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America 2020: an interim report from the slough of anxiety

A detailed briefing that gives pessimists and optimists alike a lot to think about.

Todd Gitlin
Todd Gitlin
12 November 2019, 1.49pm
Who will alienate the most Democrats?
Brian Cahn/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Foragers for good news gathered a heaped basketful with the 5 November election results. Democrats swept both houses of the Virginia legislature and apparently, if narrowly, defeated the Trumpian Republican governor of Kentucky. In a suburban Philadelphia county that had gone Republican since time immemorial, Democrats swept local elections. In governors’ seats, Democrats now trail Republicans only 24 to 26, compared with sixteen to 34 when Trump took office. Republican House incumbents who have declared they’re not running for re-election next year now number twenty, as against eight Democrats.

Between the 2018 midterm elections and the sprinkling of 2019 results, prospects for driving the monster out of the White House without a second term – via the 2020 election or, less likely, Senate conviction after a House impeachment – would seem bright. In the fullness of backlash, Trump’s hatefulness rouses Democrats both left and centre. Americans of all stripes favour impeachment for Trump’s abuses of power – not only 83% of Democrats but 44% of independents – even before televised hearings begin. Yes, it was true that the Republicans won all the other statewide Kentucky offices; the incumbent governor, embraced by Trump, was distinctly despised. Still, last week’s election returns brightened the mood of Democrats.

The collective fever chart is of course jagged: the data teem with blips and uncertainties, endlessly disputed. The Virginia-Kentucky-Pennsylvania news interrupted a collective writhing in response to findings from early statewide polls in battleground states, as analysed with much fanfare by The New York Times’s Nate Cohn in three articles. In one, Cohn showed that some 15% of the electorate remain “persuadable”. Breath will have to be held for months, for such demographically disparate swing voters tend to wait till the last two weeks before making up their minds. Cohn also reported that people who have not previously voted, especially in swing states, don’t think very differently from those who do vote. Moreover, the swing state polls showed that:

Despite low national approval ratings and the specter of impeachment, President Trump remains highly competitive in the battleground states likeliest to decide his re-election.

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These are Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida and Arizona – the six Trump states that were closest. In 2016, Trump won the first three by a not-so-grand total of 77,000 votes – less than 0.06% of the 136 million cast nationally, but more than enough to put him over the top in the numbers that matter, the execrable but irrevocable Electoral College count. Even as Trump’s approval base hovers around 42% (among likely or registered voters), ten or twelve points below his disapproval numbers,

the president’s advantage in the Electoral College relative to the nation as a whole remains intact or has even grown since 2016, raising the possibility that the Republicans could – for the third time in the past six elections – win the presidency while losing the popular vote.

The italics are mine to help that prospect sink in, if anyone needs convincing that the US system is idiotically skewed.

But it’s early. Prognostication is a game played obsessively and clumsily in the dark. Facts clash with contrary facts and guesses with contrary guesses, to no satisfying conclusion. Pessimists point to the Electoral College, an obstacle more formidable than any border wall; optimists, to the 2018 Democratic gain of 41 seats in the House of Representatives, and reports that local and state organisations are registering voters and training organisers for turnout campaigns to drive the racketeers out of the temple on 3 November 2020. Pessimists note that Trump is already spending a fortune on internet ads. Optimists point out that the mortality is on the side of the Democrats, since the younger, more liberal population in the swing states grows as older voters thin out. Pessimists point to the Republicans’ structural advantages, which begin with the overrepresentation of heavily rural states in the Senate and therefore in the Electoral College, the relative placidity of the economy and Trump’s huge fundraising lead. And so it goes, ping for pong.

Events will happen. Contingencies happen. And among the looming structural unknowns are these:

Many states suppress voting by law or fiat. In 2018 alone, according to Jelani Cobb, “ninety-nine bills designed to diminish voter access were introduced…in thirty-one state legislatures”. Many laws are already in place to create hurdles for prospective voters. In Wisconsin, one of the pivotal 2016 states, a strict new voter-ID law rammed through by the Republican government resulted in the suppression of an estimated 200,000 votes, some nine times the margin that separated Trump from Hillary Clinton.

Two-thirds of states require identification at the polls, and of those two-thirds, half require a photo ID. Two-thirds of the states permit early voting – New York just became one of them – but this practice is also embattled. Of the two states that ban felons from voting unless singled out as exceptions, one is Kentucky, where 26% of all black people are disenfranchised. The just-elected Democratic governor, Andy Bashear, has pledged to restore voting rights to more than 140,000 Kentucky residents who were convicted of non-violent felonies but have completed their sentences.

There is, as yet, no obvious Democratic winner. Furies divide supporters of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, on the left hand, from supporters of Joe Biden, on the right. The cleavages are not just matters of policy preference, but a welter of divergences in political style, rhetoric and background. There is, to put it simply, a culture clash. Bernie’s fierce supporters sometimes demand “Bernie or bust.” No one has voted to date, of course, but several scenarios are plausible. Biden may win enough delegates to carry the Democratic Convention. In that case, left-wing detestation of him – however many liberal measures he supports in an effort to co-opt the left – may be so intense as to convince a critical mass of Democrats to sit on their hands, or to support Jill Stein or another spoiler Green, or the anti-war veteran and pro-Assad, Russian-supported, cult-educated Hawai’i Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, should she decide to run as an independent. Or Biden may be so enfeebled as to depart the scene, leaving Sanders or Warren as the nominee, in turn driving some centre-right Democrats to sit on their own hands.

The Russian propaganda apparatus, its bots and phony Facebook pages, will add still more fuel to internecine Democratic acrimony. These are more advanced already – I have this on the highest research authority­ – than during the 2016 campaign. It is already clear that, in the words of an Los Angeles Times columnist, “Gabbard is, in fact, a favorite of Russian propaganda machines.” The mission of the St. Petersburg troll farm called the Internet Research Agency, run by Vladimir Putin’s chum Yevgeniy Prigozhin, is to inflame racial, political and ideological chaos on the left while helping consolidate the unity of the right.

Operatives from the GRU, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, as well as the Internet Research Agency have targeted electoral systems in all fifty states. This is the conclusion of a report issued by the Senate Intelligence Committee in July. The research is rigorous though many of its findings remain redacted. Voter registration databases may already be compromised. Some states are said to have registration databases so vulnerable that, in the words of The New York Times, “the Intelligence Committee did not reveal by name which states were the most heavily compromised”. New Jersey “appear[s] not to have the money to fix a voting machine infrastructure that has no paper backup to its balloting process, making a truly reliable audit impossible.”

Meanwhile, for months, Republicans have throttled Democratic attempts to fund a strengthening of cyberdefences in the states. Under growing pressure, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell caved on the Democrats’ proposed $250 million appropriation only in September. President Barack Obama’s cybersecurity coordinator was convinced in 2016 that the Russians had tried to penetrate all fifty states. In 2018, official intelligence concluded that he was right. As The New York Times reported drily, “His position at the White House has since been eliminated by John R. Bolton, the national security adviser.”

Trump’s 2020 campaign is managed by Brad Parscale of Texas, a web designer turned digital strategist and Facebook advertising enthusiast who ran the final phase of the president’s 2016 campaign. Parscale, supposedly a managerial wizard, now enjoys right-wing adulation that previously went to the likes of Karl Rove and Steve Bannon. He has taken over the whole Republican National Committee digital apparatus and is one of “‘less than a handful of people who now control the entire ecosystem’ of the Republican Party, according to one prominent former RNC official”. But he has his detractors, who fault his online operations for the Republican debacle of 2018.

Money isn’t everything, but it’s money. During the second quarter of 2019 alone, Trump raised $108 million. From the day he marched into the White House to the end of September 2018, CNN reported, his campaign raised $106 million, “more than 26.5 times what Obama had raised for his re-election race and 32 times what Bush had raised” in their first two years. This is to speak of “hard money” alone – money funneled directly to the candidate’s campaign. Parscale claims he’s on his way to the first billion-dollar campaign. He may be bragging – a dominance ritual. In the event, Democrats fear that the Republicans will within the next year rake in an additional billion in “soft money”, donated for the general use of the parties, who are legally not supposed to coordinate their expenditures with the candidates.

Finally, and most unknowably, many non-crazies worry whether a Trump defeated in the Electoral College would concede defeat and leave the White House. Rhetorically, the Trump campaign was prepared for an “It was rigged” offensive in 2016 had he not hit the jackpot in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. There are reasons to assume that an “it was rigged” infrastructure is in formation. There are reasons to anticipate armed rebellion. An optimist is someone who’s pretty sure that the generals, who despise Trump, won’t let him outstay his term.

We’re on the brink of televised House impeachment hearings. Possibly revelations yet undisclosed about Trump’s Ukraine crimes, might sicken enough Republicans to frighten away some of his servile supporters. Possibly Trump, in his growing panic, will act so conspicuously crazy as to scare away some actual, not nominal, independents. Possibly the country will go sane –

But that’s nothing to count on. Defenders of the republic can agree on this: anyone not running scared isn’t paying attention.

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