By Will Bellaimey with Elizabeth Gracen:
At the start of 2021, on the afternoon of the inauguration, I sat down for a conversation with Will Bellaimey for our monthly Historically Speaking discussion about current events and the state of politics in America.
Will is an avid student of history and a high school history teacher in southern California. His podcast, All The Presidents, Man, takes the listener through American history as told through the lens of the presidents of the United States. This entertaining and informational podcast is produced and directed by Bianca Giaever.
EG: Will, it's been a couple months since we last spoke. I think it might be time for a recap. Would you do the honors?
WB: Well, we had an election, and it followed pretty much what we expected—which is to say that it was close, but not historically close— there've certainly been a lot closer elections. It followed the kind of path with vote counting that we expected. On the evening of most of the votes that had been counted were votes for Trump, because there was more in-person voting. And then as the absentee and mail-in ballots were counted, there was the swing back towards Biden. But that phenomenon, which everyone was predicting, gave a lot of fuel to President Trump, or now former president Trump, in arguing that the election was stolen from him. So over the course of the next few months, on Twitter and at rallies, he continued to claim that that was what was going on in a kind of vague way—that there had been massive fraud that he had won in a landslide.
I think a lot of us expected there to be some pretty serious litigation. There were a lot of lawsuits, but none of the lawsuits resulted in uncovering any major irregularities in the voting. There's always things that happen in different places, but nothing that suggested that this was anything but one of the most smoothly conducted elections in recent memory.
And yet for a whole sector of Americans who spent their time taking their news from sources that were kind of feeding into what Trump himself was saying and what many establishment Republicans were not outright denying—these Americans believed that there had been a stolen election. This felt like a really scary time to them, and people got really angry. Then on January 6th, there was a giant rally at the Capitol and people ended up breaking in to the building, looking for who knows what. In some cases, it was selfies and souvenirs, and in other cases it was much more serious like possible attempts at violence against members of Congress. Certainly their ultimate goal was to stop the certification of the electoral college, which had already voted and sent its votes to Congress at that point. And that didn't work. So now I'm speaking to you on inauguration day, and today Joe Biden took the oath of office and Donald Trump went back to Florida where now he's just a guy.
Now we have both a moment to reflect on what's happened over the last four years and also a lot of politics ahead of us. Biden is signing a bunch of executive orders that were expected. There's a bill about immigration being sent over to Congress, and of course the results of the Georgia election means that we have a 50/50 Senate with the tie-breaking in the hands of now Vice President Kamala Harris. So that means the potential of more legislation being passed than certainly would have been possible if those elections hadn't gone the way that they did. But, I think the reality of the moment is still one of a pretty slim Democratic majority—about as slim as possible. It remains to be seen to what extent you can hold that whole caucus together and to what extent any moderate Republicans will be on board.
EG: When we talked right after the election in November, we didn't talk about attempted coups and insurrection. As someone who studies history, were you surprised that any of that happened?
WB: I would say what happened at the Capitol was shocking but not surprising when you see a group of people who have been radicalized to the point that many people in our country have been radicalized in the last four years. And when you have a president who's willing to encourage rather than discourage some of the most extreme elements within his own support base, then I think there's no reason why what happened on January 6th should be surprising.
EG: What will happen to those people? Is there anything predictable that you think will happen in the next six months to a year?
WB: I think you're already seeing divisions open up within different elements of Trump's space. And if we start with the most radical people, like those who broke in to the Capitol, there are some who saw that as a great victory—something that proved that you could really disrupt the basics of the democratic system if you wanted to. But I think there were a lot of others who basically saw that this backfired in terms of a lot of public opinion. Not all public opinion, but many realized that Trump didn't really have their back. He didn't end up issuing blanket pardons to the people who were involved. But when it comes to Trump's base itself, I think he'll continue to be a pretty powerful force even behind the scenes within the Republican party. But to what extent it’s strong enough to, for instance, get one of his kids in office or get someone like Josh Hawley—who seems to want to carry Trump’s mantle in some ways—elected as president, that remains to be seen.
I think there's gonna be a big push back from a certain type of establishment Republican. There's certainly a whole lot of people within the Republican establishment who would have really liked to push this most extreme set of supporters of Trump out of control of the party. But I think, as we've seen over the last 10 years in America, there are really deep divides between people within institutions and wealthy folks in politics and a lot of people out in the country. Both the Democrats and the Republicans are going to continue to face people within their party who really don't trust the people who've been in charge for a long time. And I think in many ways Trump was a symptom of that larger disease. And I don't think his four years have made it any better. If anything, I think somebody like Mitch McConnell may very quickly find that he doesn't have that much support at all within his own party.
EG: Do you think there will be any consequences to the hundred or more representatives and senators who were seeking to block certification? Are there consequences to their behavior and what they incited?
EG: Let's talk about the future. In one of our previous conversations, you talked a lot about the practicality of what changes Biden could actually make because of that slim margin in the Senate. He's obviously using executive orders to make dramatic shifts from Trump's policies. Do you think election reform is going to be on that list of things because of the controversy?
WB: I certainly think that there's a desire in both parties to see some kind of reforms to the election system, although they have completely different ideas of what that means. I imagine that legislation will be introduced and will probably pass the House. The question is if it can pass the Senate, and that could be my stock answer for literally every topic that you might want to bring up. I think it will pass the House, but it probably won't pass the Senate. There could be some issues where the power that the Democrats now have to bring a bill to a vote could actually put some Republicans in a tougher spot than they were when they had McConnell there to protect them from having to take a vote. Like, for instance, on the $2,000 checks question. I think there's a fair number of Republicans who would feel a lot of pressure from their own constituents to vote for $2,000 checks.
I don't think we should underestimate the symbolic role that a president can play in shifting the public conversation. And I think in the case of Joe Biden, it's more affirming a conversation that has already been going on. The Trump years brought to the forefront a conversation about white supremacy, a conversation about the kind of parts of the Confederate view of the United States that haven't fully gone away, to the point that some of the people who stormed the Capitol had Confederate flags on them saying pretty clearly that that's what they believed.
Josh Hawley himself was one of the big proponents of giving out bigger checks. So, the fact that Chuck Schumer gets to decide what bills go to the floor instead of Mitch McConnell could make a big difference on some of those kinds of marginal issues that are pretty clearly popular with the public. Infrastructure spending might fall into that category. I think voting rights is a tougher one, and I think it also depends on what the package involves. I think there's also a value to putting something to a vote and then just seeing for the record how different senators decide to vote and go on the historical record is saying that they oppose voting rights. I don't think that would actually scare off a lot of the Republicans, but there's some who might be moved by it. At least now we'll get to see how they vote unlike if McConnell was in charge.
EG: When I was listened to Biden's inaugural speech, he said a couple of things that I don’t think have been said before in terms of civil rights. It felt like a breath of fresh air. Decent. Logical. At least some of the really hot issues were being said out loud. Do you think anything will really shift? What is the practical way of looking at real change in terms of rights for people of color?
EG: Biden talked a lot about unity, but as a nation we have such enormous differences. How can we come together as a nation? Have we ever been unified?
EG: We’ve talked about this before, but are we as divided a nation as we were around the time of the Civil War?
WB: I guess it depends on what divided means. A lot of the divisions in the Civil War weren't just about the ideologies of white supremacy and anti-slavery—especially because most people in the North were still in favor of allowing the South to continue slavery. In fact, many of them were straight up in favor of slavery. One of the reasons we won’t have a similar type of armed conflict right now is that the divisions during the Civil War were regional. Within L.A. County, you go over the San Gabriel Mountains and you have a lot of precincts that were three quarters Trump votes. In a lot of the areas that are seen as deep blue, there were a third of the votes for Trump. The same goes for the reverse. In a lot of precincts that are deep red, you had a third of the votes for Biden.
So I think it's hard to draw the kinds of clear geographic lines that led to the easy division of the country during the Civil War. The issues that divide the country in some ways are more complex than the extension of slavery. However, it's become tribal in a way that is very profound and very difficult to bridge. The media ecosystem has not been this divided since at least the Civil War. We're not living in a time with clear institutional trust about who can speak the truth and have everyone in the country believe it. I think at this point, basically no one, except maybe the Muppets . . . I don't know if the Muppets are seen as part of a liberal conspiracy theory or not.
EG: So what do we do? This belief in wild theories and lies. How can we ever fix that when there's just so much information exchanged all the time on so many platforms?
If we want to change the level of conspiracy theories in the media environment, we all need to change the way that we consume media and demand media that is healthy for us and for our democracy.
Will Bellaimey teaches U.S. Government and Politics at Flintridge Prep School outside Los Angeles where he is also the director of the Los Angeles Museum of Geography, which is staffed entirely by seventh graders. His podcast, All the Presidents, Man, is available here.