I knew you would be trouble but I didn’t anticipate how much or for how long. I didn’t anticipate how high-maintenance you would be, when you, with your big head, your big mouth, and your shocking ideas, eclipsed every other craven presidential wannabe in that first GOP cattle call back in 2015. All I knew was that you would breeze past Hillary, because you spoke to the people’s unspeakable fears and desires. You were a dangerous iconoclast, a battering ram poised to make what I worshipped go smash.
Your political “look” barely masked what was ruthless and crass. As a suitor, a little-known arriviste, you ravaged the gentility that makes balanced government run. On television, you honed your art, getting suppliants to grovel before you, so at odds with the dignified reciprocity of republican government. You resented polite norms. This naughtiness was seductive. Silently, my neighbors began crushing on you.
You trended, went viral—a page right out of Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. Your message was simple: close our borders, deter China, shore up national sovereignty and American prestige. Views so simple every voter could understand. A legitimate paradigm shift, peddled by a dangerously power-hungry man.
As you gained ground, I had to notice, pay attention. Loathing you, I had to think about you every day. The good people of America had to be woke. Collectively, our days turned on figuring you out. It was up to us (!) to avert your bid to end republican government. It was surreal: surreal because it was happening. Really happening! In our time, as we raked leaves, watched the news, folded laundry. The first impeachment vote failed as I trimmed a Christmas tree. Republican after Republican rose to defend you: after that party-line vote, what hope remained? Congress was tainted. Only the people’s votes could save the nation from you. This while tweaking the tinsel, powerless.
You haunted my dreams. I tweeted and fought about you constantly. Barry Blitt’s cartoons for the New Yorker mushroomed into a serial novel on my bulletin board. Those cartoons fortified me, even as I resented you who made them necessary. You were my atmosphere. You infiltrated my social life, my intellect, my family. It was like I knew you, like you were my cellmate and I was doing time.
Then, astonishingly, we prevailed! Your opponents prevailed. We barely managed to save the nation from you. But prevail we did! On January 6th, a terrified Congress and a furtive vice-president rallied round the Constitution just long enough to save the nation from a full-throttle assault, whose clownishness barely masked a deadly serious coup. Just enough bravery and independence remained to fend off your lackeys, sedulously peddling the Big Lie.
Now, my obligation to notice you is over. You lost the election, lost the nation’s trust. You lost the popular vote, lost the electoral college. You’re a loser. The majority of Americans are done with you. This week, all Blitt’s cartoons came down off the bulletin board, to be filed away. I’m consigning you to the past, to oblivion. I’m turning away from you forever, intent on never mentioning your name again. I see this as a patriotic duty. As your name goes unuttered, your irrelevance builds. Only those who treat you as important keep you alive.
I don’t know just what your future will be. Will you run out of money, grow as seedy as OJ? Will you ever be found guilty for your evident crimes? Will you seek refuge in a foreign country? Be utterly humiliated at the polls? However it plays out, you are fated to become a pariah one day. Just as I’m turning my back on you, so society will eventually stop noticing you.
You changed us, you see. Because we are different, you will never again occupy the presidency. No matter what the polls say (c’mon!).
Where Trump beat Biden in 2020, his margin of victory was often wide. Listed below are the states where Trump prevailed, in order of his relative popularity. The results show where Democrats are least competitive, where Trump prevails because of an absence of viable competition.
After that is a second list, of the ten states most closely decided in 2020. In four states (Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania), Biden prevailed by a margin of less than one percent. Had these states gone the other way, Trump would still be president.
The political crisis of the United States will resolve when a rival party becomes ideologically competitive in the many states where Trump dominated comfortably last time around. Many of these states are small. How to woo votes away from Trump in these areas is an experiment worth embarking on prior to the election of 2024.
KEY: State (Electoral votes) NUMBER OF VOTES CAST FOR TRUMP / Margin of victory
Wyoming (3) 193,559 / 43.3 %
West Virginia (5) 545,382 / 38.9 %
North Dakota (3) 235,595/ 33.3 %
Oklahoma (7) 1,020,280 / 33.1 %
Idaho (4) 554,119 / 30.8 %
Arkansas (6) 760,647 / 27.6 %
South Dakota (3) 261,043 / 26.2 %
Kentucky (8) 1,326,646/ 25.9 %
Alabama (9) 1,441,170 / 25.4 %
Tennessee (11) 1,852,475 / 23.2 %
Utah (6) 865,140 / 20.5 %
Nebraska (4/5) 556,846/ 19.1 %
Louisiana (8) 1,255,776 / 18.6 %
Mississippi (6) 756,764 / 16.5 %
Montana (3) 343,602 / 16.4 %
Indiana (11) 1,729,516 / 16 %
Missouri (10) 1,718,736 / 15.4 %
Kansas (6) 771,406 / 14.6 %
South Carolina (9) 1,385,103 / 11.7 %
Alaska (3) 189,951/ 10 %
Iowa (6) 897,672 / 8.2 %
Ohio (18) 3,154,834 / 8.1 %
Texas (38) 5,890,347/ 5.6 %
Florida (29) 5,668,731/ 3.3 %
North Carolina (15) 2,758,775/ 1.3 %
Maine (1/4) 360,737* / -9.1 %
*Votes garnered in Maine gave Trump 1 electoral vote out of a possible four.
The most closely contested states in 2020: Biden’s narrowest margins
Your donation helps ensure that American Inquiry remains freely available instead of hidden behind a paywall. Contributions can be given in $10 increments by using the quantity button. Your total will appear on the subsequent payment page. Many thanks!
Dear Readers, Thank you so much for watching and commenting on last week’s video about living through a paradigm shift. I truly appreciate our dialogue, which you enrich every time you choose to go public with your thoughts.
This week I discuss the troubling political situation we face in the wake of the January 6th insurrection.This 12-minute video covers three points: 1) On the 6th, we saw the emergence of an unprecedented kind of violent anti-federalism, whose adherents come from all regions and classes of American society. 2) These elements pose an ongoing threat to the rule of law. Most of the people who perpetrated and participated in the violent attack on the Capitol, and federal government itself, have not been called out or held accountable. 3) The Republican Party has chosen to harbor and defend these elements, thwarting every effort to identify seditious people and temporizing when it comes to the threat that militant anti-federalism poses.
We can’t sit on the sidelines waiting to see what new horror the Republican Party sanctions. We must encourage the formation of a new centrist third party to draw off support from the Republican Party and hasten its demise.
WHY NOT GIVE TO AMERICAN INQUIRY?
Your donation helps ensure that American Inquiry remains freely available to all, instead of being hidden behind a paywall. Contributions can be made in any $10 increment by clicking the quantity button. Your total will appear on the subsequent payment page. Many thanks!
In December 2017, about a year into Donald Trump’s presidency, high-school student Nicole Plummer came to me with some questions about critical elections and the 2016 election that brought Trump to power. Our exchange highlights the role of retrospection in determining whether an election has been critical. A critical election leaves the party system changed by reconfiguring party ideology in a lasting way.
Here, without further preamble, is my exchange with Miss Plummer.
Q: Can certain tell-tale signs be observed in the time leading up to a critical election?
A: Typically, critical elections occur when the nation faces an underlying problem that the existing parties can’t admit to or solve. The problem is big enough to influence all society and the nation’s future. In a critical election, the problem is not only admitted, but an approach to it is offered that the majority of people assent to in an enduring way.
Critical elections happen when people are bored with prevailing political ideas or ambivalent about what candidates are offering. So I imagine that if you looked back at periods before a critical election, you might find lackluster voter turnout, a rise in the percentage of unaffiliated voters, and perhaps also new splinter groups (which are trying to find the right formula for mobilizing the electorate in a new way).
During the campaign leading up to a critical election, one might observe the following: 1) appeals to previously neglected blocs of the electorate; 2) campaign planks (i.e.talking points or principles) that are truly new or innovative; 3) iconoclastic individuals, whether candidates or, in rare instances, their managers, espousing a new vision of society; 4) signs that the political ideas being promoted are being wholeheartedly adopted not just by a cadre of leaders but by a wider swath of society.
Remember that the concept of a critical election is something observers have made up to help differentiate among elections and distinguish their results. Many election cycles feature some of the characteristics above, but it ends up being a matter of degree. For example, the Tea Party succeeded in bringing a new cadre of conservative opposition leaders into national politics during Obama’s presidency, but this faction failed to broaden its appeal to the extent needed to become a dominant party. Likewise, Bernie Sanders is iconoclastic and has articulated several goals new to mainstream politics, but so far he hasn’t converted all Democracy to his way of thought.
Q: Why are critical elections important for a functioning democratic society?
A:Critical elections refresh the identification that should exist between leaders and the people. When a leader (or group of leaders) capable of mobilizing the political structure around new and more relevant ideas comes along, the populace benefits. That’s because the dominant party will then mirror, and do all it can to meet, the American people’s needs and desires. What bothers many people about today’s Republican party is that its actions don’t correspond very well to the needs and concerns of the populace (who don’t want to see their insurance premiums go up or their health coverage disappear, for instance). Similarly, many Americans don’t care about the protection of union workers that is a hackneyed Democratic theme.
Q: Was one of the six critical elections that you identified more influential than the others?
A:The election of 1860 prompted states to secede, triggered the Civil War, and put slavery on the path to extinction (which directly affected millions of enslaved people), so I would say that election had the most profound effect on America, both subsequently and on those who were alive at the time.
Q: Are Democrats and Republicans here to stay? Will these two parties just keep evolving their policies or will they eventually give way to new groups based on changing ideologies in the U.S.?
A: I don’t know. Ironically, it’s hard to say which of these parties is more messed up. The Republicans are in a state of inner crisis despite holding almost all the power. The Democrats have ideological unity but are indifferent to the fact that millions of Americans find their message unpalatable.
The two major parties are not just vehicles for ideas; they are also bureaucracies that do not want to be extinguished. In the 2016 election, both Trump and Sanders decided it was more to their advantage to work from within these structures rather than go out and find enough likeminded people to start an effective third party. To start a new party, one would have to assemble and coordinate a group of like-minded peers working to organize similar parties in a number of states. Will Trump’s climb to the top of the Republican party actually change it into a more salient party, though? It’s hard to say.
Q: If you had to pick one almost critical election from U.S. history, what would it be? (i.e. an election that was monumental but didn’t quite meet the criteria)
A:Barack Obama had the opportunity to change the Democratic party into something new in 2008 but failed to do so because his ties to the party establishment were too slight. He became president at too early an age–if he had stayed in the Senate longer, he would have ended up being a much more effective party leader.
Obama was a centrist looking to find a way beyond big New Deal-type governance. His major achievement, creating universal access to health care, was significant in that it sought to benefit every American, not just those in need. His presidency eschewed identity politics. His second inauguration envisioned a nation that was republican, enlightened, and fully inclusive.
Q: Do you believe that critical elections need to coincide with social, economic, or political upheaval?
A:No, they bring change to the society afterward. Critical elections often follow periods of staleness, stagnation, or cultural drift.
Q: Why do you think reforming our parties is so difficult at this moment in political history?
A: Historically, politicians did not have the “tools” of social science (polling, marketing techniques, etc.) so their sense of what would work with the electorate had to be more instinctive. They took up positions that were shaped by their direct knowledge of and intuition about the people. Also, once in office, they were more confident in using the powers delegated to them, without needing to consult their constituents on every little thing. Trump and Sanders were both remarkable during the campaign, in that each had a few fervently held beliefs that they truly believed in, and that they held to despite what anyone else (e.g., the media) thought. They each were taking a risk that Hillary Clinton was incapable of taking. If you want to be a leader, you’ve got to lead, not just obey your constituents, your paid consultants, your political friends.
Q: What is your opinion on how politics and campaigns are currently run? Was it better back in the “good-old-days” or has campaigning simply evolved with society to meet the needs and interests of the general populace? Is this evolution good or bad?
A:The people have the power to effect change. When their will is aroused, change does occur. (Look at the drastic change that’s followed from the 2016 election.) American politics swings back and forth like a pendulum. Critical elections occur when effective leaders channel the popular will into effective results. When the right kinds of leaders come up, the reigning ideology changes in a “good way” and the political system becomes endowed with a positive (if also scary) new dynamism.
As recent partisan conflict testifies, the falling away of an old ideology and the birth of a new, widely supported one can take an excruciatingly long period of time. In Lincoln’s time, escalating sectional tensions ate into the regnant parties for more than a decade before the iconoclastic anti-slavery party he was part of broke through. Initially a “fringe movement” that recast its message to broaden its mainstream appeal, the Republican party scored an electoral victory that put Lincoln in power.
Q: Does the 2016 election have the potential to become the 7th critical election? Is it too soon to tell?
A: In a critical election, the character of the entire party changes in a lasting way. Will Trump’s ideas really gain traction with establishment Republicans? I have a feeling that many on Capitol Hill loathe the president and are just waiting him out.* Some of Trump’s ideas—his concern about the quality of life for displaced and forgotten American workers and his understanding of how this issue is associated with immigration, domestic security, and the specter of our country’s hegemony giving way to that of China—define potent fears that other US leaders should countenance and address in a more palatable but still firm way. We urgently need a slate of federal goals the whole nation can embrace—otherwise, society will keep deteriorating, and social goods we all prize will be lost.
* Liz Cheney’s ouster from her leadership role in the House yesterday confirms that 2016 was “critical” in that Donald Trump shattered the bland traditionalism of the Republican party, replacing it with a cult of personality. Those who remain in the party in 2021 overwhelmingly support Trump and his dangerous lies. His vicious character and indifference to the Constitution have driven away millions, weakening the party and forcing many of its former leaders out. Where will this disaffected part of the polity go? Will the coming year will see the birth of a constructive centrist party, perhaps under the leadership of the redoubtable Mitt Romney?
Your donation helps ensure that American Inquiry remains freely available instead of being hidden behind a paywall. Contributions can be made in any $10 increment by clicking the quantity button. Your total will appear on the subsequent payment page. Many thanks!
A moral and cultural collapse is fueling the long political crisis Americans are living through. Well-meaning, tolerant, and patriotic people are still in the majority, but the behavior of the January 6th insurrectionists and everyone friendly to them establishes that civil society and federalism are gravely imperiled. The American way of government is based on compromise and negotiation; it is based on civility and comity; and it aspires to realize a humane and virtuous vision of itself. It is founded on a hope of betterment, on a set of ideal principles regarding individual rights and privileges. Throughout time, American leaders have paid lip service to these ideals and sometimes chanced their lives, careers, and reputations to make them real. The nation’s political identity is intrinsically moral and idealistic. This remains true, no matter how far short, in actual performance, it falls.
The underpinnings of republican government are rotting away. Over the past few years, we’ve discovered how many Americans hate the federal government. They resent their fellow citizens. They’ve had it with learning and discussion. They are sick of “bullshit,” meaning the ideas and values of anyone (especially anyone in power) who doesn’t speak or look or act their way. Their favored recourse is intimidation: speak loudly and crudely, ignore decorum. Belittle, smear, and threaten opponents. Gang up on the rule of law, which works best garbed in the regalia of intolerance, preferably while bearing a stick or a gun. Sneer at moderation, at tradition and respectability. Even polite-looking figures such as Ted Cruz and Lauren Boebert are actually completely corrupt thugs inside.
These people are looking for their next chance to attack police officers, desecrate the flag, and destroy government norms.
The question is whether good Americans can stem the tide. Can we stop the pendulum from swinging toward violence and extremism, and get it to move back to the other side? Can we neutralize the influence inflammatory figures enjoy? Can we restore contentment and consensus, notably by ministering to legitimate grievances and needs? Can the political establishment refrain from abusing its power, and get back to the retreating goal of figuring out how best to promote widespread prosperity, how to restore dignity and safety to ordinary households and communities? A world of trouble lies ahead if the answer is no.