Dreaming Of A Landslide

I know I'm tempting fate, but a landslide is what this country so desperately needs.

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on October 6, 2020. By Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images.

As so often these days, it’s the Onion FTW: “Trump Attempts To Pivot Narrative Away From Coronavirus Controversy By Molesting Child of Fallen Soldier.” And yet that headline barely exaggerates how wildly the Trump train has gone off the rails in these last weeks of this campaign. We’ve been watching in real time as a seriously sick and unstable president has ambushed and wrecked the first debate, presided over a super-spreader viral event at the White House itself, ranted on Twitter in ALL CAPS, while hopped up on steroids, called on his attorney general to arrest his political opponents, announced a “cure” (why the fuck not?), walked away from a desperately needed stimulus, canceled the next debate, and encouraged the country to let the coronavirus rip some more. 

The Mussolini photo-op, like a bad reality show finale, revealed a figure like Krusty the Clown, finished but still performing, gasping under inches of make-up, dead inside apart from regular swoons of rage and resentment, saluting the air.

I know it’s tempting fate to mention the idea, foolish to entertain it, mad to expect it, but the possibility of a landslide is now real. There are about ten points between the two candidates with three weeks to go, and the momentum is overwhelmingly with the challenger. Among the likeliest scenarios in 538’s poll of polls is now a Biden Electoral College victory of over 400. Texas is in play. The Harris-Pence debate changed nothing, but firmly established Harris’ credentials as a possible president.

And all this changes a huge amount. A Biden win would be a reprieve for the country; a Biden landslide would be an American miracle. 

Unlike anything else, it would cauterize the wound of Trump, preventing further infection. It would say to posterity: we made this hideous mistake, for understandable reasons, but after four years, we saw what we did and decisively changed course. It would turn the Trump era of nihilism, tribalism and cruelty into a cautionary tale of extremism, illiberalism and, above all, failure. It would suggest, especially if older whites come round some more, that the future need not be one of spiraling racial polarization, but of multiracial support for liberal democracy, its norms, and practices. What you learn from studying the decline and collapse of republics is that illiberal precedents become the new baseline if they are not instantly repudiated and punished. A landslide loss for Trump would mitigate, if not remove, the deep damage he has done. 

Think of the last two defeated one-term presidents. Jimmy Carter and especially George H W Bush don’t seem so terrible in retrospect, but Carter’s devastating loss to Reagan haunted the Democratic psyche for decades. Bush’s loss to Clinton, in turn, solidified the hard right’s control of the GOP from Gingrich through to Trump. These defeats can impress on the partisan psyche more deeply than Congressional reversals. And the simple story line — reality-defying showman gets hit by viral reality — now has the devastating symbol of the White House itself as a Covid19 hotspot worse than anywhere else in DC. It’s a crude morality tale that’s very hard to resist.

A landslide would also do something important for an incoming Biden administration: it would present a real opportunity to pursue a policy of national reconciliation around Covid19 recovery and economic stimulus. It would buttress Biden’s hopes for bipartisan support, even if of a limited kind, in a genuine emergency. His Gettysburg speech last week reiterated his opposition to left-tribalism, as did Harris’ surprising brag about support from Republicans and Independents in the debate. As David Brooks noticed this morning, this has been a very centrist campaign from Biden-Harris. Biden is offering himself, in Noah Millman’s rough analogy, as a kind of Adenauer figure, a bridge from past to future rooted in a stable center. Here’s the money quote from Gettysburg:

Instead of treating each other’s party as the opposition, we treat them as the enemy. This must end. We need to revive the spirit of bipartisanship in this country. A spirit of being able to work with one another. When I say that, and I’ve been saying it for two years now, I’m accused of being naive. I’m told, “Maybe that’s the way things used to work, Joe, but they can’t work that way anymore.” Well, I’m here to tell you they can, and they must if we’re going to get anything done.

And such an atmosphere could help usher in an immediate stimulus package which, as Matt Yglesias explains here, is close to oven-ready. Using Reconciliation to pass a series of redistributive measures alongside Covid19 relief — a new child allowance, green infrastructure investment, Obamacare expansion, phased-in tax hikes on the wealthy — side-steps the filibuster question (you don’t need 60 Senate votes to pass a Reconciliation bill) and sets Biden up for a big initial win, with the momentum that provides. 

A landslide matters because it gives Biden a much bigger mandate to govern from the center; it matters because it would add more non-leftist Democrats to the House, weakening the extreme left; it matters because if former Republicans and Independents give Biden a hefty margin of victory, Congressional Republicans might feel some small pressure, in the wake of their party’s collapse, to acquiesce for a while at least. That didn’t happen in 2009, of course. But the gyre has widened since then, and the full, terrifying consequences of a house so deeply divided are much clearer now. 

And a landslide is the only thing that can possibly, finally break the far right fever that has destroyed the GOP as a legitimate right-of-center political party, and turned it into a paranoid, media-driven, fact-free festival of fear and animus. It does not and cannot mean a return to the Bush era. The Republican move toward defending the unskilled, protecting working families, guarding entitlements, resisting urban wokeness, checking free trade absolutism, restraining overseas intervention, and curtailing mass immigration is one that need not be abandoned. Its time has come. But what the GOP has to grasp is that although Trump rose to power on these currents, and brilliantly exploited them, he also proved to be far too narcissistic and confrontational to harness them.

In fact, Trump severely hurt the cause for stronger immigration controls, because of his racial crassness, jaw-dropping cruelty, and terrible skills at deal-making. He has given the critical race theorists a living breathing caricature of right-racism, discrediting and demoralizing a liberal defense of color-blindness and equality. He has tainted a sane, necessary entrenchment of America’s global reach with support for dictatorships and contempt for our allies. He has worsened social and economic inequality, when a reformist conservatism would seek to “level up” a society wracked by hyper-global capitalism. A thumping defeat of the president, a serious shellacking, could help remove the tarnished toxicity of Trump from an agenda that, under younger leadership, could spawn a new, multicultural right-of-center majority. 

You can see the kindling for it: in the growing success of Latinos in America and their desire to join the mainstream as generations of immigrants have done before them; in the dogged defense of meritocracy and hard work among Asian-Americans, as they fight left-racism in the school and college system; in the concern about crime that separates many sane black voters from white, wealthy liberals; in the staggeringly successful integration of gays and lesbians, a community as diverse as any in America, who are open, if they are not shunned, to a dialogue that focuses on more than the “systemic oppression” of the past. 

I didn’t expect this sudden hopeful twist of fate. Who could? And I don’t mean to deny the depth of tribalism in our culture, the remaining acute dangers of the election season, the huge gambles an unhinged president could make to save his skin, or yet another melodrama in this exhausting story. But the psychotic unraveling of Trump for all to see, the overwhelming fact of his failure on the core issue of the election, Covid19, and the appalling chaos and madness of a campaign in free-fall have given us something quite rare these past few years. There is an inkling of possibility on the horizon. After the worst of all possible worlds, we have a taste of a better one. 

Know hope. 

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Ashfield, Massachusetts, 12 pm

The Achievement Of The Veep Debate

The one saving grace about the vice-presidential debate last Wednesday night, apart from the fly of course, was that I soon forgot about the race and gender of either candidate. Both Pence and Harris came off as political pros, lobbing arguments back and forth, dodging questions, inserting rehearsed lines, and while Pence was more aggressive with the moderator, Susan Page, and interrupted Harris more often, they both gave as good as they got. After the demoralizing and disturbing ordeal of the first debate, it was even a tonic for anyone still trying to believe we live in a functional democracy — where rationality still exists and race and gender can eventually cede to point and counter-point. 

And so it was depressing to see how many fell instantly into the illusion that somehow Harris was a victim in the debate she did so capably in. George Stephanopoulos brought up Pence’s alleged “mansplaining”. Others complained how Pence talked over her. Here’s a classic from a Washington Post editor: “The plexiglass was also an onstage reminder of the barriers that non-White women face when vying for political power in this country.” And critic Mark Harris: “One takeaway from tonight’s debate will be how many times a woman of color, always smiling, has to tell a white man ‘I’m speaking,’ in order to STILL get less time than he gets. It’s nauseating.”

In fact, Harris’ obviously rehearsed “I’m speaking” line — deployed thrice — was an ingenious way to deflect Pence’s interruptions in the free-form part of the debate. She smartly ignored some questions herself to clearly rebut untruths from Pence or to introduce her biography to viewers. She took time to defend her own record as attorney-general with the prickliness and passion of a proud pol, and the two spoke for roughly the same amount of time in the end, in stark contrast to the presidential debate last week between two, yes, men

Look, I see the emotional power of a historic first — a non-white woman as potential president. It matters. Any way in which more people from more backgrounds see themselves fully reflected in our democracy is a wonderful thing. But why not see the even greater emotional power of these distinctions of race and sex slowly ceasing to matter in front of our eyes?

It matters that after centuries of female subjugation and the legacy of slavery and segregation that a non-white woman is taking names and kicking ass in a vice-presidential debate. But the dwelling on it, the parsing of every political moment through this racial and gender lens, is an ideological choice. 

And it can be a distraction from the real American achievement on stage last Wednesday: the unique personal histories of both Harris and Pence. One is the child of two immigrant academics (from Jamaica and India) who went on, with astonishing confidence, to become attorney-general of California. The other is the grandson of an Irish immigrant, whose father ran gas stations in the MidWest, and who ended up in talk radio, Congress and then the governor’s mansion in Indiana. Harris grew up spiritually in both the African-American church and a Hindu temple. Pence was an Irish-Catholic who became a born-again evangelical Christian. Harris is gregarious, a little edgy, her expressions in constant motion. Pence is reserved, near-pickled in formality, smooth and robotic. Neither is quite my cup of tea. But I’m psyched to live in a country that can produce the two of them.

What makes America unique is not a system of endless oppressions based on identity, but this extraordinary range of quirky but powerful, exuberant individuality. Try finding a major political debate in another major democracy with two more radically different candidates as individuals. Yes, complicated variations on race and sex are absolutely part of this. But they are the broad background brush strokes, the mere start of a story that describes an American. You have to add generation and region, age and class and immigrant status, religion and education, dumb luck and deep ambition, and a thousand other very American nuances, to get a sense of the kaleidoscope of individuality this vast and unintelligible country creates. It’s what so many of us came here for.

I wish more could see the preciousness of this achievement, and lament the identitarian tribalism that traduces and undermines it. It shone on Wednesday night, and so many couldn’t see.

Kavala, Greece, 5.25 pm

Dissents Of The Week

A reader pushes against my critique of Biden’s debate performance:

You have many legitimate criticisms of Biden, particularly his embrace of some of the wokeisms, but I don’t think his inability to out-yell Trump in the debate is one of them. That’s like telling a looted store owner in Portland they should have been able to defend their shop from Antifa. What was really needed was for the police (or the moderator in a debate) to maintain order.

I thought Biden stood up for himself without descending into Trump’s cesspool — a hard line to walk. In a normal debate, telling another candidate (especially the President) to shut up would have been a huge breach in decorum. But in this case, it was just the right touch.

I was worried for a bit that Biden was being dominated, but it obviously backfired. Another reader thinks the low expectations that Trump supporters set for Biden helped him:

Like many of us, I went in holding my breath for a senile Biden disaster. Indeed, Trump and his people had prepared you for that — until they realized what a terrible strategy that was.

Another reader criticizes me for harping on the age issue:

Yes, older people are slower with a quip. We often struggle to remember a name, or call to mind a book, or a theory. But especially in Biden’s case, we have been tempered by experience. Hard-earned wisdom is much more important in a leader than being quick with a put-down or a bon mot. Especially now.

It’s a mixed bag with both experience and inevitable slowing down - and I have no problem with older leaders in general. But America is in danger of becoming a gerontocracy at the very top. After chastising me for calling Hunter Biden’s corruption “sleaze”, a reader thinks his cocaine problem actually provided a good moment for his father: “To me, admitting one of your kids had a drug problem, worked hard to get past it, and that you’re super proud of him is something that can resonate with many Americans, especially those touched by the opioid crisis.” I agree. In fact, I think Trump’s dismissal of addiction hurt him badly. One more reader suggests that the various tragedies that have befallen Joe Biden make him the perfect candidate for this moment in history:

I think Biden did something far more important than explain policy proposals. He embodied, on national television and at a near-spiritual level, the very aura of 2020. We are all people who have been beaten over the head, time and time again this year, by events that will not be controlled. When Biden said, “Will you shut up, man?” he was saying something so many feel in our bones — not just about Trump, but about the incessant horrors we have been facing for months.

Yes, Joe Biden muddled through that debate. But he stood there, facing our orange buffoon, as our tribune. Just as he has with his mask-wearing and his social-distancing, Biden modeled for a weary nation how to suffer the insufferable. If he can do it, we can too — yes we can.

Cool Ad Watch

(Hat tip: The Curious Brain)

Yglesias Award Nominee

“Love the guy. Gunna vote for him. He’s not helping.

Be nice if he could calm down some. People would like that. He promised he could be a normal president. The China Flu would have been a good time to prove he could be a normal president. Sure be nice if he’d stop flubbing white supremacy questions. Seriously, how nice would that be?” John Nolte, Breitbart.com.

Quote For The Week

Werner Herzog on the extreme lengths he’ll go to avoid speaking French:

(Hat tip: Séamas It Ever Was)

Mental Health Break

Just when you think time-lapses are tired, this one from Singapore smacks you across the face:

In The ‘Stacks

The latest from other Substack peeps:

  • What’s one thing we haven’t heard about from this president over the past week? Hydroxychloroquine.

  • Eli Sanders — the Pulitzer-winning journalist who just left The Stranger to strike out on his own — is very skeptical that Facebook can effectively execute its plan to ban all new political ads during the last week of the election.

  • Christina Clark shows how the documentary industry in Canada is being destroyed by woke ideology — “predetermined narratives to please public broadcasters who don’t actually have to satisfy their audience to earn revenue.”

  • Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor, found herself at a veterinary ER on Sunday, the day of the feast of St. Francis — the patron saint of animals. Her little dog had pneumonia, and her tweet, “Veterinary emergency rooms should have chaplains,” prompted many prayers and memories. (If you were a Daily Dish reader, you probably remember our popular thread on the last lessons we learn from our pets.)

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The View From Your Window Contest

So, where do you think it’s located? (Bonus points for guessing the year the photo was taken.) Email your entry to contest@andrewsullivan.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject heading, along with any details about the location within the body of the email. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two TWD subscriptions. Happy sleuthing!

We’ve decided to spare you two separate emails on Friday — for the window contest and the main Dish — and instead give you a link here for the results for last week’s window, located on our archive page, where previous contests can also be found.

As always, keep those dissents coming, along with anything else you want to add to the Dish mix, including a view from your own window: dish@andrewsullivan.com. (Please try to be concise with the dissents; the format of The Weekly Dish is much more constrained than The Daily Dish, so it’s harder to include your smart commentary when it stretches into many paragraphs.)

See you next Friday.