For some reason, President Trump continues to address the American people daily, though he has long run out of things to say. Faced with a variety of crises whose durations, at the very least, can be entirely laid at his feet, Trump has launched a fusillade of gaslighting such as America has never seen before—a shock and awe rhetorical blitz resembling the love-child of a threesome involving Strom Thurmond1Racist filibustering, Richard Nixon2Official Lying, and the Battle of London3Sheer Air Power to pummel his base into acquiescence. This has long passed the point of diminishing returns; the Republican Party is enfeebled beyond recognition, much less repair, and Joe Biden’s support continues to harden around the 50% mark, or above.
Far more interesting than the dozens of daily untruths spewing forth from Trump’s mouth, however, are the rare moments of truth they are designed to obfuscate. I use the word “truth” not in its objective form—such a standard would be impossible to reach for a man such as Trump—but truth defined as “what Trump actually believes.”
Indeed, Bob Woodward has recently reminded us that Donald Trump is incapable of lying, because he has no defined sense of reality. He has simply willed himself—as is the habit of the most toxic of white and male boomers—to simply believe what he says must be true. It does not matter whether it contradicts what he said yesterday, or whether it contradicts something a member of his administration said, or contradicts something recorded on video. Trump’s reality starts with his mouth, and then the world is expected to conform to it.
But every once in a while, Trump says something that is a window to whatever is left of his soul, if in fact he ever had one. Such was the case during today’s cult programming, er, press conference. Asked about the 200,000 that have died since the pandemic began, Trump’s response was “If you take the blue states out,” he continued, “we’re at a level that I don’t think anybody in the world would be at.” He blamed “blue-state management.”
Undoubtedly, this is more than noise. Set aside for the moment the division of states into “red” and “blue”—which we will pick back up in a moment—the inherent premise is that Trump (1) takes responsibility for no pandemic deaths at all, red or blue, and (2) “blue-state” deaths are not so much mourned as they are just so deeply inconvenient to Trump’s campaign. Blue-state victims are the civilian version of Trump’s “suckers” and “losers”—what was in it for them to live in a blue state?
Attempting to infuse Trump or his cult following with an emotion so complex as empathy is certainly a lost cause. But Trump’s malice is not only psychologically draining, it is being nursed and fed by a pre-existing condition (to coin a phrase) severely threatening the American experiment: the Electoral College.
For all the hagiography of the Founders, the Electoral College is one innovation that just never worked. It is too strong to say that the Founders opposed democracy, but they were concerned that the public would be easily swayed by demagogues and manipulators.4How quaint. They imagined that an independent group of electors would temper voter passions and ensure that the presidency was protected from those with “talents of low intrigue,” as Hamilton politely put it.5When one considers this purpose in context, it gives context to those that argue that vote redistribution was a feature, not a bug. The idea was not to elect a president, but instead an independent body of electors who would then choose a president. Theoretically, since the presidency was a federal office and the electors would be a deliberative, dispassionate body, their individual states of origin would be somewhat less important. He added that a body of electors
would be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of ONE who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes. And as the electors, chosen in each State, are to assemble and vote in the State in which they are chosen, this detached and divided situation will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place.
But the electoral college became a problem right away, as Thomas Jefferson in 1800 was forced to face off with own running mate, Aaron Burr, at a time when the Constitution made the second-highest electoral vote winner the Vice-President—necessitating Burr’s participation in the vote as Jefferson’s erstwhile rival. As generations of teens learned from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jefferson only won when rival Alexander Hamilton communicated to Federalist electors his preference for Jefferson over Burr.
The electoral college as an independent elected body never really survived that early test. And thus over time its independent and deliberative purposes have been functionally eliminated—many states require electors by law to vote for the candidate that won a majority of that state’s votes—and now it is only a means for redistributing political power between the states.
The resulting potential for anti-democratic outcomes is extreme. One study found that by piling up votes in the smallest states, a candidate could win the electoral college with as little as 23% of the vote. The same study found that by simply winning the largest 11 states, one could accrue 270 electoral votes with just 27% of the vote.
Of course, in practice this mattered only a few times before this century. John Quincy Adams defeated Andrew Jackson in the House of Representatives in part because Adams ran stronger in the electoral college than in the popular vote. In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes won a disputed election despite losing the popular vote after several southern states certified both Republican and Democratic slates of electors. And a few years later, Benjamin Harrison defeated incumbent Grover Cleveland despite a narrow popular loss.6And thereby annoying generations of schoolchildren required to memorize Grover Cleveland’s name twice after he beat Harrison in 1892.
But since 2000, the electoral college has inverted the popular result twice already. The infamous 2000 election went to George W. Bush after a protracted political and legal battle in the state of Florida. A poorly-designed “butterfly ballot” induced thousands of Palm Beach County residents to vote for third-party candidate Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore, and Bush won by less than 1,000 votes.
Then came 2016. Trump carried only 46% of the vote—a full three million votes fewer than Hillary Clinton—though he won several states by narrow margins, propelling him to victory.
Now it is 2020, and Trump has taken no action to increase his base vote. Instead, he increases his voters’ base impulses. This alone has ramifications for American government—we may have the world’s only political system that actively disincentivizes candidates from maximizing their vote totals. But per usual, Trump takes a bad situation and makes it that much worse.
First, the electoral college awards campaigns not for winning votes, but for mastering vote distribution tables. Put another way, the electoral college values some voters more and other voters less. This used to be less of a problem, but by combining the power of social media with white grievance politics, one can create a bloc of votes far more powerful than raw numbers would suggest. They are not just voters, they are the “right voters.” And since they are already white, consider how insufferable they would be about it even under normal circumstances.
Second, whole swaths of voters—both Republicans and Democrats—simply don’t matter at all. The entire western United States is on fire, but these states are either noncompetitive or too small for Trump to care. Arizona is the only western state Trump need care about, and the latest polls there suggest that Arizona cares less and less for Trump as time passes.
This last gap is the one that Trump fatefully exploited today. America is engulfed in a nationwide pandemic. Trump is the president of the entire nation, not the sub-collection of “red” states that constitutes his neo-Confederate play kingdom. And yet, all Trump can do when confronted with American deaths is exploit them for political gain. And it is the electoral college that permits this exploitation. Otherwise, he would have to answer to all voters.
Third, and most dangerously, Trump’s combination of a minority of voters, a hardened red-state base, and a monolitihical single-issue (all Trump, all the time) cult, looks a lot like Madison’s greatest fear, described in Federalist 10 as “faction.” To be sure, Madison was more concerned with a majority faction than a minority faction though, because in his view:
If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote.
But this is no longer true. A minority faction can defeat the republican principle in this country, and is in fact attempting in seven weeks time to do so. Its vehicle for doing so is the electoral college.
The electoral college has created some fluky outcomes, but we cannot abide Trump’s open manipulation of it. The Constitution must be interpreted to ensure that within it does not lie the means of its own disintegration. Pocket nuclear devices was just one example of this premise. The problem here, however, is that the electoral college is undoubtedly a part of the document, and a part of America’s electoral system. In this, Trump exploits another of America’s inherent weaknesses, his usual game. It will only get worse if we proceed down this path.
America can no longer abide the polite fictions of the electoral college. Like confederate statues, it must go. If “all lives matter,” all their votes should count too.