Like a Rat in a Trap

Trump is running out of moves.

1. Cornered

Question: When is the last time the sitting president of the United States accused his opponent of using performance-enhancing drugs and demanded that he take a drug test following a debate?

Obviously, the answer is: Never. Because prior to this moment our country has never had a president who was both psychologically and cognitively unbalanced.

But Trump’s bizarre drug-test demand isn’t just a symptom. It’s an indicator of how desperate he is.

Here are the baseline facts as we sit a little more than one month away from Election Day:

  • Biden currently leads Trump by > +7 percent in the national polling average.

  • Trump has never been closer than -3 at any point in the race, and even that margin was brief—just two days in April.

  • Trump’s net approve/disapprove is currently -9. He has been net-negative on this measure since February 3, 2017.

  • Taken together, Trump’s net negative approval rating and trailing of Biden are historic. In the advent of modern polling, no sitting president has ever been this unpopular and this far behind, this consistently, ever.

Trump’s pathway to victory—already very narrow—has continued to shrink.

Consider the shifting theories of victory Team Trump has put forward over the last four years:

  • First, they insisted that they would remake the Republican party and broaden its appeal creating a new, Reagan-like realignment and political majority.

  • At some point following the midterm elections, they abandoned even the pretense of trying to win a majority of the vote in 2020, and placed their faith in the hope of winning an Electoral College majority while holding Biden’s popular vote victory to +3 points.

  • Over the summer the idea of holding Biden to only +3 gave way to the hope that they might get to 270 Electoral Votes even if Biden finished +5.

  • Within the last month, the idea of winning in the Electoral College on election night has, itself, disappeared. The campaign now hopes to be able to use litigation and the courts to manufacture an Electoral College victory after the fact.

This progression of victory scenarios is not what you see from winning campaigns.

As of this weekend it is public that (1) Trump’s tax returns are (at least) politically problematic and (2) He is about to have $300 million in debt mature.

And finally, tomorrow night’s debate with Joe Biden is Trump’s last chance to change the dynamics of the race.

What you have here is a powerful man who is cornered. Who knows that he is cornered. And who knows that we know it, too.

I mention all of this because it suggests to me that the danger for America is increasing, rather than decreasing. The eyewall of this storm has is still out to sea. And it’s bearing down on us.

2. ACB

I’m not quite sure what to say about Amy Coney Barrett. But I have three conflicting thoughts:

(1) This vote should not be happening. I say that not out of any bedrock principle, but as a matter of contingency. Had Merrick Garland been voted on, then bringing the ACB nomination forward would be fine.

And had the Merrick Garland incident taken place 40 years ago, rather than 4 years ago, I’d be less exercised.

Because when there are no hard-and-fast rules, then prudence is supposed to be our guide. Bringing this nomination forward is an imprudent course of action that, in the long run, has a good chance to harm America, the institution of the Supreme Court, and Amy Coney Barrett herself.

All three of them deserve better.

(2) I like ACB a great deal and I think everyone in America ought to like her, too. Let me explain.

You should not judge Supreme Court nominees on their judicial philosophies. If you do that, then you are always going to think that nominees from your “side” are good and that nominees from the other “side” are bad.

But that’s not the way the world works: Both sides get to put people on the court. The idea is that, over time, the yin and yang between the originalists and progressives creates a useful synthesis.

My contention is that you should judge nominees on two vectors: Intelligence and temperament.

The first thing you want out of a justice is insane levels of intellectual horsepower. And the second is temperament. You want a justice who is prudent, cautious, open-minded, collegial, honest, and fair.

If you judge along those two lines, you can love both Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. You can love both Sam Alito and Elena Kagan. Because these justices were best-in-class intellects married to the kind of wise and good-faith temperaments we hope for.

And judging along those lines, Amy Coney Barrett fits the bill.

Not everyone does. Brett Kavanaugh was more of a political climber, box-checking his way through Republican legal circles, than a great legal mind. And his temperament—at least as on display in his confirmation hearings—seemed sub-optimal. I spent the entirety of the Kavanaugh saga plaintively asking conservatives, “Why are you going to the mattresses for this guy? Why not just pull the nomination and get Amy Coney Barrett on the Court? She’s the best available player!”

Harriet Miers was another underwhelming nominee. (No one ever accused her of being the smartest gal in the room.)

And Anthony Kennedy—good Lord, Anthony Kennedy. The idea that the swing vote in the Supreme Court for a generation was a guy whose judgment depended on what he had for breakfast in the morning?

No. Not optimal.

So if you like her legal philosophy, then you’ll like Amy Coney Barrett. But if you don’t like her legal philosophy, you should like her, too. She is the kind of mind we hope for on the High Court.

(3) But finally there’s this: Should ACB have accepted the nomination in these circumstances?

And I just don’t know.

Let’s stipulate that it’s a judgment call and you can understand both sides.

The “no” side is easy: This is a corrupt process. It is going to create dissension and enmity. The president making the nomination is a uniquely corrupt figure. By agreeing to accept the nomination, ACB has willingly allowed herself to become his political prop for the next month.

Should we wind up in an actual constitutional crisis following the election, ACB will have been part of the road that brought us to it.

But the “yes” side is also easy: She has a lot of value to add to the Court. It’s a chance to serve her country. If she declined the nomination, it would have gone to someone less talented.

For all I know, ACB looks at the potential for a constitutional crisis and thinks that, by being on the Court, she can be a force for good in rescuing the country.

And then there’s just the human and professional dimension: For anyone who went to law school, getting to the SCOTUS is the absolute pinnacle. She’s spent more than half her life in this profession. It’s like asking Mike Trout not to play in the World Series.

Or maybe the better analogy is: It’s like asking an elite runner who is favored to win gold not to go to an Olympics that her country ought to be boycotting, but isn’t.

In other words: This, too, is a prudential question. But unlike the question of moving forward with the nomination, this one doesn’t have a clear-cut answer.

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3. Giant

This old GQ piece about the tallest man in the world was interesting and sweet and heartbreaking, all at once:

The giant was reported to be 33 years old, residing in a small village with no plumbing in a very poor region of the Ukraine. He lived with his mother and sister, who happened to be tiny. How he'd gotten so huge wasn't entirely known, because the giant wasn't interested in seeing doctors anymore. Something inside of him had been broken or left open, like a faucet, pulsing out hormones as if his body presumed that it still belonged to that of a proliferating pubescent boy. This apparently was the result of an operation he'd had as a child. Under the knife that saved him from a blood clot in his brain, his pituitary gland had been nicked. Now he was over eight feet tall—and still growing.

In the article, the giant was pictured sitting at his small dining-room table, reaching up to change a lightbulb at a height that a normal-size person couldn't have reached standing. Another picture captured the giant in an unguarded moment, staring in astonishment at his hand, as if he'd just picked an exotic, oversize starfish from a coral reef. Near the end of the article, he said something that killed me. He said that his happiest hours were spent in his garden because only the apples and beets don't care what size you are. . . .

In the days leading up to my visit, I'd done some research. Being big—the kind of big that happened in the one foot of stratosphere above the seven-foot-six Yao Mings of the world and was the province of only an elite group of giants—was both physically and psychologically traumatic. Problems ranged from crippling arthritis to lost vision, severe headaches to sleep apnea, tumors to impotence. Many giants simply could not be supported by their enlarged hearts. To find one alive past 50 was a rarity; 40 was an accomplishment. And many ended up living alone, on the margins of society, their only claim to fame being their height. There were Web sites devoted to tracking these people the way stocks are tracked: Hussain Bisad, a man from Somalia, was reported to be seven feet nine inches tall. Ring Kuot, a 15-year-old Sudanese boy, was rumored to be eight feet three. And until Leonid's emergence at eight feet four inches last spring, people generally assumed that Radhouane Charbib of Tunisia, at seven feet nine, was the tallest documented man in the world. Which was fine with Leonid, because he didn't want the title. To have it meant that it was only a matter of time before his body betrayed him. It meant an early death. It might be next year, it might be ten years from now, but the clocks in the house were echoing.

Leonid passed away in 2014. A big man, with a big heart. Read the whole thing.