Andrew O'Hehir

Legendary reporter Carl Bernstein: 'The truth is not neutral'

Carl Bernstein's memoir of his apprenticeship in reporting, "Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom," is on the surface a story about journalism, and about America, in a historical period that to most of us now seems long in the past. Bernstein's first job in the business came in 1960, as a 16-year-old "copy boy" for the Evening Star, at the time the No. 2 daily in Washington, D.C. (The Star ceased publication in 1981, part of a wave of newspaper consolidation that prefigured the industry-wide collapse of the internet era.) This book begins there, allowing for a bit of back story, and concludes in 1966, after Bernstein had left the Star and spent a year at the Elizabeth Daily Journal in New Jersey (a paper that, almost unbelievably, had a circulation of 50,000). He was about to return to Washington and take a job with the Star's better-known competitor — but that story is not this one.

I was both relieved and delighted to discover that "Chasing History" is not an elder statesman's nostalgic account of the Good Old Days, nor a reverse-engineered personal history of how a Great Man rose from obscurity. It's both subtler and more interesting than that, as well as an immensely entertaining read — jam-packed with famous names and juicy anecdotes — for anyone who cares about the past and future of journalism, or the lessons to be drawn from that tumultuous period of American history.

Bernstein's future employer, the Washington Post, mostly plays a role in this story as the snooty, less enterprising competitor to the Star. His future reporting partner at the Post, Bob Woodward — alongside whom Bernstein became a household name and half of the most famous investigative team in our profession's history — only appears in the acknowledgments. Richard Nixon certainly comes up, first as a defeated presidential candidate in 1960 and then, two years later, as a defeated gubernatorial candidate clear across the country in California. (Bernstein acknowledges, in passing, that his destiny and Nixon's would cross paths in the future.)

What at first appears to be a story about the past turns out, as is so often true, to be a story about the present, or perhaps an illustration of Faulkner's famous pronouncement that the past isn't dead, and isn't even past. In our recent conversation for Salon Talks, Bernstein told me that he hadn't exactly been conscious, while writing "Chasing History," that so many of the themes of his youthful career would resonate in 2022 — he made the connections at an intuitive level, which is after all what writers do. He knew his book was partly about racism and race relations, a beat he frequently covered as a young reporter and one of the Star's strengths (despite its nearly all-white newsroom, which was certainly not unusual.) One of his mentors at the paper, Mary Lou Werner — herself one of the first prominent female news reporters — had won a Pulitzer for her coverage of the racist "massive resistance" against school desegregation in Virginia.

But Bernstein could not have foreseen how many of the "local" issues he covered as a teenage cub reporter — battles over racial issues in education, over voter suppression and false claims of voter fraud (yes, really!) or over the threat of right-wing insurrectionist violence (again, really) — would resurface in our drastically different era, clad in new rhetorical garb but reflecting the same unanswered questions that have tormented America since the beginning. He had a lot to say in our conversation, about the state of journalism then and now, about the contradictions of truth-telling in the Trump era, about the imperiled state of our democracy. (When the video was off, we debated which of us has deeper parental roots in the American left: I think it's a tie.)

I didn't even ask him about being played by Dustin Hoffman in the most famous of all journalism movies, or about his period of full-on celebrity in the late '70s and '80s, when he reportedly dated Bianca Jagger, Elizabeth Taylor and Martha Stewart, among other famous women. What I loved about Carl Bernstein's book was the same thing I most enjoyed about talking to him personally: the endless curiosity and the sense of discovery. You can spend your life chasing history, as he has done with illustrious results. You never quite catch up to it.

Carl, maybe the most interesting thing about this book is what it's not about. It's not about your career at the Washington Post or your partnership with Bob Woodward or the reporting on Watergate that led to "All the President's Men," both the book and the movie. It's about how you broke into this business as a teenager at the Washington Star, a daily paper that hasn't existed for more than 40 years now. Sowhy tell that story?

This book is, as you indicated, about the five-year period from age 16 to 21 that I worked in my apprenticeship at probably the greatest afternoon newspaper in America, the Washington Evening Star in my native city, I'm a second-generation Washingtonian. So the book is not written from the point of view of the old man looking back: Nothing in the action of the book, except for an epilogue, says anything about the future. It ends in 1965, and it covers this amazing five-year period of my life when I go to work as a copy boy at this amazing newspaper, and for the next five years, this kid, and it's written in the voice of the kid, gets to have the greatest seat in the country.

It's remarkable. Could it happen today? Probably not. But I was able to have this apprenticeship with the greatest reporters of their day, and greatest editors, during a period of civil rights, the Kennedy presidency and assassination, the beginning of the Great Society, the beginning of the war in Vietnam, and also this kid covering cops, con-men, the streets and alleyways of the capital, which is a very different city than the marble columned halls of government, shrines and emblems of the nation. There is an integration in the book of our lives in Washington at the time, and particularly what I was doing as a young reporter and a copy boy with all these opportunities.

It's a mix of the high and the low. That's really what reporting is, as a matter of fact. So there is a straight line from this book to Watergate and "All the President's Men," but the future is never mentioned.

I think you avoid the usual pitfalls of nostalgia really well. I mean, you talk about how the Star was a great newspaper but you never strike that elegiac tone of, like, "Everything was better then, everything is worse now."

That's very true, because it's about, again, an experience that is absolutely formative in my life, and it's told as I experienced it. So what I hope comes through the pages is the kid being open to all of these different forces, including everything I know about how to be a reporter and these people who became my family. I was by far the youngest person in that newsroom. Even when I left as a reporter at age 21, the copy boys were still older than me, or a good number of them were.

It's also the experience of this kid in the capital of the United States, watching history in front of him, but without a recognition that these were hinges of history. The last week or month that I was at the Star, I covered the Voting Rights Act of 1965. What are we talking about today? What's the news on the front page of the Washington Post and the New York Times? It's about the restoration or stripping of that Voting Rights Act that I covered in 1965. So you get a sense of the country, in my five years at the Star -- which bracketed the years of the Civil War, 100 years later exactly.

I grew up in Jim Crow Washington, Washington was a segregated city. I went to legally segregated public schools in the capital of the United States. I'll bet you that one-fiftieth of the people watching us right now know that the capital of the United States had segregated public schools until Brown vs Board of Education. In fact, Brown did not apply to the District of Columbia, because it wasn't a state. There had to be a separate case, Bolling vs Sharpe, which was about the District of Columbia public schools that I was in. I was in the sixth grade when our schools were finally integrated. The restaurants downtown, when I grew up, Black people couldn't eat at them. They had to stand at the lunch counters.

I talk about the first sit-ins with my parents, who were left-wing people and were very instrumental in desegregating downtown Washington. They took me with them when I was eight, nine years old, to these sit-ins at the lunch counters and at the Tea Room in Woodward & Lathrop department store. A lot of the book is about civil rights, which I got to cover. The first thing I did when they made me a reporter at 19, it was a horrible, terrible thing, I was sent to National Airport to spend the day with Rita Schwerner, who was — she didn't know she was a widow yet. Her husband was Mickey Schwerner of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. At that moment they were searching for the three men in Mississippi. They were found about 72 hours after I met with Rita Schwerner, under a levee in Mississippi, victims of the horror that was going on in the South at that time. So that experience was formative, and it's an experience that was formative for the country, as well as for journalism.

The Rita Schwerner chapter in your book is extremely moving. I think every journalist should read that.You talk about what you realized when writing that story: There's a crucial difference between a story as an assembly of facts, which may be accurate in themselves, and presenting them in a context in which they make sense. That's a difficult thing to pin down, and I think you express it very well.

The line in the book — I remember reading it when I wrote it and saying, "Ah, I've been able to express this," is that the truth is not neutral. I learned that covering civil rights and I learned it particularly from Southern reporters who were covering civil rights. Among my mentors was Mary Lou Werner, the state editor of the Washington Star. She had won a Pulitzer for covering "massive resistance" to desegregation in Virginia. It's another amazing thing about the Star: When I went to work there,, the head copy boy gave me a tour of the newsroom, which is described in the book, in the opening of the book, and he took me down the center aisle on either side of which was the reporters' desks.

He told me about three of the great reporters in the newsroom, they were all women. Miss McGrory, as he put it, Miss Ottenberg and Miss Werner. All three were Pulitzer winners, two of them in the last two years. So that was what this paper was about. What I learned covering civil rights was that when you see and hear the widow of one of the three men shot to death and put under a levee in Mississippi, there aren't two sides to that story. In journalism I think we're burdened by the myth of objectivity. Being a reporter is the most subjective of acts. Why is that? Because you're choosing to define what is news, that's the primary thing.

What is news? What are you looking at? What's important? Then, going about the reporting, the perseverance, the refusing to use just one source, but going to one source after another, all the things that the movie of "All the President's Men" shows so well. You can see a straight line from this book and knocking on doors to "All the President's Men." It's about the methodology. One of the problems today in news is that the methodology, which should be preeminent and prominent and we should be using these amazing tools that we have to work more rapidly and give more depth to our stories -- but the reporting, the basic reporting, has to be done the old way.

What's going on in our newsrooms today? People aren't going outside the newsroom, they're using Google, they're occasionally using the cellphone, but by and large — there are thousands of people doing what's called news in this country, and this is not about nostalgia — they don't go out of the office, they don't knock on the doors, they don't develop sources. The biggest problem in journalism today: We're lazy.

I agree with you 100%. I think it's a chronic problem that is larger than journalism, right? It's a social problem, a cultural problem.

Let me stop you right there, because you just used the term "cultural problem." The other element, and this is different from the time I was at the Star, is that the big story in this country today is the culture of America. It's not what's going on in the capital, it's what's going on with people in this country, including state legislatures, including politicians, including the Capitol building in Washington, but also the people and what is on their minds and what is in their hearts and what is in their prejudices and what is in their hatreds. We are in the midst of what I would call a cold civil war, for most of the Trump years and before that. It goes back 20, 30 years.

Trump ignited it, it's no longer cold, it's reached a point of ignition. That's where we are. We look at journalism and politics as separate entities, no. It's about the culture of this country. This book is hardly just about race, it's about covering a plane crash, it's about going to after-hours clubs in the middle of the night, it's about interviewing Barry Goldwater by ham radio, as I did the day that he was nominated to be president of the United States.

That's an unbelievable story. Share that one.

It's a funny story. I had heard that Goldwater was a ham radio operator and that he had taken his equipment out to the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco with him so he could play at being a ham radio operator while he was getting nominated to be president. It was stupefying, and I said, "Maybe I could interview him by ham radio." So I got in touch with his press secretary, who thought it was a great idea. I found this ham radio operator in Arlington, Virginia, and we got on the ham radio and Goldwater says, "I'm Zero Kilowatts, this, that and the other thing."

We radioed back, "We're Wonder John Roger whatever." We proceeded to have this interview hours away from when he was nominated, it was hilarious, got on the front page. But here's the kicker to the story, and it's not in the book. Here's where you go from here to Watergate to today. Woodward and I, when we wrote "The Final Days," about the end of Richard Nixon's presidency, we went to see Barry Goldwater, who remembered this interview that I had done with him by ham radio. Goldwater was drinking a Scotch and he went and got his diary, and he told us how he and the leaders of the Republican Party, after Nixon's tapes had come out — the Judiciary Committee in the House had voted impeachment articles — now it was going to be certain impeachment and trial in the Senate. Nixon thought that he could beat it, like Trump. He thought he'd be acquitted by the Senate.

Goldwater, the former presidential nominee, a conservative in his party, organized the Republican leadership to go to the White House. They sat across from Richard Nixon, and Nixon asked Goldwater, "Barry, how many votes do I have in the Senate?" Goldwater looked at him and said, "I'm not sure, Mr. President, maybe four right now. But you certainly don't have mine." At that moment, Nixon knew he was through and he resigned two days later. But the Republican Party was not ready to put up with this criminal presidential conduct. Look at the Republican Party today. Why do we have a seditious president that has been able to have a seditious movement following him? Because the Republican Party has been craven. It has been taken over by these seditious forces who are willing to do anything that Trump says should be done.

We had a coup, a conspiracy by the president of the United States to undermine the free electoral process in this country, followed and enabled by the Republican Party. You have to go back to the Civil War to have this kind of sedition, but never have we had a seditious president or a totally seditious political party. Look at what's going on about Jan. 6 and the investigation. A year ago, Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House, said exactly what was true: The president was responsible for this. Now he's trying to conspire to shut down a legitimate investigation of this sabotage of democracy, of this sedition.

Recently we saw two members on the House floor, two Republicans who were wiling to go onto the floor during the talk about the Jan. 6 insurrection. Who were they? Liz Cheney and her father, the former vice president, exercising his privileges as a former member of Congress. Astonishing. So there is a straight line from this book to Watergate. I just never make the connection out loud.

I definitely agree that the kind of training and rigor you write about in this book is more difficult to find these days. I tell younger reporters that there's a big difference between your personal opinion, which should not play a role in reporting, and the historical and social context that's necessary to understanding an issue, to telling the truth. The term I use is "rational inference," meaning things that we can reasonably conclude based on the evidence. A lot of people don't understand how to walk that line.

Well, here's the other difference between the period when I worked at the Star and even at the Washington Post and today. I don't know the exact percentage, but certainly huge numbers of people, maybe most people in this country, are looking for news and information to reinforce what they already believe.

So the same bifurcation that we have in the country, the same polarization, exists in terms of consumption of news. It's a horrible thing. At the time I'm describing in this book, at the time of Watergate, most people were open to the best attainable version of the truth, the complexity of the truth. That's not the case today. Going back to the point about how this is cultural, not political. We have a culture where a huge percentage of our people is not interested in truth. This is a sea change.

Were you conscious when you were writing the book that it wasn't about the '60s, that it was also about today? I mean, a lot of it is about race relations, a lot is about voting rights. You even write about the emergence of right-wing violence, such as around civil rights. That feeling kind of snuck up on me: that in a lot of ways this book is not about the past.

Not while I was typing, but after. One of the things that happens, if you're a writer, not just a reporter — one of the great things I got to do at the Star was study some of the greatest writers for newspapers in America. Mary McGrory comes to mind, but there were many others. There was a rewrite man, who as I describe him, could make the words jump like trout. I studied these people and how they wrote and how they reported. There was a guy named John Sherwood who would ply the Chesapeake Bay in his sloop and find these islands where the oystermen still spoke almost in Elizabethan dialect, and write these rhapsodic pictures. Every year at the beginning of oyster season, he would use the same lede: "Behold the succulent bivalve."

I actually shared that with Salon's staff this morning. Completely irresistible.

So when you write, and this is true sometimes even when you're just writing on deadline, but it's really true when you're writing a book, you don't know. You're in a different place when you're writing, and then you look at the paragraph or the sentence and you say, "Oh, my God." There are times when I was doing that in this book and I would say, "That's Donald Trump." You see these resonances, and that is also what reporting is about. So the book does this jumping trick, maybe. Did I set out to do the jumping trick? No, it happens with the writing.

Before we end, let me briefly tell you a Washington Star story, although it's before your time. On the wall behind me I have a picture of my mother that was published in the Star, I believe in 1946. She was leading a march to the White House against the Ku Klux Klan. She's got heels and a summer dress on and she's wearing a placard that says, "Outlaw the Ku Klux Klan." If you're wondering whether she was connected to an infamous left-wing movement, as I know your family was, the answer is absolutely yes.

Wow. Well, you know, my father was a union organizer, my parents were members of the Communist Party in the '40s, the book mentions that. Obviously there is a commonality in your mother's story.

It seems very likely they knew each other. My mother was a union organizer at the time too, and her husband was a reporter for the Daily Worker.

Really? You might even have more serious left-wing credentials than I do, from childhood. There's a key paragraph in this book when I describe what I do as learning about the best obtainable words, and the truth in this paragraph comes during the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the realization that the Star and reporting were a refuge for me from the discomfort I felt in ideology. My parents, even though they were left-wing people, my father actually detested ideology. He would call people in the party, for instance, "trolley car guys," because they followed a line.

Remember, the Star was the conservative paper in Washington. The Post was the liberal paper. My father got me an interview at the Star because his union was the United Public Workers of America, the government workers' union, and the Star had covered a strike by his union with great fairness. The Post had a government columnist who was a red-baiter, and covered the strike looking for subversion, rather than covering the fact that government workers at government cafeterias and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing couldn't get a dollar an hour.

So my father got me an interview at the conservative Washington Star, which — in those days, the joy we took in beating the Washington Post and being a better newspaper was part of the esprit of the newsroom. We were a better paper than the Post partly because the line between church and state, between opinion and reporting, was absolute at the Star. It was not at the Washington Post, until Ben Bradlee got there and said, "Enough of this. We're here to report the news." Does that part stay in the interview, I hope?

Of course it does. That's a great story.

Text-gate fallout: Hannity, Ingraham and Don Jr. revealed as whiny MAGA wimps

What happened last Jan. 6 in Washington created a momentary rupture in what we might call the fascist narrative of 21st-century America — that is, the dismal collective dream state, fueled by paranoia and self-loathing, in which Donald Trump and his allies hoped (and still hope) to envelop the entire nation.

You almost certainly remember that feeling, even if you don't want to think about it now: For about the 217th time in the Trump presidency, it seemed as if we were all going to wake up, blinking and startled, like TV characters returning from an especially dire alternate universe at the end of the episode. Things would begin to return to "normal," whatever we variously (and hilariously) believed that was. Republicans would feel at least a little ashamed about their five-year Burning Man festival on the blasted plains of Mordor, and would revert to their familiar routines of sanctimonious hypocrisy, dog-whistle racism and blatantly disastrous economic policy. It was morning in America!

We were young and innocent then, weren't we? No, I'm not mocking anyone for believing that Jan. 6 was a turning point. I believed it too. Several Republican senators, including Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham, clearly felt — perhaps for as long as 48 hours! — that a mob assault on the U.S. Capitol, incited by the president before whom they had shamelessly prostrated themselves, was going too far. A second impeachment seemed inevitable, but this time conviction felt not just possible but likely (which might, or might not, have barred the soon-to-be-former president from running again).

It even seemed conceivable — and here was our laughable mistake, oh gentle, coddled reader — that the horror and outrage expressed on TV by the Jake Tappers and Anderson Coopers of the world might transmit itself to the general public, and that a significant proportion of people who had voted for Trump but were not otherwise profoundly psychotic might shake their heads and say, Jeez, you know what? Enough with this guy!

Trigger warning: It didn't work out that way.

As we have learned this week, even purported true believers like the Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, and even the not-yet-defrocked president's feckless eldest son, Donald Jr., were at least temporarily swayed by the prospect of a return to the realm of previously-existing political reality. While roving bands of Proud Boys and Three Percenters and Kekistanis and random rootless yahoos ransacked the Capitol, crapped in the potted plants and half-heartedly hunted for Mike Pence, Ingraham lamented (in a text to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows) that Trump was "destroying his legacy."

Why, Laura, that's positively adorable — but in which beautiful, bell-shaped flower filled with dew were you born yesterday? He was creating his legacy, girlfriend — and along the way creating another sadistic test to figure out who's utterly, cravenly loyal to him and who isn't. How do you think you did?

Once again completely justifying his father's withering contempt (and addressing him through an intermediary) Donald Trump Jr. told Meadows that Pop had "to condemn this shit ASAP" with "an Oval Office address. … It has gone too far and gotten out of hand." It's difficult to parse Junior's thought process here, using that term loosely, but the implication seems to be that overturning the election via quasi-constitutional chicanery and exploiting the loopholes in vague 18th-century laws was one thing, while a violent insurrection staged by cosplaying losers with zip ties and bear spray was quite another. Perhaps his father has since instructed him, with exactly as much sarcasm as the occasion demanded, that going "too far" and getting "out of hand" was precisely the point, and would yield benefits for their family dynasty long into the future.

Because you know who never bought any of this "sobering return to reality" crap, not even for one second? You know who never believed that the magic spell had been broken, and that Cinderella's Chick-fil-A-branded MAGAmobile — pulled by the enchanted cows of Devin Nunes — was about to turn back into an empty can of pumpkin pie filling? Donald J. Trump, that's who.

Donald Trump never believed that America would return to "normal" after his presidency because he clearly understood — with the distinctive stupid-brilliant insight that is uniquely his — that America hadn't been normal for a long time. He never believed that "reality" would reassert itself after Jan. 6, or at any other time, because he doesn't believe reality exists at all (or at least not independent of him). For him, reality is always contingent, always manufactured; it's the story you convince yourself to believe about yourself, built to appeal to the weaknesses and hidden desires of others and make them believe it too.

Whatever squeaky noises Mark Meadows may have made in the White House on Jan. 6, it was immediately clear that Trump was thoroughly delighted with what happened at the Capitol, and exceedingly reluctant to say or do anything to dissuade his followers from carrying their re-enactment of the storming of the Bastille all the way to its logical conclusion. When Trump finally began to issue public utterances that day, it was hours later, when police and National Guard troops had largely regained control of the Capitol. There wasn't the slightest hint of regret or admonition, only the already-familiar litany of grievance and injury, couched in his inimitable pseudo-declamatory prose: "These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away."

Whether anything resembling a coherent plan to delay or prevent the electoral-vote certification was in play on Jan. 6 is not clear. That's certainly a matter of legal and historical interest, but in terms of Donald Trump's world-building enterprise, it's somewhat beside the point. Trump both believed in the righteousness of his cause — since his only cause is his own glorification — and understood that the art of the long con (or the creation of an alternate universe, which is much the same thing) has a few simple rules. Never break character or let down your guard; never admit doubt or regret or uncertainty.

If Trump had any private doubts about the way his public would understand the events of Jan. 6, he certainly didn't express them — and I don't even think the concept of "private doubt" makes sense with this person. He was confident his followers would accept whatever alternative facts he installed in his alternative universe: The insurrectionists were heroes and patriots and martyrs, showering the cops with kisses, or they were a bunch of antifa false-flag provocateurs, funded by George Soros. Or — somehow — both were true at once! "Reality," for the MAGA faithful, is first and foremost whatever Trump says it is, and is secondarily the fanfics they create for themselves. (Trump certainly did not create QAnon, and might have been telling the truth when he initially claimed he didn't know what it was.)

As for the grifters and weasels and toadies of Fox News, and as for his own first-begotten son, Trump now knows what he has always suspected: They sucked up to him for all the usual reasons — money, power, fame and other personal advantage — but were never true believers. How sharper than a serpent's tooth! Fundamentally, those whiny MAGA hangers-on and wannabes were still tethered to the world of Jake Tapper and Anderson Cooper, where there were still norms and standards and a shared sense of bottom-line reality, where it was still possible to go "too far" and where the horrified reactions of polite and normal people in the coastal cities still mattered. They can never possibly eat enough crow — or enough of something else, also a word of four letters — to fully make up for this betrayal.

Donald Trump always thought that world was bullshit — a long con executed by people who read books and went to Harvard — and now he thinks he can replace it with his own. He might have been right about the first part. I guess we'll find out about the second.

Democrats face a dark road ahead — but here's why there's still hope in the future

Over the past couple of weeks, we've seen the Democratic Party at its worst and, approximately, at its best — or at least the best it's capable of at the moment. But here's the problem: No version of the current Democratic Party seems remotely prepared for its date with destiny, as the only electoral force standing in the way of a Republican congressional majority in 2022 and a triumphant resurgence of Trump-style discount-store fascism in 2024 (whether or not Donald Trump is personally involved).

This leads us, I think, toward, an inescapable conclusion, but one the left-liberal-progressive quadrant of the electorate is largely unwilling to face. Let me set up my defenses first: I'm not advocating fatalism or passivity. If you're deeply invested in firewalling the Democratic majority in 2022, and plan to sink your time, money, energy and some percentage of your soul into the Senate race in Ohio or North Carolina or Pennsylvania, or any of the two or three dozen House races that could go either way, have at it. Action is always preferable to inaction. Of course it's possible that Democrats could beat the odds, defy both the laws of political physics and the relentless grind of Republican redistricting and hold onto one or both houses of Congress. It could happen!

But, y'know, don't bet the grandkids' college fund on that or anything. My point is that those who are committed to the redemption, restoration or fulfillment of America's "multiracial democracy" (as Salon's Chauncey DeVega often puts it) need to take a longer view. Politics and history will not suddenly come to an end if (or when) Kevin McCarthy — who is, yes, a repulsive and craven idiot — becomes speaker of the House in January of 2023. Indeed, I think it's possible that a new kind of politics will be necessary after that. While we're there, we might also need to consider the still darker possibilities that may arrive after that, which will also not cause the sun to drip blood or the Four Horsemen to emerge from a smoldering cleft in the earth … you can guess where I'm going. Yeah, him: The Great Pumpkin. But before we indulge, let's consider where we are.

I probably don't need to go over the painful evidence of recent days, but let's summarize. After the supposedly unexpected (but honestly completely predictable) victory of Republican Glenn Youngkin in the Virginia gubernatorial race — and the actually unexpected near-political-death experience of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (a center-left darling of the moment), against a GOP nonentity with no discernible agenda and a spell-check-defying surname — we entered the ritual period of Democratic gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, as prescribed by scripture.

Democrats had supposedly gotten too woke, too radical, too defund-the-police, too obsessed with niche racial or social justice issues that alienated "ordinary Americans," a term of art used in different ways by different members of the media and political castes, but always to mean people we regard as earnest and honorable, but unfortunately not that bright. This was a particularly hilarious charge to fling at Terry McAuliffe, the Virginia loser, who appears to be (and may actually be) an automaton assembled at Democratic National Committee headquarters, and whose entire campaign was structured around the indisputable fact that however much of a lifeless Clintonite retread he might be, he wasn't Donald Trump.

But the fact that the indictment was prima facie ludicrous was obviously beside the point. As a subsequent New York Times editorial written in baffling doublespeak appeared to argue, McAuliffe had somehow been contaminated by all the wild-eyed tax-and-spend radicalism of "progressives" in Congress, with their ridiculous SJW demands for — um, well, for child care benefits and parental leave policies and universal pre-K and lower drug prices for seniors and other stuff that is massively popular across the political spectrum.

See, the Democrats' current dilemma is not entirely or exactly or even mostly about the supposed Bernie vs. Hillary ideological and generational conflict that has created so much internal discord over the past five or six years. Here's why: The so-called moderates within the party no longer have any clear policies or principles to defend, beyond the Reagan-era reflex that if we scare the normies too much, we'll lose. (Translation: If we talk about race and racism too much — or actually at all — we'll alienate middle-income and lower-income white people in the suburbs and rural areas. Who, admittedly, already hate our guts — but we're sad about that.)

They used to have real positions! Let's be clear about that: Once upon a time, centrist Democrats were for free-trade agreements and the unregulated flow of finance capital and defunding the welfare state and fiscal austerity and "muscular" foreign policy, along with — let's be fair! — expanded civil rights and economic opportunities for women, Black people, LGBTQ folk and other marginalized groups. Some of this was just cynical or tactical politics, an effort to defang or outflank Republican attacks, but some of it was entirely authentic: The era of big government is over, the information economy is here, entrepreneurship is the social movement of the future, a rising tide lifts all boats — and yes, sorry, I'll stop now before you need to vomit again.

I'm pretty sure there are still Democrats out in the wild — Kamala Harris, possibly; Pete Buttigieg, definitely — who subscribe to some semi-updated version of that 1992 "New Democrat" wisdom. But after the Great Recession and the gradually accumulating bummer of the Obama presidency and the noxious collective brain-fart of the Trump regime and the last two years of a goddamn pandemic that has probably already killed a million Americans (and unquestionably will before it's over), the stern but benevolent turning-you-down-for-a-loan act just doesn't fly anymore. Well, except for the "muscular" foreign policy that both parties pursue without question, but doesn't much interest folks out here in internet-land, the puzzling and humiliating quadrillion-dollar Afghanistan fiasco aside.

Joe Biden, the oldest person ever elected president, has figured most of this out, perhaps because he's been around so damn long he never fully bought into any particular version of Democratic orthodoxy. But way too many of the "moderate" Democrats of 2021 have become like the Soviet apparatchiks of the 1980s, muttering the bromides they think may allow them to hold onto power, but depressingly aware that it's all kind of a con and nobody outside their crumbling palace even pretends to believe anymore.

At least Joe Manchin is both blatantly corrupt and trapped in his own Depression-bootstrap fantasy of the past, the last living specimen of the "conservative Democrats" who were a major power bloc well into my 1970s childhood. And at least Kyrsten Sinema is flamboyantly and performatively corrupt, the out bisexual Gen X senator with the deliberately mismatched outfits of the sort fashion magazines used to call "kicky," inhaling whopping sums from Big Pharma and voting down a minimum-wage increase on her way to the They Might Be Giants reunion concert. (If they ever officially broke up; I'm not sure, but I bet the gentlelady from Arizona knows.)

You have to respect and even admire them, in a way. No, wait: I don't mean that at all. You don't. But at least they know what they stand for, which is "this is how the world works, suckas," or to quote the final line of a great and anguished film, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." A whole lot of other Democrats are hopelessly pinioned between the corporate donor class they have lovingly cultivated and the increasingly restless "progressive base," and must also reckon with the fact that in our deeply undemocratic system their fragile majority literally rides on a few thousand randos in exurban "swing districts" and "purple states," who are entirely likely to vote based on the price of gas or whether the Amazon guy was a dick or some half-processed fragment of COVID misinformation. In that context, "Oh shit, let's not spend all this money" becomes an understandable response, although not an admirable or defensible one.

So my point is not that Democrats can save themselves by waving the red flag and embracing the most fulsome version of the Bernie-AOC agenda. There's something to be said for that, along the lines of the old proverb that tells us it's better to be hanged as a thief than a beggar. (Even setting aside the fact that most of the stuff in that agenda would be amazing.) But nobody can possibly know whether that would work in electoral terms, and it's not going to happen anyway.

My point, in fact, is that the current version of the Democratic Party is screwed six ways from Sunday, partly due to structural factors beyond its control and partly due to its own haplessness, incompetence and corruption. I don't know what will happen in 2022 — except, sorry, yes I do and so do you. Fight against a Republican majority all you want, but also be prepared for the likely outcome, which will be grim and unpleasant at every level but will also create new opportunities for struggle, and perhaps a necessary confrontation with reality.

I really and truly don't know what will happen in 2024, because there's a lot of terrain to traverse before we get there. Joe Biden, if he runs again, will have the built-in advantage of incumbency, and there's no reason to believe that every single tendency of political reality has been reversed just because You Know Who won that election that one time. But we might as well face it: It's definitely within the realm of possibility that Donald Trump returns to power, either in his own skin or by way of some mini- or micro-Trump, running as his minion or puppet but yearning to break free. It could happen through "legitimate" means, thanks to the absurd and antiquated Electoral College, or through flat-out fraud and quasi-constitutional legislative override and throwing the election into the House of Representatives, which hasn't happened since the white-dudes-with-beards era of the 19th century.

Yeah, that could definitely happen, and it would be bad news. Will it mean the end of democracy forever and the inauguration of a Thousand-Year Reich ruled for all time by a gaggle of white supremacist douchebags? No, of course not. Will it suck? Yes. Will it suck worst of all for people who don't have all the unexamined privileges of someone like me? Yes. But to pretend that the deeply offensive and moronic (and evil) prospect of a Trump 2.0 regime will mean the end of history and the end of politics and "a boot stamping on a human face forever" is insulting and untrue. Why do we think we're special? In almost every European nation, not to mention the nations of the developing world, there are living people who have survived periods of fascistic or autocratic rule and come out the other side. Millions of people live under such regimes right now. It might just be our time to get schooled by history.

As for the Democrats: There's hope! It's long past time for progressives or liberals or even (hypothetically) moderates to rebuild the party from the ground up. That's what happened in the Republican Party during and after the Reagan era, which is why a party that only represents white people outside metropolitan areas, and holds an incoherent assortment of extremist views, has veto power over our entire political system. It's finally starting to happen on the Democratic side too, and if there's a way to redeem American democracy, and renew our poisoned and paralytic two-party system, that will begin at school boards and city councils and boards of supervisors and other unglamorous instruments of local government.

For at least the past 30 years, the Democratic Party has exclusively played defense, trying to win presidential elections and carve out legislative majorities and then govern from above, hoping against hope that the combination of gradual demographic change and incremental policy adjustments could change the political culture and turn back the rising right-wing tide. We're normal and reasonably competent and mostly well-intentioned, Democrats announced, to the delight of the vanishingly small proportion of the public who view politics in rational and unemotional terms. To say that it hasn't worked would be, quite literally, the understatement of the century.

You don't have to agree with Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or the other prominent progressives within the Democratic coalition about anything at all to appreciate that they have shifted the party's internal paradigm. Beneath the media narrative of Democratic defeat and despair in the off-year elections just concluded, there were dozens of progressive victories in local elections, and a degree of grassroots energy not seen since the 1970s.

Does that mean that democratic socialism or ultra-woke intersectionality or some iteration of a "race-class narrative" is the path forward? That's exactly what's up for grabs; nobody knows. If you think you have a role to play, get in on the action now. Will progressives and Democrats and Americans have to go through a really, really dark patch in the years ahead in order to reach those answers — a period of real danger and possible violence and almost certain trauma, which will require courage and patience and sacrifice, and whose ending is uncertain? If you've read this far, you know what I think. Draw your own conclusions.

Let's face it: Mitch McConnell has the Democrats trapped

We've got a fair number of repentant former Republicans roaming loose on the political landscape these days. They like to tell us that the onetime Party of Lincoln must be thoroughly defeated and destroyed before it can be rebuilt as a respectable, mainstream center-right organization. That's an encouraging team-building exercise, I guess — if we set aside everything about observable reality and play an extended game of Let's Pretend We're Grownups, like a bunch of eight-year-olds trying on Mom and Dad's Clinton-era wardrobe.

Even looking past the question of whether the reconstructed GOP 2.0 these folks imagine would be remotely viable (as to which: ha!), we still have the question of who's going to defeat the exceptionally nasty current version of the Republican Party, and how. These GOP apostates, it's worth noting, were totally OK with cutting taxes for the rich and running up massive deficits on endless, pointless, destructive overseas wars. They find themselves deeply shocked, however, by the party's swerve into overt racism, know-nothingism and borderline fascism, elements of the Republican coalition they believed could be kept in the basement indefinitely.

This call to arms by ex-Reaganites is presumably meant to fire up Democrats, who have been told repeatedly over the past 30 years or more that America's changing demographics were certain to deliver them a permanent majority coalition someday very, very soon. In this less-than-inspiring vision of utopia, benevolent intersectional liberals would govern wisely and forever, while Republicans would be consigned to regional, resentful rump-party status until and unless they gradually became a lot more like Democrats.

As you may have noticed, this keeps on not happening, and at this point the "emerging Democratic majority" is starting to sound like old-time Soviet dogma about true communism being just over the horizon. Yes, Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections — while managing to lose two of those anyway — but for a variety of reasons I don't need to rehearse here have found it impossible to hold or build congressional majorities, or to do much of anything with them when they have them.

More important than any of that, although absolutely related, is how Democrats have responded to the obvious Republican assault on democracy over the last couple of years, in the manner of a truckload of Brookings Institution scholars stuck in cold molasses, determined to consider all sides of the question fairly and not to let anyone accuse them of acting hastily. I'm not suggesting that Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer haven't expressed genuine alarm or said more or less the right things, because they have. But as you have perhaps observed, they haven't leveraged those words into action: They haven't ditched the filibuster or expanded the Supreme Court or passed any of the bills in front of them that are meant to fortify the right to vote, for the love of Jesus Christ.

This isn't a nice thing to say about a bunch of mostly sane and approximately reasonable people, but here's the truth: If you set out to design a left-center political party that was fated to surrender, little by little, to authoritarianism — because of circumstances beyond its control, because of internal indecision and ideological fuzziness, because it faced an entrenched and deranged opposition party, because of whatever — you could hardly do better than the current version of the Democratic Party.

This raises the question of whether the Republicans are the only party that needs to be badly defeated in order to recover a sense of purpose. Don't get me wrong here: It would be far preferable if the Democrats could work out how to win power and then use it effectively. I'm not advocating voting against them out of some contrarian or puritanical impulse, and I'm not even dragging out the old Bernie vs. Hillary generational and ideological conflict for another go-round. (Of course that remains an important source of friction, but it's genuinely not the central issue right now.)

If the current mishmash that is the Democratic Party simply isn't up to the task, if it's imprisoned by its donors and trapped in an old political paradigm while facing the birth of a new one, if it can't summon up the energy or determination to act decisively on behalf of supposedly shared principles, then what the hell is the point? Maybe they're the party that needs to be torn down and rebuilt, especially since the other one is an entirely lost cause.

Consider 2021 — yeah, I know you don't want to, but we don't have much choice. After the election of Joe Biden and the improbable reverse parlay of winning both Senate seats in Georgia — almost entirely thanks to the chaos-agent intervention of Donald J. Trump — liberals and progressives and normies of all descriptions exhaled audibly. We were back to "normal"! The nightmare had passed! Maybe the long-awaited Democratic majority had arrived at last, if only in ass-backward and highly precarious fashion … except nope, nobody believed that for more than a few minutes, considering that the day after the special elections in Georgia was the sixth of January.

I'm not saying that Mitch McConnell wanted to lose the Senate majority (I bet he had some choice words about Trump in private), but no one has ever accused Mitch of not knowing how to play the angles. He quickly understood how to turn the ambiguous results of 2020 to his advantage, and they were undeniably ambiguous: Democrats breezed into that election expecting big wins across the board, but instead lost most of their House majority and fell short in several prominent Senate races, failing to gain seats in Maine, Montana and North Carolina.

While regular people celebrated a victory and the supposed end of the Trump era, Democratic leaders and insiders looked ahead to the 2022 midterms and began to whimper uncontrollably. McConnell could smell the fear, to put it bluntly, and rubbed his hands with Montgomery Burns-like glee. With a 50-50 Senate and Biden's entire legislative agenda hamstrung by the filibuster and the nonsensical or corrupt Ringwraith fantasies of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, he had the Democrats trapped. They knew it and he knew it.

In a display of ruthlessness and cynicism that's impressive even by his standards, McConnell will force all 50 Democratic senators to vote on a budget and on raising the federal debt ceiling, which in quasi-normal times (and even under Trump) was done by bipartisan agreement. This will either force them to crumple and capitulate to whatever it is he wants (short version: more goodies for rich folks) or will create an invented wedge issue Mitch believes he can use to win back both houses of Congress next year. Republicans will pretend to run on fiscal responsibility but will actually run on a bunch of culture-war bullshit and promises to rig all future elections and unquestioned loyalty to a decrepit and defeated leader they all privately think is nuts. I'm sure looking forward to that, aren't you?

If Democrats lose conclusively to those people, then they deserve it. That's a dark path, perhaps darker than any of us wants to contemplate. But I think there's no avoiding this date with destiny, for the Democrats or the Trumpers or our entire so-called democratic experiment. If you see another one, light the way.

The global 'democratic recession' didn't just happen. It might be the final stage of the liberal order's collapse

There's been considerable chatter over the past few years about the crisis of democracy — sometimes more clinically described as a "democratic recession" or "democratic deficit." And for good reason: When Donald Trump stripped the flesh off the American body politic, he revealed a disease that has become endemic throughout the so-called Western world.

Faith in the power and goodness of democratic self-governance, previously as unchallenged and ubiquitous as belief in God during the Middle Ages, has decayed into the empty, hopeful rituals of the Anglican Church. Even those who insist they still believe are clearly troubled: Supposedly democratic elections are too often won by overtly anti-democratic or authoritarian leaders, and too often result in governments that ignore what the public actually wants and pursue policies that blatantly favor the rich and powerful and make inequality worse. (As, in fairness, nearly all governments tend to do.)

But the important question is not whether this is happening — the answer is obvious — but why. Trump and Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán and Jair Bolsonaro and Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Rodrigo Duterte and all the other pseudo-democratic usurpers around the world didn't arise out of nothing. To suggest that they all simultaneously tapped into a current of know-nothing darkness and bigotry and moral weakness that has been there under the surface of society all along, like undiscovered crude oil, is not a remotely adequate historical or political explanation.

To see so many marginal democracies tumble into the abyss — and a great many well-established ones tiptoe right to the edge — suggests that something else is going on, a deeper pattern we aren't ready or willing to look at. That deeper pattern isn't just a crisis of democracy in the narrow sense, meaning a system or mechanism for selecting hypothetically representative leaders, because that itself is a symptom or symbol. It's about the failure of liberalism, which is an especially confusing word in the American context but in larger historical and philosophical terms describes the amorphous and often contradictory set of beliefs that supports democracy — and without which democracy becomes impossible or meaningless.

Liberalism, in that broader sense, has dominated an increasing proportion of the world since the early 20th century and virtually the whole planet since the end of the Cold War. It's a tradition that included (until very recently) both the conventional left and the conventional right in the United States and most other Western-style democratic nations. It's not so much a coherent philosophy as a basket of principles, many of which are frequently in conflict: Free trade and the primacy of the capitalist "free market," the expansion of civil rights and civil liberties, freedom of the press and artistic expression, universal equality before the law and a contested role for the state, which is sometimes highly interventionist and sometimes much more hands-off.

To put it mildly, there's been a lot of disagreement within the liberal tradition about which of those principles is most important. Old-school "classical liberals," for example, eventually became known as conservatives or libertarians, while the "new liberals" divided into camps most often described today as moderates and progressives. In the wake of World War II and then the Cold War, liberalism writ large began to imagine itself as the end stage of human history, promising a world — in the infamous (and false) words of Thomas Friedman — in which no two countries with McDonald's franchises would ever go to war.

But as two important recent books about the liberal tradition — Pankaj Mishra's "Bland Radicals" and Louis Menand's "The Free World" — argue in different ways, that confidence was hubristic, and liberalism had already undermined itself at its moment of apparent total victory. The most generous thing we can say is that liberalism sometimes delivered on some of its promises (and only to some people), but never came close to fulfilling all of them. As for the liberal tradition's willingness to accommodate heated internal debate, as well as to wrestle with its own errors and blind spots, that was seen (with some justice) as a defining virtue — and was also, from the beginning, a critical weakness.

Most of the invigorating essays in Mishra's collection revolve around the insight that the disastrous failures of liberal foreign policy — so vividly illustrated in Afghanistan over the last few weeks — cannot be understood as aberrations or even contradictions. From the beginning, the liberal promise of expansive civil rights and ever-increasing prosperity (for the citizens of liberal nations) relied on overseas imperialism and ruthless exploitation, what we might today call the outsourcing of inequality. Furthermore, imposing Western-style liberal democracy on other nations (who were understandably uncertain it was a good idea) — through coercion and bribery and outright force, if necessary — was built into the model all along, even if that became embarrassing in the 20th century and had to be described with euphemisms about "freedom" and "self-government."

Menand's book is a sprawling, ambitious study of Western (and mostly American) culture during the Cold War years — from the avant-garde to Elvis Presley, from academic literary criticism to "The Feminine Mystique" — which could fairly be described as the greatest accomplishment of the liberal era. One of the central threads running through his history is the way this amazing cultural explosion began to pull the postwar liberal consensus apart, such that by the end of the Vietnam War, most American writers, artists and intellectuals saw themselves as enemies (or at least critics) of the American state, especially in terms of its global-superpower role.

In other words, while the crisis of electoral democracy seems to have appeared suddenly in the Euro-American backyard over the last 5 to 10 years, like a nasty invasive weed — and is still viewed by many observers as an almost inexplicable phenomenon — the implosion of the liberal order has been a long time coming. It's hard to see that clearly through the ideological haze, given that the media and political classes in the U.S. and most other Western nations (outside the far right and far left) remain steeped in a post-World War II worldview where some version of liberalism — however much amended, repaired and clarified — is the natural, inevitable and desirable order of things.

If liberalism remains the only paradigm available to resist the rise of Trump-style autocracy, as generally seems to be the case, then we're in deep trouble, and the dread so many of us feel about the inexorable erosion of democracy is fully justified. Does anyone today — literally anyone — possess the kind of universalist, upward-trending faith in liberal progress that drove the mythology of John F. Kennedy's brief presidency or the moral clarity of the civil rights movement?

In bizarre, upside-down fashion, Donald Trump's entire "Make America Great Again" campaign can be understood as a half-conscious attempt to rekindle that kind of collective passion, if only as ghoulish racist parody — the liberal soul, transplanted to a fascist body. (Trump's most insane followers in the QAnon cult briefly convinced themselves that John F. Kennedy Jr. was still alive and would return as Trump's running mate or spirit animal or something.)

Only someone with a time machine could tell us whether it will be possible to redeem or renew the better aspects of the liberal tradition as a vibrant force against the rising tide of jingoism, tribalism and autocracy. What we can say right now is that every few years someone emerges on the world stage who is embraced by the media and political caste as the savior of liberalism — or, worse yet, as the "transformational figure" who will overcome political paralysis and division — and it never ends well. No doubt Bill Clinton and Tony Blair think it's profoundly unfair that they have been consigned to the dustbin of history just because they made catastrophic compromises with the forces of evil. Emmanuel Macron actually believed he could make friends with Donald Trump, and that hubris may also pave the way for the far right's return to power in France, for the first time since the Nazi occupation.

Let's consider the most famous example, whose lessons "liberal" Americans (in all senses of the word) have not yet begun to understand. In the United States we have told ourselves a more sophisticated version of the above-mentioned narrative about how the current of ignorance and darkness running beneath our society has endangered democracy. It possesses some historical plausibility and, almost by accident, is a little bit true. In that story, the election of Barack Obama — which seemed to inaugurate a new era in American history and to symbolize a fulfillment of America's democratic promise — triggered the benighted racists in flyover country so badly that they all flocked to the banner of a TV con man who ran for president on a platform of blatant white-supremacist fantasy.

There's something to that, as public opinion research makes clear: Overt racial hostility is the decisive marker between white people who voted for Trump and white people who didn't. But to view that as a linear, limited cause-and-effect equation is the most mechanical and ahistorical kind of pop psychology, not to mention massively condescending. Like nearly all political analysis in our perishing republic, it's focused on symbols and signifiers, and not at all on the actual substance of politics. Obama himself would surely tell you that if his presidency had been successful, it would not have provoked such intense antipathy among many working-class and middle-class white people in the heartland — groups among which he did reasonably well in the 2008 election.

Obama came to office hoping to put an end to the era of red-blue political division and change the terms of American public discourse. Even his extensive post-presidential fanbase doesn't talk about that too much now, because it makes his entire project sound hilarious and doomed, like King Canute trying to hold back the tide. His utter and complete failure to do those things — like all other failures of all other liberal politicians — usually gets blamed on Republican intransigence, entrenched public prejudice or his own lack of Beltway backroom negotiating prowess. (Or just on Joe Lieberman.)

Biographers and political historians will chew on those factors for decades, no doubt. But to suggest that if this or that tactical or strategic decision had been made differently the Obama presidency might have had a different outcome — and a less gruesome aftermath — is to deliberately miss the deeper and more uncomfortable lesson.

Barack Obama was the most charismatic and eloquent political leader most of us will ever see. He won a landslide election (over a widely respected conservative war hero) as the last great defender of liberalism. His presidency failed because he was the last great defender of liberalism — maybe, in retrospect, something like the Mikhail Gorbachev of liberalism —not because Mitch McConnell was mean to him or because Revolutionary War cosplayers terrorized members of Obama's party into pretending they didn't even know him. Or rather, all those things amount to the same thing: Obama believed he could make us believe in the promise of liberalism again, but he couldn't because we don't, and because none of these golden-boy savior-hero types can ever do that. He tried and we tried, and it was a nicer exercise in nostalgia than the one that came afterward. So at least there's that.

Joe Biden and Democrats finally grasp that major change is necessary to redeem democracy — if it's not too late

It's a debased truism of our decaying two-party system: Every moment of political conflict is an apocalypse waiting to happen. Since at least the beginning of this century, Republicans have depicted every presidential election as the last chance to "save America" from socialism, mandatory gay marriage, emasculating electric cars and re-education camps for white suburbanites. Democrats, of course, have made a structurally similar argument framed in wistful, Springsteenian terms: It's our last chance to fend off the mean-spirited racists and would-be fascists and redeem the American narrative of upward progress inherited from Woody Guthrie, FDR and Martin Luther King Jr.

It's always complete hogwash. Except when it's accidentally true, like a stopped historical clock. Such as right now.

I don't actually mean that the looming 2022 midterm elections, or even — Goddess help us — the 2024 presidential election, will decide the future of America by themselves. (Those will be truly dire campaigns; I know that much.) I'm inclined to believe that by the time we reach those elections the die will be cast and the decision will have been made, and those elections will simply confirm what we already know. To be truthful, I suspect that when we look back at this moment from the future — assuming the existence of a future, and people to look back from it — we will conclude that America's destiny had been written in the stars some time earlier, and that at this point in the trajectory there was no way to change it.

But we're not in the future, are we? We're right here, at a moment of tremendous dynamism and danger, when the greatest military and economic power in world history, facing a precipitous decline in its global status and plagued by unmanageable internal divisions, stands at the edge of the abyss. May we live in interesting times, right? That curse has descended upon us with a vengeance.

A new president most of us thought would be an ineffective middle-road caretaker is trying to seize the moment and transform the political narrative with a series of bold initiatives, while a defeated ex-president — refusing to acknowledge that he was defeated or is now the ex-president — leads a faction or cult or movement explicitly determined to uprooting America's compromised and problematic democracy by the foundations and replacing it with an authoritarian sham.

What happens over the course of the next year is critical, and not just because it will determine whether Democrats can somehow cling to power in Washington after 2022. That's a much more significant question than usual, and I say that as someone deeply skeptical of both political parties and the entire creaky architecture that holds them up. But the only way Democrats can change the conventional script on midterm elections — in which the president's party nearly always loses seats — is by persuading a critical mass of Americans, across all the boundaries of race and class and geography and culture that we talk about endlessly, that effective government can play a positive role in ordinary people's lives, and that there's more to the social contract than lower taxes for the rich and ever-cheaper online shopping.

To put this another way, Joe Biden — or whoever you conclude is driving his agenda behind the scenes — is trying to redeem the promise and possibility of liberal democracy, and trying to do so virtually overnight, and with little political capital. It's an impossible task, perhaps literally so. But at least the Democratic Party appears to have grasped, at long last, that the entire liberal-democratic project is in desperate need of reform.

On one hand, it's heartening to see so many people who previously would not have known or cared about Joe Manchin's position on the filibuster, let alone the details of Biden's ginormous "infrastructure bill," pay attention to the nitty-gritty of politics. We were all taught in high school that democracy is impossible without an engaged citizenry. One of the greatest crimes of the Clinton-Obama Democratic Party was its mode of bland, professional competence and the anesthetizing message that government was something disengaged from daily life that ran smoothly in the background, like an operating system, and was best left to the nerds.

On the other hand, while the Biden administration's FDR-style self-reinvention is undeniably impressive, it's hard to imagine America extricating itself from our current national dilemma without some reckoning with how we got here. That's not the sort of thing that happens within a year or two, and for a nation as clouded by narcissistic mythology, self-serving lies and massive ignorance as ours, it might not be possible at all.

Of course Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, and by a significant margin. But in a sense, it's not mysterious that his supporters cling so tenaciously to the fiction or delusion that the election was rigged. They are correct to perceive an invisible pattern behind recent American history that includes the disempowerment of ordinary people, even if their preferred explanation of that pattern is dangerous nonsense. They also perceive correctly that the United States in 2020 failed to deliver a clear message — about Trump and Biden and their respective parties, about the pandemic that killed more than a half-million Americans, about the summer of protests that followed the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor or about much of anything else.

Yes, Biden defeated Trump. But Trump received far more votes than he had in winning the 2016 election, more than any incumbent president or any Republican nominee in history — which, given the massive incompetence and blatant criminality of his entire administration, is nothing short of astonishing. Democrats blithely assumed they would expand their House majority by 10 to 15 seats, and very nearly lost it. After losing several Senate seats they expected to win (in Iowa, Maine and North Carolina, most notably), they appeared doomed in the upper chamber too, but managed a miraculous 50-50 pseudo-majority entirely because Trump's bumbling interference in Georgia poisoned the inept Republican incumbents and drove massive Democratic turnout in the runoff election. (Which occurred, lest we forget, on Jan. 5, a day before something else happened, although it's difficult to say exactly what.)

There are so many paradoxes to America's current state of political dysfunction that no one could possibly list them all. The party that has embraced the task of trying to save democracy at the last moment, however awkwardly and incompletely — and however poisoned by its own internal contradictions — won, but very nearly lost. The party that has gone about 94 percent of the way into white nationalism and primitive fascism lost, primarily because of its contaminated figurehead — but could not possibly have come so close to winning without him.

As for the massive question of whether liberal democracy can be saved, let's put a pin in that one, as we say these days. As Pankaj Mishra points out repeatedly in his recent collection of essays, "Bland Fanatics," Western-style liberalism had a perhaps-fatal flaw built into it from the beginning: Its expansion of human rights and representative democracy and the "free market" and whatever other noble and purportedly universal principles were always dependent on exploiting less powerful nations elsewhere in the world, first to extract raw materials and human capital, and then to serve as captive export markets.

At least the British Empire in its heyday made no bones about that fact. We condemn the "white man's burden" rhetoric of that era as irredeemably racist, but it was arguably more honest than the American pretense that our increasingly clumsy and destructive overseas adventures were somehow in service to noble, abstract principles of "human rights" and "freedom," rather than an attempt to create a one-world market by force.

That fiction became increasingly untenable after the Vietnam War and the social discord of the 1960s and '70s, but that wasn't enough to prevent both political parties — yes, liberals! Both sides! — from buying into the same toxic bullshit all over again and going all-in on the unmitigated disaster of the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions, the Patriot Act and the massive expansion of the national-security state after 9/11. Biden has signaled some willingness to tiptoe away from that dreadful history, but not nearly fast enough or forcefully enough. Which might not matter much, in historical terms: If it turns out that the entire liberal-democratic project is doomed, that was the moment when it happened.

Democracy's dance of death: Trump is gone — kinda. But the crisis is still here

We have recently been told, by ever so many earnest commentators, that the United States faces a dire historic choice between democracy and fascism — or, in the more optimistic reading, has recently faced one and surmounted it, if only just.

If that reflects a desire to make the nation's current predicament — and for that matter the world's — seem like a dramatic struggle at the edge of the abyss, along the lines of World War II, that's understandable. Maybe it's an improvement that the mainstream media abruptly woke up to the dangers of Donald Trump's regime, just as it was leaving office — although the sudden pivot to "Get thee behind me, Satan" after years of pretending that things were more or less normal is more than a little suspicious.

But if we are struggling with someone or something on the cliff's edge, the landscape is shrouded in darkness. We can't see the precipice and we're not quite sure who our opponent is. Or exactly who "we" are. Are we at a dark historical crossroads, marked by intense internal conflict over the nature of what we used to call "Western civilization"? Absolutely. But I'm not sure either of the options we characterize with the terms of art "democracy" and "fascism" has yet revealed its true nature.

What we've seen over the last few weeks, since the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by Trump's supporters, should make clear to all non-hypnotized observers that America's two-party system is locked in a death spiral it seemingly can't escape. Despite the efforts of Mitch McConnell, Liz Cheney and a number of other prominent Republicans, their party is completely unable to free itself from the undertow of an ex-president who was comprehensively defeated, tried to stage an impromptu coup-d'état on the cheap, and lost the Senate majority they thought they had saved from the fire.

(I'm not giving Mitch and Liz any medals for valor, by the way, although they deserve a little credit for being able to think strategically beyond the middle of next week — and for finally dropping the pretense that they don't hate Donald Trump like poison. To be completely fair, Mitt Romney has distinguished himself as a man of principle throughout this period — although, let's face it, he's also kind of a prick.)

Does that make the Republicans a "fascist" party? Honestly, that's giving the shambling zombie shell of the party that once represented old money, hardware store managers and small-town Presbyterian ministers way too much credit. Say what you will about Adolf Hitler — please, people, I know that phrase is an unacceptably dark joke — the guy spent a full decade diligently building a political organization and a mass movement that had a clear set of ideological principles and policy goals. All Donald Trump did was to grasp that the Republican Party was collapsing under the massive weight of its own ideological and political failure, and then stage a hostile takeover built on social-media insults and rage memes borrowed from Fox News and the late Rush Limbaugh, he of the Presidential Medal of Total Domination of All Media, or whatever it's called. Has that raised the national temperature and led to various acts of right-wing violence? Sure, but it's lard-ass couch-surfing fascism, at best, not a genuine mass movement committed to seizing power.

I am 159% not here to tell you that there's no difference between our two political parties, or that the Democratic Party's internal conflict (which is at least about real things, including ideology and generational change) is as bad as the so-called crisis within the not-quite-post-Trump GOP, or even that Joe Biden is a hapless historical nonentity whose presidency will wind up on the rocks sooner or later. None of that's true — well, OK, except possibly the Biden part, but he seems like a good guy on the whole who sincerely wants to patch the gaping holes in the sinking ship, and it's way too early to have any idea how he'll come across in the longer arc of history.

But the Democrats are hilarious, at least if you have an appetite for bleak humor. I'm not just beating up on the "liberals" and "moderates" either, as much fun as that is; the occasional or begrudging Democratic allies on the "left" — which I suppose is more or less where I identify — are also behaving like idiots. Having essentially lucked into control of both houses of Congress and the White House, after an election in which they underperformed across the nation in pretty much every state not starting with "G" (or containing a "Z") the Democrats are doing what they do best: Fine-grained, small-bore and deeply unimpressive reform legislation, internecine battles over issues where the general public wants big policy changes but the party's funders don't, and attempted purges of the left, both coming from the center (which is at least to be expected) but also from the left, some of which has uselessly concluded that the growing progressive caucus in Congress are a bunch of DINO corporate sellouts.

In the near term, this points toward another rebound cycle of dispiriting political defeat: Republicans could easily recapture both the House and Senate in 2022 (although they certainly won't win the most votes nationwide) on an incoherent non-agenda of reheated MAGA rage and conspiracy theory, effectively Trumpism without Trump and QAnon without Q. A brand new gerrymander built on the Trumpified racist wreckage of the 2020 census could once again create a built-in Republican congressional majority that it will take Democrats another several cycles to break down — even assuming that this dysfunctional political system continues to creak along in its familiar pattern, which is definitely not a safe assumption. I don't even want to speculate about the 2024 presidential election, which looks from this distance like one of those game-theory hypotheticals that has no viable solution (mixed with one of those low-budget Italian horror movies in which demons come off the screen and eat the audience).

On a larger scale, though, it's long past time for Americans to face the fact that we're not the only nation in the world that's going through this kind of crisis, and that our locked-in two-party system — which has nothing to do with the Constitution or the law — is itself a massive part of the problem. The bipolar two-party systems that defined most major European democracies during the postwar decades have already collapsed, or been rendered unrecognizable. In France and Italy, the two formerly-major center-left and center-right parties have effectively disappeared. In Britain, the once-socialist Labour Party hasn't won an election, under anyone except neoliberal reformer and George W. Bush lackey Tony Blair, since 1974, while the ruling Conservative Party, under Boris Johnson, has reinvented itself along vaguely Trumpian lines as the party of "Little England" throwback nationalism.

In a non-parliamentary system like ours, where the two parties have deep institutional roots and formidable fundraising power — yet have become increasingly detached from grassroots organizations and their own base voters, not to mention the ability to govern effectively — that kind of "revolution from within," however chaotic and disruptive it may be, apparently isn't possible. We're stuck with this thing we call "democracy," which isn't democratic, while trying to fend off a wave of angry yahoo populism that isn't quite "fascism," but expresses the legitimate anger of a significant proportion of the population in approximately the worst possible way. In game theory, there's always a solution that offers you the best possible chance of survival. That must be true here, I guess. But whatever that solution is, we haven't found it yet.

What will American politics be like after Trump? That question assumes he's going away

Over the last couple of weeks, the media caste has been indulging in extensive literary meditation in how and whether we can break our addiction to Donald Trump. "We" in this case is a large category: There's no question that everyone from tabloid-TV talking heads to Ivy-educated columnists has flocked to Trump like ants to a sticky-bun picnic, but also that our readers and viewers have enabled and encouraged us at every step.

When people asked me, during the first year or two of the Trump phenomenon, why Salon didn't simply ignore him, I would mildly reply, "Well, you should see the numbers." It was and remains true that stories about the awfulness of the Trump regime — about its total fascist victory, its impending downfall or anything in between — outperform every other category of reporting, commentary or analysis we can possibly offer. (In fairness, over the past few months recipes and food stories have been doing well too. I wonder why!)

But I also recognize there is something of the collaborator about that answer, something of the Nuremberg defendant assuring the court that he was only following orders, and had no particular investment in what did or didn't happen. Faced with the likely and then certain victory of Joe Biden in the presidential election, those of us in the defendant's box began to mop our brows in relief, mixed with no small amount of confusion: Whatever will we do, now that he's gone?

That has turned out to be a rhetorical question, at least so far. Like so many addictions or goblins or villainous specters in horror movies (full credit to Democratic strategist Chris Marshall for his marvelous and terrifying Salon article last week), Donald Trump has no intention of going anywhere. He has spent the last week — which felt like a year — shamelessly and unapologetically trying to overturn the results of an election that appears to have gone relatively smoothly and has yielded a clear and certain verdict.

Thank God for that, I guess, because if the result actually had been close, we'd probably be sweating this out right up to the Electoral College vote. It's an enormous national humiliation that our so-called president is eagerly attempting to find a pseudo-constitutional loophole through which to stage a coup that would end even the pretense of democracy in America. It might, through the long lens of history, be an even worse humiliation that the attempt is so amateurish, conducted by a deranged alcoholic lawyer with motor oil leaking out of his head and an assemblage of hacks and crackpots who allege, in the ever-quotable words of John Bolton, a conspiracy "so vast and so successful that apparently there's no evidence of it."

Trump's coup attempt is falling apart, do not doubt that. If the sniveling quislings of the Republican Party are reluctant to openly confront the massive edifice of unreality in TrumpWorld, they at least recognize that it will eventually collapse on its own, and sooner rather than later. Even Trump himself appears to understand that, after his own animalistic fashion.

As the New York Times reported on Sunday, Trump apparently intends to retain control of the Republican National Committee after he leaves office. This is, to say the most tedious thing possible, unprecedented — ex-presidents tend to retreat to the back of the room and stay quiet, and defeated ex-presidents even more so. You certainly didn't see Jimmy Carter or George H.W. Bush trying to wield any clout in their respective parties; they didn't have any.

Ronna McDaniel, the RNC's current chair, apparently intends to run for re-election on the premise that she's not as much of a Trump sycophant as those who might succeed her, such as Donald Trump Jr. or his dazzlingly evil girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, who struck terror in the hearts of children of all ages with her impromptu monologue from Roald Dahl's "The Witches" at this year's Republican convention. Maybe Trump wants to keep the party apparatus in his stubby grasp to freeze out potential opponents in a 2024 presidential campaign, Grover Cleveland-style, and maybe it's just a new iteration of the lifelong Trumpian con game. Honestly, what's the difference?

So the plaintive questions about what we will possibly do with ourselves after Trump leaves the scene are the wrong questions, or at least they're far too small to match the scale of our predicament. As fables and fairy tales always make clear, conditions had to be ripe for the evil giant or the dark queen, Sauron or Voldemort, to rise to power in the first place. The story about Eve, the apple and the serpent is a classic example of misogynistic blame-shifting, no doubt. But at least it puts the blame on an ambiguous human weakness we can all identify with: Of course she wanted to know; you or I would have done the same. And who is to say it didn't turn out better this way, and that no other pathway was even possible?

Who or what will Americans be after Trump? We will be the same flawed people and depleted, crisis-addled nation we were before, with the conflicts laid bare and no longer avoidable. It sounds incredibly callous to say that Trump did us a favor, and I certainly don't mean that anything about his presidency was beneficial to human life or the survival of the planet. But his cruelty, his vulgarity and his open contempt for democracy, the rule of law and constitutional order woke many of us up — and I don't entirely exclude his voters and supporters — to the deep wounds in our society, the lack of any shared understanding of reality and the profound apprehension about the future. (That, along with Netflix, is perhaps the only thing all Americans share.)

As for what politics will be like after Trump, the only possible answer is that we don't know yet and it's also too small a question. Politics will be like it was before, only more so: Mired in contradiction, with the two-party system deeply entrenched yet both established parties headed for the rocks. When you look at Trump's 74 million votes — nearly 12 million more than he got in 2016 — and robust Republican victories from the Senate and House on down, there's no doubt that the supposedly-doomed GOP has found a new lease on life on the worst possible terms, as the party of white grievance, "traditional" masculinity, unalloyed authoritarianism and paranoid conspiracy theory.

It doesn't seem as if Trump's toxic but undeniable charisma is the only factor driving this undead Republican revival, but whether anyone else can create a modified or improved "Trumpism without Trump" remains an open question, as well as an academic one, for the time being. Many people have their eyes on that prize — we could start the list with Tucker Carlson of Fox News, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota — but whoever follows Trump as the next Republican nominee may quite literally have to wrest the party from his cold, dead, aspartame-infused fingers.

And then there are the Democrats. Oh, the Democrats! What do you want me to say that hasn't been said a thousand times? They just elected a 78-year-old president, and the top three Democrats in the House leadership are all over 80. Chuck Schumer, who still has a mathematical chance of becoming Senate majority leader early next year, turns a relatively sprightly 70 this week. (Happy birthday, you plodding nonentity!) More to the point, the Democrats just conducted yet another campaign based on the stirring claim that the other party is crazy and evil and they're not — which has the admitted benefit of being more true than ever before — which concluded, as usual, with mixed and disputed results.

Anyone who has ever read anything I have written will probably conclude that I'm inclined to favor one side over the other in the Democratic Party's endless factional warfare between "progressives" and "moderates," or whatever terms of art you prefer. But I don't claim to know what would have happened if Bernie Sanders had been this year's nominee — that's a bit in the same category as "If my grandmother had wheels," isn't it? Whether Democrats lost seats in the House, and couldn't win winnable seats in the Senate, because of too much "socialism" and "defund the police" or because of not enough Medicare for All and Green New Deal — or because they ran anodyne, message-free candidates who declined to stand for anything in particular — entirely depends on where you're standing when you ask the question. To repeat myself, it's also too small a question.

Historically speaking, the Democratic Party has been an unstable electoral coalition since at least the Civil War, when it represented both native-born white Protestants in the South and immigrant white Catholics in the North. Those groups disliked and distrusted each other, but at least perceived a common enemy in the bankers and patrician classes of Boston and New York (and also, less salubriously, in Black people attempting to assert their right to citizenship).

While the Democratic coalition has been broken up and reassembled several times since then — most Southern whites, and a whole lot of Northern ones too, have fled to the other party — it remains, shall we say, less than stable. I'm not convinced the current intra-party struggle is so much about ideology as about literal class conflict and differential views of "economic justice." Maybe this is one of those cases where classical Marxist theory is correct and the former serves as a proxy for the latter.

To take two House Democrats seen as emblematic of the warring factions, it's possible to imagine a cautiously constructed policy agenda that could bring together Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a "progressive" who represents a working-class, majority-minority district in New York City, and Rep. Conor Lamb, a "moderate" who represents a working-class, predominantly white district in western Pennsylvania. Improved health care access (however we label it), a higher minimum wage, a government infrastructure program and free or low-cost public college would be immensely helpful to people in both those places.

But what do their constituents have in common with those of Rep. Abigail Spanberger, the former CIA agent who represents an affluent suburban district outside Richmond, Virginia? I'm not saying there's nothing. A desire to resist the vicious bigotry of Trump and his acolytes is not nothing. Defending reproductive rights for women, equal rights for LGBTQ people and civil rights for Black people and immigrants, in the face of determined right-wing pushback, is decidedly not nothing.

We can't possibly absorb the lessons of the 2020 election in two weeks, especially not while the defeated incumbent half-heartedly tries to stage a coup and the COVID pandemic grows more critical every day. But here's one lesson: Rhetorical gestures toward abstract ideals of justice, equality and democracy may have been just about enough to defeat a widely despised and famously incompetent president, but they are not nearly enough to defeat a surging fascist movement built on white nationalism, cultural dispossession, economic stagnation and anti-elite rage.

One political party in America now has a clear agenda and a loyal following, and has now taken a low-risk dry run at seizing and holding power without regard for laws or rules or standards of decency or those famous "democratic norms." That party didn't go all-in on that effort this time around, but it now sees that with the right leader and adequate planning — not to mention the necessary level of force — the task can probably be managed. The other party is against all that, gosh darn it! But it still doesn't know what it wants to be when it grows up, and it may not get the chance.

One election can't resolve the crisis of democracy

What unfolded across the United States on Saturday afternoon was breathtaking: an extraordinary explosion of relief and exuberance, not quite like anything else most of us now living have ever seen. While the comparison to V-E Day — which marked the defeat of Hitler and Nazi Germany in May 1945 — may be over the top, the emotional resonance was similar.

I wasn't expecting that at all, to be frank. Joe Biden was the ultimate compromise candidate, the ne plus ultra of "good enough for now," a potential safe harbor in a time of crisis. But the effect of Biden's ultimate victory — or, more to the point, of Donald Trump's defeat — was undeniable, and the national mood was impossible to resist. It almost felt like a physical sensation, literally as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders, and from the evidence, millions of other people felt the same way.

I only witnessed all those celebrations on social media and cable news, mind you. I've spent the last several months in a tiny village in central New York State — a liberal-leaning oasis in a deep-red region — and around here you wouldn't have had any idea that a major historical event had just occurred. Political signs for both candidates have already disappeared from most people's front lawns. Since about Thursday afternoon, I've seen no sign of the huge pickup trucks festooned with gigantic Trump flags that have become a fixture of rural life in America. The supermarket in our town was as busy as you'd expect on a beautiful Saturday evening in the fall, but I didn't hear one word about the election.

What has America gained, after this agonizing election and an agonizing week of vote counting? (OK, it was five days, which felt like years or geological epochs.) And what have we lost? I don't think we will know that for quite a while.

There is no question that this election, in which a clear majority of American voters repudiated the Trump presidency, was a triumph for democracy, on various levels. That's what we're all feeling right now, I think, and it's undeniable. But it's a triumph that comes with a warning, and wrapped in a paradox.

Joe Biden received more votes than any candidate for president in American history. By a lot. He's gotten 75.2 million votes so far, and with significant numbers still to count in major blue states like California, Illinois and New York, could easily hit 77 million or so. (The previous record was Barack Obama's 69.5 million in the landslide victory of 2008.)

But in a must-read piece for Salon on Saturday, Chauncey DeVega observed the observable, to borrow a phrase from Joan Didion that should be better known than it is. If Biden will be No. 1 on the all-time vote list, the No. 2 spot belongs to none other than President Boaty McBoatParade himself, who is currently biding his time rage-cheating at golf and sending hopeful "U up?" texts to Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

In other words, while Biden's victory is not in doubt — whatever fanciful theories to the contrary Trump and his acolytes have to offer — the notion that Trump and his so-called movement have been conclusively rejected certainly is. Trump has almost 71 million votes to this point, roughly 8 million more than he received while squeezing out an electoral victory in 2016. He increased his margin of victory in numerous red states, and also in supposed battlegrounds like Ohio and Florida. (Obama won those states twice, but both now appear out of reach to national Democrats.)

As you already know if you're attuned to the endless cycle of Democratic Party infighting and recrimination — which I do not recommend, if you value your mental well-being — Democrats lost several Senate seats they expected to win, and now must hope for a double miracle in Georgia to regain the majority. They've also lost at least a few seats from the House majority they won in 2018, and will face a midterm election in 2022 that looks favorable for Republicans, both in demographic and historical terms. Biden's entire first term will almost certainly feature Mitch McConnell in control of the Senate. (McConnell's hashtag-Resistance opponent in Kentucky, Amy McGrath, soaked up countless millions of small-donor dollars — and couldn't even break 40 percent.)

That sense of contradiction — and of partial victory, even in defeat — accounts for at least some of the extraordinary truculence coming from Republicans, who are by no means ready to cut the Trumpian cord, even by recognizing political reality. Only a handful of GOP normies, like Sen. Mitt Romney, Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland and former President George W. Bush, have even bothered to extend ritual congratulations to Biden.

All other prominent Republicans are either bunkered down in total silence, like McConnell, or all-in on dead-ender Trump conspiracy theory. Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, a potential 2024 candidate who really ought to be occupied with her state's worsening COVID outbreak, appeared on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday and refused to acknowledge that Biden had won the election. She cited alleged "illegal activities" and "clerical errors," without explaining how any such claims might be sufficient to overturn the results in multiple states.

In an attempt to summon the ominous specter of the Supreme Court's Bush v. Gore decision, Noem asked: "We gave Al Gore 37 days to run the process before we decided who was going to be president. Why would we not afford the 70.6 million Americans that voted for President Trump the same consideration?" That moronic rhetorical question would be profoundly disturbing if it weren't pathetic, and I guess it can be both.

There's been rather too much whimpering about "democratic norms" over the last four years (short version: Donald Trump farts in their general direction), but I don't think Trump and his inner circle realized until this weekend that certain of those norms lay outside their control. When Rudy Giuliani's "news conference" in the parking lot of a Philadelphia landscaping business — perhaps the most exquisitely bizarre moment of the entire week — was interrupted by the news that all the major networks had called the election for Biden, Giuliani made a manful effort at mockery: Oh, the networks! Who cares about them! It didn't work, and perhaps Rudy's great moment was swept away.

What followed was a well-worn narrative of the liberal-democratic tradition: Everyone cares what the networks say, it turns out. Everyone in the media (including the hosts on Fox News) began to describe Biden as the president-elect, and every major broadcast network and cable-news channel aired his victory address on Saturday night. Then came the flow of congratulatory messages from foreign leaders. It must have been hurtful, and perhaps incomprehensible, for Trump to see such purported allies as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and even — unkindest cut of all! — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, all extending the ritual greetings and good wishes called for by the moment. How many desperate calls did Jared Kushner place to Jerusalem this week, to be politely returned by no-comment tertiary underlings?

Since Trump understands nothing about politics or power, he couldn't possibly have grasped that those leaders are invested in their relationship with the world's greatest military and economic power, battered as it may be, and do not give a solitary crap about him personally or about his idiotic schemes to stay in power by way of 8chan conspiracy theories. Furthermore, those people are all more or less invested in the liberal-democratic order — having won elections that way and everything — and aren't especially psyched to hear a condo salesman who fluked his way into the White House telling the world that the whole thing is a fraud.

That democratic narrative still possesses an inexorable power, and it may slowly be sinking in at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that there's no road that leads backward from here. At least not this time. But how long that collective narrative can be sustained, when an ever-larger proportion of the public no longer buys into it, is an open question. There are early indications from exit polling that Trump may actually have improved his vote share, relative to 2016, among several demographic groups, including Latinos, white women and Black men. As individual data points those seem nonsensical, given the abundant and unconcealed racism and misogyny driving the Trumpian movement. As part of a larger picture — a picture that isn't just American but global in scale — they make slightly more sense.

One presidential election, won by assembling an emergency coalition and largely throwing ideology to the wayside, cannot resolve the crisis of democracy. For hundreds of millions of people across the "Western" zone of so-called capitalism and so-called liberal democracy, the economic and political system appears to be a dysfunctional scam that locks in inequality, squelches opportunity and condemns many or most people to precarious lives of wage-slave drudgery, bottomless debt and pointless consumerism. Many of those people are prepared to consider alternatives to the current situation, even when those alternatives appear — at least to the privileged and educated classes — to be warmed-over authoritarian drivel, delivered by a patently insincere second-rate celebrity.

If it sounds like I'm winding up to tell you that the Democratic Party must embrace a bold progressive agenda, or that Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could have led the party to glorious victory from coast to coast, I'm not. That's one possible conclusion, but there's no one-size-fits-all solution to the democratic (or Democratic) dilemma.

Centrist Democrats like Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia (a former CIA agent) are eager to blame Black Lives Matter rhetoric or "socialism" for whatever went wrong this year. Leftists of course blame the party's perennially muddled, middle-path messaging. Both sides have a point, honestly: Eventually the Democratic Party has to figure out what it stands for, in the context of 21st-century reality, and exactly where and how it's willing to fight. "We're not the fascists" worked medium-well this time around, but it's not much of a long-term program.

An impressive number of Americans — a clear majority of the electorate — voted last week to give our damaged democracy another chance, on the presumption that it offers the best chance of addressing our deep-rooted social and economic problems. A somewhat smaller number, yet still enormous by any standard and unprecedented in historical terms, voted for something quite different: Let's call it a quasi-imperial state, presided over by a professional con man with orange skin and cake-frosting hair who has failed at everything he's ever done — except television stardom! — and who thrives on ignorance, bigotry, cruelty and greed.

It's impossible to say where all this is heading, but it does no good to avoid the essential nature of the conflict. On one side are those who want to reassert or restore the long-established rules of political engagement, after what they hope was a momentary interruption. Those on the other side have long since concluded that the rules no longer exist or do not apply to them, or at best are only tools to be cynically deployed in the naked quest for power.

No democracy can long survive such a predicament, where the competing parties do not accept the same basic premises, and do not even perceive the same political reality. That second camp — the no-rules, fuck-your-democracy party — has suffered a defeat in this election, and will gradually and begrudgingly stage a strategic retreat. Its nominal leader will be forced into exile, and his supporters will grieve, after their own gruesome fashion. But nothing has happened in 2020 to break their will, or to convince them they are wrong.

Trump goes all-in on the nightmare scenario with millions of legally-cast votes left to be counted

None of us have seen a year like 2020 — and now it has finally snapped the tether that seemed to hold it to the realm of reality. After a relatively calm Election Day, leading into a nail-biter evening that left the result very much in doubt, President Trump did exactly what many observers feared he might do, prematurely declaring victory over former vice president Joe Biden, even though millions of votes in several important states remain uncounted.

It was a rambling, incoherent and extraordinary speech even by Trump's standards, delivered in an extraordinary setting — the East Room of the White House, rather than a campaign headquarters at a Washington hotel, as would be traditional for an incumbent president running for re-election. Whether it represents a genuine attempt to subvert democracy or was just an example of "Trump being Trump" and letting off some steam depends on one's perspective. Vice President Mike Pence attempted to assert the latter interpretation, arriving on stage after Trump had concluded and making relatively normal remarks about "the integrity of the vote," while of course praising Trump in fulsome terms and urging him to "make America great again, again."

None of us have seen a year like 2020 — and now it has finally snapped the tether that seemed to hold it to the realm of reality. After a relatively calm Election Day, leading into a nail-biter evening that left the result very much in doubt, President Trump did exactly what many observers feared he might do, prematurely declaring victory over former vice president Joe Biden, even though millions of votes in several important states remain uncounted.

It was a rambling, incoherent and extraordinary speech even by Trump's standards, delivered in an extraordinary setting — the East Room of the White House, rather than a campaign headquarters at a Washington hotel, as would be traditional for an incumbent president running for re-election. Whether it represents a genuine attempt to subvert democracy or was just an example of "Trump being Trump" and letting off some steam depends on one's perspective. Vice President Mike Pence attempted to assert the latter interpretation, arriving on stage after Trump had concluded and making relatively normal remarks about "the integrity of the vote," while of course praising Trump in fulsome terms and urging him to "make America great again, again."

"This is a fraud on the American public," Trump said, with no explanation of what that fraud might entail

Minutes after Trump falsely claimed, "As far as I am concerned we already have won it" — meaning the entire presidential election — the Associated Press called Arizona for Biden, the first state in a long and tense election night to flip from Trump in 2016 to Biden in 2020. While the outcome is by no means decided, losing Arizona makes Trump's path to victory exceptionally difficult

"We want all voting to stop," Trump added, asserting that it was "clear" he had won close swing states like Georgia and North Carolina, which have not yet been called by any major media outlet. "They knew they couldn't win," Trump claimed — without identifying the "they" in question — "so they said, 'Let's go to court.'"

In the realm of reality, all voting has ended. It's only a question of collecting and counting the votes, a process that differs widely from state to state and can sometimes take days or weeks. In this year of pandemic, that process is undeniably complicated, and millions of votes remain uncounted in key states like Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which now appear certain to decide the presidential election. Trump's attempt to claim there is something nefarious about the process flies in the face of election law, democratic norms and political history. One might be excused for asking what else is new.

Ironically, the president's comments will almost certainly hurt his legal team's chances in court — the path to potential re-election that Trump has long telegraphed he is banking on. Chris Christie, the former Republican governor of New Jersey who has been a frequent Trump confidant and adviser, said on ABC News that the president's extraordinary White House speech was "a bad strategic decision. It is a bad political decision."

That remains to be seen. Trump's gambit is certainly a terrible idea and an overtly anti-democratic power play that sent immediate shockwaves through the media and political classes, as inured to Trump's delusional theatrics as they have become. With the loss of Arizona and millions of Democratic-trending mail-in votes yet to be counted in major states, it appears probable that Trump is headed for a narrow electoral defeat — albeit a great deal narrower than most Democrats expected. Given that context, perhaps Trump's vicious election-night surprise is no surprise at all. It's the last and most desperate ploy of a man with no respect for the democratic process and no willingness to accept the verdict of the voters.

The feeling of powerlessness and despair felt many voters is emblematic of a much deeper problem in America

Donald Trump is not the central problem in American politics, and neither is the 2020 presidential election, as dire and urgent as those things seem at the moment. Our real problem is that our democracy is not a democracy, and that many Americans — most of them, I would argue — feel powerless, disenfranchised and despairing, confronted with a dysfunctional system that thrives on massive inequality and serves the interests only of the richest and most powerful. Those systemic problems made Trump's presidency possible in the first place, and created the circumstances that make this election seem like a last-ditch struggle against autocracy.

I'm here to tell you there are signs of real hope — but they have almost nothing to do with the question of who wins next week's election. Don't get me wrong: I'm invested in the outcome too. But I also suspect that in the longer arc of history, it might not matter all that much.

If you're reading this during the last days of October 2020, almost anywhere in the world, you don't need me to tell you that the final stretch of this presidential campaign has been agonizing. It's probably closer to the truth to say that the last four or so years of our nation's history have felt agonizing, not to mention draining and dispiriting, and that the coronavirus-dampened 2020 campaign has distilled all that into its purest form.

Time has simultaneously been stretched and compressed by the surreal theater of the Trump presidency, which has felt endless largely because the same damn things keep happening over and over — disguised as brand new outrages — in an atmosphere suffused with dread, as if we were trapped in some art-student horror movie. Lenin's supposed remark that there are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen (which he almost certainly did not say) needs reworking: There are days that contain years of turmoil and suffering, and entire years that vanish into memory like bad dreams.

There is just a week to go, as I write this, until we reach the culminating stage (perhaps) of an election that we have told ourselves is a crucial turning point in the history of American democracy — but may well be remembered by posterity more in comic or pathetic terms. It looks from here as if a majority of American voters are poised to deliver a sweeping repudiation of Donald Trump and the psychotic, zombified Republican Party that he nominally rules, quite likely in the form of a "wave" election that will reshape the political landscape for years to come.

At least that would be the logical conclusion: As I've written before, no incumbent president can reasonably hope to survive this much bad news. But logic and reason have little purchase in America's dreamscape, and right now nobody much wants to listen to conventional bromides about what could happen or might happen or will probably happen. Odds are you just want the whole damn thing to be over: the campaign, the pandemic, the rising tide of social unease and constant low-level threats of political violence, the perennial suspension of disbelief of the "Trump era." Who could blame you?

You certainly don't want me to tell you that none of that stuff will actually go away, no matter what happens on or after Nov. 3. Or that electing Joe Biden and a bunch of Democratic senators won't actually fix anything about our broken political system or resolve the deep-rooted social and economic contradictions that got us here.

Democrats and "liberals," of course, remain anguished and haunted by the never-to-be-resolved trauma of 2016, and by the subsequent years of ineffectual hope that somebody would make it all go away, or make it never have happened in the first place: God or Congress or the New York Times or Robert Mueller and his posse of establishmentarian white knights.

Trying to stir up drama in a race that has remained virtually stagnant ever since Biden locked down the Democratic nomination in March — at virtually the same moment as the coronavirus shut down the country — the mainstream media keeps gleefully reminding us that it remains possible Trump could win again, by fair means or foul. There's something to be said for steeling yourself against bad outcomes, but too many people in the left-liberal quadrant of politics — as in almost all of us — seem to be obsessed or paralyzed by those possibilities. We devour the latest polls but tell ourselves not to believe them, casting salt over our shoulders and muttering incantations to the numinous entities of our choosing.

Like frightened children left alone in the dark, we invent bogeymen and invest them with immense power: "Shy Trump voters" will come out of the woods and turn the tide; the Postal Service will delay or destroy millions of votes; Republican legislatures in swing states will defy the voters and appoint their own slates of electors; Justice Amy Coney Barrett, newly fitted for her robes, will write an eloquent Supreme Court opinion finding that according to the Constitution's original intent, votes in heavily Democratic precincts simply don't count. Somehow or other, Trump will refuse to yield power even after a conclusive defeat, and somehow or other — with the help of Russian propaganda, Bill Barr's devious machinations and the fine print of the 12th Amendment — he'll get away with it.

I'm not saying that there's no basis in reality for some or all of those fears, and it's only human to resort to magical thinking in times of great stress. As bizarre and unlikely as the outcome of the 2016 election was, it happened — and it did indeed feel like the hand of fate, punishing America for its arrogance and hubris. Mathematically speaking, it could happen again. But taken together, all that fear and fatalism have created a paranoid landscape in which ordinary Americans feel powerless, waiting in finger-chewing, insomniac anxiety for the verdict of history to be handed down. That will happen in just seven or eight days, as I said earlier. Or perhaps it will be more like 14 or 15 days, when a final vote count should be completed. Or maybe 40 days, the approximate deadline for the states to send their electoral votes to Washington. Or, hell, it could take 70 days or so, right up to the moment in early January when the new Congress must count those votes and certify the victor.

I know, it's torture, and it feels like it will never go away. But this waiting, this dread, this feeling of powerlessness and despair are emblematic of a much deeper problem in America's so-called democracy, next to which the question of President Biden or President Trump is nearly an afterthought. The real problem, as I said above, is that our democracy is not much of a democracy, a problem that is doubly or trebly multiplied in presidential elections. (I live in a state where my vote for president makes literally no difference at all. There's better than a two-thirds chance that you do too.)

Voting, the central ritual of American-style democracy, has become the subject of much conflict this year. It is endlessly fetishized and treated with mournful, religious reverence — both by those who would expand it and those who desperately seek to limit or suppress it. What neither side says out loud is that voting is always the most minimal and compromised form of political power, and that treating it as the be-all and end-all of democracy often distracts people from other, more effective, means.

I'm not saying that voting is not important. I'm not rolling out the old leftist line that both major parties are servants of the same corporate masters and there's no point even bothering. That's a half-truth that has metastasized into a lie, as is especially obvious here and now, and we have seen enough close elections in enough different contexts over the last few years to understand that exercising the franchise can be crucial.

But voting is just one helpful but minor aspect of democracy — and in a locked-down, binary political system, always involves a set of negotiations and compromises. It isn't sanctifying or virtuous, and when smug commentators start saying it is, I get that impulse to check whether my wallet is still there. People who don't vote because they think it's pointless and the whole system is bullshit may be overly cynical, but they've got a point. National elections in the United States have become a bizarre form of symbolic theater or public therapy. If you donated money to Amy McGrath's unwinnable Senate race against Mitch McConnell this year, I hope that made you feel better — because it certainly didn't accomplish anything else.

America's climate of near-permanent electioneering, in which the next presidential campaign starts as soon as the midterm elections are over, is itself a symptom of unhealthy democracy. Our quadrennial search for a messiah, or for the least bad option — staged as a mediocre, long-running entertainment spectacle — sucks up so much time, so much psychic energy and so much money that it is better understood as an impediment to democracy than as its demonstration or its instrument.

We don't have to go all the way to Mao Zedong's famous maxim that political power comes from the barrel of a gun in order to free ourselves from electoral hypnosis — although one could say that the armed militiamen who occupied the Michigan state house earlier this year had absorbed part of Mao's lesson, without any of his party-building discipline. Violence and threats of violence are certainly expressions of political power — and can effectuate change far more rapidly than the slow grind of electoral democracy — but in the 21st century more tolerant and tolerable examples are all around us, well short of the guillotine or the Bolshevik Revolution.

Indeed, America's election hypnosis sometimes conceals the obvious truth that direct action — peaceful or otherwise — is what moves the political process forward, not the other way around. In their famous White House meeting, Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. both understood that the constant ground-level pressure of protests (and the impending possibility of something more than nonviolent civil disobedience) was the only force that would compel reluctant Southern Democrats to support the landmark civil rights and voting rights laws that followed. According to Bill Moyers, the only other person in the room, LBJ told MLK, more or less, "You've got to make me do it."

Or consider the early to mid-1980s, when gay men and drug users were dying in large numbers from a mysterious illness, and neither political party wanted to touch the issue. People with AIDS were treated at best with pity and condescension, and at worst as disgusting sodomites who had brought a divine plague upon themselves. As Anthony Fauci could tell you, it was the often angry and controversial activism of groups like ACT UP and Gay Men's Health Crisis that changed the course of that epidemic and ultimately revolutionized the relationship between medical science, pharmaceutical research and the human beings those institutions were supposed to help.

In the late 1990s, the mainstream media was largely mystified or bemused by what was called the "anti-globalization movement," a series of confrontational protest actions that sought to unite labor unions, environmentalists and the anti-capitalist left, culminating in the "Battle of Seattle" during a 1999 conference of the World Trade Organization. Those protesters were depicted as '60s throwbacks, unwashed tree-hugging lunatics or (at times) violent anarchist radicals, and their movement was generally deemed an incoherent failure.

But it wasn't. Two decades later, both American political parties have largely abandoned neoliberal "free trade" agreements — and the vision of a new left activism, which seemed like a ludicrous dream in the Bill Clinton era, has come to fruition in multiple ways. That relatively tiny activist moment 20-odd years ago wasn't a '60s flashback: It was a new seedling that produced many offshoots and tendrils; leading more or less directly to Bernie Sanders' political campaigns and the resurgence of socialism, the more radical strains of climate activism, the street-action tendency now called antifa, Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter.

In our own time and a far more mainstream register, the Women's March emerged as a direct and extraordinary response to Trump's election — but can anyone doubt that the Democratic "blue wave" midterm election of 2018 was a direct result of the Women's March? In terms of restoring a sense of hope and possibility, along with the real potential of democracy, which of those things was more meaningful: Millions of women and men and children in the streets, proclaiming their rejection of an illegitimate misogynist president elected by a political fluke, or Nancy Pelosi?

In terms of conventional political outcomes, the recent explosion of activism among younger adults and teenagers, from the post-Parkland student movement to Greta Thunberg and the climate strikers to the massive Black Lives Matter protests all across America (and the world) this past summer, has not actually accomplished anything. But those are unmistakable expressions of political power that announce the rising consciousness of a new generation.

These younger activists have noticeably shifted the national temperature and the national discourse on guns and the climate crisis and police violence. (Consider how far the Biden campaign's rhetoric has moved since the beginning of the primary season.) They have helped create an environment where the widespread popular rejection of Donald Trump and the Republican agenda seems not just possible but nearly inevitable. There is no way to know what long-term political impact they will have, but they offer far more lasting hope for the renewal of democracy than whatever President Joe Biden and a hypothetical Democratic Congress may accomplish.

This year's election will come and go — and that can't happen soon enough. But Americans are beginning to understand what political power is, and how it works. Maybe they'll learn to use it before it's too late.

How to bring down the curtain on the pimped-out, pseudo-Wagnerian theater of TrumpWorld

If it weren't for the human lives damaged or destroyed by Donald Trump's presidency — the 215,000 or so killed by the coronavirus is only the beginning, of course — the whole insane experience could be understood as a brilliant, confrontational work of performance art. It's a vulgar and moronic performance, to be sure, and one that pushes the audience's willingness to suspend disbelief to its outer limits. But it's also a work of indisputable genius, one that has hypnotized media and public around the world for the better part of five years.

Viewed through the dark lens of a fully nihilistic or totalitarian aesthetics, where the work of art transcends all ordinary morality — and if Donald Trump had a theory of aesthetics, that would be it — even the cruelty and recklessness of his performance is an aspect of its brilliance. From the beginning, Trump told us that he could commit murder in public without alienating his supporters. Many of us understood that as a figure of speech. His greatest and most malicious accomplishment in public life (so far) has been to prove, on a grand scale, that it was literally true.

To cite another example, there is no viable argument that the partnership between Trump and Stephen Miller, his most notably sadistic adviser, has been politically successful. Almost all of their vindictive anti-immigrant agenda has been wildly unpopular, and much of it has been abandoned or thrown out by the courts. But as a theatrical display of faux-macho dominance, fueled by shared bitterness and unconcealed racial resentment, the Trump-Miller act has been immensely satisfying to its intended audience.

To suggest that Trump is fundamentally a salesman, a con man and a performer is certainly nothing new. He has been shaped by the worlds of New York real estate, tabloid publicity, professional wrestling and reality TV, where bullshit is everything and even the physical reality of land, buildings and human bodies is a disputable afterthought. But some people seem to get stuck on an imaginary dichotomy or contradiction between Trump as showman and Trump as wannabe tyrant, as if his oft-expressed desire to seize full power and rule forever were not in itself an aspect of the performance.

With the apparent implosion of Trump's re-election campaign amid his preposterous attempt to turn a major coronavirus cluster in and around the White House — including his own infection, and the possibility that he infected many other people — into a great symbolic victory, the distinction between Fascist Trump and Showman Trump has collapsed entirely.

I'm not suggesting that Trump didn't or doesn't want to "win" again and is consciously sabotaging himself, or that he doesn't enjoy the dimly-sketched fantasy world — its details no doubt supplied by Miller or Bill Barr or other factotums with a better grasp of logistics — in which he overturns the Constitution and is declared president for life. As New York Times critic James Poniewozik recently noted in an interview with Salon, Trump cannot conceive of any version of reality where he isn't a "winner," universally proclaimed as one of the great men of history. (He won't come right out and say the very greatest — but, you know, some people are saying that!)

Trump appears to possess no interior life worth talking about — I envision it as resembling an anthill, perennially under attack by a small boy with a stick — and clearly isn't capable of the kind of subtle introspection that might lead to deliberate self-destruction. But he only wants to be installed as Führer of a New Trumpian Reich if that too is a performance and other people do the real work.

We can all agree that Trump has shown no aptitude for governance, but despite the liberal paranoid trauma left over from the 2016 election, he's no good at politics either: His vaunted "movement" consists entirely of red hats and vile rhetoric. He has never demanded any sacrifices from his followers, let alone that they actually do anything. He cheers on their dipshit outbreaks of violence and farcical terrorist plots — remove yourself from the proximate sense of alarm, and the scheme to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer sounds like a future season of the FX series "Fargo" — but, honestly, you can tell his heart isn't in it. I don't mean that he feels any sense of compassion or responsibility, only that he's reluctant to endorse anything that pulls the spotlight away from him.

In the inner circles of TrumpWorld, whose denizens have sustained themselves by blending crime-family omertà with a shared delusion of historical destiny, the cognitive dissonance must now be off the charts. Faced with the prospect of a sweeping, landscape-shifting defeat just weeks from now, more cynical Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas — both of whom face unexpectedly tight re-election battles — have begun to subtly edge themselves away from Trump and rehearse the speeches they may need to make four or five days into November.

(Of course I'm aware of the nightmare scenarios that keep #Resistance liberals up all night: Millions of mail ballots thrown out, a reverse-engineered Electoral College, Trump re-elected in a state-by-state vote in the House of Representatives. It would be foolish to claim those things are impossible, or that Bill Barr hasn't considered all of them. But honestly: Is that the way the wind is blowing? At the moment, a Democratic landslide in which Trump is conclusively defeated and Republicans lose six or seven Senate seats is a far more likely scenario.)

But that cognitive dissonance is far less of a problem for Donald Trump personally than for the people around him. I think Poniewozik is on the right track in suggesting that Trump can turn whatever happens into a grand narrative of heroism and martyrdom, with himself in the starring role.

We've told ourselves all along that Trump is a pathological narcissist who doesn't care about other people, and sees them only as reflections of himself. (The temperament, in other words, of a diva.) He slanders and demonizes his critics and opponents, betrays his so-called friends without a moment's hesitation, feels only contempt for his worshipful supporters, and denies the existence of any objective reality. That was all true enough, but as things now appear, it was only the beginning.

If the chaos and ugliness Trump has channeled into American political life will be with us for decades to come — and is just one part of a worldwide crisis of democracy with no clear resolution in sight — he himself is about to transcend all that. Like any great performer, Trump is following his instincts rather than plotting out a rational course, and the culminating act of his public performance will synthesize and outstrip everything that has before. Rather than yield to any external force — political, legal, medical or scientific — Trump stands ready to destroy his own political career, and the political party he adopted, invaded and conquered.

It's a bit of a cliché at this point, not to mention overly flattering, to compare Donald Trump to John Milton's antiheroic Satan. But if Trump were capable of reading and understanding such things, he'd no doubt enjoy the comparison:

What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?

Given the pimped-out, pseudo-Wagnerian theater of TrumpWorld, a spectacular auto-da-fé is the only remotely adequate way to bring down the curtain. He will of course proclaim this self-immolation to be a great victory, and as seen in the rearview mirror of history, he may have a point. Like Satan, Trump has shown us how far we have fallen and how easily we are corrupted. To see him as the villain of the story is missing the point.

McConnell's dark Supreme Court gamble: Here's why Mitch believes he can't lose

Mitch McConnell's political interests are not identical to Donald Trump's, although there's certainly some overlap. That's the first and most important principle to keep in mind in trying to figure out what will happen in the epoch-shaping battle that now looms over not just the presidential campaign but over America's future — the battle to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

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Americans can't agree on anything. Except maybe the mail

So here we are, exactly where we knew we would be — except it's worlds away from anything anyone could have expected. With the Democratic convention just behind us, the no-doubt-ghastly Republican convention just ahead and the nation afflicted with the worst pandemic in 100 years and a bottomless economic depression, we are poised on the brink of the most godawful election campaign of the media-politics age. It will be 10 weeks of anguish, torment and viciousness that we all believe will decide everything but may just as well, in the harsh light of history, be deemed to have decided nothing.

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Trump is doomed — and he knows it

Donald Trump is doomed, and he knows it — in the limited, animalistic way he ever knows anything. His electoral prospects are dwindling toward the mathematical vanishing point, and his historical legacy is now sealed. There is no possible future in which he will not be remembered as the most catastrophically corrupt and incompetent U.S. president of the past 100 years, and quite possibly ever. If it's any consolation to him, the damage he has done is enormous, and as Paul Rosenberg explored for Salon this weekend, it may never be undone.

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Will the schools open? Behind that unanswerable question lies a national catastrophe

Here's what we know about whether it's safe or practical to send millions of American kids and teenagers back to school for the fall term, which in some districts begins in just over a month: Nothing.

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Democrats could be poised for a national victory — just as the aging leadership faces a generational revolt

Are Joe Biden and the Democrats poised to win a sweeping victory this fall, repudiating the legacy of Donald Trump and winning control of both houses of Congress for the first time in a decade? Yes, or at least that's how it looks right now. But don't let that fool you: They're still a total mess, internally divided, ideologically rudderless, committed to symbolism over substance and run by a feeble and delusional gerontocracy. Other than that, though, everything's great. Vote blue no matter who!

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'Roy Cohn' filmmaker on her new HBO doc about Trump's mentor -- and the man who killed her grandparents Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Filmmaker Ivy Meeropol has already made a documentary about her family connection to history. As anyone acquainted with 20th-century radical history will already recognize, she is the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the supposed "atom spies" executed by the federal government in 1953. Meeropol's 2004 HBO film "Heir to an Execution" provides a moving, intimate study of that event and its personal and political legacy — although it does not and could not settle the question of the Rosenbergs' guilt or the fairness of their sentence, which remains contested to this day.

(Full disclosure, although I don't think it's relevant to this story: Both my mother and stepfather were American Communists, and my stepfather, Mel Fiske, knew Abel and Anne Meeropol, who adopted the Rosenbergs' children, including Ivy Meeropol's father, after their parents were electrocuted. So, yeah, if you want an entirely neutral account of these events, go elsewhere.)

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Black Lives Matter in rural America: A nationwide uprising comes to life in a tiny, conservative and virtually all-white community in upstate New York

DELHI, N.Y. — According to the New York Times' remarkable list of Black Lives Matter protests over the last two weeks, the largest outpouring of street activism since the Vietnam War has now spread to more than 2,000 cities and towns in every American state. Certainly the biggest and most newsworthy protests have occurred in large, diverse and often symbolic or significant cities: Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, but also New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and every other metropolis of note. What was less expected, and perhaps even more striking, were the protests we've now seen in hundreds of second-tier cities and small towns clear across the country, including many places with overwhelmingly white populations.

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Donald Trump and the pandemic: Wannabe fascism meets neoliberal capitalism — and it could hardly be worse

One thing that unites the MAGA-hat cosplay fascists of the anti-lockdown "movement" and the Karens and Chads of the hashtag-resistance is the shared conviction that the United States of America is special and that nothing that happens here has much relationship to anything that happens anywhere else. OK, we might hear some comparisons to Germany in the 1930s — on both sides, honestly! — but even that is kind of a special declaration of specialness, as if fascism hasn't experienced something of a spring awakening all around the world.

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The 2020 election was already a mess — now we could be heading for a historic catastrophe

Stop me if you've heard this one before: A Democratic nominee with a long career in public life — who sparks little enthusiasm, and a growing sense of unease — heads into the general election against an odious, ignorant, abusive troll who has no business holding any elective office but has an unquestioned talent in manipulating the media. The Democrat holds a lead in the polls, but only a modest, marginal one, considering the stark contrast between them in terms of experience and temperament.

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Trump's tragic clowning — and his global surrender to China and Russia — have exposed America as a declining empire

Many Americans who were children sometime between the 1950s and the 1980s no doubt remember Game of the States. It was (and evidently still is) a simpleminded catch-and-carry board game through which multiple generations learned vague, generic facts about the 50 states. That game is probably the reason I know all 50 state capitals to this day. Massachusetts and Georgia are tough because the answers are too obvious; South Carolina and West Virginia are tough because the answers seem almost intentionally confusing.

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A chance to remake America

In New York City, where I live, we appear to be past the brutal "peak" of the pandemic's bell curve, as the news headlines and our irascible governor inform us. This means that only 500 people or so are dying in our city every single day — a few days ago it was more than 900 — and the number of hospitalized patients is beginning, very slowly, to decline. I don't know whether I hear fewer ambulance sirens or not; as anyone living through this dreamlike period can testify, time is elastic and perceptions are unreliable. Anecdotally, sirens are not always necessary because the streets are so clear.

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How Bernie Sanders seized an opportunity for change that no one else even saw

Bernie Sanders did everything he could. I think it's important to acknowledge that, amid all the what-ifs and second-guessing and armchair strategic critiques, amid all the lamenting and gloating and conspiracy theory and calls for unity.

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Andrew Cuomo's not your boyfriend: Liberal derangement and quarantine madness have made New York's gov a sex-god celebrity. Let's do better

Can we just stop it with Andrew Cuomo already? He's not your boyfriend, and honestly you could do a hell of a lot better. I say that because I care about you. Don't be a doormat!

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Doc filmmaker Alex Gibney on 'Citizen K': The real-life thriller of an oligarch who turned against Vladimir Putin

Ever since his breakthrough documentary "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" in 2005, Alex Gibney has displayed a remarkable ability to pull scandals from headline news and turn them into gripping cinematic experiences. He dramatizes, in the sense that he often tells his stories with the pacing and structure of a thriller or a mystery. And believe me, "Citizen K," his new film about the unlikely trajectory of the Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is highly effective in that mode.

But Gibney never fictionalizes, and almost always works closely with both investigative reporters and his interview subjects to cover as many angles as possible. In a world where the very idea of truth is under constant assault, Gibney is a true believer in the principle that objective reality can be found, and still matters — even if we won't all interpret it in the same way.

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Democrats are tormenting themselves by endlessly rehashing 2016 online. They need to get over it

I spent some time away from social media over the holidays, and came back with a couple of observations. Or maybe just one. First of all, everybody should do that — perhaps permanently — because social media in general is kind of nuts. But political Twitter, in particular, is insane. Second of all, and I know this comes under the heading of “no sh*t, Sherlock,” Democrats on Twitter are tormenting themselves (and each other) by endlessly rehashing the 2016 election. They have simply got to get over it.If you already spend too much time perusing other people’s political opinions on Twitter, you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, you are definitely better off. I see no point in calling out specific individuals who should know better (cough cough, Neera Tanden and Joy Reid) or the most outrageous accusations of treason and war crimes and secret allegiance to Trump or Putin or the Bilderberg Society or whatever. But the amount of grudge and grievance and name-calling and recrimination and hive-mind clapback and paranoid mythology, nearly all of it rooted in the leftover bad feelings of the Hillary v. Bernie conflict of 2016, is astonishing. It’s damaging and dangerous and downright Trumpy, and yet more evidence that the virus that produced him has infected us all.I don’t want to be all “both sides do it.” But in fact both sides do do it, while accusing the other of being the worst people in human history. And I’m not trying to pull some Jon Stewart “Rally for Normies” bullshit about the evils of polarization and division, because I know where that boat ride takes: Across the River Styx into the land where Joe Biden muses about picking a Republican running mate.

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'Bombshell' is a muddled mess that doesn’t do Fox News nor #MeToo any favors

“Bombshell” wants to be an urgent present-tense docudrama about events that happened the day before yesterday, in historical terms, but have largely been forgotten and no longer seem to matter amid the all-out information blitz of the Trump era. In telling the story of the sexual harassment scandal that brought down Fox News CEO Roger Ailes in 2016, at exactly the moment Donald Trump was accepting the Republican presidential election, director Jay Roach and writer Charles Randolph no doubt believe they’re making a point about media and power and women and our changing understanding of sex, gender, and sexuality.

Or maybe they don’t and, more defensibly, the point of “Bombshell” is just to deliver a dishy, delicious, “All About Eve”-style spectacle featuring Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman playing a pair of real-life beautiful women who are approximately as famous as they are — former Fox News hosts Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson, respectively, whose accusations against Ailes ended his lascivious reign of terror. Except that “Bombshell” isn’t great at being soapy entertainment either, since this actually is a story about moral hazard and fatal compromise and too much of that is hidden from us, by design or otherwise.

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After a big win for Boris Johnson and Brexit, the British left faces the darkness

British general elections have a tendency to deliver last-minute surprises, and the U.K.'s third in less than five years did not disappoint. Unfortunately for the Labour Party, the British left and the anti-Brexit forces, the surprise of 2019 appears to be a catastrophic wipeout.

Polls leading into Thursday's election had suggested a tightening race that could end in a "hung parliament." Lines — sorry, queues — at polling places were lengthy, and British social media buzzed with the possibility that left-wing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn might win just enough seats to forge a coalition government with the Scottish National Party, ousting preening, Trump-flavored Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party and paving the way for a second Brexit referendum.

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Impeachment and the Democrats: How will they screw this up? Let me count the ways

Thursday’s announcement by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that Democrats are ready to vote articles of impeachment against President Trump — presumably on the narrowest possible terms, after a constrained and foreshortened process — is hardly surprising. It is, however, disheartening. Why they would even consider moving to a floor vote on impeachment without doing whatever is necessary to compel testimony from John Bolton, who is now a private citizen and has always been a blast-hardened neocon Republican, and who is clearly eager to roast Donald Trump’s gizzard on a fork and then eat it, is profoundly baffling.

Or maybe, sadly, it isn’t. So far, this spectacle confirms my sense that the Democratic Party is strikingly ill-prepared for the historical role it ought to play in this moment of small-d democratic crisis. Driven as usual by fear, excessive caution and a morbid fascination with identifying the middle of the middle of the political middle (and then veering slightly to its right), the Democrats are entirely likely to screw things up, whether morally or tactically or politically or all at once. (See also David Masciotra’s excellent Salon essay last weekend.)

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John Bolton is not a hero of the #resistance — not even in Trump's gritty mob-thriller

In the forthcoming movie version of the downfall of the Trump administration — which may be more fun than watching the actual event in real time — no character will be more compelling, or more coveted by name actors, than John Bolton. (Who do you like for the role? I mean, if for some reason Jeff Bridges turns it down.) President Trump’s former national security adviser has evidently turned against the boss, and the consequences could be devastating. It seems clear that Bolton has already played a pivotal backstage role in exposing the Ukraine scandal, and that sooner or later he will be a star witness at impeachment hearings.

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