Against The Odds by Neal Gabler
April 12, 2024, 3:44pm
I have been accused, often by my own friends and family members, of being a political Eeyore, dour and downcast, only singing dirges and declaring doom about the upcoming election. Of course, I am nervous. What sentient being isn’t? The day Trump wins, if Trump wins, is the day America as we know it ends. So I feel it is imperative in these weekly missives to emphasize, strenuously, again and again and again, what is at stake, and to fight as passionately as I can any incipient apathy or inertia or, especially, complacency that because Biden is old and imperfect, it really makes no difference to the direction of the country if he loses, or that Trump cannot possibly be as bad as we anticipate. Let me repeat: If Donald Trump wins, America as you know it will end, never to be recovered.

But, having said all that week after week, let me cast aside the balefulness for a moment and assert that by no means do I believe all is lost. The odds may be against us right now, but they are only odds. Odds change. There is little reason to believe that a race which is essentially tied is over. Far from it. We need to perk up a bit. Franklin Roosevelt’s famous maxim that we have nothing to fear but fear itself has never been more valid. To which I would add this: we have nothing to defeat us but defeatism itself.

The latter is why the Trumpistas keep pushing the idea that the nation is so far gone already that it is irredeemable, without any possible amelioration, and that the ugliness within MAGA is essentially who we are now and that it is hopeless to think it will change. Nothing so benefits Trump as our own belief that he may be right – that MAGA Americans are the new Nazis, and the Nazis cannot be stopped.

It is important – imperative – to realize that he is wrong. A large number of Americans may very well be crazy, but MAGA isn’t who we are – not entirely at least, not even a majority. I think we are the majority. We just don’t make fools of ourselves about it.

Still, before I lay out my own modest sense of what I think the good, sensible, decent and democratic majority in this country might do to defeat Trump, we should know exactly what we are up against. If you have been reading this newsletter, you know that I have no illusions. Neither should you. The billionaire class, which would rather kill democracy than pay an extra nickel in taxes, is coalescing around Trump. No big surprise there. The industrialists of Germany all lined up behind Hitler too. The legal system is already issuing Trump get-out-of-jail cards, even get-out-of-court cards, and I predict the Supreme Court will do everything in its power, which is substantial, to elect Trump. The media equate Biden’s gerontology with Trump’s pathology. Benjamin Netanyahu seems to hate Biden as much as he hates the Palestinians, and he seems to think that tanking Biden’s re-election is a collateral benefit of Netanyahu’s war in Gaza. Religion has abdicated its moral responsibilities and, as I reported last week, the most aggressive faction sees Trump as its general in the battle of Armageddon. There are third-party narcissists poised to take down Biden and elect Trump. And, most significant of all, the Republican Party has become so Nazified – a word I use advisedly, as I shall discuss – that it will do anything and everything, including and especially destroy the fabric of America to elect Trump and consolidate his power in an autocracy.

The country is broken. The Republicans broke it. They have spent nearly fifty years breaking it, and they have no desire to see it fixed. Fixing it to what end? When Ronald Reagan entered the White House, he decried government activism, insisting that any government that could give you rights could just as easily take them away – though the only ones who have snatched away our rights are the Republicans themselves. (The only rights they hold dear are the right to deny, discriminate and shoot.) Reagan bent the tax code to benefit the wealthy; starved government programs that assisted the poor and powerless; promoted economic inequality and valorized white grievance; deregulated business, putting Americans’ health and safety at risk, while at the same time declaring war on trade unions. And then, after doing everything in his power to make government ineffective and incompetent, he blamed government for being ineffective and incompetent.

But Ronald Reagan had nothing on Donald Trump. Trump used the same tactic but bigger. Trump’s aim was not to destroy government; he is, after all, a totalitarian. His aim was to destroy everything else, from bureaucracy to science to morality to tradition to common sense, to break America into pieces, to rip up the Constitution, to pack the courts with lackeys while vilifying the legal system and law enforcement, to side with America’s enemies against our own intelligence services, and to ridicule military leadership – to cite just a few of Trump’s depredations. And then, after doing so, he blamed liberals and conservative elites for turning this once-glorious nation into a banana republic.

That is the disease – like one of those zombie viruses. The problem is finding a prescription that can prevent another outbreak of Trumpism, another four years of infecting the nation and killing anything that is good and decent.


And this is where Republicanism comes in. In their prophetic, terrifying and indispensable analysis of autocracy, How Democracies Die, Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt described a course of action for how some democracies had managed to ward off autocracy when it was looming as it is looming here. Their answer, frankly, isn’t a reassuring one. In their assessment, the people, like the cavalry in the movies, do not rescue their nation from autocracy; they are more likely to plunge it into autocracy.  We have a perfect example in America with Trump’s supporters. And institutions do not save the country either. Our institutions have failed mightily, and, not to give too much credit to a sycophant like Mike Pence, if Pence hadn’t refused Trump’s injunction not to certify the electors in 2021, there is no telling where we might be now, or who would be president. Pence did that, not the Constitution.

Rather, Ziblatt and Levitsky conclude that the real bulwarks that protect democracy are our political parties. “Although mass responses to extremist appeals matter,” they write, “what matters more is whether political elites, and especially parties, serve as filters. Put simply, political parties are democracy’s gatekeepers.” And the reason, they say, that America has never had a major party candidate like Trump before, a self-professed dictator, is that Democratic and Republican officials prevented any such contenders from getting a nomination. To which one can only say now: Good luck with that now.

The Republican Party probably could have stopped Trump in 2016 if its establishment brahmins had united against him instead of genuflecting before him when he began winning primaries. Even today, a united effort among former Republican leaders might have an effect on his election prospects, but as Ziblatt and Levitsky note, “Isolating popular extremists requires political courage,” and political courage isn’t only in short supply; it isn’t even in the supply chain anymore. Not even Liz Cheney has demonstrated that kind of courage. She vilifies Trump without taking the next essential step: Declaring that she will be voting for Joe Biden. Otherwise, it is just rhetoric that sells her book and makes her feel righteous.

It is not immoderate to say that the Republican Party today has been “Nazified.” Nobody else is likely to say that, certainly not in the mainstream press, but I will. It is much closer to the Nazi Pary than to any normal party in any functioning democracy. It believes in a strongman and in alliances with other strongmen, in power for power’s sake, in voter suppression, in performative politics rather than policy politics, in racism and nativism and homophobia and transphobia and sexism, in overturning elections and even insurrection if it doesn’t get its way, and with subordinating the interests of the nation and its citizens to its own interests. History, I am certain, will condemn it and ask future generations how we possibly allowed this to happen. The fact that so many Americans don’t see this or don’t care or even endorse it doesn’t make it less true. Ziblatt and Levitsky also say this: people are often willing to hand over their democracy to a dictator. And now in America there is no democratic Republican Party to stop them.


So we – you and me and tens of millions of others who care about democracy as we do – are on our own, which may not be the most encouraging situation but isn’t hopeless either. We have it in our hands to be the very first electorate to save our nation from totalitarianism without the intercession of those political elites. It is an historic opportunity, even a heroic opportunity.  Every one of us can be that “ripple” that Robert Kennedy described when he addressed a crowd in South Africa during apartheid: “Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a ripple of hope.” This is a grave responsibility – actually an obligation – and the pressing question is whether we are up to it.

What can we do?

Let me start with what I think may be the single most important task for many of us: talk to our children. Some polls indicate that Biden has lost a significant share of the youth vote that he had won four years ago, and some even indicate that Trump is winning that vote. For those of us, like me, who always felt the next generation might redeem us from our own sins, this is more than discouraging. We know the reasons: the tragedy in Gaza primarily, but also Biden’s age and his difficulty in connecting his policies with their lives, even as he provides relief from student debt for many of them. And we know their motives: they feel that voting for Biden rewards Netanyahu. I get it. Young people are idealistic. They should be. But idealism can have unintended consequence in an imperfect world.

I have had conversations with friends of mine who say that they can’t talk to their children when it comes to Israel. I have also had conversations with the children of some of them, so I appreciate the difficulties. But those young people must understand what is at stake: everything.  If you aren’t voting for Joe Biden, even if you are only sitting on your hands on November 5, you are voting for Donald Trump, and however you might feel about Biden, however less than ideal he might be, he will not destroy our political system or our values. He will not change the foundation of the country in which you are living. Donald Trump will.

This is a conversation worth having, no matter how long it takes or how many times you have to have it. We are in a Hitler moment. Ask your children if they honestly think that Trump, who encourages Netanyahu to colonize the West Bank and whose son-in-law is eying Gaza as a real estate transaction, will be better than Biden on Israel, much less on a myriad of other issues. Gently, ever-so-gently, please tell them to wake up. Remind them of what political strategist James Carville told Maureen Dowd several weeks back: “There are a lot of people on the left that would rather lose and be pure because it makes them feel good, it makes them feel superior.”

This is no time for self-righteousness, no time for smug superiority, and no time to lose.

And while you are at it, have that same conversation with any friends of yours who may be vacillating about voting for Biden this fall. Have that conversation with anyone and everyone with whom you need to have it.

Second, remind anyone you know who might be pondering voting for Robert Kennedy, Jr., or Cornel West or Jill Stein what that really means. These aren’t serious candidates. None has a chance of winning, only of causing disruption. Kennedy’s own family has repudiated him; he is a charlatan, a total fool. And one of his own staffers confessed just yesterday that he is only in the race to prevent Biden from winning. It would be a tragedy if this great family that has contributed to so much to this country – I wrote a biography on Edward Kennedy – wound up being one of the forces responsible for the end of democracy and the ascendency of white supremacy. If you aren’t voting for Joe Biden, you are voting for Trump.

Third, give money. Don’t let Trump’s selfish billionaires looking for tax breaks tilt the election in his favor. Our tens and twenties accumulate to their tens of thousands of contributions.

Fourth, work to elect Biden. Make phone calls. Knock on doors. Go to swing states and be a foot soldier. I am thinking of organizing a trip of friends myself. This is no time for lassitude.

Fifth, don’t think of Joe Biden as a default choice. I will be discussing this in future newsletters, but one can make the case – I will make it – that Joe Biden, while he may not look or talk like the best president in recent memory, is the best president in recent memory, and he has had to fight against insuperable odds, namely, that totalitarian torrent that now governs the Republican Party.

I have a strong feeling that history will judge him favorably. You should too. This is a good and decent man who has rallied the economy, rebuilt the infrastructure, fortified the bureaucracy, helped equalize financial disparities, strengthened our alliances, reemphasized American values, and, above all, kept Trump at bay. We shouldn’t have an enthusiasm gap in this election. We are running against the single most dangerous figure in the history of this nation – a mortal threat. How can you not be enthusiastic about the good man opposing that?

And finally, to return to my opening salvo, avoid defeatism. Attitude matters in voting as in nearly everything else. Democrats have a penchant for wringing their hands even when they are winning, and they are almost always winning. Remember this: Republicans have only won the presidential popular vote once since 1992. I am no prognosticator, but history suggests that if this is a fair and square election, Biden is likely to win. So cheer up.

In any case, it is in your hands. Just act as if the life of your nation depends upon it – because it does.


Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (NY: Broadway Books, 2018)

Two wonders: We were the beneficiaries of two wonders this past week: the solar eclipse and Iowa basketball star Caitlin Clark. The eclipse is self-explanatory. Caitlin Clark is not. Clark did something that I had never seen before, and I am a longtime sports fan: she had outshined every other athlete in the country, including and especially male athletes. The NCAA women’s championship final was the most-watched basketball game since 2019, and it attracted more viewers than the men’s championship Monday night. That is how popular she is. Clark is a phenomenon – an extremely gifted athlete who launched 3’s from 30 feet out and threaded passes with a precision that would be the envy of every male basketball star. The reason, I think, any of this matters is that sports is a hive of toxic masculinity, and that toxicity has leached over into politics, which is also a hive of toxic masculinity. Trump thrives on it. The most popular personality on ESPN is now a macho poseur named Pat McAfee, a former NFL punter with the blustery attitude of a Trump. (He regularly features anti-vaxxer quarterback Aaron Rodgers on his program.) So it is refreshing to see a personality like Clark take center stage – especially since she is taking it away from men. May her modesty leach into our politics too.