Wisdom from the past is often mistaken for prophecy. But there are no prophets, just clear thinkers. Thinking about politics, there are two ideas that one should keep in mind: that people possess an innately corruptible nature, and that history is constructed of events shaped mostly by forces and circumstances larger than any individual. If you understand that, then your powers of prediction strengthen.
The first recorded public speech we have from Abraham Lincoln was delivered on January 27, 1838. Lincoln was 28 years old and a new arrival in Springfield, not yet the capital of Illinois. He somehow earned a speaking spot at a young men’s forum, where the topic of the evening was “the perpetuation of our political institutions.” The speakers and the audience were second and third generation Americans, gathering a half century after the Constitution’s ratification. The founding generation had passed. The people in that room—young men in a young state, dozens of years and hundreds of miles from the Revolution—were staking their claim on a common past and shared future. They were there to deliberate the state of a still-young nation, opining its strengths and vulnerabilities, its successes and shortcomings so far.
Prefacing his remarks with the phrase In the great journal of things happening under the sun…, Lincoln marked himself then and forever as someone who would take a long view of things. In the most famous passage of what would become known as the Lyceum Address, Lincoln says,
At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.
At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.
The Lyceum Address, and this passage specifically, is often referenced as a moment of prophecy and uncanny foresight, but the idea that the greatest threat to the American republic would come from within was not original to Lincoln. It’s the same sentiment as the apocryphal a republic, if you can keep it remark attributed to Benjamin Franklin; we see it too in the warnings of Washington’s Farewell Address, and in the writings of Madison and Hamilton. The principle of consent of the governed holds that democracy is the only valid form of government, but that does not guarantee its perpetuation. Lincoln and the framers were not prophets; they simply understood that democratic governments and societies are uniquely vulnerable to the subversive machinations of dishonest men. The system is nothing more than the good faith and will of people (more on that below). That is a precarious proposition, as we seem to keep learning.
Donald Trump’s presidency represented the greatest internal test of the American system since the Civil War. That’s not to say the political life of the nation had thrived in the 160 years between those two moments—as many historians and political scientists argue, the United States has only approximated a full democracy since 1965, when Congress enacted laws to enforce and protect voting rights. Before then, Jim Crow was the entrenched reality for more than a generation of Black Americans in the South; the Red Scare purged (canceled!) numerous left-wing Americans from politics from the 1930s through the 50s; and Richard Nixon abused executive power to sabotage his political opponents, to name just a few examples.
But let’s revisit, one final time, this newsletter’s Trump Thesis, now blessedly in the past tense: Donald Trump was a president fundamentally ignorant of and instinctively hostile to American constitutional democracy. That combination of ignorance and malevolence is unique in the history of the presidency. Trump clearly had no appreciative idea of how the system is constructed, with its proverbial checks and balances, precedents and norms, and when confronted with any restriction of his power, his instinct was always for destruction. He aspired to an executive that could rule by decree; the powers of the pardon and the executive order were revelations to him, more to his suiting than, say, the compromising, collaborative work of crafting legislation with Congress.
In the aftermath of Watergate,
the system worked
was adopted as
a consoling affirmation
for many American institutionalists, and as we wade into the post-Trump period,
we are seeing it once again reasserted. But did the system ‘work’ in response to Trump? I’m not so convinced. Keeping in mind that ‘system’ is just a euphemism for people, it’s flawed thinking that government is something that operates automatically, like an unmanned machine. This conception is not only wrong, it’s dangerous, because it absolves individuals and groups of responsibility, and when there is no responsibility, there can be no accountability. More on that below.
Furthermore, this thinking implies an inevitability to the outcomes of events. Hindsight may be 20/20, but we should never look at the past through the lens of inevitability. Just because things happened a certain way does not mean they had to or could only happen that way. If the outcomes of events are not in the hands of people, but rest on the supposed sturdiness of an impersonal, automating system, then why should anyone ever be bothered to act? The system works then becomes a justification for passivity.
But even taking the question on its own terms, I see some successes, but more failures. Let’s include as the ‘system’ the branches, agencies, and institutions of government, and also the parties, interest groups, and media that constitute and regulate how Americans experience politics. The Republican Party is a major component of this system. The system failed when Republicans failed to check the rise of a true demagogue. But the system worked when Robert Mueller was appointed by a Republican as Special Counsel, and it worked when that same office withstood intense pressure to successfully prosecute and convict key figures within the Trump campaign’s inner circle. But even within that success, there’s an argument that Mueller—and thus, the system—failed when he didn’t press the president harder; perhaps Mueller himself abided by and trusted too much in the system working automatically. Nevertheless, his findings still should have been enough to compel the House to impeach, but they didn’t—another failure. When Trump later was impeached (success), he should have been removed, but he wasn’t (failure). That the responsibility of removing Trump from the presidency was passed on to the voting public was a failure. Things should never have gotten so far, and we’re fortunate to have survived. That outcome was not inevitable.
And then we have our current moment. Trump’s attempt to overthrow the election’s result—somehow still ongoing—represents the final and definitive proof of the aforementioned thesis. Once more, Trump sought to exploit every vulnerability in the system he could find. He was willing to undermine—no, destroy—American democracy for pure self-interest. In a continuation of the actions for which he was impeached—and for the same end, to defeat Joe Biden, whom he correctly assessed as a threat—he used the presidency to intimidate officials into doing his undemocratic bidding. He continues to be the foremost sower of misinformation and disinformation in America. It is really important that we always remember the anxiety of living through the Trump era, and go forward with a never again mentality. As Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center writes,
Throughout American history, abuse is often, but not always, followed by reform. In the coming year, both parties should prioritize restoring the rule of law and strengthening checks and balances. Trump’s sloppiness and incompetence saved us. Next time the country may not be so lucky.
We don’t have to think very hard about what is motivating Trump right now: his insistence on fighting an obviously losing battle betrays a desperation underwritten by fear. In assessing Trump’s ongoing actions, we must consider, as he certainly does, the looming reality of Deutsche Bank calling in his debts, and the numerous legal vulnerabilities that await him without the impunity he enjoyed as president, thanks to the cover of Congressional Republicans. We can assign the same intention to Trump immediately declaring himself a 2024 candidate; by doing so, he can remain a political and public figure—a man still in the arena—which will then allow him to frame and decry any prosecution as politically-motivated and unjust.
This puts real pressure on how the Biden administration handles Trump’s criminality. Biden will continue to detach himself completely, lest the public view any prosecution of Trump the way Trump wants it to, as political and personal acts of vengeance, in which he (and not the people and their government) is the victim. At the same time, as Jonathan Mahler argues convincingly, it is absolutely necessary that Trump face consequences for his transgressions:
(W)hen a president brazenly flouts the law, electoral defeat might not be enough of a punishment. “There’s a mind-set that we need to reset,” Stephen Vladeck, a constitutional law professor at the University of Texas, told me. “Breaking the law is not a political difference.” It might also require recognizing that to really move on from Trump, “healing” may have to mean something fundamentally different from what it has in the past — and that without accountability, it may in fact be impossible.
As an English teacher I spend a lot of time encouraging students to leave certainty behind and embrace the world of ambiguity. Ambiguous is probably the only conclusion to draw from this year’s election. It seems that every pronouncement of certitude about the outcome can be countered by an equally valid competing claim. To name one example: no one foresaw Democrats’ losses in the House; at the same time, they still won a majority. Another: Joe Biden didn’t pick up (or even come particularly close) in Florida, Texas, North Carolina or Ohio; at the same time, he won the three Midwestern tipping point states decisively, and added Arizona and Georgia (!). Trump’s defeat was not humiliating, but it was decisive. And so on.
Given this ambiguous outcome, we enter the 2020s in an uncertain, unstable state. Joe Biden proved to be a strong candidate, and the arguments for his electability (of which I was skeptical) were vindicated. He won the most votes of any presidential candidate ever (competing counterclaim: Trump’s more than 70 million votes are unsettling). And yet, he just turned 78. He will be 82 in 2024. Republicans will almost certainly insinuate that he’s a one-term president, a lame duck beginning January 20, 2021. Washington will operate under the presumption that the House is up for grabs in just 23 months. The Senate remains broken and unrepresentative; the McConnell Obstruction Playbook will be dusted off. The Republican Party shows no signs of moderating, if its youngest members are any indication. If you were hoping for clarity on the way forward, 2020 wasn’t the answer.
If you read one article: “States Need Federal Money to Do the Right Thing” by Annie Lowrey in the Atlantic.
Bail out state and local governments. Bail out the restaurants and bars. Bail out workers. Bail out everyone. Put somewhat more academically: In this strange and awful pandemic, economic stimulus is a neglected and underutilized public-health tool that improves the decision architecture for all actors, from individual households and workers to private businesses to government officials.
There’s a great passage in Bruce Springsteen’s memoir where, at the end of a chapter in which he discusses his political maturation, he writes how America possesses the solutions to its contemporary problems and challenges, and the power to enact them, but is thwarted from carrying them forward. We know what we need to do to get through the pandemic. We’re not doing it, not because we can’t, but because the Republican Party won’t allow it.
Get militant about the Electoral College: A good example of an obvious problem with an obvious solution is the Electoral College. The only reason this election was within stealing distance for Trump was because of the ongoing disaster of the Electoral College. There are no objective, good faith arguments for keeping it. Read Jamelle Bouie’s piece here, and listen to this podcast about how the Electoral College was instituted as a hasty and sloppy compromise, assembled almost as an afterthought; Madison wanted a national popular vote.
Bookmarked Tweet: You may have seen this viral clip of the premier of Manitoba’s emotional plea for people to stay apart this holiday season.
There’s an entire industry in global business and education devoted to the study of leadership. But in my view leadership really just boils down to this essence: the willingness to suffer outrage and scorn in the service of doing what is right. And I think scolding and shaming bad behavior is an undervalued trait of leadership.
This is Cool: A Historiography Timeline of the American Revolution by Michael Hattem, who has a new book on the subject. I’m interested in historical memory, or historiography—how history is constructed and shaped in different periods by different people. Historical revisionism has strongly pejorative connotations, but it’s simply the case that all generations develop their own versions of the past, not in the sense of rewriting what happened (that would be bad!), but in reinterpreting (interesting!).
What I’ve Been Reading: I’ve written about this series before, but I really love Sidney Blumenthal’s ongoing five-part political biography of Abraham Lincoln, and I just finished the third volume, All the Powers of Earth, which covers 1856-60. In my estimation these books should be regarded in the same prestige as Robert Caro’s still unfinished LBJ biography, equally celebrated as an exemplar work of political writing, history, and literature. Blumenthal scores extra points for being faster.
Here’s something I didn’t fully appreciate: in his famous 1858 Illinois Senate contest against Stephen Douglas, Lincoln won the popular vote by seven points. So why did Lincoln lose? Because state legislatures chose their Senators, and Illinois, which had been dominated by the Douglas’s Democratic Party, was so thoroughly gerrymandered that his party won the majority despite receiving some 33,000 (in 1858!) fewer votes. Before Chicago boomed in the 1850s, Illinois was dominated by the southern part of the state, mostly inhabited by relocated Kentuckians and Virginians—Southerners. U.S. Senators were not popularly elected until 1913. We can repair inequities, after all. Evenually.
It is worth noting here that between Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin—the current tipping point coalition of the Electoral College—there are only two Republicans holding statewide office (and both of those Senate seats are up in 2022). And yet, each state has a majority Republican legislature. Bet you can guess why— here’s Wisconsin:
We’ve got work to do.