Arnon Grunberg



On incompetence and survival - David Runciman in LRB:

“I still remember the moment on Brexit referendum night when it became clear that the result was only going one way. It was about 2 a.m. and although many votes were still to be counted, Vince Cable, talking to Emily Maitlis on the BBC, accepted that the British people had decided to leave the European Union. No one else had dared to say it, but if the Lib Dems were prepared to call it then it was time to face facts. The moment was both thrilling (for someone who studies politics for a living) and chilling (for a Remainer). Something similar happened on US election night four months later. In the middle of the night UK time the steady drumbeat of surprisingly strong numbers for Trump morphed into a shocking new reality: he was actually going to win. Corey Lewandowski, his one-time campaign manager, was on CNN all evening saying that Trump’s performance would surprise everyone. His hosts had been nervously humouring him. Suddenly the tone of their questions changed. How on earth, they wanted to know, had he done it? This time it was all chills.
At around 3.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 4 November 2020 (which was 10.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 3 November in Washington DC) it looked as if it was happening a third time. Trump was going to win Florida, despite the millions of dollars spent there by Michael Bloomberg, and he was storming ahead of his 2016 numbers in Ohio. The other swing states were closer, but they seemed to be moving his way. On CNN I registered the same dramatic shift in mood. A couple of talking heads looked to be on the verge of tears. Jake Tapper was ashen. I switched to the Oddschecker betting site to see what the money was saying. Trump, who had started the night with at best a 30 per cent chance of re-election, was now touching 90 per cent. I let out a primal scream – scaring my 17-year-old daughter, who was watching with me – and went to bed.”


“The decision by Fox to announce Arizona for Biden, when other networks still had the state as too close to call and Trump’s people were telling him it was a solid win, came from the very top. The Murdoch clan had long loathed the Trumps. Rupert Murdoch detests the man himself, and blames him for difficulties he has had with his own children, two of whom (Elisabeth and James) turned against the family company because they could no longer stomach Fox’s daily obeisance towards Trump. When the son who stayed, Lachlan, got notice that the Fox analysts had Arizona for Biden, he phoned his father to ask what they should do. Did he want to make the early call? ‘His father, with signature grunt, assented, adding: “Fuck him.”’ Trump, certain by this point that he had won, now saw evidence only that the steal was underway. ‘There was a Rashomon version of the president’s call with Karl Rove that evening,’ Wolff writes.”


“The result was that any official who didn’t accept this version of events could no longer work with the president. Trump’s last two months in office saw an extraordinary exodus of people who had been loyalists but were unable to stomach what was now required. They were replaced by anyone who was prepared to tell the president what he needed to hear. First among them was Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York and one-time presidential candidate, the cheerleader for Trump’s most outlandish convictions about the plot against him. Keeping Giuliani away from the boss had long been a key task for the gatekeepers of the Trump White House: lawyers, aides and family members. But once the gatekeepers were gone, Giuliani could say what he liked and be sure of an audience. He told Trump that the way to fight back was to take his case to the courts, and ultimately to the Supreme Court, where Trump’s three appointees (Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett) would be sure to tip the balance in his favour. That there was no case – at least no case that could get a serious hearing – didn’t matter. What mattered was to keep up the pressure until the other side cracked. Challenge everything, dispute everything, inflate everything: that was the Trump way. All he needed were lawyers willing to do it with a straight face. Giuliani, often drunk, frequently flatulent, rarely coherent, was a long way from the steely district attorney and heroic post-9/11 mayor he had once been. Wolff calls him ‘a figure who seemed to have come loose in history – irrepressible, uncontrollable, reckless, runaway, daft’. But he possessed the two qualities that mattered to Trump. ‘He could be counted on to fight even when others wouldn’t. And, too, he would work for free.’”


“Giuliani’s strategy appealed to Trump because it appeared to be win-win. File quixotic suits in the lower courts demanding recounts, the disbarring of election officials, whatever. If successful, so much the better. But if not, at least the process would reach the Supreme Court, which everyone knew was the ace in the hole. It was a sign of how far removed Giuliani was from his former self that he seemed genuinely to believe this. ‘The old Rudy – Rudy the Justice Department hand, Rudy the prosecutor, Rudy the occasionally diligent student of government – would have known that even a stacked [Supreme] Court was going to go out of its way not to cast its fate with this mess, this crazytown mess, that the rule of institutional self-protection would surely win out.’ In the end, no court would countenance Giuliani’s antics and the legal strategy went nowhere.”


“Neither Trump nor the people around him were part of a sinister plot to subvert and ultimately take over the democratic institutions of the United States. They didn’t possess even the minimum competence for that. Trump’s presidency was a kind of vacuum of seriousness: the relationship between means and ends was practically non-existent. If Trump had wanted Congress to do his bidding and reverse the result of the election it would have taken a monumental strong-arm operation of persuasion and coercion, the sort to make even Lyndon Johnson quail. Instead, he threw the case to people who didn’t even know the phone numbers of the people they needed to call.
It really was one of those what-if moments. Not: what if the president of the United States were revealed to be an evil despot, moving the nation to the type of fascistic dictatorship hotly anticipated by MSNBC. But rather: what if, stripping all protection and artifice away, he were revealed to be incapable of separating the fantasy of what he thought possible from the practicalities of accomplishing it? Indeed, aides noted that, on the eve of a consequential legislative battle, the White House would ordinarily have been hammering the phones, but Giuliani, in effect the president’s single operative, barely had contact information for most people on the Hill.
Institutional self-protection is relatively easy under these circumstances: all you need to do is wait for the noise to die down. McConnell had to endure a long, abusive, expletive-laden call from Trump demanding that he rally Republicans in the Senate behind him. ‘It was a road-rage confrontation, escalating in seconds from zero to sixty, with Trump heaping obscenities on the Republican leader and assailing his honesty, competence, patriotism and manhood.’ McConnell was forced to listen to all this. But then he could just put down the phone. He never heard from Trump again.”


“One hare-brained scheme was to get Texas to sue Pennsylvania for its conduct of the election, a case that was unanimously and perfunctorily dismissed by the Supreme Court on 11 December. It never stood a chance, but that didn’t stop a host of Republican state attorneys general, along with 126 Republican members of Congress, from signing up to it. Why did they agree to do something that left them open to ridicule? ‘They seemed to take two leaps of logic,’ Wolff writes: In the first, it was obviously ridiculous – ridiculous to anyone with any empirical reasoning capabilities, ridiculous to the various state AGs who had dragged their feet in support of it, ridiculous even to a deeply conservative [Supreme] Court. But, in the second step, it was necessary and productive to support Trump’s asinine and hopeless suit because Trump had mustered so much support among so many voters with no interest in or capacity for empirical reasoning, or, at least, who were preoccupied with other issues.
This leads to the second problem. The institutions of the American republic withstood Trump just as the Founders might have hoped: since federal government is complicated and burdensome and organised around institutional self-interest (‘Ambition must be made to counteract ambition’), it was relatively impervious to his simplistic and lazy rabble-rousing. The name-calling was exhausting and debilitating but it was possible to ride it out. But the one institution that was not able to withstand Trump was the one the Founders thought might destroy the republic anyway: a political party. The Republican Party establishment indulged Trump and then discovered that when it was time to move on his voters were staying put. Having paid lip service to his lunacy, it turned out that they couldn’t undo what they had done.”


“It turned out that words did indeed have consequences: not Trump’s but those of the party high-ups who had indulged him and those who supported him. Now they were stuck with what they had allowed.
Wolff writes that many of those around Trump attributed to him magical powers. They couldn’t otherwise explain how he could get away with what he did. He appeared to channel the national mood in ways that were inaccessible to mere mortals. He had a sixth sense, and perhaps even a seventh, for political anger and resentment. On election night, when it looked like he would win, his inner circle put it down to his inexplicable gift for riding undercurrents of feeling that other politicians, including McConnell, routinely missed. The campaign had been a disaster, the debates with Biden a series of fiascos, the country was ravaged by Covid and the president was often missing in action, yet here were his people turning out in droves. Trump was wrong when he said that 75 million votes – the highest total for any incumbent in American history – meant that he was certain to win. But he was right when he said that it meant he couldn’t lose. That level of support, undiminished by his repeated failings, ensured that institutional self-protection within the Republican Party worked to keep him afloat.”


“That Trump continues to prosper politically, notwithstanding the chaos and degradation of his final months in office, leaves Wolff awestruck, in spite of himself. ‘The fact that he survived, without real support, without real assistance, without expertise, without backup, without anybody minding the store, and without truly knowing his ass from a hole in the ground, was extraordinary. Magical.’ But this is not magic, and Trump has no mystical powers. It’s just democracy, coming apart at the seams.”

Read the article here.

Those who believe that Trump is going to be a serious contender in 2024 should read this article carefully.

Yes, he survived, more or less, and democracy is fallible, especially in the US, where God and American exceptionalism hover above everything, the false prophet has a better chance winning there than in many other places. I know Weimar…

Now, read these sentences again:

“Neither Trump nor the people around him were part of a sinister plot to subvert and ultimately take over the democratic institutions of the United States. They didn’t possess even the minimum competence for that.”

What happened on that Wednesday in January was scary, but scarier and more dangerous is the cowardness of most high- and lower ranking Republicans. Which is maybe just a deficit that comes with the job. I’m not convinced that the other side is immune to this malady.

Words have consequences. The hypocrisy of the church is nothing compared to the hypocrisy of those politicians: our voters dislike empirical reasoning, well, we feign to dislike it as well.

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