I was afraid that the moment had come; age had beaten me down and I had become a curmudgeon. When a New York Times story the other day read “Activists in San Francisco last week toppled a statue of Ulysses S. Grant, the former president who led the Union army to victory,” my reaction was that it was time for people to step back and take a deep breath. In the four weeks since George Floyd was murdered, the widely-embraced public protests over systemic racism in law enforcement and the killing of Black men and women by police officers had given way to protesters defacing and tearing down statues of past presidents of the United States.
Pedestal where the statue of Ulysses S. Grant once stood.
Photo: Yalonda M. James / The ChronicleI understand the argument; Grant was a slaveholder. So were many of the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The FAQ page at Mount Vernon explains that George Washington became a slaveholder at age 11. None of this has been a secret. It is part of our history, and will always be part of our history. The unique power of this moment is not in tearing down those images, but in the willingness of a large part of the country to confront that history in a way we haven’t before.
Then Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser bailed me out. Faced with protesters clamoring to remove the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Emancipation Memorial, Bowser argued that the city should go through an appropriate public process to determine the fate of statues, and “not have a mob decide they want to pull it down.” Her words summed up my sentiments, I am not pro-statue as much as I am anti-mob — to use her formulation — and believe that public process is essential to pluralistic democracy. Perhaps agreeing with her doesn’t mean I have not become a curmudgeon, but I felt better knowing that at least there were two of us.
The simple truth is that my reaction had nothing to do with being anti-mob or pro-statue, it is that I am anti-Trump. Perhaps more than anything, I am also opposed in this fragile moment to doing anything that may provide Donald Trump a foothold to regain the momentum in his reelection bid.
June has been a very bad month for Donald Trump. For most of the year, Joe Biden held a small but steady lead over the President in the FiveThirtyEight national polling average. A five point lead in national polls, however, does not necessarily translate into a victory in the Electoral College, so while Biden consistently held a small lead in the polls, Trump stubbornly held an edge in online betting markets.
By the beginning of this month, Trump’s campaign began to visibly falter. Public outrage over the brutal killing of George Floyd, broad support for the ensuing public protests, and then Trump’s gassing of protesters in Lafayette Square and his St. John’s Church stunt contributed to a dramatic shift in the political landscape. While Trump intended his show of force on Lafayette Square to bolster his credibility as a “law and order President,” it had the opposite impact. In particular, his actions provoked harsh reactions from a number of the nation’s most senior military figures, led by his former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Americans across the political spectrum had to be particularly unsettled by the rebuke issued by retired Marine four-star General John Allen, which began: “The slide of the United States into illiberalism may well have begun on June 1, 2020. Remember the date. It may well signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment.”
Two weeks ago, the Trump campaign threatened to sue CNN for publishing a poll that showed the President down by 14 points. While the CNN poll appeared to be an outlier in the moment, by the time Trump arrived home from his failed Tulsa rally last weekend, the CNN results had been validated by no less than Fox News, whose poll showed the President down by 12 points. The highly regarded New York Times/Siena College poll released this week mirrored the CNN numbers, showing Trump trailing Biden 50 to 36 percent, with the President losing support across all demographic groups. This week, the Wall Street Journal editorial board piled on with a scathing denunciation of both his lack of any coherent campaign message and inability to meet the moment of multiple crises facing the nation.
Trump arrives home from Tulsa
Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP/ShutterstockEven as Joe Biden has built a sizable polling lead over the past few weeks — reflected in a 62 to 39 lead in online trading — a dangerous hubris has emerged that belies the inherent volatility of the race. Four weeks ago, the race was a dead heat. For the two months prior to that, Donald Trump appeared to have more paths to victory than Biden, as he held a steady advantage in many, if not most, of the swing states viewed as critical to the outcome in the Electoral College. While current polling shows that Biden has gained an upper hand in the race, ongoing questions surrounding the Democratic Party’s Election Day get-out-the-vote infrastructure, compounded by the inherent uncertainties of how the pandemic will impact turnout, lend a greater than normal degree of uncertainty as to how poll numbers will translate into Election Day results. Suffice it to say, we are several months before the November election, and as good as this week’s polling looks, the outcome is far from certain.
From the point of view of the Trump campaign, images of the CHAZ occupation in Seattle and protesters tearing down statues of U.S. Presidents is nothing less than manna from heaven. With the economy in tatters, rising Covid-19 hospitalizations in Florida, Arizona and Texas, and public opinion widely derisive of Trump’s management of the triumvirate of crises playing out across the nation, protesters going after Abe Lincoln and George Washington — to say nothing of images of the White Jesus — may well offer Donald Trump’s last, best hope for regaining the electoral advantage he had just one month ago.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had it right a few months back, when she observed — with barely concealed disdain — that it is a peculiar product of the structure of our democracy that she and Joe Biden are in the same political party. It is a structure that has not worked out well for progressives over the years. In 1992, they supported Bill Clinton, only to see him sign into law welfare reform, the crime bill, and financial deregulation, each anathema to progressive views. Eight years later, enough progressives abandoned Al Gore for Ralph Nader to give the country eight years of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and the two longest wars in the nation’s history.
A bit over four months from now, one party will win the White House while the other will be devastated, wondering how things went so wrong. Whether or not Democrats win may well depend on how seriously progressives take their role as coalition partners over the coming months with a presidential candidate whom they do not particularly like. In particular, I fear that it may also depend on whether those who are tearing down statues in cities across the country realize that their actions may well hurt Joe Biden and Democrats in November, and offer Donald Trump his last, best hope of winning reelection.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”
Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Check out Joe’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.