Wednesday, February 3, 2021

BTRTN: Was January a “Once-In-a-Century” Month? Actually, Even Rarer

Tom with the BTRTN January 2021 Month in Review. 

One of the phrases that has entered our lexicon is “once-in-a-century.”  Perhaps it came into vogue with Hurricane Katrina, and has come to be a definer of various climate-change induced calamities that have struck since, including tsunamis, fires and floods.  The pandemic has brought new life to the term, a particularly apt usage since COVID-19 arrived almost exactly a century after the 1918 flu pandemic, the last of its general scale.

But in the political realm, even “once-in-a-century” is not an adequate appellation for what happened in January, 2021.  Three successive Wednesdays in the month brought epochal events, none of which occurred in the last century or the one before that; indeed, they were unprecedented in our Republic’s history.  Each was a marker of the cataclysmic end of the Trump Administration.  But they also represented the beginning of a new, wildly uncertain era in American politics, and for America itself.

When history books are written, well, a century from now, disproportionate attention will be placed on those three events of January, 2021.  The first was the bloody insurrection of the Capitol -- the first time Americans attacked the People’s House – directed by the sitting President of the United States, Donald Trump, in his most brazen, but hardly first attempt to reverse the free and fair election of his successor.  The second was the impeachment of Trump for his incitement of the mob, and the events leading up to it – the first time a President had been impeached twice.  And the third was the inauguration of an unlikely pair of leaders, and while Joe Biden was hardly a rarity (though he is the oldest President to take office), his Vice President, Kamala Harris, was a precedent shatterer in so many ways -- the first woman, the first Black and the first of Asian descent to hold her office. 

The overarching saga, of course, has been Trump’s quest to overturn his election loss to Biden, now known as “The Big Lie.”  The facts remains clear:  Biden won the election fairly, albeit in unusual fashion, catapulted to victory by COVID-inspired early mail-in votes that were the last to be counted.  Trump (and anyone reading anything about the election) understood this dynamic, and he used the pacing of the counting as, in his warped view, prima facie evidence of fraud.  There was no actual evidence of fraud, as was demonstrated time and again by state recounts and audits, and a multitude of judicial challenges (over 60).  But Trump latched on to almost every conspiracy theory being peddled in the dark corners of the Internet, espoused by fringe extremists and an ever-narrowing and increasingly radicalized and unhinged group of advisors.  And thus he continued to challenge the twin pillars of our democracy – our electoral process and the peaceful transfer of power.

Trump refused to concede the election on November 7 when it was “called” by all the various media outlets, including the venerable AP.  But there were still many markers to come when he might have thrown in the towel – notably when the states formally certified their outcomes on December 8, and when the electors voted in accordance with those results on December 14.  With these events, former supporters -- and powerful enablers such as Mitch McConnell and William Barr – broke with Trump, the former recognizing Biden and the latter declaring that the DOJ had found no evidence of fraud. 

But Trump simply barreled on, working on a secret plot to change the Georgia results, orchestrated with a DOJ underling sympathetic to the Big Lie.  Once that effort was stopped by the threat of mass resignations by the DOJ leadership, Trump turned his attention to Congress’ certification process, a heretofore little-noticed formality scheduled for the fateful day of January 6.

Trump did everything he could to undermine this process.  All along he had been making calls and holding White House meetings with state election officials to browbeat them into changing their outcomes in his favor.  One such call, to Georgia State Attorney General Brad Raffensperger, was recorded (and then released to the press and public) by the beleaguered but resourceful AG, on Saturday, January 2.  The tape revealed Trump in full mafia-Don shakedown mode, complete with blunt threats and a demand to “find 11,780 votes” (the margin plus one of his loss to Biden).  Trump also cajoled Vice President Mike Pence, who would preside over the certification session, to use powers in that role that simply do not exist to overturn the certification.  Pence, a loyal soldier up to then, declined, choosing the Constitution over Trump, finding, finally, his own bright line.

Ultimately, Trump encouraged a rally among his followers in Washington, DC on January 6, which resulted in thousands of his strongest supporters meeting at the Ellipse on that fateful day.  Trump came to the rally and exhorted the semi-crazed mob to march to the Capitol, where both houses of Congress were in session for the certification.  He called on them to “fight like hell” and be “strong,” and other variations on that theme, many times.  And he was not alone, with personal attorney Rudy Giuliani calling for “trial by combat” and others using inciting language as well.  We all saw what happened next: a now fully-crazed and enraged mob storming the Capitol, overwhelming the shamefully inadequate defenses put up by Capitol and DC police, striding through the halls of Congress while our representatives fled to safety.  The mob threatened death to Mike Pence, Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (with a grisly noose set up outside for that purpose), trashed venerated spaces and offices in the People’s House, and, before it was all over, inflicted enough violence to result in the deaths of five people.  Just hours after the Capitol was finally cleared, Congress reconvened again and went about their business of certifying Biden.

Thus January 6, 2021 became another day in infamy, to stand alongside December 7, 1941, November 22, 1963 and September 11, 2001, in our Republic’s own circle of Hell.  The images of the Capitol being attacked by our own citizens will last forever.  But beyond the attack itself stood the stark reality that the violence had been incited by none other than the sitting U.S. President, the latest and bloodiest move in an orchestrated campaign to subvert our democracy.  After a bit of searching on how to best define the event, the right word was finally found: insurrection.

Almost immediately, talk turned to impeachment.  Trump had not only incited the mob, but he watched their assault on the Capitol with approval.  He expressed no horror that his words might have been misunderstood, made no effort to call the mob off once their murderous intent was clear, appeared supportive of their efforts, and made no attempt to determine the safety of either the members of Congress or his own Vice President, Mike Pence.  (Pence, of course, was now viewed by Trump and the mob as disloyal and weak).  And the impeachment talk was not simply confined to Trump’s actions on January 6.  That was viewed as merely the latest act in a 60-day drama to overturn the election, with the whole sorry saga – inclusive of the DOJ shenanigans and the Raffensperger call -- being worthy of impeachment.

But the condemnation was far from universal and the calls for impeachment were, incredibly, largely partisan.  Trump’s hold on the GOP was so strong that 139 GOP representatives and 8 GOP Senators actually voted against Biden’s certification, even after the attacks.  The impeachment, swiftly conducted a week later on Wednesday, January 13, was even more partisan, with only 10 GOP representatives joining the united Democrats to pass the one article of impeachment.  Trump thus became the first President to be impeached twice, a level of infamy that now sets him apart and alone in the annals of vilified presidents.

The Senate trial timing became its own mini-drama.  To set the context, we must recall another momentous early January event, when Democrats Jon Ossoff and Rafael Warnock defeated Georgia Senate GOP incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, respectively, in runoffs elections, each by very narrow margins.  The two not only flipped two Senate seats from red to blue, but the entire Senate as well.  With their election, the Democratic caucus numbers 50, equal to that of the GOP, and thus Senate control tipped to the Democrats with Vice President Harris presiding over the Senate and able to cast tiebreaker votes.

Mitch McConnell, in his waning days as Senate Majority Leader, punted the Senate trial past the Inaugural, which not only put it under the direction of new Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, but also set up the fig leaf some Republicans might use come the trial – that trying a former president is unconstitutional (widely viewed by Constitutional scholars as untrue, particularly given the pesky precedent of the Senate trial of former Secretary of War William W. Belknap in 1876).

Beyond the politics, there was an avalanche of responses to January 6.  Perhaps of greatest significance was the banning of Trump from most forms of social media, including not only his beloved Twitter, but also Facebook, YouTube and many others.  This had an immediate effect, as Trump struggled to be heard without a social media platform.  Also of note was the corporate response, as CEO’s suddenly became the standard bearers of “mainstream” Republican values, not only condemning Trump but promising to withhold campaign donations to Trump supporters.

Come January 20, the focus shifted, abruptly and markedly, to the Biden Administration.  It was an Inaugural unlike any other, given the presence of COVID restrictions and the absence of his predecessor (another once-a-century event, Trump was the first to skip his successor’s Inaugural since Andrew Johnson missed Ulysses S. Grant’s in 1869).  But the Biden team pulled off a stunning slew of events and activities, full of somber pageantry, powerful symbolism and calls to better angels.  There was a beautiful lighted memorial by the reflecting pool to honor the 400,000+ Americans killed by COVID; Lady Gaga singing a heartrending version of The Star Spangled Banner; a stunning poem by Young Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, several stirring versions of “Amazing Grace” and, at night, Bruce Springsteen alone on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, singing his American anthem, “Land of Hope and Dreams.”

Biden himself delivered a remarkable address that found the moment, touching on themes of remembrance and compassion (for the COVID victims), resolve (in the fight to tame the virus and revive the economy), and, perhaps above all, a call for unity.  Perhaps we were all willing to suspend disbelief in such a goal at a time when far too many Republicans – citizens and politicians – were supporting Trump, the Big Lie and even the insurrection.  But Biden seems stubbornly committed to the notion that we can find our way back from this abyss to common purpose and action.

Not since FDR has an incoming president been handed so much.  Apart from the radical disharmony found in the politics, lives and identities of America’s factions, there was COVID, surging anew, killing a record 98,000 Americans in January, forcing businesses to scurry back into semi-hiding, resulting in the loss of 140,000 jobs in December, a reversal from seven months of job growth following the initial downturn of some 18 million jobs.  The Biden team, playing catch-up from a Trump-opposed transition that saw mixed levels of cooperation across various government departments, discovered that there was, essentially, no master plan for vaccine distribution.  This was perhaps not surprising, since the Trump Administration fell remarkably short of its December goals of having 20 million American vaccinated.

Biden plunged right in, signing 17 executive actions in the late afternoon of his Inaugural, a surge of its own sandwiched between a visit to Arlington with Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, and settling in to enjoy Tom Hanks, Springsteen and other performers.  Many were simply to put an abrupt end to Trump policies – stopping any “Wall” construction and the travel ban from Muslim countries, rejoining the Paris Accords and the World Health Organization.  Others were to jumpstart the COVID effort, naming a coordinator for vaccine distribution and instituting a mask mandate on Federal property.  And in the ensuing days, the 17 actions ballooned to 42, as Biden tackled various daily “themes” such as immigration, the environment and economic relief.  Hardly a facet of American life went untouched.

But executive actions might only last until the next Republican Administration.  The more aggressive steps, those built to last, require legislation, and the centerpiece of the Biden Administration’s action plan rests with the COVID relief bill, a $1.9 trillion proposal that includes stimulus checks, aid for the unemployed and renters, money for states and small business, and for vaccine distribution and testing.  The “American Rescue Plan” could be passed without GOP support in Congress, given the House and Senate majorities, and the Senate “reconciliation” process which require only majority votes for certain economic measures.  But Biden is first attempting to win some level of bipartisan support, and he has to keep his own centrist wing (Manchin of West Virginia, and Synema and Kelly of Arizona) on board as well.  This is old-fashioned American politics, but it remains to be seen if Biden still has what it takes to form meaningful compromises across the aisle, or whether, indeed, that game is still being played.

At months end over 25 million Americans had received their first dose of a vaccine, and about 6 million had also received the second.  At 8% and 2% of the population, respectively, there is a long way to go.  Help is on the way with new vaccines from Johnson and Johnson and AstraZeneca nearing the approval stage, but major challenges remain.  Distribution is still riddled with bottlenecks, inequities and doubt, and the virus is mutating into new strands that show somewhat more resistance to the current vaccines (though the vaccines are still effective against them).  There is cause for optimism, but success is not assured, particularly in the short term.  We will see tens of thousands more die in the coming months, and the vaccination process will continue at a pace such that vaccinations will likely continue throughout the summer, at least.

But one can say with some degree of confidence that COVID will be tamed at some point, and perhaps life will return to normal towards the end of 2021.  The same cannot be said for the Republican Party. 

America has functioned with a two-party system since 1854, with the rise of the Republican Party from the ashes of the Whigs and Free Soilers.  While there have been third parties and independent challenges of note since then, and several elections (notably in 1860 and 1948) when four parties legitimately vied for electoral votes, the two-party system has prevailed.  But the Republicans are now facing the most serious split within a major party in the two-party era.  Up until the 2020 election, and even in the early days that followed, mainstream Republicans could cling to the fantasy that Trump, once defeated, might not exactly disappear, but could be marginalized and, ultimately, left behind.  The GOP is notably more conservative than even in Ronald Reagan’s days – even George W. Bush’s days – but the hope was that they could find a tent big enough to contain both of its wings.

But that myth has been shattered, and the data is revealing.  In a CNN poll released after the insurrection and impeachment, 48% of GOP respondents wanted the party to move away from Trump, while 47% recognized and welcomed Trump as the party leader.  This split has been given a very public face in the actions of the two most powerful active Republicans right now, the minority leaders of the Senate and the House, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy. To be clear, both have been Trump enablers throughout both his presidency and in the aftermath of the election.  It was only after the electors voted on December 14 that McConnell began his break with Trump, publicly recognizing Joe Biden as the President-Elect for the first time.  While this timing was shamefully late, at least McConnell had his limits.  Such was not the case for McCarthy, who supported Trump by espousing the Big Lie, refusing to recognize Biden, and voting against Biden’s certification.

These two men are politicians to the core.  Nothing they do is done irrationally – immorally, at times, to be sure – but not irrationally.   Their responses reflect different calculus, in part based on the character of the different minorities they lead.  McCarthy has to deal with the crazies, exemplified by Marjorie Taylor Greene, the new QAnon-infused, Space-Laser representative from Georgia, essentially a whole slew of GOP representatives who are utterly lashed to Trump, representing districts who do the same.  Many of these representatives simply buy into Trump hook, line and sinker, while others know that one false step and they will be primaried in a heartbeat.  McConnell’s Senate colleagues are a different sort.  A private poll would indicate that almost every Senator, in both parties, thinks that Trump is foolish, underqualified and dangerous.  But the Senators – even the Josh Hawley’s and Ted Cruz’s -- are more measured in their approaches than their House counterparts, and more respectful of McConnell.

Both McConnell and McCarthy are focused on the 2022 midterms, and what it will take for the GOP to regain control and make them, in McCarthy’s case, Speaker of the House, and in McConnell’s, a return gig as Majority Leader.  McConnell believes a break from Trump is necessary.  He sees that, in Trump’s short four years, Trump managed to lose the House, the Senate and the White House, and he holds Trump personally accountable for those failures.  He sees that Trump put little effort into Georgia, and put both GOP Senators in a poor position there, unable to run on a “we are the check against Biden” platform that would have served them well.  And he personally despises Trump and does not want to see him back in 2024.  McCarthy, however, faces intense pressure from his caucus’ crazies every day.   They want to throw out Liz Cheney, the #3 GOP leader who supported impeachment, and stand firm with Trump.  McCarthy’s own leadership would be in jeopardy if he broke with Trump, and he knows it. 

McConnell has been quite firm in his position; he supported the House’s call for impeachment, made it clear he believed Trump had committed impeachable acts, and has not lobbied Senators to support Trump in the trial as he did in 2019.  Ever the calculator, he has limits, too, in how far he will stray – he supported the motion put forward by Rand Paul to cancel the Senate trial on the grounds of unconstitutionality.  But while McConnell’s vote was a backslide toward Trump, that vote does not necessarily mean he is opposed to conviction.

Clearly, the future of the GOP is at stake.  Some, like Paul, believe that a conviction will result in at least a third of the party exiting, perhaps following Trump if he creates a new “Patriot” Party, an idea he has floated.  McCarthy and most GOP representatives and Senators recognize that it is still Trump’s party, and to think otherwise is foolish.  But even if the Senate acquits Trump, there are deeper issues.

A significant portion of the GOP has gone down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, fed by QAnon, Newsmax, OAN and many dark spaces on the Internet.  Even if mainstream social media self-polices these threats aggressively, there are plenty of outlets for them to fester.  If the GOP leadership does not stand as one and denounce, first and foremost, the Big Lie, then essentially they sanction all of these theories.  This is the fundamental problem of the Republican Party – the failure to confront false narratives.

Keep in mind that there is another whole wing of the party that behaves like traditional Republicans.  These are people like Mitt Romney and John Kasich who care about America as the leader of the free world, mistrust Russia, support free trade, fear huge deficits that lead to mountains of debt, and support “traditional family values.”  These are traditional Republican canons.  The mainstream GOP has not lost sight of the facts, as Romney and Kasich demonstrate.  They are horrified by Trump.  And while this wing of the party has been subordinated, they still have significant membership and, as the CEO’s have demonstrated, they have some clout.  The GOP needs their votes, too.

No tent can bridge gaps this wide on both the facts to believe and the policies to pursue.  The Democrats, for all of their own rifts, differ neither in fact base nor philosophy, simply in matters of degree and the breath of tactics.  There is no comparison between the two parties.

There will be a reckoning, because the GOP cannot win back anything – not the House, not the Senate, not the White House – in this current state.  Trump, with his actions over the last three months, has fully ripped the party apart.  It was Lincoln himself who said, in another context, that a “house divided against itself cannot stand.”  Now it is the party of Lincoln that must conduct its own civil war.


What is madness, when it seems like a sizable portion of the nation has succumbed to it 24/7? 

But two moments stand out, both from January 6.

An article from the Daily Mail sums up the Trump real-time reaction to the protesters as follows, based on sources who were with him as the insurrection unfolded.

Yet it was not the mayhem and violence that caused Trump to roar in fury...Trump was ‘apoplectic’ in embarrassment because the ‘white trash’ mob on screen made him look bad.  ‘He was angry, not at the appalling crimes they were committing, but because he felt embarrassed,’ said the source. ‘When they first stormed the Capitol he was enjoying it. These were “his people”.  But when he saw pictures of the half-naked guy in the fur hat he started complaining they looked “cheap and poor.”

‘Even at one of the worst moments in American history he was thinking about his image. He didn’t grasp the scale of the disaster.’  Fuelled by hamburgers and endless cans of Coca-Cola, Trump ignored calls from his closest political advisers, including Vice President Mike Pence, who begged him to make a televised address and call off the mob.  ‘He was shouting: “Why should I? These people are my supporters”.’

In the early evening, after the horror was abundantly clear, after Trump had issued a far-too-late video telling the rioters to “go home” (while also saying that he “loved” them), but before the Congress reconvened to resume the Biden certification process, Trump and Guiliani each made a phone call.  They called brand new Senator Tommy Tuberville to exhort him to vote against certifying even more states, to delay the process (each state challenge would require separate debate) even further, into the next day, so that they would have more time to browbeat local swing state election officials.

This was bad enough, but there was one other problem so typical of the Trump/Giuliani tandem: they had called, both times, Senator Mike Lee of Utah – who actually supported the Biden certification – by mistake.



Joe Biden began his presidency with a higher rating than that ever achieved by Donald Trump:  55%.  And with only 34% disapproval, Biden sports a +21 net approval, quite impressive in these polarized times.



Jan 2021








Trump, on the other hand, ended his presidency with a 39% approval rating for January, his lowest since December, 2017.  This broke a stretch of 36 consecutive month that Trump’s approval rating fell in the 40-45% range.  Not once did Trump ever achieve a monthly (or weekly) approval rating of 50% of higher.  His highest month was 46% in the infancy of his presidency, in February, 2017.  His lowest, 38%, was in August of 2017.  This high/low range of only 8 percentage points is the lowest of any president since approval ratings have been tracked, in Truman’s presidency.



















































With Biden’s inauguration, we now christen the Bidenometer.  This measure is designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign:  “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  We reset the Bidenometer to zero, to better demonstrate whether the economy performs better or worse under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.

In the past 30 years, the economy has thrived under Clinton and Obama, and soured under Bush and Trump.  While this is widely recognized, the “Econometer” gives a tidy “one number” summary of the trends.  This exclusive BTRTN measure is comprised of five indicative data points:  the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP.  The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from one period to another.

Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, you can see from the chart below that under Clinton the measure ended at 55.  It declined from 55 to 8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from 8 to 33 under Obama’s recovery.  Under Trump, it fell again, from 33 to 0, driven by COVID-19.  Now we will see how it does under Biden.

Thus far, we are 11 days in, which has seen only modest changes in all the measures.  The slight downturn in the Dow has resulted in a -1 for Biden thus far.  Obviously, more time will have to pass before we can take the measure seriously as a determinant of the economy’s performance under Biden’s stewardship.







Clinton ends  Bush begins

Bush ends    Obama begins

Obama ends Trump begins

Trump ends Biden begins

In progress







Unemployment Rate (last month)






Consumer Confidence (last month)






Price of Gas (end of last month)






Dow-Jones (end of last month)






GDP (last 12 months)






Avg. % difference versus Jan 30, 2021







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Notes on methodology:

BTRTN calculates our monthly approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct daily or weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters.  The outcome tends to mirror the RCP average but, we believe, our method gives more precise trending.

For the generic ballot (which is not polled in this post-election time period), we take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly generic ballot polls, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency.

The Trumpometer aggregates a set of economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of aggregated indicators at the time of the Biden Inaugural on January 20, 2021, on an average percentage change basis. The basic idea is to demonstrate whether the country is better off economically now versus when Trump took office.  The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline and the GDP.

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