This Was Always the Plan

President Trump telegraphed that he would try to steal the election if he didn’t win.

Dear Reader (including those of you who are starting to layer up like Steve Bannon to deal with the cold),

I rather enjoy not writing about Donald Trump. My column today is on why I think forgiving student debt is a bad idea. On Wednesday, I wrote a pithy and fun G-File that barely mentioned the sitting president. It was nice.

I’d like more of this. But I feel like I need to vent some rage. If you don’t want to read it, fine, skip ahead to the Canine Update. Or stop reading entirely. Or unsubscribe. Or eat an enormous wheel of industrial grade salad bar cheese. Do whatever you want—I’m not the boss of you, nor you of me.

The thing is, I am very angry.

The president of the United States is trying to steal an election he clearly and unequivocally lost.

Even liberals frame this fact wrong. They keep saying that Trump is undermining the legitimacy of the election. He is certainly doing that. But the undermining isn’t the end he most desires—it’s the means to that end. The man is literally trying to steal an election.

He may not think—anymore—that this is the most likely outcome. But he certainly thinks it’s one of the possible outcomes, and one of the few things we know about Trump is that he likes to keep his options open. From the reporting, he’s pursuing a bunch of goals, many of which reinforce each other.

Claiming the election was stolen lets him pretend—to himself or the country—that he’s not a loser. Claiming the election was stolen and pretending that he’s not a loser keeps his hardcore fan base with him, which will be good for him no matter what happens. It’s good prep work for some kind of “Trump TV” and/or for a potential bid to run again in 2024—at least in his mind. But he surely also thinks there’s a chance, however slim, that he will actually get to steal the presidency. If this was all just a show, he wouldn’t need to invite Michigan pols to the White House, presumably to strong arm them.

Think about it this way: Let’s say there’s a 99 percent chance he won’t be able to do any of the things that could result in him staying in power. He won’t be able to flip various state electors, get the courts to invalidate millions of votes, or get this sent to the House. But odds are good that in his head he thinks he’s got a maybe a 5 percent or 10 percent chance. Maybe even better than that.

As outrageous as his effort to delegitimize the election is—and it is very outrageous—that outrage pales like a lit candle next to the noonday summer sun when you compare it to an effort to literally overturn the popular and Electoral College vote and steal the election. But because that outcome is so unlikely, and Trump’s effort to pull it off is so comically inept, people are focusing on the more likely outrage rather than the more outrageous outrage.

This was the plan.

It’s pretty clear now—as I think Nicholas Grossman pretty accurately predicted—that his goal was always to steal the election if he didn’t win fairly.* He was pretty transparent about this long before the election. He spent months saying that mail-in or early ballots were rife with fraud. He told all of his voters to vote on Election Day. He expected this would give him a “mirage” lead that night, and then, because he had already established the illegitimacy of mail-in ballots, he could pretend to be justified in proclaiming victory on Election Night.

Sure, there would be lawsuits and the like later, but Trump would have momentum on his side. He even telegraphed over and over that he expected the Supreme Court to come to his rescue amid the chaos. That was his primary explanation for why he thought it was important to get Amy Coney Barrett confirmed. 

But as Grossman points out, there was just one problem: Trump wasn’t actually leading on Election Night. It’s one thing to declare victory prematurely when the tally on the scoreboard on your side is tied—it’s another to claim that you won when even the scoreboard clearly says you didn’t.

This, by the way, explains why Trump World was so very, very, very, angry about Fox’s decision to call Arizona. I’ll admit, I thought the anger at Fox was simply stupid, not evil. I wrote of the people screaming at Fox:

[They] … are the political equivalent of Kathy Bates in Misery. They think the Fox News Decision Desk is James Caan, and their collective sin is not writing the story the way the MAGA Kathys wanted. And they’re ignoring the fact that even if Fox banged out precisely the story the Kathys wanted on their metaphorical manual typewriters, it wouldn’t change the fact that the story they want is fiction.  Trump lost because more Americans—in total and in the necessary states—voted against him. Grow up and deal with it.  

But it turns out that the Arizona call ruined the pretext. If Pennsylvania had been the tipping point, they thought they could get the election thrown to the court. But the Arizona call combined with the undeclared result in Georgia preempted that.

So now the Trump team is falling back on sheer gall, breathtaking dishonesty, and gobsmacking insanity. Noah Rothman laid out the naked idiocy of what they’re trying to do. Sadly, he wrote his piece before Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell said, “Hold our beers.” The theory—theories? —they laid out yesterday made Billy Madison’s speech seem like the Gettysburg Address and Demosthenes’ Third Philippic rolled into one.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time explaining why any theory that hinges on the cutting-edge computer know-how of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela is going to have problems (see our fact checks here). I’ll just note that even if you sat there watching that thing and said, “This sounds plausible,” it doesn’t change the fact they offered no proof of what they were alleging. Nor have any of their lawyers when they have stood before a judge. On Twitter and in press conferences, Trump (and Trump World) are alleging world-historic crimes. In front of judges, their lawyers are muttering about Sharpies.

Tucker’s indictment.

Tucker Carlson’s getting a lot of praise for calling B.S. on Powell’s allegations. I’m glad he’s doing it, even if I have problems with his late conversion to Trump-skepticism. I also have issues with acting like Powell is just freelancing here. She and Giuliani are doing Trump’s bidding, so this isn’t just Powell’s deranged theory—it’s the sitting president’s theory, too. We can all laugh or shake our head as Rudy Giuliani spews nonsense to the point where someone would be forgiven for thinking his leaking hair dye was literally bullshit seeping out of his head. That doesn’t change what he’s trying to do.

So Tucker is right when he says, “What Powell was describing would amount to the single greatest crime in American history.” And he’s right that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

But he doesn’t close the circle. If our political system were sufficiently sclerotic and decadent that Powell’s con yielded the results she desires, it would be the greatest crime in American history, too. I don’t see the moral difference between stealing the election using cutting-edge Venezuelan algorithms and stealing the election by peddling deranged nonsense about Venezuelan algorithms.

I understand that everyone is tired of being angry. But this whole spectacle is infuriating. At least some of the people pushing Trump’s effort have to know it’s a colossal fraud, but they’re just doing it anyway. They are trying to pull off monumental election fraud by claiming that Democrats—and the Venezuelans, Cubans, and perhaps the Lizard People (but not the Lizard People you’re thinking of)—are guilty of monumental election fraud.

And spare me the anti-anti-Trump bloviating about how Trump’s scheme, however “overstated” or “problematic,” is still valuable because it’s shining a light on the very real issue of election fraud. This is like forgiving an attempted bank robbery because it exposed the flaws in bank security.

I don’t like “lying for justice” arguments from the left or the right. I don’t give a rat’s ass that Trump’s failing effort to steal an election or his already successful effort to delegitimize an election and a duly elected president is “raising awareness” or “shining a light on important issues.” And, as I strongly suspect, neither do the people hiding behind this irrelevant rhetoric.

The GOP’s cowardice.

I know I’m a broken record about how the weakness of our political parties is poisoning our politics. But look, political parties are supposed to be patriotic institutions. Unlike the Boy Scouts or Major League Baseball, however, they have a deep interest in protecting the sanctity of our electoral system. Their interest in preserving the legitimacy of our political system is total, in the same way the New York Yankees’ interest in the health of baseball is total. And yet, the RNC hosted that hate crime against democratic legitimacy yesterday. The GOP’s social media account spewed soundbites from Powell and Giuliani out into the country like a firehose attached to a sewage tank.

A serious party that cared about its long-term credibility, never mind the long-term credibility of our political system, would walk away from this burning septic tank en masse. Instead it spends its days lobbing Molotov cocktails of flaming B.S. from its windows.

And I don’t care if “the Republican base” believes this bilge or wants to believe it. The party has a higher obligation to the country, to future Republicans, and—as quaint as it sounds—to its principles than to a lame duck president.

None of these hacks are getting Wales out of this, and it wouldn’t be worth it if they were.

While we're at it, spare me the hosannas for the newfound courage of people like Joni Ernst. When the Trump campaign was merely claiming that the presidency was stolen, she stayed quiet. It was only when Powell claimed that other Republican politicians stole their races, too, that she suddenly took offense.

As for the conservative “leaders” who think it’s their job to tell their readers, viewers, and listeners what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear for the good of the country, my contempt is total. In a system with weak parties, it is incumbent on the ideological allies of the party to explain to the rank-and-file what is true and right. Pandering to them is not only wrong, it’s dangerous. The whole point of the conservative movement is to protect and preserve the legitimacy of the constitutional order and the blessings of liberty such an order was intended to secure. Indulging feelings—no matter how sincerely felt—when they don’t align with the actual facts undermines that project.

What if they won?

Which brings me to my final complaint and what really stews my bowels. What’s the end game? Again, I doubt Trump or his criminal accomplices actually believe they’ll succeed. But that’s very different from saying they don’t hold out hope that they still might pull off this caper. What if they did? What if instead of being the incompetent bungling demagogue we know Trump to be, he actually managed to bribe, blackmail, or otherwise cajole enough of the legislators, judges, justices, electors, and various officials required to hand him the presidency despite losing both the electoral college and the popular vote?

What would the country look like in Trump’s purloined second term?

Look, I think “What if this were Obama?” is one of the lowest forms of punditry. But if Barack Obama tried something like this, after losing fair and square to Mitt Romney, we’d be hearing lots of conservatives talking about “Second Amendment remedies.” And as loath as I am to hint, even for rhetorical purposes, that violence is justified, they’d have a point.

If Obama actually succeeded in stealing the election in 2012, there would be riots. There would very likely be open rebellion in the military. And when the dust settled, Congress would likely vote to impeach and remove him (or at least I hope it would). What is your principled argument for why it should be any different with Trump?

The likely scenario for how this all plays out is bad enough. But if Trump actually succeeded, it would wreck the country. But, yes, it’s true: He would own the libs. And apparently doing that is even better than getting to be Attorney General of Wales.

Various & Sundry

Canine update: The girls are really enjoying the fall (even indoors) and they are somewhat contemptuous of the idea that my political concerns should intrude on that. Yesterday, I had a very long day and came home past my canine curfew. Zoë chastised me gustily for it (Of course, Zoë can be pretty high maintenance. Sometimes she refuses to share). She was already cross because I was out of town for a couple days this week (which meant the Fair Jessica took over treat video duties, causing many to claim once again she’s the real auteur of the genre). Pippa, meanwhile, still has her concerns about mean dogs, some real but mostly imagined. It doesn’t help that her limp is still an issue. She also thinks she’s mastered the art of invisibility by staying extremely still. Other than that, there’s really not much to report. Have a great weekend—they certainly will. 

ICYMI

Last week’s G-File

Last weekend’s Ruminant

Donald Trump: Meeting expectations, unfortunately

A me-less Remnant, with David French and the mellifluous Yascha Mounk

The Midweek Epistle: How to stop catastrophizing our politics

GLoP-ing into infinity

The week’s second Remnant, with the most important hair in public policy and the man attached to it, Ryan Streeter

Forgiving student loan debt is the dumb idea that keeps on giving

And now, the weird stuff

A vaguely cultish group of people who just… never eat

Remember James May from Top Gear (the good one, not the American one)? 

At least one thing is going well at Liberty University

The closest thing Americans may have to the Aeneid

The battle lines are drawn in the forever war of Sheetz vs. Wawa

Correction, November 21: This column initially referred to an article by Matt Grossman. The author’s name is Nicholas Grossman.

Future Perfect

In our politics, maintaining a comfortable fiction is more important than addressing a growing problem.

Dear Reader (including those of you whose home offices are closer to Les Nessman’s than Don Draper’s),

It’s all very simple really: Things are complicated.

In journalism, there’s an old joke that’s really more like an adage, or maybe it’s an old adage that is really more of a joke: “Three examples equals one trend.”

I don’t think this is actually true. But there’s something to it. Perhaps because it feels true to the reader and the writer (and editor), it has a certain amount of truthiness to it. There’s just something about three examples that flips some plausibility switch in your brain. One example feels like an anecdote. Two seems like it could be a coincidence. But three? “Oh okay, there must be something here.” (I guess this tipping point is sort of like the difference between 6 Minute Abs and 7 Minute Abs. Six minutes makes no sense, but seven? Yeah, that’s the ticket.)

Now, I’m not going to lie to you. Because I write roughly 104 syndicated columns a year, another 104 or so “news”letters and a few dozen additional standalone articles—when I’m not working on a book—I follow this convention quite often. It’s sort of like haiku; there’s no law saying that poetry needs to come in a 5-7-5 syllable pattern, but people who like haiku expect it.

Anyway, I bring this all up because it’s kind of nonsense. Think of any big, important phenomenon you know something about. I bet you can think of three examples that “prove” X and three examples that “prove” Not X. Every month, if not every week, certain columnists write that the public schools are surrendering to political correctness, or atheism, or cultural Marxism, etc. And they provide perfectly fine examples of the trend they’re seeing. The thing is, you could also find three examples of schools rejecting all that stuff.

Think the internet is terrible? Totally defensible thesis. And providing three examples—or 300—to bolster your case is not exactly a heavy lift.

Think the internet is awesome? Not hard to get your back on this either.

Need a piece arguing that the popular culture is garbage? Just tell me whether I’m arguing pro or con, and I’ll find you the evidence you need.

Religion is dying! Religion is making a comeback! Give me some good WiFi, Google, and a cup of coffee and I’ll be your Pangloss—or your Chicken Little.

Now, I’m not arguing for nihilism or both-sides-ism, nor am I saying the Green Lantern movie was good or that people named Todd have tails. There are truths and trends out there. The simple fact is that not all examples are equal. Indeed, some examples—also known as “evidence”—can be downright stupid. And some can be devastatingly persuasive.

Trump’s zone flooding.

I didn’t actually bring this up to talk about Trump’s effort to convince people the election was stolen from him. But it’s a good illustration of the problem I’m getting at. The very best evidence the Trump flacks can offer that the election was stolen isn’t evidence that proves any such thing. They fling anecdotes of some very minor and isolated case of fraud, or some rumors of corner-cutting. Even if every single one of these alleged cases of a dead person voting were true—and the dead voted only for Biden—it wouldn’t change the fact that Trump lost. As Andy McCarthy—no NeverTrumper he—keeps writing, most of the cases the Trump campaign brings are minor, flimsy, or inconsequential. 

But that misses the point. What the flacks are doing is cleverly substituting quality evidence with quantity evidence. Just keep bringing up examples that conform to your narrative and people will think they confirm your narrative.

(If you’ve never read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, I highly recommend it. People are very, very, vulnerable to suggestion in ways that don’t feel like suggestion. “Narrative fallacies arise inevitably from our continuous attempt to make sense of the world,” Kahneman writes. “The explanatory stories that people find compelling are simple; are concrete rather than abstract; assign a larger role to talent, stupidity, and intentions than to luck; and focus on a few striking events that happened rather than on the countless events that failed to happen. Any recent salient event is a candidate to become the kernel of a causal narrative.")

It’s sort of like my gripe about the term “The Greatest Generation.” I could theoretically spend days combing through police records to prove that there were plenty of horrible men of draft age who avoided service and did terrible things in 1942. Doug Schulz, working as a Christmas Santa, got drunk and ate a live kitten in front of the kids at Macy’s. Serial killer Nick Anderson collected the left arms of chiropodists. Caleb Pompella had the single greatest collection of necrophiliac gymnast porn of the entire pre-internet period.  

This evidence would be very modestly relevant to rebutting the cliché that everybody in that age cohort was a hero. But it would be useless in illustrating the opposite narrative: that everybody in that age bracket was awful—even if I provided thousands of examples.

In the case of the Trumpist effort to steal the election by claiming the Democrats are stealing the election, you can tell people are cherry-picking examples to fit their theory because the only thing that doesn’t change over time is the theory. With one or two largely irrelevant exceptions, when Trump’s lawyers walk into the courtroom, the cases just disintegrate in the sunlight like vampires trying to play beach volleyball. Here’s the latest example.

Of course, Trump & Co. don’t actually care about the legal arguments. What they care about is maintaining the fiction that this is still a contested—and contestable—election. Bannon’s First Rule of Politics—“flood the zone with shit” —applies. The point of this fecal-diluvial gambit isn’t to reverse the election results, but to give the already convinced something to cling to long after Trump leaves office. As Ralph Hodgson said, “Some things have to be believed to be seen.” 

No one knowsor ownsthe future.

But let’s move on from Trump stuff so I can actually get to my point (“That would be a nice change of pace”—The Couch). In my regular column today, I wrote about how Sen. Joe Manchin is way more significant than Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and yet AOC gets so much more attention. Now there are many reasons for this: For starters, she very much wants a lot of attention, and she’s very good at getting it. Second, and I don’t mean this in a sexist way, but she’s much better looking and more fashionable than Manchin. No one wants to see Manchin do a fashion spread in a glossy magazine (at least, no one I want to meet). If this fact bothers you, take it up with her, given that she quite deliberately uses her glamor to great effect all the time.  

Related to points one and two, the media has a keen interest in paying attention to her. Note: I didn’t say “the mainstream media,” but simply the media, full stop. Fox News and all its imitators invest bizarre importance in a first-term representative with no institutional power. But so does the New York Times, MSNBC, and that whole crowd.

They pay attention partly for the same reasons Fox does. But they also pay attention because they desperately want her theory of the future to be right. Ocasio-Cortez is one of the high priestesses in the Cult of the Coalition of the Ascendant, which rests on the often—but not always—lazy idea that “Demography is destiny.”

Now, I have to be careful here, because this was possibly Ben Wattenberg’s favorite phrase and there’s good reason to believe he coined it. And my first job in Washington was as a research assistant for Ben. In one sense demography is—or can be—destiny. For example, if you know how many people are having babies in a given population, you can do some pretty basic math and figure out how many people—absent immigration or some other major exogenous event—there will be 30 years from now.

But an even more accurate, but less alliterative, phrase would be “Demography is prophecy.” That’s because prophecy, like demography, isn’t always a prediction so much as a warning. In the Bible, prophets usually warn that if you don’t change your ways, X will happen. Friedrich Hayek didn’t predict that hard socialism would take over the West in The Road to Serfdom—he warned it might if we stayed on the road we were on. Sometimes prophecy changes “destiny”—and if destiny can be changed, it’s not really destiny, is it?

If demography were destiny, Trump wouldn’t have done as well as he supposedly did with Hispanics and blacks. Heck, if demography were destiny, AOC wouldn’t have (allegedly) hectored the Democrats to work harder to win the Latino vote. I mean, why bother to persuade Latino voters if they are genetically, congenitally, or in some other way, automatic Democrats? Similarly, if minorities have the fixed ideological orientation so many on the left and right take as a given, why did California voters refuse to repeal the state’s law against racial quotas?

But my point isn’t just about demography. In politics the future is never assured. In 1776, Scotland was home to Adam Smith. Today, it’s a lovely cesspool of weak-tea socialism. When my dad was born, the two most reliably Republican states were Maine and Vermont, and the most Democratic ones were all in the South. When I first started following politics in the 1980s, it was a given that California was a permanent part of the Republican coalition. In 2012, the brightest minds in politics insisted that Republicans needed to abandon their reliance on white voters and embrace immigration and appeal to Hispanics. In 2016, Donald Trump won the presidency by nakedly appealing to white resentment and demonizing Hispanics. In 2020, he improved his standing with Hispanics.

I get all the griping about how wrong the polls were. But you know who else is wrong, a lot? Everyone else.

The cowardice of the straight line.

The easiest, and therefore most common, type of prediction in politics takes the form of a straight line. A trend that exists today will continue on its trajectory off into the future. If something is going badly, it will keep getting worse. If something is going well, it will continue to get better. The line doesn’t have to be flat, just straight. And if you believe this, finding three or 3,000 examples to “prove” it is child’s play.

The thing is: The line is never straight, at least not for very long. People who make straight-line predictions look at existing power structures and extend them off into the future indefinitely. I know this isn’t a new argument of mine. I’ve been quoting Orwell on this point for 20 years: “Power worship blurs political judgement because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue. Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.”

The reason why straight-line predictions always fall short is that power—political power, electric power, physical power—is never in a steady state. Power poorly maintained invites entropy. Power accumulated attracts competition. Every invincible empire in the history of humanity was, uh, vinced.

In my second-favorite Orwell essay, “Second Thoughts on James Burnham,” Orwell argued that power worship is partly a form of cowardice. We’re seeing a lot of such cowardice these days. Caught on video violating the Hatch Act, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said this week that Trump “has 72 million people who love him, who want to show up and support him. His base is strong and there is no denying that this president is the titular head of our party for many decades to come.”

Never mind the preposterous notion that all 72 million of Trump’s voters “love him,” the idea that he will be the titular leader of the GOP for “many decades to come” isn’t merely stupid—it’s cowardly. Cowardice isn’t just fear of battle, it’s fear of the truth. And a lot of Trump supporters have clung for four years to a straight-line prediction of what a Trumpist future would like. They failed to anticipate that Trump was terrible at maintaining his power, and they were blind to the reaction his power invited.

If all of Trump’s voters loved him, he wouldn’t have spent the entire campaign trying to scare the Bannon out of them by claiming that a vote for the Democrats is a vote for socialism, an economic depression, and defunded police departments. And if that were all true—as so many otherwise smart people convinced themselves—Jim Clyburn wouldn’t be hectoring Democrats to drop the “defund the police” nonsense, and Joe Manchin wouldn’t have single-handedly derailed any possibility in the near future of Democrats imposing socialism.

The reason straight-line predictions are cowardly is that they remove the role of human agency from the equation. This was Marxism’s cowardly appeal. Cold and impersonal forces determined our fate, so there’s no point in staying on the “wrong side of history.” This is the cowardly appeal of “Demography is destiny.” There’s no need to fight for the future or to bother persuading your opponents because we’re on autopilot to the future.

Nope.

The future is the last, best undiscovered country and it’s there, waiting for us to fight for it. Hopefully, we won’t have to fight for it with guns, but with arguments. There’s no iron law that says minorities can’t be persuaded to join the ranks of the right. And there’s certainly no iron law requiring that white people be on the right. As T.S. Eliot said, there are no truly lost causes because there are no permanently won causes.

There are plenty of real trends out there. But there are precious few, if any, irreversible ones. The only thing that makes a trend irreversible is a large enough failure of will to reverse it.

Various & Sundry

Canine update: Something is going on with Pippa. She’s getting more and more afraid of other dogs, even ones she only imagines to be out there. A lot of mornings I have to convince her there are no mean dogs lurking around the corner. Of course, once convinced, the spaniel is unleashed (figuratively and literally). Indeed, this week she was so unleashed she hurt herself. Her limp is back and we’re trying to keep her a bit restrained. But it’s hard with the fall weather she loves so. Meanwhile, Zoë’s leaf love appears to be in hiatus. Its departure is as mysterious as its arrival. Her breath is still frighteningly bad these days, so I think we’ll have to take her to the vet. But there’s no other sign of illness, so it may just be a middle age thing. Ralph remains entirely Ralphy and Gracie is still the queen.

ICYMI

Last week’s G-File

Last weekend’s Ruminant (first third is more incensed than the final two-thirds)

The messy Trump/GOP divorce is coming

The week’s first Remnant, with WaPo nonfiction book critic Carlos Lozada

The midweek “news”letter (extra points if you get the film reference)

This week’s Dispatch Podcast – poor Mark Esper, man

The week’s second Remnant, which sees Kevin Williamson enter the Three-Timers Club

Internecine Democratic Twitter fights become sillier with each passing day

And now, the weird stuff

If your home bar is running low, just put in the ingredients you still have and it’ll give you a cocktail recipe

Making machine-learning serve the most practical ends imaginable: translating cat meows

One of the Suite Life of Zack and Cody brothers is now a full-time mead vintner

Newt Gingrich calling himself a populist as far back as 1984

Literally take classes with Leo Strauss with this UChicago audio from the ’60s

Photograph by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.

Mandates, Clowns, Oh My

We don’t need to make American politics any more chaotic than they already are.

Dear Reader (Including those of you who skip this Dear Reader gag),

Joe Biden won a modest victory this week.

If the current map holds, he’ll have won 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232. This, as you probably heard, is an exact inversion of Trump’s 2016 showing, when he garnered 306 electoral votes to Hillary Clinton’s 232.

I feel very comfortable calling this “modest,” because that’s what I’ve called Trump’s 2016 victory for four years. He claimed a “massive landslide victory” from the get-go and his fans have either parroted this nonsense or simply let it stand uncorrected. Trump’s electoral margin (for those counting) ranked 46th out of 58. If Biden’s position holds he’ll tie Trump. If he gets fewer Electoral College votes, he’ll be 47th. Of course, Biden doesn’t need to brag about Electoral College votes given that he will be able to say he received more votes for president than anyone in American history (even if he ends up losing).

Anyway, I bring this up because it’s a nice, small example of how telling the truth is wise policy in my line of work. Just this morning, Nancy Pelosi said that Biden will have a bigger mandate than JFK. This is ridiculous for a bunch of different reasons, which I’ll get to in a second. But my point here is just to note that, having said Trump didn’t have much of a mandate with 306 Electoral College votes makes it much easier for me to say the same thing about Biden. If you went around yammering about how Trump had a massive mandate to do whatever he wanted, denying that Biden has a mandate is just that much harder. 

As I’ve been saying to my Trumpy friends throughout the Trump era, think about your answer to the question: “What can the next Democratic president do that you won’t be a hypocrite for criticizing?”

So what is a “mandate”? 

Contrary to popular misconceptions, it’s not the term for Jeffrey Toobin taking some personal time. But it was the name of a gay porn magazine launched in 1975 by the same publisher of Black Inches. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I didn’t read either—even for the articles.

“Mandate” comes from the Latin, mandare and then mandatum—“given into someone’s hand.” It comes into the English language in the 16th century meaning an “order” or “duty.” In 18th century France, “mandate” referred to a representative’s obligation to do the bidding of those who elected him. In his (somewhat overrated) political dictionary, William Safire offered this definition: 

MANDATE, n: The authority to carry out a program conferred on an elected official; especially strong after a landslide victory.

And while I think this definition is what a lot of people claiming mandates want you to believe, a better definition would be something like, “A quasi-mystical abracadabra word for ‘your objections to my program are illegitimate because enough people voted for me to get my current job.’”

Whatever definition you subscribe to, Nancy Pelosi’s claim that Biden has a “bigger mandate than JFK” is particularly funny, because it’s true. The hitch is that JFK had the narrowest popular vote margin of the 20th century—112,827 votes, or 0.17 percent. Of course, JFK claimed a mandate—all presidents do.

And Biden will too. But a mandate to do what? Yeah, yeah, I know the Biden website has a lot of words about what he wants to do. But if 1 in 200 Biden voters had his promise to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement or his vow to “protect and empower women around the world” foremost in mind, I’d be shocked. The moment he takes the oath of office he will have already fulfilled his core mandate: to not be Donald Trump. His second most obvious mandate will be well on its way to fulfillment the moment he starts taking Anthony Fauci’s phone calls.

After that, everything else is up for negotiation.

Making American Government Government Again.

As I’ve argued time and again, my problem with nationalism—and many other -isms—is that it turns the government into the State. The government in the American tradition is the place where people who disagree about public policy argue, barter, negotiate, haggle, and posture. The State is some mystical entity that represents the national soul or the volksgemeinschaft or something. This is what Randolph Bourne meant by war being “the health of the state.” When things are normal, criticizing the government and politicians is perfectly fine, and oh-so American. But during a war, the government becomes the State, a kind of cultural totem. Criticism of it becomes heretical or treasonous.

One of the worst trends in American life is the steady transformation of the peacetime government into the State. Both sides do it; Barack Obama definitely did. All of that “government is just the word for what we do together” nonsense was an attempt to turn government into the State. The cult of unity that says “We’re all in it together” is an effort to delegitimize dissent.

Our whole system is set up to keep the government from becoming the State. That’s why we have competing branches of government, and not just at the federal level. That’s why we have a First Amendment that protects the ability of people to speak their mind and argue with each other without fear. The Founders wanted a system that recognized that people can disagree without being traitorous. They wanted a system that made it impossible for any faction to claim they had a monopoly on the One True Voice of the People. That’s one of the reasons why we have an Electoral College. The national will is supposed to be channeled from below, through state governments, before it is translated into national power. And even then, the president is still held in check by—and accountable to—the other branches of government.

All of the people bleating and groaning about the Electoral College and the fact that Montana gets two senators just like California have a conception of democracy perfectly in line with Herbert Croly’s, and a long line of progressives who see democracy as a way to turn government into a State. It’s fine to champion democracy—I do—but democratic absolutism necessarily leads to statism because it translates a mere temporary majority into some sort of mystically unquestionable authority. In a healthy democracy, the word “democracy” means disagreement, not agreement—and certainly not total submission. If 98 percent of the country voted for some demagogue who wanted to repeal the First or Second Amendment, he could claim a mandate to do it unilaterally. But the Supreme Court would still be right—and obliged—to stop him. 

Anyway, I’m not a big fan of Joe Biden, but I am happy he won. I am even happier because the GOP did very well in this election. I’m not saying that as a partisan, I’m saying it as a conservative who wants politics to be about government again. Biden will ask Congress for things I won’t like, but because it’s likely the GOP will control the Senate, he’ll have to ask. He’ll have to horse-trade. He’ll have to persuade. He’ll have to take into account the interests of people who disagree with him, and negotiate accordingly. More to the point, the people he disagrees with will have just as much right to claim a mandate as he does. Mitch McConnell was reelected to be Mitch McConnell. And the fights between those two is what government is supposed to be about in a free society, and in our constitutional order. 

The great beclowning.

I saved this bit for the end, because I wanted to see how the day unfolded and because I was too angry to jump right into it.

I’m calmer now. But I’m still angry. I’m angry at some people for deliberately lying about the election being “stolen.” I’m angry at the people who sincerely believe these lies, which makes me even angrier at the people doing the lying.

At this stage, I’m not sure I can delineate who are the liars and who are simply the dupes. So I’ll just say both groups are wrong.

I’ll leave it to my colleagues to explain why the sort of voter fraud that people are alleging is quite literally impossible (the latest Advisory Opinions podcast is quite helpful on this), but roughly 99 percent of the “evidence” people are providing to back up their claims is either fraudulent itself or simply evidence that the process is working out as it should.

The one person who I won’t give the benefit of the doubt to is Trump himself. He is lying. He anticipated this scenario precisely so he could lie about the election being stolen. For months he told his voters that they should vote on Election Day—and they listened to him. Meanwhile, Biden voters didn’t. That’s why early votes went wildly for Biden and Election Day votes went wildly for Trump. We knew this would happen. We talked about this happening. Trump knew that the early votes would be for Biden. He said in advance that he would claim victory on Election Day if he was ahead before the early votes—which were cast first but counted last in many jurisdictions—were counted. He even telegraphed that he would claim those mail and absentee votes were fraudulent. And lo and behold, that’s precisely what he did. If he actually had the power to “stop the voting”—which really meant “stop the counting”—in those states, he would be guilty of the greatest example of mass voter fraud in American history. He tried—and is still trying—to commit voter fraud, and it is flatly outrageous and disgusting. He’s literally the one trying to steal the election, and—as is so often the case—he’s trying to do it by claiming his enemies are the guilty ones. 

I could vent more. But if you can’t see the incredible shame of this series of events by now, you’re part of the problem.

Instead I just want to make one last point. All of these Twitter warriors claiming “this is war” (and demanding total support for the president in his effort to steal the election—by claiming the election is being stolen) are very weird warriors. They seem to think that shouting “the election is being stolen!” is a serious way to fight. They think courage is proven by tweeting boldly. 

The weirdest example of this is the sudden hatred for Fox News’ decision to call Arizona for Biden. As of now, it looks all but certain that Fox was correct, even if reasonable people can claim they did it prematurely. But here’s the thing: Who cares? Nothing Fox did or didn’t do changed a single vote in Arizona or anywhere. And yet I keep seeing idiotic tweets from people who should know better that Fox is somehow involved in a “coup.”

I keep thinking about President Trump’s late-night crazy talk. He said:

I want to thank the first lady, my entire family, and Vice President Pence, Mrs. Pence for being with us all through this. And we were getting ready for a big celebration. We were winning everything and all of a sudden it was just called off. The results tonight have been phenomenal and we are getting ready… I mean, literally we were just all set to get outside and just celebrate something that was so beautiful, so good.

I’ve written a lot about how people are addicted to “narratives” as if the narrative is the reality and not simply—at best—the shadows on the wall of Plato’s Cave. Trump was saying in effect, he liked the way the story was playing out before they started counting the mail-in and absentee votes that he knew would go disproportionately for Biden. That’s understandable. But the story was never the reality. It’s like watching Old Yeller and turning it off before the dog gets shot. You don’t change the ending just because you stopped watching. He wanted the world to stop watching before the story played out. Like wishing away the pandemic, he thinks his feelings should trump reality.

When I watch all of these people beclowning themselves with this make-believe narrative of a stolen election, I see the same narcissistic narrative-addiction on a mass scale. Fox News didn’t steal the election or even remotely help steal it—because it wasn’t stolen. What they did do is steal the narrative Trump and the Trumpers wanted to be true. Or to put it more cynically, they stole the narrative the Trumpers wanted to claim was true, so that they could steal an election.

These liars and dupes are the political equivalent of Kathy Bates in Misery. They think the Fox News Decision Desk is James Caan, and their collective sin is not writing the story the way the MAGA Kathys wanted. And they’re ignoring the fact that even if Fox banged out precisely the story the Kathys wanted on their metaphorical manual typewriters, it wouldn’t change the fact that the story they want is fiction.  Trump lost because more Americans—in total and in the necessary states—voted against him. Grow up and deal with it.  

Canine Update: Zoë is still protecting her leaf most nights. Pippa is still Pippa. And they both love the fall weather, so, so much. Unfortunately, I have to cut this Canine Update short so I can record the solo Remnant. But if you still need more Canine Update, we actually did a whole episode of the Remnant on dogs and dog genetics, with Razib Khan. A lot of folks have said it was their favorite episode in a long time. 

ICYMI

Last week’s G-File

Last weekend’s Ruminant

My pre-election Los Angeles Times column

The week’s first Remnant, on the newsiest of all topics with Razib Khan

My appearance on the Bee’s podcast

Keep calm, and carry on

The Midweek Epistle, in which I talk about everything that could possibly go sideways… going sideways

The week’s second Remnant, with the now 10-timer Jim Geraghty

The election was a referendum on the incumbent, without a doubt

And now, the weird stuff

James Brown in a glam metal band

In case you’ve never seen Reagan in his Hollywood days 

Three cages hanging from a church in Munster, from the time of the 1530 Anabaptist rebellion

Finland survived its witch trials simply by… not caring all that much about witchcraft

The Boston Typewriter Orchestra

Photograph by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

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