Critical Elections: An Exchange

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?

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The Inciter-in-Chief

In his final year in office, Donald Trump demonized and denigrated his political opponents while inflaming a sense of grievance in his followers. Having become president on promises to “drain the swamp” and fight a corrupt political establishment, he treated any political figure who opposed, or merely competed with, him as an enemy. Meanness rather than civility was his metier. Whereas the duty of a president is to execute and administer laws impartially, Trump ran the White House like a machine politician, rewarding loyal “friends” and punishing the rest.

Trump’s willingness to foment violence against “enemies” became evident in April, when he began egging on groups of gun-toting citizens in several states, including Michigan, who resented strict COVID measures as an intolerable curb on personal liberty. “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” Trump tweeted, explicitly encouraging them to overthrow the state’s lawfully elected government, implying that it was akin to tyranny. Trump had incited his first insurrection. Shortly afterward, members of right-wing militias stormed the statehouse in Lansing and forced their way into its legislative chambers, chanting “Let Us In.” At least two of the protestors later joined a plot with some ten others to bomb the capitol and kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer. Michigan state legislators were terrorized. Whitmer had to carry on knowing that the president had made her a target of violence.

After the plot made the news, Trump brushed it off, saying Whitmer should “make a deal” placating her would-be captors. In the end, Trump got away with his blatant attack on Whitmer and Michigan’s state sovereignty. Inciting violence in Michigan cost him nothing. Among disaffected whites, who resent the way minorities and women are achieving political parity in US society, his following grew. State governors were silent. Female senators, who might have identified with Whitmer and chosen to stand up for her, also said nothing. No one formally called out Trump for this unprecedented and unwarranted attack on a state government and its authorities.

Trump’s partial success in Michigan encouraged him. It inspired him to plan crowd violence more methodically. He continued experimenting with militaristic language, particularly in the service of a boastful, grandiose narrative. He projected excessive confidence and invincibility. He spoke as one destined to win reelection, speaking dismissively of the machinations of his supposedly corrupt opponents and “others” who were not really American and definitely not worthy of the franchise. In the run-up to the November election, Trump loudly denounced the nation’s sophisticated election system as unfair and easy to manipulate. He repeatedly challenged the legality of election procedures in key states and counties, even where such measures enjoyed bipartisan support. In the summer, emails went out to Trump supporters inviting them to join “Trump’s Army.”

After losing Biden, Trump continued casting aspersions on the honesty of state and local election officials. He questioned the vote. He refused to concede, instead gathering about him a chorus of sycophants (including many top Republicans) who amplified his baseless claims of election fraud, perpetrating the Big Lie. Thousands began echoing his rallying cry of “Stop the Steal.” Trump’s insistence that he had won the election, that Biden and the Democrats had somehow stolen his victory, resonated with a segment of his followers who felt that they too had been passed over and betrayed. Secretary Pompeo kept the faith, insisting on November 10 that there would be a “smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”

Trump’s forces kept pressing on every front, threatening death to election officials and others who refused to falsify the election so that Trump could win. In Georgia, a frustrated election official, Gabriel Sterling, begged Trump via social media, “Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence. Someone is going to get shot, someone is going to get killed. And it’s not right.” In Michigan, armed Trump protestors showed up at the home of secretary of state Jocelyn Benson for a “Stop The Steal” rally one December night. They surrounded the house and taunted her, as she and her 4-year-old son decorated for Christmas inside. Such folk believed, as one Trump fundraising email put it, that they were “the President’s first line of defense when it comes to fighting off the Liberal MOB.”

Having exhausted every legal option for overturning Biden’s victory, Trump orchestrated one last grand maneuver to wrest the presidency away from Biden on the day Congress was to receive and record the Electoral College results. Trump’s determination to disrupt and derail the proceedings predated the occasion by several months. This time, the groundwork he laid ballooned into a choreographed melee, a pitched attack on the Capitol and the people within it, that has no precedent in American history.

When the Senate impeachment trail begins on February 8, House managers will present a more complete picture of the storming of the Capitol that injured some 140 police officers and caused eight deaths. The outgoing president deliberately manufactured an assault on the legislative branch that could have resulted in the end of our Constitutional tradition.  He encouraged a spirit of grievance and distrust among his followers, stoking their resentment against Congress and the political establishment itself through a sedulous campaign of put-downs and lies. He told them to march to the Capitol; they obeyed. He watched the violence from the White House with delight. Afterward, he claimed to “love” the mob and averred that “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.”

Next week, the ex-president will send lawyers to the Senate to defend the indefensible: Trump’s premeditated attack on Congress, the vote, and the nation itself. The senators must find him guilty. To do otherwise will destroy the prospect of peace in our land: presidential authority will have no limit, and the peaceful transition of power will be a thing of the past.

Image: Screenshot from NBC coverage of the assault on the Capitol,
from this source.

The Assault on the Capitol: Trump’s Foot-Soldiers Attack Representative Government and the Legislative Branch

Donald Trump is engaging in a seditious crusade against the US government while neglecting his presidential duties.  Wednesday, he incited supporters to march on the Capitol, where they smashed windows, trashed the building, and beat a police officer to death.  They terrorized lawmakers intent on affirming Joseph R. Biden’s lawful election to succeed him as the next president.

Americans must face and tackle how fundamentally radical and seditious Trump’s machinations are.  He is using the cover of the executive office to wage an ongoing campaign against representative government, Congress, and any fellow Republican, from the vice-president on down, who dares to speak out or break away.  Ever since taking office, but increasingly since the Republican senate acquitted him of impeachment charges last February, Trump has steadfastly implanted an ideology of hate, intolerance, and grievance in his followers’ minds.  This ideology involves labeling fellow Americans as enemies and dangerously “wrong” liars, who must be opposed because they threaten Donald J Trump and his supposedly righteous campaign to stay in power.  Members of the legislative branch, who are doing their Constitutional duties, he dismisses and demeans as “weak” and “corrupt.” Ditto honorable state officials who won’t do what he wants.

Trump has consistently proclaimed these lies and methodically popularized them through tweets, speeches, and interviews.  Since early November, he has continued to insist that he won the presidential election. (It was “a sacred landslide.”)  He has never conceded defeat nor admitted lying.  His doublespeak continues, and will continue after he leaves the presidency. (Even in what some regard as his concession speech, Trump never admits losing, nor acknowledges the legitimacy of Biden’s victory.)

Trump’s core followers completely believe the false narrative he tells.  They believe that the Democrats and Joe Biden stole the election; that massive election fraud occurred (particularly in urban areas of swing states with lots of black voters); and that Trump is the rightful victor.  Trump preaches that his followers are “the true Americans,” and that if his people do not “take back the government,” through violence if necessary, corruption will reign, and the greatness of the US will disappear for good.

What we saw of the assault on the Capitol in real time was superficial.  Initial footage, much of it filmed at a great distance, failed to convey how nasty, violent, and intentional part of the crowd really was.  In some of the early videos, we saw protestors strolling aimlessly through the Capitol, documenting their innocent-seeming transgressions with selfies, whooping like children.  We saw guards opening barricades to allow “protestors” to flow past.  Some Capitol Police chatted and posed with rioters, showed them courtesies, or stood around doing nothing.  In contrast to the savage response the peaceful BLM protests elicited in the capital this summer, police applied a double standard Wednesday, giving a gingerly, kid-glove treatment to the mainly white crowd. Black Capitol police officers later complained that their superiors did little to prepare for what they privately knew would be, not a peaceful protest, but a violent assault.

As more footage has begun to circulate, and more bits of news come together, can we appreciate how deliberate, pitched, and murderous the incursion really was.  Trump’s “army” was handicapped in that it had been warned against carrying firearms in DC, and those who marched on the Capitol were mainly unarmed.  Nonetheless, members of the crowd carried cruder weapons, such as flags and staffs.  Some had flash-bangs or zip ties for binding people.  Some had ear-pieces and two-way radios; others had maps of the network of tunnels under the buildings.  Two bombs were planted around the perimeter of the Capitol, but police found and defused them before they went off.

Though there appears to have been no coordinated plan of “attack,”  elements of the crowd battled fiercely to break into the building by climbing through windows, bull-rushing officers, and battering the heavy reinforced glass of the main entrances and House Chamber.  Trump’s forces beat and trampled one officer on the Capitol steps; he later died.  Another policeman was pummeled nearly to unconsciousness, as a phalanx of rioters pressed to get through a sliding door.  

Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran traveled across the country to take part in the assault on Congress, tried to climb through an opening into the door to the House Chamber that armed police officers were defending. She was shot in the neck and later died. She is just one example of a large subversive population who will follow Trump to the death, falsely believing that they are serving a noble and patriotic cause.

Inside, the Senate and House were ignorant that the Capitol Building was being overcome and assailed.  They were engaged in debate when suddenly security officers ushered the Vice President and the House Speaker out.  The senators, too, were quickly cleared and moved to safety in an undisclosed location.  On the House side, some congressmen and women were trapped inside on the main floor of the chamber and in the balcony when the rioters began ramming the doors from outside.  Security officers barricaded the door and drew their weapons to defend it, as the remaining MCs were evacuated.  Staff and some representatives who were not in the chambers were instead trapped in a lockdown in their offices for hours.  Only later did Congress have an opportunity to reckon with the grave danger latent in the massive assault.  

There are now speculations about “a crowd within the crowd,” a highly militarized and well-equipped group intent on gaining access to the chambers, destroying the Electoral Votes, kidnapping or executing lawmakers, or forcing them to overturn the election under threat of harm.  Recall that before Christmas, Donald Trump met with the leader of the Proud Boys at the White House, and that many members of this violent supremacist organization were visibly active in Wednesday’s crowd.  It may take a few days for senators and House members to recover, but when they do they will realize how close they were to being killed, captured, or otherwise victimized.

Traumatic though it was, Trump’s open insurrection against the legislative branch was merely an opening salvo.  Thugs leaving the building were heard to say “this is just the beginning,” and “next time we come back we will be armed.”  Donie O’Sullivan of CNN, heard many in the crowd lingering around the Capitol saying they were proud of what they had done.  Videos are circulating in various backrooms of the internet, priming Trump’s forces to renew their violent assault on January 20, Inauguration Day.  One hopes the threat of renewed violence against Congress and the institutions of government will galvanize Republicans and Democrats to join together against Donald Trump and his treachery.

Image by Mike Maguire, from this source.