They Shall Not Pass

Ukraine most hold before it can told the tide.

During the Battle of Verdun in 1916, about a year and a half after the First World War had seemingly sunk into stalemate, the German Army attempted to overwhelm the French fortifications and break through to Paris. French General Robert Nivelle told his men, “You shall not let them pass.”

Shortened and simplified, the call had become the rallying cry of the French Army by 1918, when the last, massive German offensive of the war attempted to break France and Britain before American support could arrive in sufficient quantities to turn the tide.

“They shall not pass.”

It’s now 2024, about a year and a half after the Ukraine War has appeared to sink into stalemate, and the Russians are attempting to overwhelm the Ukrainian fortifications and break through to Kyiv. American support, this time in the form of artillery ammunition rather than men, has just been signed into law and is now on its way. It will take time for it all to reach and be disseminated across the Ukrainian front lines. The Russian Army knows this and will try to break Ukraine before those supplies arrive in sufficient quantities to potentially turn the tide.

“They shall not pass” will now need to be the rallying cry of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. It’s not romantic. I don’t want to be in those trenches and, as a fellow American, neither should you. Ukrainians have to do it as a matter of duty. It’s a nasty, brutal, horrifying fight, but it’s a nasty, brutal, horrifying future that awaits them if they don’t. If they hold on now, maybe they can come out the other side – like the French during the Great War that did not, in fact, end all wars, but through which France survived as a nation and a republic.

“They shall not pass.”[1]

A French wartime propaganda poster built around the slogan, which you can see in the background – “On ne passe pas 1914…1918.” Credit: Library of Congress.

[1] (For all of you Lord of the Rings nerds out there, this is where the line “You shall not pass!” comes from. Tolkien, who served on the Western Front, was undoubtedly familiar with the French slogan.)

Of Strong Men and Weak Ones

The virtuous dead command our respect; those who do evil are not to be feared, but held in contempt.

“No man hath greater love than this, to lay down his life for his friends.” —John 15:13

Aaron Salter and John Cheng were men. They lived as men, family men, fathers. They died as men, facing down evil. Flaws they no doubt had, as all men do, but none so abundant as to be clear for the world beyond to see. What we could see of these men was their courage.

They were probably afraid to some degree, at first, from the danger of the situation in which they found themselves, but they mastered this fear. And they could master it because they were not afraid at the core of their being. Not thoroughly afraid like the weaklings who could not bear the existence of those living outside their self-pitying view; not like they who attacked children, the elderly, or the defenseless and then skulked in prison or threw their lives away to flee the justice due them for their crimes. The men did not feel sorry for themselves and turn inward with malice. They saw danger and turned outward with compassion—and acted to save those around them.

For them, a glowing afterlife: the reverence of their compatriots, the love of their families, the undying gratitude of those they saved. They were strong, and the action they took made their strength immortal.

For those others, a guilty death: the disgust of the world, the shame of their relations, and unending torment from the accusing faces of those they murdered. They were weak, and the action they took made their weakness permanent.

This is not a eulogy; I did not know these men and could not do them justice. This is rather for those reading to remember that the virtuous dead have no need for our pity, but command our respect; and that those who do evil are not to be feared, but held in contempt.

Russians Have a Choice, Too

Today you are your brother’s keeper.


Then the Lord asked Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

He answered, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

God then said: “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!”

—Genesis 4:9-10

The war is in its second week. Ukraine’s cities suffer. Missiles launched from Russia and Belarus strike them. Cars, tanks, and trucks burn in their streets. Children cry. The toll rises.

For every Ukrainian soldier, civilian, and child who perishes under bombardment, for every Russian conscript who is killed in battle, today Putin and his lackey Lukashenko are responsible.

My friends, the people of Russia and Belarus, you say Ukrainians are your brothers. Be it so; for today you are your brother’s keeper. Only you can stop your tyrants from killing him. And if you cannot stop them, then nonetheless in valiantly attempting, in the streets of Moscow and Minsk, St. Petersburg and Kazan, Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk, and cities across Belarus and Russia, you can share in the glory of the heroes, the free people of Ukraine.

But with every day that you do not, the responsibility for your brother’s murder steadily becomes yours. And his blood will cry out from the ground to you.

Cain and Abel, by Titian c. 1542.

Only Ukraine Can Choose Its Future

Moscow cannot stop it from doing so.

“Nations which went down fighting rose again, but those which tamely surrendered were finished.” —Winston Churchill to Lord Halifax in a Cabinet meeting, May 28, 1940.

The time has come. Russian tanks are again moving into Ukraine, preceded by Russian bombs and rockets. It is unclear how far they will go, but there is no indication that they mean to stop until they have subjugated the Ukrainian nation and bent it to Moscow’s will.

In November 1939, a similar scene played out seven hundred miles to the north. After making a series of preposterous demands, the Soviet Union invaded Finland, a small country that had then been only twenty-two years independent from the Russian Empire. It had no history of independent political existence before 1917, but by 1939 it had long since begun to conceive of itself as a nation—a European nation, attached to the Western tradition of liberty. It had walked the path of freedom and was not willing to turn back.

So Finland fought heroically and suffered terribly. But Russia suffered, too. After three months of bloodshed, the Soviet Union offered peace. It took wide swathes of border territory, never to be returned. But Moscow accepted Finland’s nationhood and has not made an attempt on it again.[1]

Ukraine cannot stop Russia at the border; it lacks the might. So its people will have to choose: they can submit and have peace now, as a Russian vassal, or they can fight on at a terrible cost to preserve their nationhood and liberty.

It is not so easy a choice as it may seem to those of us in these United States today. If Ukraine chooses to fight on, it will cost many thousands of lives. Many Ukrainian soldiers will not live to see their children grow; many Ukrainian children will not see their fathers or mothers return home. Many Ukrainian civilians will be killed in the crossfire of war, and some imprisoned, murdered, assaulted, or tortured in retaliation for their defiance of Russian rule. The outcome of the contest will not be certain. And the free and independent Ukrainian nation that eventually emerges may stand amidst rubble and be shorn of much of its former territory. Ukraine alone can decide if such a sacrifice is worth the end it may achieve.

But if Ukraine chooses to fight, the United States ought unreservedly to support it. We ought to supply arms, ammunition, supplies, and information, without quibble as to whether those are lethal or non-lethal, or offensive or defensive in nature.[2] If our own forces cannot extend their shield to Ukraine as the guardians of the free world—and, yes, there are compelling practical reasons for them not to do so at present—then our Republic ought instead to fill free Ukraine’s armories as the arsenal of democracy. Moscow cannot stop us from doing so.

The nations of Europe, for their part, ought to provide sanctuary to those Ukrainians fighting for liberty and open their borders to the movement of men and materiel. Moscow cannot stop them from doing so. And perhaps now, eight decades after Russia’s assault on its freedom, Finland ought to consider joining NATO. Moscow cannot stop it from doing so.

A map of Eastern Europe.

[1] Fifteen months after the end of the 1939-1940 Winter War, Finland made an ill-judged deal with the devil and entered World War II on the side of Nazi Germany in an attempt to reclaim its lost territory. It was fortunate to extricate itself in 1944 without losing its hard-won independence. Ukraine is fortunate that no such temptation exists at present.

[2] Except for weapons of mass destruction which our Republic is prohibited by treaty from spreading.

The Fall of Kabul is a National Shame

For nations to preserve their sense of honor, they must not ignore their sense of shame.

“I will, therefore, begin by saying the most unpopular and most unwelcome thing. I will begin by saying what everybody would like to ignore or forget but which must nevertheless be stated, namely, that we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat…”

“All is over. Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken, Czechoslovakia recedes into the darkness. She has suffered in every respect by her association with the Western democracies and with the League of Nations, of which she has always been an obedient servant.”

“…the terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against the Western democracies: ‘Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.’” —Winston Churchill, in a speech to the House of Commons on October 5th, 1938.

The counterpart to honor is shame.[1] When a person who believes in honor does not act honorably, he or she must feel shame. And, as no honorable person is infallible, the only people who feel no shame are those who have no honor. So, too, is it with nations.

The Afghanistan War was an honorable endeavor, begun in response to an attack on these United States by a band of brutal zealots given aid and comfort by the Taliban. During the course of the war, the United States and its allies in NATO gave to the freedom-seeking class of Afghans an implicit—and, at times, explicit—assurance that they would not be delivered once more to the very same oppressors that our might had freed them from.

President Biden withdrew that assurance in April this year.[2] Within four months, the people of Afghanistan have once again been enslaved by the Taliban. Those men remain as totalitarian in their beliefs and barbaric in their deeds as they were two decades past; any restraint that they may display while consolidating their power is merely a temporary expedient in service of their self-interest, and cannot be presumed to last.

The manner in which this war has ended, therefore—whatever may be said of the calculations of interests and capabilities behind the decision to retreat from Afghanistan, with which I disagreed, or of the miscalculations about the speed and totality of the subsequent collapse, which I shared—is nothing but dishonorable.

If we are to restore our honor in the future, then we must now feel shame.

As the first step to restoring that honor, our shame ought to motivate us to give safe haven to all the Afghans who now crowd the Kabul airport, or who wait in neighboring countries, having been forced to flee upon pain of death or persecution because they believed in liberty for their homeland. We ought to welcome them as Americans and let them share in liberty as Americans.

It is difficult to write this, because I feel not only shame, but regret. I served in the U.S. Army, but not in Afghanistan—despite having dedicated much time as a cadet to learning its history and language in anticipation of doing so.[3] I could not have altered the war’s outcome, but I regret that I did not share personally in bearing its costs. Those who bore the battle should take solace at this moment in the fact that they did what was in their power to do.

Mr. Biden may not regret his decision, and perhaps he need not, if he truly believes it to have been unavoidable for the well-being of our Republic. But if he is an honorable man, as I believe him to be, he ought to feel shame for it nonetheless.

I love my country. It is built on noble principles, and it will find its way back to honor; I am not ashamed of it. But today, I bear shame with it.

[1] For an excellent, concise examination of the concept and history of honor and its relationship to shame, I recommend What Is Honor? And How to Revive It by Brett H. McKay, the founder and editor-in-chief of The Art of Manliness (AOM), an equally excellent blog. The work is available as an ebook and also as a series of articles on the AOM site.

[2] It is true that this assurance had been all but withdrawn by his predecessor. Yet it is Mr. Biden who made the final decision, and it is thus with Mr. Biden that final responsibility lies.

[3] This was partly an accident of timing and placement: I entered active duty after the “Afghan surge” of 2009-2012 had run its course and while the U.S. presence there was in the process of being substantially reduced. Consequently, my unit was not deployed. Yet it was also a byproduct of personal choice: I left the Army shortly after completing my obligated service. Had I remained an active-duty officer, I may have eventually been deployed there with another unit.

Juneteenth, 2021

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.” —General Order No. 3, proclaimed in Galveston, Texas on June 19th, 1865.

In the spring of 1865, events moved quickly. On April 2nd, the Army of the Potomac went over the top and forced Robert E. Lee’s army from the trenches of Petersburg. On April 3rd, Richmond fell, and black soldiers were among the Union troops that entered it. On April 4th, the President of the United States walked the city’s streets and spoke to a newly freed man. On April 9th, Lee surrendered at Appomattox in the presence of Ulysses Grant and his staff, including Ely Parker, a Seneca Indian colonel. On April 14th, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. On April 23rd, Joseph Johnston surrendered to William Sherman in North Carolina. On May 10th, Jefferson Davis was captured and imprisoned in Georgia. On June 2nd, in Texas, Kirby Smith surrendered the last Confederate army. On June 19th, Union troops arrived in Galveston and brought word of freedom.

The pace of history slowed again afterwards, and, as so often occurs in the affairs of mankind, the peace was not won as thoroughly as the war. The occasion of June 19th became unknown to much of the nation, myself included. But it is with us all today, and so it shall remain, rightly so. Liberty for all, equality before the law, and the triumph of a Union built and preserved by the work and sacrifices of all its people; these are things well worth commemorating. Happy Juneteenth.

An early printed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Danger Is Not Yet Past

We shall only recognize virtue in our candidates for public office if we know and practice it ourselves.


“It is quite impossible to think of glory. Both mind and feelings are exhausted. I am wretched even at the moment of victory, and I always say that next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained.” —The Duke of Wellington, after the Battle of Waterloo

Mr. Trump has left the Presidency, and thus the most immediate and dire menace to our Republic has departed from the stage. But he leaves behind a broken scene.

The Capitol was overrun, and the city of Washington turned into a military camp; cities across the Union smolder after a summer of protest collapsed into the smoke of anarchy and reprisals; four hundred thousand lie dead from disease; and many millions more have been drawn into a sinister delusion that assails the very basis of republican government, confidence in a free and fair election.

Extremists, once obscure, have risen to prominence: on the right, depraved militants laying a false and perverted claim to the traditions and principles of these United States strive after civil war, seeking to intimidate elected officials and do violence to lawful government; on the left, would-be-revolutionaries inculcated with an unforgiving and absolutist ideology seek to purge from public life and private employment all those who fail to recite their slogans.

None of these calamities were present in such strength in 2016. They gathered force during the presidency of Mr. Trump, and in 2020 they crashed down upon us. His selfish malice drove those demons on as they danced in our Union’s fields and streets, until he himself, exposed as the tyrant he always wished to become, stood at the head of an insurrection against the elected representatives of these United States.

Yet our Republic still stands, and, as Mr. Trump fades, the Covid-19 epidemic recedes, and some measure of prosperity and competent governance returns, it may soon appear to recover.



“For it [the Roman agrarian law] found the power of its adversaries redoubled, and because of this it inflamed so much hatred between the plebs and the Senate that they came to arms and bloodshed, beyond every civil mode and custom. So, since the public magistrates could not remedy it, and none of the factions could put hope in them, they had recourse to private remedies, and each one of the parties was thinking of how to make itself a head to defend it.”

“In this scandal and disorder the plebs came first and gave reputation to Marius, so that it made him consul four times; and he continued in his consulate, with a few intervals, so long that he was able to make himself consul three other times. As the nobility had no remedy against such a plague, it turned to favoring Sulla; and when he had been made head of its party, they came to civil wars. After much bloodshed and changing of fortune, the nobility was left on top.”

“Later, these humors were revived at the time of Caesar and Pompey; for after Caesar had made himself head of Marius’s party, and Pompey that of Sulla, in coming to grips Caesar was left on top. He was the first tyrant in Rome, such that never again was that city free.” —Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on Titus Livy

The Roman Republic did not fall in a day, nor upon the first attempt to overthrow it. It began to decay after its final triumph over Carthage, in 146 B.C. At that moment, Rome stood mighty and unchallenged, but its leaders grew arrogant and its people complacent. They quarreled more bitterly amongst themselves and became frightened whenever some passing foreign menace appeared on the horizon; thus, they began to disregard their customs in their search for safety or advantage.[1] In 91 B.C., unrest and revolt broke out across Italy amongst those Rome had neglected in its years of triumph, and the Romans only with difficulty suppressed them.[2]

But it was in the decade after 88 B.C. that the pillars of the Republic took the first of the blows that would fell them. Marius and Sulla, each at the head of a faction and each in their turn, briefly grasped at unchecked power and attempted the wholesale destruction of their enemies. The old traditions and customs that upheld the Roman constitution buckled under their ceaseless assaults. The law became a dead letter, discarded when it did not suit their purposes. They demanded absolute and abject loyalty from their fellow senators, the tribunes of the people, and other distinguished citizens; they purged those who did not give it.

Their rule did not last, but neither was held accountable. Marius died of old age while still clinging to power. Sulla, to the surprise of all, laid down his dictatorship, retired to his villa, and, after a year of debauchery, died in his bed. His fade from power and public life was swift, and for nearly twenty years the Republic appeared restored.

But two young men had witnessed his example, that selfishness and force opened a path to power. Caesar and Pompey were more intelligent, diligent, and disciplined than Marius and Sulla; and so, when they clashed, Rome shook even more violently. Caesar emerged victorious, but in 44 B.C. he was assassinated by a fallen Senate desperate to reclaim its lawful powers.

Yet two more young men were watching. Antony and Octavian rose to power and then came to blows. Octavian, like Caesar his uncle, was disciplined and brilliant; unlike Caesar, he was wholly ruthless. In 27 B.C., he became the Emperor Augustus and reigned for forty years. Only then did the Roman Republic cease finally to exist.


“…consider whether in a corrupt city one can maintain a free state, if there is one, or, if it has not been there, whether one can order it. On this thing I say that it is very difficult to do either the one or the other… For as good customs have need of laws to maintain themselves, so laws have need of good customs so as to be observed. Besides this, the orders and laws made in a republic at its birth, when men were good, are no longer to the purpose later, when they have become wicked.” —Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on Titus Livy

The politics of the Roman Republic were generally bloodier and more tumultuous than our own, and Rome had a much different constitution; thus, any comparison between the two is necessarily imperfect. Yet it would be foolhardy not to contemplate the possibility that Mr. Trump was our Sulla. He disregarded every law, custom, and tradition that stood in his path; he proscribed anyone who crossed him; and he recklessly stoked the violence of the mob. Then he left office, still living. And, most crucially, he has so far not been held to account.

Congress, had it any vigor or authority remaining to it, would have impeached and removed Mr. Trump on January 6th, immediately upon reclaiming the Capitol. The Senate may still limp to such a conclusion, months later; though it appears to me that each passing day makes this outcome less likely, as what little resolve was summoned on that night dissolves into cowardice and irresolution. Whichever young men and women would be our Caesar and Octavian, more diligent and ruthless than Mr. Trump, are watching this scene. They will take note of how it ends.

Yet the failures of the people’s representatives must ultimately be laid at the feet of the people themselves. We elect our leaders, and, if we wish to avert the fate that befell Rome, so must we be the ones to demand virtue from them and uphold it with our votes. And we shall only recognize virtue in our candidates for public office if we know and practice it ourselves. Do you? Do I?


“A republic has need of new acts of foresight every day if one wishes to maintain it free.” —Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on Titus Livy

Although our national stage is battered, the inauguration of Mr. Biden, should he carry through the assurances of moderation that he has made on campaign, offers us citizens an opportunity to pause and take our eyes away from it. His actions there will neither save nor destroy the Republic. That will hinge on whether we, in this interim, can rediscover civic virtue.

The place to do so is in our towns, counties, cities, and States. In writing the series of essays that form the core of this website, I came to the theoretical conclusion that we as citizens can take part in and see our hand in the results of local government far more than we can the government of the Union.

Subsequent experience has, for me, confirmed the truth of that proposition. This website, which deals with national issues, is but a drop in the ocean; few have visited it, and few shall read what is here, because there exist thousands of other written works that, for good or ill, ponder the challenges of the United States. Yet in the span of little more than a year, and despite the obstacle of Covid-19, I have already found a modest place in the civic life of my adopted town.

It is there, at the level of government that is accessible to us, that we may take an active part in governing and so become reacquainted with, and practiced in, civic virtue: attachment, respect, duty, honor, foresight, patience, hard work, collaboration, persuasion, compromise, leadership. Once we have taught ourselves these qualities in the gymnasium of local government, then we may apply them to our national contests and so repair our Republic.

So, let us relax our minds during the next few weeks, as the tension of the past four years gradually unwinds. Then let us seize the opportunity now offered and begin to work.

“Nor is it out of place to mention such testimonies in the case of a man said to have been by nature so fond of raillery, that when he was still young and obscure he spent much time with actors and buffoons and shared their dissolute life; and when he had made himself supreme master, he would daily assemble the most reckless stage and theatre folk to drink and bandy jests with them, although men thought that he disgraced his years, and although he not only dishonoured his high office, but neglected much that required attention.”

“…In others he seems to have been of very uneven character, and at variance with himself; he robbed much, but gave more; bestowed his honours unexpectedly, as unexpectedly his insults; fawned on those he needed, but gave himself airs towards those who needed him; so that one cannot tell whether he was more inclined by nature to disdain or flattery.” —Plutarch, Parallel Lives of Famous Greeks and Romans, writing of Sulla.

[1] Such as when Marius was awarded four consecutive consulships when the Cimbri and the Teutones appeared to menace Italy.

[2] The Social War, from 91-87 B.C.

The Attempt on the Capitol

“Before he [the President] enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” —Article 2, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution

“The President of the Senate [the Vice President of the United States] shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted.” —Article 2, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution

This afternoon, a mob went to the Capitol at the instigation of the incumbent President. By forcibly entering that seat of government, it prevented Congress from carrying out a duty prescribed by the Constitution itself. With this action, Mr. Trump has demonstrated, explicitly, that he cannot be relied upon to ensure that the provisions of the Constitution of the United States are carried out. Instead, he has indicated a desire to actively obstruct them through the incitement of brute and unlawful force. While he remains in office, our Republic is in immediate and dire peril.

It is thus now my belief, as a private citizen, that, in order to preserve our Republic, the incumbent President ought at once to be impeached, again, and this time removed from office by the Congress that he has menaced through his actions today; and this action ought to be done immediately before or else directly after the counting of Electoral College votes is resumed and finished. The incumbent Vice President, it appears, may be relied upon to oversee the functions of government for the two weeks remaining before President-Elect Biden’s assumption of the responsibility to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, as the President is bound by oath to do.

I think, also, that it will now be necessary for ordinary, healthy Americans who are able to do so to attend the inauguration ceremony in Washington, D.C., on January 20th, and by their presence—unarmed and peaceful—to present a barrier to those who might attempt to disrupt that necessary and vital function of the Constitution. Under present circumstances—the Covid-19 pandemic—it is unfortunate that this must be the case. But, to my regret, I believe that it has been forced on us.

A Republic cannot persevere unless its citizens stand up for it.

For more detail:

Update January 12, 2021: The Mayor of the District of Columbia and the Governors of Maryland and Virginia have discouraged citizens from coming to Washington, D.C. for the Inauguration in person. I fear that this may be an unwise course of action, but I hope nonetheless that they are correct in their assurance that “we will get through this period because American ideals are stronger than one extreme ideology.” Their statement:

Joint Statement from Bowser, Hogan and Northam on Planning for the 59th Presidential Inauguration | inauguration (

2020: An Election in Hindsight

Nearly all reelection campaigns ultimately boil down to a referendum on the incumbent, but few have seen such a clear divide between the individual and his party.

“Such being the impressions under which I have, in obedience to the public summons, repaired to the present station, it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge.” —George Washington, First Inaugural Address.

Two weeks ago, the United States of America held its 59th presidential election since George Washington won the office that the Framers of the Constitution designed for him in 1789. While one could well argue that none of his 45 successors thus far have been so well suited to the role as Washington was, it is nevertheless remarkable that nearly all of those successors, save Lincoln in 1860 and 1864, enjoyed the legal recognition, however grudging, of the entire country.

I do not believe this will change.

Our history is littered with occasional political has-beens who peddle partisan pablum about stolen or hacked elections, quenching the last embers from the smoldering wreckage of their ruined careers with the bitter vintage of sour grapes and tears of self-pity—particularly recently. In days past, they ran off to the West or went abroad. Now, they do book tours. The country can endure another one.

Even with ongoing legal battles over ballots in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Michigan, Biden’s margin in Pennsylvania alone is enough to ensure he reaches a majority of 270 electoral votes. Nevertheless, I expect those cases to play out with respect for due process and they should be allowed to do so, just as they did in the courts in 2000 for Florida, or the failed Congressional objection in 2004 over Ohio, or the numerous investigations into various aspects of the 2016 election—none of which ultimately altered the electoral outcome.  

America is exceptional in no small part because of our long unbroken history of lawful elections and peaceful transfers of power, which will continue when Joseph R. Biden, Jr. is inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States this January. While we should remain confident in the continuity of our governing institutions, this is not to say that poorly executed transitions are without cost or should be excused.

The 9/11 Commission Report specifically cited the delayed transfer of power from the Clinton White House to the incoming Bush Administration for growing gaps in national security on the eve of the worst terrorist attacks in US history. People may also still remember the Clintons departed with $190,000 in pilfered White House gifts and furnishings, of which $28,000 had to be returned and the balance paid for. One may also recall the petty and childish vandalism of office equipment adding insult to injury, but worse than these anecdotal lapses in judgement was the failure to bring new officials up to speed to avoid disruption or oversights.

The only silver lining from these unfortunate antics was that they have been the exception, not the rule; an interregnum in a line of generally good interparty transfers of power. George H.W. Bush penned a now-famous letter to Clinton and cooperated with his team in 1992, making the latter’s failure to reciprocate with his son eight years later all the more striking. George W. Bush vowed not to inflict the same experience on his successor Obama, and Obama to his credit fully cooperated with the incoming Trump team as well, despite immense pressure to behave otherwise. He could easily have gotten away with another partisan stunt, and been applauded for it, but he didn’t. 

It would be bad for the country if bruised egos and sticky fingers once again disrupted the Executive Branch, as appears possible. It was wrong when the Clintons did it, and it would be no less wrong for Trump to do it now. Nor, with the bar so exceptionally low, would it be terribly hard for Trump to acquit himself well enough in these final weeks to draw a contrast with his erstwhile rivals, but I have my doubts. Yet perhaps we may still be cautiously optimistic that the ill effects will be more limited than in 2000, given the passage of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 in the interim, as well as the unusual experience of the incoming Administration compared to most successful challengers. Biden is the first former Vice President to win the White House in his own right since George H.W. Bush in 1988, and the first non-consecutive vice presidential successor since Nixon in 1968.  

This was an unusual election in many ways. Biden scored a considerable 300-vote victory in the Electoral College, which is about as commanding as could be expected in such a polarized age. While pollsters predicted that much, they utterly failed to recognize how narrow his margins in crucial swing states would be, and overestimated Democrats’ performance at every other level of government. His campaign succeeded in many states where Republicans hold the edge in voter registration, voter turnout, and where Republicans won Congressional and state elections. Biden outperformed Congressional and state Democrats, including in the key swing states. The clear inference is that a significant number of voters backed Biden while still supporting down-ballot Republicans, indicating opposition to Trump within the GOP proved fatal to his reelection bid and Biden’s appeal to bipartisanship worked, even if it disappointed some on the Left—or perhaps it worked precisely because it disappointed the Left.  

This is only the third presidential election in 104 years where a Democrat has won the White House while Republicans gained seats in the House of Representatives; the others were 1916 and 1960. It will be the first such election in 136 years in which this occurred for a non-incumbent Democratic challenger with a Republican Senate, harkening back to the 1884 victory of New York Governor Grover Cleveland over Senator James G. Blaine (R-ME).  

Speaking of Republican Senators from Maine, one of the biggest surprises of the night was not only the reelection of Senator Susan Collins amidst an onslaught of out-of-state Democratic money flooding the state, but also her commanding margin of victory—she defeated Gideon by more than 9% in an election for which Democrats had been amassing funds and had been gunning to flip for the past two years. Illusory advantages in polling for Democrats likely contributed to this enormous financial advantage by enticing credulous donors eager to back a winner. It turns out votes matter more than money: Senate Democrats vastly outspent Republicans in several races that did not turn out to be terribly close, raising a collective $300 million only to go down in defeat by large margins in Maine (9%), Texas (10%), South Carolina (11%), and Kentucky (20%).

Donald Trump lost by nearly the same electoral margin by which he won in 2016. Nearly all reelection campaigns ultimately boil down to a referendum on the incumbent, but few have seen such a clear divide between the individual and his party. Republicans on every other level appear to have either retained control or actually made gains at Democrats’ expense, making the degree to which Trump himself has been rebuked impossible to conflate with cyclical trends and made all the more starkly personal by the fact he lacked the “negative coattails” of a Carter or a Goldwater with the rest of his party.

While Trump is certainly not without his supporters and actually made gains among African-American and Latino voters, it appears in this high turnout election that he aroused more opposition than support. His loss in Arizona in particular, where state Republicans appear to have retained control, seemed a direct rejoinder to his bitter feud with the late Senator John McCain and his family. This highlights the difficulty of Trump’s fraud claims; they depend on several Republican-controlled states being complicit, which makes even less sense than typical conspiracy theories do. It’s also hard to imagine that supposed Democratic plotters would inflict several embarrassing Congressional defeats on themselves in the process if they were somehow behind the result. 

Despite overheated rhetoric to the contrary, this election actually represented a notable decline in racial polarization; Biden increased the Democrats’ share of white voters over 2016, while Republicans attracted greater support from minorities. The latter proved decisive for Maria Elvira Salazar and Carlos Giménez flipping two Congressional seats in Florida. Salazar’s victory came in retaking Florida’s 27th District, represented for 30 years by Ilhena Ros-Lehtinen, the trailblazing Cuban-American Republican who was the first Latina ever elected to Congress.

Yet while Trump and House Democrats were both clear losers in this election, it cannot be overlooked that the biggest defeat may be for pollsters, who failed us yet again. Skepticism toward polling has shifted from the fringe to mainstream opinion for a good reason. Although their error wasn’t enough to predict the wrong outcome this time, they have evidently not learned from 2016. Only the fact that Biden ran a stronger campaign with even bigger leads for them to vastly inflate saved them from another reversal. The Democratic wave most pollsters predicted not only failed to appear, but proved to be more ebb than flow. Republicans increased their share of state legislatures under full control from 29 to 30 (to Democrats’ 19). State Republicans also increased their advantage in governorships from 26 to 27. Since 2020 is a decennial redistricting year, this gives Republicans the edge in drawing new House districts going into the 2022 midterms. (By way of comparison, the GOP controlled 29 statehouses at the last redistricting in 2010).  

There are numerous theories as to why pollsters got it wrong again; social desirability bias (AKA the “Shy Trump Voter” hypothesis), systematic sampling errors, asymmetric partisan trust in media impacting response rates, polls-as-wish-fulfillment (if driven by a desire for clicks from nervous Dems) or polls-as-propaganda (if intended to influence voter behavior, like encouraging donations or demoralizing opponents to depress turnout). Incompetence may be the simplest explanation, however.

I don’t know which if any of these is closest to the mark, but there’s clearly something very wrong and one worries the fact it didn’t make as much of a splash this time means they will be even less motivated to correct their mistake than they were after 2016, despite their clear failure to do so. How is it in an era of ever more intrusive and uncanny algorithms, predictive behavioral analysis, and pervasive surveillance that somehow we’re worse at polling than people were 50 years ago who had landlines, pencils, and graph paper? It fundamentally doesn’t make sense and we’ve yet to find a satisfactory explanation. 

Senate control will remain undecided until January, but with 50 Republicans to 48 Democrats currently, Republicans hold the edge if they win one or both of Georgia’s two special elections to retain control. This appears likely given the returns from last week; incumbent senior Senator David Perdue led his challenger by 1.7% or about 87,000 votes, even as Democratic turnout efforts helped Biden carry the state. Senator Perdue fell 0.3% short of the 50% threshold Georgia law requires in order to avoid a runoff. 

The special election to fill out the balance of Senator Johnny Isakson’s term is a bit more complicated. After Isakson resigned last year due to Parkinson’s disease, Kelly Loeffler was appointed in the interim and is now running as the incumbent. Georgia has so-called “jungle election” rules, so two Republicans faced off against two Democrats; the top spot went to Democrat Warnock with 32.9% to Loeffler’s 25.9%, but the two Republicans overall pulled in 45.9% of the vote to the two Democrats’ collective 35.7%. Even assuming similar or identical turnout to the presidential election, which was already extremely favorable for Democrats, it appears likely at this point that Republicans will retain Senate control by holding one or both Georgia seats. In the meantime, the parties will likely spend tens of millions of dollars more in the next two months before the runoff to try to budge those numbers or keep them steady.

God Bless America.

Outgoing President Bush’s note to incoming President Clinton, Inauguration Day 1993.

The 2020 Election: The Short Case

“There need not be much integrity for a monarchial or despotic government to maintain or sustain itself. The force of the laws in the one and the prince’s ever-raised arm in the other can rule or contain the whole. But in a popular state there must be an additional spring, which is VIRTUE.” —Charles de Secondat, Baron Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, 1748.

“‘Tis substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule indeed extends with more or less force to every species of free Government. Who that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?” —George Washington’s Farewell Address, 1796.

To maintain a republic, there must be virtue: among the people, and especially among their leaders. It must at least be outwardly displayed; but it is so much the better if it is held in those leaders’ hearts. Its importance infinitely exceeds that of policy. So long as both candidates in an electoral contest possess virtue, then we as citizens may decide the election on the basis of their particular plans or positions. But if only one possesses virtue, then the best interest of our Republic enjoins us to favor that candidate without equivocation, regardless of the flaws in their governing agenda.

Because, in the words of a philosopher well-acquainted with both good and bad men:

“Because the reordering of a city for a political way of life presupposes a good man, and becoming prince of a republic by violence presupposes a bad man, one will find that it very rarely happens that someone good wishes to become prince by bad ways, even though his end be good, and [it very rarely happens] that someone wicked, having become prince, wishes to work well, and that it will ever occur to his mind to use well the authority that he has acquired badly.” —Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on Titus Livy, 1517.

It may be asked, what is this virtue? It is, certainly, commitment to liberty and free government. Yet nobody can be truly committed to liberty who does not possess a deeper and more fundamental virtue. That virtue is decency; it is compassion; it is love. As it was articulated a long time ago:

“If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.

It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails.” —First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 13:1-8a.

Ask yourself, in full honesty: Do both candidates possess this virtue?

I have asked that question, and answered it. And so I will be for Mr. Biden, with all his faults. Because throughout his long life he has shown virtue, and his rival, only malice.