Trump might be more powerful than we thought

Last week I tried to make sense of the Republican establishment’s refusal to acknowledge Biden’s win by talking about how the party might be being held hostage by its base:

Lets start from the assumption that the GOP is moving forward as a minoritarian party. The electoral college and Senate already give rural lower population states disproportionately more influence. Mix in gerrymandering, and it is possible to see how power could be held without a majority of the electorate. The key is an energized base that reliably turns out. Trump’s unexpectedly strong showing this election shows that relying on steady doses of radicalization works.

One implication is that the party can be held hostage by its base. If Trump succeeds in convincing a majority of them that fraud is underway, then the party has to go along with it, even if only rhetorically. Where the base is highly radicalized, party moderation becomes difficult; moderates will find themselves (and have found themselves) facing primary challenges from the right.

Yesterday, Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader, and probably the most powerful Republican (person?) in Washington broke his silence on the election. He talked up the GOP win and backed Trump’s refusal to concede the election, saying the results were “preliminary” and Trump was “100 percent within his rights” to challenge the outcome.

At this point, the number of Republicans who have acknowledged Biden’s win can be counted on one hand.

One popular theory paints Trump as the Republican party’s useful idiot. According to this view (see Sarah Churchwell in this episode of Talking Politics for an overview) Mitch McConnell is the real power behind the throne, and Trump survives at his mercy; impeachment was only avoided because Mitch wanted it to be so.

The events of the last week show Trump might be more powerful than once thought. Consider what would happen to the Republican party if it abandoned him. He could turn on them, accuse them of corruption / betrayal, and from the perch of a new television network rail against them (and the Democrats) for four years, before running as a third party candidate in 2024. Maybe he starts a new party earlier, and runs candidates in the 2022 mid-terms. This is a nightmare scenario for the Republican Party, a more charismatic and popular version of Ralph Nader who appeals to their base.

The million-dollar question for American democracy is whether Trump is cunning enough to sleepwalk the Republicans into an actual coup. I remain optimistic about America’s political institutions.

Electoral fraud is tomorrow’s voter disenfranchisement

I just watched Trump’s latest press conference (it begins around 16:00). It has been clear for some time that he planned to turn on his lie engine as soon as polls closed (if it was ever really off), but I underestimated how hysterical it would look. Several networks cut away mid-conference to clarify to tell viewers his claims were baseless.

I am now of the belief that, absent an unexpected shift in uncounted ballots, Trump is going to lose this election. He will tie it up in litigation as long as possible, but it seems unlikely the Republican party will choose to die on this hill. They will let Trump go (without actually disowning him), content with a conservative court and the Senate.

Trump’s attack on the electoral system may not achieve the immediate objective of saving his skin, but I expect his claims to stay circulating within sections of the Republican base for years to come, ready to be weaponised. Dog whistling to electoral integrity will allow Republicans to push through even stronger measures to disenfranchise voters or gerrymander districts. So while its great that his immediate attempts to subvert democracy are failing, I am concerned he is setting the stage for a far more sophisticated successor. Time will tell.

*5 hours later*
I’m now not so sure about Republicans not dying on this hill. Here’s Newt Gingrich claiming the Presidential election is being stolen. Here is Republican House minority leader on Fox:

“Everyone who’s listening, do not be quiet,” Mr. McCarthy said on Fox News. “Do not be silent about this. We cannot allow this to happen before our very eyes.”

*24 hours later*

The eagerness by which the Republican establishment is attaching itself to Trump’s claims about electoral fraud raise questions about the relationship between the party and its base.

Lets start from the assumption that the GOP is moving forward as a minoritarian party. The electoral college and Senate already give rural lower population states disproportionately more influence. Mix in gerrymandering and it is possible to see how power can be held without a majority of the electorate. The key is an energized base that reliably turns out. Trump’s unexpectedly strong showing this election shows that relying on steady doses of radicalization works.

One implication is that the party can be held hostage by its base. If Trump succeeds in convincing a majority of them that fraud is underway, then the party has to go along with it, even if only rhetorically. Where the base is highly radicalized, party moderation becomes difficult; moderates will find themselves (and have found themselves) facing primary challenges from the right.

So far this has worked incredibly well for the GOP. With control over the Senate they can block the kinds of institutional reform needed to make the system more democratic; especially because democrats have repeatedly shown themselves more willing to compromise with GOP radicalism than confront it. More paralysis seems likely in the short run, but longer term its hard to see how the GOP’s strategy doesn’t lead to some kind of crisis.

Some thoughts on the election and the future of US power

The final results are still a while away, but it looks increasingly likely that Biden will squeak through to a victory sometime later this week. There are still plenty of things that could go wrong though: the Democratic lead in Arizona is precarious, and Pennsylvania still looks like a coin toss. Trump is lawyering up and attempting to squirt clouds of squid ink over *checks notes* vote counting. I’ve seen videos of Trump supporters in one state demanding that the count be stopped, while supporters in another state demand it be continued. Leaving that aside, here are a few things to think about over the next days and months:

  • The future of the Republican party: After enabling Trump for four years, senior Republicans may have finally found a red line. Republicans like Marco Rubio and Chris Christie have challenged Trump’s unfounded claims about voter fraud. Court stacker extraordinaire Mitch McConnell tentatively backed the President saying: “In a close election you can anticipate in some of these states you are going to end up in court, (it’s) the American way.”

    I suspect Republicans will humor Trump for as long as it is vaguely legal, but will drop him at the first sign of real trouble. They got a conservative court, hundreds of federal judge appointments, and maybe even the Senate out of his Presidency. Biden taking over is not all bed. They can pin the recession and out-of-control pandemic on him, and set themselves up for 2024.

    Looking ahead, Trump has shown that socially conservative working class populism is the GoP’s way forward. When combined with gerrymandering, the electoral college, and judicial appointments, appealing to a radicalized minority is an effective strategy. (There is a certain irony that the electoral college, which in theory forces candidates to have broad appeal across the country, actually concentrates power among rural minorities and a few battleground states.) I expect the party to continue shedding its overt racism to pick up socially conservative minorities; Latin voters turned to Trump in large numbers this election. I expect the party will try and find a more stable, less fickle, version of Trump for 2024
  • Gridlock in Washington: Right now it looks possible that Republicans will maintain control of the Senate, while Democrats hold the House and Presidency. Add to that a conservative leaning court, and there is a recipe for a whole lot of nothing. The NYT reports that business groups are already looking forward to an administration where the rhetoric is toned down, but no serious progressive legislation can pass the Senate.
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An America tied up in domestic battles is unlikely to take any meaningful progressive leadership on the global stage. This is bad news for global climate change (although Biden has announced the US will rejoin Paris) and domestic progressive reform. This might encourage the EU and China to step up further, we shall see.

  • Trump: All I can say here is that I expect his claims about voter fraud to become this cycle’s equivalent of the Birther conspiracy, turbo-charged by an ex-President mouthing off about it every day.
  • Splintered inside and out: A recurring preoccupation of mine is the contrast between US military and financial hegemony and its declining economic and soft power. The US military still has no serious military competitors (except perhaps in cyber), the Federal Reserve is the world’s central bank, and the US dollar is still firmly the reserve currency. Shale has turned the US from an oil importer to an oil exporter. On the other hand, the US share of the world economy has been shrinking for decades, its under pressure technologically, and soft power has taken a hit since Trump. Trump’s tariffs sanctions are an example of how military or financial power can be used to correct for an economic gap.

    How does a power react to a decline in some areas but not others? What changes when we add schizophrenic domestic politics? I’m not sure yet, but I promise to keep thinking about it.

It could be (much) worse

I remember exactly where I was four years ago. My manager was American, but insisted I at least pretend to work. A New Yorker, I suspect she thought the election was a foregone conclusion. By lunch (Australian time), she was watching the live feed with me as a horrified silence crept across the office. I went to a bar later with some friends and we watched Trump’s acceptance speech while two men in MAGA hats danced nearby. The hats had not yet lost their circus performer quality and we watched them a little confused.

The absurd has long given way to the sinister. Trump has already promised to tie up the results in court. His supporters surrounded a Biden campaign bus as it drove through Texas. The fact that they were armed, as they tried to force an opponent’s campaign bus off the road, barely merits a click in today’s climate.

As an antidote to a world that sometimes feels on the verge of disintegration, here are some accounts from times when the civilized world really did collapse. The Silk Roads (which I’ve discussed here and here) recounts how contemporaries reacted to the sack of Rome in 410 A.D.:

In Jerusalem, the news was met with disbelief. ‘The speaker’s voice failed, and sobs interrupted his speech,’ wrote St. Jerome, ‘the city that had conquered the whole world had itself been conquered… who could believe it?’ Who could believe that Rome, built up through the ages by the conquest of the world, had fallen, that the mother of nations had become their tomb?’

Nearly 800 years later, the then centre of world civilization – Baghdad – was also dealt a fatal blow. This is how a contemporary described the bloody swathe cut by the Mongols through the Muslim world:

I wish I had never been born, wrote another, so I would not have had to live through such traumas. At least the Muslim Antichrist will only destroy his enemies, he went on; the Mongols, on the other hand, ‘spared none. They killed women, men, children, ripped open the bodies of the pregnant and slaughtered the unborn.’

Petrarch on The Black Plague:

Our hopes for the future have been buried alongside our friends

Happy Election Day. Please vote if you can.