Electoral College as incentive to murder

Blame the pandemic on Trump. Blame it on our system, too.

President Trump gestures as he talks during an Axios on HBO interview

Axios released last night clips of Jonathan Swan’s interview with the president. In one of them, Donald Trump shares print-outs of charts and graphs in an apparent bid to convince Swan that the United States is doing better than other countries in the fight against the new coronavirus pandemic. I’ll link to it instead of describing it, but I will say this. The clip is an example of why our collective respect for stupidity is lethal.

Focusing only on stupidity is short-sighted, though. We must also consider incentives. Fact is, the White House is full of ambitious people eager to tell the president what he wants to hear, no matter how idiotic. The president, moreover, is desperate to believe his yes-men. Here’s how my friend Frank Wilkinson characterized this closed circuit: “They gave him big, brightly colored kindergarten charts to pretend the deaths away. His aides know he is a corrupt buffoon who is killing people. But they like working at the White House. And he’s afraid of prison. So many thousands more must die.”

The Electoral College is usually thought of as an anti-majoritarian thorn in the side of democracy. Well, Trump has shown it's more than that. Under the right conditions, the Electoral College is incentive for political murder.

Share

A fool of a president alone isn’t the problem. A fool of a president surrounded by intelligent, craven and morally degenerate toadies who manipulate his stupidity for their own purposes—there’s the problem. But this doesn’t drill down enough, I think. If we’re going to understand how and why the pandemic has now killed nearly 160,000 Americans, infecting nearly 5 million others, blowing up the economy and pretty much ruining our and our children’s lives, we need to search further. We need to look familiar things with fresh eyes, old structures so normal and ubiquitous as to be invisible. Here I’m talking about the Electoral College, and how this relic of our slave-owning past isn’t just an anti-majoritarian thorn in our sides. It’s an incentive to kill.

The Electoral College is the reason why individuals don’t choose presidents. States do. If individuals chose presidents, the outcome of the contest would be determined by the popular vote. It isn’t. It is determined by the most number of votes by electors, meaning officials picked by each state to represent the choice of most of voters in that state. Combined with a winner-takes-all political system, this is why Connecticut’s seven electoral votes (five House members plus two senators) went to Hillary Clinton in 2016 while Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes (18 House members plus two senators) went to Trump. The Electoral College is why we talk about states in terms of red and blue. It is also why so much of our political discourse is grounded in political fictions. Fact is, there are plenty of Republican voters in Connecticut and plenty of Democratic voters in Pennsylvania, but we don’t talk about that political reality, because it mostly doesn’t matter—not when electors choose presidents, not the American people as a whole.

Here’s the tip jar! Put something nice in it!

I doubt very much that Donald Trump comprehends any of this, not even a little, but he does understand the talking-heads on Fox who talk about states in terms of red and blue, so that, in the president’s mind, there aren’t any Republicans in Connecticut, and there aren’t any Democrats in Pennsylvania, and anyway, though he has no clue, having a clue doesn’t matter, because, again, individual Americans will not determine the outcome of presidential elections. The point here is that the president, when it came time to choose a plan to respond to the pandemic, didn’t think about the nation as a whole, because the nation as a whole did not, and cannot, decide who’s going to be president in November. To Trump, there are friends and there are enemies; there are red states and there are blue states; and if blue states were getting the worst of the pandemic in the early months, well, so what? What had they done for him lately?

We have known since the beginning that the president is a fool. We have known since the beginning that he surrounds himself with stooges. What we did not know until Vanity Fair published Katherine Eban’s investigation into the Trump administration’s pandemic response last week is that the White House consciously decided against a national approach (abdicating the president’s responsibility), because it thought Covid-19 was affecting Trump’s blue-state enemies only. What we did not know until Eban’s revealed it to us is that stupidity combined with corruption combined with an anti-majoritarian structure created an incentive for negligent homicide. You can blame Trump for disease and mass death, and you should. You can blame corrupt aides feeding him “brightly colored kindergarten charts to pretend the deaths away,” and you should. But the blame can’t end there. Blame the Electoral College, too.

—John Stoehr