Trump Time Capsule Redux: Vichy Senate Edition

The famous "Gerrymander" cartoon, drawn by Elkanah Tisdale and published in the Boston Centinel in 1812, showing an unfair districting map drawn by Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry. (Wikimedia)

About the author: James Fallows is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and author of the newsletter Breaking the News. He was chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and is a co-founder, with his wife, Deborah Fallows, of the Our Towns Civic Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Back during the 2016 campaign, I put out 152 installments of the Trump Time Capsule series, chronicling what was known about this man at just the time the Republican party was deciding to accept (and then embrace) him as its nominee, and as the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania were delivering him an Electoral College win.

I put it that way as a reminder that if a total of under 100,000 votes in those three states had gone the other way—about 44,000 in Pennsylvania, 23,000 in Wisconsin, under 10,000 in Michigan, together totaling about 1/1500th of the national electorate—then the Electoral College result would have matched the popular vote, and Donald Trump would never have taken office. And I emphasize this point to mark an underappreciated political-consciousness shift:

Until November, 2000, no living American had any reason to view the “Electoral College versus popular vote” distinction as anything other than a quaintly antique curiosity, since the most recent time there’d been any difference in results was back in 1888. That was before cars or airplanes had been invented; when not even one U.S. household in 100 had electricity; when most Americans lived on farms; and when the right to vote was mainly limited to white males.

Through modern America’s 20th-century rise, citizens and politicians alike, Republicans and Democrats and others, assumed that, whatever the theoretical oddities of 18th-century drafting, the U.S. would in reality function like the many other democracies it inspired, and base public office on public support. But now this era’s Americans have become inured to a minority-rule system that is outside the historical norms for a country where protection of minority rights was an important founding concern.

The brand-new print issue of The Atlantic, available online today (but Subscribe!), is all about the structural contradictions in modern democracy, and why it may be more imperiled around the world than many Americans would like to think.

The U.S. version of representative democracy has always involved a careful calibration of the balance between direct-democratic popular sentiment, and deliberately less-democratic buffers. These range from the original intention of the Electoral College (to ensure that the populace didn’t choose the wrong person, and that “the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications”), to the Senate’s supposed function as a more deliberative balance to the curb-to-curb excesses of the House.

But modern developments have pushed the U.S. toward a predicament in which it has all the defects of a non-democratic, non-majoritarian system, but without any of the supposed benefits. Consider:

Two of the past five presidential elections—versus zero of 27, from 1892 through 1996—have gone to the candidate who lost the popular vote. Both of those majority/minority presidents—George W. Bush in 2000, and Donald Trump in 2016—governed as if they had won FDR- or Reagan-scale mandates.

The 51 senators who now make up the GOP’s governing majority represent about 30 million fewer constituents than do the 49 Democrats and independents. And thanks to gerrymandering and similar factors, a 1 percent GOP edge in House of Representatives voting in 2016—just over 63 million total votes for Republican candidates, versus just under 62 million for Democrats—translated into a 47-seat majority in the House.

These House and Senate measures are of course imperfect—vote turnout varies in contested House races versus safe seats, and I’m doing the Senate tally by assigning each Democratic or Republican senator half of his or her state’s total population. The Democratic total for the Senate comes to about 180 million people; the Republican, to about 150 million. But the figures are in the ballpark, as indicators of the gap between raw popular sentiment and the current governing balance of power. As applied to the themes of The Atlantic’s new issue, they illustrate a more and more widespread and taken-for-granted shift from minority protection to minority rule.

I mention these disproportions to introduce a Time Capsule series for the 55 days between now and the 2018 midterm elections. It will focus on the 51 people who have disproportionate power. Unlike the other 330+ million Americans, members of this group could do something directly to hold Donald Trump accountable for what nearly all of them know is his reckless unfitness for office—but who every day choose not to act.

Those 51 are, of course, the Republicans who make up Mitch McConnell’s current Senate majority. What could they do? I’ve laid out the basic case here, but in brief:

  • Any one senator, of majority or minority party alike, has vast power to hold up the Senate’s business in order to get his or her way—on a point that really matters to the senator. The filibuster is one obvious tool. Ever seen the old movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? Ever watch Rand Paul try to hold up renewal of the Patriot Act? Ever watch Ted Cruz hold the floor for 21 straight hours, to slow down Obamacare? Ever hear about Tom Cotton putting a personal hold on an ambassadorial nominee—waiting it out until the nominee died? These give you an idea of what even one senator can do—if it matters.
  • Any one senator, who happens to be a committee chair, is in a very strong position to: hold hearings, issue subpoenas, and generally direct public and governmental attention to an issue. In the House, think of Representative Trey Gowdy, and what he did for years with the Benghazi hearings. Think of Devin Nunes. In the Senate, think back to what J. William Fulbright, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, did with his hearings on the Vietnam war—a war being carried out by his own party’s president. And think then of the current chairman of that committee, Senator Bob Corker, who is not running for re-election and thus in theory has nothing to fear from any opponent, PAC, or donor.
  • Any two senators could decide, temporarily, to declare themselves independent and “caucus with the Democrats” and thus shift operational control of the Senate from Republican hands to the Democrats’. The chairmanship of every committee would change. So would the majority lineup in every one of those committees. Hearings, subpoenas—these could be used to call Trump to account, rather than to avert public eyes.
    The two senators who had thus shifted control could still vote with Republicans on issues they cared about, from budget matters from the Kavanaugh nomination. But they could switch the machinery of this powerful part of the legislative branch back toward the check-and-balance function that at least two of them know is necessary. (At least two? Think of what Jeff Flake has said, and Bob Corker, and Ben Sasse.)

But 55 days before the election, not a one of these 51 people has dared act. Not after the “anonymous” op-ed in The New York Times; not after Bob Woodward’s Fear (and the dozen previous books to similar effect); not after … anything.

One of the senators I’ve often mentioned as an example of talking a lot, but doing very little to stand up to Trump, recently phoned me up, unhappy. “OK, it’s easy to criticize, but what exactly do you expect me to do?” he asked. I said, “Of course I’m not a legislator. But it looks from outside as if you could hold a hearing. Or hold up something the administration wanted. Or even—even—vote with the other side, if you thought the danger was really as great as you say.”

I inferred an “oh, sure” eye-roll through the phone line. The senator pointed out that steps like those would represent a total challenge to the party. The lesson I took was that if senators are going to think of themselves as party loyalists apart from anything else—apart from local concerns in their state, apart from historic positions of their own party, apart from what their own judgment said, apart from anything except what Donald Trump wants—then voters should rationally make their choices on party-ID above all. A Republican in the Congress will stand alongside Trump, whatever direction Trump goes. A Democrat may challenge him. That’s the choice.

Will anything about GOP bashfulness change in the next 55 days, or through the month-plus after that in which this Congress will still have power? Will one of them act, or even two?

I don’t know, but as with the original Time Capsules I’ll try to record this every day or two, for the long-term record. History is being made in real time.