The Worst Possible Outcome (OR: The Baby Hitler Hypothetical)

A few days ago (which feels like weeks at this point), I made some predictions about Tuesday’s election, and I talked about the “two movies, one screen” phenomenon.  That concept is the idea that two people / groups of people can observe the same data, but process that data so differently as to perceive different realities.

Before I get to where we are with our electorate’s competing narratives, let’s review the particular points I made.  My overall, general prediction of a narrow Trump Electoral College win is doubtful at this point, but the enumerated specifics about which I felt confident largely came to pass:

1. Trump will win Ohio and Florida. – Correct, as expected.

2. Democratic dreams of flipping Texas are foolish– Correct.

3. Models based on early voting in 2016 or prior years are suspect. – Safe to say this was correct.

4. There are a lot of shy Trump voters. – Correct.  Trump may not win, but he was “supposed” to lose by 8-12 points.

5. Massive rallies are a decent indicator of voter enthusiasm, but not necessarily the outcome.  – Correct.  If they were, Trump would have won convincingly.

6. If Biden wins, and Trump contests the results or doesn’t concede, the dominant media narrative will be about Trump being a danger to democracy.  – Correct, and more on this in the meat of this article below.

7. If Trump wins, and Biden contests the results or doesn’t concede, the dominant media narrative will be about Republican voter suppression. – Moot, as Biden is the presumptive winner.

8. If Biden wins convincingly, then we’ll look back on 2016 as a huge aberration.  – Moot because, as expected, the race was tight.  

9. If Trump wins, then modern polling will need at least a soft reset before 2024. – I should have expanded this to say, “even if Trump loses, if he loses close, modern polling will need at least a soft reset.”  And, so, it does.  Likewise . . . 

10. If Trump wins, pollsters will spend the next four years explaining to all of us how, aaaaaaactually, they were right all along! Same shift as above to “if he loses close,” but the polls were way off, and it’s already happening.

That brings me back to the overall point.  The outcome of the 2020 election is the worst of all realistic possibilities.

I don’t mean Biden (very likely) winning.  I mean the combination of factors, including an incompetent and/or biased media that slants coverage and an irresponsible candidate (Trump) who inflames his base at every opportunity, that entrench both competing realities.

As I said on Monday, the two versions of reality in play before the election are mutually-exclusive.  The worst possible outcome was a result that did not definitively refute one of these versions.

Had Trump won big, there’s no question there would have been significant anger among the far left, including more riots, but the vast, vast majority of Americans would have accepted the results—even those who were unhappy about them.  Angry memes would have continued apace for the next four years, but, crucially, it would have become completely unreasonable to attribute the loss to a conspiracy theory involving foreign interference and the like.

Had Biden won big, likewise, die-hard Trump supporters would have been upset (although much less likely to riot, based on what we’ve seen in 2020), but the vast, vast majority of Americans would have accepted the results—even those who were unhappy about them.   Angry memes would have continued apace for four years (as would slanted coverage), but, crucially, it would have become completely unreasonable to attribute the loss to a conspiracy theory involving voter fraud. 

Yet, that’s not what happened.  Despite Democratic and media scoffing, the idea that voter fraud may—may—have played a role in a very close election is not a fringe idea.  Nor is it a new idea.  Even in recent history, there’s a pretty clear blueprint for how this sort of thing can work in practice.  Whether it turns out to be true or not is a matter for the courts to decide, and the burden is entirely on the Trump camp to produce evidence or concede the election.  

But the haste with which commentators and partisans dismiss the very possibility is illuminating.

The same people who spent years covering the Steele Dossier and stating, as fact, that Russians “hacked” the 2016 election are telling you that this is all absolutely absurd.  The same people who believe that Stacey Abrams is the rightful Governor of Georgia reject any hint of wrongdoing and decry others undermining the integrity of an election.  The same people who believe that both George W. Bush and Donald Trump are illegitimate presidents are saying that the suggestion of electoral oddities in places like Philadelphia, Detroit, or parts of Georgia, Nevada, or Arizona is a major threat to the fabric of our republic.

Don’t misunderstand.  I’m not defending Trump’s over-the-top, unsubstantiated rhetoric.  As usual, he’s not doing himself any favors, and, far worse, he’s creating additional doubt in the minds of his most dedicated supporters—many of whom themselves believe that Barack Obama was a Kenyan-born illegitimate president.  

But also consider the following.  Most of us are familiar with the ethics hypothetical regarding time-travel and the opportunity to kill baby Hitler (or, if you prefer, Thanos).  The crux of the question is whether it is ethical to kill someone when he is still an innocent child, long before he commits crimes against humanity.  Many people would say that the greater good absolutely demands it.  Others would say that there is no excuse for violating a core principle of morality, not even for Hitler.

Now consider a softer, if equally impossible hypothetical.  You can travel back in time and manipulate the elections of 1930, 1932, and/or 1933 in Germany to prevent Hitler’s rise to power.  No killing is involved.  Just ballot and voter fraud.  And the hypo assumes that your scheme would be effective.  Would you do that?  I think we can all agree that a substantial percentage of the population would. 

Now recall that we’ve been told for the past four years that Trump is essentially an American Hitler, or on the way to being Hitler.

While I find that comparison silly, the lesson here is that there are plenty of people who truly believe it’s apt to analogize Trump to Hitler.  From their point of view, present-day America is at the “1932 or 1933 in Germany” phase.

With all of that in mind, do you think such people would hesitate to adopt a “by-any-means-necessary” mentality in a close race?

I don’t.  Not for a second.  And when such people treat the idea of partisan ballot tinkering as absolutely beyond the pale, they protest too much.

However—and this is crucial—that’s not the same thing as evidence.  And, if Trump’s camp can’t produce proof of fraud in the next few days (and I mean proof that can potentially hold up in court), the race is truly over.

Yet, I find it interesting that, even as many Democratic operatives and media members (but I repeat myself) treat these allegations as absolutely, 100 percent fabricated, they propose all sorts of nutty ideas about how to manipulate the system to keep Republicans out of power.

Is it reasonable to suggest that people like this might also tolerate improper election practices?  Do we believe that media members who think this way will cover the election thoroughly and even-handedly?

Again, these are the same sort of folks whose proposed solution to alleged norm-busting by the GOP is to eliminate the filibuster, pack the courts, add a couple of new states to change the composition of the Senate, and, of course, abolish the Electoral College.  To repeat: they propose these measures as an alleged defense of norms.  They do so without a hint of irony.

Similarly, we shouldn’t take the word of those who scream the loudest that fraud is simply impossible.  Many of these folks would consider it a moral obligation to do whatever they could to stop another Trump term.  However, we surely can’t take Trump and company at their word, either.  They have to put up or shut up.  And quickly.

Having said all of that, while Team Trump hasn’t yet presented evidence of a type that would come close to satisfying a burden of proof in a federal court, that does not mean that it’s inappropriate to raise questions and investigate.  Quite the opposite.  There are enough curiosities around this election that it’s entirely appropriate to want to confirm that nothing improper has happened.  Our media is largely content to let these particular sleeping dogs lie, or to dismiss any whiff of impropriety as ludicrous, neither of which will assuage any of the fears in play.  They will also now pivot sharply back to their pre-2016 mode of thinking that conspiracy theories are extremely dangerous, and that calling a president illegitimate is unpatriotic, instead of the reverse.

Just as we should all want every legal vote counted, we should all want transparency and honesty.  Let’s hope we get that.  Otherwise, we will have two increasingly dangerous political tribes who each believe that the other has produced a series of illegitimate leaders over the past two decades, and our next opportunity to course-correct may not come for several years.

At the rate we’re going, I’m not sure we can survive that long as a single country.

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1 Response to The Worst Possible Outcome (OR: The Baby Hitler Hypothetical)

  1. Zirkle says:

    Interesting commentary. I say Trump should recognize that he could leave a longer last legacy by just accepting defeat (after all of the appropriate inquiries are investigated and settled as I believe they will) and then start the following
    – immediately set up a ‘shadow’ government in DC – one in waiting – announce – like my great great great great Uncle Grover Cleveland “Don’t change things here at the White House – I’ll be back”.
    – work with his base / followers / those wanting to run in 2022 – he has demonstrated – much to the Democrats surprise, that he carries immense power and influence – those that ran away from him fearing defeat in 2020 should now be convinced that was the wrong direction
    – 2022 should allow the Republicans to re-take the House and strengthen their position in the Senate
    -2024 Trump would be the odds on favorite to retake the White House and his coattails will provide for a dominant position in both chambers of Congress –

    That would extend his legacy well beyond eight years, longer than 12 – due to all of the Republicans elected nationally, and locally – not to count the federal and supreme court appointee opportunities

    Maybe he’ll get his face on Mount Rushmore afterall!

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