interesting times

Coronavirus Will Be the Real Swing Voter in November

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If you want to see the appeal of Joe Biden, I urge you to watch a recent appearance on ABC News. It was tweeted out, in a doozy of a self-own, by Sean Hannity no less. Grandpa Joe is in front of a window that looks out on a calming, summery garden. His speech just a little bit slurry, he says the following to the camera: “All the talk in the last 20 years about driving down the rationale for unions, all of a sudden, this phrase ‘Everybody’s been woked,’ well, guess what, the rest of the working-class people in America have been awakened and realized, ‘Whoa, why, because I work at a fast-food restaurant that I have to sign an agreement that I will not compete, a non-compete agreement, that I will not go across town to another fast-food restaurant to try to get a raise?’ What in the hell is that about?”

He somewhat inartfully makes a good point about the weak leverage workers have at the bottom end of the income scale, he speaks in simple language, and, rather wonderfully, he proves he doesn’t really have a very good idea what being “woke” is. He appears completely normal, unthreatening and reassuring. After a bumpy start, he sailed cleanly through to his party’s nomination and has been able to conserve his energy by avoiding the grueling rigors of a conventional pre-COVID-19 campaign. His necessarily “front porch” style campaign also elides his weaknesses: His proneness to spontaneous blather and his advanced age.

And the decision largely to get out of the way of Trump’s constant bouts of self-destruction has so far seemed a smart one. Trump is currently losing this election, and there’s no reason to intervene in any major way. And if the election really is a referendum on Trump, then it is very hard to see how the president can win at this point. The only word for this administration’s handling of a dangerous epidemic is catastrophic. The first wave is becoming a tsunami in the South and Southwest. Day after day, the country is setting records for daily cases of COVID-19. Dr. Anthony Fauci said last month: “I can’t make an accurate prediction, but it’s going to be very disturbing. We are now having 40-plus-thousand new cases a day. I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 a day if this does not turn around, and so I am very concerned.” The curve looks damn close to exponential to me.

The economy, already cratered, could very well falter again in the next few months if new shutdowns are forced upon us, and even if they’re not, workers and consumers are simply not going to have sufficient confidence to rebound when the virus still lurks. The comparison with Europe is devastating. Even those countries that have done poorly, like the U.K., now look like success stories compared with America. The only mildly good news is that the death rates have not yet reflected the soaring infection rate. As Derek Thompson explains here, the average daily deaths are down 75 percent from their April peak. There are a bunch of possible reasons for this — a lag in reporting deaths, a younger, healthier pool of people being tested, more testing in general — but it remains a bit of a mystery. All one can say politically is that a new jump in death rates would render Trump’s reelection even less likely than today. How does he win an election with a 200,000 death record looming?

So what could go wrong? The press went apeshit over Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech, decrying its divisiveness, bigotry, base-pandering, and so on. But when I read the transcript (forgive me, but my mental health couldn’t endure actually watching the speech itself), I could see what he was trying to do, and it isn’t strategically crazy. In the surge of emotion after the murder of George Floyd, rhetoric on the left kept upping the ante. Quite quickly, we went from debating the existence of Confederate statues, or renaming military bases that had the names of Confederates on them, to mob-led attacks on statues that were actually of the Founding Fathers.

The New York Times published an op-ed calling for dismantling the Jefferson Memorial. The TimesCharles Blow wrote a column called “Yes, Even George Washington.” Money quote: “Some people who are opposed to taking down monuments ask, ‘If we start, where will we stop?’ It might begin with Confederate generals, but all slave owners could easily become targets. Even George Washington himself. To that I say: Abso-fricking-lutely.” In London, Churchill’s statue was defaced by Black Lives Matter protests, who daubed the word “racist” on the plinth. (Yes: Churchill was a racist. But, as the joke goes, wait till they find out about the guy he was at war with.)

I don’t believe for a second that this loathing of the Founders is felt much in the broader Democratic Party — but that doesn’t mean some protesters and media figures haven’t already given the GOP plenty of ammunition. And although the public has been generally supportive of police reforms, there’s always a point at which attacks on law enforcement can backfire. When violent crime is surging in New York and Chicago, “Defund the Police” can seem perverse — especially when African-Americans, including several toddlers, are overwhelmingly the victims. On immigration, Biden is in favor of a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants and might have a hard time answering a question that might well come up at some point: What is your definition of a woman? The culture war is always there, and Trump is an expert in igniting it.

But a few things defuse this, I think. One is that the electorate of 2020 is nothing like that of, say, 1968 — and these core law-and-order and cultural appeals have less traction than they once did. Trump’s main achievement in immigration policy has been to permanently stigmatize the whole idea of lowering immigration to help the working poor, thus actually moving the U.S. to the left on the issue. Voters are also a bit more sophisticated than they may have been: Polling suggests that many Americans understand, for example, that “Defund the Police” is shorthand for reforming them.

Another reason Biden might avoid a culture-war election is that every issue has now been subsumed into or dwarfed by the pandemic and unemployment crisis and a fight over trans rights, say, seems peripheral in contrast. And then there’s simply Joe Biden’s affect, record, and faith. It’s hard to see this lifelong Catholic really conniving with neo-Marxist atheists pledging to “dismantle whiteness.” He’s clearly not in favor of allowing crime to run rampant in the streets. He has made a critical distinction between Confederate statues and those of the Founders, and he has insisted that any removal of monuments be done peacefully and democratically. It’s just hard to paint him as a stalking horse for Ilhan Omar, as some on the right hope to. It doesn’t work.

Because of this, I suspect, the veep choice will be more important than usual. No men need apply, Biden has told us. No white women either, perhaps, if Amy Klobuchar’s withdrawal from consideration turns out to be dispositive. And the nonwhite woman who will therefore be nominated will have yet another burden: Because of Biden’s advanced age, and the likelihood of his serving only one term, she will be deemed the future leader-in-waiting. The GOP media-industrial-complex will define her pretty quickly as the person who is really in charge and try to run against her, rather than against Biden. I hope Biden is figuring out how to counter this obvious strategy and doesn’t walk into a trap. Kamala Harris? Susan Rice? To be honest, I don’t know. But if the Trump narrative is that Biden’s surface centrism disguises a resurgent far left, and that he’ll be a puppet of the woke, the veep choice may matter more than it otherwise might.

Trump’s last gambit will be the debates. Tom Friedman is obviously a bit worried that Biden might stumble in a mud fight with the one-man clown car he’ll be up against. And I see his point. I worry in particular about the last half-hour if the tiredness creeps in, and Biden’s dander gets up, and there’s a viral moment when Biden seems out of it. This dates me, but I remember watching the 1984 debates between Mondale and Reagan and feeling the same way: Would the Gipper blow it because he was obviously beginning a slight cognitive decline? It was touch-and-go. I went to a Reagan rally in Boston that autumn when he promised, as I recall, that he would raise our taxes. We knew he meant the opposite and cheered anyway, and he corrected himself. (He later, as I recall, and the Crimson reported, made fun of his gaffe by telling some protesters that, in their case, he would raise their taxes.) But I worried that many Americans would not be so forgiving of his fuzziness. It turns out, of course, that they were.

But the virus will be the real swing voter in this election. The sheer scale of the health crisis, and its current trajectory, obviously sweeps every other issue before it, as it should. It sure hasn’t ended the culture war, which at the elite level is arguably more intense than ever, but it is in the driving seat of the economy, and that is almost always dispositive. If we enter November closing in on 200,000 deaths, with the toll rising, and in a virally caused economic slump, I just can’t see how any incumbent can get elected, and I’m usually pretty good at seeing the worst.

The only way Trump can win is to ignore the pandemic or lie about it. He is trying both right now, and neither tactic is working. And as it becomes clearer and clearer that the U.S. is now a disgraced and humiliated outlier in the developed world in its tackling of the virus, Trump’s ultimate responsibility for this dismal response and thereby our struggling economy will be harder and harder to deny. We may even be approaching the moment when the cult finally cracks. Which suggests to me a Biden and Democratic landslide is no longer out of the question.

The world is laughing at us, when they are not crying at what we have become. And if that isn’t the Trumpiest reason to vote against Trump, I don’t know what could be.

The Wisdom of the Roberts Court

We don’t have a functioning president, nor do we have a functioning Congress. In lieu of both, the Supreme Court has had to step in to settle what our deadlocked politics cannot decide. And as the final rulings are made public this year, I’d say the Supreme Court is doing a pretty decent job. Yesterday, the Court made a strong 7-2 statement about the limits of presidential power — effectively scoffing at Trump’s ludicrous claim to operate as a de facto monarch while in office, immune both to legitimate prosecutorial and congressional scrutiny. Trump v. Mazars found that Trump’s taxes records were not protected from disclosure to Congress, while Trump v. Vance determined Trump does not have absolute immunity from state criminal prosecutions.

Trump, in other words, may well have to face justice at some point, and his absurd constitutional claims have been struck down. This is the core salience of these rulings, it seems to me. Yes, there are caveats and more opportunities for Trump to challenge the Manhattan district attorney’s subpoena, for example, and to delay disclosure of his taxes till after the election. But the ruling is more than welcome. Given the rank failure of impeachment, in fact it’s a mighty relief. The rulings mean my previous fears about Trump’s ability to walk all over the Constitution, and set damning precedents, have been allayed for the most part, as long as he is not reelected. He sure tried to bend the system to his personal interest and will, and his abuse of the Department of Justice is as manifest as his personal corruption. Terrible precedents have been set, and they may well shape the future of our liberal democracy — but only if Trump is rewarded with a second term. But the system in this case worked — and the support of GOP-nominated justices helps cement the precedent. Huzzah!

The downside, of course, is that sending the tax-returns case back to the lower courts means that Trump evades accountability on this matter for the duration of his first term. If a president lies, prevaricates, and sues, we now understand, he can prolong the process so that he keeps accountability at bay until after his possible reelection. That’s the problem here. By his own reckoning, Trump just won. He has spent his life just one step ahead of the law (with a few settlements along the way), and he’s done it again. But at least he hasn’t set a precedent that would have gutted our constitutional balance in perpetuity.

And when you look at the gay and transgender rights cases together with the religious-freedom cases, you can see another compromise the Court is trying to reach. It’s a compromise made legislatively impossible by our polarization — the right will not concede anything on gay and transgender rights, hobbled by conservative Evangelicals and reactionary Catholics, and the left has turned hostile to religious freedom in its proposed Equality Act. But the live-and-let-live formula is still the only way forward, if we actually want to live together in toleration, and the Court has helped. It has now granted gays and lesbians and transgender people the key civil rights they have long sought, and it has bestowed on religious institutions key civil protections.

Yes, this means that almost all employers can be legally punished if they discriminate against gay, lesbian, and trans people, but employers whose business is wrapped up in their religious values — in Catholic hospitals and schools, for example — can be exempted from these punishments if they are merely seeking to retain the religious integrity of their enterprises. I really can’t see the problem with that. As someone who is both gay and religious, I can see the merits of both. As a citizen, I hope I can see the legitimate concerns of both as well.

The fact that Trump’s own appointees ruled against him in the cases about presidential power is also worth absorbing and admiring. The left’s caricature of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh has been muddied by their actual records so far. Kavanaugh has not exactly behaved as if he is a bitter partisan on these questions. Gorsuch stuck to his legal literalism even when it conflicted with his ideological preferences. And at the same time, the large majority of cases in which the chief justice, John Roberts, has been on the winning side is impressive. He is guiding a conservative Court — not a Republican one.

And the other message from this is, I think, to religious conservatives: Please calm down. Yes, the culture is against you and winning the debates you haven’t yet figured out how to engage. But you are not doomed or persecuted by the state. You have largely won the judiciary over to a strong defense of religious freedom. Your side keeps winning again and again in court. I can see how woke intolerance is real, but you have one branch of government still firmly on your side — and for the foreseeable future. Quit your whining about being persecuted, and figure out how to convey the truths of Christianity in a way that can win over the deeply troubled souls of your fellow Americans. There’s a spiritual void out there waiting to be filled, dangerous cults are filling it, and you’re wallowing in self-pity. Snap out of it.

A Serene Manner

A small note of hope. The fiery destruction of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris was one of the more searing occasions for acute depression these past couple of years, and it was not without some stiff competition. Yes, it’s just a building and not a human being. But it is also far more than a building. It’s a reminder to me of what the faith of Europe was once capable of; of a civilization proud, rather than ashamed, of itself; and of a lost world when beauty itself was a virtue and connected to a view of the whole of creation that made sense and provided hope and meaning.

Much of that has disappeared, of course, which is why the physical remains of a previous civilization are so precious. And so I was terrified, to be honest, that our own aesthetically squalid and spiritually devoid ideas of what architecture should be might ruin the rebuilding. And when you take a look at some of the original wackier proposed designs — you can see models for seven modernist monstrosities in this Architectural Digest compilation here — you can see what I was worried about. One tops the cathedral with a greenhouse; another with a swimming pool. One hideous version has the entire roof and new spire made out of stained glass; another re-creates a ball of fire in metallic form. Norman Foster’s design turned the place into a huge greenhouse, or as one Twitter wag put it, like “a conference center in Essex.” This was all because Macron himself hinted that he preferred a “contemporary architectural gesture.”

Mercifully, the chief architect put in charge of the restoration, Philippe Villeneuve, had some strong feelings on the matter. He wanted the original restored in its entirety, period. When I say “strong feelings,” I refer to the following statement he made on television last year: “I will restore it identically, and it will be me, or they will build a modern spire, and it won’t be me.” When President Macron’s somewhat more ambitious adviser on the project, General Jean-Louis Georgelin, testified on the matter to the National Assembly’s cultural-affairs committee, sparks flew when Villeneuve’s statement was brought up. Georgelin said: “The matter will be solved in a serene manner, and on time. I have already explained to the chief architect that he should just shut his big mouth, and I will do it again.” “On time” meant in time for Paris’s hosting of the Olympics in 2024.

And since that time is fast running out, and designing, approving and building a modernist tower would take too long, we found out yesterday that the restoration will be identical after all. It will copy the 19th-century Gothic design exactly. The contemporary gesture that Macron desired will instead be a giant Victorian single finger to all the modernists who would have destroyed it. And who knows how many generations in the future will be thankful.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: Coronavirus Will Be the Real Swing Voter