The Show Must Go On

(Really, must it?)

Dear friends -

Many of you responded to a sentence from last week’s email: “Trump isn’t a cause, he’s a symptom, and the disease runs deep.” Seven years ago I wrote a book about how the institutions that made post-war America great were diseased and fragile -- and technology threatened to be the last straw, leading to a collapse. This is where Rule 1 was born: it will get crazier. (Incidentally, paid subscribers to this newsletter get a complimentary signed copy of my book.) When I tried to diagnose why our institutions had lost their way, it was complicated, but one thing kept emerging: greed. 

A certain kind of greed in our culture could be construed as holding on to power too long. The average age of our political leadership is 79. When Trump this week declared “I am a perfect physical specimen and I'm extremely young”, he’s not wrong about the second half of that sentence. Among his political peers, Trump is pretty much the youngster. (My math is here.) To quote Joe Costello, “Looks like the old Soviet Politburo, don't it?” It’s hard to believe that the ancien régime understands what’s happening out there in people’s lives. Most of them have spent decades in Washington DC for an added dose of myopia. While they’ve been in charge climate change, systemic racism, and rising health care costs have metastasized, and now the 50 richest Americans are worth more than almost everyone else in America.

As long as Trump has a stage, he will perform, even as the ratings—I mean, poll numbers, drop. “Don’t trust the polls!” I warned you back in June. But as we stare down the final three weeks of the campaign, they offer some hope -- and some anxiety. First and foremost, remember: although the polls show Biden has a comfortable lead, they are likely to tighten again before election day. And even if they don’t, they remain too close for comfort in some key spots. That said, the trend lines tell us the general direction of the race. Hint: it’s not good for the Republicans, not even in South Carolina. There is a lot that could still happen, making any predictions hazardous. One of the tight spots at the top of mind for me is Wisconsin. This Thursday at 4pm I’ll be interviewing Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, about what’s happening on the ground. One of the reasons I’m so invested in Ben Wikler’s leadership in the Democratic Party is because he represents significant generational change. There’s still time to RSVP for the Zoom

Some of you have asked: how can it get crazier? Oh, I’ll tell you one possible way: indict Hillary Clinton. As Republicans get more desperate, they are returning to the tried-and-true villains of the last thirty years: the Obamas and the Clintons. A week ago Trump called for his Attorney General to indict Barack Obama; a few days ago Secretary of State Pompeo said he would be releasing more of Hillary Clinton’s emails (the clip on Fox News is worth watching). The narratives around both the Clintons and the Obamas are long-running, high yield investments of the Republican Party, and in the closing weeks of this campaign I expect them to double-down. These storylines are quite literally money in the bank: we’ve got a whole industry around attacking the Clintons; you might even say Fox News was built on it. And it can be quite lucrative, as Steve Bannon knows -- he produced a half dozen films about the Clintons.  The combination of decades of Clinton conspiracies and the veiled racism in demonizing Obama is too powerful for the GOP to resist. It’s all part of the neverending story, and producer, director and lead are all Trump. 

You gotta hand it to the guy, he is brilliant at the pageantry of power. If you missed his rally from the balcony of the White House over the weekend, it was really something. It’s notable that over the last few months, Trump has been using the symbols of the presidency as part of his campaign. First there was the increased visibility of Air Force One as a backdrop at political rallies; then the Republican National Convention in and around the White House (including opera and fireworks); and then this weekend’s rally where even the Marine Corps Band was enlisted to participate in his political rally at the White House. To quote my friend Gabriel London:

That balcony is so regal it’s practically Papal. And it’s rarely been put to use for such raw, theatrical displays of power as by Trump. Again, by necessity, they would say. But the optics are clear — that balcony is a gift to Trump’s self presentation of power.

You know the old saying: every time Trump claps his hands in glee, a norm fairy dies. 

A few other things going on this week:

Expanding the map: As I wrote last week, Democrats have so much money they’re having trouble spending any more of it in traditional swing states -- where things are already looking pretty good for Democrats -- and so they’re turning to some new parts of the country, like Texas and Kansas. It’s been 100 years since Kansas sent a Democrat to the US Senate, but this could be the year. The Biden campaign announced that today Jill Biden is traveling to El Paso, Dallas, and Houston. This is a pretty good clue; in 2016 I began to realize that the Hillary Clinton campaign was in trouble when I saw them scrambling to send President Obama to Michigan in the final days of the campaign. In politics, the only thing more precious than money is the principle’s time. The presence of Jill Biden in Texas is a sign that the campaign thinks they can win. 

Texas makes me nervous. Everything is bigger in Texas. With more than 20 different media markets, it is extremely expensive and after years of being ignored by the Democratic Party there isn’t nearly enough local infrastructure. Chief among my complaints about the Biden campaign is that it has been too conservative, which makes their foray into Texas notable: they wouldn’t do it casually.

Money: Republicans this week have been bemoaning the giant influx of small dollar contributions to Democratic candidates. Particularly eye-popping is the nearly $100M that has flowed into Jaime Harrison’s campaign to defeat Lindsay Graham in South Carolina. Some of it isn’t a surprise; the GOP represents a distinct minority of the population (thanks to the design of our electoral system) and so the majority are responding with their dollars and cents. The history of ActBlue and small dollar donors is interesting and somewhat fraught, and I confess I play a large role in it… but that story is for another time. 

Court Packing: This isn’t hard, and I don’t know why Biden and Harris keep screwing this up. Or why the media is so happy to harp on it. There is a simple answer: “Look, that isn’t our decision to make: it’s Congress’ decision. Congress would need to pass legislation to expand the Supreme Court, and there’s no use speculating on that possibility when we’ll face immediate challenges on day one of a Biden administration combatting the pandemic and economic devastation it has left in its wake.” (hat tip to Tim Alberta). 

Debates: I doubt we’ll see any more debates during this campaign, and that’s probably a good thing. They’re not exactly debates. During the VP debate, the moderator Susan Page was not allowed to ask any follow-up questions. The whole thing was just an exchange of talking points which had only passing resemblance to the questions being asked. Almost no one in the 18-30 demographic knows who any of the moderators are; in fact, I challenge anyone on this list to name the three major evening news anchors without the aid of the internet. (If you’re under 40, you’ll need this hint: The three major evening news channels are ABC, CBS, NBC… and now you need to name the anchors). With any luck, we can use this as a chance to revisit the entire format. 

The Lincoln Project: Folks, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: ignore the Lincoln Project. They change no one’s mind and they are counter-productive. All you’re doing is assuaging the guilt of some of the men who brought the GOP to its current state, and possibly making them some money in the process. I found them absolutely pathetic on 60 Minutes last night. (60 Minutes is a news show on CBS, kids.) Instead, watch Mayor Pete on Fox News (two examples here and here). He is very, very good -- and he’s out there speaking to “the other side”, purposefully going where most of my loyal readers won’t hear him.

I’ve tortured you long enough. There is so much more happening: the Senate Judiciary Committee begins Supreme Court nominee hearings tomorrow even thought COVID has shut down the main Senate floor; even the chairman of Goldman Sachs is calling for the breakup of big tech companies; pretty much everyone watching the NFL on Sunday (about 60 million people) heard Cindy McCain endorse Biden; meanwhile the President of the United States told Sean Hannity on the air that California was sending too much water to the ocean to help "tiny little fish that aren't doing very well." 

This is already too much. Last Thursday, Louise Glück won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Once, I drove her home from a poetry reading. Take a minute and listen to her read one of my favorite poems, “The Wild Iris”, which begins: At the end of my suffering there was a door. 

I hope to see you this Thursday at 4pm ET for my conversation with Ben Wikler about Wisconsin. 

Lots of love, nicco

PS. My beloved spouse just had her TED talk on how to stop remote work burnout posted on the TED website - so proud of her! You can see her there NEXT TO POPE FRANCIS’ TED TALK. That’s right, Morra and the Pope.