Can Democrats avert the Trumpocalypse?


Review: David Frum, Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy (HarperCollins, 2020)

There are 99 days to go until the 2020 United States presidential election. Having privileged economic imperatives over public health, many states are suffering a surge in Covid-19 cases. Today, the national death toll will hit 150,000: by far the worst in the world. Federal agents in unmarked clothing are teargassing protestors and beating journalists in the eighth consecutive week of Black Lives Matter protests in Portland, Oregon. Yet behind the military-guarded White House fence, President Donald Trump is boasting to Fox News interviewer Chris Wallace about his ability to identify an elephant on an elementary-level competency test.

Forget the virus. At his first Covid-19 press conference on 13th March, Trump declared what David Frum describes as his presidential epitaph: ‘I don’t take responsibility at all.’ Trailing by 9 points in national polling, it seems that his Democratic challenger Joe Biden is poised to gather that responsibility. Biden’s strategy of keeping a low profile while the president commits self-sabotage is paying off handsomely. Trump is behind in every swing state from Florida to Pennsylvania, while Biden holds a paper-thin lead in Texas – a state which last voted Democrat in 1976.
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Figure 1. Result of the 2020 presidential election if it was held today.

Data from the FiveThirtyEight polling averages by state and background map from Wikipedia.

It is in this cautiously optimistic climate that David Frum’s searing meditation on the Trump presidency, Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy, must be read. A Never Trump Republican who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, the Canadian Frum coined the phrase “axis of evil” as a speechwriter for George W. Bush, and now dedicates his efforts to delineating what Democrats – assuming they can sweep the Presidency and the Congress – must do to reverse Trump’s corruption of the American political establishment.

Frum’s thesis that the election of this reality-TV millionaire was a symbol of a wider culture of greed, short-termism and instant gratification is detailed with a litany of woe. Trump has withdrawn America from the international stage; cosied up to Russia and North Korean dictators; delivered a tax cut for millionaires but no growth for the groups that won him the White House; and recently stymied his own administration’s response to Covid-19. He is an incompetent imitation of populist leaders in illiberal democracies from Brazil and the Philippines to Hungary and Poland. But the author’s discussion of Trump’s structural damage to American institutions, to its robust system of constitutional checks and balances, is most disconcerting. Frum posits that the country’s political apparatus might never recover from a second term of the “Trumpocalypse” and must be altered urgently to prevent further destruction.

The coming election

Joe Biden cannot stay silent, hunkered down in his Delaware basement forever. Media attention will turn to his Vice-Presidential choice – certainly a woman, and probably a Black woman – to be announced imminently. “Veep” nominees rarely change the race, but they inject fresh interest into an interminable presidential cycle (Sarah Palin in 2008) and broaden support for the ticket. Given Biden’s age – 78 on Inauguration Day – his running mate is likely to be the candidate in 2024 and de facto future leader of the party. Trump will probably attempt to cast the Democratic ticket in apocalyptic, racist terms to rile conservatives who, Frum argues, are constantly waiting at ‘five minutes to midnight’ for the breakdown of American society.

But can “sleepy Joe Biden” (a tame moniker by Trump’s standards) honestly be seen as a radical leftist in cahoots with BLM, desperate to Defund the Police and occasion a socialist takeover? Regardless of his running mate, Trump’s “culture war” attack lines are unlikely to stick to a fellow septuagenarian, blasé about political correctness. Biden is comfortable talking about race relations. Polling suggests that he leads the incumbent more convincingly here than on the economy, despite the damage wrought by Trump’s pandemic response.

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Is this the Democratic dream team? Most speculation suggests Joe Biden will choose an experienced congresswoman with strong connections to law enforcement, like California Senator Kamala Harris (pictured) or Florida representative and former Orlando police chief Val Demings. From:

As Frum suggests, underhand, divisive methods seem the most plausible means for Trump to run his re-election campaign. He will condone disenfranchisement and cast aspersions on the validity of postal votes, convinced that Democratic cities do not represent the “real” America. The following scenarios play into Republicans' hands:

a. Voter suppression. As FiveThirtyEight Senior Politics Writer Clare Malone demonstrates in her genealogy of the Republican party’s relationship with African-American voters, partisan redistricting, suppression efforts and punitive voter ID laws have formed part of a concerted effort since the 1970s to double-down on a white constituency at the behest of minority support.[1]

Amid the pandemic, there is a real risk that this strategy continues – justifiable by public health necessity as much as partisan design. Many states do not have the resources to mail out ballots and count them in large numbers; they may provide insufficient polling stations for those already worried about in-person voting. This was seen in the Wisconsin presidential primary in April, where Democratic Governor Tony Evers’ executive order for an all mail-in election was rejected by the GOP-controlled legislature. In the Kentucky primaries in May, polling stations were cut by 95% to reduce social contacts. Such precautions privilege Republicans who are on average less concerned about the virus than Democrats. It is also known that BAME people are more likely to be affected by the virus, vote Democrat and tend to live in densely populated urban areas where there will be the fewest polling places per capita.

In other words, holding an election in a pandemic, without safeguards for those who wish not to vote in person, poses a triple bind for the Democrats. From a practical perspective, postal ballots will take longer to count and may not be declared for several days/ weeks after election night. This will make it easier for Trump to paint a conspiracy of illegality, as he did for Clinton’s millions of surplus votes in California and New York in 2016. Even if they are not illegal, Frum insinuates, they will seem to come from ‘people whose votes deservedly counted for less’ – of which more later.

b. Adept messaging. Trump’s Independence Day speech at Mount Rushmore suggested that the president intends to return to the well of “culture wars” and identity politics to eke out an election win. Like in 2016, he might double down on what historian Timothy Snyder has called the “Medium-Size lies” of illiberal regimes – too disparate to be called ideologies, but alternate realities with which Trump’s supporters engage much of the time.[2] These include the “Chinese virus”; various anti-immigrant sentiments; repeated assertions that the U.S. has ‘one of the lowest’ Covid-19 death rates; Trump’s brilliant economic numbers; or his handling of race relations (by brute, undemocratic force).

He could be more conciliatory, exploiting voters’ short-term memories by following public health advice and initiating a conventionally presidential response to the next three months of the virus. There is some new evidence of this approach from his Tuesday press conference extolling the benefits of masks, while on Thursday the President finally cancelled the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville, opting for a virtual setting. This comes in the aftermath of the disastrous, tone-deaf and medically reckless Tulsa rally on Juneteenth.

The reality, however, is that Trump cannot stick to a message and is bored by the requirements of a disciplined campaign. He will continue to provoke press harmful to his own side. He is trailing on most leadership polls and a traitor to the United States’ interests. Surely Biden will make capital from being the target of Trump’s attempted bribery of the Ukrainian President which got him impeached. More recently, the President seemed unmoved by the intelligence that Russia has been providing bounties for the Taliban to kill U.S. troops.

c. Republican Senators and Congressmen disavow Trump to save themselves. The House of Representatives may be doomed to Democratic control after the wave election of 2018, but the Republicans can afford to lose two seats and keep the Senate. Trump will go, but the apocalypse will be averted. The GOP are no strangers to the game of obstruct and delay, with House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocking President Obama’s domestic agenda from 2011-17.

The Senate map still looks tricky to defend: Republicans will almost certainly lose Arizona and Colorado, while Georgia, Iowa, Maine and North Carolina lean Democratic. However, Doug Jones’ seat in Alabama should be an easy gain for the GOP, given the bizarre circumstances of his special election in 2017 against the child molester Roy Moore.
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Figure 2. Result of the 2020 Senate election if it was held today. Darker colours represent gains, lighter colours holds.

Data from the FiveThirtyEight polling averages by state and background map from Wikipedia.

Surely Republicans can only hold the Senate if individuals distance themselves from Trump’s lead balloon? But as a plausible political strategy, this can only work for Susan Collins, the last moderate, once-popular Maine Senator, who eventually sold out to Trumpism after voting to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. No other Republicans up for election have any anti-Trump integrity.

The once-honourable party of Lincoln has allowed itself to be pillaged by an illiberal demagogue. Frum discusses the mentality of the scam victim: Trump is the great scammer who has missold a vision of America, but such is the pain of being seen as a fool that many voters would rather defend him and take the loss of money. In this parlance, the GOP establishment has been scammed as much as Trump’s voters, and is proving reluctant to admit it.

A new age of reform

Presuming they win, how should the Democrats capitalise? In Part II of Trumpocalypse, ‘A New Age of Reform’, Frum explains the overdue safeguards required to prevent a future demagogue from gaming American democracy. I will focus on his analysis, rather than speculate on Democratic priorities that will be decided after the (virtual) convention in August. Frum’s points are enlightening for their simplicity and appeal to middle-ground Americans’ sense of fairness, given that Democratic majorities will be inflated by ‘conservative-leaning people who want a more ethical and effective government.’ I have broken his points into what might be considered short-term fixes – requiring majorities in Congress and a flourish of the presidential pen – and longer-term theories on how to reverse the polarisation of American politics since the 1990s.


i. Compel the release of 3+ years of presidential candidates’ tax returns
For a president who directed $4.7m of Republican party funds into his personal resorts by mid-2019, the Supreme Court decision of 6th July ordering him to declare his tax returns is finally a victory for transparency. There should now, as Frum argues, be a congressional law to compel this for all presidential candidates. Future White Houses cannot become swamps of nepotism populated by the likes of Jared and Ivanka, Roger Stone and Paul Manafort. Frum could have paired his tax returns resolution with his rebuke to Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s tepid investigation (Mueller ‘did not allow himself to try’). Any candidate whose financial records were up for public scrutiny would not endorse Russian meddling in American elections.

ii. Abolish the Senate filibuster
The filibuster allows a minority of Senators to “talk out” a congressional bill of its allotted debate time. It was designed by the Founding Fathers to safeguard rights against the “tyranny of the majority” but has long proven detrimental to the cause of equality and progressive reform. It was exploited by Southern Democrats to delay the passage of epochal civil and voting rights bills in 1964-5. A supermajority of 60 Senators can overturn a filibuster, but in theory, it could still be used by 41 Republicans in rural states, representing as little as 11% of the U.S. population, to veto the interests of 89%. Abolition would be beneficial to both parties’ legislative agendas when controlling the Senate.

iii. Give statehood to the District of Columbia
As the seat of government institutions in the U.S., the Constitution granted Congress “exclusive jurisdiction” over the District of Columbia and it was not given the right to local government until 1973. Nearly 50 years on, the district of 900,000 people – overwhelmingly African-American – has no formal congressional voting rights. “New Columbia”, as Frum christens Washington D.C., should be granted full statehood and its guaranteed two Senators to right this historical aberration, and balance the increasingly Republican-skewed Senate. As stated above, since rural states are more numerous and more Republican, the Senate is becoming increasingly unrepresentative and the source of gridlocked government.

More broadly, the optics of Senate representation plays into a right-wing nationalist view of the “real” America of numerous red states, ignored by the multicultural milieu of the big blue cities. In 2016, Trump-supporting Breitbart News boasted that their candidate won 3,084 out of 3,141 counties with a ‘7.5 million popular landslide in [America’s] heartland’. In reality the count was 5:1 in Trump’s favour; 2626 to 487 – and Clinton won the far more populous, economically-vibrant counties. Still, this reinforces the sense that geographical area and the right type of people are more important than sheer population in representation.[3] Frum could have connected this with a quote from Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-FL) – a favourite of Trump – who decries ‘a worldview where you eat nothing but kale and quinoa’ against ‘those of us who cling to our Bibles and our guns and our fried foods and real America’.[4]
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Figure 3 (left). Counties won by Trump (red) and Clinton (blue) in the 2016 presidential election by geographical size. Source: Wikipedia.

Figure 4 (right). The same map adjusted for population size.

iv. End partisan gerrymandering
Re-mapping, or gerrymandering, congressional districts to their advantage is another Republican tool to avoid the effort required to appeal beyond their white conservative base. Frum rightly suggests that this pernicious tool, historically utilised by both parties to devalue the vote, should be banned. The 2020 census is an opportune moment for a nonpartisan redrawing of district lines in the House of Representatives, undertaken by an independent commission.

Currently, only 7 states use independent commissions while individual state legislatures decide the district boundaries in 36 states.[5] As seen recently in North Carolina (2017), Pennsylvania (2018) and Ohio (2019), Republican state legislatures have fallen foul of court rulings that their partisan-drawn boundaries lead to inequities which penalise Democrats and foster voter apathy. In 2018, Republicans won at least three-quarters of seats in both North Carolina (10/13) and Ohio (12/16) on just 50.4% and 52% of the popular vote respectively.

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Figures 5 and 6. Current gerrymandered House of Representatives seats in North Carolina (left) and Ohio (right).

Source: http// for N.C. and http// for Ohio

Thus far Pennsylvania has undertaken the independent redistricting ordered – North Carolina and Ohio will have to do so after November’s elections – and the results are stark. In 2016, Republicans won 13/18 House seats in the state on just 54% of the vote. In 2018, on the new boundaries, each party won 9 seats with Democrats leading the popular vote 55-45%. The result was not perfectly proportional but a vast improvement.

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Figures 7 and 8. Pennsylvania seats in the House of Representatives before (left) and after (right) 2018 court-ordered redistricting.


v. Modernise the Voting Rights Act
Redistricting is only half of the battle to give Americans reassurance that their vote matters. As Frum notes, ‘a two-hour queue deters voters as surely as the old methods of threat and intimidation’. The logistics of voting, for poorer and minority communities in particular, are indefensibly difficult.

In 2013, Voting Rights Act provisions that applied to mostly Southern states were struck down by the Supreme Court as unreflective of current conditions. The result has been a gradual, tacit infringement on those rights: purges from voter rolls; restrictions to voting options. The 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election was won narrowly by Republican Brian Kemp amid allegations that stringent voter ID laws had led to many minority votes being refused (for instance, if names were spelled or punctuated differently on ballots to ID cards). Provisions should also be extended to northern states unaffected by the original 1965 Voting Rights Act, as the examples of primaries held amid the pandemic demonstrate.[6] Frum’s Voting Rights Act review would expedite universal access to local polling stations (investment will be required to employ staffers and hire venues) and guarantee online or mail-in voting options beyond 2020. Pandemic or no pandemic, America needs voting access fit for the 21st century.

vi. Depoliticise law enforcement
This point has gained a particular urgency since the murder of George Floyd on 25th May. Frum’s emphasis predates calls to defund the police – a fraught, long-term project to be deliberated at state and local levels – but applies to the presidential power that, in recent months, has let Donald Trump use federalised troops as his own personal plaything: from the egregious photo stunt in Lafayette Square to suppression of Black Lives Matter protests in Portland, Seattle and other cites.

For Trump – as with any demagogue - loyalty to the person is more important than loyalty the office. Congress must legislate, as it did on war powers in the 1970s, to dilute presidential law enforcement powers to federalise and direct state troops. It should also legislate to guarantee that the military will enforce a peaceful transition of power should Trump lose in November – he has hinted several times that he might contest the result. Such is his degradation of the office that a squatter in the White House has become a distinct possibility.

Frum’s proposals here are less specific but intend to show Democrats and Republicans policy areas where they should urgently find common ground. I have also added two of my own (iii and iv):

i. Neuter the immigration vs. healthcare debate
Frum identifies healthcare and immigration as crucial issues for a bipartisan rapprochement. His argument is salient with long term contexts in mind, like the discovery of a coronavirus vaccine, or the immigration of climate migrants: ‘If Democrats want to perpetuate their health-care reforms, they must do a better job of solidifying a sense of national belonging. If Republicans want to safeguard the border, they must offer a better deal to those living on the border’s American side’. He castigates Republicans for hypocrisy in challenging the “socialism” of Obamacare but championing Medicare for the elderly constituencies they represent. From a Canadian perspective, he understands the national pride instilled by a national health service, free at the point of need: a central part of the ‘better deal’ Republicans must be willing to accept.

However, Frum’s solution on immigration – only to allow entrants who fill a labour shortage – is superficial. He doesn’t get to the root of nativist Republican rhetoric or face the reality that most immigrants in Western nations are net givers, not takers. The bipartisan settlement he hopes for in healthcare is obstructed by vested interests in the multi-billion-dollar pharmaceutical industry. Frum’s diagnosis is correct – healthcare and immigration will be hot-button issues in coming decades – but the medication requires more thought.

ii. Collaborate on climate change as a national security threat
Climate change poses an existential threat to the social fabric of the U.S.; the climate migrants of the future will stoke Trumpian “culture wars” to greater extremes. Like Anatol Lieven in his recent book, Climate Change and the Nation State, Frum adroitly frames climate as a national security issue. Climate mitigation does not have to be the territory of leftists, bound up with solutions considered to endanger capitalism. It can be fought on ground more comfortable for Republicans: Trump’s former Secretary of Defense James Mattis spoke of protecting American borders by diverting some of America’s $750bn defence budget to invest in renewable energy solutions.

Climate realism will be necessary to augur a bipartisan consensus, starting with a reversal to Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Agreement. But, unlike many of Frum’s generation, I am concerned that global warming has escalated too far for his “realistic” solutions: a carbon tax and carbon capture and storage (CCS). (I do, however, agree with him that safe nuclear energy is a path forward.) Carbon taxes are unlikely to disincentivise the enormous fossil fuel industry in a nation woefully under-resourced in public transportation. Changing the gas-guzzling American way requires far more ambition, while CCS technology is ill-conceived and wildly expensive. Frum is right that America must reassert the global leadership in climate abdicated by Trump, but it must be willing to listen to smaller innovators from Scandinavia to Costa Rica, which last year became the first country to switch purely to renewable energy. At least the “new normal” of home working and reticence to undertake air travel provides an opportunity to re-evaluate energy and climate needs.

iii. Expand the House of Representatives
Unlike the abolition of the Electoral College or expansion of the Senate, which would require a constitutional amendment, expanding the House of Representatives could be achieved by a simple congressional law. This would enhance the diversity of the body and encourage bipartisanship by bringing Members of Congress into a closer relationship with their constituents. It would also extend the case for a country-wide, nonpartisan redistricting commission to draw the boundaries. At present, the average House member represents 747,184 people, more than seven times more than the average British MP. Globally, the United States has the second smallest legislature for its population size after India.[7]

Using the freely-available Dave’s Redistricting App[8] – in which you can draw congressional districts by state, and receive useful analysis on their proportionality, competitiveness, and encouragement of minority representation – I have constructed a 750-member House of Representatives here. Any larger might be too unwieldy to function as a legislative body, but this nearly halves the representation deficit.[9] Based on 2012-16 election figures, my model yields 377 Democratic seats to 373 for the Republicans - suggesting a lack of partisan bias - of which 159 are “competitive” (decided by a margin of less than 10%). The lack of competitive seats is disappointing, but a symptom of the bias of First Past The Post politics and an increasing divide with Republicans dominating rural areas to Democrats dominating urban ones. Perhaps greater displays of bipartisanship could alleviate this.

iv. Enact the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)
First passed by Congress in 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment would write sex discrimination into the U.S. Constitution for the first time, preventing a conservative reading of the document that reflects the “original intent” of the Founding Fathers, i.e. that women are second-class citizens. It would bring the U.S. into line with 76% of countries globally whose constitutions enumerate gender equality. For enactment, the ERA needed to be passed by 38 states (75% of the total) within a 7-year time limit, but right-wing forces defending the rights of mothers and families, such as Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, scuppered the amendment 3 states short of this threshold. (For an inspiring yet infuriating dramatization of feminist politics in this period, I recommend the brilliant FX/ BBC series Mrs. America: a timely reminder that great movements are never built on ideological purity but unity, compromise and prioritisation.)

The ERA is particularly timely with the Trump presidency’s assault on female and LGBT+ rights. In January, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the amendment – following Nevada (2017) and Schlafly’s home state of Illinois (2018). The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives has passed a resolution to waive the deadline for passage, which means – in theory – that only the Republican Senate stands against a 28th Amendment.[10]

There is little reason why this should be partisan territory; indeed, if Republicans want to remedy their disastrous voter gender gap, they must champion equal rights. The ERA is not an anachronism of second-wave feminism. Causes from pay equality and access to reproductive healthcare to domestic violence and sexual assault (a particular concern during lockdown) will be hastened by the final passage of the Amendment a half-century on.

* * *

Wednesday, 4th November will be a watershed for America’s dominant political parties. The scale of democratic and constitutional erosion wrought by President Trump, Frum argues, might prove irreversible if he is elected to a second term. But if he is defeated – especially by a large margin – scholars have argued that this could hasten an audacious new era in American politics.

Between his shock election win and inauguration in January 2017, political scientist Corey Robin wrote that Trump’s most suitable presidential analogue might be Jimmy Carter. In prognoses that maintain relevance three and a half years later, Robin suggests Trump is the last gasp of the conservative order initiated by Ronald Reagan in 1981, in the same way Carter – Reagan’s predecessor – was the final descendant of the New Deal, liberal legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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For Robin, both Carter and Trump are “Disjunctive Presidents” who tried to shift their parties to save them at a moment of profound structural change:

these figures are too indebted to the regime to break with it. But the regime is too dissonant and fragmented to offer the resources these Presidents need to transform it. They find themselves in the most perilous position of all — hated by all, loved by none — and their administrations often occasion a new round of reconstruction. [11]

The statistics would suggest that this ‘new round of reconstruction’ is overdue. In 6 of the last 7 presidential elections, Republicans have ceased to win a majority of the popular vote (and yet triumphed 3 times due to the Electoral College). But Robin’s parallels have their limits: would-be President-elects Reagan and Biden inherit the office in vastly different contexts. Carter did not eviscerate democratic institutions and processes; abuse the office of the President for financial gain; or represent a wider illiberal strain in global politics. Nor did his tenure have as significant an impact on the courts as Trump’s nominees are likely to occasion for their life tenures. Carter did not have the chance to nominate a Supreme Court justice, but reactionary, right-wing stewardship of the courts at all levels will prove Trump’s enduring legacy. With the health of liberal beacon Ruth Bader Ginsburg in doubt, the President may have the chance to stack the Supreme Court 6-3 in favour of conservative justices before January 2021.

Beyond this, Trump’s personal sideshow should not detract from the damage of his inaction on issues economic and environmental, which could be catastrophic in the long term. For those of us who still respond to fact and evidence, the apocalypse Trump presages for conservatives in electing Biden is much more convincing when it is reversed.

Democrats cannot be complacent at this volatile time. Their focus first must be on allowing America’s constitutional apparatus – especially Congress – to function effectively, rebuild cross-party cooperation and prevent opposition on principle. Frum’s short-term fixes in these areas, as analysed, are illuminating and remarkable in their simplicity. He is right to identify healthcare, immigration and climate change as longer-term existential threats to the nation, which any rational politician would view as areas for bipartisan agreement. But his analysis is cursory; his solutions superficial. On climate, Frum is naively reliant on the potential impact of carbon taxes and CCS, rather than taking the left-wing ambition of a Green New Deal too seriously.

In addition, the question of what happens to Trump and the Republican party if the President is defeated hangs over Trumpocalypse. Like Gerald Ford, should Joe Biden afford his disgraced predecessor a presidential pardon to save him from criminal charges and heal the nation? Or are Trump’s crimes too egregious for conciliation? In this period of polarisation, moral retribution for the Democrats will look like the very cultural destruction that Trump warned Republicans they would generate.

To borrow from Winston Churchill, a Democratic victory in November will not be the beginning of the end for the Trumpian politics of carnage, conspiracy and cultural despair. But it will be the end of the beginning.

[1] Clare Malone, ‘The Republican Choice: How a party spent decades making itself white’, FiveThirtyEight, 24th June 2020. Link
[2] Credited in Anne Applebaum, Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends (Penguin, 2020), 36.
[3] Frum finds that in 2018, Democratic America contributed far more to GDP than the declining farmland on which Republican America is built, by on average $48.5 million per congressional district to $32.6 million. Trumpocalypse, 12. There is further useful analysis of this misrepresentation in The Telegraph, of all places. See Ashley Kirk and Patrick Scott, ‘That misleading Breitbart map explained: How Trump’s dominance across geography is a misrepresentation of the US election’, The Telegraph, 16th November 2016. Link
[4] Anne Applebaum demonstrates in her brilliant new book Twilight of Democracy that the illiberal playbook in Poland, Hungary and even the UK suggests rural towns populated by white voters are the lost and downtrodden nation. In Britain, she shows in Brexiteer rhetoric the London-based, Remainer elite are not true Englanders, while the Celtic fringe is a distraction. There is a sense of what the Russian essayist Svetlana Boym calls “restorative nostalgia” – attempts to rebuild a lost past based on the real England, or rural America, regardless of the truth of this image. See Applebaum, Twilight of Democracy, 73-75.
[5] These are Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, New Jersey and Washington. Iowa is slightly different in having independent mappers, but the state legislature votes on the maps created (i.e. the maps don’t have to be accepted. Seven states – Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming – have only one, at-large congressional district, and therefore do not require districting commissions.
[6] Equal access to voting is as much a mirage as equal access to Covid-19 testing. As a sidebar, see the excellent infographic study conducted by FiveThirtyEight across conurbations from Los Angeles to Houston on the access to coronavirus testing. The correlation between white neighbourhoods and ease of access is stark. ‘Want a COVID-19 Test? It’s Much Easier To Get In Wealthier, Whiter Neighbourhoods’, FiveThirtyEight, 22nd July 2020. Link
[7] For a full comparison see Dylan Matthews, ‘The case for massively expanding the US House of Representatives, in one chart’, Vox, 4th June 2018. Link
[8] See
[9] The FiveThirtyEight website includes a simpler model for redistricting all states, based on certain input criteria like proportionality, compactness, competitiveness, or privileging minority representation. See ‘The Atlas of Redistricting’, FiveThirtyEight, 25th January 2018. Link I decided to make my own because a) the model does not let you expand the number of districts, b) I love maps and c) lockdown has given me far too much free time.
[10] The legal ramifications of waiving the deadline may prove more challenging, however, which is why I classed this under long-term. For more information on the history and context of the ERA, see, for instance, Robin Bleiweis, ‘The Equal Rights Amendment: What You Need To Know’, Center for American Progress, 29th January 2020. Link
[11] Corey Robin, ‘The Politics Trump Makes’, n+1 Magazine, 11th January 2017. Link


Like Dominic Cummings, Novak Djokovic took the public for fools – and seems unlikely to face the consequences


Tennis had its Dominic Cummings moment this week, when four Top 50 male players tested positive for Covid-19 after playing in Novak Djokovic’s Adria Tour. This series of exhibition tournaments, held in Belgrade, Serbia and Zadar, Croatia – where they were abandoned on Sunday – turned from an expression of goodwill, raising funds to fight the pandemic, to a completely avoidable nightmare that set off virus outbreaks in both countries. Hubris governed a tour where social distancing was ignored, stadiums were filled to capacity and some of the ATP’s most tactile players were given free rein on the basketball court and in nightclubs. Grigor Dimitrov, visibly ailing in a match on Saturday, flew home to Monte Carlo before taking a test revealing him positive and symptomatic for Covid-19. Borna Coric, Victor Troicki and Novak Djokovic himself also tested positive without symptoms, with Djokovic similarly willing to carry his disease across international boundaries before deigning to take a test. At least his competitors, shaken by Dimitrov’s revelation, waited in Zadar to test themselves before fleeing the scene of the wreckage.

This arrogance reveals the danger of bringing back international sport amid a novel pandemic and, like Dominic Cummings’s trip to Durham, suggests the existence of an elite – political or athletic – who need not concern themselves with trivial public health measures. Cummings contravened lockdown rules, but likely infected few. The reckless administration of the Adria Tour may have caused the infection of thousands of spectators, many of whom will be symptomatic and pass the disease on. The official numbers speak for themselves: having brought the pandemic under control in mid-May, Serbia reported 137 cases today and Croatia 95. Croatia has reimposed a quarantine for visitors from neighbouring Balkan states. The source of the outbreak is contested – Dimitrov may have been the “super spreader” introducing the disease from Bulgaria or the United States – but ultimately it was Djokovic who organised and set the breezy tone for the tour. It was probably a matter of if, not when, the virus would emerge in such circumstances.

Like Cummings, Djokovic needs to be rebuked – removed from his position as President of the ATP Player Council, at least – to reinforce the magnitude of the public health crisis caused by his Adria Tour. The Serb has expressed his sorrow for the infection caused, but his statement of Tuesday suggests that organising the event with a ‘pure heart and sincere intentions’ – rather than social distancing – excuses his irresponsibility. And, like Cummings, it seems unlikely that he will face further sanctions. Djokovic has been a popular leader of the Player Council, advocating for better remuneration of players ranked outside the Top 100 (although his attention has strayed during the pandemic). It would require a majority of the 12-player board to replace him: a momentous, political move for a council containing both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Djokovic’s online fan base, or #NoleFam, already regard the journalistic pile-on as a conspiracy engineered by supporters of his great rivals. The toxic world of social media echo chambers, anti-truth fervour and the decline of conventional wisdom would have it that Djokovic escapes this unscathed.

Novak Djokovic has always had an on-again, off-again, relationship with science. As commentator Mary Carillo warned on MSNBC yesterday, ‘He's one of so many people in this world – and especially in our country [the US], it seems – who think that science is just another opinion.’ In 2010, having suffered a series of physical breakdowns on court, Djokovic took a consultation involving a piece of bread rested on his arm – which felt weak in consequence – that inspired him to cut out gluten and take up the plant-based diet he follows with such great results to this day. But the success of this evidence-free reasoning was fluke, rather than design; Djokovic’s penchant for spirituality led in 2017 to his hiring a “mental guru”, Pepe Imaz, to teach “the power of lengthy lungs” and “quantum theory”. Unsurprisingly, his period with Imaz coincided with poor results by Djokovic’s standards.

Since the onset of Covid-19, the Serb’s naïve acceptance of fringe “medical” beliefs has strayed from the idiosyncratic to the dangerous. First came Djokovic’s contention that he would probably not take a vaccine if it was required to return to the tour. Perhaps this was an expression of caution in the face of a novel disease, but his later hosting of several Instagram Live sessions with Chervin Jafarieh, an entrepreneur – if the spirit of the word extends to con-artists who charge $50 a bottle for homeopathic water – would suggest that the world #1 is a full-on anti-vaxxer. With Jafarieh, Djokovic discussed “self-mastery”: a capacious title covering such nonsense as how the power of “gratitude” can change the molecular structure of food and purify dirty water. (Mary Carillo: ‘Try telling that to the people of Flint, Michigan.’) Meanwhile, his wife Jelena was busy sharing the conspiracy that 5G masts transmit coronavirus. For a couple who treat science as a game and think witch doctors might provide interesting viewing for 7.3 million Instagram followers, the catastrophic Adria Tour error seems unsurprising.

The impact of Djokovic’s actions on legions of diehard fans makes it so important that he is sanctioned after the Adria Tour blunder. We cannot allow the narrative from Djokovic’s father that Dimitrov was the virus carrier at fault; it has already been rebuked by the Serb’s perennial critic, Nick Kyrgios. The Serbian and Croatian authorities must be questioned for failing to monitor the event, but it is not their fault for allowing the tour, in good faith, to proceed. Nor is it a reasonable excuse – from the #NoleFam – that some athletes will inevitably get Covid-19 if sports restart before a vaccine, making the Adria Tour proof of an unavoidable reality. Dozens of Premier League footballers have tested positive for Covid-19, but self-isolated and prevented a wider outbreak. Unblinkered loyalty to a champion who stands underappreciated in the eyes of many cannot mask Djokovic’s egregious flouting of public health restrictions amid a pandemic. Social media may not reflect reality, but the doubling-down I have seen to defend Djokovic – notably on Twitter – has reached Trumpian levels.

If tennis is to survive this pandemic, in reputation and financially, Djokovic cannot head the Player Council. The American No. #225 Noah Rubin has questioned his continued tenure, having been critical of Djokovic’s decision to play basketball with Adria Tour compatriots rather than attend a Zoom call on the US Open and future income status of Top 400 players. The remaining 11 council members, who have the ultimate power to replace Djokovic, are yet to speak out on the issue, despite reports of growing discontent within the ATP. Perhaps this situation will change, but it seems likely that such a decision would have to be made unanimously to prevent appearances of factionalism that could further weaken tennis’ reputation. Heavyweights Federer and Nadal, while members of the council, are habitually reticent in tennis politics. During lockdown they have participated in a botched PR effort to take credit for the idea of an ATP-WTA merger (first proposed by Billie Jean King in 1973) rather than serious discussions about the logistical future of the sport. As such, it seems likely that without a groundswell against Djokovic, he will remain like Dominic Cummings – in post: an exemplar of the out-of-touch establishment that has seemed all too real for his mortal colleagues since March.

As Andy Murray noted yesterday at the Battle of the Brits – an indoor event, devised by his brother, with rigorous pandemic measures in place – Djokovic’s tour was ‘not a good look for tennis… maybe this has put the US Open in doubt’. The measures imposed by the United States Tennis Association so as not to cancel their annual event are stricter than those in Balkan countries: Murray conceded, ‘no fans for a start’. Yet the Adria Tour raised the question of whether players can be trusted to isolate in hotel rooms between matches, which is a requisite for the US Open to function. Should a player foray into midtown Manhattan, contract the virus and pass it on, the whole tournament might have to be cancelled and the USTA itself would sit on the verge of liquidation. Should they consider banning attendees of the Adria Tour? This would be extreme, but future ATP and WTA events may have to consider draconian measures to ensure safe tournaments, with adverse effects on privacy, coaching access and mental health.

It is too early to tell whether this error of judgment has humbled Djokovic and led him to consider his pandemic-resistant worldview. He concedes that the Adria Tour was held too soon, but the key point is that it was held in an imaginary, virus-free world, disregarding public health. The tour was an extension of his personal sense of infallibility, as a 17-time Grand Slam champion: a mental and physical specimen. I’m not convinced that he has lost it.


The Whig Interpretation of Cricket


Review: The Test: A New Era for Australia’s Team (Amazon Prime Video, released 12th March 2020)

A chest infection sparked my interest in cricket. Prostrate on the sofa on a hot afternoon last August, I was enthralled by the miracle of Ben Stokes’ run chase at Headingley – aided by the glasses-wiping stalwart, Jack Leach – to keep the Ashes alive. Glued to the Test Match Special commentary, I lamented what I’d missed, from the heroics of England’s 2019 World Cup to the Ashes, Tests, ODIs and T20s of years gone by. My abiding memory of cricket had always been circa 2005, spectating at Lord’s with my dad. As a child more interested in museums and the London Underground than the gruelling, attritional phenomenon of a Test match, I wrote off cricket as about the most boring spectacle I’d ever seen. But listening to the Ashes last summer – particularly that third Test – I appreciated the magic of the sport, its potential to inspire and the almost foreordained quality of Stokes’ performance.

That same sense of destiny permeates Adrian Brown’s compelling docu-series, The Test: A New Era for Australia’s Team. His crew follow the Aussies from the national disgrace of the ball-tampering scandal in March 2018 to their retention of the Ashes – perhaps the greatest prize in cricket – in September 2019. Under the leadership of a new head coach, former batsman Justin Langer, the team is revived from villain status to model sporting ambassadors. With fascinating, fly-on-the-wall access, the eight-part series observes how a relatively inexperienced squad devoid of its leaders (Captain Steve Smith, Vice-Captain David Warner, and opening batsman Cameron Bancroft were suspended for their roles in the scandal) cohere, packed with entertaining characters.

It is the human side which The Test captures best. The Australians are battered by the torment of 2018, losing a disastrous ODI series 5-0 to England (who scored the highest one-day innings total ever recorded in the third match) and both an ODI and Test series to India, 2-1, on home soil. Yet head coach Langer combines tough love with constant allusions to the historical tradition of Australian cricket to rekindle the motivation and sense of identity within a team castigated at home and abroad. The ceremonies in which debuting players are presented with their “baggy green” cap, or where spinner Nathan Lyon leads the roasting of his teammates after every victory, are deeply emotional rituals that speak to the significance of cricket within Australian culture, alongside those relatable characteristics of respect and humility stripped from the team following the cheating in Cape Town. Langer undergoes personal turmoil as he lives each match, and it is no coincidence that his decision to dial back his intensity coincides with an uptick in results for the squad. Their victory in ODI and T20 series in India in early 2019 is seen as perfect preparation for the upcoming World Cup, for which the disgraced Smith and Warner will be eligible for selection once again.

As Australia’s summer in England approaches, we grow invested in the squad. We see the eccentric genius of Steve Smith – who shadow bats for hours in his hotel room – determined to revive his reputation with a series of stunning World Cup and Ashes performances. Smith is the subject of adoration from the quirky batting revelation Marnus Labuschagne. Test captain Tim Paine seems the quintessential, down-to-earth Aussie, enjoying banter with the highly-strung Indian captain Virat Kohli. Small details like the bromance between coffee-obsessed Adam Zampa and Marcus Stoinis reinforce that these teammates relish each other’s company. Perceptions of this are enhanced by interviews from players, coaches and insightful pundits such as Harsha Bhogle and Jonathan Agnew.

While Australia are defeated by England in the semifinals of their winning World Cup run, Langer’s side have the last word by retaining the Ashes (drawing 2-2, but victorious as the previous winners). The ultimate prize in The Test, however, is the rehabilitation of the gold-standard image of Australian cricket. Brown’s is a satisfying story of progress, vanquishing the obstacles of injury, absence and media reputation. But it still felt that there was something missing. Was the rehabilitation of Australia’s team really so definitive?

Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979)

In 1931, Regius Professor of History and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Herbert Butterfield, published a ground-breaking essay entitled The Whig Interpretation of History. Butterfield attacked a tendency in all history writing to warp events of the past to suit motivations in the present, allowing the historian to pick and choose to suit their argument. In so doing, the historian creates a perception of inevitability: a preordained route of progress when events, in reality, are never that simple. The historian employs teleology: explaining an action in terms of its result (Australia lost in the semifinals of the World Cup because that allowed the necessary contemplation and training to go on to retain the Ashes) rather than in terms of a process of events (Australia lost in the semifinals of the World Cup because poor decisions were made tactically/ England had certain home advantages).

Butterfield calls this a “Whig” interpretation in reference to a school of historians associated with the 18th and 19th century Whig political party, who viewed English history as a gradual progression – of personal freedom against tyranny; of Parliament against the Crown; of Protestantism against Catholicism – from Magna Carta to the 1688 Glorious Revolution. Nonetheless, “whig” in the lower case can apply to a historian employing the above principles more generally. That is where the parallels between a Cambridge don’s essay and a present-day documentary about cricket become clear. My criticism of The Test is how Brown, as the director/ historian, places a whiggish spin on the events of the Australian team in 2018-19 to bolster – and obscure – their story.

From the start of Episode 1, Brown’s breezy treatment of the ball-tampering scandal seems disproportionate to the damage wrought on Australia’s cricket team and even the national reputation. In a ten-minute opening montage, The Test glosses over the context, rationale and consequences. Why was ball-tampering deemed necessary in the 3rd Test against South Africa? Were there omens of arrogance and rule-breaking leading up to Smith, Warner and Bancroft’s actions? What was their reaction to suspension by Cricket Australia? Perhaps these questions detract from the mantra of the series – and head coach Langer – not to brood on past mistakes. But as it is, adopting a narrative of relentless progress makes for a first episode that puzzles viewers about the cheating that required this “new era for Australia’s team” in the first place.

And what of the nature of this progress? Wishy-washy references substitute for focus on the strategic and tactical elements that helped Australia’s success. We see simplistic graph projections in musty hotel boardrooms suggesting which Test sessions Australia need to win. We see Langer exhorting his squad to focus on “one ball at a time”. One episode focuses on T20 and ODI captain Aaron Finch’s batting struggles, but glosses over the media scrutiny this attracted at the time – given his place at the top of the batting order – and suggests that the solution was a bit more time in practice. I’m hardly a cricket expert, but I doubt it was that simple. At times, The Test treats the cricket itself as an irksome sideshow that he struggled to fit into the teleology that the series required.

The blind spots in Brown’s whiggish interpretation led me to consider the sacrifices required by a filmmaker who commits to an extended journey with a sporting team or individual player. Granted, I don’t have much knowledge of the financial and contractual intricacies of the industry. But I wonder what Brown might have produced if the Australian cricket team, for instance: never revived its good name; never cohered as a squad without Smith and Warner; or never returned to its pre-ball tampering form. For how long does the filmmaker continue invest their time and resources in the squad, hoping for a revival? If the team maintained its dismal late-2018 form, would he bail out? Might the head coach force him to stop filming? Or would he try to fabricate a success story because – like President Johnson in Vietnam – he has invested too much to lose face?

While there is a sense of jeopardy for Langer and the team in the doldrums of late 2018, the editing of the series portrays a positive arc such that later losses are blips: an inspired performance (like Stokes’ at Headingley); low energy; or bad luck. Maybe by last summer there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the team, but Brown’s framing seems to assume that good results will come. In fact, Australia drew the Ashes – rather than winning outright – which leads to a somewhat confused, less triumphant crescendo than he might have hoped. Nuance is lost in service to the story and leaves the viewer to contemplate realities beyond the locker room.

At least Brown’s 18-month investment paid off. The revival of the Australian cricket team must rank as one of the greatest sporting stories of the last two years. Everybody loves an underdog, and the depiction of triumph over adversity is the most relatable tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal. Some whiggish editorial decisions are ultimately necessary to create a narrative of excitement and entertainment, building to the final victory. Viewers can never expect a full, objective picture; but equally, they should be under no illusion that they are going to get one.

Nowadays, a whiggish approach looks facile and anachronistic for writers or politicians – who still employ this selective history to rouse their nations in a time of pandemic crisis. But even Herbert Butterfield, writing in 1944, conceded that whig history has its uses. In the entertainment realm, there is no better way to convey a sporting story of redemption. Even if the results had not come for Australia, framing The Test around conduct and reputation ensures a happy ending: internal critics are silenced; the nation’s respect for its cricket team is restored. Perhaps the Whig Interpretation of Sport is here to stay.