We have a president who “seems to have an anti-democratic — small d — streak in him,” former Sen. Al Franken said Wednesday, in various ways, during a Zoom interview with the University of Minnesota Center for the Study of Politics and Government and its leader, political scientist Larry Jacobs.
Donald Trump is “laying a lot of groundwork” for contesting the outcome of this election, Franken said, which makes the former U.S. senator from Minnesota “particularly nervous.”
Under Jacobs’ questioning, Franken agreed that Trump would be in “much better shape” if he had handled the COVID pandemic competently. And, said Franken: “A malignant narcissist of even medium intelligence would have understood that handling [the pandemic] well would have led to his reelection. Clearly he didn’t. He didn’t understand that. We now know that he understood [early on how serious a threat COVID was to the health of Americans] and said so to Bob Woodward … he then lied to the American people by saying this was a “democratic hoax.”
Trump’s excuse for downplaying the seriousness of the health threat, Franken said, “was that he was being a cheerleader for the American people.”
But, added Franken, who first gained fame as a comedy writer and comedian, “I’ve been to a lot of high school games in Minnesota, but I’ve never seen one where the cheerleaders turn around and fire AK-47s into the crowd.”
Jacobs pressed Franken on whether he perceived that Biden was moving left on a lot of issues. Yes, Franken said, on government help that allows people to afford things like health care and higher education, but that’s “not that radical,” and he believes that the American people have been open to more government action in those policy areas.
So Jacobs challenged: Was Franken agreeing with the Republican attack line that Biden was becoming a “vessel for progressives”?
Franken replied: “If you mean believing in science, if that’s a progressive stance, then yeah, he’ll plead guilty to that, and noted that Scientific American magazine had made its first endorsement in its 175 years of its existence, endorsing Biden.
“So, yeah, we have a candidate who believes in evidence and we have a president who doesn’t, which is very frightening,” Franken said. He mentioned that Trump has been pressuring administration scientists to prematurely endorse potential treatments for COVID, like “convalescent plasma … and that’s what’s radical. And it’s wrong.”
As the first debate approaches, Franken’s advice to Biden was to not be afraid to point out when Trump is lying, but not to let that overshadow what he, Biden, will try to accomplish, like retaining coverage for pre-existing health conditions, which is part of the Affordable Care Act.
Franken thinks health care is a winning issue for Democrats. Congressional Democrats emphasized health care in the 2018 midterms and made huge gains, flipping 41 seats to take back majority control. Polls showed that, by a margin of 2-1, Americans said health care was the most important issue for them in that election, Franken said. But he hopes Democrats will also run this year on “infrastructure, obscene gaps in wealth and income, on increasing educational opportunities, for example making community college free, on creating jobs in green energy, and investing in infrastructure, which means more jobs.”
One key difference between the candidates, Franken said, is that Joe Biden “has a platform; Donald Trump doesn’t,” noting that Republicans broke precedent at their convention by not even adopting a platform.
Franken said that when Trump was asked by Sean Hannity, “What are your goals for a second term?” “he couldn’t come up with anything.”
Jacobs mentioned a book arguing that Trump doesn’t offer concrete programs, but is successful at “tapping into a wellspring of anxieties, frustrations and legitimate grievances … a politics of humiliation and grievance.” Franken pushed back slightly, saying that Trump found it easy to make Hillary Clinton into “the avatar of the elites,” but Joe Biden, working-class Joe from Scranton, Pennsylvania, comes across as “a very different person,” from Clinton, at least along those lines.
Franken said Democrats have no way of stopping Trump and Senate Republicans from putting another hard-line conservative on the Supreme Court this year. But after 2020, he thinks it would be “completely legitimate” for Democrats to increase the size of the Supreme Court. (He suggested they increase it from nine to 13, but not 15, and, while they’re at it, they should implement an 18-year tenure for justices. That way, he said, each president would get to nominate two justices in a four-year term, and the court would be regularly refreshed with new members and be freed from seeing changes occur irregularly via death or retirement.)
He was plenty worried about what Trump might do on Election Day, like declare victory without waiting for the huge number of mail-in ballots to be counted, taking the position that “The only way I’m not sworn in again on January 20 is if it’s been stolen from me.”
“This is not a guy who has any understanding or appreciation of democracy,” Franken said, noting that the world leaders Trump admires are Kim Jong Un and other autocrats.
Progressives are saying that “democracy itself is in jeopardy,” Jacobs said, with “Trump’s charges of fraud and threatening not to accept the results,” and offering “a whole slew of efforts to make voting more difficult.”
The system is already undemocratic in some respects, he added, noting a fact I hadn’t seen before: If you add up the votes received in their most recent election by the 47-member Democratic minority in the Senate, it’s more than the votes of the 53 Republicans. It’s a quirky fact. It takes a lot more votes to sustain the two Democratic senators from California than the two Republicans from Wyoming. But it inspired him to ask Franken whether Americans “should be looking to make bigger changes to make the system more democratic?”
Franken said the immediate concern is a president who “lacks any kind of understanding and dedication to the concept of democracy. …”
But Franken said his biggest fear is that if the election produces no clear winner, it will be decided either by the Supreme Court, which will soon be made up of six Republican-appointed justices, including three Trump appointees, and three justices nominated by a Democratic president. Or, he said, the election might even be thrown into the House, where (obscure fact coming here) each state delegation gets one vote, and the one Republican House member from Wyoming can cancel all of the votes from California’s overwhelmingly Democratic delegation.
Franken argued that one of the biggest changes in America is that the George Floyd killing and others like it around the country have brought about a turning point where now a solid majority of the country says that yes, systemic racism is a problem in America. But, he said, Trump does not believe in “systemic racism.”
If he were in the debate against Trump, Franken said, he would like to ask the president, “When exactly did systemic racism end in this country?”
He thinks Trump is out of touch with America on this question, or chooses blindness to the obvious reality because he is focused on connecting with the minority that supports him, and is “deliberately fanning flames of division.”
“I’ve never seen a president who just gave up on the idea, or it was never on his radar, the idea that he’s president of the entire country and it’s his job to bring people together,” Franken said. “Joe Biden is not FDR,” he said. “But he is Joe Biden, and I think he will try to do that.”