By Will Bellaimey with Elizabeth Gracen:
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?
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.