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The Atlantic
Finally, an Encouraging Week in the Pandemic
Editor’s Note: The Atlantic is making vital coverage of the coronavirus available to all readers. Find the collection here. In last week’s update, we wrote that the United States had reported the worst weekly case, hospitalization, and death numbers of the pandemic. At the time, it wasn’t clear what proportion of the case and death increases were related to postholiday reporting backlogs. This week brings some clarity: The backlogs appear to be largely behind us, and the underlying trends are moving in the right direction for most of the country. Even for the states experiencing the worst outbreaks, we are seeing early indications that the rates of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are easing, though some areas are still reporting dangerously high case and hospitalization levels and wrenching death rates.Weekly new cases for the seven-day period beginning Thursday, January 14 were down 20 percent, the lowest number of new cases we’ve seen for a non-holiday week since mid-November. As important, after 16 straight weeks of increases, average weekly hospitalizations dropped 4 percent this week—a modest improvement, but a good sign. Reported tests reached a new weekly high, edging out last week by 1 percent—though the high test numbers this week probably reflect the fact that the testing backlog is still catching up.States reported 21,301 deaths this week, the second-highest number of deaths of the pandemic to date. Yesterday, states reported 4,409 COVID-19 deaths, the highest single-day number of deaths on record. For comparison, in the week of September 24, 2020, states reported fewer than 5,000 deaths for the entire week.Because of the way states report data for nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, and other long-term-care facilities, our figures for COVID-19 in these facilities refer to the week beginning January 8. These numbers remain very alarming: For the second week in a row, LTC facilities reported the highest death toll since we started gathering long-term-care data last May—more than 7,000 residents and staff. The number of known deaths reported this week may include backlogged figures from the winter holidays, and they also got a boost from a change in Iowa’s death reporting that increased that state’s reported figure.There is also tentative good news from long-term-care facilities: The number of new cases was down by about 15,000 this week. It remains unclear whether case data have fully normalized from the reporting delays associated with the holidays, but next week’s data should confirm whether this case drop indicates a real improvement in the situation in long-term-care facilities.Regional hospitalization and case dataA closer look at current COVID-19 hospitalizations offers good news for most U.S. regions. Hospitalizations remain very high but are declining modestly across the South and the West and continuing their substantial declines in the Midwest. In the Northeast, hospitalizations have plateaued.At the state level, hospitalization data remain encouraging: Hospitalizations are declining or flat in every state but New York.Cases, too, are falling in every region. In the Midwest’s “West North Central” division—which includes many of the states that had the worst per capita outbreaks late last fall—cases have very nearly returned to the levels reported at the beginning of October 2020.A breakdown of weekly reported COVID-19 deaths by census regions and subregional divisions shows that although deaths are falling modestly across the country, they remain painfully high in most regions.States we’re watchingCase and hospitalization declines are unquestionable good news. At the same time, in the country’s worst hot spots, states are still reporting very high numbers.Arizona’s case count has fallen from last week, but per capita, the state’s case numbers remain the highest in the country at a seven-day average of 958 per million. The state is now nearly tied with South Carolina, where cases are rising rapidly. In Yuma County, Arizona, home to many of the state’s seasonal laborers, the Associated Press reports that the county has a positivity rate of 20 percent, compared with 14 percent for the state as a whole, and county public-health authorities said last week that they had run out of vaccines.Hospitalizations lag behind cases, and Arizona’s per capita hospitalizations remain by far the highest in the country. Arizona’s hospitals are under severe strain, with 92 percent of all ICU and inpatient beds occupied as of Wednesday, accompanied by a surge in pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations. Nursing homes are also experiencing an increasing number of cases and deaths, and Fox 10 Phoenix reports that 40 percent of Arizona COVID-19 deaths have come from nursing facilities. Despite this, delays in the distribution of vaccines mean that many facilities (and patients) are still waiting for the first doses.The disparity in COVID-19 outcomes for Indigenous people in Arizona has been pronounced throughout the pandemic. At least one in nine people identified as “American Indians or Alaska Natives” has tested positive for COVID-19 in the state, while one in 16 white residents has. Indigenous people in Arizona are more than twice as likely to have been hospitalized with COVID-19 as their white neighbors, and more than 2.5 times as likely to have died.California, which reported the third-highest number of new cases per capita this week, is finally seeing the number of new cases reported each day begin to decline. Even the state’s Southern California epicenter is seeing modest but important improvements: Following weeks of record-breaking cases and hospitalizations in Los Angeles County, the number of new cases per day is down 17.6 percent from two weeks ago, and hospitalizations are down 10 percent over that same time period, according to data from the Los Angeles Times. County officials warn that the virus is still surging in the area, and that hospitalizations remain at dangerously high levels, with ICU numbers remaining nearly unchanged over the past two weeks.On Wednesday, the state surpassed 3 million total cases to date, meaning that one in 13 Californians has tested positive since the start of the pandemic.As we’ve seen over the entire course of the pandemic, rising cases lead to rising deaths. The massive number of cases in Southern California over the past month has resulted in a wrenching death toll: The state reported 3,331 COVID-19 deaths in the past seven days alone. In Los Angeles County, air-quality rules limiting the number of cremations each day have been suspended to allow crematoriums to clear a backlog of bodies at hospitals and funeral homes.In California, people identified as “Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander” are being disproportionately harmed by COVID-19. Although they make up a small part of the population, Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders are three times as likely to have tested positive for COVID-19, and 1.8 times as likely to have died, as their white neighbors. Black people in California are 1.4 times as likely to have tested positive for, or died of, COVID-19 as white people in the state. Latino Californians, the largest single racial or ethnic group in the state, are 2.6 times as likely to have tested positive and 1.4 times as likely to have died as white residents.Alabama, which had the second-highest number of COVID-19 hospitalizations per capita last week, has now reported its highest ever number of weekly COVID-19 deaths. In a gruesome echo of Southern California’s outbreak, Alabama crematoriums are running “around the clock” to manage the increased demand. According to the CDC, Alabama also has the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate of any state, although the Alabama Department of Public Health disputes the CDC’s numbers.The Black population of Alabama is being hit hardest by the state’s outbreak. Over the past two months, the number of cases per capita for Black people has increased more quickly than for other groups. For the 57 percent of Alabama cases where race is reported, Black people are more likely than anyone else in Alabama to have tested positive for COVID-19, and they are the most likely to have died.Adjusted for population, Nevada had the second-highest number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 this week. It also reported its highest ever single-day number of deaths on Wednesday, most of which were reported in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located. Originally intended to be lifted this week, the state’s COVID-19 restrictions have been re-extended until February 15. On January 15, the Las Vegas Review Journal reported that a total of 40 prisoners in the state had died due to COVID-19, a number that is more than four times higher than the state’s eight cumulative deaths among prisoners as of January 7.Throughout the pandemic, Latino people in Nevada have been more likely to experience COVID-19 than their white neighbors. One in nine Latino people has tested positive for COVID-19, compared with one in 15 white people in Nevada.We are frequently asked for data on known variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. At present, very little data on the spread of variants exist in the United States, and we need much more genomic-sequencing data to understand the degree to which the virus is changing, and where variants are appearing. Unfortunately, the U.S. currently ranks 43rd in the world for percentage of cases sequenced. By contrast, the United Kingdom, where the widespread B.1.1.7 variant was first identified, is ranked eighth in the world. Earlier this month, the director of the U.S. Office of Advanced Molecular Detection at the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases announced a plan to more than double the number of samples sequenced, from approximately 3,000 samples a day to about 6,500. The U.S. is currently reporting more than 200,000 new cases of COVID-19 each day. A state-run lab in Colorado was the first in the U.S. to identify a B.1.1.7-variant case this year and it is now routinely screening all samples submitted to the lab for this mutation. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has also added variant case counts to their COVID-19 dashboards. To date, most states lack the resources to add genomic surveillance to their ongoing COVID-19 workload.
7 h
theatlantic.com
The Biden Generation’s Heavy Burden
Jim Clyburn sat by himself on the dais at Joe Biden’s inauguration, thinking about his late wife, Emily, who wasn’t there with him.Without Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat, who endorsed the former vice president at a crucial moment last year, Biden might not have taken the oath of office yesterday. But without Emily’s influence, Clyburn told me, that endorsement might never have happened. Without Emily, he might have watched Donald Trump be sworn in for a second term yesterday—a catastrophe he likened to the fall of Rome. Former President George W. Bush agreed, telling Clyburn at the ceremony that he was a “savior.” Bill and Hillary Clinton credited Clyburn too. “I’m taking all the credit because my late wife is not here to take it,” Clyburn replied.Clyburn’s endorsement of Biden in February 2020, four days before the South Carolina primary, helped make Biden the Democratic front-runner. Emily Clyburn died in September 2019, but she had made her preference for Biden known one evening the previous June, after Clyburn got home from his “World Famous Fish Fry,” the big political fundraiser he’s hosted back home every year since 1992. Twenty-three Democrats seeking the presidency had appeared onstage at Clyburn’s event that night.“Well, I know it’s a big crowd, and I know we’ve got good friends running,” Emily told him, “but our best hope for defeating Trump is Joe Biden.”[Photos: The inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr.]As they mingled at Biden’s inauguration yesterday, Democrats and Republicans alike told me they were optimistic. But they also had a very real sense that this presidency might be the last chance for the leaders of Biden’s generation to save the republic—that the country’s future now rests in the hands of a generation that won’t be around to see the outcomes of its decisions.Biden is old. He’s the oldest president ever. He’s also two years younger than Clyburn. He’s two years younger than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Chuck Schumer, who took over as Senate majority leader yesterday, is a baby by contrast, at 70. But Clyburn says Biden and the others were meant for this moment: “Thomas Paine wrote back in 1776, when the country was trying to give birth to itself, ‘The times have found us.’ I think the times found Joe. People say it wasn’t his time before, but maybe the time wasn’t for him before.” The pairing of Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who’s 20 years younger, Clyburn told me, is “a little bit biblical.” Scripture, he explained, “talks about the elders being called because of their knowledge; the youngsters, because they’ve got strength. And so, knowledge and strength are the things we need to move this democracy forward.”[Read: What it was like to watch Trump leave]The next generation isn’t sitting around waiting, though younger Democrats are ready to defer to Biden for now. Before the inauguration ceremony, I caught up with Eric Swalwell, a California congressman who’s half Clyburn’s age, and who briefly ran for president in 2019 with buttons that read Pass the Torch. The gag poked fun at Biden, who had called for the generation before him to hand over power in a 1986 speech, when Swalwell was in kindergarten. Most people remember the first Democratic primary debate for Harris’s run-in with Biden, but a few minutes before that, Swalwell took a swing of his own: “If we are going to solve the issue, pass the torch. If we are going to solve climate chaos, pass the torch. If we want to end gun violence and solve student debt, pass the torch.” Biden laughed. “I’m holding on to that torch,” he said then.Yesterday morning, looking up at the bunting and the presidential seal in front of where Biden was about to appear, Swalwell told me he was ready to acknowledge that his pitch hadn’t been what the country needed. “I ran making the generational case, but I get why the country right now feels like it [needs] experience and seasoning,” he said. Swalwell wants intense and speedy action out of the White House and Congress to restore Americans’ faith in government. “I don’t think we’ve got any more lives left,” he told me. “People need to see [that] government is working.”Andy Kim, a Millennial congressman who worked on the National Security Council during the Obama administration and was elected as part of the 2018 wave, hopes that Biden and other Democratic leaders are ready to share power with younger generations. “It’s hard to put myself in the heads of the older leaders up there, but as the 38-year-old son of immigrants, married to the daughter of immigrants, who won a House seat—I hope that shows America that we have a new generation stepping up,” Kim told me. “I don’t want us to constantly feel like we’re on a precipice.”[David Graham: A sermon in America’s civic religion]Clyburn was thinking of his congressional colleagues, too—but also of the storming of the Capitol two weeks ago, and of Martin Luther King Jr. “King told us in his ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’ that he was coming to the conclusion that the people of ill will in our society were making a much better use of time than the people of goodwill.” That sort of attitude, he said, was what led to the Capitol siege. “People of goodwill were just sitting on the sidelines, pretending nothing was going on, indifferent to the whole thing,” he said. The mob that had climbed the scaffolding set up for the inauguration, in an attempt to subvert the Constitution, reminded him of the fragility of democracy, especially the democracy Biden has now inherited.“The weather was a good metaphor for today,” Clyburn said. “It was pretty murky weather for every other inauguration that I’ve attended. Today there was snow falling… and it was not long before all of a sudden the sun came out real bright, as if we were starting a new day and a new era to end the error”—he paused to spell out the letters of the pun—“the e-r-r-o-r that the people made four years ago.”
9 h
theatlantic.com
A Sermon in America’s Civic Religion
Midway through Joe Biden’s first speech as president today, he said something that, in any other inaugural address would have seemed so unobjectionable as to be pointless.“What are the common objects we as Americans love, that define us as Americans?” Biden said. “I think we know. Opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor and, yes, the truth.”In 2021, however, that wasn’t just a throwaway line: It drew an ovation from the limited crowd at the event.Biden’s speech was well-wrought, but it offered nothing unusual, nothing surprising, nothing especially memorable. Paradoxically, that was the source of its power. As Biden took the bully pulpit of the presidency, he delivered a sermon in the tradition of America’s civic religion. The basic foundation of American political rhetoric has long been the seamless, platitudinous blend of Christianity, rose-tinted history, and pop culture. Donald Trump discarded this, explicitly courting division and rancor. After four years of Trump, Biden’s bromides sounded newly fresh and relevant.“This is democracy’s day, a day of history and hope, of renewal and resolve,” Biden said. “Through a crucible for the ages, America has been tested anew. And America has risen to the challenge. Today we celebrate the triumph, not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy. The people, the will of the people, has been heard, and the will of the people has been heeded.”These shopworn cliches are wheeled out at every inauguration, as much as part of the furniture as the blue carpet and grandstand on the West Front of the Capitol. Many of us learned these ideas so long ago, in elementary-school social-studies classrooms, that they are just background noise.But these statements feel less rote today, less than two weeks after a Trump-incited violent insurrection stormed the same Capitol, seeking to overturn Biden’s election. As the new president said, “We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. At this hour, democracy has prevailed.” He also said the nation was carrying out “the peaceful transfer of power as we have for more than two centuries.” This is not quite true, though. On January 6, five people, including a Capitol Police officer, died.It is not just the immediate context of the attempted coup that brought new meaning to the familiar lines. The whole of the Trump presidency reinforced the importance of these bedrock commitments and demonstrated what happens when they go missing. In 2017, standing in the same place, Trump delivered a stunningly dark warning about “American carnage.” Unlike many of his campaign promises, he delivered on it, with four years of white-supremacist marches, social unrest over policing, and the deaths of 400,000 Americans in a pandemic.The day after Trump’s inauguration, Press Secretary Sean Spicer insisted, against all evidence, that Trump had drawn a larger crowd than ever before. The day after that, Trump aide Kellyanne Conway told NBC’s Chuck Todd with a straight face that she was simply offering “alternative facts.” No wonder, then, that a simple invocation of the importance of truth could become an applause line in today’s address.As I have written before about Biden, the ability to sell banalities is something that separates failed politicians from successful ones. Giving a decent speech is one task, though; actually turning lofty rhetoric into results is quote another, and even harder in these polarized times. Many observers, including some elected officials in Biden’s own party, have questioned whether the president’s outreach to Republicans will work. He acknowledged the doubters today.“I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days,” he said. “I know that the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we all are created equal, and the harsh ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart.”But Biden insisted that there was a way out. “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal,” he said. “We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”Whether this hope is well-founded, and whether those who supported Trump are willing to listen, will only become clear over time. But some of Biden’s promises should be easier to keep.“I will always level with you. I will defend the Constitution. I'll defend our democracy,” he said. After the last month and the last four years, that alone would represent a great shift.
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theatlantic.com
A Taxonomy of Donald Trump’s Facial Expressions
Of the many head-benders of the Trump era, the dialectic between absurdity and extreme gravity has been one of the hardest to manage. We have been obliged to take an unserious person very seriously indeed. It has hurt our brains. It has reminded us, again and again, that the 45th president of the United States is simultaneously a reality-television star and an aspiring despot.Is it possible to separate his hammy entertainer’s chops from his raw political efficacy? Or his charisma from his incoherence? No, it is not. But we can begin an analysis. And we can start by classifying some of his major modes as an orator and a performer: the masks of Trump.ATLAS SHRUGSHe’s got the whole world in his hands. Why not just drop it and let it bounce a couple of times?GettyTOASTMASTER GENERALIn Trump’s speeches, the horrible little prose-y bits that Stephen Miller wrote were always just padding. The rambling, the ad-libs, the lurching sensation of his mind in motion: That’s what the people were there for. GettyIMPERIAL POUTClownish dismay at the nastiness of all the nasty, nasty people. With perhaps an obscenity building behind it.GettyGOLDEN BOYBasking in the regard of the world: I am adored, I am despised, I am the nucleus. gettySTAGE WHISPERERI shouldn’t say this but ... that’s exactly why I’m saying it.gettySERIOUS PERSONPretending to consult notes. This is what “presidential” looks like: bored. gettyHISTORY MANThe glower of the autocrat, the strongman scowl. Off camera, you can hear the tap-tap of the sculptor’s chisel.gettyWHITE POWERA curiously zestless, heavy-bodied gesture, this slouchingly raised fist nonetheless gets the point across.gettyMERRY PRANKSTERHe never laughs, Trump. Too risky. The joke he is perpetrating is so enormous that if he allowed himself to laugh he might burst.getty
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theatlantic.com
America Desperately Needs a New Age of Moral Leadership
The incumbent president, Donald Trump, rages, reads words that he doesn’t believe from a teleprompter, and rages again. The president-elect, Joe Biden, calls on Americans to rise above “the flames of hate and chaos” and bring back democracy, decency, and the rule of law to their wounded land. This is the presidential voice Biden has been preparing since he began his campaign to “restore the soul of America” in the spring of 2019. He speaks of commitment and covenant, of dreams and suffering, of sacrifice and love. He is working to build a presidency that not only embodies his own capacity for empathy but assumes a voice of moral leadership in a wrenching and disjointed time. The cadences are familiar. This is the way most American presidents have sounded since the beginning of the 20th century.The question is, in this time of anger and division, will anyone listen? Despite the foreboding in the air, the answer is yes. Presidential moral leadership is most, not least, effective in moments of crisis. Acute crises give presidents the space and urgency they need to be heard. Sustained leadership can follow when presidents lean into long-term crises already coursing beneath the surface of day-to-day events. Even in this fractured country, Biden has a real chance of becoming what he hopes to be: a president whose voice lifts and redirects the nation. But he must seize the moment now, and use the moral power it gives him.[Franklin Foer: Winning was the easy part]Trump hated the sermonic style of presidential speaking—the “hopey-changey stuff” that Sarah Palin once pilloried so savagely. He chafed at confinement to a speechwriter’s scripted phrases just as he disdained complete sentences that stick to one topic from beginning to end. He was a listless speaker outside the setting of a crowd, where, swelled up with the energy it gave him, he pinballed from one call-and-response to another. He cheered and insulted. He bragged and complained, and, as we know all too well, he even veered into full-blown insurrectionary speech. He didn’t care that his enemies called him a liar or that they recoiled from his violation of the norms of presidential speech. And Trump’s partisans responded with relief and adulation. In him, they heard a president who was not trying to remake their souls but attempting to give a megaphone to their grievances: a president speaking an angry, prideful language that they knew from everyday experience.The blend of sermon and political speech that Trump has been eager to demolish was not set at the nation’s beginning. Presidents did not often speak in public before the 20th century, and when they did, their language was formal and lawyerly, not soaring and inspirational. Fearful of the potential for demagoguery in the presidency, the Constitution’s writers had wanted just this sort of rhetorical modesty. Andrew Jackson, who helped steamroller a new, much more emotional popular politics into being among white male American voters, ended his first inaugural address by confessing his inadequacy for the position to which he had been chosen. Addressing a nation still suffering from the aftershocks of a major economic depression, William McKinley began his inaugural address in 1897 by dryly advising that the financial system needed “some revision.” The exception to this restrained form was Abraham Lincoln. But his language of elevated moral appeal often clashed with his listeners’ expectations. Lincoln’s second inaugural address is a striking example. Revered for its eloquence now, it seemed to many at the time too cryptic and too remote from the immediate questions of the moment to be adequate to the occasion.The birth of the modern presidency as a platform for moral preaching began with Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt filled his presidential speeches with talk of purpose and “perils,” “duties” to ourselves and others, “justice and generosity,” “courage” and “endurance,” “lofty ideals,” and the strength of “character” that a free people needed. He spoke not as a lawyer might, but as if he were talking straight to the heart of the American nation. From that font his successors drew the phrases and tone that became the voice of the modern presidency. Presidents surveyed a world of challenges; they marshaled the moral energies of the people; they prodded and encouraged; they asked Americans to look beyond themselves and their petty divisions. Woodrow Wilson used the power of the new rhetorical presidency to fuel a crusade to save democracy in Europe. Franklin D. Roosevelt turned to the same tropes first to address the economic crisis of the 1930s and then to mobilize support for the Second World War. John F. Kennedy seized the presidential megaphone to rally the nation to a more intense commitment to the Cold War. George W. Bush forged his 9/11 response in the same terms.It is easy to imagine that that era of the sermonizing presidency is now exhausted. Biden will take office confronted by a larger core of irreconcilable voters than has contested any presidential election since secession. Partisanship rides extremely high. Anger-filled conspiracy thinking flourishes on the internet. More broadly, a deep libertarian streak has intensified enormously on both the left and the right since Biden’s political career began in the early 1970s. That heightened stress on self and choice cannot but complicate Biden’s hope to strengthen the instruments of government through which Americans look out for the good of one another.[Peter Wehner: Biden may be just the person America neds]Finally, the media contexts within which presidents must now work have changed dramatically as well. Theodore Roosevelt took office in the midst of extraordinary expansion and consolidation of the nation’s newspaper industry, and he took brilliant advantage of the press to amplify his words and actions. The still-novel powers of radio put Franklin D. Roosevelt’s voice into households across the country, just as television did for Kennedy’s. Biden’s voice will have a much more difficult time penetrating through today’s decentered and intensely politicized media environment. Under these circumstances, imagining that the right words might reach the “soul” of the nation may be wholly illusory.But even in eras of intense political division and media partisanship, use of the presidential pulpit has at times succeeded. Franklin D. Roosevelt was as polarizing a figure as any in the 20th century when he came into office in 1933. The 40 percent of the population that had voted against him was unforgiving, many to the very end. But Roosevelt’s words managed to touch the hearts of the Depression masses, helping preclude the slide into despair that many feared was imminent. Kennedy came through a squeaker of an election—filled with smears and charges that no Catholic could be trusted to be a loyal American—to become the voice for a new, postwar generation. Wilson led a starkly divided nation into the moral crusade of engagement in the Great War.In all these cases, what gave the presidents’ words their power was crisis and context. In normal times, citizens’ souls don’t ask for preaching. Moral leadership succeeds when existing institutions, shaken by crisis, no longer seem adequate to their task. The shock arrival of new forms of monopoly capitalism gave Theodore Roosevelt his pulpit. The global economic collapse of the 1930s passed that opportunity on to FDR. The Cold War opened the occasion for the young, barely known Kennedy. The eruptive force of Black Americans’ freedom demands helped Lyndon B. Johnson move from a consummate political dealmaker to a public champion of a still wider “war” on poverty and economic injustice. The financial meltdown of 2008 gave wings to the words of the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama.Crises change the conditions of receptivity. They open a hole that Biden hopes his appeal to the soul of America will fill. At least for a time. Because the counterintuitive dynamic in the relationship between crisis and public receptivity is that the most acute crises do not always produce the most enduring periods of presidential persuasiveness. Short-term crises can temporarily rearrange the political landscape. The nation rallies to the emergency that a president’s words enunciate. Its citizens forego their immediate interests and preexisting divisions, and throw themselves into volunteer service and patriotic sentiments. But then the occasion passes, and the words the president still enunciates, urging sacrifice, compassion, and public-spiritedness, are left to blow idly in the wind.The inability of the Obama administration to sustain the power of its moral force after the fiscal crisis of 2008–09 is a vivid example. Its response to the economic meltdown was far from perfect, as critics from every camp quickly insisted, but for the short-term purposes of averting a new Great Depression, it worked. Obama’s own eloquence didn’t falter after 2009. But he could not successfully transfer his persuasive powers to an expert-driven health-insurance proposal that was not widely enough perceived to answer a national crisis. By the time Obama found the words to articulate health security as part of a broader ethical crusade, his exceptionally high favorability ratings in public-opinion polls had evaporated.[Read: Here comes Obama]The collapse of George W. Bush’s assertion of moral leadership was even starker. No previous modern president had polled higher than Bush did in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. His ratings were still exceptionally high at the beginning of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And then they cratered. There were no weapons of mass destruction to be found. But more important, no national consensus supporting the country’s long-term role in the Middle East existed to give a foundation to Bush’s presidential preaching. A massive response to a short-term crisis had been engineered and applauded. But the opportunity that crisis created was over, leaving Americans to wonder why they were trying to police the Middle East in the first place.Presidential moral leadership has been more lasting when it has intervened in profound crises that already left the country deeply unsettled. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency was not a response to the stock-market crash of 1929, though textbook history still paints it that way. It was a response to three inconclusive, anxiety-filled years of debate and turmoil over how to restore jobs and stability to a nation whose economic house had fallen in on it. A similar intervention into a long-term crisis propelled Kennedy’s inaugural words into the public consciousness in 1961. There was nothing new in Kennedy’s announcement that the nation was ready to bear any burden in the cause of global freedom—nothing except the way his words took energy from long-standing anxieties about the ability of Americans to rise above absorption in their new consumer culture and meet the Cold War’s challenges. Lyndon B. Johnson’s embrace of Black Americans’ freedom struggle in the spring of 1965 did not simply put the moral force of the presidency behind a short-term crisis. What gave Johnson’s words their power was the moral clarity of their intervention into a massive, long-standing, and broadly recognized wound in the nation’s democracy and its reputation in the world.The lesson for Biden in these examples is that he must think big if he wants to speak to the souls of Americans. Following Trump’s intensely polarizing presidency and final insurrectionary calamity, Biden’s message of decency, truth, constitutional integrity, and care for one another is more imperative than ever. And it will go far. Biden has the public character to make that message stick even against the fusillade of attacks that have already been launched against the very legitimacy of his election. But in the long term, Biden’s message of calm and decency will not suffice. He needs to hitch his bid for moral leadership to a crisis still bigger than the Trump disaster, bigger than the COVID-19 emergency, bigger than expertise or bipartisanship.Many hope that Biden will focus his presidency’s long-term rhetorical power on the scandal of persistent structural racism, laid bare more vividly than ever before by last week’s eruption of the angry white-power politics that runs beneath so much of Trumpism. Others hope that he will bring it to bear on the catastrophe of accelerating climate change. The structural crises of contemporary American democracy—undisguised voter suppression, blatant gerrymandering, an unrepresentative Electoral College system, and an unchecked avalanche of lies in political advertising and on social media—cry out for reform.Biden needs to commit his presidency strongly to all of these issues. But the long-term crisis that is most broadly and most acutely felt in households on both sides of the political divide is the ever-growing gap between those at the top of the American scale of income and privilege, and all the rest. Here, the sense of a festering wound is already widely shared, waiting for a president to articulate its moral costs as well as its economic ones. The median household income has barely risen in real terms since the 1980s. Most Americans are no longer confident that the next generation will do better than they have themselves. They worry about their own foothold in the 21st-century economy, where corporate restructuring has made downward mobility an everyday fact of life, even as the aggregate GDP level soars and stock-market wealth booms. These were among the acutely felt grievances to which Trump opened his megaphone; they fueled the energies of Bernie Sanders’ supporters. Where masses of Americans feel left behind by the economy and alienated from politics, every aspect of a racially just and democratic society is at risk.[Adam Serwer: The crisis of American democracy isn’t over yet]Biden’s measures to address the long-term crisis of constrained and unequal opportunity will be far more incremental than progressives might wish, given Biden’s political temperament and the limited possibilities that his narrow majority in Congress will afford him. His words must be bigger than his actions. He must convince Americans that he sees the stagnation of the life chances for too many Americans with a moral intensity that is deeper and truer than that of the failed president he defeated. If he wants to speak to the souls of Americans, he must bring the full resources of the rhetorical presidency to bear on the crisis of unequal opportunity. For a nation to respond to the words of a presidential preacher, the subject must be as broadly and deeply felt as the rhetoric’s moral intensity demands.
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theatlantic.com
Trump Destroyed the Most Important Virtue in America
What should have been a week-long celebration of the resilience of American democracy has turned into a dark circus. Instead of citizens lining Pennsylvania Avenue to cheer and greet a new president, all of downtown Washington, D.C., is an armed camp. Soldiers patrol the streets while workers clean excrement off the walls of the Capitol, a perfect tableau for the end of the short and ghastly age of Trump.We are expecting far too much of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris if we think they can fix all of the damage Donald Trump did to the republic. Presidents and vice presidents are not wizards. They cannot rewind history. They cannot single-handedly make us better people.However, I do believe that Biden can inspire the American people to regain one of the most important virtues Trump destroyed: seriousness, our understanding that ideas, actions, and words matter.The collapse of seriousness is the greatest loss we have sustained under Trump, one of the least serious human beings ever to occupy a position of great power in America. What do I mean by seriousness? It is the burden of knowing that we own our decisions, that our actions have consequences. It is the sense of responsibility that helps us to act without being ordered to act, the instinct that tells us, even when we are alone, that we owe a duty to others and that our behavior affects them as much as it does ourselves.To be serious is not to be humorless. I am 60 years old, and I occasionally revel in my own silliness. We all should. As Thomas Aquinas reminded us, play refreshes the soul. But seriousness is the ability to know the difference between work and play. It is the wisdom to know when to stop laughing and to pay attention, weigh our words, and consider our actions beyond the intemperate advice of our own impulses. It is to know the difference between what is real and what is imagined.[Tim Naftali: The worst president in history]The Founding Fathers were the most serious of men, and not merely because they were brave enough to risk the gallows. They had a sense that what they were doing was transcendentally important, that they needed to make their case, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, with “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” They were not merely transacting business; they were instituting a new form of government while pledging to one another “our lives, our fortunes,” and perhaps most telling, “our sacred honor.”They knew that seriousness is the greatest requisite for a stable democracy, because it allows us to think beyond the moment and to accept the weight of duty and communal responsibility. The many other civic virtues—prudence, engagement, respect, tolerance—proceed from seriousness. And only seriousness produces the mindset that forces us to accept the central tenet of democracy: We are adults who are masters of our own fates instead of irresponsible and powerless children.Authoritarian regimes are less serious than democracies. It may seem strange to say that, because the day-to-day existence in such places is so grim. But authoritarianism relies on fatalism, which is one of the most pernicious forms of unseriousness. When nothing is in our control, nothing really matters. The experience of life dwindles down to taking care of one’s family and trying not to get sideways with those in charge.I spent time in the old Soviet Union, a place that combined existential ludicrousness with paralyzing fear. Drinking and laughing with Soviet citizens back in the day was liberating because they had accepted their helpless condition in life. They knew, with great certainty, that nothing mattered. And after a couple of bottles of Russian vodka or Georgian wine or Armenian cognac, I knew it too. Democracy, however, cannot go on Soviet benders and abjure responsibility. In a free society, we, not the state, are the arbiters of our behavior.Seriousness, then, is a combination of self-discipline and the Golden Rule, the civic reflex that allows us to step outside of ourselves, and to consider whether we would think well of someone who said or did what we are considering saying or doing. Children must learn this lesson or they remain stunted narcissists into adulthood.Which brings me back to Trump.Fairness requires me to admit that the American spiral into inanity did not begin with Trump. The end of the Cold War, the advent of multiple decades of prosperity, and the blindingly fast leaps in living standards were all part of the march to unseriousness.Liberals will locate the start of the unserious presidency with the election of Ronald Reagan, who was famously able to laugh off anything with a quip. (Just ask Jimmy “There you go again” Carter and Walter “I am not going to exploit … [his] youth and inexperience” Mondale.) Conservatives think it began with Bill Clinton and his sax-playing, skirt-chasing, little-boy lip-biting.[Read: Donald Trump is out. Are we ready to talk about how he got in?]But Trump took unseriousness and elevated it from an infrequent presidential vice to a positive virtue. Trump’s campaign slogan was “Make America great again,” but it might as well have been the internet mantra of “LOL nothing matters.” Nuclear weapons? Yes, he was very worried about “the nuclear” but he preferred to make fun of “Little Marco” Rubio and “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz. Climate change? China? Sure, big problems, but wouldn’t it be more fun to talk about locking up “Crooked Hillary?”And when the most serious moment of his presidency arrived and Americans began dying by the thousands from COVID-19, Trump sought refuge in the ultimate expression of unseriousness: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”His presidency was all kayfabe, the ethos of faked professional wrestling, where nothing is real and no one gets hurt. Trump never cared that he had to make real decisions that had real consequences. At every turn, all that mattered was the brief winning moment and the boffo ratings. It was all about the emotional charge of the here and now, and it was glorious. Tomorrow was someone else’s problem.In other words: Pass the vodka, comrade. I’ll sleep where I fall.It should not, of course, have been a shock that America under Trump became a collection of overgrown adolescents who were incapable of facing adversity. When the time came for genuine seriousness—literally, a matter of life and death—America was a nation of spoiled children, sullen when corrected, explosive with rage when forced to do anything they found unpleasant, ready to lecture others on why the Constitution gave them the right to wear a surgical mask on their chin.This level of entitlement and the toddlerlike understanding of “freedom” to mean “I can do anything I want without consequences” came to a head in the January 6 attack on the Capitol. One of the most serious challenges to constitutional order in the history of the United States was led by a group of the least serious citizens among us.The mob was not made up of the poor and dispossessed seeking redress of grievances. This was a bored lumpen bourgeoisie, a narcissistic middle class of deep pockets and shallow minds who felt that life had not paid them the respect they were due. Some of them, to be sure, were intent on serious crimes, including kidnapping and murder. But even these would-be terrorists had a weird tourist vibe. (One of the insurrectionists, a 30-year-old ex-bartender sporting a ski mask, brought zip-tie flex handcuffs—and so did his mom, who accompanied him to the riot.)[Graeme Wood: What to do with Trumpists]Indeed, the insurrectionists were so unserious, they somehow got it into their heads that they could overwhelm the Capitol, take Congress hostage, and rerun the presidential election—after which, apparently, everyone would exchange congratulations on a job well done, retire to the hotel for a few drinks, and then fly home with wonderful memories and stories to tell. We know this because, like the narcissistic children they are, they could not stop talking to their phones and taking selfies and videos even in the midst of a violent insurrection.Hundreds of people now face arrest, and most of them are shocked to find that an attack on the Capitol and the murder of a police officer will not be written off by the federal authorities as merely a self-actualizing day trip to Camp Sedition.Consider, for example, the soul of helium displayed by Jenna Ryan, a realtor from Texas who flew to Washington, D.C., on a private jet—as one does to get to an insurrection—and who stopped in the midst of the attack to assure us all that she was, in fact, inside the Capitol and committed to victory or death, but that upon her return to Texas everyone should know that Jenna Ryan is the person who can handle even the toughest real-estate deals. The day she was arrested, the realtor-patriot went on television and said that Trump owed her a pardon.All of this would be laughable if America were some irrelevant banana republic. But when a superpower becomes an unserious nation, it becomes a dangerous nation. A giant, nuclear-armed clown show is a menace to the life and liberty of its own people and to the stability and safety of the planet itself.Unseriousness is not limited to Trump cultists, although they seem to have embraced it most fully. It is, like COVID-19, a national affliction. Last summer, America experienced genuine and justified rage against racism and police brutality. These protests were, at first, the embodiment of seriousness, an acknowledgement that one person’s pain affects us all. However, they were later hijacked by those who wanted to play camp-out in the middle of major cities and who looted and engaged in mindless vandalism.Even after so many years of unseriousness, Biden prevailed in the election. Whatever his other failings, he is a serious man. Yes, he sometimes has an unserious mien, a come-on-man, no-malarkey doofusness, but he’s also a man who has experienced pain, love, tragedy, and loss—the moments that affirm to us that life is a serious business. He is a reminder that serious people do important things everyday, like taking care of their children and showing up to their job ready to work. When he talks about problems, his empathy is real; when he talks about policy, his commitment is genuine.Perhaps most important, Biden shares with his pre-Trump predecessors a visible sense of gravity about the presidency. He speaks of the office with both excitement and reverence—and maybe, too, a bit of sadness, because he knows what is to come. No man is the same after his first day as president. The office is too big, too terrifying, to rest lightly on anyone’s shoulders. Even Trump, on his first visit to the White House as president-elect, was visibly shaken, at least for a moment. (That moment passed quickly.)Biden cannot rescue us from ourselves, but he can give us an example to follow. He can remind us that we live in a serious, and dangerous, time. He can talk to us like adults, and demand in return that we listen like adults. He can forgo the false promises and grand plans, and level with us that he has come to Washington to put out the fires and repair the foundations of our system.Most of all, he can force us to confront the challenges ahead—the pandemic, the foreign dangers, the threats from within, the damage to our institutions, and the weakening of the rule of law—with stoicism and quiet confidence.And without whining. We’ve had more than enough of that.Biden is a serious man. We can be a serious people again. The choice is ours.
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theatlantic.com
An Incompetent Authoritarian Is Still a Catastrophe
So what if he was bad at it?The five years of the Trump era—which began with his descent down the gilded escalator in Trump Tower in 2015 and are ending with a massive military presence in the nation’s capital to protect the transfer of power to his successor—brought a sustained assault on self-government. This assault was most often futile, almost always buffoonish, and, as the conversion of the seat of the federal government into an armed fortress demonstrates, unquestionably real.Throughout the Trump era, some have argued that Trump’s incompetence rendered his authoritarian aspirations inconsequential.“Our weak, ranting, infected-by-Covid chief executive is not plotting a coup, because a term like ‘plotting’ implies capabilities that he conspicuously lacks,” wrote the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat in October, describing the president as a “noisy weakling.” Douthat has since re-evaluated his position, but for a long time he was the most articulate proponent of the argument that Trump was not as dangerous as his opponents believed.Believing that Trump’s departure proves his harmlessness is akin to arguing that getting shot in the leg is inconsequential because the wound will not kill you. Even nonfatal gunshot wounds do terrible things to the human body. They can twist flesh and muscle as if they were dough; shatter bones to dust; leave victims unable to walk without assistance; keep survivors from closing their fingers into a fist. They can poison the blood, drown the lungs, and—even when the body escapes being disfigured—leave the brain scarred by trauma. American democracy persevered because of those who rejected the arrogant counsel that the system would hold: The protesters who mobbed airports and filled the streets, the organizers who planned meetings and knocked on doors, and the voters who flooded the polls by the tens of millions.The wounds of Trumpism haven’t proved lethal to the democratic project, but they are very real.Trump’s initial attack on American democracy occupied much of the first two years of his administration, but was arguably the least damaging in the long term. As a candidate, Trump both encouraged and benefited from the intervention of the Russian government in an American election. As a candidate and as president, Trump sought to deflect blame from the Kremlin, illegally obstructed the investigation (arguably successfully) into its interference, and then pardoned supporters who had refused to cooperate with investigators.Yet to the extent that Russia’s gambit succeeded in tilting the 2016 election, it was because of the last-minute intervention by James Comey, then the director of the FBI. Comey’s decision to violate Department of Justice guidelines regarding disclosure of information that could affect elections—while keeping the bureau’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign had illegally coordinated with the Russian government secret—was an indispensable factor in Trump’s 2016 victory. Trump and his allies spent the next four years railing against rogue actors in law enforcement and intelligence agencies, willfully ignoring the fact that Trump owed his presidency to such people.As president, Trump attempted to use the census to effect a nationwide racial gerrymander that would enhance the political influence of white voters at the expense of Black and Latino voters. That scheme was foiled by bureaucratic incompetence on the administration’s part, as liberal activists used the trail of breadcrumbs it had left behind to uncover the nature of the scheme just before the Supreme Court was set to rule on it. If Trump had won a second term, he might have succeeded in manipulating the census for political ends. A year before the 2020 election, Trump tried to strong-arm the president of Ukraine into falsely accusing his most likely Democratic rival of a crime. The actions of a lone whistleblower led to Trump’s plan being revealed, and subsequently to his first impeachment. The Democratic congressional leadership might have preferred to avoid impeachment, but his actions made it necessary; to allow a president to use his authority to frame a political rival without consequence would be to invite him to do it again. Impeaching Trump failed to remove him, but it exposed and neutralized a campaign smear that his enablers in the press were, until that moment, eager to amplify.The case for impeaching Trump was straightforward: If presidents can use the awesome power of their office to frame their political rivals for crimes, they can prevent the rise of anyone attempting to challenge their hold on power. “Corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine,” Mitt Romney, the only Republican senator to support conviction, argued on the Senate floor. Romney was correct; the Founders had devised impeachment precisely for the possibility of a chief executive who abuses his power to stay in office.Susan Collins, the Republican senator from Maine, who voted to acquit, argued that Trump had “learned a pretty big lesson” from impeachment. Indeed he had. Trump learned that Republican senators would acquiesce to his abuses of power, even if he were to attempt to corrupt an election to keep himself in office.So he did it again, and again, and again.Trump attacked the validity of mail-in ballots, having recognized that his dismissals of the pandemic had created a partisan split in evaluations of the coronavirus threat and therefore a split in who would vote in person on Election Day. He hatched a scheme to declare victory before such ballots were counted. Trump’s appointee to run the Postal Service so egregiously mismanaged the agency that late ballots were in danger of being invalidated, which could have tipped outcomes in close states.The president’s attorneys—not just the unhinged fanatics who wove grand conspiracy theories—hoped that, by invalidating enough ballots, they could secure majorities in swing states. Both the president and his advisers insisted that fraud had occurred in majority-Black jurisdictions such as Atlanta, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Detroit, and that large numbers of votes should be discarded. The Trumpist cry to count “every legal vote” left unsaid which votes were illegal, because Trump supporters already knew the answer.Refusing to cooperate with those who had habitually minimized the risks Trump posed, the president spent the postelection months attempting to overturn the result in one bizarre scheme after another. He demanded that courts throw out votes in mostly Black jurisdictions. He tried to coerce state legislatures into invalidating the result in their states. He urged the Supreme Court to declare him president by fiat. He savaged Republican election officials who refused to cooperate, and then tried to pressure them into fabricating new vote counts. Republicans who refused to go along with Trump’s effort to reverse the election now face the prospect of being removed and replaced by apparatchiks who would have.Having persuaded millions of his adoring supporters to risk their own lives by ignoring the dangers posed by a global pandemic, Trump had little trouble convincing them that the election he had decisively lost was rigged. His falsehoods culminated in the deadly assault on the Capitol building, in which a mob of his supporters sought to capture and kill federal lawmakers—including the vice president.Trump, often described as a populist, spoke frequently about the will of the people—but he only ever saw himself as an avatar of a particular group of Americans. A president who lost the popular vote twice was never inclined to think of “the people” in anything but the narrowest terms. He was an avatar of the right people, those who, in their minds, had been granted the mantle of heaven since the Founding. The multiracial coalition that defeated them in 2020 by a margin of some 7 million votes was fraudulent by definition and possessed no legitimate claim to power.The most consistent principle of Trumpist populism was that keeping Trump in power was too important to leave to the people. The sacking of the Capitol was a logical consequence of that belief.The defense that Trump’s authoritarianism was tempered by his incompetence rests on the faulty assumption that incompetence mitigates the damage he has done. Even an inept authoritarian can—partly by his very ineptitude—corrupt the responsibilities of the state, erode democracy, and leave a significant portion of the electorate in thrall to a cult of personality.The coronavirus pandemic is still raging through the United States like a wildfire, with over 400,000 dead. By spring, the number of casualties will begin to rival the 600,000 Americans who died in the Civil War, the largest death toll for a single event in American history.This was not an inevitable outcome. It was the consequence of an administration whose main objective was shielding Donald Trump’s ego and preserving his political prospects. Trump’s allies in the conservative media and in state governments foiled an effective public response and dissuaded their own supporters from taking basic safety measures. The president’s cult of personality took precedence over whether Americans lived or died. Incompetent authoritarianism did not limit the damage of the pandemic; it exacerbated that damage.The same is true of much of the rest of the president’s agenda. The child-separation policy was so incompetently administered that today many of the families remain shattered because the administration did not bother to keep adequate records. The Trump administration’s indifference to the treatment of migrants in detention led to scores of deaths. The president’s initial anti-Muslim travel ban did not cause less damage for being incompetently administered. The president’s response to the devastation of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, whose residents he regards with such contempt that he wanted to expel them from the United States, was not less ruinous for being incompetent. Trump’s handling of the George Floyd protests, while politically inept, nevertheless encouraged a wave of police brutality against Americans protesting police brutality. The federal government might have been better prepared for the Capitol riot had national-security agencies not been pressured by the president to downplay the threat of white-nationalist extremism because of his association with it. Trump, who declared that he would be the “greatest jobs president God ever created,” began his term with a booming economy and ends it with the worst jobs record of any president since Herbert Hoover, in part because he put his preoccupation with his own image ahead of rescuing the economy or containing the pandemic that crashed it.The combination of Trump’s incompetence and authoritarianism, in short, made effective governance nearly impossible, and proved utterly calamitous in the face of a genuine national crisis. Not only that, but it short-circuited the checks and balances that might have forced the administration to alter course. Trump’s incompetence did not loosen his grip on the Republican Party faithful; instead it made their minds more pliable to ludicrous and fantastic explanations for why his administration was failing. Republicans in both the House and the Senate, beholden to voters fully ensconced in the president’s alternate universe, made the political choice to enable Trump’s incompetence and authoritarianism by providing no reasonable limits on his power and no correction of his mismanagement of the federal government.The point is not that a “competent” authoritarian is preferable. The point is that having an aspiring authoritarian in the office of the presidency, competent or incompetent, is a catastrophe, one absurdly minimized by the baseline metric of whether or not democracy ends under his tenure. This is perhaps the first time the standard for a presidency has been set at whether or not the republic itself ceased to exist. Seeing that a transfer of power will take place, under military guard and despite Trump’s best efforts to prevent it, critics of liberal hysteria somehow imagine themselves vindicated.A large portion of the conservative electorate—and at least two members of Congress—is now in thrall to the lunatic QAnon conspiracy theory, a fantasy that imagines and justifies the mass murder of political opponents. The combination of Trump’s incompetence and authoritarianism ultimately necessitated the creation of an alternate reality in which his supporters could dwell comfortably; elected Republicans now find themselves afraid to challenge these believers. The logic of conspiracy dictates that all developments only enhance the original theory; the rejection of Trump at the ballot box hasn’t dispelled the delusions of his followers, but instead proved to them that elections they lose are by definition corrupt, and so their outcomes can be disregarded.Antidemocratic elements were long present in the Republican Party prior to Trump’s rise—after their defeat in 2012, Republicans considered a number of the malicious political schemes they are now reviving. But that does not minimize the fact that Trump forcefully accelerated such trends. A car headed for a cliff can still turn away at the last second; Trump pressed his foot on the gas.Having enabled some of the worst elements of the American right, Trump leaves behind a Republican Party secure in its conviction that its future depends more on excising large sections of the American public from the polity than on appealing to them, and with a base even more rabidly committed to the project of minority rule. Republican losses in formerly reliably red states like Georgia and Arizona have only increased the perceived urgency of further restricting the electorate, so that the American voters spellbound by Trump can wield even more influence in a system that already enhances the minority’s power to a degree not seen in any other modern democracy.Republicans entered the Trump era with the House, the Senate, and the presidency. Over the past four years, they lost all three, despite the substantial political advantages enjoyed by conservative voters through the Senate, the Electoral College, and the House districts designed by Republican state legislatures. These advantages have somehow only exacerbated right-wing entitlement. The Capitol rioters were so convinced of their right to rule that they attempted to violently overturn the election, leading to the kind of armed presence Washington, D.C., hasn’t seen for an inauguration since Abraham Lincoln took office. On the night of January 6, as the counting of the electoral votes resumed, the mob was rewarded with the tacit support of a majority of the House Republican caucus, which concurred that the American people can vote for whomever they like, as long they vote Republican. The true damage of the Trump era can’t yet be fully assessed; the patient is still recovering in the trauma bay. What we do know is that an aspiring authoritarian, even an incompetent one, can do tremendous damage to the body politic. If there is to be a recovery, it will be long and arduous, and require sustained intensive care. Even old wounds can ultimately prove fatal.
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theatlantic.com