Sunday, November 22, 2020

Sunday Reading

November 22, 1963 — My recollection of a very bad day.

JFK 11-22-06I was in the sixth grade in Toledo, Ohio. I had to skip Phys Ed because I was just getting over bronchitis, so I was in a study hall when a classmate came up from the locker room in the school basement to say, “Kennedy’s dead.” We had a boy in our class named Matt Kennedy, and I wondered what had happened: an errant fatal blow with a dodgeball? A few minutes later, though, it was made clear to us at a hastily-summoned assembly, and we were soon put on the buses and sent home. Girls were crying.

There was a newspaper strike at The Blade, so the only papers we could get were either from Detroit or Cleveland. (The union at The Blade, realizing they were missing the story of the century, agreed to immediately resume publication and settle their differences in other ways.) Television, though, was the medium of choice, and I remember the black-and-white images of the arrival of Air Force One at Andrews, the casket being lowered, President Johnson speaking on the tarmac, and the events of the weekend – Oswald, Ruby, the long slow funeral parade, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” – merging into one long black-and-white flicker, finally closing on Monday night with the eternal flame guttering in the cold breeze.

I suspect that John F. Kennedy would be bitterly disappointed that the only thing remembered about his life was how he left it and how it colored everything he did leading up to it. The Bay of Pigs, the steel crisis, the Cuban missile crisis, the Test Ban Treaty, even the space program are dramatized by his death. They became the stuff of legend, not governing, and history should not be preserved as fable.

At the age of eleven, I never thought about being old enough to look back fifty-six years to that time. According to NPR, more than sixty percent of Americans alive today were not yet born on that day. Today the question is not do you remember JFK, but what did his brief time leave behind. Speculation is rife as to what he did or did not accomplish – would we have gone in deeper in Vietnam? Would he have pushed civil rights? Would the Cold War have lasted? We’ll never know, and frankly, pursuing such questions is a waste of time. Had JFK never been assassinated, chances are he would have been re-elected in 1964, crushing Barry Goldwater, but leading an administration that was more style than substance, battling with his own party as much as with the Republicans, much like Clinton did in the 1990’s. According to medical records, he would have been lucky to live into his sixties, dying from natural causes in the 1980’s, and he would have been remembered fondly for his charm and wit – and his beautiful wife – more than what he accomplished in eight years of an average presidency.

But it was those six seconds in Dealy Plaza that defined him. Each generation has one of those moments. For my parents it was Pearl Harbor in 1941 or the flash from Warm Springs in April 1945. Today it is Challenger in 1986, and of course September 11, 2001. And in all cases, it is what the moment means to us. It is the play, not the players. We see things as they were, contrast to how they are, and measure the differences, and by that, we measure ourselves.

The Clown-Car Coup — Susan B. Glasser in The New Yorker.

In a way, we are ending the week where we began it: Donald Trump still did not win the 2020 Presidential election, and he is still, on Friday as he was on Monday, holed up in the White House, challenging Joe Biden’s victory. The coronavirus pandemic is still spreading at an alarming rate across all fifty states, and Congress and the White House are still doing nothing new about it. This is, in a horrible, stressful way, what passes for our current normal.

Except, of course, there’s nothing routine about any of this. We’ve been getting used to painful truths for so long that the awful enormity of the situation doesn’t hit us in the way it should when the predicted bad things happen, which is the story of the entire Trump Presidency. But history will not remember this as a slow news week, not at all. In fact, it has been a week of crisis—grave if slow-motion crisis—in which Trump’s effort to subvert the election results has been made explicit and unmistakably clear. He is no longer merely pursuing spurious lawsuits in state courts; in recent days, he and his lawyers have confirmed publicly that Trump now is trying to directly overturn the election results and the will of the American people by pressuring Republican state legislators to appoint electors who will vote for Trump in the Electoral College instead of Biden. The fact that Trump is almost certain not to succeed in actually remaining in office past January 20th does not in any way make this less alarming. There is simply no precedent for a President doing anything like what Trump is doing right now.

Meanwhile in America, this is the week that the U.S. passed the grim milestone of two hundred and fifty thousand deaths in the pandemic, many of them due to the Trump Administration’s botched response to the disease. This spring, such an outcome was all but unthinkable: when Dr. Anthony Fauci predicted that the U.S. could see a hundred thousand to two hundred and forty thousand COVID-19 deaths by this fall, few believed that this would come to pass. And yet here we are, living another Trump scandal of unfathomable magnitude.

Perhaps the one genuinely surprising thing about this culminating controversy of the Trump era is how publicly quiet the voluble President has become. Sure, he has still been tweeting out inflammatory and untrue statements. “We won!” he said, more than once. And: “Mortality rate is 85% down!” And: “Republicans must get tough!” But his public schedule has been almost entirely empty since the election, and he has appeared before the press just once, at a brief news conference, last week, to announce progress toward a vaccine; he took no questions. He has cancelled his Thanksgiving trip to Mar-a-Lago.

This is a stark contrast to the two weeks before the election, which were among the loudest of his short career in politics. With three, four, even five rallies a day, Trump held forth on everything from the perfidy of the Democrats to the awfulness of the weather. One theme was consistent wherever he appeared: the forthcoming “rigged” election, in which only one result—his own victory—could possibly be legitimate.

Since the end of this campaign, which did not result in that victory, Trump has engaged in what I’m increasingly certain history will record as one of the worst offenses of his Presidency: a systemic attack on the integrity of the election itself. This escalated dramatically this week, as his first wave of lawsuits began collapsing under the scrutiny of skeptical judges and nonexistent evidence. Rather than retreat, however, Trump has redoubled his efforts in key states, such as Georgia, Michigan, and Arizona, publicly pressuring local Republican officials not to certify the election results.

In Georgia, this ploy appears to have failed, with the Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, openly feuding with the President and denouncing Trump’s efforts to undermine the vote count. On Thursday night, after a hand recount, Georgia officials said that Biden had once again emerged as the winner in the state—the first Democrat to do so since 1992—and that Raffensperger will certify the results on Friday. In Michigan, however, Trump appears to have had more success. Two Republicans on the Wayne County board of canvassers initially refused to certify the Presidential election results for the county, which includes the heavily Democratic city of Detroit, before an outcry caused them to reverse their votes a few hours later. Trump himself then intervened, calling the two officials, who late on Wednesday said that they wanted to change their minds again.

It may have been too late to reverse the Wayne County action, but, on Monday, the Michigan board of canvassers is set to meet to certify the election results in the state, which Biden has won by more than a hundred and fifty thousand votes. However, the board is made up of two Democrats and two Republicans, and one of the Republicans said, on Thursday night, that he is inclined to audit and delay his vote to certify, citing the baseless fraud claims raised by Trump’s lawyers. If the board deadlocks and the results are not certified, Trump seems to hope that the Republican-controlled state legislature will just go ahead and appoint pro-Trump electors, voters be damned. In another unprecedented step, Trump summoned the Republican leaders of the Michigan legislature to a private meeting with him in the White House, on Friday.

This dubious, and remarkably brazen, strategy was on display in a not-to-be-believed-except-it-actually-happened press conference on Thursday, by Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Trump would have won Michigan, Giuliani insisted, if you just don’t count Wayne County and, in effect, Detroit. And that was only one of the bonkers things he said. With an unidentified brown liquid streaking down his face as he spoke, Giuliani quoted the legal wisdom of the movie “My Cousin Vinny”; insisted that he had “direct evidence” of vote fraud in cities like Detroit, Atlanta, and Philadelphia, while producing none; and claimed that there was a vast conspiracy with roots in Venezuela to somehow rig the entire U.S. election.

How bizarre was the performance? Christopher Krebs, the Trump-appointed director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency—whom Trump fired, on Tuesday, after the agency issued a statement saying that “there is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised”—offered a succinct verdict. Giuliani’s press conference, Krebs tweeted, was “the most dangerous 1 hr 45 minutes of television in American history. And possibly the craziest.”

The fact that Trump and Giuliani’s campaign is utterly crazy, however, does not mean that it’s not working. In fact, a Monmouth poll this week found that seventy-seven per cent of Republicans now believe the election was tainted by fraud and are not certain that Biden won. Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, have refused to denounce Trump’s increasingly unhinged and undemocratic actions, and, while privately conveying acknowledgements of Biden’s victory, have publicly remained silent. The G.O.P. leadership, which has tolerated so many abuses by Trump, is now openly complicit in his worst one yet.

A few individual Republicans have spoken up. “It is outrageous,” Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland, said on CNN. “It is an assault on democracy,” he added. “It’s bad for the Republican Party.” Late on Thursday evening, Mitt Romney, the Utah senator who was the only Republican to vote to convict Trump in his impeachment trial, earlier this year, issued a statement that might well have been the toughest I have ever seen about a President from a member of his own Party. “Having failed to make even a plausible case of widespread fraud or conspiracy before any court of law, the President has now resorted to overt pressure on state and local officials to subvert the will of the people and overturn the election,” Romney said. “It is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American President.” By speaking out, Hogan and Romney underscored just how shocking it is that their fellow-Republicans had thus far failed to join them.

Last week, I wondered in this column about just what Trump was up to in challenging the results: Was it an attempted coup, or just another Trump con? The past few days have seemed to offer an answer, and not a reassuring one. The truth is that even if Trump’s would-be coup looks like a con, even if it seems to be a clown show that’s surely doomed to fail, it must still be taken seriously as long as it is happening. Look at how far Republicans have gone along with Trump’s folly after an election that was decisively won by Biden, a contest in which he beat Trump by more than five million votes and garnered three hundred and six electoral votes—exactly the electoral-college “landslide” that Trump secured in 2016. Republican excuses have grown increasingly pathetic: We’re just giving him time. We’re just letting the process play out. He’s entitled to pursue his claims in the courts. In explicitly demanding that Republican state officials disregard the will of the voters, Trump has, once again, made his Party’s leaders out as stooges and patsies.

The G.O.P. knows all too well that this is not the process by which American elections are decided, not now and not ever. What Trump is doing is not like the 2000 Florida recount. It is not like anything before in American history. Republican leaders can end this today by finally saying publicly what so far they have only had the courage to admit in private. But will they, at long last, tell Trump what the voters said loudly and clearly: It’s over, you lost, and Joe Biden won?

Doonesbury — Aging out.

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