Editor’s note: This was written in December ahead of our January magazine deadline.
That was some scary business the week after the presidential election and beyond in many parts of the country, including our tranquil little state. It was a level of hate and ferocity not experienced in American or local politics in a lifetime.
Heavily armed men bearing Donald Trump regalia and Confederate and American flags and bellowing curses and threats of revolt raged through the streets of the nation’s capital and other cities claiming that dark forces had stolen the election from their man and that retribution must be brought. Republican attorneys general, including our own, demanded that the U.S. Supreme Court throw out an American election for the first time in history to reinstate a Republican president who had lost by more than 7 million votes. Scores of Republican lawmakers, including many of ours, joined them in demanding that the election be set aside so that the dark forces of Marxism could not take over the country.
Angry and heavily tattooed boys toting guns patrolled our Capitol a few blocks from me with signs protesting “the steal,” as if they might go inside and capture the secretary of state, who’s sort of in charge of Arkansas elections and is a Republican, then void Arkansas votes and maybe throw all the ballots in the Arkansas River, as they did in post-Reconstruction Arkansas, although the state’s votes this time had gone nearly two to one for the boys’ hero.
In the week after the voting, three Arkansas lawmen — the police chiefs of two county seats and a state wildlife officer — thrilled their followers on social media with racist taunts or threats against Democrats, Marxists and “pedophiles” who had stolen the election from Trump.
Although he did not go as far as Republican officials in Michigan in suggesting assassinations, the chief lawman at Marshall was the most specific about what he wanted Arkansans to do: “When this is over and Trump is president for four more years. Do not go to sleep. Do not forget what these Marxist Democrat bastards have tried to do. When you see one in public get in their face do not give them any peace. Throw water on them at restaurants. Push them off sidewalks. Never let them forget they are traitors and do not have any right to live in this Republic after what they have done.”
The chief was following something of a tradition in Searcy County. A predecessor jailed a poor farmer from St. Joe named Joe Johnson when he showed up at the courthouse in Marshall to get commodities for his starving children, just as America was preparing to go to war with the Axis powers. Joe wouldn’t salute the flag because Jehovah’s Witnesses like him thought the Bible forbade worshipful gestures except for God, and his hand touched the flag as he was explaining his church’s creed. The Arkansas Supreme Court (Johnson v. State, 1942) said the lawman did exactly the right thing in jailing the farmer for desecrating the flag.
This time, the mayor thought the chief’s stand was a little controversial and it would be best for him to step down for a while. But far more dangerous things were being said and done across the land. Trump supporters plotted to kidnap the Democratic governor of Michigan, whom the president had declare an enemy.
My 83 years have seen nothing like it, nor have the history books, although Trump and his worshipers were not the first to engage in seditious electioneering. Adams and Jefferson started it.
Biden’s victory always seemed, at least to me, to be virtually assured, and the final vote almost exactly reflected the consensus of the final polls, including Fox News’ surveys. Unlike every other president since Harry Truman, Trump never for even a week got a national approval rating in Gallup’s polling as high as 50 percent, much less the stratospheric numbers that Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan or even George W. Bush sometimes racked up. Joe Biden received the highest share of votes against a sitting president — 51.3 percent — of anyone running against a sitting president since 1932, when Roosevelt won a landslide against Hoover.
But Trump said Biden’s margin of 7.1 million votes represented votes stolen by Democrats, with somebody’s help — maybe Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, China or child molesters but not, of course, Vladimir Putin’s spies, who we now know for months had been hacking into the computer systems of the Defense, Treasury, Commerce and other vital departments of government along with major corporations and cybersecurity and technology firms that deal with the government. Putin said the espionage charges were only efforts to make his pal Trump look bad.
Trump’s accusations of a massive vote theft were automatic. Psychopaths are humanly incapable of admitting loss, failure or inferiority. In 2016, when it appeared he was going to lose New Hampshire, Trump tweeted that bus caravans were hauling thousands of immigrants from Boston into New Hampshire towns to vote against him. The New Hampshire attorney general and Republican election officials said it didn’t happen — “absolutely delusional,” the state GOP chairman said.
Still, millions believed Trump, just as scores of millions now believe all his charges — not one of which proved to have any basis in fact when attorneys hired by a hastily collected slush fund presented them to criminal and civil courts in 50 cases. Trump’s own appointed trial and appellate judges, including his carefully chosen Supreme Court justices, said it was all nonsense that included not a single piece of evidence that they could hang their hat on.
Neither election misconduct nor ridiculous claims about it are new to politics but the boundless level of fanaticism and hatred is. It has been building since Newt Gingrich in 1994 declared that Democrats were the enemies of America and that Republicans must treat them as such, not merely political adversaries. Inevitably, it became a mutual strategy. Respect and cooperation pretty much disappeared or were fruitless, as Barack Obama confessed in a recent memoir.
Thomas B. Edsall, the aging national political reporter for The New York Times who writes scholarly analyses of political trends, explored the subject in a piece in which he described the turmoil before and after the election as demonstrating “an ominous vulnerability in our political system.” Trump’s campaign style, starting with his venomous attacks on all his Republican opponents in 2016 and then against Democrats, his former aides and all his critics, ratcheted the level of hostility both among politicians and the public to heights that now endanger democratic norms that governed us since the founding of the republic. A week before the election, 15 scholars published an essay entitled “Political Sectarianism in America,” which posited that the antagonism between the left and the right, Democrats and Republicans, and among the politically engaged masses in America had reached an unsustainable level that could lead to mass violence and upheaval. It was no longer mere disagreements about good policy on matters like health care, taxes, minimum wages or abortion rights but, on each side, a moral war — good vs. evil — that had to be fought to the finish.
The academics were borne out in the tumultuous events of the succeeding weeks, including the Marshall police chief’s tirade. You can find, of course, some examples on the other side, too — that Trump and his allies were leading us to a dictatorship like those that the president admired.
It is, indeed, scary, but I would posit that much of it is the Trump phenomenon — the cultish adoration of a lifetime con man whose word always is gospel because he said it. Every speech he has given, every sentence or scribble he ever tweeted, was a celebration of himself or a damnation of anyone who demurred. To most of the 74 million who voted for him he was, as he said, the most heroic president in history, who made America great once again, who made the world respect the United States again, who singlehandedly produced the greatest economy America or the world has ever seen, who had a strategy to stop the global pandemic in its tracks in America. All his foreign-policy disasters like North Vietnam, China, NATO, Russia and America’s fading power and respect around the globe never happened.
Take the economy. He will leave office Jan. 20 with the worst economic record of any president since Hoover. He and Hoover are the only presidents in more than a century who produced a net loss of American jobs. Even the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorialists praise his effect on the Arkansas economy. For the record, Barack Obama, who inherited a collapsing economy, brought the unemployment rate down from nearly 10 percent to 3.7 percent when Trump took office. Under Trump, it once reached 3.5 percent before doubling again. His trade wars and a revised North American trade agreement were going to reverse the U.S. trade deficit with China, Mexico, Canada and the rest of the world. Instead, they hit new highs.
He was going to balance the federal budget and eliminate the national debt by the end of his second term. Instead, his single term produced the biggest budget deficits in history and added $7.3 trillion to the debt. As his agencies rolled back workplace and environmental protections from industry, workplace deaths and health hazards have risen once again.
Although all those figures are from his government’s statistics, he would call all of it fake news and tens of millions of his apostles will agree absolutely. When he settles in at Mar-a-Lago, or wherever they let him land, I’m counting on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wisdom to be validated — “every hero becomes a bore at last” — and political temperatures will moderate to a sustainable level again. Relax.