Matt Bevin lost his bid for re-election as Kentucky’s governor on Tuesday, by a good 5,000 votes, but you would never know that if you talked to Matt Bevin. Watch him try to sow doubt on election night:
Since then, he’s repeated his claims of “irregularities,” claimed that “thousands of absentee ballots were illegally counted,” and requested a recanvass of the entire state. As you might imagine, all his accusations are incredibly vague. The end game here seems not to actually reverse a 5,000-vote deficit, but to force the election into the state legislature, which is controlled by Republicans. Slate outlined how that might go:
Kentucky has a set of rules to resolve contested elections, but those rules do not apply to a governor’s race. Instead, the state constitution provides that “Contested elections for Governor and Lieutenant Governor shall be determined by both Houses of the General Assembly, according to such regulations as may be established by law.” According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, the last time the Legislature resolved a governor’s race under this procedure was 1899.
Now, I don’t think this is going to happen, mostly because we’re not living in a total banana republic quite yet. You can tell the momentum is swinging against Bevin by the fact that even Republican lawmakers are starting to push him to either concede or provide more evidence of the so-called irregularities. And Bevin isn’t just hated by the teachers he’s gone to war with, and their Democratic allies—he’s not beloved by House Republicans, either. In short, there doesn’t seem to be any real support for this maneuver, and Bevin is going to fail. I’d expect a concession by the end of next week at the latest.
The larger phenomenon, though, is a big problem—the Double-Down is infecting our public lives. You see it everywhere in politics now, and as the Houston Astros recently proved, it’s even being attempted in baseball. Like many of the worst trends in America, the poster boy here is Donald Trump. He’s an expert at refusing to admit wrongdoing, at stubbornly insisting on easily disprovable versions of reality, and at attacking when a normal person would be apologetic or remorseful.
What’s disturbing about the double-down is how easy it is. The only requirement, really, is a kind of sociopathic mindset that seals you from personal guilt. If you don’t care what people think, and if you don’t have a conscience, you can say or do anything. This will fail for most who try it, even for men like Bevin with influence. There’s still enough public pressure to rein in most bad actors. But with enough power, and enough charisma, we’ve seen how men like Trump can slip out of tough situations despite having clearly violated the law in ways that would have ruined the careers of most politicians.
The Double-Down is about eluding punishment, but in a larger sense it’s about eroding accountability. Trump succeeds because he has enormous support in this country, and members of his own party won’t hold him accountable for fear of turning that base against them. Even if he gets impeached by the House, the Republican-controlled Senate won’t cast him out of office, evidence be damned. And a big part of that is because there are so many people in America who also don’t care about accountability, as long as the person in the crosshairs is on their side. (This, unfortunately, happens on both sides.) Trump’s famous quote about being able to murder someone on the streets of New York without losing support resonates so much because it gets at this unsettling truth: For a disconcerting part of this country, the rules don’t matter.
And though to some extent accountability is codified in the justice system, a lot of its more important elements are unwritten. When a politician won’t resign, it turns out that it’s a long and complicated process to make him do so, and it’s not a guaranteed success. When Trump scoffs “norms,” it turns out that a lot of people scoff alongside him, and those who are supposed to hold him responsible are not very adept at doing so…and in fact are a little clueless about where to start.
There’s a story told by the former IRA leader and Sinn Fein politician Gerry Adams in his autobiography about one of the first times he was interrogated by the British police forces, summarized here:
One of the main political leaders in Ireland is Joe McGuigan. In March 1972, when Gerry Adams was arrested and interrogated at Palace barracks in Belfast, he insisted that it was a case of mistaken identity. As he recounted in his autobiography, Before the Dawn, “I had seized upon the device of refusing to admit I was Gerry Adams as a means of combating my interrogation. By continuing to assert that I was Joe McGuigan, I reasoned that I would thwart the interrogation by bogging it down on this issue”.
Adams was Doubling Down on an obvious untruth because he was facing an occupying force that he found illegitimate, and wanted to sabotage them in any way possible. It’s basically what men like Trump and Bevin are doing, except in their case it’s for personal gain within the system. But the end result is the same: By calling reality into question, they are destabilizing the institutions that keep this country in place, exposing the weak points, and bringing America closer to a state of chaos and unrest.
One of the big questions in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election was whether Trump would “accept” the results of a defeat. The question turned out to be irrelevant since he won, but it’s going to arise again in 2020 if polls aren’t favorable. And it will be just as frightening—what happens if he won’t accept defeat? What will his supporters do? How deep is his power, really, when his party controls Congress and the courts and can summon the rage of a very vocal minority of citizens? What power actually opposes him if he refuses to accept the tenets of American democracy as we’ve known it?
And what happens next? If the Double Down persists, can our institutions stand up to the test? Do we have the energy and belief to fight for the constancy that a country needs if it’s going to stop sliding toward dictatorship?
Matt Bevin is trying to exploit these same questions, and he’ll almost certainly fail because nobody really likes him. But the tactic has been proven effective, and you can see politicians and other powerful people and institutions coming around to it like an epiphany: You don’t have to back down when you’ve done something wrong. You can get away with more than you ever thought. And all that it requires is a talent for lying, a little popular support, and a deep, abiding contempt for your country and your fellow man.