayed.

But those are not the economically suffering people who turned to Trump after decades of perceived benign neglect from their government. Trump’s base is comprised of struggling middle class white people who do not measure their economic station by the S&P 500.

Make no mistake: Trump does an amazing job of “connecting” with his base. It is visceral and powerful. But it is not that hard to connect emotionally if you are willing to lie brazenly. If you tell people that they have lost their jobs because of the horrible Mexican rapists, you are certainly aiming your message at the dark underbelly of raging emotion. It is calculated to be far more emotionally charged, and it is accomplished by the easiest path… lying.

There’s no doubt that FOX News is a big part of the explanation. Every night, FOX packaged up a neat summary of why Trump is magnificent, why every problem was Nancy Pelosi’s fault, and that if you have a problem with Donald Trump, just wait until AOC and Bernie Sanders turn the USA into a communist state.

Pick your reason, your rationale, your explanation, but the bottom line is that the Democrats did not figure out how to penetrate the media bubble that insulates and coddles Donald Trump, and nearly half of America voted for him again.

Joe Biden won the Presidency, but the math of “one-tenth of one percent” tells you that the Democrats failed to formulate an argument that truly alters the trajectory of our national debate. It is time for some very intense soul searching on the part of Democrats. We have four years to think about how to frame the argument in a different way, so that Trump supporters understand that we are not the enemy. We, too, want to give them jobs, educate their children, raise their standard of living, and protect their communities and our country. We simply have a different path, and ours is the more certain journey to common prosperity, as it is grounded in reality, seeks to create a rising tide that lifts all boats, and is most emphatically not an embrace of socialism. 

No, 2016 was no aberration, it was – and is -- us. For every American who views Trump to be a two-bit, lazy, incompetent authoritarian wannabe dictator determined to destroy Constitutional checks on his authority, there is another American who thinks he is a great President who has done a great job handling the economy, global policy, and the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Many people will devote large scale social studies to figure it out, but the bottom line is simple. On Tuesday we found out that 2016 was in large measure replayed in 2020, and that means that in four years, we are going to go through this insanity all over again. It is no aberration. It is who we are, a national stunningly polarized, almost precisely divided, and operating in parallel universes except on days belief systems collide when incited by the acts of rogue police officers, AR-15 toting teenagers, religious zealots, and Presidential elections. That’s when we see just how differently the other America next door really thinks. 

Yes, Biden won, but then there was that bright hope dashed that the Dems would take control of the Senate and finally end the bitter, insanely partisan manipulations of Mitch McConnell. A sexting scandal by Cal Cunningham In North Carolina blew a hole under that waterline, and Sara Gideon proved startling weak in Maine, a state carried by Biden.

The door is not fully shut on the Senate, as it suddenly seems possible that a newly muscular Democratic party in Georgia could still make it happen in two run-off elections in January. But that hope is tempered. Warnock will be in a very tough fight, and the incumbent Republican Senator Perdue did receive 120,000 more votes than Democrat Ossoff in the general election last Tuesday. Perdue may hold off Ossoff in the run-off.

Ok, ok, calm down. Exhale.

Let us not allow the disappointment of these realities to outweigh the power of what has happened in the 2020 election.

First: we all feared that news coverage on election day would be filled with hundreds if not thousands of reports of voter intimidation, fraudulent voting activities, violent confrontations, election precincts being shut down, and a pervasive chaos that would make the entire election suspect to both sides. The fear was that there would be so much doubt, so many indications of malfeasance, and so many accusations of overt cheating that neither side would trust the results.

That did not happen.

All across America, citizens were empowered to freely exercise their most sacred civilian right by their fellow citizens: the decent, hardworking people – Republican and Democrat alike – who served tirelessly at polling places to ensure that our election was fair and could be trusted.

We may rue that America is painfully polarized in its politics, but Tuesday certainly restored faith that the majority of our citizens are in fact united in the belief that we settle our differences in free and fair elections, not with tear gas and bullets.

Ironically, it may have been precisely the division in our country that helped Americans feel more certain about the results. Sure, it was the mail-in votes counted at the very end that pushed Biden over the top in Pennsylvania… but that exact same phenomenon of late-breaking votes appeared to be driving Trump to a possible win in Arizona. Sure, the Democrats may have won the Presidency, but the Republicans slammed the door on what appeared to be better-than-even odds of Democratic Senate wins in Maine and North Carolina. Division was validating: it would be hard for Republicans to argue that the voting processes that gave Biden the State of Maine were fraudulent without unintentionally calling into question the legitimacy of Susan Collins’s victory in the Senate.

Republican and Democratic citizens in towns, villages, and cities all across America did what their government seems unable to do: work together to implement a democracy in which citizens decide their fate and the majority rules, however razor thin that majority may be.

Celebrate that Joe Biden won, but appreciate that it was the engagement, commitment, and hard work of fellow citizens in cities, towns, and hamlets across America that created the circumstances for a clear outcome.

If we learn nothing else from the trauma of the last four years, exponentially magnified in the last four days, it is that the role of leading our government may rest in the hands of elected officials, but the hard work of exercising control over that leadership must truly be our own. If it is to be a government of, for, and by the people, the people must behave like owners, not subjects. 

Pause to consider this: you actually have Donald Trump to thank for one thing. Donald Trump revealed just how frail and vulnerable our Constitution really is in the face of a ferocious attack by a corrupt authoritarian.

Donald Trump demonstrated that our system of “checks and balances” is toothless, easily ignored with impunity by an arrogant and malicious executive branch. Trump showed us that the Department of Justice can easily be twisted into a political tool doing the bidding of a malevolent President. Trump brazenly exposed the Emoluments Clause as having the efficacy and value of used toilet paper, utterly incapable of preventing a President from enriching himself at the taxpayer’s expense by exploiting the power of his office. Trump showed us how easy it is to use our tax dollars to extort foreign governments, forcing them to help the President politically in order to secure military aid. Trump showed us that the long-standing custom of having Presidential candidates reveal their tax returns in order to establish that they are not subject to blackmail is just a quaint, optional notion.

And that’s just the corruption. We’re not even counting overt efforts of Republicans to subvert and circumvent the obvious intent of the framers, in one instance stonewalling a Supreme Court nomination, and then hypocritically railroading a second. Trump showed us how to game the system so that the lawsuits designed to challenge his imperial view of his powers languish in lower courts for his entire term in office, rendering them moot.

There is so much that Donald Trump has taught us. We are naïve idealists who trust that our elected officials will honor long-standing customs and traditions. No, from now on, if we want something to be required, we must demand that it be turned it into law. A law with teeth. Citizens, we must act like owners, not subjects.

We will soon turn and place a stunning weight of expectation and urgency on Joe Biden.

We will need him to provide the forceful bully pulpit leadership needed to tame a wildly out-of-control pandemic. We will expect him to nurse our economy back to real health. We will need him to rescue an Affordable Care Act that in all likelihood will be disemboweled by a Supreme Court hand-picked to search and destroy progressive policy.

Our standing in the global community is in tatters. We need Biden to help restore the admiration, dignity, and respect we earned through generations of moral leadership, economic aid, and judicious use of power on the world stage. And we need a President who will severely punish foreign actors who interfere with our elections, place bounties on our soldiers, and grotesquely murder our journalists.

We will of course expect Joe Biden to restore and repair our very Constitution, respecting the separation of powers and reasserting the essential notion that we are governed by the rule of law, and no one – particularly the lazy, bloviating, destructive personality from a lousy reality television show – is above it.

That is just the beginning. Sure, now I am dreaming the impossible dream, but we must figure out how to end the fundamental flaws of the Constitution as currently written and amended. We must end gerrymandering, a practice that enables one party to devalue the vote of the opposition. We must end the lunacy of the Electoral College, a vestigial institution that no longer resembles its original design, no longer serves its original purpose, and actively stands at odds with the fundamental Constitutional concept of “one person, one vote.” We must change the Supreme Court… not necessarily adding to its members, but changing the process by which Justices are selected and the terms they serve, so that our Presidents do not choose 35-year-old judges to ensure a 50 year tenure, and octogenarians are not asked to cling to count seats to preserve a political leaning. And we must make it easier to amend the Constitution itself, which has become a de facto impossibility in a radically polarized society.

Let us continue up the food chain of change. We need to figure out the fair role of government in the overarching matter of truth itself. Once upon a time, the government exerted regulatory clout over television networks, holding them to standards of responsible programming and content, at the risk of losing a broadcast license granted by the government. Today, we live in a world in which social media companies that owe their existence to the government-built internet now allow wildly inaccurate, poisonous, destructive content to flow across their platforms, utterly abdicating any sense of responsibility for the venom and bile that they transport. And our government, thus far, has stood on the sidelines and let it happen.

This final stop on this trail of logic is always the same: education. The only way to be sure that citizens are fully armed with the truth is to invest the money and build the educational infrastructure so that citizens have the knowledge, perspective, reason, and judgment to be able to discern truth from falsehood on their own, not because they heard it from Tucker Carlson or saw it on an Instagram post.

Right now, the United States is being torn apart by the centrifugal force of competing societal tribes that offer opposing allegiance to fact. As long as we allow the cheap and easy manufacture of fiction to freely compete with the hard work of truth, we will plunge into a Babel in which the competing political views speak in alien, impenetrable, and incomprehensible tongues. Good luck trying to bridge societal polarization then.

Bear in mind: we will be asking Joe Biden to do all of the above, all the while knowing that a soulless, slimy weasel from Kentucky will be working night and day to undermine any and every attempt to move the nation forward.Once again, we will hear Mitch McConnell announce that the sole purpose in his destructive life is to ensure that a Democratic President serves only a single term.

Yes, the 2020 election is cause for celebration, and yes, to be sure, I am as ecstatic as anybody that Joe Biden has won. I am thrilled that the powerful, empathetic, and wise Kamala Harris has made much important history.

But even as I take joy in their victory, I am stuck on that number: one-tenth of one percent.

That is how close we came to the utter catastrophe of losing our democracy.

Make no mistake at all: Donald Trump attempted to become King of the United States. Given a second term, he probably would have succeeded.

For all who worked so hard, gave so much of their time, and donated so much of their hard-earned money to elect Joe Biden, thank you, from the bottom of our hearts.

But the biggest implication of the election of Joe Biden is that we now have the opportunity to protect our democracy from future Donald Trumps. 

This would-be king may be gone... for now, that is.  There’s no stopping Donald Trump from running again in 2024. Or Don Junior. Or any one of the legion of Trump acolytes, the would-be Kings who ache to emulate Trump’s fascist, authoritarian instincts.

Yes, democracy won… but it was way too close for comfort.

In the dawn’s early light of Wednesday, November 4, 2020, the Constitution was tattered and torn but still waving, having withstood the most ferocious assault ever waged by an official in American government on the republic itself.

The Constitution survived, but it is wounded, and it is still bleeding.

It needs to be mended. It needs to be fixed.

That is our work.

This phony, two-bit would-be king is gone. Long live the Constitution. 

But for that to be so, the work ahead must truly be our own.


The author wishes to acknowledge a great deal of constructive feedback and input from a number of family members. Thank you!

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  1. Still hung over from the days of constant CNN running in the background and trying to not react emotionally to news like the refusal to sign a letter to allow the release of transition funds and the constant specter of faithless electors but the world is a bit brighter and the team around the truth is strong and getting stronger so in the end, hope.

  2. This is a truly huge lesson learned. It defies everything that we were taught to believe about our country. You are right to call attention to it. But nowhere do I hear that our first goal should be to deal with this problem - assuming we could control all three levers of power. The Imperial Presidency is wrong and a Barrack Obama with that power is not justified when the power might be yielded by another Trump type. We have to do what no political party seems capable of: take power away from the presidency when we are in the White House.

    "Pause to consider this: you actually have Donald Trump to thank for one thing. Donald Trump revealed just how frail and vulnerable our Constitution really is in the face of a ferocious attack by a corrupt authoritarian."


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