Get Out and Vote — George Packer in The New Yorker.
In the haze of summer, with books still to be read, weeds pulled, kids retrieved from camp, it’s a little hard to fathom that, three months from now, American democracy will be on the line. The midterm elections in November are the last remaining obstacle to President Trump’s consolidation of power. None of the other forces that might have checked the rise of a corrupt homegrown oligarchy can stop or even slow it. The institutional clout that ended the Presidency of Richard Nixon no longer exists. The honest press, for all its success in exposing daily scandals, won’t persuade the unpersuadable or shame the shameless, while the dishonest press is Trump’s personal amplifier. The federal courts, including the Supreme Court, are rapidly becoming instruments of partisan advocacy, as reliably conservative as elected legislatures. It’s impossible to imagine the Roberts Court voting unanimously against the President, as the Burger Court, including five Republican appointees, did in forcing Nixon to turn over his tapes. (Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s nominee to succeed Anthony Kennedy, has even suggested that the decision was wrong.) Congress has readily submitted to the President’s will, as if legislation and oversight were burdens to be relinquished. And, when the independent counsel finally releases his report, it will have only the potency that the guardians of the law and the Constitution give it.
Behind these institutions lies public opinion, and we are quickly learning that it matters more than laws, more than the Constitution, more than the country’s supposedly inviolable founding principles. “If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it,” George Orwell wrote, in “Freedom of the Park.” “If public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.” During 1973, the year Watergate became a national scandal, facts changed the political views of millions of Americans, Nixon’s approval rating fell from sixty-seven per cent to less than thirty per cent, and his fate was sealed. In our time, large blocs of public opinion are barely movable: Trump’s performance in Helsinki—declaring himself on the side of Russia, against his own intelligence agencies and the integrity of American elections—received favorable reviews from eighty per cent of Republicans. Yet public opinion still plays a central role in safeguarding democracy, and it becomes decisive through voting. Demonstrations can capture attention and build solidarity, books can provide arguments, social media can organize resistance. But if the Republicans don’t suffer a serious defeat in November, Trump will go into 2020 with every structural advantage.
Democrats have a habit of forgetting to vote between Presidential elections. Republican turnout has exceeded or equalled Democratic turnout in every midterm since 1978, no matter which party held the Presidency, with an average margin of three per cent—more than enough to decide control of Congress in a closely divided election. The demographic groups that are least likely to vote—young people, Latinos, and those with a high-school education or less—tend to be Democratic constituencies. This tendency has been especially stark in the past two midterm cycles: in 2014, the turnout among eligible voters aged eighteen to twenty-nine was seventeen per cent—one in six. The disappearing Democratic voter also had an effect on the latest Presidential election, when, for example, African-American turnout dropped almost five per cent from 2012—a crucial difference in the three key states that gave Trump the Electoral College.
Republicans, for their part, don’t always entrust their hold on power to democratic methods. Since 2010, nearly half of the states have passed laws that make it harder to vote—from restrictions on early voting to I.D. requirements, mandatory proof of citizenship, and purges of voting rolls. The purpose of these laws is not to fight a mythical epidemic of fraud but to depress turnout of normally Democratic constituencies. They show incremental signs of success: a government study found that new laws reduced turnout in 2012 in Kansas and Tennessee by two or three per cent, notably among young and black voters. Other states have expanded the franchise, particularly to former felons, but Republican control of two-thirds of state legislatures and the shift of courts to the right give the momentum to efforts to curtail voting.
Gerrymandering is another effective tool for staying in power. The Brennan Center for Justice recently released a report on the effects of redistricting in states like Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas. Algorithmic mapping has grown so precise that Republican legislatures have created a sixteen-seat advantage in the House of Representatives that remains impervious to standard electoral pressures. In November, just to achieve a bare majority, Democrats will have to win the national congressional vote by nearly eleven per cent. (Other studies put the number at around seven per cent.) And legislatures elected this year will redraw state and federal districts after the 2020 census. There’s a thick seawall standing in the way of a blue wave.
But it’s self-defeating to exaggerate the external obstacles: in 2016, Democratic turnout declined in states with and without new voter restrictions. Gerrymandering is a time-honored practice of both parties—look at Maryland’s House delegation. Unfettered money in politics doesn’t always favor Republicans, let alone guarantee victory—Hillary Clinton raised twice as much as Trump did. The greatest obstacle to voting is the feeling that it won’t matter, and that feeling seems to be more prevalent among Democrats.
In some cases, that sense may be based on overconfidence and insularity—a presumption that the other party’s outrages will automatically disqualify it in voters’ eyes. More often, it comes from a belief that politics doesn’t change anything in people’s lives. For two generations, the Republican Party has been an expression of grassroots conservatism, most recently the fever that’s ceded the Party to Trump. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has grown less connected to its voters. It’s like a neglected building, perennially on the edge of collapse, which left-leaning Americans occasionally use for some purpose and then abandon.
This year, something seems to be changing. The new faces among Democratic candidates, the new energy behind them, suggest a party of members, not squatters. But, come November, they will have to vote. It’s the only thing left.
Pence Is Worse — Frank Bruni in the New York Times.
There are problems with impeaching Donald Trump. A big one is the holy terror waiting in the wings.
That would be Mike Pence, who mirrors the boss more than you realize. He’s also self-infatuated. Also a bigot. Also a liar. Also cruel.
To that brimming potpourri he adds two ingredients that Trump doesn’t genuinely possess: the conviction that he’s on a mission from God and a determination to mold the entire nation in the shape of his own faith, a regressive, repressive version of Christianity. Trade Trump for Pence and you go from kleptocracy to theocracy.
That’s the takeaway from a forthcoming book by the journalists Michael D’Antonio, who previously wrote “The Truth About Trump,” and Peter Eisner. It’s titled “The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence,” it will be published on Aug. 28 and it’s the most thorough examination of the vice president’s background to date.
I got an advance look at it, along with a first interview about it with D’Antonio, and while it has a mostly measured tone, it presents an entirely damning portrait of Pence. You’ve seen his colors before, but not so vividly and in this detail.
The book persuasively illustrates what an ineffectual congressman he was, apart from cozying up to the Koch brothers, Betsy DeVos and other rich Republican donors; the clumsiness and vanity of his one term as governor of Indiana, for which he did something that predecessors hadn’t and “ordered up a collection of custom-embroidered clothes — dress shirts, polo shirts, and vests and jackets — decorated with his name and the words Governor of Indiana”; the strong possibility that he wouldn’t have won re-election; his luck in being spared that humiliation by the summons from Trump, who needed an outwardly bland, intensely religious character witness to muffle his madness and launder his sins; and the alacrity with which he says whatever Trump needs him to regardless of the truth.
In Pence’s view, any bite marks in his tongue are divinely ordained. Trump wouldn’t be president if God didn’t want that; Pence wouldn’t be vice president if he weren’t supposed to sanctify Trump. And his obsequiousness is his own best route to the Oval Office, which may very well be God’s grand plan.
“People don’t understand what Pence is,” D’Antonio told me. Which is? “A religious zealot.”
And D’Antonio said that Pence could end up in the White House sooner than you think. In addition to the prospect of Trump’s impeachment, there’s the chance that Trump just decides that he has had enough.
“I don’t think he’s as resilient, politically, as Bill Clinton was,” D’Antonio said. “He doesn’t relish a partisan fight in the same way. He loves to go to rallies where people adore him.”
There’s no deeply felt policy vision or sense of duty to sustain him through the investigations and accusations. “If the pain is great enough,” D’Antonio said, “I think he’d be disposed not to run again.”
So it’s time to look harder at Pence. “The Shadow President” does. It lays out his disregard for science, evident in his onetime insistence that smoking doesn’t cause cancer and a belief that alarms about climate change were “a secret effort to increase government control over people’s lives for some unstated diabolical purpose,” according to the book.
It suggests callousness at best toward African-Americans. As governor, Pence refused to pardon a black man who had spent almost a decade in prison for a crime that he clearly hadn’t committed. He also ignored a crisis — similar to the one in Flint, Mich. — in which people in a poor, largely black Indiana city were exposed to dangerously high levels of lead. D’Antonio told me: “I think he’s just as driven by prejudice as Trump is.”
During the vice-presidential debate with Tim Kaine, Pence repeated the laughable, ludicrous assertion that Trump would release his tax returns “when the audit is over” and falsely insisted that Trump hadn’t lavished praise on Vladimir Putin’s leadership — though the record proved otherwise.
The book says that in a high-level briefing about Russian interference in the 2016 election, Pence was told that intelligence officials hadn’t determined whether that interference had swayed the results. He then publicly claimed a finding of no effect.
At Trump’s urging and with taxpayer money, he and his wife, Karen, flew to a football game in Indianapolis just so he could make a big public gesture of leaving in protest when, predictably, some of the players took a knee during the national anthem.
And, following Trump’s lead, he rallied behind the unhinged former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio. In a speech he called Arpaio a “tireless champion” of the “rule of law.” This was after Arpaio’s contempt-of-court conviction for ignoring a federal judge’s order to stop using illegal tactics to torment immigrants. The conservative columnist George Will seized on Pence’s speech to write that Pence had dethroned Trump as “America’s most repulsive public figure.”
You can thank Pence for DeVos. They are longtime allies, going back decades, who bonded over such shared passions as making it O.K. for students to use government money, in the form of vouchers, at religious schools. Pence cast the tiebreaking vote in the Senate to confirm her as education secretary. It was the first time in history that a vice president had done that for a cabinet nominee.
Fiercely opposed to abortion, Pence once spoke positively on the House floor about historical figures who “actually placed it beyond doubt that the offense of abortion was a capital offense, punishable even by death.” He seemed to back federal funds for anti-gay conversion therapy. He promoted a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
“He is absolutely certain that his moral view should govern public policy,” D’Antonio told me.
D’Antonio then recounted two stories that he heard from college classmates of Pence’s after the book had gone to bed, so they’re not in there. One involved a woman in Pence’s weekly college prayer group. When she couldn’t describe a discrete “born again” experience, “he lectured her on her deficiencies as a Christian and said that she really wasn’t the sort of Christian that needed to be in this group,” D’Antonio said.
Another involved a college friend of Pence’s who later sought his counsel about coming out as gay. D’Antonio said that Pence told the friend: “You have to stay closeted, you have to get help, you’re sick and you’re not my friend anymore.”
According to D’Antonio’s book, Pence sees himself and fellow Christian warriors as a blessed but oppressed group, and his “hope for the future resided in his faith that, as chosen people, conservative evangelicals would eventually be served by a leader whom God would enable to defeat their enemies and create a Christian nation.”
I asked D’Antonio the nagging, obvious question: Is America worse off with Trump or Pence?
“I have to say that I prefer Donald Trump, because I think that Trump is more obvious in his intent,” he said, while Pence tends to “disguise his agenda.” D’Antonio then pointed out that if Pence assumed the presidency in the second half of Trump’s first term, he’d be eligible to run in 2020 and 2024 and potentially occupy the White House for up to 10 years.
Heaven help us.
Doonesbury — Get up and go.