Friday finds the world considering the prospect that America might manage to reestablish a functioning government in the months ahead.
Joe Biden implored Americans to follow him down what he called the “path of hope and light” in his speech accepting the Democratic nomination on Thursday evening. The former vice president’s remarks capped off days of impassioned pleas from Democrats (and some Republicans), all of whom warned voters that America is on the brink of a chaotic spiral into what might as well be failed state status.
That Tulsi Gabbard ended up trending on social media during Biden’s speech was no coincidence, of course. Gabbard garnered sympathy from netizens ostensibly representing both parties on Thursday night, when she lamented (after being prompted in a tweet) that she wasn’t invited to speak at Democrats’ virtual event this week. Fox promptly jumped at the opportunity to feature Gabbard.
The reaction across social media to Gabbard’s feigned incredulity served as a reminder that most Americans still do not understand how perilous things truly are right now. Gabbard is, at best, an unwitting accomplice in efforts to sow confusion among the US electorate. I won’t delve into the specifics around the (admittedly speculative) “at worst” scenario, but suffice to say it’s wholly unfortunate that the voting public still doesn’t seem to possess the rudimentary critical thinking skills inherent in the phrase “when someone seems too good to be true, they usually are”.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, delivered some of his most foreboding remarks yet about the election, telling Sean Hannity he may deploy “sheriffs” (among other law enforcement officials) to “verify” ballots.
“We’re going to have sheriffs, and we’re going to have law enforcement. And we’re going to have hopefully US attorneys, and we’re going to have everybody and attorney generals”, the president mused.
He also suggested his prospective monitoring regime would only apply to Democratic districts.
“They may send them to all Democrat areas, not to the Republican areas as an example”, he said.
As ever, it’s not clear what’s more remarkable — the message or the explicit way in which it was delivered. Election monitoring isn’t problematic as a concept, but the idea of an executive who recently deployed federal agents to states and who orchestrated the disbursement of peaceful protesters using tear gas and rubber bullets in order to clear the way for a symbolic stroll with his military commanders, now saying he intends to use “sheriffs” in Democratic “areas” to ensure election “integrity” is comically ominous.
That Trump would say such a thing on national television betrays either complete obliviousness to the parallels with how “elections” are held in autocratic regimes, or else an overt nod to establishing just such a regime in America.
At the same time, the misinformation looks poised to continue apace. The White House continues to foist a manifestly false narrative on the public about the administration’s economic track record.
On Thursday evening, during his own address to the DNC (photobombed by a pesky fly, much to the delight of right-wing media), Michael Bloomberg said the following of Trump’s economy:
Donald says we should vote for him because the economy was great before the virus. Huh?
Joe Biden and Barack Obama created more jobs over their last three years than the Trump administration did over its first three, and economic growth was higher under Biden and Obama than under Trump. In fact, while Biden helped save 1 million auto industry jobs, Trump has lost 250,000 manufacturing jobs.
This is still largely lost on the public and even on some Trump critics. There is a pernicious tendency for Americans to believe things that simply are not true because even after witnessing three solid years of misinformation, voters still cannot quite wrap their heads around the notion that a public figure would tell outright lies about relatively petty things.
That’s not to say jobs and the economy are “petty”, but they are in the context of government lies.
Everyone understands the government lies to the public about, for example, matters of foreign policy and, in some cases when it’s deemed “necessary”, matters of national security. That is almost never a good thing. In the case of Iraq and WMDs it led directly to one of the most ill-fated military incursions in modern history.
But for an administration to habitually lie about readily observable facts — verifiable with a single check of publicly available data — is unprecedented. Bloomberg’s remarks on Thursday evening underscore how brazen these lies really are. What makes them so brazen isn’t necessarily that they are verifiably false. Rather, what makes the situation so unnerving is that these lies aren’t necessary.
The visual (below) drives home the point. It accounts for the “Trump bump” (which, on nonfarm payrolls, doesn’t really look much like a “bump”, but to placate the president’s demands, I incorporate it), and shows that not only are Trump and Mike Pence lying about “their” labor market versus the previous administration’s jobs record, but that the difference between the two isn’t embarrassing enough to explain why someone would feel compelled to lie about it.
The same is true for GDP (i.e., for the economy more generally).
In keeping with the (very simple) methodology used to construct the figure above, I give Trump the election “bump” and exclude the pandemic plunge (it’s shown in the figure below, but it’s clearly separated to account for Trump’s assertion that the damage from the virus was not directly his fault). The results are the same.
Trump’s most ardent critics lampoon the president for his entirely unrealistic characterization of the pre-pandemic US economy. For example, just prior to the epidemic, Trump told Davos that he had created “an economic boom the likes of which the world has never seen before”. That is a quote. As you can clearly see from the figure (above) that is in no way, shape, or form the case.
If I wanted to be cruel, I would pan out on that visual to show Trump’s economy in a historical context, but the point isn’t to maximize the comedic value. Rather, my point is actually to say that there was nothing wrong with Trump’s economy. It was on par with the Obama/Biden economy (slightly better, actually, depending on what window you use), and certainly nothing to be ashamed of. And yet, the president made claims so out of step with reality, that it was impossible to construe them as anything other than lies.
And for what? There isn’t anything worth lying about in either of the two figures above.
That, I contend, is one of the most damning aspects of the current administration. While lying about “big” issues (e.g., WMDs in Iraq) can lead to disastrous, deadly, horrific outcomes, the gravity of the situation at least explains the temptation to resort to lies, although it most assuredly does not excuse it. The current president’s lies are, in many cases, totally inexplicable. He lies compulsively, even when he doesn’t have to — he lies even when reality is favorable to him (see the charts above).
Little wonder, then, that when confronted with objectively terrible numbers (i.e., America’s “performance” in the pandemic), the president simply resorts to outright fantasy, claiming the country’s “numbers” are the “best in the world”, four words Trump has used to describe the US epidemic on innumerable occasions. In fact, America’s numbers are the worst in the world on any number of metrics.
Now, this president stands accused of tampering with the post office to undermine mail-in ballots during an election when record numbers of Americans are expected to vote by mail. He said, on national television Thursday evening, that he intends to deploy law enforcement to opposition “areas” during the election. He continues to insist that the results will be fraudulent. This week, the White House said Trump would judge the election’s fairness after the vote.
This is, objectively, a crisis of democracy. It now seems entirely unlikely that the president will willingly leave office in November.
In January, I presaged this after the Senate voted 51-49 against calling further witnesses in Trump’s impeachment trial, setting the stage for the president to be acquitted. The passages below are even more applicable today than they were seven months ago.
Even if he were to lose in November, Trump would likely claim massive voter fraud and move to nullify the results. After all, he claimed massive voter fraud even when he won, in 2016.
After that, he’ll look for an excuse to extend presidential term limits.
Again, none of that is an effort to resort to hysterics. Rather, it increasingly seems like the most plausible trajectory.
Having crumbled the country’s institutions and having essentially antiquated the whole idea of “checks and balances”, Trump now faces a new challenge: Shaping and defining autocracy in America.