Trump quickly withers as the coronavirus pandemic forces America to pay attention
President Donald J. Trump arrives at the Memorial Amphitheater during the 149th annual Department of Defense (DoD) National Memorial Day Observance. (DoD Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann)

It’s not that I don’t trust the Times when it says a new poll found that Joe Biden has “a commanding” 14-point lead over the president among registered voters. It’s not that I doubt that most women and Americans of color support the former vice president. It’s not even that I think some Republicans aren’t going soft on Donald Trump. It’s that we do not know what we cannot know until the moment has arrived in which knowing is made possible. In other words, I’ll believe Joe Biden is winning on the day he wins.

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What we can know right now is more worthy of our attention. What we can know is that attention itself, lots of people paying attention, is probably the most important causal factor moving public opinion Biden’s way. As I have said often, most people most of the time have something better to do than pay attention to politics, and that’s always true except when it isn’t, and it isn’t when there’s a pandemic that has killed the equivalent of forty-one 9/11s and that has unemployed scores of millions of people. Out of this context arose mass demands for racial justice. Out of the commingling of these energies arose a majority of the people speaking undeniably with one voice.

To be sure, these energies remain volatile and likely will shoot off in thousand competing directions. But we should, at least for time being, recognize this as an achievement, and appreciate it. The majority rarely speaks in unison. Matter of fact, elites in politics and business trust that it won’t, just as much as they trust that the opinion of the majority will reflect elite opinion. Only during times of dire national emergency does the status quo become inverted. American elites usually take the lead. They usually do not scramble, as they are doing now, to catch up with the majority. They too did not know what they could not know until the moment they knew it.

Moments arrive but understanding that they have arrived is another matter. Consider the Senate Republicans. During Trump’s impeachment trial, many of them behaved as if they understood perfectly well what the president had done, and why it was wrong, yet they refused to believe his misconduct (treason) was grounds for removal. They refused to believe it was grounds for removal, because they presumed probably that they understood what a majority in their states thought about Trump’s misconduct. Importantly, the Senate Republicans presumed a majority knew what they knew.

A majority of voters almost certainly did not know what the Senate Republicans knew, because, well, to repeat myself: most people most of the time have something better to do than pay attention to politics. Indeed, the majority of voters in their states is now paying close attention thanks to the pandemic and the recession, and what they are seeing is that John Bolton, the conservative’s conservative, confirmed the charges against the president, and that the charges against the president were understood perfectly by the Senate Republicans, but that the Senate Republicans, believing their voters knew what they knew, decided to acquit Trump of all charges anyway, which is news to the majority in their states. Given that most people have other things to do, it’s possible Bolton’s testimony might have had less impact during the impeachment trial than his book is now having during a time in which lots of people are at home.

Especially the elderly, people who vote every time it’s time to vote. The pandemic has created conditions in which Democratic lawmakers are demanding mail-in balloting for the sake of democracy and public health. Mail-in balloting is a dire threat to Trump. It overcomes the state-by-state infrastructure the Republicans have built to suppress votes. The president is therefore going to war with mail-in balloting, which is taking the form of going to war with democracy itself in eyes of the people on the receiving end of Trump’s attacks, a gigantic cohort of Americans that’s now paying close attention to politics, because there isn’t much else to do. Even the most hard-shelled racist is now a potential victim of disenfranchisement, so that even the most hard-shelled racist might have good reason to second-guess Donald Trump.

We do not know what we cannot know until the moment of knowing (Election Day) has arrived. But we do know—now—that fascism thrives when the majority is divided, when it has better things to do than pay attention to politics. Fascism, and the fascists who practice it, tends to wither under scrutiny, yielding to the majority’s moral authority. That, or they go to pieces, as the president appears to be doing currently.

John Stoehr is the editor and publisher of the Editorial Board, a newsletter about politics in plain English for normal people and the common good. He’s a visiting assistant professor of public policy at Wesleyan University, a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative, a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly, and a contributing editor for Religion Dispatches.