As the Capitol falls, Trump definitively answers “What do you have to lose?”
In September, I wrote an essay called “A Wargame Designer Defines Our Four Possible Civil Wars.” I got a lot of commentary, with some thinking I’d taken a thought exercise too far. That was totally fair until today when
The first shots of a new civil war, only one day after Georgians voted to end GOP control of the Senate, ended all civil discussion in the Capitol. The legislators had gathered to commit the pro forma act of certifying the election. Some Republicans said some stupid things, some Democrats pontificated, and Rep. Jamie Raskin got a standing ovation after his son died last week. This looked like a normal day at the Capitol.
Then new GOP Rep. Lauren Boebert took the podium. She’s the QAnon nutcase who runs an open-carry Colorado restaurant. She joked about not causing a Hamilton-Burr-style duel on the House floor (droll!), then screamed like Kimberley Guilfoyle on meth about her duty to defend the Constitution and ashcan the votes of millions.
Which I might not bring up, except that she brought a gun to the Capitol.
Twenty minutes later, the Capitol was being evacuated because a coup was underway. Terrorists in MAGA hats overwhelmed the Capitol police, stormed through the windows, paraded around with Confederate flags, stole a podium, and vandalized Speaker Pelosi’s office. A particularly stupid one of them got herself killed by Capitol cops; another died from falling from the Biden inauguration scaffolding. A gallows noose was hung outside the Capitol. Bombs were found at the DNC and RNC offices. A newly elected West Virginia lawmaker was among the insurrectionists. Vice President Pence, a clear target of the crowd, seemed to take control of the executive branch in what may have been a 25th Amendment action, authorizing the National Guard while the actual president was doing… well, what exactly?
Nothing. Nothing at all. Just let it all burn.
The aftermath of all of this is unclear. The cause of it is obvious. And it all started with one pitch.
On August 20, 2016, then-candidate Donald J. Trump made this outreach to the African American voters of America.
Trump told African Americans to vote for him because Hillary Clinton’s policies were destroying them.
“What do you have to lose? You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?”
His proposition was simple: Instead of funneling their precious votes toward the Democrats, why not gamble on Trump, a complete outsider? In many ways, it was his pitch to all of America: rural, urban, black, white, straight, gay, everyone.
Why not gamble on Trump? America had gambled on Beltway outsiders for president before. True, the last three “gambles” were made on the governors of Georgia, California, and Arkansas. The one before that was on the commander of the armed forces in World War II. It’s hard to say we’d gambled on a complete outsider to politics. Let alone one whose primary claim to fame was that he was such a good businessman, he’d declared bankruptcy at least four times. But hey, we were riding a good economy and had a strong position in the world. Why not gamble? As he said, “What do you have to lose?”
After four years, with the President suspended on Twitter for promoting violence and possibly even removed from authority inside the White House, we have a definitive answer to that. I’m going to use this abject failure of an administration to show the consequences of a bad gamble, and why you might not want to start 2021 by betting all your money in Vegas.
First, the record: What did we have to lose?
Our lives: Due primarily to the combination of Trump’s mismanagement at the federal level and Republican unwillingness to take basic precautions, we are averaging a 9/11 death toll every day from COVID-19. At 361,000 deaths, we have surpassed the number of soldiers killed in action in the Civil War, and are bearing down on the number of Americans killed in World War II. Only the 1918 influenza pandemic has killed more Americans than COVID-19; we are halfway to its total of 675,000 dead Americans. Today was the worst day yet, so we’ll get there soon enough.
More than 1 in 1,000 Americans are dead from COVID. Among Black and Indigenous Americans, the number is about 1 in 800. Black, Indigenous and Latino Americans all have a COVID-19 death rate of more than 2.7 times that of White Americans. When Trump asked Black Americans what they had to lose, the answer was more people than to almost any other event.
Our jobs: Our economy crashed hard in the middle of the year, and was only propped back up a bit by the belief that Trump would not be president on January 21. The GDP fell by a third in the second quarter alone.
Unemployment affected 47 million people in that three-month span, with 10 million or more suffering permanent unemployment. That’s a fifth of the country furloughed or fired in a few weeks. And that was with the CARES Act passing. The GDP and Wall Street rebounded in the third quarter, but Republicans managed to stall all further relief, leading to an anemic fourth quarter. Trump will end up with the worst jobs record in modern history.
The permanent costs will be much more severe. By September, more than 100,000 business had shuttered forever due to the crisis. That’s 800 a day. Entire industries are gone. Meanwhile, in most of the rest of the world (the U.K. being a strong counterexample), people can go to concerts and restaurants without fear. We did this to ourselves, and it’s on Trump.
Our democracy: While the president was ignoring the coronavirus and ignoring the collapse of middle America’s economy, he was highly attentive to one thing: the fictional belief that the election would be stolen from him and (after November 4) had been stolen from him. It became obvious that this pipe dream was a loyalty test which Republicans in Congress largely failed. But the institutions like the secretary of state offices and the courts—while loaded with Republicans—largely held firm against the most powerful man in the world’s onslaught. Trump and his allies lost every recount. They brought more than 60 cases and won only one (about the distance of poll watchers).
The cancerous rot had taken hold, however. The president was caught on tape pressuring the Georgia secretary of state to “find 11,000 votes” for him. The Pennsylvania legislature met and refused to seat a Democratic senator who had won, booting the Democratic lieutenant governor from the chamber. The president promised a march on Washington for today, and spoke directly to the mob, encouraging them to march to the Capitol. They got there.
I can’t begin to list all the other things we lost because some people in this country took a gamble on a man with no qualifications, no skills, and no morals. The biggest loss is the belief that bad actions produce consequences. Right now a would-be dictator who stoked his followers to commit violence in an attempt to overthrow an election, and is likely plotting more assaults on democracy, feels invulnerable. Even though there are Congressional moves toward a second impeachment and a request to Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, he might just be invulnerable.
Still… making bad bets does have consequences. Gambling is a dangerous thing. By its very nature, we subjugate our fortunes to fate. Payoffs bring great highs, failures great lows. It has another problem, too: it’s addictive. Gambling addiction dominates lives. See, gambling only counts when something is at stake. An addict will not be satisfied with small bets. They will continue to raise the stakes until the stakes break them. Trump, as I have noted many times, is a compulsive gambler, and he believes in the gambler’s fallacy. When he fails many times—say, having a 1–60 record in the courts—he believes he’s due for a win. When he is rebuffed at all turns, he decides he is not risking enough. Raise the stakes, and fate might be on his side. The courts don’t work? he thinks. How about storming the Capitol?
This is the theory of a fool. The size of the stakes don’t change the odds. Even when he’s gambling with the lives of congresspeople and the survival of the republic, a bad hand is a bad hand.
After a tense six hours hiding in undisclosed locations, Congress reconvened to count the votes. In a weirdly unsettling show of normalcy, Republicans continued to air objections to Arizona’s count, and Democrats continued to shoot down them down. Then both chambers swiftly rejected the objection. Outgoing Senator Kelly Loeffler (those words are nice) rescinded her objection to Georgia’s tally, and its votes got counted. Michigan went by without a senator joining the objection. Nevada too. As I write this, 2024 candidate Senator Josh Hawley is objecting to Pennsylvania’s tally, but you get the sense that everyone wants to go home and hug their families. I don’t blame them. If my office had been stormed by a mob of traitors, I’d want to go home too.
The gamble on Trump has not paid off for the Republican Party. In a devil’s bargain for a Supreme Court that probably won’t stay theirs for much longer, the GOP has lost the presidency, the House, and the Senate in one four-year stretch. Mitch McConnell, who railed against his treasonous colleagues like a man who had just looked up “backbone” in the dictionary, is the minority leader; he can block no more bills. Their only saving grace is that they didn’t lose any more statehouses in 2020, so they get to stay alive. Had they also lost those, they might not exist in 2022. They traded their souls for a civil war that will tear them to pieces in the next few years.
What they did get is a permanent association with the man whose thugs stormed the Capitol building as those inside did their solemn duty to ensure, however rockily, that the transfer of power would continue. We can no longer use the word “peaceful” before that phrase, though. That’s what gambling on Trump got us.
That, Mr. Trump, is what we had to lose.
This is the 67th installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, Colin Kaepernick, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, the midterms, the Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third parties, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, the Trump mafia, college admissions, William Barr, Brexit, Iran, the Mueller Report, Joe Biden, Oregon’s standoff, the environment, Jeffrey Epstein, Trump’s lies, Pelosi’s strategy, the impeachment inquiry, political outsiders, Rudy Giuliani, the Berlin wall, protest art, Boris Johnson, religion, engagement, Bernie Sanders, progressive unity, the Democratic nominee, the pandemic, unemployment, rioting, the Klan, the Confederacy, the GOP 2020 strategy, Biden’s strategy, the wildfire crisis, civil war, Kamala Harris, Trump’s COVID diagnosis, Biden’s case, and Native Americans. Most of these appear in my new edition of Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can get on our PledgeManager now.