the national circus

Frank Rich: John Roberts’s Wisconsin Shame

It didn’t have to be this way. Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, the Republican crusade against voting by mail, and what Bernie Sanders’s exit means for the Democratic Party.

After efforts by Wisconsin governor Tony Evers to expand voting by mail or delay his state’s primary were rejected by Republican leaders in the state legislature, and then by conservative majorities in the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court, voters on Tuesday were faced with a choice, as the Times frames it, “between their health and their civic duty.” What does the success of the Republican-driven strategy against vote by mail mean for November?

Before we get to November, there may be a point, possibly within the next month, when we’ll start to learn how many of those who voted in Wisconsin this week were struck by the coronavirus. By Wisconsin, I really mean Milwaukee, the state’s largest city and the home to most of its African-American population. That’s where it was impossible to enforce social distancing because the usual 180 polling places were reduced to five — to serve a population of some 600,000. Any casualties that ensue will be the culmination of Chief Justice John Roberts’s career-long campaign to thwart voting rights for America’s minority population. Black Americans risked and sometimes lost their lives for the right to vote during the Jim Crow era. Now, 55 years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, they are being forced to do so again. Those horrific images of medically endangered Wisconsin voters waiting hours to cast a ballot are today’s corollary to those old photos of rabid police attack dogs threatening blacks who attempted to secure their civil rights in the 1960s.

The hasty decision of the Roberts court that got us here is just the latest in his string of assaults on black voters. In his majority opinion in Shelby County v. Holder, the 2013 decision that castrated the 1965 voting rights law, he explained that its full protections were no longer needed because the “country has changed.” Three years later, the country would make a mockery of his jurisprudence by electing a white nationalist president. Since then, state and local laws attempting to suppress and purge minority voters by imposing obstacles between them and the voting booth have been nonstop. Now we have a killer virus, in league with the Roberts and Trump–endorsed efforts to suppress voting by mail, that literally compels voters who choose liberty to risk potential death. If this attack on voting rights is not thwarted during a pandemic, November will not only bring an illegitimate election but national divisions that will make the current civic fractures look relatively serene.

The injustices crystallized by those images from Wisconsin do not merely pertain to the right to vote. This travesty took place against the backdrop of new statistics showing that the coronavirus is disproportionately killing African Americans. In part, that’s because many black Americans — like many working-class Hispanics and whites — are on the front lines of this war, facing slaughter as they sacrifice at the battle stations of the health-care system and other essential services, from public transportation to the food chain. America’s class inequities, perilously inflamed before COVID-19 invaded, are now going to show up in the casualty count.

The divide between the haves and have-nots is everywhere. Start with John Roberts. He presided over the decision that okayed the lethal Wisconsin vote while working in quite different circumstances from those that were visited on voters on line in Milwaukee. The Supreme Court has shut down its courtroom and oral arguments, convening by teleconference so its justices can enjoy the safety protections that the court’s 5-4 decision denied to those standing in line to vote on Tuesday. This double standard, in various forms, is ubiquitous at every pressure point in society, starting with the rollout of the $2.2 trillion pandemic aid package passed by Congress. By putting his own cronies in place of the non-partisan watchdogs who were to police this stimulus, Trump has insured that his family and other favored grifters will steal every dollar they can before the remaining funds trickle down to small-business owners and the vast ranks of the unemployed.

If you want a particularly gaudy glimpse of how nothing has changed at the top in this time of crisis, take a look at Trump’s (tax) haven of Palm Beach. It’s there, you may recall, that in 2008 the sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein was given merely a tap on the wrist for his crimes, in a sweetheart deal negotiated by those fine defense attorneys Alan Dershowitz and Kenneth Starr and approved by a federal prosecutor, Alex Acosta, who would later serve as Trump’s secretary of Labor. Cut to Palm Beach, 2020, and you’ll find that the hedge-fund billionaire Ken Griffin was allowed to import employees from New York and open a trading floor at the local Four Seasons hotel even at a time when the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, was threatening to target New Yorkers entering the state and Palm Beach County was shutting down all the neighboring hotels. According to the Miami Herald, two Palm Beach police cars were even posted outside as guards. Of course this absolutely had nothing to do with the fact Griffin was the biggest PAC contributor (to the tune of $5.75 million) to DeSantis’s 2018 election campaign — any more than, say, the John Roberts court’s Wisconsin ruling was in any way intended to disenfranchise the most vulnerable voters in Milwaukee.

Bernie Sanders has announced that he is dropping out of the presidential race — ending his campaign, he says, but not his movement. Will Joe Biden be able to unify the Democratic Party behind him?

Trump is sure hoping that he won’t — and of course, Biden may well be hard-pressed to win over the younger Sanders voters in particular. (Then again, Sanders himself had trouble getting them to turn out in force during the primary.) But it is ridiculous to game out now what will happen in November. Though Trump and his trolls keep claiming how thrilled they are to be running against a drooling and incoherent Sleepy Joe and what they see as a divided party, they had been hoping against hope for Bernie. For all the smears they will wield against Biden, those branding him a socialist may be the least likely to stick.

The truth is that there is some alarm in the Trump camp over the resolution of the Democratic primary. The president’s brief approval-rating bump is over. Politico reports that six polls released yesterday showed Trump below 50 percent, back in his usual 40 to 45 percent range. Today Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal editorial page, almost always in Trump’s camp, sounded an unexpectedly alarmed note, calling for a radical curtailment of the daily White House briefings because they are not merely proving useless in terms of disseminating accurate information, but are also turning off voters by focusing on Trump’s brawls with the press and his other perceived enemies. Perhaps it dawned on Murdoch, who knows nothing if not the media, that for all the discussion about Biden’s inability to break through the media cacophony right now from his Wayne’s World bunker in Delaware, there is also a political danger in months of Trump’s clownish daily overexposure.

In any case, it’s hard to dismiss the Journal’s bottom line: “This election is now about one issue: How well the public thinks the president has done in defeating the virus and restarting the economy.” And it adds that the public “will judge Mr. Trump by the results, not by how well he says he did.” The obvious templates include not just 1932, when voters turned out Herbert Hoover for FDR, but 1980, when the incumbent Jimmy Carter was defeated by a lackluster economy and the Iranian hostage crisis, and 1992, when a poor economy felled Bush 41.

But those historical antecedents may not be guides in an election year in which Republicans will step up efforts to prevent those most vulnerable to the coronavirus and its economic fallout from going to the polls. Not to mention an election year that may have to scrap the national political conventions, do without rallies of any kind, indeed without “the campaign trail” as we have always known it. If there’s anything all Americans can agree on right now it’s that we’ve never seen anything like this before, and no one knows where it is taking us.

Frank Rich: John Roberts’s Wisconsin Shame