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.
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.
*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.
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.
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.
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 legislatures, including those controlled by Republicans, have not seemed interested in playing games with the electoral college. The Pennsylvania legislature—led by Republicans—released a statement saying that they specifically wouldn't do that, that whoever the certified winner of the state's electors was that's who would be sent. I do think that some of these lawsuits and the general conspiracy theories that are circulating on the right-wing Internet right now are designed to create doubt and chaos that could eventually convince state legislators that something had gone wrong and therefore try to give them cover to do that. But the problem at the moment—as we're speaking right now, at least—is that almost no evidence has been produced. The level of conspiracy theory that's going around is tempered by the fact that Fox News, for instance, seems to have pretty much accepted that Trump lost. It is very upsetting to liberals that Mitch McConnell has not conceded the election, but that's not the same as fundamentally undermining the process. The way the process is designed to work is that we have a series of votes, then we carefully count, and if necessary recount, the ballots, and then we send the electors. And so far, all of that is moving at the exact correct pace. That hasn't changed. People are just not saying the things that we want them to say right now.
EG: Like Ted Cruz or Lindsey Graham, who are really fanning the flames that there has been massive fraud.
WB: That’s very concerning but also very predictable and understandable if you're Ted Cruz and you want to be president—you know you're going to have to go through the gauntlet of a bunch of former Trump supporters in the Republican primary. I don't understand Lindsey Graham. And I would love to see a movie that explored the psyche of Lindsey Graham. But most of the Republicans are saying allow the lawsuits to take place, allow the recount to take place, and then we'll certify the results. Nothing that they're saying is literally false. It's just allowing people who believe things that are false to go on. So if I had to predict right now what will happen, they'll have the recounts in the lawsuits; it won't change the result, and the electoral college will certify it. And at that point, McConnell and others will say, "Right, well, we recognize the president elect."
EG: How old is Trump? I think 74. Do you think the air will ever go out of his balloon when he’s out? He’s talked about running in 2024.
WB: He's going to be around. Now I'm being a pundit, but I imagine he will try to either be the nominee in the next election himself or have his son Don Jr. be the nominee. I think they're both formidable candidates in terms of rallying support.
EG: Despite his potential legal issues? I guess his base won’t care. They’ll just say that he’s smart when he wiggles out of it. Argh. Okay, so let's talk about happy things—Biden coming in. What are the biggest changes we're going to feel as a nation immediately, other than just relief that he's in the White House?
WB: (laughs) What kind of hit can we expect? What good things can we get right away? Give it to me, and give it to me.
EG: Mamma needs her fix.
WB: Most of the acts that he can take at the beginning will be based on executive orders. I think we can see some changes in immigration policy in terms of detention camps that will probably become less horrible, though I don't expect them to stop being horrible. Our immigration system is fundamentally broken in a way that would require legislation to solve. I think we can probably expect Biden to use executive orders to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord, which could feel good. He might reenter the Iranian Nuclear Deal.
EG: How about climate change infrastructure based on new industries?
WB: I think there's a real possibility for an infrastructure bill to come down. I don't think it would be a big-ticket item even if the Democrats win both seats in Georgia and have the tie-breaking ability to pass legislation. You're going to still need to get Joe Manchin and other conservative Democrats to sign on to anything. That being said, I think we're still going to be in a moment of really serious economic crisis. And I actually think there could be some support from Republicans who just want to deliver something to their constituents, to pass a big infrastructure bill. That could include some things that would really help with climate change.
EG: You don't think he's going to adapt a lot of the progressive policies? The Green New Deal?
WB: I think he'll absolutely want to, but he just won't have the votes to do so. And this is where it's always important to remind ourselves that within our system, laws are written by Congress, and while the president has the power through executive orders to make a lot of little changes, the big fundamental shifts in our society have usually come through a big piece of legislation. I think Biden will be able to pass some things through like bipartisan infrastructure changes, but I think a lot of the things that progressives have been really hoping for you'd need to wait and see if in 2022 that could be done.
EG: So, anything else the Biden administration will push through?
WB: I would be interested to see if they can pass some sort of voting rights act— like the John Lewis bill, but that kind of game changer might need to include ending the filibuster, which doesn’t seem possible right now.
EG: What are your thoughts on court packing?
WB: I personally am pretty uncomfortable with packing the court, because I don't know where that ends. I think there's a reason why Franklin Roosevelt was stopped by a total Democratic majority from doing that. I also think that it's important to remember that a lot of the things that are scary to us about Supreme Court decisions can be fixed with legislation. If you can just take enough power in the legislature, a woman's right to choose can be protected by law. Most of the close-call issues, like Obamacare (which seems like it will be upheld), a lot of those can be avoided if you could just get a big enough majority in the House and Senate to pass laws.
EG: What about statehood for Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.?
WB: Well, I think that statehood for Puerto Rico and for Washington, D.C., are just the right thing to do. I feel like if those issues were put front and center compared with court packing, which is sketchy, and ending the filibuster, which just makes people uncomfortable, the conversation around statehood for Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., could be really a positive one for the country to have. Why don't we want Puerto Rico to be a state? They voted in this election by a slim majority that they wanted to have statehood. Why not let them?
EG: But I would assume that that is not a partisan topic.
WB: Republicans would fight it tooth and nail the entire way because it would mean two new democratic senators. It’s like before the Civil War; there was a balance of power between two groups, but the demographics were shifting toward the North. So every time we admitted a new state to the Union, it almost tore the country apart, and they had to keep doing this thing where they would admit one slave state and one free state to keep it balanced. There's a similar dynamic here where the Republicans and Democrats are so violently opposed to each other. The last time we let two states into the country, it was Alaska and Hawaii. Even at that time, we kind of knew that Alaska would tend to be a red state and Hawaii would tend to be a blue state. Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., would both likely be among the most liberal states in the country, which makes it an existential fight for the Republicans. Now, that being said, it's really hard to come up with an argument besides that kind of naked political power to deny what would be a majority African-American and what would obviously be a Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican state. So I wonder whether some Republicans, particularly those who just won reelection and don't have to think about this for awhile—maybe I'm only talking about Susan Collins, and I don't think we should expect Susan Collins to do anything at any point—but compared to some of these other things, I think there's a bit, a better chance.
EG: That wasn’t really a topic during the election. Why? Because it’s not sexy?
WB: I think it's sexy. I think Puerto Rico would be our sexiest state.
EG: Well said.
WB: Here’s my compromise proposal that I've been telling my students about. We know that Washington, D.C., would be a blue state, so let's make it a swing state by combining it with Wyoming, which has a similar-sized population. You could be call it Wyoming, D.C. You know, like you'd be driving, it'd be like now leaving Virginia, now entering Wyoming, now leaving Wyoming, now entering Maryland. And then we could have Puerto Dakota, which would be North Dakota. I think you might have to combine both the Dakotas and Puerto Rico.
EG: What about the orange menace as a lame duck president?
WB: What does it mean to be a lame duck? I guess it means people don't take you seriously, but you're still the president. To me, the question would be, well, what does he want to do? Probably pardon some people. Pretty much every president has done some last-minute pardons, and I expect that Donald J. Trump will have some pardons—maybe even his own family members. He cannot pardon himself for state crimes, so I think he will continue to face all sorts of legal issues.
EG: Do you really think that he’s worried about that?
WB: I think he's worried about spending years of his life in court fighting these things or spending millions of dollars on lawyers. I don't think you should get yourself excited to see him behind bars. I know that as we’re having this conversation, you're just waiting for the next hit.
EG: You’re calling me out!
WB: I really think it might be a great—just speaking to you and the people who read this—it might be a great time to get into sports. Seriously! To get into serious sports, it gives you a similar hit, but it's not . . . it doesn't feel so existential, does it? You could get into watching ESPN? Other reality television shows? You notice how quickly it just rolled off the tongue. “Other reality television shows.”
EG: We all love it and hate it. I mean, it just keeps us going.
WB: I think right now is a good time for all of us to reevaluate. It started with 24-hour cable news. And I would say CNN started during the Gulf War in ’91, but I would say Clinton’s impeachment was the first one of these things where everyone got consumed into a reality show that everybody was obsessed with. In some ways I feel like COVID has actually been a really helpful reminder for some of us that there's a reality behind the reality show.
EG: Dear god, we haven't even talked about COVID.
WB: I think one of the reasons that we're not talking about COVID or that it’s been in the background—mask fights and things like that—is that COVID is a slow-moving disaster, and it doesn't pack the dopamine hits. It's not like tomorrow, 50,000 more people are going to die than died today; it's like 10,000 more every day or something like that.
EG: But at the start it was a major adrenaline fight or flight energy.
WB: It was a good hit, and now it's become kind of normalized, like so many things.
EG: So we’re back to the proposition of unplugging.
WB: There you go. That's right. Take a deep breath. Go outside. Breathe. Start to find your dopamine hits from something that is not the news media— that is not out there to hook you. I really think that's the most important thing for us to think about right now. Really.
Have you seen the documentary, THE SOCIAL DILEMMA? It talks about how social media companies studied slot machines in Vegas. They learned how our brains work, and then they designed apps to feed the parts of our brains that are hungry. It’s just like the people who design Double Stuffed Oreos. They figured out exactly what we'd like to eat all day. If we didn't care about ourselves, and it didn’t hurt us, we’d be eating them all the time. I feel like what we've been doing for the last four years is just eating Double Stuffed Oreos of fear and anger, over and over again. And at some point, not because there aren't things to be afraid of, not because there aren't things to be angry about, but because we need patience, strength, and perseverance.
I always want to look at someone like John Lewis, who as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, he lived a long time. Rosa Parks saw a lot in her life. Did John Lewis at some point in his life, did Rosa Parks at some point in her life, think, Oh, so I'm only doing this work for a little while longer and then soon I'll be able to go back to live in my house in the suburbs, not think about any of this anymore because we'll have won this victory? We talk about Dr. King having a dream: Did Martin Luther King think that that was just going to happen someday, and then he would be done? No, I mean, did he even think that he would live and get to have a very peaceful life at some point? No. We're not going to get that either.
EG: I know I’m emotionally weary from last week, but that makes me tear up.
WB: We should all take some comfort in the fact that a lot of people have been walking a road that is simultaneously hopeful and hopeless for many, many years and did cry along the way and did experience tremendous loss along the way and never lived to see the promised land.
But they kept marching, kept walking, and had beautiful experiences along the way.
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.