Historically Speaking with Will Bellaimey—The First 100 Days

By Will Bellaimey with Elizabeth Gracen:


Every month, I have the pleasure to sit down with my dear friend Will Bellaimey to talk a bit about current events and how to put it all in perspective on the long timeline of history. We call the ongoing series Historically Speaking, and we've recently incorporated a bit of video into the series to keep the conversation lively. You can hear even more informative and entertaining historic insights in Will's terrific podcast, All The Presidents, Man.




EG: Okay, Will, it's mid April in a beautiful park in Southern California, and it feels worlds away from where we were this time last year. We certainly weren't meeting. No one was! A vaccine, a new president, a bit of light on the horizon. Many things have changed since the last time we talked—some good, some bad. What's important to consider right now in history—what do we need to think about?



WB: Well, we're not even a hundred days into the Biden presidency, and I would say the biggest thing is it just feels really different having a different person be the president. And I think that kind of emphasizes the point that we've talked about so many times about how the media narrative was so shaped by Donald Trump being at the center of events. And right now, as we're speaking, Biden had his first press conference a couple of days ago, and the press didn't ask a single question about COVID, which is weird, but I think in some ways it's because the thing that's gone the best so far in the Biden presidency is the rollout of the vaccine. And we're now at a point where millions of people have already gotten their second dose and, compared with a lot of European countries who are really struggling with supply, it seems pretty likely that by the end of the summer pretty much everybody who wants to get a vaccine will have gotten one. And that's huge in letting the economy reopen and letting schools reopen; my school's about to have students back in the classroom, at least half of them starting tomorrow.


So now, the estimates for what's going to be happening with the economy over the next few months are pretty positive. And in fact, there's some concerns about whether inflation could really rocket up when you have growth kind of making up for all of the lost time. But I think that's a pretty good situation from a political perspective for the new president to be at, at this point.


EG: Would we still have this positive momentum with the vaccine if Trump was still in office?


WB: That's a good question. Can Joe Biden really take credit for this? I think this is similar to a lot of things that happen when you're president, where most of the factors that shape whether things are going better or worse than under your predecessor aren't really in your control—things like the economy. Presidents get credit for jobs being created when it's very rarely their direct actions that lead to that. So I don't think it's fair to say that Joe Biden is responsible for everything that's been going on.


Certainly, things have been running really smoothly in a way that with a less-chaotic person at the top certainly benefits it. But I do think that a lot of the decisions that were made in the Trump administration that were positive have benefited by making sure that they were able to buy enough of the vaccine. Though some of that's just by being a rich country that has a lot of supply in terms of our drug companies being based in the US, right? I don't think it's fair for either Trump or Biden to really take the full credit for that. I think actually probably the better thing to say would be that American drug companies and bureaucrats, such as Fauci, who have been in place in both administrations have done their job. And I think that pretty much regardless of who was president either before or after, most of those things would've gone the same way.


EG: So, let's talk about Dr. Fauci for a bit. He's such a rock star.


FAUCI, SCIENCE & FACTS


EG: Let's talk about Georgia and voting rights next.


WB: Just the other day in his press conference, Joe Biden referred to the voting restriction act that's been passed in Georgia as part of a new Jim Crow, or Jim Crow 2.0, and that's language that obviously comes from Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow, which argued a whole host of policies that disadvantage African Americans should be viewed in the same historical context as the segregation laws of the Jim Crow period. That same language has been used by people such as Stacey Abrams and Senator Warnock in Georgia. I don't think it's a stretch, because it has the same basic outcome: that African Americans are being prevented from voting for political purposes, particularly in a lot of states of the former Confederacy, although not exclusively.


I think it's notable that Joe Biden, as an older white guy, is able to name this for what it is, in 2021, in a way that Barack Obama, the first Black president, really didn't feel able to. I do think some of that is about Obama feeling like he had to be really careful with his language because of all sorts of backlash to him, as an African American, speaking about race and racism. I also think things have changed in this country in terms of our willingness to talk about this; we actually have had much more honest conversations about white supremacy in the Trump era than we did in the Obama era. I think that's both because Donald Trump was so openly racist in many ways that it was pretty hard to ignore. I also think it's because a lot of white liberals, who under Obama felt like they'd already done their work and didn't have to pay attention to racism anymore, were—I don't know about woken up but maybe shaken up a little bit—and finally started acknowledging some of the things that had been going on for a long time.


The George Floyd, Breonna Taylor protests this summer are just one example of the kind of social mobilization from years of Black Lives Matter organizers talking about these things that's finally bubbled up to the level of elite political discourse, where a president can say this is part of the new Jim Crow without seeming like they're out of the mainstream. It reminds me of Lyndon Johnson saying "we shall overcome" after years of the Civil Rights Movement being marginalized and singing that song. It's an interesting moment for anti-racism, too. There's a lot of hope, but there's also some really scary backlash, as there almost always is, to moments of progress.


VOTING RIGHTS


EG: So let's talk about the Republican Party. They are a hot mess. I only see one leader, and he just got voted out of office. Is there a chance he would run again? Will his presence be felt in the next election?


WB: So the next big test of where the Republican Party is going will be the midterm elections, which are in November 2022, but it'll start by this fall. In fact, it's already started in a lot of states where people know that there's going to be a senator up for reelection or a key congressperson. They're being challenged to prove their loyalty to Donald Trump. And I think this is where the structure of the American political system really plays a factor in how it's going to play out, because I think that actually most Independents at this point, or just low-information voters, have tuned out from the QAnon-Trump circus. Those aren't the people who vote in the primaries. The primary will be driven as it always is by the most vocal, most committed, and in some ways most extreme members of each party, and in the Republican Party, that means Trump supporters.


So I think what you'll see is a big push for more Josh Hawley types or more QAnon-type people to challenge quote-unquote moderate, or at the very least not-loyal-to-Trump Republicans. And so those people will get pushed out, and then you'll go into the general election. And then, traditionally, in a midterm general election, there is a shift toward the opposition party because, for instance, Biden voters will feel comfortable and relaxed and not fired up to go knock on doors when their guy's in office, whereas people who voted against Biden will want to. And so you saw that under Obama in 2010, when the Tea Party surge happened. You saw it in 2018 when the Democrats took back the House. And I think everyone would expect a shift to the right. That being said, if the Republican candidates are really extreme QAnon-type people and the economy is doing really well, and Biden is very popular, it might be a harder pitch to Independents than it traditionally would be that they should shift away from the president's party.


I would still caution against people thinking that Biden would gain seats, but it's possible that he wouldn't lose as many. And at that point, then the Republican Party civil war goes on, because then you face a real reckoning perhaps with what the future of the party looks like. That being said, there's a lot of factors in that discussion. And I don't think that it would be as simple as they don't do quite as well as they want to in the midterms and so suddenly they dumped Donald Trump. And by then you'll have a presidential campaign right on the heels of the midterms. And I certainly don't expect between now and 2024 for the Republican Party to go through a whole truth and reconciliation process and dump either the rhetoric or the family that Trump represents.


EG: Could legal actions against the Trump family affect the ability to run for president in 2024—either Donald Jr. or former President Trump himself?


WB: I think the short answer is, don't get your hopes up if that's what you want. I do think there's going to be all sorts of legal action. I do think that members of the Trump family have been implicated in enough crimes at both state and federal levels. That being said, I think from a political standpoint, given the dynamic I was just describing in the primaries, it actually benefits the Trumps to be prosecuted. It keeps them in the public eye and it plays into the victim narrative.


That's really core to the current right wing feeling about a giant elite conspiracy that is trying to unfairly go after the former president. So I think while Tish James and other state attorneys general have all sorts of both political and moral reasons to decide to push that forward, I think in terms of the primary, there's no reason to think that legal implications would do anything to get them out of the public eye. And in fact, if you view what the Trump family is doing as mostly an exercise in using political power as a way to continue to have economic viability, I think it will be great for the brand.


EG: Do you still think the chances are slim for getting rid of the filibuster?


WB: That's clearly the thing that's in the way of a lot of the bigger-ticket items that the Democrats would like to do. It's possible that they can pass another infrastructure bill with some Republican support because it's popular in some Republican states. It certainly was possible through the reconciliation process, which basically means you can pass with a simple majority of budget bill. They were able to get through that COVID relief stuff. But let's say you wanted to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, or you wanted to change immigration, or healthcare, or reform any number of issues on the Democrats' wishlist. To do that, you'd need to change the filibuster.


And there's no reason that they can't do that at any time, except that Joe Manchin and our own 87-year-old Diane Feinstein have said that they don't want to do it. It just takes a majority of Democrats. Kyrsten Sinema and a number of other red-state Democrats have also said that they don't support ending the filibuster.


I think everybody knows what the filibuster is, but basically it requires 60 votes to pass anything through the Senate. So there's a number of ways that you could reform the filibuster without getting rid of it. Though I do think that probably the most obvious thing is just to get rid of it. But if you felt like that was either politically a bad idea or you structurally believed in the minority having some power to block legislation, then you could have a slow step down where after a certain number of hours, it goes from 60 to 58 to 56. They've also talked about reversing the process, where instead of having to get 60 votes to pass something, you have to get 40 votes to stop something, which just puts the burden on the minority to get people to the chambers, which in the modern Senate where people pretty much spend all their time out fundraising and aren't actually in the chamber that often, would be a pretty big change.

The other suggestion that I find kind of romantic and fun is that you could force it to become the talking filibuster that people who've watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington are familiar with. And you could say, if you want to block legislation, that you have to actually be up there talking like Ted Cruz reading Green Eggs and Ham for hours and hours. And at the very least that would put the onus on the people who want to block it to really prove that they're committed to that cause. I think it would still be used. The longest filibuster in American history was Strom Thurmond speaking for hours against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. And I fully expect Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley and others to be happy to take to C-Span and block all sorts of Biden wishlist items. But, all of these things would definitely move the goalposts in such a way that it would be more likely to be able to pass this legislation.


EG: I think it's about that time again at Historically Speaking for you to impart pearls of wisdom about media consumption and how to not feel so anxious about what is going on in the headlines. Let 'er rip!


WHAT'S ON YOUR MEDIA DIET?

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.