Maybe you think you just dreamed Mike Lindell and Lauren Boebert: You didn't -- and they were the fun parts of 2021

This long, long year began with high hopes that it would be better than the tumultuous election year of 2020, which also saw a summer of hopeful but traumatic protests and the onset of the most significant global pandemic in a century. We awaited the arrival of a new president, believing — oh, so innocently! It hurts to remember — that politics might become "normal" again. The idea that American life could be boring in 2021 was seen as a positive, am I right?

Well, so much for that. Was this year exhausting, soul-draining, mind-boggling and sometimes terrifying? I'd check all those boxes. But boring? Not so much. Five days into the year, Democrats won an unexpected double victory in the U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia, giving them a tenuous congressional majority after the puzzling and disappointing election results of November 2020. But you may recall what happened the day after that, on the 6th of January, when a joint session of Congress was to certify the electoral votes and declare Joe Biden the next president. It was a formality! Sometimes the opposition party squawks about it — as Democrats had done in 2001 and 2005 — but the business gets done and the country moves on. That's just how it is!

OK, so much for that too. It seems unnecessary to point out that that day — and its as-yet-unfinished aftermath — was the biggest news story of the year. And then things really got weird. We began to realize, gradually and uncertainly, that the Philip K. Dick alternate-universe dream state of the Trump years wasn't done with us yet. It was like Neo realizing that what he takes to be the real world is still inside the Matrix — or, more to the point, it was like when the characters in a "Nightmare on Elm Street" sequel realize they're still asleep and there's no escape from the guy with the long spiky fingers.

Whether all the stuff that happened in 2021 really happened is perhaps a question for cosmologists and philosophers to dwell on in the years ahead (assuming there are any). What I can tell you is that the biggest stories in Salon's News & Politics vertical in 2021 focused on an extraordinary array of dubious characters, most of them newly arrived on the national scene, or at least new to the national spotlight. The good news is that most of our widely-read stories didn't focus directly on that guy who finally evacuated the White House last Jan. 20. But they certainly reflected his radioactive glow.

To cite the obvious examples, in 2020 Mike Lindell was still a guy who sold pillows on cable TV; Lauren Boebert was an internet conspiracy theorist, viewed as a joke even within the already-delusional Republican Party; and Joe Manchin was an obscure senator from an obscure state, arguably the last living specimen of the genus "conservative Democrat," an important power bloc in Washington as recently as my 1970s childhood. I'm willing to bet you've heard more about those three people in the last year than in your entire life up till then (and quite possibly a lot more than you wanted to).

But that's not our starting point! Let's take these in chronological order.

Sen. Tom Cotton campaigned on his "experience as an Army Ranger" — but he didn't have any

Barely two weeks after the Jan. 6 insurrection, Salon investigative reporter Roger Sollenberger (since departed, and we miss him!) performed something of a demolition job on the reputation of Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who had positioned himself as a potential 2024 candidate and Trump heir by literally calling for the military to put down the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 — with lethal force, if necessary. Roger simply noticed a fact that was already in the public record, but had been politely ignored: Cotton had built his political career on his military record, and specifically on the oft-repeated claim that he had served as "a U.S. Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan." Which simply wasn't true: Cotton had attended Ranger school, which allowed him to put a nifty little pin on his uniform, but "was never part of the 75th Ranger Regiment, the elite unit that plans and conducts joint special military operations as part of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command." The Cotton '24 campaign seems to have stalled out since then.

The entire Trump campaign was a scam — and it is not over

Our only really big Donald Trump story of the year — you remember him! — was a commentary by long-running Salon columnist Heather Digby Parton, based on a New York Times report revealing exactly how much of a shameless, unscrupulous grift the 2020 Trump campaign had been. As Heather observed, the campaign seemed to run on the same principles as "Trump University," the multi-level seminar scam that wound up costing its notoriously cheap namesake a $25 million settlement:

[T]he campaign and its online fundraising platform WinRed hustled its most loyal supporters out of tens of millions of dollars with deceptive donation links on their emails and websites. It's unknown to this day how many people unknowingly signed up for weekly recurring donations and "money bombs" (agreements to donate a lump sum on a future date), but there were so many requests for refunds that at one point, 1-3% of all credit card complaints in the U.S. were about WinRed charges. … The sheer number of refunds to Trump donors amounted to a huge no-interest (and profitable for WinRed) loan to the campaign … [and] Trump's post-election "Stop the Steal" fundraising at least partially went to pay off those "loans" from the campaign, making the whole scheme very Ponzi-esque.

Godless grifters: How the New Atheists merged with the far right

It's always gratifying, as an editor, when you publish a story you know is important but you suspect very few people will read — and you're totally wrong. That happened in June, when Salon contributor Phil Torres, an academic philosopher who writes for us a few times a year, made his decisive rift with the "New Atheism" movement associated with intellectual luminaries like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. Phil was once a true unbeliever, you might say, and wrote that when New Atheism emerged in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, as a counterweight to fundamentalism of all sorts, it

appeared to offer moral clarity, it emphasized intellectual honesty and it embraced scientific truths about the nature and workings of reality. It gave me immense hope to know that in a world overflowing with irrationality, there were clear-thinking individuals with sizable public platforms willing to stand up for what's right and true — to stand up for sanity in the face of stupidity.

His conclusion 15 or so years later was very different:

What a grift that was! Many of the most prominent New Atheists turned out to be nothing more than self-aggrandizing, dogmatic, irascible, censorious, morally compromised people who, at every opportunity, have propped up the powerful over the powerless, the privileged over the marginalized.

Joe Manchin's "highly suspicious" reversal on voting bill follows donation from corporate lobby

Only days later, the gentleman from West Virginia made his first prominent appearance of 2021 in our digital pages. That came with Igor Derysh's report on the striking connection between Joe Manchin's flip-flop on the For the People Act — the voting-rights package passed by the House — and the sudden inflow of political donations to Manchin from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which opposed the bill. This was long before we understood what a central role Manchin would play in torpedoing Joe Biden's presidency and rendering the Democratic majority useless, but the writing was on the wall.

As Igor wrote, Manchin was literally a co-sponsor of For the People when it was first proposed during the Trump presidency, but for reasons he has never adequately explained, changed his mind when it came to the prospect of actually passing the bill. Manchin's op-ed announcing his opposition "echoed the Chamber's talking points" and came shortly after the pro-business lobby "which has launched an expensive lobbying effort against the bill, resumed donations to Manchin's campaign for the first time since 2012. Reuters described this flow of corporate dollars as a 'reward' for Manchin's opposition to numerous Biden administration's initiatives, as well as his stalwart support for the filibuster, which has almost certainly doomed the For the People Act."

DeSantis signs bill requiring Florida students, professors to register political views with state

With Tom Cotton consigned to political oblivion and Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri too deeply implicated (if that's even possible) in the Jan. 6 Capitol assault, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis became the leading alterna-Trump in Republican politics. (Whether DeSantis' master will allow him to run for president all on his own remains to be seen.) Salon's Brett Bachman was among the first journalists to notice perhaps the weirdest trick of DeSantis' troll-like governorship: a legal requirement that students and faculty at Florida's public universities must register their "political opinions and viewpoints" on an official survey.

As Brett wrote at the time, this is "part of a long-running, nationwide right-wing push to promote 'intellectual diversity' on campuses" and appears to reflect Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson's accusation that the Sunshine State's public universities were "socialism factories," an odd claim about institutions far better known for football than for Marxist study groups. In his already-patented fashion, DeSantis offered no specific explanation for why such a law was necessary and tried to sound vaguely reasonable, saying only that he knew "a lot of parents" who were concerned "about their children being 'indoctrinated' on campus."

Why did Lauren Boebert lead a late-night Capitol tour three weeks before Jan. 6?

Salon reporter Zachary Petrizzo spent much of the year trying to untangle the puzzling personal, professional and political stories of Rep. Lauren Boebert, the newly-elected Colorado Republican with a passion for guns and a number of connections to QAnon, the MAGA movement and the conspiratorial far right. But of all Zach's essays in Boebert-ology, nothing went deeper than the intriguing tale of a late-night U.S. Capitol tour she took with several family members on Dec. 12, 2020 — which was the same day as the big "Stop the Steal" pro-Trump rally in Washington, and roughly three weeks before she was sworn in as a member of Congress.

That last part is what makes this tour an unsolved mystery:

There are several unanswered questions about this visit, which appears to have violated normal Capitol protocol in various ways. It's not clear who authorized it, since Boebert was not yet a member of Congress and had no official standing in D.C. It's perhaps even stranger that it occurred on a Saturday night, when the Capitol complex is closed. … It's true that Boebert was a member-elect at the time, but that's an important distinction: She certainly was not a sworn member of Congress and had no office, no staff and no official status in the Capitol complex. It's even more puzzling that this tour took place on Saturday night. The guidelines for member-led Capitol tours state they are only available on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The only conclusion to draw here — which we did not make in the context of a carefully reported news story — is that someone in the Trump administration (like, a very well-placed someone) gave one incoming member of Congress special access to the U.S. Capitol after hours. We still have questions! And they will never be answered.

Rudy Giuliani ridiculed after clip of him shaving in airport restaurant goes viral

Sometimes in journalism, you just have to give the people what they want. And sometimes what they want is a viral video of Rudy Giuliani, the former LifeLock spokesperson and mastermind of the Four Seasons Total Landscaping press conference, shaving in a restaurant at JFK airport. As Salon's Jon Skolnik reported in August, the eating-while-shaving clip — amplified in mockery by comedian Michael Rapaport — was viewed more than a million times on Twitter within about three days.

Mike Lindell's meltdown begins: He recently sold a MyPillow plane to fund Dominion lawsuit

Zach Petrizzo's other principal beat of 2021, as no regular reader of Salon can possibly have missed, was his on-again, off-again bromance with MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, the man who has brought restful sleep to millions and who spent much of the year vowing he would somehow bring Donald Trump back to the White House. I haven't tried to count the number of stories Zach wrote about Lindell; it feels like one of those hypothetical numbers mathematicians theorize about but cannot precisely calculate.

Lindell's various deadlines for "reinstating" Trump to the presidency — a thing that cannot in fact be done, we shall remind you — have all come and gone with the goal nowhere in sight. But the acme or nadir of Lindell news came when Zach and Jon Skolnik worked together on a report that the pillow guy had been forced to sell one of his private planes to raise money to defend himself against the $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems.

Leading up to Lindell's August "cyber symposium" in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which was intended to prove his extravagant claims about the 2020 election (but clearly did not do so) the plane registered to MyPillow was used in a number of Lindell's schemes, including his alleged efforts to transport and conceal Dominion and Smartmatic voting machines at various locations across the country. (No such machines materialized at his Sioux Falls event, despite many promises that they would.) … Asked whether he had sold an airplane to raise money, Lindell called one Salon reporter "flying pond scum" and "slime."

(I don't actually know whether that was Jon or Zach.)

Black flag: Understanding the Trumpists' latest threatening symbol

Sometimes in journalism you try to answer the questions everyone is asking — and sometimes you answer the questions no one has even thought to ask. Such as: What's the deal with the MAGA people and the all-black U.S. flags, which are barely recognizable as flags at all and are exceptionally unlikely to be linked to Black Lives Matter (at least in any positive way). Salon senior writer Chauncey DeVega, always attentive to the symbology of the scariest corners of the far right, was on the case in October:

Trump supporters have begun flying all-black American flags, in an implicit threat to harm or kill their opponents — meaning nonwhite people, "socialist liberals," Muslims, vaccinated people and others deemed to be "enemies" of "real America."

Salon could find no historical evidence for the MAGA World claim that black flags were used by the Confederates in the Civil War to signify "no quarter" against Union soldiers, but it appears that Trump followers, the "patriot" movement and other neofascist types believe it. Which isn't great.

Democrats hit the panic button. Is it too little too late for Joe Biden?

A few days after that story ran, columnist Amanda Marcotte captured the mood shift so many of Salon's readers were experiencing as the nation moved into fall: The pandemic wasn't over (and we didn't even know about omicron yet), Biden's agenda was going nowhere, the 2022 midterms were looking bleak and the Republican campaign to undermine or overthrow democracy was gaining speed. In other words, "normal" and "boring" were not happening — and not likely to, anytime soon:

President Joe Biden's economic agenda is stuck in the mud, supported by 96% of Democrats in the Senate yet blocked by two senators whose massive egos and lobbyist addictions are causing them to turn against the party. Biden failed to enact vaccine mandates early enough or broadly enough so now millions of Fox News-addled Americans still are resisting vaccines, prolonging the pandemic and contributing to the national sense of despair. On top of that, Donald Trump has faced no real consequences for his attempted coup while the various criminal apparatchiks he surrounds himself with are also walking around happy and free. So efforts to stop the next coup are moribund, hitting the wall of Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who love that lobbyist-pleasing filibuster more than they love democracy. … No wonder voters are so depressed. A party that refuses to listen to voters is frustrating, but so is a party that hears them but still can't do anything about it. Either way, it may not feel to many worth the effort to even vote.

I'm sorry to leave you on a bummer as we head into another year, the traditional season of renewed hope. But the premise of our business, which isn't always pleasant, is to tell the truth as we understand it, not to tell people what we think they want to hear. You can't create change or create a more hopeful future without facing reality — and political reality right now, in the United States of America, is kind of harsh. Find love and joy where you can, cherish your moments with friends and family as we turn the page to the New Year. Gather what strength you can. We're going to need it.

Democracy vs. fascism: What do those words mean — and do they describe this moment?

There's considerable talk about "democracy" and "fascism" these days, as the poles between which our society is supposedly suspended. But what do those words actually mean? If we admit, as I think we must, that in both cases what it says on the box is not exactly what's inside — that those are approximations or generalizations or terms of art — do they really help us understand the reality of this dark and puzzling historical moment, or are they just getting in the way?

This article first appeared in Salon.

Joan Didion would have tried to ask those questions, and to answer them. We should all lament that she will not wage that struggle, in full awareness that we might not have enjoyed the results. Didion understood, above all, that imprecision of language reveals imprecision of thought, and that the failure to "observe the observable" — her famous dictum for journalists — leads reporters and writers away from a genuine effort to tell the truth (however conditional and uncomfortable that may be) and into the self-flattering realms of fantasy, propaganda and myth.

RELATED: Golden State of hypocrisy: An interview with Joan Didion

Which is where we are, I'm afraid, with "democracy" versus "fascism." The democracy that Americans have been taught to venerate, and that many of us now seek to defend, is a limited and specific historical phenomenon, which has been on a downward trajectory of slow decay and creeping paralysis for at least 30 years. One core problem that the Democratic Party and many people in the political and media castes have been unwilling to confront directly is that defending institutions that patently do not work is a position of pathetic weakness, not to mention near-certain defeat.

As for the homegrown authoritarian movement some of us designate as fascism, it is rather like an opportunistic infection. The Trumpist insurgency did not cause the crisis of democratic legitimacy, and could not have taken hold or spread so rapidly in an actually functioning democracy. While it certainly bears some hallmarks of classic 20th-century fascism — hazy notions of racial, tribal or religious purity, and a fantasy of a lost golden age — it lacks many others, and in any case Hitler and Mussolini did not invent those phenomena. This particular populist uprising is both something new in American politics — in that sense a telltale sign of a world power in terminal decline — and something very old, the residue of deeper conflicts that long predate the concepts of democracy and fascism, or for that matter America.

It was Joan Didion who told us — decades ago, in essays so far ahead of their time they were understood as flights of literary fancy — that it was more accurate to say that politics was a subset of show business than the other way around, and that American political conventions had become scripted spectacles of pseudo-democracy, formally and structurally akin to the sham elections held in the Soviet Union. She made those observations while covering the presidential campaign — in 1988.

Didion never wrote anything about Donald Trump and his so-called movement, so I won't presume to know what she thought. Her declining health in recent years was only part of the reason; according to her nephew, the filmmaker Griffin Dunne, who directed the 2017 Netflix documentary "Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold," she simply didn't find Trump all that interesting:

I haven't talked to her in great detail about this, but I think that someone like Trump is just a less interesting figure for her to weigh in on because there's really no subtext. He's so impulsive and everything comes out of his forehead; what she specialized in, when writing about politics, was the message that politicians were trying to send and what the message really was. There's no there, there with Trump, and he's not even consistent.

Every remotely honest journalist, and a great many civilians as well, can relate to that: The absence of subtext, of coded or hidden meanings, is exactly what made the Trump presidency so addictive and/or so infuriating, depending on your perspective, and why he remains the focus of media fascination nearly a year after leaving the White House. (This is hardly a trade secret, but even on Salon stories about Trump tend to attract more readers than stories about Joe Biden, and that's clearly not based on political preferences.)

But seeking to decode the supposed binary (or perhaps the dialectic) of "democracy" versus "fascism," in hopes of uncovering what those terms conceal or what they reveal, is unmistakably a Didion-like project. What we call "democracy," in the context of the Trump movement's efforts to overthrow it, is structured by antiquated representational rules, an ungainly federal system and an entrenched partisan duopoly, which in practice have led to increasingly undemocratic or anti-democratic outcomes.

In the interests of observing the observable, I am compelled to point out that roughly half the American population — overwhelmingly among the poor and the working class — typically does not vote, and most of those people either view the political system with cynical detachment or ignore it altogether.

RELATED: The biggest political party in America you've never heard of

None of the dogmas shared by liberals infuriates me quite as much as the sanctimonious tendency to blame non-voters for Democratic defeats. This is inevitably framed in terms of an imaginary cadre of white middle-class radicals who were too puritanical to vote for Hillary Clinton or Al Gore (or whomever) but ought to have known better. To the extent that group exists, it is inconsequential, whereas the set of lower-income and poor people who never vote — which crosses all possible racial and regional boundaries — is enormous, and to a large extent constitutes the defining characteristic of American "democracy." Hand-wringing liberals are notably reluctant to discuss that latter group: It would be politically unsavory to blame those people for abstaining, but unacceptable to admit that their refusal to participate in a system that does not represent them is not irrational.

To use the Marxist term — something Joan Didion would likely never have done — our system is a "bourgeois democracy," now facing its inevitable moment of crisis. That is a descriptive term, not an insult: A bourgeois democracy is structured around the primacy of property rights, a "free market" and individual freedoms, all concepts that effectively did not exist before the 18th-century Enlightenment. In the classic Marxist analysis, Democrats and Republicans represent the interests of competing factions within the property-owning middle and upper classes. In the larger context of American political history, that's far too simplistic. But in terms of the last half-century or so, and how we got where we are today, it's also not blatantly wrong.

Another, somewhat subtler article of liberal or progressive dogma — and a far more convincing one, until very recently — is that if poor people were to vote in much greater numbers, Democrats would win every election and Republicans would be forced to face radical change or political doom. That dogma may still be correct in a larger sense; it certainly hasn't been systematically tested. But the great surprise of the 2020 election (echoed on a smaller scale in the 2021 off-year elections in Virginia and New Jersey) was that dramatically higher turnout did not produce a Democratic landslide, but rather a far more muddled political landscape. Joe Biden's victory was much tighter than polls suggested; Democrats expected to win seats in the House but wound up losing 13 — and only "won" a 50-50 Senate (I would argue) thanks to Donald Trump's petulant pot-stirring in the Georgia runoff elections.

RELATED: Can the real lessons of Virginia rescue the Democrats in 2022? It's definitely worth trying

Returning once again to the doctrine of observing the observable, this offers us important clues about two different but closely related phenomena: the current state of the Democratic Party, and the class character of the Trump insurgency. There's a great deal of discussion about the former topic, but the latter has become virtually untouchable (at least on the liberal-progressive "left"), for much the same reason that the non-voting population is viewed as an implacable, undiscussable feature of the landscape. Both questions, if examined too closely, threaten not just to undermine the supposed stability of the supposed democratic system, but to reveal that the stories we tell ourselves about how that democracy works, and even about how it could be improved, are not true.

It is true, of course, that an exclusive or primary focus on class in American politics has sometimes been used to demote or defer the importance of racism and white supremacy. The cadre of mainstream journalists who staged anthropological interventions in heartland diners after the 2016 election, and came away with tales of "economic anxiety" among the white working class, were justly derided for both cluelessness and condescension. Race and class have never been independent variables in American history, or at least not since the early 17th century. There is no way to consider one without the other; the friction and interaction between them, to a significant extent, is the story of American history.

RELATED: Democrats and the dark road ahead: There's hope — if we look past 2022 (and maybe 2024 too)

It does not follow that in order to correct for racism we must abandon all considerations of class, although that question has provoked a useless and destructive internal debate within the Democratic Party. It certainly doesn't follow that the role of class conflict in history is irrelevant to understanding the (blatantly racist) MAGA movement, which cannot strictly be defined in terms of its present-tense socioeconomic status or its irrational and alarming beliefs.

In my next article on the vexed relationship between "democracy" and "fascism," I will approach that third-rail issue in American politics, and propose that the class character of the Trump rebellion is baked in more deeply than we can readily perceive. On one hand, we do indeed confront a predominantly white and predominantly rural subset of the working class that has abandoned what we now call "liberalism" (or been abandoned by it). On the other, we confront an entrenched pattern that goes back well beyond the invention of such terms, to the very beginnings of capitalism, when the "peasants" were likely to side with monarchs and aristocrats against the bourgeois revolutionaries who offered them a new vision of "freedom," which they concluded (with some justice) was a trick.

Democrats and the dark road ahead: There's hope — if we look past 2022 (and maybe 2024 too)

Over the past couple of weeks, we've seen the Democratic Party at its worst and, approximately, at its best — or at least the best it's capable of at the moment. But here's the problem: No version of the current Democratic Party seems remotely prepared for its date with destiny, as the only electoral force standing in the way of a Republican congressional majority in 2022 and a triumphant resurgence of Trump-style discount-store fascism in 2024 (whether or not Donald Trump is personally involved).

This leads us, I think, toward, an inescapable conclusion, but one the left-liberal-progressive quadrant of the electorate is largely unwilling to face. Let me set up my defenses first: I'm not advocating fatalism or passivity. If you're deeply invested in firewalling the Democratic majority in 2022, and plan to sink your time, money, energy and some percentage of your soul into the Senate race in Ohio or North Carolina or Pennsylvania, or any of the two or three dozen House races that could go either way, have at it. Action is always preferable to inaction. Of course it's possible that Democrats could beat the odds, defy both the laws of political physics and the relentless grind of Republican redistricting and hold onto one or both houses of Congress. It could happen!

But, y'know, don't bet the grandkids' college fund on that or anything. My point is that those who are committed to the redemption, restoration or fulfillment of America's "multiracial democracy" (as Salon's Chauncey DeVega often puts it) need to take a longer view. Politics and history will not suddenly come to an end if (or when) Kevin McCarthy — who is, yes, a repulsive and craven idiot — becomes speaker of the House in January of 2023. Indeed, I think it's possible that a new kind of politics will be necessary after that. While we're there, we might also need to consider the still darker possibilities that may arrive after that, which will also not cause the sun to drip blood or the Four Horsemen to emerge from a smoldering cleft in the earth … you can guess where I'm going. Yeah, him: The Great Pumpkin. But before we indulge, let's consider where we are.

I probably don't need to go over the painful evidence of recent days, but let's summarize. After the supposedly unexpected (but honestly completely predictable) victory of Republican Glenn Youngkin in the Virginia gubernatorial race — and the actually unexpected near-political-death experience of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (a center-left darling of the moment), against a GOP nonentity with no discernible agenda and a spell-check-defying surname — we entered the ritual period of Democratic gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, as prescribed by scripture.

Democrats had supposedly gotten too woke, too radical, too defund-the-police, too obsessed with niche racial or social justice issues that alienated "ordinary Americans," a term of art used in different ways by different members of the media and political castes, but always to mean people we regard as earnest and honorable, but unfortunately not that bright. This was a particularly hilarious charge to fling at Terry McAuliffe, the Virginia loser, who appears to be (and may actually be) an automaton assembled at Democratic National Committee headquarters, and whose entire campaign was structured around the indisputable fact that however much of a lifeless Clintonite retread he might be, he wasn't Donald Trump.

But the fact that the indictment was prima facie ludicrous was obviously beside the point. As a subsequent New York Times editorial written in baffling doublespeak appeared to argue, McAuliffe had somehow been contaminated by all the wild-eyed tax-and-spend radicalism of "progressives" in Congress, with their ridiculous SJW demands for — um, well, for child care benefits and parental leave policies and universal pre-K and lower drug prices for seniors and other stuff that is massively popular across the political spectrum.

See, the Democrats' current dilemma is not entirely or exactly or even mostly about the supposed Bernie vs. Hillary ideological and generational conflict that has created so much internal discord over the past five or six years. Here's why: The so-called moderates within the party no longer have any clear policies or principles to defend, beyond the Reagan-era reflex that if we scare the normies too much, we'll lose. (Translation: If we talk about race and racism too much — or actually at all — we'll alienate middle-income and lower-income white people in the suburbs and rural areas. Who, admittedly, already hate our guts — but we're sad about that.)

They used to have real positions! Let's be clear about that: Once upon a time, centrist Democrats were for free-trade agreements and the unregulated flow of finance capital and defunding the welfare state and fiscal austerity and "muscular" foreign policy, along with — let's be fair! — expanded civil rights and economic opportunities for women, Black people, LGBTQ folk and other marginalized groups. Some of this was just cynical or tactical politics, an effort to defang or outflank Republican attacks, but some of it was entirely authentic: The era of big government is over, the information economy is here, entrepreneurship is the social movement of the future, a rising tide lifts all boats — and yes, sorry, I'll stop now before you need to vomit again.

I'm pretty sure there are still Democrats out in the wild — Kamala Harris, possibly; Pete Buttigieg, definitely — who subscribe to some semi-updated version of that 1992 "New Democrat" wisdom. But after the Great Recession and the gradually accumulating bummer of the Obama presidency and the noxious collective brain-fart of the Trump regime and the last two years of a goddamn pandemic that has probably already killed a million Americans (and unquestionably will before it's over), the stern but benevolent turning-you-down-for-a-loan act just doesn't fly anymore. Well, except for the "muscular" foreign policy that both parties pursue without question, but doesn't much interest folks out here in internet-land, the puzzling and humiliating quadrillion-dollar Afghanistan fiasco aside.

Joe Biden, the oldest person ever elected president, has figured most of this out, perhaps because he's been around so damn long he never fully bought into any particular version of Democratic orthodoxy. But way too many of the "moderate" Democrats of 2021 have become like the Soviet apparatchiks of the 1980s, muttering the bromides they think may allow them to hold onto power, but depressingly aware that it's all kind of a con and nobody outside their crumbling palace even pretends to believe anymore.

At least Joe Manchin is both blatantly corrupt and trapped in his own Depression-bootstrap fantasy of the past, the last living specimen of the "conservative Democrats" who were a major power bloc well into my 1970s childhood. And at least Kyrsten Sinema is flamboyantly and performatively corrupt, the out bisexual Gen X senator with the deliberately mismatched outfits of the sort fashion magazines used to call "kicky," inhaling whopping sums from Big Pharma and voting down a minimum-wage increase on her way to the They Might Be Giants reunion concert. (If they ever officially broke up; I'm not sure, but I bet the gentlelady from Arizona knows.)

You have to respect and even admire them, in a way. No, wait: I don't mean that at all. You don't. But at least they know what they stand for, which is "this is how the world works, suckas," or to quote the final line of a great and anguished film, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." A whole lot of other Democrats are hopelessly pinioned between the corporate donor class they have lovingly cultivated and the increasingly restless "progressive base," and must also reckon with the fact that in our deeply undemocratic system their fragile majority literally rides on a few thousand randos in exurban "swing districts" and "purple states," who are entirely likely to vote based on the price of gas or whether the Amazon guy was a dick or some half-processed fragment of COVID misinformation. In that context, "Oh shit, let's not spend all this money" becomes an understandable response, although not an admirable or defensible one.

So my point is not that Democrats can save themselves by waving the red flag and embracing the most fulsome version of the Bernie-AOC agenda. There's something to be said for that, along the lines of the old proverb that tells us it's better to be hanged as a thief than a beggar. (Even setting aside the fact that most of the stuff in that agenda would be amazing.) But nobody can possibly know whether that would work in electoral terms, and it's not going to happen anyway.

My point, in fact, is that the current version of the Democratic Party is screwed six ways from Sunday, partly due to structural factors beyond its control and partly due to its own haplessness, incompetence and corruption. I don't know what will happen in 2022 — except, sorry, yes I do and so do you. Fight against a Republican majority all you want, but also be prepared for the likely outcome, which will be grim and unpleasant at every level but will also create new opportunities for struggle, and perhaps a necessary confrontation with reality.

I really and truly don't know what will happen in 2024, because there's a lot of terrain to traverse before we get there. Joe Biden, if he runs again, will have the built-in advantage of incumbency, and there's no reason to believe that every single tendency of political reality has been reversed just because You Know Who won that election that one time. But we might as well face it: It's definitely within the realm of possibility that Donald Trump returns to power, either in his own skin or by way of some mini- or micro-Trump, running as his minion or puppet but yearning to break free. It could happen through "legitimate" means, thanks to the absurd and antiquated Electoral College, or through flat-out fraud and quasi-constitutional legislative override and throwing the election into the House of Representatives, which hasn't happened since the white-dudes-with-beards era of the 19th century.

Yeah, that could definitely happen, and it would be bad news. Will it mean the end of democracy forever and the inauguration of a Thousand-Year Reich ruled for all time by a gaggle of white supremacist douchebags? No, of course not. Will it suck? Yes. Will it suck worst of all for people who don't have all the unexamined privileges of someone like me? Yes. But to pretend that the deeply offensive and moronic (and evil) prospect of a Trump 2.0 regime will mean the end of history and the end of politics and "a boot stamping on a human face forever" is insulting and untrue. Why do we think we're special? In almost every European nation, not to mention the nations of the developing world, there are living people who have survived periods of fascistic or autocratic rule and come out the other side. Millions of people live under such regimes right now. It might just be our time to get schooled by history.

As for the Democrats: There's hope! It's long past time for progressives or liberals or even (hypothetically) moderates to rebuild the party from the ground up. That's what happened in the Republican Party during and after the Reagan era, which is why a party that only represents white people outside metropolitan areas, and holds an incoherent assortment of extremist views, has veto power over our entire political system. It's finally starting to happen on the Democratic side too, and if there's a way to redeem American democracy, and renew our poisoned and paralytic two-party system, that will begin at school boards and city councils and boards of supervisors and other unglamorous instruments of local government.

For at least the past 30 years, the Democratic Party has exclusively played defense, trying to win presidential elections and carve out legislative majorities and then govern from above, hoping against hope that the combination of gradual demographic change and incremental policy adjustments could change the political culture and turn back the rising right-wing tide. We're normal and reasonably competent and mostly well-intentioned, Democrats announced, to the delight of the vanishingly small proportion of the public who view politics in rational and unemotional terms. To say that it hasn't worked would be, quite literally, the understatement of the century.

You don't have to agree with Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or the other prominent progressives within the Democratic coalition about anything at all to appreciate that they have shifted the party's internal paradigm. Beneath the media narrative of Democratic defeat and despair in the off-year elections just concluded, there were dozens of progressive victories in local elections, and a degree of grassroots energy not seen since the 1970s.

Does that mean that democratic socialism or ultra-woke intersectionality or some iteration of a "race-class narrative" is the path forward? That's exactly what's up for grabs; nobody knows. If you think you have a role to play, get in on the action now. Will progressives and Democrats and Americans have to go through a really, really dark patch in the years ahead in order to reach those answers — a period of real danger and possible violence and almost certain trauma, which will require courage and patience and sacrifice, and whose ending is uncertain? If you've read this far, you know what I think. Draw your own conclusions.

Let's face it: Mitch McConnell has the Democrats trapped

We've got a fair number of repentant former Republicans roaming loose on the political landscape these days. They like to tell us that the onetime Party of Lincoln must be thoroughly defeated and destroyed before it can be rebuilt as a respectable, mainstream center-right organization. That's an encouraging team-building exercise, I guess — if we set aside everything about observable reality and play an extended game of Let's Pretend We're Grownups, like a bunch of eight-year-olds trying on Mom and Dad's Clinton-era wardrobe.

Even looking past the question of whether the reconstructed GOP 2.0 these folks imagine would be remotely viable (as to which: ha!), we still have the question of who's going to defeat the exceptionally nasty current version of the Republican Party, and how. These GOP apostates, it's worth noting, were totally OK with cutting taxes for the rich and running up massive deficits on endless, pointless, destructive overseas wars. They find themselves deeply shocked, however, by the party's swerve into overt racism, know-nothingism and borderline fascism, elements of the Republican coalition they believed could be kept in the basement indefinitely.

This call to arms by ex-Reaganites is presumably meant to fire up Democrats, who have been told repeatedly over the past 30 years or more that America's changing demographics were certain to deliver them a permanent majority coalition someday very, very soon. In this less-than-inspiring vision of utopia, benevolent intersectional liberals would govern wisely and forever, while Republicans would be consigned to regional, resentful rump-party status until and unless they gradually became a lot more like Democrats.

As you may have noticed, this keeps on not happening, and at this point the "emerging Democratic majority" is starting to sound like old-time Soviet dogma about true communism being just over the horizon. Yes, Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections — while managing to lose two of those anyway — but for a variety of reasons I don't need to rehearse here have found it impossible to hold or build congressional majorities, or to do much of anything with them when they have them.

More important than any of that, although absolutely related, is how Democrats have responded to the obvious Republican assault on democracy over the last couple of years, in the manner of a truckload of Brookings Institution scholars stuck in cold molasses, determined to consider all sides of the question fairly and not to let anyone accuse them of acting hastily. I'm not suggesting that Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer haven't expressed genuine alarm or said more or less the right things, because they have. But as you have perhaps observed, they haven't leveraged those words into action: They haven't ditched the filibuster or expanded the Supreme Court or passed any of the bills in front of them that are meant to fortify the right to vote, for the love of Jesus Christ.

This isn't a nice thing to say about a bunch of mostly sane and approximately reasonable people, but here's the truth: If you set out to design a left-center political party that was fated to surrender, little by little, to authoritarianism — because of circumstances beyond its control, because of internal indecision and ideological fuzziness, because it faced an entrenched and deranged opposition party, because of whatever — you could hardly do better than the current version of the Democratic Party.

This raises the question of whether the Republicans are the only party that needs to be badly defeated in order to recover a sense of purpose. Don't get me wrong here: It would be far preferable if the Democrats could work out how to win power and then use it effectively. I'm not advocating voting against them out of some contrarian or puritanical impulse, and I'm not even dragging out the old Bernie vs. Hillary generational and ideological conflict for another go-round. (Of course that remains an important source of friction, but it's genuinely not the central issue right now.)

If the current mishmash that is the Democratic Party simply isn't up to the task, if it's imprisoned by its donors and trapped in an old political paradigm while facing the birth of a new one, if it can't summon up the energy or determination to act decisively on behalf of supposedly shared principles, then what the hell is the point? Maybe they're the party that needs to be torn down and rebuilt, especially since the other one is an entirely lost cause.

Consider 2021 — yeah, I know you don't want to, but we don't have much choice. After the election of Joe Biden and the improbable reverse parlay of winning both Senate seats in Georgia — almost entirely thanks to the chaos-agent intervention of Donald J. Trump — liberals and progressives and normies of all descriptions exhaled audibly. We were back to "normal"! The nightmare had passed! Maybe the long-awaited Democratic majority had arrived at last, if only in ass-backward and highly precarious fashion … except nope, nobody believed that for more than a few minutes, considering that the day after the special elections in Georgia was the sixth of January.

I'm not saying that Mitch McConnell wanted to lose the Senate majority (I bet he had some choice words about Trump in private), but no one has ever accused Mitch of not knowing how to play the angles. He quickly understood how to turn the ambiguous results of 2020 to his advantage, and they were undeniably ambiguous: Democrats breezed into that election expecting big wins across the board, but instead lost most of their House majority and fell short in several prominent Senate races, failing to gain seats in Maine, Montana and North Carolina.

While regular people celebrated a victory and the supposed end of the Trump era, Democratic leaders and insiders looked ahead to the 2022 midterms and began to whimper uncontrollably. McConnell could smell the fear, to put it bluntly, and rubbed his hands with Montgomery Burns-like glee. With a 50-50 Senate and Biden's entire legislative agenda hamstrung by the filibuster and the nonsensical or corrupt Ringwraith fantasies of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, he had the Democrats trapped. They knew it and he knew it.

In a display of ruthlessness and cynicism that's impressive even by his standards, McConnell will force all 50 Democratic senators to vote on a budget and on raising the federal debt ceiling, which in quasi-normal times (and even under Trump) was done by bipartisan agreement. This will either force them to crumple and capitulate to whatever it is he wants (short version: more goodies for rich folks) or will create an invented wedge issue Mitch believes he can use to win back both houses of Congress next year. Republicans will pretend to run on fiscal responsibility but will actually run on a bunch of culture-war bullshit and promises to rig all future elections and unquestioned loyalty to a decrepit and defeated leader they all privately think is nuts. I'm sure looking forward to that, aren't you?

If Democrats lose conclusively to those people, then they deserve it. That's a dark path, perhaps darker than any of us wants to contemplate. But I think there's no avoiding this date with destiny, for the Democrats or the Trumpers or our entire so-called democratic experiment. If you see another one, light the way.

Beyond the crisis of democracy: Does anyone still believe in liberalism?

There's been considerable chatter over the past few years about the crisis of democracy — sometimes more clinically described as a "democratic recession" or "democratic deficit." And for good reason: When Donald Trump stripped the flesh off the American body politic, he revealed a disease that has become endemic throughout the so-called Western world.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

Faith in the power and goodness of democratic self-governance, previously as unchallenged and ubiquitous as belief in God during the Middle Ages, has decayed into the empty, hopeful rituals of the Anglican Church. Even those who insist they still believe are clearly troubled: Supposedly democratic elections are too often won by overtly anti-democratic or authoritarian leaders, and too often result in governments that ignore what the public actually wants and pursue policies that blatantly favor the rich and powerful and make inequality worse. (As, in fairness, nearly all governments tend to do.)

But the important question is not whether this is happening — the answer is obvious — but why. Trump and Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán and Jair Bolsonaro and Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Rodrigo Duterte and all the other pseudo-democratic usurpers around the world didn't arise out of nothing. To suggest that they all simultaneously tapped into a current of know-nothing darkness and bigotry and moral weakness that has been there under the surface of society all along, like undiscovered crude oil, is not a remotely adequate historical or political explanation.

To see so many marginal democracies tumble into the abyss — and a great many well-established ones tiptoe right to the edge — suggests that something else is going on, a deeper pattern we aren't ready or willing to look at. That deeper pattern isn't just a crisis of democracy in the narrow sense, meaning a system or mechanism for selecting hypothetically representative leaders, because that itself is a symptom or symbol. It's about the failure of liberalism, which is an especially confusing word in the American context but in larger historical and philosophical terms describes the amorphous and often contradictory set of beliefs that supports democracy — and without which democracy becomes impossible or meaningless.

Liberalism, in that broader sense, has dominated an increasing proportion of the world since the early 20th century and virtually the whole planet since the end of the Cold War. It's a tradition that included (until very recently) both the conventional left and the conventional right in the United States and most other Western-style democratic nations. It's not so much a coherent philosophy as a basket of principles, many of which are frequently in conflict: Free trade and the primacy of the capitalist "free market," the expansion of civil rights and civil liberties, freedom of the press and artistic expression, universal equality before the law and a contested role for the state, which is sometimes highly interventionist and sometimes much more hands-off.

To put it mildly, there's been a lot of disagreement within the liberal tradition about which of those principles is most important. Old-school "classical liberals," for example, eventually became known as conservatives or libertarians, while the "new liberals" divided into camps most often described today as moderates and progressives. In the wake of World War II and then the Cold War, liberalism writ large began to imagine itself as the end stage of human history, promising a world — in the infamous (and false) words of Thomas Friedman — in which no two countries with McDonald's franchises would ever go to war.

But as two important recent books about the liberal tradition — Pankaj Mishra's "Bland Radicals" and Louis Menand's "The Free World" — argue in different ways, that confidence was hubristic, and liberalism had already undermined itself at its moment of apparent total victory. The most generous thing we can say is that liberalism sometimes delivered on some of its promises (and only to some people), but never came close to fulfilling all of them. As for the liberal tradition's willingness to accommodate heated internal debate, as well as to wrestle with its own errors and blind spots, that was seen (with some justice) as a defining virtue — and was also, from the beginning, a critical weakness.

Most of the invigorating essays in Mishra's collection revolve around the insight that the disastrous failures of liberal foreign policy — so vividly illustrated in Afghanistan over the last few weeks — cannot be understood as aberrations or even contradictions. From the beginning, the liberal promise of expansive civil rights and ever-increasing prosperity (for the citizens of liberal nations) relied on overseas imperialism and ruthless exploitation, what we might today call the outsourcing of inequality. Furthermore, imposing Western-style liberal democracy on other nations (who were understandably uncertain it was a good idea) — through coercion and bribery and outright force, if necessary — was built into the model all along, even if that became embarrassing in the 20th century and had to be described with euphemisms about "freedom" and "self-government."

Menand's book is a sprawling, ambitious study of Western (and mostly American) culture during the Cold War years — from the avant-garde to Elvis Presley, from academic literary criticism to "The Feminine Mystique" — which could fairly be described as the greatest accomplishment of the liberal era. One of the central threads running through his history is the way this amazing cultural explosion began to pull the postwar liberal consensus apart, such that by the end of the Vietnam War, most American writers, artists and intellectuals saw themselves as enemies (or at least critics) of the American state, especially in terms of its global-superpower role.

In other words, while the crisis of electoral democracy seems to have appeared suddenly in the Euro-American backyard over the last 5 to 10 years, like a nasty invasive weed — and is still viewed by many observers as an almost inexplicable phenomenon — the implosion of the liberal order has been a long time coming. It's hard to see that clearly through the ideological haze, given that the media and political classes in the U.S. and most other Western nations (outside the far right and far left) remain steeped in a post-World War II worldview where some version of liberalism — however much amended, repaired and clarified — is the natural, inevitable and desirable order of things.

If liberalism remains the only paradigm available to resist the rise of Trump-style autocracy, as generally seems to be the case, then we're in deep trouble, and the dread so many of us feel about the inexorable erosion of democracy is fully justified. Does anyone today — literally anyone — possess the kind of universalist, upward-trending faith in liberal progress that drove the mythology of John F. Kennedy's brief presidency or the moral clarity of the civil rights movement?

In bizarre, upside-down fashion, Donald Trump's entire "Make America Great Again" campaign can be understood as a half-conscious attempt to rekindle that kind of collective passion, if only as ghoulish racist parody — the liberal soul, transplanted to a fascist body. (Trump's most insane followers in the QAnon cult briefly convinced themselves that John F. Kennedy Jr. was still alive and would return as Trump's running mate or spirit animal or something.)

Only someone with a time machine could tell us whether it will be possible to redeem or renew the better aspects of the liberal tradition as a vibrant force against the rising tide of jingoism, tribalism and autocracy. What we can say right now is that every few years someone emerges on the world stage who is embraced by the media and political caste as the savior of liberalism — or, worse yet, as the "transformational figure" who will overcome political paralysis and division — and it never ends well. No doubt Bill Clinton and Tony Blair think it's profoundly unfair that they have been consigned to the dustbin of history just because they made catastrophic compromises with the forces of evil. Emmanuel Macron actually believed he could make friends with Donald Trump, and that hubris may also pave the way for the far right's return to power in France, for the first time since the Nazi occupation.

Let's consider the most famous example, whose lessons "liberal" Americans (in all senses of the word) have not yet begun to understand. In the United States we have told ourselves a more sophisticated version of the above-mentioned narrative about how the current of ignorance and darkness running beneath our society has endangered democracy. It possesses some historical plausibility and, almost by accident, is a little bit true. In that story, the election of Barack Obama — which seemed to inaugurate a new era in American history and to symbolize a fulfillment of America's democratic promise — triggered the benighted racists in flyover country so badly that they all flocked to the banner of a TV con man who ran for president on a platform of blatant white-supremacist fantasy.

There's something to that, as public opinion research makes clear: Overt racial hostility is the decisive marker between white people who voted for Trump and white people who didn't. But to view that as a linear, limited cause-and-effect equation is the most mechanical and ahistorical kind of pop psychology, not to mention massively condescending. Like nearly all political analysis in our perishing republic, it's focused on symbols and signifiers, and not at all on the actual substance of politics. Obama himself would surely tell you that if his presidency had been successful, it would not have provoked such intense antipathy among many working-class and middle-class white people in the heartland — groups among which he did reasonably well in the 2008 election.

Obama came to office hoping to put an end to the era of red-blue political division and change the terms of American public discourse. Even his extensive post-presidential fanbase doesn't talk about that too much now, because it makes his entire project sound hilarious and doomed, like King Canute trying to hold back the tide. His utter and complete failure to do those things — like all other failures of all other liberal politicians — usually gets blamed on Republican intransigence, entrenched public prejudice or his own lack of Beltway backroom negotiating prowess. (Or just on Joe Lieberman.)

Biographers and political historians will chew on those factors for decades, no doubt. But to suggest that if this or that tactical or strategic decision had been made differently the Obama presidency might have had a different outcome — and a less gruesome aftermath — is to deliberately miss the deeper and more uncomfortable lesson.

Barack Obama was the most charismatic and eloquent political leader most of us will ever see. He won a landslide election (over a widely respected conservative war hero) as the last great defender of liberalism. His presidency failed because he was the last great defender of liberalism — maybe, in retrospect, something like the Mikhail Gorbachev of liberalism —not because Mitch McConnell was mean to him or because Revolutionary War cosplayers terrorized members of Obama's party into pretending they didn't even know him. Or rather, all those things amount to the same thing: Obama believed he could make us believe in the promise of liberalism again, but he couldn't because we don't, and because none of these golden-boy savior-hero types can ever do that. He tried and we tried, and it was a nicer exercise in nostalgia than the one that came afterward. So at least there's that.

Is the Trump 'reinstatement' fanfic actually dangerous, or just hilarious? (Spoiler: Yes)

Mike Lindell, the Minnesota pillow entrepreneur and enthusiastic promoter of election-fraud conspiracy theories, appears to see himself as a crusader for truth and justice, undaunted by the scorn and mockery of those who refuse to take him seriously. (A category that encompasses nearly everyone in politics and the media, including many allies and supporters of Donald Trump.) Nothing about Lindell's performance seems insincere, which is one of the things that makes him stand out in a landscape of near-universal mendacity.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Lindell is probably the proximate source of the torrid fanfic fantasy that Donald Trump will somehow be returned to office in August, through some as-yet-unexplored method of undoing presidential elections because you really, really want to. (Lindell himself has already tried to kick this imaginary can down the road to September, but online true believers heard August, so August it is.) Trump reportedly likes the sound of this, and why wouldn't he? Then again, he also liked the idea of buying Greenland, setting off nuclear bombs inside hurricanes and injecting bleach to kill the coronavirus.

It's disheartening enough, to begin with, that this delusional scenario, evidently whispered into the morose ex-president's ear by a pillow salesman, has produced an entire wave of news stories about what Trump thinks and why he thinks it (an especially barren field of inquiry, suggestive of Nietzsche's maxim about staring into the abyss). I don't really know what term to apply to New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, who launched this idiotic meta-news cycle with a completely unsourced tweet about what Trump supposedly says or believes, but never deigned to write an actual article making this claim. "Bullshit" and "chickenshit" are two words that come to mind.

Now that various Trumpist ghouls, ranging from moonbat ex-general Michael Flynn to seemingly undead attorney Sidney Powell to the booze-addled wombat and self-professed Leninist known as Steve Bannon, have come out as maybe a little bicurious about an extra-constitutional August "reinstatement," we face a larger problem than the sheer stupidity and hopeless Trump addiction of the mainstream media. How seriously do we have to take this? Of course an August reinstatement is preposterous, but it also seemed preposterous that Trump and his allies would seriously try to block the pro forma certification of electoral votes on Jan. 6. Is this just standard-issue Trumpian wish-casting, or an actual attempt to incite or inspire another violent uprising?

I think the only clear answer is that, as usual in TrumpWorld, there is no clear answer: The August fantasy is both fanciful and hopeful, an impossible dream that just maybe can be filled with enough hot air to become a terrifying parade float IRL. How seriously you take the threat is largely a measure of how you evaluate what is being threatened, that being our so-called democracy, which even Joe Biden and the Democrats — after years of aggressively blithe denial — have lately been forced to acknowledge isn't working all that well.

One overlooked but important question that may shed light on this murky narrative is how and why the aforementioned Mike Lindell — who was literally 86'd from the White House in the latter days of the Trump regime, purportedly for proposing a coup attempt that was too extreme for chief of staff Mark Meadows and presidential counsel Pat Cipollone — has worked his way back toward the center of the Trumpian fantasy. On the most basic level, this isn't mysterious: The problem with Lindell, from the point of view of blatantly cynical right-wing operatives like Meadows and Cipollone, is precisely the sincerity and earnestness I mentioned above.

Mike Lindell is a mark. Indeed, he's a high-profile mark, a veritable whale, in one of the biggest con jobs in the long history of American right-wing grift. There's a sucker born every minute, P.T. Barnum supposedly said, but some of them are self-made. Inner-circle Trumpian wise guys like Meadows and Cipollone surely were not averse to staging a pseudo-legalistic coup to overturn the election (as the record makes increasingly clear), but they needed to keep it somewhat within the realm of we're-just-following-the-rules plausible deniability. More to the point, they weren't going to entrust any aspect of planning their coup to a guy from Mankato who got rich (and, honestly, not that rich) running a BOGO pillow scam on the internet, and who they knew for certain was the object of a sustained shakedown by people a lot like them.

Exactly how many millions of Lindell's bedding fortune have been siphoned off to Diamond & Silk, Dinesh D'Souza, "Sheriff" David Clarke and assorted other hustlers, hucksters and self-appointed geniuses from the cobwebbed sub-basement of the pundit-and-consultant class — all of them no doubt assuring him that his great moment of vindication is just over the horizon — is anyone's guess. But if the MyPillow Guy were the tragicomic protagonist of a satirical novel by Sinclair Lewis or Jonathan Franzen — or, let's say, a prestige Netflix series starring Joaquin Phoenix or Christian Bale — by this point in the narrative we'd understand that it wasn't going to end well.

As I observed in an earlier article about "Absolute Proof," his incoherent two-hour "docu-movie" or pseudo-news broadcast or whatever it is, Lindell's most telling delusion is the blithe salesman's confidence that sooner or later we'll all agree with him. He is alternately baffled and reproachful toward the media and the legal system, which have refused to engage with his elaborate and contradictory fables about the myriad ways the 2020 election was corrupted.

That state of affairs, Lindell appears to believe, cannot last. He lost his temper with Salon reporter Zachary Petrizzo last week, but in context that felt more like earned exasperation than outright bile: He cannot understand why Zach (and every other "terrible, horrible" non-OANN journalist who ever talks to him) will not report truthfully on this world-beating story of all time, which Mike himself cannot exactly explain in linear fashion, except to insist that the truth is out there.

Unlike the ex-president he venerates (and virtually everyone around him), Lindell strongly prefers the sunny side of the street. He does not live in a "post-truth" universe where reality is whatever the Leader says it is. He believes in the truth and knows he has seen glimpses of it, and is convinced that at the end of days it will set us all free. Ultimately, he is an optimist, even a utopian (terms that Donald Trump's best friend, if he had one, would never apply to him). That doesn't mean Lindell is not dangerous — quite the opposite, as the history of utopian dreams gone awry ought to make clear. But in politics it effectively renders him an outcast, not to mention an object of pity and scorn to the profoundly cynical Republican political class he is trying to infiltrate.

Consider Lindell's latest indecipherable video collage, published on his website Frank (the one that never quite became a social media platform), which is called "Absolutely 9-0." That refers to his oft-stated belief that once the right evidence is assembled in the right way (presumably by him), we'll all sheepishly admit that we've been had and the Supreme Court will vote unanimously to overturn the 2020 election and return Donald Trump to the White House.

Don't even bother protesting that there's no conceivable legal or constitutional way to accomplish that. As a counterargument, that's roughly equivalent to informing a Santa-believing eight-year-old that the physics of reindeer flight don't make sense. Just stop and ponder the math: Lindell believes, or claims to believe, that in the near future Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor (and of course the other six justices) will accept the inexorable logic of his arguments and vote to "reinstate" the Trump regime. There will be no more partisan division or mutual recrimination. The lion will lie down with the lamb and we who were so very, very wrong about so many things will be humbled and repentant. And generously forgiven, I suspect, in Mike Lindell's imagination.

The only conclusion I can reach here is that as Trump slips further into post-presidential isolation and weirdness — simultaneously the dominant figure in the Republican Party and Old Man Shouting at Cloud — and professional hard men like Meadows and Cipollone drift away to better-paying gigs, zealots and lunatics like Lindell and Michael Flynn (who are very different cases) have clawed their way closer to the exiled prince's throne.

The long-term effects of that mooncalf renaissance are impossible to gauge from here. Trump will not be returned to power in August, and any attempts to make that happen on the far-right fringe — although perhaps extremely unpleasant in the moment — will appear even more benighted and pathetic than Mike Lindell. But another seed has been planted, and whatever sprouts from it will serve to further justify the Republicans' widespread and more or less legal campaign to subvert, undermine and reshape electoral democracy to suit their needs. Trump himself may be rendered increasingly irrelevant, or may stage a comeback even more grotesque than his initial ascension to power. That question, at least arguably, is not all that important.

Either way we have arrived at the situation predicted by sociologist C. Wright Mills more than 60 years ago, when he wrote that "men and women of the mass society," now "driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern," would come to feel themselves "without purpose in an epoch in which they are without power." Mills concluded: "At the end of that road there is totalitarianism." That's the utopian endpoint Mike Lindell longs to wish into being.

MyPillow Mike Lindell's new Trump election fraud movie is an 'incoherent' and 'bizarre' mess

Trying to watch MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell's "Absolute Proof," a two-hour "docu-movie" designed to convince its viewers of what they already believe — that Donald Trump's defeat in the 2020 election was the result of a vast and incoherent conspiracy, or an overlapping set of conspiracies — reminded me of an experience I had once at the Cannes Film Festival. (That isn't a sentence I expected to find myself writing.)

This article first appeared in Salon.

At the premiere of Jean-Luc Godard's "Film Socialisme" some years ago, I found myself sitting next to a prominent British film critic I knew slightly. There's no saving seats for your friends at a Cannes premiere; everybody piles into the ginormous theater in a wild scrum, and you sit wherever you can. If you catch sight of someone you recognize, so much the better. Well, this was late at night and after the lights went down and Godard's hypnotic, non-narrative and deliberately baffling film began, my British acquaintance promptly went to sleep. As far as I could tell, he slept through nearly the entire movie — which is admittedly rough going — so I was especially impressed that he published a review of it the next day. Which was thoughtful and funny!

I didn't fall asleep during "Absolute Proof," I promise. But I'm not going to claim I watched all of it with keenly focused attention. It is simultaneously so bizarre, so boring and so amateurish — without form or depth or any variation in tone, and seemingly endless — that it becomes impossible for a viewer to follow the supposed arguments that Lindell and his interlocutors are making for more than a minute or two at a stretch.

Evidence would suggest that the decision to package "Absolute Proof" as something vaguely resembling a movie, at least in terms of running time, came after the fact. Lindell repeatedly refers to it as a "show" and sometimes as "today's show," and performs both his stream-of-consciousness monologues and rambling interviews from behind a news-anchor type desk bearing the mysterious logo of the "WVW Broadcast Network." (That appears to be a one-man Christian media outfit run by Brannon Howse, who is credited on Lindell's website as co-creator of "Absolute Proof," and should perhaps be considered its director.)

Arguably, "Absolute Proof" has more than a little in common with "Film Socialisme," political orientation aside: It resists all structural and narrative conventions, makes no effort to tell a clear story, contradicts itself and leaps from subject to subject, and could fairly be described as a meditation on what has gone awry in our society. There are jagged mid-interview edits, unexplained fadeouts, occasional surges of faintly troubling soundtrack music and interpolated video essays composed of stock footage: the blinking lights on a broadband modem, the U.S. Capitol at night (dramatic foreshadowing?), someone using an iPad, a stylized spinning globe.

I watched the film on Lindell's website — it hasn't been "censored," but no longer appears on major platforms like Facebook or YouTube, and even on the low-end right-wing cable channel OANN is shown only with a legal preamble essentially warning viewers that none of it is true — and was unable to prevent myself from toggling away sporadically to read email or look up what European soccer games were streaming later or search on Autotrader for cars I'm never going to buy. (I might like to imagine myself as the sort of person who would buy an ultimate Republican-dad car, like a Lincoln SUV, both out of some double-switchback ironic impulse and because I genuinely liked it. But I know I'm not.)

I think cars were on my mind because Lindell has the classic demeanor of a showroom salesman. I don't mean to be insulting. I'm not talking about the odious and slimy salesman who keeps interjecting your first name into his sentences and maneuvers you into buying something you don't want on egregious terms. Lindell is more like the guy who gradually wears you down with relentless Midwestern good cheer and a series of non-sequitur anecdotes until you sign up for the useless $500 service contract just to make it stop.

When Lindell calls out the mainstream media for refusing to pay attention to his grab bag of miscellaneous non-evidence about voter fraud — which is sometimes about small numbers of people in Nevada who allegedly voted when they shouldn't have, and sometimes about a communist coup involving the Chinese government, the FBI and (of course) Dominion Voting Systems — he doesn't get middle-school-girl pissy like Donald Trump or artificially hot under the collar like Ted Cruz. He mostly seems sad and disappointed, but still able to imagine an America where decent people do the right thing.

After chuckling about the fact that suddenly all the journalists who ignored him and treated him like a buffoon want to talk to him — "your CNN, your New York Times, your Worshington Post" — Lindell poses a rhetorical question to our entire profession: "Why dontcha become a real journalist and go, 'Wow,' and take this story and run with it?"

He's fond of the disappointed question, which now that I think of it resembles a sales tactic. ("Andrew, why wouldn't you go ahead and buy that Lincoln and do a good thing for your family? Is it really gonna be about the interest rate?") That's exactly the tone he strikes in a direct address to the former attorney general, lamenting his public announcement that there had been no significant election fraud: "Bill Barr, if you're watching — why would you say something like that?" A few minutes later, he makes a similar inquiry of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, again based on what we must consider the faulty assumption that she is riveted to the screen by this crackpot video hosted by a pillow salesman.

Let's pause here to acknowledge that, out in the real world, Mike Lindell tried to convince Trump to stage an actual, literal coup-d'état in the last days of his presidency, and was apparently 86'd from the White House by chief of staff Mark Meadows and presidential counsel Pat Cipollone, neither of whom is likely to go down in history as a hero of democracy. So, yes, I understand that Mr. MyPillow should be considered, in a certain light, as extremely dangerous.

I'm not arguing that he isn't. If anything, the fact that Lindell comes off on camera as a likable bumbler rather than a sanctimonious dickhead, that he is incapable of following a sentence from beginning to end in comprehensible fashion, and that it's impossible to tell how many of these fractured fairy tales of electoral misconduct he actually believes undoubtedly makes him more dangerous, rather than less. There's been a lot of speculation that maybe Republicans can achieve full-on American fascism by nominating a smarter, smoother and more competent version of Trump, but maybe that's looking at the problem the wrong way around. A dumber, nicer Trump could be a far more effective instrument. Mike Lindell would genuinely feel sorry about some of the things he'd have to do as America's dictator, and he'd want to make clear to us that, for gosh sakes, he didn't hate anyone.

There's no point in trying to detail or debunk the various conspiracy theories floated in "Absolute Proof," which are assembled and delivered in such scattershot fashion that it's clear the audience is already supposed to know the words and sing along. If you're looking for evidence that Lindell isn't quite as big a dope as he appears, and may have his eyes on a prize bigger than his bedding empire, that arrives in the ingenious premise that Trump's electoral defeat — although of course illegitimate — was a blessing in disguise.

So many people showed up to vote for Trump, Lindell tells us, that they "broke the algorithm" — maybe the one inside the Dominion voting machines, maybe the ones in servers in Germany or Italy or Communist Party HQ in Beijing — that was supposed to ensure an easy Biden victory on election night. That led to all the supposed shenanigans by Democrats and their RINO allies (although, again, Lindell isn't given to calling people names) that flipped states Trump had actually won to Biden, which in turn — and at last! — caused true patriotic Americans to sit up and pay attention. As Lindell puts it, "This is the most attack on our country, I'm telling you, ever."

This is of course opposite-world thinking on a world-historical scale, in which the political faction that tried its damndest to overturn a clear election result imagines itself the victim of a fanciful web of interlocking conspiracies to destroy democracy. All of this was providential, however, because it led to — well, to what? To the widespread red-pilling of far-right America, to an unwatchable and probably accidental movie that Jean-Luc Godard might pronounce a work of genius, and perhaps to Mike Lindell's next and greatest sales pitch.

Democracy's dance of death: Trump is gone — kinda. But the crisis is still here

We have recently been told, by ever so many earnest commentators, that the United States faces a dire historic choice between democracy and fascism — or, in the more optimistic reading, has recently faced one and surmounted it, if only just.

This article first appeared on Salon.

If that reflects a desire to make the nation's current predicament — and for that matter the world's — seem like a dramatic struggle at the edge of the abyss, along the lines of World War II, that's understandable. Maybe it's an improvement that the mainstream media abruptly woke up to the dangers of Donald Trump's regime, just as it was leaving office — although the sudden pivot to "Get thee behind me, Satan" after years of pretending that things were more or less normal is more than a little suspicious.

But if we are struggling with someone or something on the cliff's edge, the landscape is shrouded in darkness. We can't see the precipice and we're not quite sure who our opponent is. Or exactly who "we" are. Are we at a dark historical crossroads, marked by intense internal conflict over the nature of what we used to call "Western civilization"? Absolutely. But I'm not sure either of the options we characterize with the terms of art "democracy" and "fascism" has yet revealed its true nature.

What we've seen over the last few weeks, since the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by Trump's supporters, should make clear to all non-hypnotized observers that America's two-party system is locked in a death spiral it seemingly can't escape. Despite the efforts of Mitch McConnell, Liz Cheney and a number of other prominent Republicans, their party is completely unable to free itself from the undertow of an ex-president who was comprehensively defeated, tried to stage an impromptu coup-d'état on the cheap, and lost the Senate majority they thought they had saved from the fire.

(I'm not giving Mitch and Liz any medals for valor, by the way, although they deserve a little credit for being able to think strategically beyond the middle of next week — and for finally dropping the pretense that they don't hate Donald Trump like poison. To be completely fair, Mitt Romney has distinguished himself as a man of principle throughout this period — although, let's face it, he's also kind of a prick.)

Does that make the Republicans a "fascist" party? Honestly, that's giving the shambling zombie shell of the party that once represented old money, hardware store managers and small-town Presbyterian ministers way too much credit. Say what you will about Adolf Hitler — please, people, I know that phrase is an unacceptably dark joke — the guy spent a full decade diligently building a political organization and a mass movement that had a clear set of ideological principles and policy goals. All Donald Trump did was to grasp that the Republican Party was collapsing under the massive weight of its own ideological and political failure, and then stage a hostile takeover built on social-media insults and rage memes borrowed from Fox News and the late Rush Limbaugh, he of the Presidential Medal of Total Domination of All Media, or whatever it's called. Has that raised the national temperature and led to various acts of right-wing violence? Sure, but it's lard-ass couch-surfing fascism, at best, not a genuine mass movement committed to seizing power.

I am 159% not here to tell you that there's no difference between our two political parties, or that the Democratic Party's internal conflict (which is at least about real things, including ideology and generational change) is as bad as the so-called crisis within the not-quite-post-Trump GOP, or even that Joe Biden is a hapless historical nonentity whose presidency will wind up on the rocks sooner or later. None of that's true — well, OK, except possibly the Biden part, but he seems like a good guy on the whole who sincerely wants to patch the gaping holes in the sinking ship, and it's way too early to have any idea how he'll come across in the longer arc of history.

But the Democrats are hilarious, at least if you have an appetite for bleak humor. I'm not just beating up on the "liberals" and "moderates" either, as much fun as that is; the occasional or begrudging Democratic allies on the "left" — which I suppose is more or less where I identify — are also behaving like idiots. Having essentially lucked into control of both houses of Congress and the White House, after an election in which they underperformed across the nation in pretty much every state not starting with "G" (or containing a "Z") the Democrats are doing what they do best: Fine-grained, small-bore and deeply unimpressive reform legislation, internecine battles over issues where the general public wants big policy changes but the party's funders don't, and attempted purges of the left, both coming from the center (which is at least to be expected) but also from the left, some of which has uselessly concluded that the growing progressive caucus in Congress are a bunch of DINO corporate sellouts.

In the near term, this points toward another rebound cycle of dispiriting political defeat: Republicans could easily recapture both the House and Senate in 2022 (although they certainly won't win the most votes nationwide) on an incoherent non-agenda of reheated MAGA rage and conspiracy theory, effectively Trumpism without Trump and QAnon without Q. A brand new gerrymander built on the Trumpified racist wreckage of the 2020 census could once again create a built-in Republican congressional majority that it will take Democrats another several cycles to break down — even assuming that this dysfunctional political system continues to creak along in its familiar pattern, which is definitely not a safe assumption. I don't even want to speculate about the 2024 presidential election, which looks from this distance like one of those game-theory hypotheticals that has no viable solution (mixed with one of those low-budget Italian horror movies in which demons come off the screen and eat the audience).

On a larger scale, though, it's long past time for Americans to face the fact that we're not the only nation in the world that's going through this kind of crisis, and that our locked-in two-party system — which has nothing to do with the Constitution or the law — is itself a massive part of the problem. The bipolar two-party systems that defined most major European democracies during the postwar decades have already collapsed, or been rendered unrecognizable. In France and Italy, the two formerly-major center-left and center-right parties have effectively disappeared. In Britain, the once-socialist Labour Party hasn't won an election, under anyone except neoliberal reformer and George W. Bush lackey Tony Blair, since 1974, while the ruling Conservative Party, under Boris Johnson, has reinvented itself along vaguely Trumpian lines as the party of "Little England" throwback nationalism.

In a non-parliamentary system like ours, where the two parties have deep institutional roots and formidable fundraising power — yet have become increasingly detached from grassroots organizations and their own base voters, not to mention the ability to govern effectively — that kind of "revolution from within," however chaotic and disruptive it may be, apparently isn't possible. We're stuck with this thing we call "democracy," which isn't democratic, while trying to fend off a wave of angry yahoo populism that isn't quite "fascism," but expresses the legitimate anger of a significant proportion of the population in approximately the worst possible way. In game theory, there's always a solution that offers you the best possible chance of survival. That must be true here, I guess. But whatever that solution is, we haven't found it yet.

Trump, the Proud Boys and the Kraken: Is the #EndofDemocracy just a meme — or the real thing?

We're in a period of transition — but transition from what, or to what? Nobody's quite sure. From one president to another, purportedly, but that's the least of it. From a barely functional two-party democracy to some other, choose-your-adventure system of pseudo-democratic, zero-sum partisan warfare? From coup attempt to street conflict and civil war? From a set of vaguely shared political ideals and epistemological assumptions — the famous "democratic norms" — to the total collapse of meaning and language?

Yeah, all of those, or maybe none of them. I would suggest that the crisis of democracy — or what I have previously described as World War IV, an overlapping but larger phenomenon — has entered its decadent or rococo phase. (Can history repeat itself as farce if it was never anything else in the first place?) Comical or fantastical figures like Jenna Ellis, with her Christian-gift-shop degree in constitutional law, or Sidney Powell, the once respected attorney gone deep into discarded plotlines from "Alias," or Michigan voter-fraud testifier Mellissa Carone, who we cannot be sure is not a Kristen Wiig character, or Michael Flynn, the defrocked general turned QAnon-curious wannabe putsch leader, might once have seemed too extreme to be credible. Now they're pretty much normal, and the old-line conservative normies are the weirdos.

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What will American politics be like after Trump? First of all, he's not going away

Over the last couple of weeks, the media caste has been indulging in extensive literary meditation in how and whether we can break our addiction to Donald Trump. "We" in this case is a large category: There's no question that everyone from tabloid-TV talking heads to Ivy-educated columnists has flocked to Trump like ants to a sticky-bun picnic, but also that our readers and viewers have enabled and encouraged us at every step.

When people asked me, during the first year or two of the Trump phenomenon, why Salon didn't simply ignore him, I would mildly reply, "Well, you should see the numbers." It was and remains true that stories about the awfulness of the Trump regime — about its total fascist victory, its impending downfall or anything in between — outperform every other category of reporting, commentary or analysis we can possibly offer. (In fairness, over the past few months recipes and food stories have been doing well too. I wonder why!)

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Trump lost — but did democracy really win?

What unfolded across the United States on Saturday afternoon was breathtaking: an extraordinary explosion of relief and exuberance, not quite like anything else most of us now living have ever seen. While the comparison to V-E Day — which marked the defeat of Hitler and Nazi Germany in May 1945 — may be over the top, the emotional resonance was similar.

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Trump goes nightmare-scenario

None of us have seen a year like 2020 — and now it has finally snapped the tether that seemed to hold it to the realm of reality. After a relatively calm Election Day, leading into a nail-biter evening that left the result very much in doubt, President Trump did exactly what many observers feared he might do, prematurely declaring victory over former vice president Joe Biden, even though millions of votes in several important states remain uncounted.

It was a rambling, incoherent and extraordinary speech even by Trump's standards, delivered in an extraordinary setting — the East Room of the White House, rather than a campaign headquarters at a Washington hotel, as would be traditional for an incumbent president running for re-election. Whether it represents a genuine attempt to subvert democracy or was just an example of "Trump being Trump" and letting off some steam depends on one's perspective. Vice President Mike Pence attempted to assert the latter interpretation, arriving on stage after Trump had concluded and making relatively normal remarks about "the integrity of the vote," while of course praising Trump in fulsome terms and urging him to "make America great again, again."

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Here's why the 2020 election has been so painful

Donald Trump is not the central problem in American politics, and neither is the 2020 presidential election, as dire and urgent as those things seem at the moment. Our real problem is that our democracy is not a democracy, and that many Americans — most of them, I would argue — feel powerless, disenfranchised and despairing, confronted with a dysfunctional system that thrives on massive inequality and serves the interests only of the richest and most powerful. Those systemic problems made Trump's presidency possible in the first place, and created the circumstances that make this election seem like a last-ditch struggle against autocracy.

I'm here to tell you there are signs of real hope — but they have almost nothing to do with the question of who wins next week's election. Don't get me wrong: I'm invested in the outcome too. But I also suspect that in the longer arc of history, it might not matter all that much.

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Trump's performance nears final curtain

If it weren't for the human lives damaged or destroyed by Donald Trump's presidency — the 215,000 or so killed by the coronavirus is only the beginning, of course — the whole insane experience could be understood as a brilliant, confrontational work of performance art. It's a vulgar and moronic performance, to be sure, and one that pushes the audience's willingness to suspend disbelief to its outer limits. But it's also a work of indisputable genius, one that has hypnotized media and public around the world for the better part of five years.

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Is Trump just a performer or a would-be fascist dictator? You're missing the point if you see a contradiction

If it weren't for the human lives damaged or destroyed by Donald Trump's presidency — the 215,000 or so killed by the coronavirus is only the beginning, of course — the whole insane experience could be understood as a brilliant, confrontational work of performance art. It's a vulgar and moronic performance, to be sure, and one that pushes the audience's willingness to suspend disbelief to its outer limits. But it's also a work of indisputable genius, one that has hypnotized media and public around the world for the better part of five years.

Viewed through the dark lens of a fully nihilistic or totalitarian aesthetics, where the work of art transcends all ordinary morality — and if Donald Trump had a theory of aesthetics, that would be it — even the cruelty and recklessness of his performance is an aspect of its brilliance. From the beginning, Trump told us that he could commit murder in public without alienating his supporters. Many of us understood that as a figure of speech. His greatest and most malicious accomplishment in public life (so far) has been to prove, on a grand scale, that it was literally true.

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