Political Animal

The Constitutional Crisis of Trump Undermining the Election

Those of us who blogged right through to the end of George W. Bush’s presidency had already heard enough from John Yoo, thank you, before he decided to become a volunteer legal defender of President Trump. If you aren’t familiar with Yoo, his Wikipedia page is accurate and gets straight to the point.

Yoo is upset that some conservative intellectuals have been harshly critical of Trump’s suggestion that perhaps the presidential election should be delayed:

Donald Trump’s tweet last week that the possibility of mail-in voter fraud might justify postponing the November elections renewed claims that his presidency is a threat to the Constitution. Conservative commentator Henry Olsen, often a stout defender of the administration, wrote in his Washington Post column that the tweet “is the single most anti-democratic statement any sitting president has ever made.” Steven Calabresi, a conservative Northwestern law professor and co-founder of the Federalist Society, declared in the New York Times that “this latest tweet is fascistic and is itself grounds for the president’s immediate impeachment again.”

But Yoo assures us that threatening to do something unconstitutional is not problematic if you lack the constitutional power to justify the threat. This is like saying that robbing a bank is not possible because robbing banks is against the law. The Constitution is there to deter and punish, but it cannot prevent unconstitutional acts.

Kevin Williamson, most recently canned by The Atlantic for recommending hanging as a punishment for abortion, takes Yoo to task in the National Review:

With that in mind, Yoo’s insistence that in toying with the idea of delaying the election Trump “does not implicate any constitutional concerns,” seems to me to be far from self-evidently true. Yoo assures us that things will happen “automatically” in January, but in a democratic republic nothing happens automatically — we rely on republican norms, civic duty, democratic cooperation, and patriotism for the orderly operation of government and the peaceful transfer of power. In raising the possibility of delaying the election, Trump implicitly asserts an extraconstitutional power.

What emerges is a debate about Trump’s essential nature. On one side is an alarmist group who sees Trump as a nascent Mussolini on the cusp of seizing permanent power for himself. On the other is a ridiculous group of sycophants who argue that Trump is really a stout defender of constitutional limits on government power. Williamson seeks to puncture this debate by reminding us that Trump is a thoughtless creature who is incapable of acting on principle or with any significant forethought. For Williamson, he’s a simple-minded, narcissistic sociopath whose actions are best compared to an avaricious gangster.

It is possible to undermine constitutional and democratic norms without having grand Napoleonic ambitions. For example, President Trump’s bizarre demand for a Treasury kickback payment from Microsoft is typical of the Trump style. It is gross and corrosive, but it is not the kind of thing a would-be dictator does — it is the kind of thing a would-be gangster does.

The “kickback payment” Williamson refers to is Trump’s demand that “the Treasury… of the United States get a lot of money” in return for approving Microsoft’s potential acquisition of TikTok. That’s not how our government works, but Trump doesn’t know that. For Williamson, this isn’t some grand tragic theme but more of a nonsensical farce.

We know from the Roman example (of which the Founding Fathers were acutely aware) that ordinary venality can be as dangerous to a republic as grandiose political ambition; and, as it turns out, in our own case that kind of thing is sufficiently destructive without our having to imagine Trump as an aspiring Caesar. This isn’t an opera, and it does not have to be operatic.

Williamson doesn’t envy Yoo’s effort “to reverse-engineer a plausible constitutional rationale around President Trump’s pinball antics.” He seems to think Trump’s threat is probably more corrosive than immediate, but he notes that “in a democratic republic nothing happens automatically.” 

I think F. Scott Fitzgerald put it well in The Great Gatsby when he talked about the impact careless people can have on those around them:

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

This may be the best characterization of Donald Trump’s adult behavior. We wouldn’t let Tom and Daisy Buchanan run the country, but we wouldn’t compare them to Mussolini either. Trump doesn’t know what is and isn’t constitutional, or who has the power to delay an election and who doesn’t. But simply through his own carelessness, he will do great damage to the integrity of our electoral process. He will undermine faith in the result and prevent the country from uniting, however briefly, around his replacement. He could even inspire violence, especially if it takes a week or more to declare a winner, or he gets it in his head that no one can force him to leave office.

Kevin Williamson is wrong about a lot of things, but he’s right when he mocks Yoo’s insistence that Trump’s threat to delay the election “does not implicate any constitutional concerns.” Our republic depends on the consent of the governed, and a president who works overtime to prevent that consent is tearing at the fabric of our constitutional system. We’ll be lucky if all Trump leaves us with is a mess to be cleaned up.

The Media Needs to Prepare Now for a Very Different Kind of Election Night

Donald Trump is causing massive headaches for Republican officials with his lies about fraudulent mail-in ballots.

President Trump’s unfounded attacks on mail balloting are discouraging his own supporters from embracing the practice, according to polls and Republican leaders across the country, prompting growing alarm that one of the central strategies of his campaign is threatening GOP prospects in November.

No matter how hard they try to thread the needle and suggest that there is a difference between absentee ballots (which they claim are fine) and mail-in ballots, the president’s followers have been trained to swallow anything he utters and are buying his lies.

A Monmouth University poll of registered voters in Georgia taken late last month found that 60 percent of Democrats are at least somewhat likely to vote by mail this fall, compared with 28 percent of Republicans…

“Please don’t confuse North Carolina’s absentee system with other states’ all-mail elections,” read the message from Darryl Mitchell, chairman of the Johnson County GOP. “NCGOP and JoCo GOP agrees with the President that our current absentee ballot request system is safe and secure.”

The assurance was met with skepticism from many commenters. “Burned it! I will go in person to vote straight Republican,” wrote one.

“Why is the GOP sending this out,” wrote another, adding: “You know damn well that we are arguing against this, and here it is our own damn party sending this horse dung out?!!! Whoever is in charge of this should be fired. I am going to the polls. Don’t send me one.”

As a result, what is likely to happen on election day is that tallies of those who vote in person will be reported first and, as we have seen during the primaries, final results will be delayed for days or even weeks as mail-in ballots are counted. That means that it is very possible that Trump will be in the lead initially, which is why he recently tweeted this:

In other words, Trump will claim victory on election night and then challenge the results once all of the ballots are counted.

It is important for Democrats to get the message out about what is likely to happen. But ultimately it will be up to news media to make a dramatic change in how they report the results on the night of November 3rd. For example,  exit polls will be useless since they only report on those who show up to vote in person. Media outlets should scrap them altogether this time around.

Rather than all of the breathless election reporting, news outlets should spend their time informing the public about why things will be different this time and then provide daily updates on the results. Any Trump victory laps should come with a caution that he’s jumping the gun.

One can only hope that in news rooms all over the country discussions will take place over the next few months about how they need to change their election coverage dramatically in order to keep the public informed. Given their obsession with always being first to report on major developments, I’m not terribly hopeful that they will do so. That failure would play right into Trump’s hands and offer him a platform to sow chaos with the integrity of our elections. In other words, it would make them complicit in undermining our democracy.

Trump and the Republicans Are Risking an All-Out Depression

The headline from last Thursday’s report by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) on second quarter GDP was horrific: The economy contracted 9.5 percent from April through June. On an annual basis, GDP fell at an astounding rate of nearly 33 percent. Still, there’s another ominous aspect to the agency’s findings that has gone largely unnoted: The pandemic-driven collapse in GDP occurred even with trillions of dollars of government aid dispensed through emergency checks to households, expanded jobless benefits, and payroll grants.

Now, as the pandemic worsens again—infections are surging across much of the South, Southwest and Midwest—we may well need to face another period of largescale shutdowns, like those that stalled out the economy in April and May. But the White House and congressional Republicans are balking at a second, comparable round of emergency assistance. The data suggest that their quibbling and stalling risks a national depression.

The BEA’s latest report on personal incomes, released the day after its latest GDP report, can give us a rough measure of what might happen if President Trump and GOP leaders block another round of federal supports at least as large as the first one.

Over the second quarter of 2020, personal income from salaries and wages fell 7.1 percent even as total personal income grew 7.3 percent. That gaping difference was bridged mainly by the emergency checks and expanded jobless benefits from the federal government.

The report also shows that personal consumption fell 10.5 percent even as the emergency checks and extended jobless benefits provided $1,420 billion in income support. That’s because people spend a lot less when unemployment sets new records. Instead, they cut out most non-essential spending and save a lot more to tide themselves for even worse times: The personal saving rate, which averaged 7.5 percent in 2019, soared to 25.7 percent in the second quarter.

Worse times may be right on the horizon if Trump and his allies continue to delay and diminish a second round of emergency assistance.  We can estimate what would happen to personal incomes, consumption spending, and GDP if this second spike of infections produces shutdowns and unemployment in August and September akin to the first spike in April and May, although without the emergency aid from the government. Personal income would fall 7.0 percent below the depressed levels in the second quarter, or more than $1,424 billion. Personal consumption, which declined at an annual rate of $1,528 billion from March through May, would be further depressed by the absence of another $1,055 billion (the $1,420 billion in emergency aid minus  the 25.7 percent saved).  From July through September—the months leading up to the election—Americans would spend nearly 18 percent less than they did from January through March.

That means the GDP would not begin to recover at all. The overall economy would be nearly as depressed in the third quarter as it was in the disastrous second quarter, and possibly worse. This is the fire that the Trump administration and Congress are playing with, and it could burn down a good part of the U.S. economy.

In a week or two, the White House and congressional Republicans will likely try to avoid this dire scenario—or at least the responsibility for it—by pushing a sharply pared down version of the emergency package passed more than two months ago by House Democrats. .

The version offered by GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell would provide $1 trillion in assistance, i.e. one-third the support in the Democratic package. The GOP plan would cut the $600 expanded jobless benefit to $200, eliminate pay supplements for essential workers in hazardous jobs, and provide little aid to state and local governments.  The plan does include another round of $1,200 checks for most people, with the funds paid over several months and without the additional support for children in the Democrats’ bill.

There is no economic justification for a half loaf here and the GOP’s cuts in emergency funding will exact appalling costs on millions of households. Based on all of our economic and epidemiological information, the right course for anyone not seized by love or fear of Donald Trump is to press for a new round of assistance as least as large as the measures enacted last time.

Major aid disbursements to America’s families is also the only equitable course. The crisis has already ended, kaput, for large investors—the top 10 percent of Americans who own 91 percent of all financial assets—because the Federal Reserve’s aggressive operations have virtually restored the stock and bond markets.

From February 20 to March 23, the S&P 500 tumbled almost 34 percent from its historic high of 3,372 to 2,237.  Yet, as the economy has continued to tank from March 23 onward, $2.8 trillion in new Fed purchases pushed the S&P 500 back to 3,296 on August 3, just two percent from its historic high. The Fed’s operations have had the same impact on corporate bond markets, with both investment grade paper and junk bonds reversing virtually all of their recent losses even as GDP cratered.

Nevertheless, President Trump and GOP leaders have dismissed their obligation to provide large-scale support for everyone else and take the steps needed to break the pandemic.In a plummeting economy, they apparently have chosen Hebert Hoover as their role model, another Republican president with a GOP-controlled Congress who rejected calls for wide-ranging  government assistance for an economic crisis. The result, of course, was the Great Depression.

Trump Doesn’t Know How to Campaign As an Incumbent

Looking through Ryan Lizza and Daniel Lippman’s piece on Donald Trump’s campaign in Politico, I was struck by how widespread the impression is that the president employed “a bag of tricks” to get elected in 2016. There are a lot of people who seem to believe that Trump’s sagging polls indicate that he’s like a children’s birthday party magician who is now being asked to work a college fraternity.

I suppose there’s something to this comparison. In serious times, some jokes seem frivolous or insensitive. And every performer needs fresh material if they want to avoid boring the audience. But my favorite characterization of Trump’s 2016 success comes from “a senior GOP congressional aide”:

“It used to be that he would do five rallies a day and say whatever came off the top of his head and he thinks that won him the election,” said a senior GOP congressional aide, echoing the sentiments of a still-intact class of Republicans appalled by Trump and how he is turning vast swaths of Republican-leaning suburbs into Democratic territory. “It’s like when a 25-year old gets drunk and shows up at a family engagement. That can be cute. But if you’re a 50-year-old and you show up at the gathering drunk and embarrassing, that just hits a little differently. It’s not cute anymore.”

A similar analysis was offered by Trump mega-donor Dan Eberhart:

Trump’s misunderstanding of what got him elected in 2016 is at the heart of the problem, Eberhart argued.

“Trump’s general ability to just feed the base three times over and that will carry you to victory is not really a recipe for success,” he said. “The base is high 30s and that won Trump the primary but he largely won the general election because Hillary was so unpopular. And Biden’s negatives are not as high as Hillary’s so there’s a big problem.”

These explanations attempt to spell out why Trump doesn’t pivot or try something different. But it’s probably fair to say he didn’t really try to win the first time. He just discovered that if he got himself on television everyday talking shit about people, he’d soar in Republican polls. He didn’t change anything once he realized it was working. He didn’t change his primary “strategy” for the general election. His victory was a fluke, and he thought it reflected his brilliance.

Setting aside the COVID-19 pandemic, and the economy, and the fact that Trump was impeached, everything that worked for his 2016 campaign was premised on him being an outsider. He wasn’t a Bush Republican. He wasn’t an incumbent. He hadn’t cast a million votes over decades while middle America was getting hollowed out.

None of that works when you’re the president and the leader of your party. Newt Gingrich sent a dispatch from Rome to gently point out to Trump that he’s running Nixon’s 1968 campaign when he should be modeling his 1972 reelection. That’s absolutely true, except Nixon had a good economy, was winding down the Vietnam War, had opened the door to China, and had a list of domestic accomplishments to tout. Under Trump, Americans aren’t even allowed to travel because we’re too infectious.

It doesn’t really matter. Everything could be going great and Trump’s strategy would be the same. He’d “say whatever came off the top of his head” and expect it to win him the election. It’s not a magic trick. It’s not even a trick at all. He’s just a dude on Twitter who got elected president of the United States once.

It won’t happen a second time.