"You’re not dead and you haven’t gone to hell,” Rachel Maddow told her shellshocked audience on the night Donald Trump was elected. The NYT columnist Michelle Goldberg recently recounted the line while live tweeting the Republican National Convention and cracked "rarely have I been less sure.”
Goldberg's wistful admission was a tragicomic quip that wound up capturing the past two weeks of Democrats' hair-on-fire angst, an omnipresent agita that has permeated almost every conversation.
True, the latest tranche of high anxiety didn’t proliferate in a vacuum. It was kicked off by the GOP convention, which doubled as a showcase for the Grifter-in-Chief’s impunity, a teeth-gnashing tribute to his ability to get away with everything. The reduction of our nation’s most iconic landmarks to political set dressing for Mr. Trump’s coronation was almost unbearable. Then came the latest example of Mr. Trump’s propensity to, as Morning Joe Scarborough dubbed it, “govern-by-gesture” — his self-anointment as the “LAW & ORDER” president and a threat to bankrupt “Democrat” cities by withholding federal funds.
Immediately, many of you demanded that Democrats crack down on the protests, some of which had devolved into violence. "I’m going insane. If I don’t hear someone — Biden or Harris — come out and SCREAM the obvious, that this is TRUMP’S AMERICA we’re seeing in the streets, I will truly give up,” confessed one reader, “We saw none off this violence during eight years of Obama-Biden. Yet, the narrative is sticking that 'this will be America' if Biden is elected. Does anyone on our side see what FOX and the other media is doing with this??? As Ross Perot said: 'That huge sucking sound... is suburban voters changing their minds…’"
Except, that’s not how it has played out. Neither the conventions nor the episodic violence, which deflected from the fact that the vast majority of protests have been peaceful, produced a significant bounce for either candidate. The state of the race remains virtually unchanged with Joe Biden maintaining roughly a 7-point lead nationally. Predictably in a country riven by tribal politics and an entrenched electoral split (with a tiny percentage of swing/undecided voters,) the numbers have inevitably tightened in battleground states like Florida and Pennsylvania. Yet, as Philip Bump concluded in his WaPo piece, “Even the good polling news for Trump isn’t that good,” Mr. Trump’s ominous warnings about “Joe Biden’s America,” he said, aren’t getting traction, even with suburban voters.
Then, as if on cue, Joe Biden met the moment — and expressed our simmering despair -- with a stunning speech that leveled a scathing rebuke of Trump’s America. Widely hailed for his strength in turning the tables, Biden tackled Trump’s smears head on: "Ask yourself: Do I look to you like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really? I want a safe America – safe from COVID, safe from crime and looting, safe from racially motivated violence, safe from bad cops. And let’s be crystal clear: Safe from four more years of Donald Trump.” The speech, delivered at the site of a shuttered Pittsburgh steel mill, was also a wake-up call to those who have mocked “Hiden Biden,” as Trump has dubbed him, for being basement-bound or mealy-mouthed. If you missed it, watch how Biden strongly condemned the violence in our cities and deftly reframed the question of who will make America safer here.
On Friday, Joe channeled our outrage yet again when he addressed allegations reported by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic that Mr. Trump had referred to our fallen troops as “losers” and “suckers,” disparaged the intelligence of service members and asked that wounded vets be excluded from military parades. “It’s disgusting…and, it affirms that Donald Trump is not fit to be Commander-in-Chief,” the former vice president declared. When he cited his late son Beau’s military service in Kosovo and Iraq, his anger was palpable and he acknowledged that he was struggling to keep his temper under control. But the spate of ads produced by veteran groups, the DNC and the Lincoln Project that immediately hit the airwaves and social media pulled no such punches. Finally, it appeared that Donald Trump was being hoist on his own petard of past derogatory comments about the late Senator John McCain, Gold Star families and those who choose to serve our country through military service. Today the story is still roiling with veterans excoriating Trump for “the full measure of his disgrace.”
Coincidentally, the latest Military Times poll, released right before this week’s firestorm, already showed that Trump trails Biden among active duty service members 37.4 to 41.3. A surfeit of similarly positive polls continues to surface. Headlines like "The latest polling suggests Trump’s ugliest campaign strategy may be imploding," and the New Yorker’s must-read current take on the state of the race -- "New Polls Suggest the Presidential Race Is Still Joe Biden’s to Lose" — abound.
Even the venerated political analyst Charlie Cook is telling Democrats to look past their fear. Cook, known for his caution in a field that thrives on wild speculation, surprised many with his recent sunny analysis Many Are Afraid To Say It, but This Is Not a Close Race. Cook evokes the Hans Christian Anderson fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes” as a metaphor for "the political analysts, pollsters, and pundits who refuse to state publicly what the data plainly show: that it is very, very unlikely Trump will win 270 electoral votes and the election.”
"Yes, there are things that could tilt this race: shenanigans at the Postal Service, voter confusion about how to vote, states' inability to process and count ballots on time, to name a few,” Cook concedes, "But the race has to get much closer before these can possibly make a difference in a few key states.”
Granted, the past two weeks have been fraught: from the ongoing horror of the pandemic to climate change-related wildfires, Hurricane Laura and a freak derecho windstorm that cut a destructive swath through Iowa; from Trump’s directive to commit a felony by “voting twice” to escalating fears about voter suppression, the USPS and election security; fresh grief over the shooting of Jacob Blake and the cruel killing of a mentally ill African American, Daniel Prude.
Yet, even confronted by a flotilla of good news about our chances of winning in November, many of us default to a state of despair. So why do Democrats seem wracked by congenital anxiety? Talking Points Memo Executive Editor Josh Marshall tackles that question in "Why Are Dems Nervous? Because they’re Dems." "Regardless of the objective realities, Democrats will consistently anticipate loss or worry about loss while Republicans will consistently be confident of victory,” he wrote. “In general this is almost an iron law of political psychology in the United States.” Marshall contends that the PTSD borne of election night in 2016 also fueled fears about Democratic odds in the 2018 midterms. Despite favorable polling, “the fall of 2018 was chock full of theories and predictions about how two years of ‘resistance’ activism were coming up short. It was the ‘caravan’. It was low turnout among young voters. So pervasive were Democrats’ latent fears that they actually persisted well into election night and even the first couple days after the election – until late returns, results of close call races and just the actual numbers made clear Democrats had won a decisive victory.”
Marshall theorizes that the vast cultural diversity under the Democrats’ big tent has a lot to do why they tend to be pessimistic compared to Republicans, who are likely to have an overdeveloped sense of confidence because they are a more homogeneous group. "Many Democrats also have either a personal or historical experience of being marginalized in society,” Marshall notes. "This is a good reason to be wary of and anticipate bad outcomes."
During the Q & A following his speech Monday, Joe Biden was asked how he keeps his anger under control even as he’s being pummeled by Trump’s disinformation onslaught. "Getting down in gutter isn’t job of the president of the United States,” he said, "It’s up to me to set an example. Besides, I have to focus on what has to be done to win this election.”
So do we.
In order to get through the next 60 days of what will likely be the ugliest campaign in our lifetime, we need to do two things. We have to steel ourselves for the unrelenting stress test that lies ahead. Secondly, we’re going to have to fight our instincts to assume the worst and focus on places where we can make a difference. Then we have to do something, no matter how seemingly small, that is proactive and positive -- like volunteering to stave off voter suppression or get out the vote initiatives including remote phone banking and post carding.
Next week I’ll be sharing my newly revised lists of “Top Ten House Toss-ups” and “Fantasy Five Senate Toss-ups" where you can give as little as $10 to help swing a critical congressional race - all while choosing which candidates to support. I’ll also be providing some action options that can help quell anxiety during the homestretch to November 3rd.
Finally, to get a sense of where our beleaguered economy is heading, tune in to our virtual town hall conversation on Sun., Sept. 20th. Two Nobel economic laureates— NYT columnist Paul Krugman and Columbia Professor Joseph Stiglitz — will join the dangerously charming restaurateur Danny Meyer to talk about “Pandemic Economics.” You can register for the event, which benefits the American Nurses Coronavirus Foundation and other charities, by clicking on the link below.
Have a safe, healthy Labor Day.