The Two Grand Disinformation Challenges of 2021

Donald Trump's Presidency is almost over. But the stew of disinformation the GOP and other bad faith actors are cooking up may wreck the year ahead- and beyond.

Good evening. Voting in the 2020 presidential election ended 38 days ago. The inauguration happens in 40 days.

The Topline

40 days. Just 40 days remain until Donald Trump leaves the White House. And yet, it is impossible to celebrate. Two twin crises occupy the country: the tragic trajectory of COVID19 infection rates in nearly every state of the Union, and the seditious assault on the outcome of the 2020 election by Republicans.

  • The former will usher in a catastrophe of historic proportion: “We are in the timeframe now that probably for the next 60 to 90 days we're going to have more deaths per day than we had at 9/11 or we had at Pearl Harbor," CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield told reporters yesterday. Projections suggest half a million Americans will die by April 1st, despite the coming vaccine.

  • And the latter? At the time of this writing, 64% of the GOP Congressional caucus had signed on to an amicus brief supporting the Texas lawsuit that seeks to overturn the election. While SCOTUS rejected the lawsuit just moments ago, the act alone exposes a deep and ugly reality: our democracy is in great peril. The lies are cutting through: more than one poll found this week that only around 60% of voters regard the outcome of the election as legitimate.

So what does this mean for the year ahead? While the truth is probably someplace in the middle, let me posit two extreme scenarios- both of which hinge on how we as a nation contend with the two entwined grand disinformation challenges of 2021: COVID19 disinformation, and anti-democratic disinformation.

The optimistic scenario plays out like this:

  • Democrats win two more Senate seats in Georgia on January 5th. Around January 20th, we reach a peak on new infections after the holidays, and we begin to see numbers come down even as record deaths lag into the late winter.

  • The Biden administration picks up the reins and quickly institutes a national mask mandate, and with federal agencies, states and local community leaders make an unprecedented effort to address vaccine disinformation. The government accomplishes the mammoth logistical task of distribution without too much drama, and by the middle of the summer, many states start to approach a ‘herd immunity’ level of vaccination.

  • A Democratic government overcomes Republican obstinance to pass a historic economic stimulus in the winter which tides the country through to a point where, around July 4th, economic activity starts to bustle again.

  • The worst behind us, the country’s politics cool down and claims of illegitimacy by the GOP barely escape the right-wing echo chamber. By fall, kids are going back to school without fear and economic activity resumes accordingly as people are again free to congregate with basic care and infection control. Donald Trump fades into the background, as Republicans jostle for power and the party is split.

The pessimistic scenario goes something like this:

  • While Operation Warp Speed officials laid out an aggressive timeline to get nearly all Americans immunized by June, things don’t go perfectly and the vaccine purgatory extends beyond the summer. There are supply chain issues and enough well-publicized bad outcomes- even if not statistically in any way significant- to pour gasoline on conspiracy theories and disinformation aided and abetted by a number of motivated bad actors, from domestic anti-vaxxers to foreign governments keen to make America stumble.

  • Democrats lose one or both seats in Georgia, and a recalcitrant Mitch McConnell slows or halts key appointments and puts his special brand of kibosh on substantial economic stimulus in a bid to undercut the new administration out of the gate.

  • Mired in a political morass and with the pandemic continuing to paralyze economic activity, it is clear 2021 is another lost year by late summer. Markets slump, and people seem grouchier than ever.

  • The GOP bitter enders who never accepted Trump’s loss have spun up a fury, and regular demonstrations in Washington grow ever more heated. There is violence. By Labor Day the country feels on the precipice, sick and exhausted. Donald Trump is a persistent figure, producing and amplifying disinformation on his social feeds and at perpetual campaign rallies.

Again: it’s hard to imagine things go as well as the first scenario, and difficult to ponder what it will mean if they go so poorly as the second. Which is why many people are toning down expectations for the Biden administration to three simple words: stop the bleeding. The underlying entropy in the American political system may simply not be possible to substantially address in the next four years- but if we can survive another cycle with the protocols of our democracy mostly preserved and put the pandemic behind us, that may just be good enough. News organizations, tech platforms, governments, and citizens must help confront the twin grand challenges of disinformation now if we are to emerge reasonably intact.

On Monday, the Electoral College will seal Joe Biden’s victory. In 40 days, the American interregnum will be over. But our democratic purgatory may continue indefinitely, with all of the suffering and expiating of any purgatory worthy of the term. Or, sometime this summer, we may look around at one another on a pleasant day and find ourselves so thankful we made it through this mess that we permit ourselves a bit of hope. And who knows where that might take us?

Driving the Conversation

How Biden Should Investigate Trump. James Fallows in The Atlantic.

Joe Biden has a set of decisions to make about the record of the Trump era. The record needs to be discovered—in part so that damage can be undone, and in part to ensure that the country faces its failures squarely and through a common lens. To which efforts should Biden personally, as the new president, devote his limited time and political influence? Which efforts should he place in the hands of others?

Is Joe Biden Just Being Stubborn? A theory about his strangest nominees and appointments. Alex Pareene in the New Republic.

If you buy the theory that the Biden campaign is specifically rejecting people for whom liberal, civil rights, and interest groups are lobbying, you can see why the incoming administration has so far not appointed a single one of the dozens of potential Cabinet members identified and pushed for in the “Progressive Cabinet Project,” a package of potential hires for the next Democratic administration created by the left-leaning think tank Data for Progress this summer.

A scorching reply to the awful Texas lawsuit frames the stakes of the moment. Greg Sargent in The Washington Post.

Even if the court does reject the lawsuit, it’s important for Americans to understand what Trump and his co-conspirators are attempting. Now that more than 100 House Republicans, more than 15 Republican state attorneys general and the two GOP senators running in the Georgia runoffs have endorsed this lawsuit, we should be clear on what large swaths of the GOP are really supporting. The Texas lawsuit asks the court to invalidate the outcomes in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia on the grounds that the voting in them was administered illegally, a claim that largely revolves around the dramatic expansion of vote-by-mail. That could clear the way for GOP-controlled state legislatures in all four to appoint pro-Trump electors.

The ‘Trump Won’ Farce Isn’t Funny Anymore. Jamelle Bouie in The New York Times.

We have learned that the Republican Party, or much of it, has abandoned whatever commitment to electoral democracy it had to begin with. That it views defeat on its face as illegitimate, a product of fraud concocted by opponents who don’t deserve to hold power. That it is fully the party of minority rule, committed to the idea that a vote doesn’t count if it isn’t for its candidates, and that if democracy won’t serve its partisan and ideological interests, then so much for democracy.

It’s Not Just Trump’s War on Democracy Anymore. Susan B. Glasser in The New Yorker.

But is that what we will remember of this covid-and-constitutional-crisis season? I’m quite sure we will remember that Donald Trump is a sore loser; the sorest loser, in fact, who ever was President. But what about the Republican Party—is this the moment when the G.O.P. abandons its belief in democracy and the simple nonnegotiable principle that the losing party must accept the results of an election? On Monday, there will be another test, another chance to finally, belatedly, get it right. The Electoral College will meet, and it will give Joe Biden a victory, with three hundred and six electoral votes. Will that be enough to end this?

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American Interregnum is a pop-up newsletter covering the Presidential transition period from November 3rd, 2020 to January 21st, 2021. It is written and edited by Justin HendrixGreg Greene, and Melissa Ryan. Got questions or comments? We love your feedback. Reply directly to this email. We read all responses and respond to most.