the national circus

Frank Rich: Tuesday’s Worst-Case Scenario

Four years ago. Photo: Don Emmert/AFP via 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, Election Night nightmare scenarios, Trump’s stable approval rating in the face of COVID-19, and the relevance of the Wall Street Journal.

We’re now less than a week from Election Day, and even the experts seem to be trying to prepare for every sort of surprise. What has been keeping you up at night as we wait for the counting to begin?

Election Eve insomniacs start with a given: Trump will do everything possible to steal an election that by every empirical sign he cannot win. So when you look at all the anti-democratic options he and his party are considering — a list so large it has spawned a voluminous journalistic literature of horrific what-if scenarios — you do have to prioritize your anxieties.

Back in August, Jeremy Stahl at Slate provided a handy “10 Scariest Election Scenarios, Ranked.” No. 1 was “USPS Sabotage.” A lot of shit has gone down since then. My No. 1 fear in the cold light of Halloween is any attempt at voter suppression involving violence. The Proud Boys are standing back and standing by. So are fellow travelers of the Wolverine Watchmen, who have been charged with the attempted kidnapping of Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer. So are self-styled militia like the Kenosha Guard, whose Facebook call to arms appeared just before 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse shot and killed two protesters, with the tacit support of the president. More than 15 million guns have been purchased by Americans from March through September in 2020 — a 91 percent increase from the same period in 2019. These arms can be brandished at many polling places to intimidate Americans, especially the people of color whose votes the GOP wants to suppress. They can be used to threaten local officials charged with counting votes. Gun-toting domestic terrorists can steal or destroy ballot drop boxes. They can incite conflicts that will suppress and block turnout in cities. And all you have to do is move your little finger … and you can change the world,” as John Wilkes Booth sings in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins.

Among my other 3 a.m. waking nightmares this week, the runner-up would be how Trump can once again corrupt and outright violate American law to try to get his way. This has been most succinctly crystallized by Garrett Graff in Politico: “Barr’s Justice Department might seize on real, over-hyped, or imagined questions of fraud or voting irregularities to publicly launch investigations that would help Trump build a narrative of an illegitimate election.” If any of this reaches the courts, we can predict the endgame. In his instantaneously notorious opinion in a Wisconsin voting case this week, Brett Kavanaugh endorsed Trump’s bogus claim that any ballots counted after November 3 are likely to be compromised by fraud. We’ve reached the point where the last hope for stopping a right-wing coup in the Supreme Court may be Chief Justice John Roberts. That’s no hope at all, given that it was Roberts who in 2013 led the majority to castrate the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in Shelby County v. Holder, the Dred Scott decision of our day.

To keep our sanity, meanwhile, we are entitled to some legitimate hopes even if we don’t want to say them out loud for all the usual superstitious reasons. The polls are likely sounder than in 2016, when they were not as inaccurate (as FiveThirtyEight keeps reminding us) as memory has it. There could be a Biden landslide. For all Trump’s calls to cut off vote counting at midnight on Election Night in such congenitally slow-counting battlegrounds as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, he doesn’t seem to have considered the prospect that he might be behind in either one of them by that extralegal deadline. If he earlier loses Florida, Arizona and/or North Carolina, which tend to count fast, it would be fun to watch him flip-flop and beg desperately to extend the count for weeks in western Pennsylvania. Such ironic humiliations — along with the defeats of the most hypocritical of Vichy Republicans, Susan Collins and Lindsey Graham — may well prove pipe dreams, but we’re still entitled to fantasize a little.

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes noted this week that since the start of COVID-19, Donald Trump’s approval rating has barely moved — if anything, it’s gone up by a couple points — despite more than 225,000 dead Americans. What accounts for its stability?

Trump voters are so loyal that they are happy to give their lives to the cause. Their festive attendance at his superspreader rallies recalls photos of the Jonestown death cult. They dutifully follow their leader’s directive to vote in person even as the pandemic spikes in their own communities. The reductio ad absurdum of this loyalty was visible this week when hundreds turned out at a Trump rally at Eppley Airfield in Omaha — where Trump was in desperate pursuit of a single electoral vote — and found themselves abandoned in the cold and snow when shuttle buses didn’t materialize as promised to return them to satellite parking lots some three miles away. About 30 attendees needed medical attention. Some were carted by ambulance to hospitals where they could then spread any coronavirus contracted at the rally to innocent patients and medical workers. A Trump campaign spokeswoman, Samantha Zager, blamed “local road closures” for this calamity, adding that it’s the campaign’s aim to provide “the best guest experience.” Guest experience! You come for the racism and you stay to get sick.

Don’t overthink this base’s undying fealty. Trump’s loyal troops are the direct descendants of the sizable number of Americans who might have given George Wallace a real shot at the Democratic nomination in 1972 if he had not been sidelined by an assassination attempt after he outdrew his rivals Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern in the early primaries. They are the descendants of those Americans who trusted Richard Nixon until he fled the White House in a helicopter (and remained faithful in sizable numbers thereafter). The Trump base is not going away when Trump does. The likes of Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley are already positioning to claim it.

According to an internal report obtained by BuzzFeed News, the Wall Street Journal is focusing on its largely white, male long-term subscribers — avoiding racial issues, holding stories for print — at the cost of its own growth. Will the Journal be able to maintain its relevance?

This internal report is worth a read: It’s as much a portrait of the more affluent components of Trump’s base as of a newspaper. And despite the effort by the Journal’s editor Matt Murray to dismiss it as “a months-old draft that contains outdated and inaccurate information,” it actually only dates back to three months ago and appears to be a slickly designed, finished document. What it says is that a journalistic product with a mostly middle-aged, white male audience, dedicated to a print edition and fearful of covering racial issues (let alone attracting a diverse readership), is demographically doomed over time. Nothing will be done about it, of course, as long as the 89-year-old Rupert Murdoch, a print sentimentalist, is in charge. Once he’s gone, one can imagine that his heirs, who may care more about preserving capital than an editorial page’s hard-right ideological purity, will have other plans for the Journal, for now still a valuable property, and the New York Post, a money-sucking monument to Murdoch’s vanity.

Frank Rich: Tuesday’s Worst-Case Scenario