The Realistic Nightmare Scenario

Threat level: Yellow.

Hey y’all—It’s Tim Miller with the weekend bonus Triad, coming at you as long as it seems like we are in an emergency serious enough to require working on a Saturday night. 

All the despair of JVL’s Triad, without the OCD dishwasher content. 

1. A Realistic Nightmare Part Uno 

I’ve been playing an uncomfortable and unusual role as the resident Bulwark non-catastophizing optimist of late. This has been predicated mostly on my strong prior that we live in “stupid Belarus” not actual Belarus and that, were he to lose, Donald Trump would be too big of a man baby to do much about it other than send all caps tweets like SLEEPY ANTIFA’ JOE RIGGED THE ELECTION.

While I haven’t been shaken in the view that this is our likeliest outcome should President Trump be defeated, there were a few things in the past week that have forced me to raise my personal threat level to yellow (elevated).  

Beginning with a compelling case from fellow substacker Andrew Sullivan who is 3 slots ahead of us on the subscriber leaderboard, not that I’m counting, but if I were and you haven’t I would suggest that you subscribe here, on the matter of the unserious tyrant. 

What I think this otherwise salient critique misses is that tyranny is not, in its essence, about the authoritarian and administrative skills required to run a country effectively for a long time. Tyrants, after all, are often terrible at this...It requires no expertise in anything other than itself. You need competence if you want to run an effective government, or plan a regular campaign, or master policy with a view to persuading people, or hold power for the sake of something else. You need competence to create and sustain something. But you do not need much competence to destroy things...This is Trump’s threat. Not the construction of a viable one-party state, but the destruction of practices, norms, civility, laws, customs and procedures that constitute liberal democracy’s non-zero-sum genius. 

You can read it all here and his point is assuredly true. It’s true even in the event that we never encounter a constitutional crisis resulting from a contested election. It’s true in the event that Trump loses in a landslide. By simply corrupting the mind of the polity, removing their desire to sustain the fragile balance of our democratic system, and destroying the credibility of the politicians who encounter his touch, Trump’s tyranny is in the wrecked democratic republic that is left in his wake. 

But this wasn’t the possibility that most disturbed me.

2. A Realistic Nightmare Part Deux 

The nightmare scenario beyond this baseline disaster was laid out in a conversation with the great Ron Brownstein, political analyst for the Atlantic and CNN. He painted a picture of a contested election that, for the first time, made me seriously consider the prospect that we could have two people claiming the mantle of the presidency next January. 

It is predicated on competing slates of electors premised on a disputed or delayed vote count in one or more key states. 

Take Pennsylvania, which is already ringing alarm bells about a possible “naked ballot” controversy, in which 100,000 votes may be discounted over an absolutely absurd technicality in which the voter mails in their ballot in one envelope rather than two. The ruling was the result of a Republican National Committee lawsuit aimed at suppressing the vote count. Democrats are urging the Republican state legislature to amend this rule, but this seems unlikely. 

So if you get into a situation in a state like Pennsylvania where the count is in question and is tied up in court, a Republican state legislature could designate Trump’s elector slate, a right granted them in Article II of the Constitution. Such a suggestion was already floated by Republican officials in Pennsylvania and the Trump campaign to The Atlantic

Which brings us to Brownstein’s vision board of constitutional torment

A worst-case scenario: A state with a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature could submit competing slates of electors for the final vote. That’s hypothetically possible in the three key Rust Belt battlegrounds of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, as well as North Carolina...If this were to happen, Congress—specifically the new Congress chosen in the November election—would decide on January 6 which electors to accept, using the procedures laid out in the Electoral Count Act of 1887. The problem now? The counting act is a mess—“just a morass of convoluted verbiage from the 19th century,” says Edward B. Foley, an election-law expert at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. 

The Count Act! Oh goody. 

When I asked Brownstein about this he said, “the most common reading gives Democrats the high ground because if the house/senate disagree on which electors to seat the tie goes to the slate chosen by the governor which would be the Democrat in PA/NC (though not FL/AZ). That theoretically could be disputed and taken to a Trumpified SCOTUS. But if there's a standoff on which electors to accept, most believe Pelosi eventually becomes president.” 

I don’t know about you, but the prospect of a disputed vote count resulting in a stalemate between Trump claiming that he has won the election and Pelosi claiming she should ascend to the presidency while a slew of newfound Count Act experts descend on Twitter just hit different than the other worst-case scenarios I’ve seen. 

And given the plague and the fires and that both my sports teams lost yesterday I’m experiencing some heavy foreboding over such a worst-case scenario. 

Speaking of which...

3. Sport Fandom Amidst the Pandemic 

I’ve always enjoyed watching and dissecting sports despite never being very good at competing in them. I remember being on the receiving end of a jock’s cruel 9th grade put down on this point, after I had finished nerdily dissecting the box score of some long forgotten game after class (I think it was English, I can remember the room, weird how that is). His dig stung as digs that are true tend to, but it also lingered as I began to wonder why I was the way I was. Why I liked what I liked. 

It’s logical to like sports for the competition. To want to challenge yourself. To best a foe. Sports as war or as a battle of egos makes sense. But the fan experience is sometimes harder to explain. 

Why do we find ourselves emotionally tied to the athletic performance of someone else. A person that we’ve come to root for out of happenstance. Because they happened to land on a team from our town or our school? 

Is it out of some tribal instinct that we evolved dating back to homo habilis? From the desire to see your fellow man achieve athletic heights? I guess. Though, that doesn’t really explain why some sports bore and others captivate. A pole vault record isn’t fundamentally, by its nature, any more or less impressive than a home run, but you don’t see a ton of people in the stands screaming and swearing at Mondo

Decades later I have never fully answered the question. Some of it makes sense. It’s part nostalgia, part escape, part desire, part tribalism, part pure entertainment. Maybe Will Leitch or someone at The Ringer can give a more complete or satisfying answer, this isn’t my bag, after-all.  

But there’s one thing I’ve learned for certain since I began being self-conscious about all this. It’s that fandom carries with it a greater emotional valence when it’s shared. 

It’s why so many schlocky books have been written about dads and sons and baseball. Sports can be the only thing that can bridge a generational gap or a relationship scarred by life’s mistakes. It’s a way to share vulnerability, that doesn’t necessarily open those other wounds. 

It’s why big time college sports carry an intensity that just isn’t matched by their professional counterparts. A Carolina grad is never gonna cry over the Hornets the way they do the Heels. College sports is something that you share with the friends that you made in your formative years. You are rooting for your team but also regenerating those bonds. 

At least that’s how I explain why, in my late 30s, the teams that I still care about the most have less to do with the make-up of the players, than the make-up of the fellow fans. 

The Denver Nuggets, through whom I’ve toiled in fandom with my fanatic brother, finished an amazing, enchanting, unforgettable run through the NBA bubble last night that will make me an unrequited Jamal Murray fan girl for life. And yet when I voice messaged my brother last week, back when it seemed there was an outside chance that this might be the year where the chips fall into place, part of us was almost rooting for it not to be the year. After decades of waiting, the thought of celebrating a championship apart, via zoom seemed...wrong. On top of that we had a sense that some undefined others, some podcasters or commentators or historic decision makers, somewhere out there, would consider it illegitimate, and thus make it so. 

This ennui was even sharper when it came to the so-called “student athletes.”  I went to college at GW. We didn’t have a football team. Some of my best friends were from Baton Rouge. So every year we went to an LSU game together. I don’t have any other reason to be an LSU fan than that. But 20 years later, after a couple dozen memorable trips and roller coaster games, and seasons texting with one another, it has become part of the rhythm of my life. It’s a way to stay connected with my oldest friends. Our football text chain devolves into music and jokes and life updates. Babies are announced there now (welcome to the world, Van). 

And when we all get together, it’s the best damn game day experience in the world. Literally. We’ve brought friends the world over to Death Valley and never heard an objection to the claim. I’ve sealed new friendships there, turning people with no connection to the university whatsoever into whiskey soaked screaming fanatics.

Yet yesterday the Tigers took the field in a pantheon of concrete and steel that was 80% empty. No cannon blasts. No gumbo of humanity. No tailgating. An Uncanny Valley with cardboard cutouts in the stands. 

It just . . . wasn’t the same. 

Yes watching kids who are at the highest athletic level compete is still fun. Yes I still wanted them to win. But in the end it felt kind of melancholy . . . and forced. 

It wasn’t an escape so much as a reminder of what we are missing. A reminder that for the first time since... I literally can’t remember . . . maybe 2007?..I won’t be flying south this Autumn to be with my friends. A reminder that I won’t be able to have the “romantic, illusory idea” that my pals are doing it for me, as the great Katherine Miller wrote in her wonderful essay on our pandemic fall. A reminder that these kids are risking their health and playing for free in a season without even the payoff that comes from the roar of the crowd. 

That it’s all happening in a season that feels somewhat illegitimate because of this undefined sense that its legitimacy is bestowed by all of us being there to experience it, as silly as that seems. 

So yes, sport is still happening, but our attachment to it is just, somewhat severed, hanging on by the thread of an imagined future where we will still cheer on {hopefully} these same players, when we are able to be back with them, like “normal.” When as fans we’re able to both elevate those competing and be elevated by them through a shared communion. 

When we’ll be able to be reminded more fully why it is that we do this.  

See y’all next Sunday and Geaux Tigers.