Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.


Get a weekly update in your email

U.S. Politics

Border Patrol’s “Green Line” flag

Both of these photos appeared on social media yesterday. Can’t the U.S. Border Patrol just use a regular American flag at its events, instead of this “green line” flag? At least when involving children?

I understand that the design is meant to honor fallen agents. But it also portrays Border Patrol as a line of defense protecting “good” people from “others.” Who is implied to be on the other side of that line?

Several days after January 6, 2021, I wrote about why I’m uncomfortable with the pro-police “Blue Line” flag, which appeared often that day even as rioters attacked police at the Capitol.

Remarkable election

If you ask me “are the Democrats likely to hold the House of Representatives majority,” I’d probably say “no” but it’s far, far from impossible. They’re not that far at all from reaching the necessary 218 votes. A lot seems to depend on California mail-in ballots that won’t be counted for a while.

Good graphical representation here:

Deeply unfortunate

He may do good elsewhere, but future histories of Joe Biden’s human rights record will begin with this photo.


From the Texas Tribune.

This week, as the governor of Texas (whose re-election this year is not a lock) announced he’d use state funds for a border wall, I noticed something about its statewide officeholders.

  • Texas’s governor is a white guy named Greg.
  • Its lieutenant-governor and Senate president is a white guy named Dan.
  • Its attorney general is a white guy named Ken.
  • Its House speaker is a white guy named Dade.
  • Its Supreme Court’s chief justice is a white guy named Nathan.
  • Its director of public safety is a white guy named Steve.
  • Its agriculture commissioner is a white guy named Sid.
  • Its senators are a white guy named John and a Latino guy named Ted (who is hardly a champion of inclusion).

You’d never know that Texas is the second most diverse of the 50 United States, according to a 2020 study, and that like everywhere else, about half of Texans are women.

What happened in the United States, and the danger of politicized security forces

Here’s the original English text of an article I contributed to Fonte Segura, a newsletter produced by Brazil’s Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública and Analítica Comunicação. It offers some warnings and lessons, for Brazil and elsewhere, from the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. It borrows a few sentences of language from my January 11 e-mail newsletter update, but is otherwise original material.

On the afternoon of January 6, as television images showed a mob of Donald Trump’s supporters entering and ransacking the U.S. Capitol building, my first thought—the first thought of many Americans—was: where are the security forces?

A thin line of U.S. Capitol Police (the force that protects the installations of the U.S. Congress), not outfitted for crowd control, was quickly overwhelmed. For far too long—hours—a few hundred Washington, DC city police were the only other law enforcement personnel to arrive on the scene.

The United States has been rigorously preparing and drilling its law enforcement forces to deal with attacks and disturbances since September 11, 2001. Off-the-shelf interagency plans exist. Tens of billions have been spent on new capabilities to protect federal government facilities and monuments. Displays of force and caution are so common that the term “security theater” is now part of the American vernacular. We all saw, in response to the June 2020 racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd, the remarkable and intimidating capability that U.S. law enforcement, both local and federal, can muster. In one night in Washington—June 1, 2020—police arrested 289 mostly peaceful “Black Lives Matter” protesters.

On January 6, though, when the protesters were mostly white and egged on by a sitting president, the deployment was far smaller, and agents were not initially equipped with riot gear. Capitol Police arrested only 13 people during the day of the rampage; Washington municipal police arrested 69 more.

The U.S. Congress’s Capitol Police force had seemed formidable. Though it only protects a neighborhood-sized area, its force of 2,000 officers has a half-billion-dollar budget, greater than that of the armed forces of Guatemala. They give an impression of being a thorough force that controls its territory on a micro level, known for scolding tourists for minor transgressions and arresting peaceful protesters, while mobilizing quickly when a threat arises.

But the force fell apart rapidly and spectacularly on January 6, and investigators are trying to figure out why. Clearly, a small but not insignificant number of Capitol Police officers shared sympathies with the pro-Trump rioters and were complicit, allowing them to enter the Capitol grounds and posing for selfies.

That’s of huge concern, and must be punished to the maximum criminal penalty. But the complicity of some doesn’t explain the failure: some Capitol police performed heroically to stop or divert the rioters. One died and more than 50 were injured.

The more urgent unanswered question is why the force received so little backup, so slowly, from a presidential administration that has been quick to contain other recent protests by deploying border agents, DEA agents, Bureau of Prisons personnel, and Army National Guardsmen. Barricaded in rooms with the mob just outside, congressional leaders and even Vice President Pence (who had been presiding the Senate) were calling urgently for help. Why did it take hours to come?

We now know that President Trump spent those hours glued to the television, appearing delighted at the spectacle and unwilling to call in security. Capitol security leadership and the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security and Defense have spent days engaging in finger-pointing, blaming each other for not responding, or for not making requests “the right way.” But the message the delay left is clear. Federal security forces’ management—and especially the Trump appointees at Homeland Security and Defense who were in charge of anticipating this situation, preparing, and calling for National Guard and other backup—either felt affinity with the rioters’ cause or are stunningly incompetent.

The United States’ legislative branch doesn’t have its own army. It just has the unexpectedly weak Capitol Police. It must depend on the executive branch for protection. We never realized before that this dependency was dangerous. January 6 shows how important that norm is. Ignore it—leave another branch of government vulnerable to mob attack—and everything falls apart if there’s no accountability. That’s why we obey democratic norms: because if we don’t, then nothing matters. We plunge into the abyss.

In the United States, for now at least, the norms have held. Congress made Joe Biden’s election victory official. The U.S. military remained loyal to the constitution, even as some in law enforcement seemed more loyal to the president. Donald Trump is now being impeached, even as he leaves office, for his role in enabling the January 6 insurrection—and the high-level delay in calling for more security will certainly be considered during his Senate trial.

The non-response to the mob attack on the Capitol shows the danger of politicized security forces. Nearly everywhere in the world, security force memberships tend to be conservative men with strong social biases. How to keep them apolitical while on the job, from being instrumentalized by an authoritarian leader, is a common challenge.

It means de-politicizing our law enforcement agencies. This starts by removing commanders and officials who are more loyal to a political leader than to the constitution.

It also means returning to an ethic of service, actively fighting against an encroaching “us versus them” mentality. Too often, officers view themselves as a “thin blue line” guarding against an entire sector of society. As the wildly uneven response to recent U.S. protests indicates, that sector to be guarded against tends to be racial minorities and people who hold left-of-center political views. In the United States, those who hold this “thin blue line” view even have a flag depicting it. This is toxic.

Brazil is in a similar situation. It, too, has an authoritarian populist president who heaps praise on, and seeks to instrumentalize, the security forces. The country’s 2022 election promises to be very close. When it happens, Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters’ tendency to deny reality could lead them, like Trump, to dispute the result of the voting. If something like that happens, what role will Brazil’s security forces play?

Authoritarian populist leaders have been gaining ground worldwide, and there are very few examples of one being defeated in an election before he could consolidate his dominion over institutions. The United States, though, is doing it. It’s not pretty—January 6 could hardly be uglier—but democratic institutions are holding. As one of the world’s very few “post-populist” democracies, the United States could end up being an even stronger example of functioning democracy than before.

There is much work to do, especially with our law enforcement agencies. But if the United States succeeds, it will hold up a light for countries, like Brazil, that remain under the the spell of 21st century “post-truth” elected authoritarians.

Can we talk about this flag?

I first saw a “thin blue line” flag in person in 2016 or 2017, on a drive through rural Virginia. It was flying outside someone’s home.

Since then, though, I keep seeing it—we all keep seeing it—in places where it really shouldn’t be.

It’s very popular with law enforcement, and with people who claim to support law enforcement. But it worries me. Its design, and the way it’s being instrumentalized, point toward one of the darker, more divisive paths that the United States might follow from here, if we don’t change course.

The flag’s origins are noble: a symbol to pay tribute to police personnel who died in the line of duty. But imagery gets perverted quickly, especially in this very online era.

Pepe the Frog was just a comic character. The Punisher was a Marvel antihero. Both of their creators have since voiced horror at what each has come to represent. The same is happening to this flag design, even as police associations and conservative politicians embrace it.

The problem isn’t whether it’s an emblem of white supremacy, although it sometimes gets used that way. It’s a more fundamental problem with the design. It evokes division, separateness, a country coming apart.

Take a close look:

First, the celebratory red, white, and blue are replaced by somber, forbidding black and white. That’s fitting if the goal is to commemorate fallen officers: it’s solemn and funereal. But it also gives the design a dark, menacing simplicity. The sort of thing set designers would use in a fantasy movie with fascist badguys, like The Last Jedi or V for Vendetta.

Second, though, and far more troubling, is that blue line. “The stars represent the citizenry who stand for justice and order,” reads a site tailored for police, the first Google result for “thin blue line flag.” “The darkness,” it continues, “represents chaos and anarchy.”

This is how many police see themselves, and where the phrase “thin blue line” comes from: a human barrier protecting “good” people from the others.

You can guess the danger, though, can’t you? Who gets to decide who the “good” citizens are? Who gets to be north of the flag’s blue line, with the orderly stars, and who is south of the line, to be kept out and pushed away? And in any case, why slash a dividing line across a flag, the ultimate symbol of national unity?

At the local level, line-drawing is bad policing. Police should be part of a community, and that community’s members—of all races and backgrounds—should feel comfortable working with their local police. A community is secure only when the line is very blurred.

At the national level, to draw a line separating people in a polarized country, between “us” and “them,” is toxic. Right now, “us and them” is the language of the day, voiced at every Trump rally and throughout social media. In unequal societies of Latin America where I’ve worked for years, you sometimes hear of “la gente de bien” and “los sectores populares.” Same thing: a line dividing us and them. It doesn’t work there, either.

Who is on the other side of that line? Because this flag started showing up as a retort to the first Black Lives Matter protests against police killings—during the Ferguson/Colin Kaepernick moment—Black Americans can be excused for thinking that it is they who are the undesirables on the other side of that line. The flag’s appearance at white supremacist gatherings reinforces that.

So can people with left-of-center political views, those who want to expand rights and rein in unbridled capitalism. Donald Trump and other extreme GOP candidates appropriated this image and indelibly associated it with their election campaigns. Those of all races, ethnicities, sexual preferences, and belief systems who don’t belong to what Trump supporters consider to be the “real” America are excused for thinking that they, too, are included among the undesirables south of that blue line.

We’re not going to make it if our society persists in drawing lines between us, glorifying them with flags, and guarding them with armed force. This is how you sleepwalk into an armed conflict.

Police have a very hard job, not least because we ask them to do too many things that they’re not trained or prepared to do. Some, like Capitol Policeman Brian Sicknick, pay the highest price. All Americans should want police to have a professional career path, a dignified income, the esteem of the population, and the accountability that makes that possible.

All Americans should feel pain when a law enforcement professional dies on the job. And it makes sense to have a flag to commemorate it.

But not this one. It’s time for a new design.

A walk around downtown Washington on the eve of inauguration

We live close to downtown Washington, the weather was cool but sunny, and my family and I finally had a few hours off. We took a walk to see what our city looks like, 10 days after the riot at the Capitol and 4 days before the presidential inauguration.

Stars and Stripes reporter Bob Reid put it well on Twitter. The city’s center doesn’t quite look like a war zone. Instead, “it looks more like a Cold War frontier zone in the ‘70s. Empty streets, barriers, bored armed troops.”

About half a mile from Pennsylvania Avenue, you walk past the first security perimeter, where National Guard Humvees or dump trucks are parked, along with arrays of jersey barriers, to block vehicles. A block or so before Pennsylvania Avenue, you hit the next ring of security, where pedestrians like us wait in line to be searched, then let in. From there, you can go all the way up to the metal fencing that blocks access to the National Mall and everything about 1,000 yards from the Capitol.

From The Washington Post. Home is several blocks off this map’s northern edge.

Here are some photos of what we saw. It’s grim. We’re so much worse off than we were four years ago.

And may I emphasize: f*** every one of my fellow Americans who has made this happen to my city and my country. You can all go straight to hell.

Click on each photo for full resolution. Like everything else on my site, these photos are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Yours to share and adapt, just give credit.

National Guard at the outer perimeter, 4th and H Streets and Massachusetts Avenue.
The outer perimeter at 7th and I Streets NW.
7th and I Streets, Mount Vernon Square.
Boarding up the Walgreen’s at 7th and H Streets NW.
The National Archives are inside the second security perimeter. Only people who’ve been searched can get there.
Pennsylvania Avenue is almost totally empty.
Even the glass I.M. Pei pyramids outside the National Gallery of Art are boarded up. This measure was not taken at any previous inauguration, nor during the Women’s Marches, the Black Lives Matter marches, the March for Our Lives, the March for Science, or any other recent peaceful demonstration. I hate this so much.
This is usually the inaugural parade route. No bleachers on the sidewalks this year.
A remnant of January 6th.
This is as close as you can get to the Capitol today.
Humvee at the inner perimeter.
National Guardsmen.
Guardsmen are carrying M4 rifles with the magazines stowed in pouches on their vests.
Rifles and a pizza box on Constitution Avenue at 3rd Street.
These wanted notices, with faces captured from videos of the Capitol riot, are on most bus shelters.

Weekly e-mail update: reason for optimism

Here’s a 600-word introduction I wrote to open my most recent e-mail newsletter. That edition also includes a collection of things I posted here over the past week—Colombia and Border updates, selected links—plus a collection of tweets that made me laugh.

Here’s the page with past editions, and a blank to add your e-mail address if you want these more-or-less weekly missives in your inbox.

The last thing you want to read is another take on the horror that took place 1.5 miles from my house last Wednesday. I’ll make mine quick, and it may surprise you. I’m feeling optimistic.

All around the world, illiberal elected leaders—”authoritarian populists”—are dismantling democratic institutions and persuading millions to live in their alternate truth-free realities. Look around, and it’s hard to find an example of one of these leaders being defeated at the ballot box before he could consolidate his dominion over institutions. (Ecuador? The Gambia? Sort of.) As checks and balances crumble and lies proliferate, nobody seems to know what to do. Neither street protests nor recall votes nor comprehensive fact-checking dislodge or even affect the popularity of the world’s Orbans, Dutertes, Modis, Maduros, Putins, Erdogans, Bolsonaros.

In the United States, though, we’re doing it. It’s working. Our authoritarian populist is out in nine days, maybe less. Congress reconvened amid smashed glass and after 3:00AM, despite Republican dead-enders’ cynical efforts, it confirmed the truth that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won.

Getting rid of an authoritarian populist is really freaking hard. Here in America, we’re not doing it at all gracefully. It’s so ugly. Wednesday was as ugly as we’ve seen in our national politics in generations. But we’re doing it. It’s working.

Right now, the U.S. brand as “example of democracy for the world” is garbage. But if we can come back from this—if our battered institutions can peacefully break the authoritarians’ back and re-cage our historic demon, racism—then the United States will be an even stronger example than before. It will hold up a light for countries unable to break the spell of 21st century post-truth authoritarian populism.

We’re not out of the woods. The 2022 miderms and the 2024 presidential elections could go badly. There’s just a narrow window open for the majority of Americans who at least somewhat value truth and reason. By forcing everyone to stare consequences in the face, last Wednesday opened that window further. The outcome in Georgia on Tuesday—more reason for optimism!—opens it still further. But there’s a lot of work ahead in the next two to four years.

And as Wednesday made plain, a lot of that work involves our security forces. 

Our legislative branch doesn’t have its own army. It just has the unexpectedly weak Capitol Police. It must depend on the executive branch for protection. We never realized before that this dependency was dangerous. Wednesday’s insurrection shows how important that norm is. There must be accountability for violating it.

The non-response to the mob attack on the Capitol shows the danger of politicized security forces. Some Capitol Police were amazingly brave, and at least one paid the ultimate price. But others appeared to be sympathetic with the rioters. Their small numbers and lack of backup sent a strong message too. The force’s management—and especially the Trump appointees at DHS and DOD who were in charge of anticipating this situation, preparing, and calling for National Guard backup—either felt affinity with the rioters’ cause or are stunningly incompetent. This is utterly inviable. It must never happen again.

Nearly everywhere in the world, security forces tend to be made up of conservative men with strong social biases. How to keep them from being instrumentalized by an authoritarian leader is a common challenge. If the United States is going to be a “democratic example” again, we need to show we’re up to that challenge. That means de-politicizing our law enforcement agencies right away, starting with the highest levels of their chain of command.

The big story from yesterday

I’ve worked on defense and security in Latin America for a long time, which colored my view of what happened in the Capitol yesterday.

As soon as we all saw rioters start calmly parading through the Capitol, I was immediately struck by our security forces’ slow and tolerant response. Starting with some of the Capitol Police (though others performed bravely), and continuing with the incredible lack of backup they received.

20 years after 9/11, of course the Capitol Police and other authorities have the resources, and off-the-shelf plans, for dealing with a situation just like this in a professional, efficient, rights-respecting way. I’m sure they’ve had drills and exercises. Why were those plans plainly ignored? Why did it all fall apart for a group of only a couple thousand people maximum?

Anybody who has paid attention to Latin America knows what a dangerous politicization of security forces looks like. We also saw it—in the other direction—with federal law enforcement in Portland and at Washington’s BLM protests.

Some cops at the Capitol yesterday seem to have felt some kinship with the pro-Trump mob, and treated them way differently than they do peaceful Trump critics and people of color. And their management was plainly politicized in its failure to prepare for a contingency we all saw coming, and its subsequent failure to rush help to the scene.

You don’t get to ransack the Capitol for hours, then calmly walk away, unless law enforcement and its command share your views. What we saw yesterday was tacit approval of the rioters. Full stop.

Let’s stare that directly in the face, then do our best after January 20 to get it investigated, punished, and reformed so it never happens again. Let’s find out if that’s even possible to do in America in 2021.

This non-response looked familiar to anyone who has studied Latin America’s militaries and police during times of transition to and from democracy. To me, it was the big story of yesterday, and it’s terrifying.

No institutions, no coup

A lot of people in my inboxes are worried that Donald Trump and his allies in the Republican Party may yet succeed in bringing about what Mike Pompeo called “a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.” There is now a boomlet of news analyses explaining how unlikely that is—although, frustratingly, it can’t be absolutely, completely ruled out.

Still, Joe Biden sure does seem calm. What the President-Elect knows, and what isn’t getting enough attention, is that major institutions are not supporting Trump’s denial of the election result. And there’s little Trump can do without the backing of major institutions.

Trump obviously doesn’t have the mainstream media, as all major outlets have called the election for Biden. He is even losing Fox News (with the exception of its primetime talking heads), to such an extent that he felt compelled to send out a sad stream of tweets today urging his followers to watch alternate, further right-wing networks.

Trump doesn’t have the business sector, which wishes to move on. CNN compiled statements from business associations and financial titans—Citigroup, Chase, BlackRock, the American Bankers Association, and others—dismissing Trump’s claims.

“For most investors, the perspective is that the election has been settled,” Tobias Levkovich, Citigroup’s chief US equity strategist, told CNN Business. “Providing evidence of shenanigans and irregularities is required in a court of law. And I haven’t seen any.”

The stock market indices, meanwhile, went up last week when the vote count started pointing toward Biden.

Trump doesn’t have the federal bureaucracy, whether the mid-level management he derides as “the deep state” or the civil service whose protections he is now seeking to weaken. Look no further than today’s statement from the Homeland Security Department’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency that “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history,” and that “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”

Trump doesn’t have the Catholic Church. Pope Francis was quick to recognize Joe Biden, as was the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Trump doesn’t have most U.S. allies. Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Israel, and many others have congratulated Biden. Brazil, Mexico, China, and Russia are still holding out.

Very notably, Trump doesn’t have the U.S. armed forces. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley gave a very pointed statement today:

“We are unique among militaries. We do not take an oath to a king or a queen, a tyrant or a dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual. No, we do not take an oath to a country, a tribe or religion. We take an oath to the Constitution. And every soldier that is represented in this museum, every sailor, airman, Marine, Coast Guardsman, each of us will protect and defend that document, regardless of personal price,” Milley said during remarks at the opening of the US Army’s museum.

There is no reason to doubt that the U.S. intelligence community, which Trump often disparages, shares similar loyalties.

With that many institutions arrayed against his bid to stay in office, Donald Trump is on remarkably shaky ground. What he does have is cabinet loyalists like Mike Pompeo, GOP legislators like Mitch McConnell, and the 70 percent of Republicans who are so deep in the alternative information netherworld that they’re telling pollsters they believe the election was stolen.

That’s enough to make the next two months very ugly and even dangerous. But it’s not enough to keep Trump in the White House past noon on January 20th.

They wouldn’t dare, unless they do

Donald Trump’s insistence that he lost the election due to fraud is clearly false, given the rigor of the count and the five-digit margins in key states. His campaign’s challenges in court are likely to fail, and many are being thrown out. But there is one more possible step where standards of evidence might be much lower: state legislatures’ selection of electors to the Electoral College.

This is a failure point at which the language of the Constitution may give state legislators the power to ignore the popular vote result in their state, and use some other pretext (like “fraud”) to vote for whom they wish. It’s never happened before, but lots of things are happening that have never happened before.

This scenario, described clearly by Jeannie Suk Gersen at The New Yorker, is very unlikely—but still likely enough to occupy one’s thoughts while lying awake at night:

[South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey] Graham has laid some groundwork for the strategies that might remain even after rebuffs both at the polls and in court. In an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News last Thursday, as it became clear that Biden would soon be declared the winner, Graham signalled his approval of the idea that Republican-controlled state legislatures might appoint electors who would cast votes for Trump, even though Biden won those states’ popular votes. Referring to Article II of the Constitution, which provides that a state “shall appoint” its electors “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct,” Governor Ron DeSantis, of Florida, also urged people in battleground states to push their Republican legislatures to override popular-vote results.

It would be outlandish for a state legislature to deviate from the wishes of the state’s voters. But states have the power to determine that fraud affected the vote count and choose Presidential electors who do not reflect that supposedly faulty result. States with Republican legislatures that could, theoretically, override a popular vote in favor of Biden include Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, and Wisconsin. This possibility remains far-fetched in any of these states, perhaps particularly Pennsylvania, where last month, the Republican majority leaders of the state Senate and House wrote, in an op-ed, “The only and exclusive way that presidential electors can be chosen in Pennsylvania is by the popular vote. The legislature has no hand in this process whatsoever.” The majority leaders reaffirmed that commitment on Friday. But, on Tuesday, a group of Pennsylvania lawmakers announced that it wants the legislative committee to conduct a “comprehensive examination” of “irregularities and inconsistencies” in the election “prior to the certification of the election results and the empanelment of Pennsylvania’s electors to the Electoral College.”

If several states’ electors were to diverge from the popular vote, in theory, on December 14th, the Electoral College vote could result in a win for Trump, and, on January 6th, the newly seated Congress tabulating the electoral votes could declare Trump reëlected.

Again, it seems wildly unlikely that a few Republican state legislatures might cancel out the results of the highest-turnout U.S. presidential election of the past 120 years. It would be a genuine coup d’état, justified with the barest of legal pretexts. Most of the country would reject it, and America would be ungovernable for a while—unless the installed regime manages to convince military and law enforcement to repress public protest. (Looked at that way, this week’s sudden installation of Trump loyalists at the Pentagon and elsewhere is worrisome.)

It’s tempting to dismiss this possibility altogether as ridiculous. But we’ve seen Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and their allies violate norms quite nakedly over the past few years in the name of maintaining power. And no leading Republican has yet disavowed this scenario.

So that’s my remote, unlikely, but very real concern: that the president and GOP allies are persisting in these “fraud” claims not to prove anything or invalidate results, but to convince state legislatures to do the unthinkable with the Electoral College. Have a nice day.

Edit: writing in The Nation, Elie Mystal walks through how this could happen in more detail and concludes that it’s really unlikely because of the additional steps that state legislatures would have to take “to determine that the voters ‘failed to make a choice’ on which slate of electors to nominate.” They can only determine such a thing if their state hasn’t certified the election result, which all states must do by December 8.

Mystal concludes:

For this gambit to work, legislatures in Pennsylvania and at least two of the other states Biden won would have to submit a slate of Trump electors. The Supreme Court would have to OK this upending of the popular will three times in total. That’s incredibly unlikely and would spark almost immediate civil unrest directed right at the Supreme Court, which has no army to enforce its rulings.

Well, what’s our plan for that?

My dude, I don’t have a plan for “nothing matters anymore.” The end of democratic self-government is not a thing one has a legal plan for. That’s like asking what my plan is for closing a demonic hell mouth that opens in my backyard. Die. My plan would be to die. I’m not Keanu Reeves.

So what’s next?

Español abajo

I’m a Latin Americanist. My only qualifications to analyze U.S. politics are that I’ve spent my life in the United States, I’ve voted here since 1988, and I work as a policy advocate in Washington. When I travel, I go to Latin America. If I travel within the United States, I go to the border or to a college town to give a lecture. I don’t have my finger on the pulse of U.S. public opinion, especially in red states.

Still, here’s a quick comment, because a lot of colleagues and partners in Latin America are asking me what’s going to happen. Here’s my guess. (And by the way, note what it says at the top of this website: I’m speaking for myself here, not WOLA, my employer. This site is my space, which I pay for.)

  • It looks like Joe Biden is winning 306 electoral votes, well beyond what he needs, and North Carolina (15 more) isn’t totally out of reach.
  • By the time California is counted, the popular vote margin will be about four percentage points, which means that this election could be the second least close of the six presidential elections we have had so far this century.
  • Very important: this was the U.S. election with the largest participation rate since 1900. 120 years.

In four or five states (Wisconsin, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, maybe Arizona), Biden’s margin will be in the 1 percent or less range. In those, there will be scrutiny of the voting to ensure there was no fraud or error. The Trump campaign is filing—or may file—lawsuits in those states, alleging fraud or obstruction of observers, things like that.

The courts will examine the evidence the Trump campaign brings forward. There’s little reason to believe that a judge, even a conservative judge, will find this evidence sufficient to explain the outcome in those states. The cost of a frivolous decision on the result of a record-turnout election is very high. It would make the country ungovernable.

If that doesn’t work, Trump’s parallel strategy is the public opinion route. He’s already doing that, on Twitter and in Thursday evening’s unhinged address. Trump is going to appeal to his political base. And we’ve just seen that base is larger than most of us thought: 70 million votes or more.

By spreading provably untrue allegations, Trump may convince most of that base that some vague “theft” took place. But Trump’s speech on Thursday afternoon was pretty incoherent and downright scary. Scary enough, I’d guess, to keep his more moderate supporters from accompanying him on this particular journey.

Trump will continue to have the support of the radical part of his base (perhaps the majority of that base), much of the Republican Party (which believes it gained modest ground in Congress because it clung to the president), and some right-wing media. But that is not enough on its own. With this coalition, if Trump continues to fight in the weeks ahead, we will see his position—and probably his mental state—deteriorate.

Trump’s problem is that he doesn’t have the support of major institutions. Unlike other authoritarian populists worldwide, he didn’t consolidate his domination of institutions. He doesn’t have the bureaucracy. He almost certainly doesn’t have the armed forces. The justice system is conservative, but won’t follow him where he is going. Nearly all major media are about to call states for Biden. Investors and financial markets want stability and predictability, which requires that the rules be followed. Celebrities will rally their fans against Trump, as many already have done. Even leaders of big religious denominations, including some fundamentalists, will voice disapproval.

None of these sectors will support a leader who lost an election. Especially an election that had so much voter participation. And even if institutions aren’t enough, and Trump persists, there’s civil society. The street demonstrations and other actions demanding Trump’s departure would be massive, much larger than what we saw after George Floyd’s murder.

Trump will go. But it will be ugly, and we may have to fight for it. And then, as ex-president, Trump will continue to be the leader of the opposition. Like ex-president Uribe in Colombia, he’ll have at least a third of the country behind him, he’ll be able to dominate news cycles with his tweets and pronouncements, and he’ll always seem to be a step ahead of prosecutors and investigators examining his lawbreaking.

In the whole world, there are almost no examples of an authoritarian and populist leader losing an election before he manages to consolidate his dominance over institutions. This is a great test of the 244-year-old American system. I am optimistic, but what’s coming in the next few weeks may be traumatic.

¿Entonces qué sigue?

Soy especialista en América Latina. Mis únicas calificaciones para analizar la política de los Estados Unidos son que he pasado mi vida en este país, he votado aquí desde 1988, y trabajo haciendo incidencia política en Washington. Cuando viajo, voy a América Latina. Si viajo dentro de los Estados Unidos, voy a la frontera o a una ciudad universitaria para dar una conferencia. No tengo mi dedo en el pulso de la opinión pública estadounidense, especialmente en los estados rojos.

Aún así, aquí va un comentario rápido, porque muchos colegas y socios en América Latina me preguntan qué va a pasar. Esta es mi suposición. (Y por cierto, fíjense en lo que dice en la parte superior de este sitio web: Estoy hablando por mí mismo aquí, no por WOLA, mi empleador. Este sitio es mi espacio, por el cual pago.)

  • Parece que Joe Biden va ganando 306 votos electorales, mucho más de lo que necesita, y Carolina del Norte (15 más) no está totalmente fuera de su alcance.
  • Para cuando se cuente California, el margen de voto popular será de unos cuatro puntos porcentuales, lo que significa que esta elección podría ser la segunda menos reñida de las seis elecciones presidenciales que hemos tenido en lo que va de siglo.
  • Muy importante: esta fue la elección estadounidense con la mayor tasa de participación desde 1900. 120 años.

En cuatro o cinco estados (Wisconsin, Georgia, Pensilvania, Nevada, tal vez Arizona), el margen de Biden estará en el rango del 1 por ciento o menos. En esos, habrá un escrutinio de la votación para asegurar que no hubo fraude o error. La campaña de Trump está presentando—o puede presentar—demandas en esos estados, alegando fraude u obstrucción de los observadores, cosas así.

Los tribunales examinarán las pruebas que la campaña Trump presente. Hay pocas razones para creer que un juez, incluso un juez conservador, encontrará esta evidencia suficiente para explicar el resultado en esos estados. El costo de una decisión frívola sobre el resultado de una elección de participación récord es muy alto. Volvería ingobernable el país.

Si eso no funciona, la estrategia paralela de Trump es la ruta de la opinión pública. Ya lo está haciendo, en Twitter y en el discurso desquiciado del jueves por la tarde. Trump va a apelar a su base política. Y acabamos de ver que esa base es más grande de lo que la mayoría de nosotros pensaba: 70 millones de votos o más.

Al difundir acusaciones probadamente falsas, Trump puede convencer a la mayoría de esa base de que algún “robo” tuvo lugar. Pero el discurso de Trump del jueves por la tarde fue bastante incoherente y francamente aterrador. Lo suficientemente aterrador, supongo, para espantar a sus partidarios más moderados; no queda claro que lo acompañen en este viaje.

Trump continuará teniendo el apoyo de la parte radical de su base (quizás la mayoría de esa base), gran parte del Partido Republicano (que cree que ganó un modesto terreno en el Congreso porque se aferró al presidente), y algunos medios de comunicación de derecha. Pero eso no es suficiente por sí solo. Con esta coalición, si Trump sigue luchando durante las próximas semanas, veremos cómo su posición—y probablemente su estado mental—se deteriora.

El problema de Trump es que no tiene el apoyo de las grandes instituciones. A diferencia de otros populistas autoritarios en todo el mundo, no consolidó su dominio de las instituciones. No tiene la burocracia. Es casi seguro que no tiene las fuerzas armadas. El sistema de justicia es conservador, pero no lo seguirá a donde va. Casi todos los grandes medios de comunicación están a punto de “certificar” los estados ganados por Biden. Los inversionistas y los mercados financieros quieren estabilidad y previsibilidad, lo que requiere que se sigan las reglas. Las celebridades reunirán a sus fans contra Trump, como muchos ya lo han hecho. Incluso los líderes de las grandes denominaciones religiosas, incluyendo algunos fundamentalistas, expresarán su desaprobación.

Ninguno de estos sectores apoyará a un líder que perdió una elección. Especialmente una elección que tuvo tanta participación de los votantes. Y aún si las instituciones no sean suficientes, y Trump persista, está la sociedad civil. Las manifestaciones callejeras y otras acciones exigiendo la salida de Trump serían masivas, mucho más grandes que las que vimos después del asesinato de George Floyd.

Trump se irá. Pero será feo, y puede que tengamos que luchar por ello. Y entonces, como ex presidente, Trump seguirá siendo el líder de la oposición. Como el ex presidente Uribe en Colombia, tendrá al menos un tercio del país detrás de él, podrá dominar varios ciclos de noticias con sus tuits y declaraciones, y siempre parecerá estar un paso adelante de los fiscales e investigadores penales que examinan su incumplimiento de la ley.

En todo el mundo, casi no hay ejemplos de un líder autoritario y populista que pierda una elección antes de que logre consolidar su dominio sobre las instituciones. Esta es una gran prueba del sistema estadounidense, que tiene ya 244 años. Soy optimista, pero lo que viene en las próximas semanas puede ser traumático.


What do we know right now (7:30 Wednesday morning)? We know that Biden has narrow leads in Arizona, Nevada, and Wisconsin, and outstanding ballots look good for him in Michigan, probably Georgia, and perhaps Pennsylvania. We know that Donald Trump wants to litigate. We know that polls are hot garbage. We know that historic voter turnout doesn’t turn the country leftward, as many had assumed.

For the moment, on 7:30 Wednesday morning, there’s little that most of us can do about this. The ballots keep trickling in, and most of what’s out there favors Biden. They’ll get counted when they get counted—we’re in a pandemic, this takes time. We’re just going to have to wait.

While we wait, unless we’re part of the logistical or legal machinery of ballot counting, or covering it as a journalist, there’s nothing more to do about it.

Catch up on sleep if, like me, you didn’t get much last night. Have a cup of coffee. Call a friend. Read a book—not the news, a book. Sit with your family. Go for a walk. Check in every so often on that trickle of ballots, sure, but not every few minutes.

Obviously, if the president manages to get a court to throw out voters’ valid ballots, everything changes. The time for waiting around ends, and the time to defend democracy begins. That will most likely happen in the streets, and that’s where we’ll most likely have to be, again.

Until and unless that happens, though, the pace has slowed down. For the moment, as of early Wednesday morning, nothing about this is in your control, or mine. Take it easy and do your best.

Older Posts
Get a weekly update in your e-mail:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.