Historically Speaking: The End of an Era?

By Will Bellaimey with Elizabeth Gracen:

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For the latest in our series of conversations connecting the current political moment to the lessons of the past, I sat down at Descanso Gardens with my friend Will Bellaimey (a history teacher and creator of the All The Presidents, Man podcast) a few days after the election had been called for Joe Biden. It had felt like a moment of relief. But there were still many questions swirling around, and I was hoping to get some broader perspective.

EG: Since last we spoke, democracy sort of flexed its muscles and a lot of people turned out to vote. Record numbers. That part was exciting, but . . .

WB: Well, we went down a roller coaster of different feelings about what was going on. I did look back at some of the things we talked about right before the election, and I think a lot of it was accurate. On election night, it looked to many people like Trump was winning because the in-person votes were counted first. Then when they finally counted all the absentee ballots, it became pretty clear that though it was a very close election, Biden had won. But, as we're speaking, it's been now almost two weeks since the election and about a week since the news networks called the election—which is traditionally when we think of the election as being over. Trump hasn't conceded, and many of the Republicans in the Senate, including Mitch McConnell, have not recognized the shift.

EG: Well, how the hell did this happen to us? How did we get to what feels like the brink of democracy falling off into oblivion? On the left, we're very happy, of course, with the results of the election, but a lot of people voted for Trump. It’s like we’ve flirted with totalitarianism or whatever you want to call it, and it seems that some people think that's okay. I find that really, un-American— very strange to me. How did that happen to us?

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WB: Well, historically speaking, we've been on the brink so many times and there have been so many times in American history where what is un-American has become reality. And of course that phrase "un-American" makes me think of McCarthy. So, I think there's nothing more American in some ways than paranoid conspiracy theories and fear and the subversion of democracy, even as democracy flexes its muscles. And I think in some ways, what we've experienced over the last four years for a lot of liberals has just been a reminder that when Barack Obama was elected president, these long-standing, deep issues that had been around for a long time didn't go away.

EG: Plus now the information—true and false—is disseminated so quickly across the Internet.

WB: the Internet has hyper-charged some tendencies that were already there. When I listen to all the fear and anxiety that so many people I care about are feeling, I have mixed reactions. Because on the one hand, I think there's a lot of legitimately scary things going on. But on the other hand, it seems like it's also a manifestation of the media consumption patterns and environment that we live in. We have a 24-hour news cycle that is run, both on cable news and on the Internet, on a for-profit basis. The way they make money is they keep us engaged. And the way that we get engaged is making sure we feel emotional. So show me an action movie where the bomb gets stopped at 10 minutes. It always has got to go down to one second. And I think there are a lot of ticking bombs in American democracy at all times.

EG: And one of the bombs has been removed.

WB: Well, everybody who has watched Donald Trump for the last four years shouldn't be surprised that he's not conceding the election. And if I put myself in Mitch McConnell's position (which is not something I do that often), I think I would probably play it exactly the way he's playing it, which is to say he wants his base to continue to be excited and engaged and angry. And to do that, de-legitimizing the next president is a great tool. We learned that with the birther controversy. Part of what propelled Donald Trump to office was the excitement and feelings of rage and everyone getting into a tizzy over the idea that Barack Obama wasn't American. And without drawing equivalency between these things, I would say that for liberals, the Florida recount and the action of the Supreme Court in 2000 led to a feeling that George W. Bush fundamentally wasn't a legitimate president. I think that in some ways, many of the things surrounding the Clintons from the beginning of that administration, whether it was Whitewater or the impeachment that came later, or just the kind of thing that Toni Morrison was talking about when she called Clinton "the first black President." She obviously didn't mean that he was Black, but she meant that his legitimacy was being questioned in a fundamental way by the right. So if you follow those examples, the last time that we had a president who a good portion of the country didn't think of as fundamentally illegitimate was H.W. Bush? That was a long time ago— the year I was born— ’88. I'm looking over the last 30 years and seeing that every time we have a new president, there is a need to create a narrative that keeps the people who lost feeling like they haven't actually been defeated by the will of their fellow voters but that they've been defeated by something nefarious.

EG: You’re so right! I have never thought about it that way.

WB: And while I am seriously concerned about the role that Russia played in the 2016 election and think that there were all sorts of really shady things going on, I think to some extent you can view the way so many people got really caught up in the Mueller investigation as driven by that same emotional impulse, which is that they didn't want to believe that a majority, at least of the electoral college, went for Trump. And I think that the Trump supporters now don't want to believe that a majority of the country repudiated what they viewed as right.

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*For those reading, they need a little backstory. I had what felt like an anxiety attack last Monday and texted Will for some clarification for what I was seeing on the news. It was probably the first day I had not watched CNN —and I seldom turn to CNN. However, during the count, I went down the rabbit hole and watched CNN non-stop from Nov. 3 to the 8th. It was like shooting heroin. I got hooked. I think I crashed on Monday because there was nothing final regarding a concession, and I couldn't shut the door on it. All of that good feeling from Saturday when Biden was declared the winner had dissipated, and fear crept in.

EG: Donald Trump is the ultimate in knowing how to manipulate that muck. He is a reality television president.

WB: Well, when politics becomes something that's in our lives 24/7 instead of a topic that we talk about from time to time, it gets wrapped up in our personal emotions and psyche in a much more intense way. I think for every generation in this country, right now, there's some form of media that's feeding that to them. You know, it's Twitter for people of a certain age.

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EG: My daughter is 15, so she got the count news from Snapchat. She’d come in and say, ”We just got Wisconsin!”

WB: Then CNN or NPR for a different set. I'm not a psychologist, but there's the whole idea of how slot machines give you unpredictable hits of dopamine. It’s the same with “breaking news.” It's very much just built into our brain chemistry to want that this “hit.” I think it's kind of four years straight of it for a lot of people. And we can blame some of that on Donald Trump, I think you're absolutely right to suggest that his instincts are very good at just creating emotion.

EG: Do you think that’s going to go away with somebody like Joe Biden in charge?

WB: I seriously doubt it, because all the money that these media companies make is based on keeping us in that loop. I think a lot of people have had a similar experience to what you just described—after the election suddenly having this kind of come down of like, what just happened? I've been in this fog or I've been on this drug trip or whatever it is. I'm hung over. So maybe what we really need to talk about is the fact that we have to examine our relationship with the news. You are one of many people in my life who in the last few weeks has texted me at moments of anxiety wanting some understanding of what's going on. And I can, as I am doing right now, be the reassuring expert on things like: How does the electoral college work? How do we count the votes? But on some level, I can't say anything that will calm anyone's anxiety when their anxiety is not necessarily coming from the news so much as it's coming from our relationship to the news and from it becoming such an all-encompassing part of our day-to-day experience. “Oh, did you see the latest notification from the New York Times? McConnell said this. . . .” And if it isn't McConnell, it could be something else. That can be maintained forever if we don’t decide to change.

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EG: I look at my New York Times app and scroll to see if there is anything in “bold” print—some bit of news I might have missed. I’m looking for my next fix!

WB: And you need a bigger and bigger hit every time. And that's what Trump has delivered very effectively for a lot of people both on the left and the right.

EG: So it will shift slightly in that Biden . . . I mean, I follow Biden on Twitter, and he's obviously not obsessively writing that stuff. He has more important things to do, and he has someone smart write something for him that's on message. I think the temperature of the nation will come down slightly, don't you?

WB: I think the temperature will come down slightly. In reality, I think our government will become much more stable with fewer sudden shifts in the stance of our government. But your phone's going to keep blowing up with notifications, and CNN is going to keep having breaking news banners all the time. And Trump's going to keep having rallies and tweeting and saying things. And if we don't want it to control our lives, only we can decide to unplug from it. It won't unplug from us.

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EG: Alright, then what do you foresee will happen next, since we are sort of in a holding pattern because Trump has not conceded? I read a scenario in the NY Times where he will never concede. He just won't show up to the inauguration.

WB: The electoral college will vote. They'll do some recounts. I think the recounts are important to do. The lawsuits will continue. They've been pretty much all dismissed in court. But it’s good that the lawsuits are happening because that actually is a system that's created where an unbiased (at least relatively unbiased) person listens to evidence and makes a decision. Part of me actually thinks that while it's important that President-elect Biden be given all the intelligence briefings and be able to begin putting it all in place, this desire for concession or moment of victory isn't really that important from the institutional standpoint. There will be an inauguration; he'll take the oath of office, and we'll watch it on TV.

EG: What about the idea of faithless electors?

WB: That was one of the scenarios that I told you about the last time we spoke. One of the things that's been reassuring to me since then is seeing that the state