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The Day After the Election

The election will choose a new president. It won’t improve America’s political culture. 

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Last week, the New York Post published a story containing emails that Joe Biden’s son Hunter reportedly sent to his business partner in April 2015 as part of his work for a Ukrainian energy company. The Post reported that Rudy Giuliani and Steve Bannon, current and former advisers to Donald Trump, respectively, provided the emails, which they obtained from Hunter Biden’s laptop after it was recovered from a repair shop in Wilmington, Delaware. Supposedly, Hunter’s emails prove he introduced his business partner to his father when Joe Biden was serving as vice president to Barack Obama; and so—again, supposedly—the emails prove Hunter prevailed upon his father to pressure the Ukrainian government to fire a meddlesome prosecutor. Joe Biden says the meeting never happened and, in any case, the prosecutor’s termination was unrelated to his son’s business. Last year, Trump pressured the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate Hunter Biden’s commercial interests and Joe Biden’s political influence in Ukraine. This foreign intrigue, far from harming Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential contest as Trump intended, culminated in Trump’s impeachment.

The Post—Trump’s favorite newspaper—seems determined to harass Joe Biden with his very own sequel to the long and pointless agonizing about Hillary Clinton’s email four years ago from her time as Obama’s secretary of state. The Post story might have come and gone as the latest fodder for right-wing conspiracy theorists, indiscernible from any other hyperactive news cycle. But Twitter censored URLs to the story, flagging it as “potentially harmful,” and Facebook limited the story’s visibility within hours of its publication. So the story spread as outrageous proof of the tech industry’s plot to boost Biden and destroy Trump.

Who could have guessed that Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg would’ve proved so capricious and counterproductive as content moderators on their respective social media platforms? Twitter later cited the company’s “hacked material policy,” which it claims the Post violated by publishing material that was taken from Hunter Biden’s laptop, as the primary rationale for the blackout. But the timing of the company’s actions—less than a month before the presidential election—is no coincidence. Clearly, Twitter and Facebook mean to prevent cynical actors from disrupting the presidential contest in its final, precarious month. Dorsey and Zuckerberg don’t mean to favor Joe Biden so much as they mean to cultivate the sort of political stability that a Biden presidency just so happens to represent. The day after the story’s publication, Twitter began letting users post links to the report, and Dorsey apologized, promising that in his broader efforts to curtail misinformation on the platform, Twitter would “add context” to dubious stories rather than censor them.

Facebook and Twitter might assuage some progressives’ concerns about the dangers that bad actors pose online to the presidential election, which has long been forecasted as a Biden win. Of course, Trump upset Clinton in the electoral college, if not the popular vote, despite Clinton’s persistent polling advantage against him four years ago, and the upset spooks Trump’s critics to this day. If Trump loses reelection, will he step aside? Could he sue his way to his second inauguration? The election in two weeks marks the latest peak in so many paranoid themes in U.S. politics. If Trump represents a national chaos—in governance but also in spirit—then Biden represents a merciful return to slower news cycles, softer speeches, fewer scandals and surprises. Biden makes explicit promises about public policy and an implicit promise about political culture: If Biden defeats Trump, everything will be a lot less shitty and chaotic.

On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will vote to advance Trump’s latest Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, to a floor vote. Senate Democrats oppose Barrett’s nomination but have otherwise failed to stall her confirmation. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat, led a last-ditch, half-hearted rebellion against the “sham” process, but once the Senate Judiciary chairman, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, forced the committee to resume the proceedings, Democrats and Republicans on the committee deliberated rather earnestly—and, dare I say, sensibly—about the party-line divisions between them. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat, spoke in his heavy-hearted way about the American public’s lack of confidence in the Senate. Throughout the hearings, Graham and the ranking member, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, both took great pains to seem reasonable. It was a far cry from their polarization in the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh two years ago. Last week, Graham and Feinstein hugged. It was an offbeat, off-purpose display that irritated Feinstein’s progressive critics. Wasn’t she tasked with preventing or at least frustrating Barrett’s nomination? Wasn’t Graham supposed to savor this last little victory for movement conservatism before Democrats retake the Senate? What’s with all the hugging?

What were these two political opponents, in such a strange and self-conscious embrace, trying to signal to the general audience? Why these lackluster gestures toward a better political culture than its leaders, sponsors, and constituents will ever sustainably produce? Twelve years ago, Obama won the election on his promises to reconcile the red and the blue, and yet his presidency tracked a darker turn to conspiracy theories about his birth certificate and Clinton’s treachery in Benghazi, both of which Facebook and Twitter massively propagated. This is the political landscape that emboldened Trump as the leading skeptic about Obama’s birthright citizenship in the first place and thus relaunched his political career. If Trump loses, he will hardly be alone among retirees sharing so many delirious theories about Hunter Biden, Burisma Holdings, QAnon, Russiagate, Benghazi, etc. But there will be mods, and there will be hugs.