U.S. Election 2024 in a Post-Policy World, with Tom Nichols

May 23, 2024

Tom Nichols, staff writer at The Atlantic and professor emeritus at U.S. Naval War College, returns to The Doorstep in its penultimate episode to discuss the lead-up to the 2024 U.S. presidential election with co-hosts Nick Gvosdev and Tatiana Serafin. Will upcoming nominating conventions and presidential debates make a difference or have voters already made up their minds? How can the youth vote shake up the presidential race? What can we do to counter the influence of autocracies in the information war?

TATIANA SERAFIN: Welcome to this edition of The Doorstep. I am Tatiana Serafin, senior fellow here at Carnegie Council.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: And I am Nick Gvosdev, senior fellow at Carnegie Council as well, really pleased to welcome Tom Nichols, my former colleague at the U.S. Naval War College and the Harvard Extension School, now a staff writer with The Atlantic and also the author of Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from within on Modern Democracy. We had him on our podcast here four years ago to discuss that book, and now in 2024, just rereleased, is the second edition of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, here to talk about everything from vibes, the election, what motivates people to vote, and what we can expect in this coming election season. With that, Tatiana, I think we will go right into this very fascinating conversation with Tom.

Tom, it is so great to have you back with us at The Doorstep. I want to plunge right in with something that you have been discussing on your X and Bluesky and Threads accounts today which touches very much on this notion of news, information, and the informed citizenry. You have been dealing with the reality that Americans believe that we are in a recession when we are not and that people are claiming that the S&P 500 is down, when it is actually up.

Given that you have been able to release the second edition of Death of Expertise, are there any lessons that we are learning from the second edition of the book and these real-time examples about how people are gaining information but more importantly does it even matter? Do facts even matter any more, or are we now just in a post-fact, what I feel?

TOM NICHOLS: No. Facts are secondary to vibes and feelings.

One of the things I think is common to both editions of the book, a problem that has actually gotten worse over time, is that we increasingly prioritize emotion and feelings over reason and facts, and this is part of the underlying problem. I wrote about this in Our Own Worst Enemy as well as in The Death of Expertise. It is this underlying narcissism that says: “Look, if I feel like the S&P 500 is down, who are you to tell me that it’s not? What, are you calling me stupid? Are you telling me that my feelings don’t matter?”

Unfortunately the right answer to that, on this, is: “That’s right; your feelings don’t matter.” People get angry. I had a conversation back during the 2016 election. Donald Trump had said real unemployment was something like 40 percent, and one of my friends, a close friend, said to me, “Well, it could be that unemployment is 40 percent.”

I said, “Even during the Great Depression it wasn’t 40 percent; it was like 25 percent.” I said, “If it were 40 percent, we would be fighting over canned goods in the streets.”

He paused, and he said, “But what if I feel like it is?”

I don’t know how you answer somebody who is—of course, this being a close friend, I said: “Who cares about your feelings? You’re just wrong.” But it is hard to tussle with that, to tussle with someone who says, “Yes, but what if I feel like we’re in a recession?”

I think there are a couple of reasons for it, very quickly. One is, people pay attention to negative news. The media pushes negative news, but even when the media pushes good news people do not pay attention to it. They just wave it off as not relevant or ephemeral or transitory.

The other—and this is an interesting psychological problem, almost a superstition—is that people do not like to jinx good news by admitting it. My late dad had a lot of friends in the restaurant business, and he would always laugh because these guys would be making money hand over fist, but if you ask them how they are doing, they would say, “You know, it could be better, it has been tough.” They almost felt like they were endangering it to say, “Yes, I’m having a good year,” because the minute they said that it would stop happening.

There is one other thing that I think is peculiar especially to people who tend toward the left side of the political spectrum, which is that they tend to dismiss good news about themselves or their situation because they think that it is unkind or not compassionate to other people who might be suffering. If you say, “Look, we have had the longest stretch of under 4 percent unemployment since the 1950s,” a lot of folks from that side of the political argument will say: “Yes, but someone is suffering somewhere. There are still people who are living paycheck to paycheck,” which is always true. Even in the best economy there is frictional unemployment and people are struggling, but I think that for a particular group of people they think it is almost gauche to acknowledge good news.

For all these reasons, we simply view everything, whether it is foreign policy, economic data, or whatever, through this emotional priority rather than the cool lens of reason and rationality.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that certainly social media does not help because it fosters polarization. What I want to know — and you talk in one of your latest pieces — it is called the “MAGA memory hole,” and I want you to talk a little bit about that because you are back with us after a long while, almost four years. You were with us on our fourth episode, which was called, “The World Waits for the Next U.S. President,” and, gosh, we are in the same place. Is it a memory hole or are we stuck in time?

TOM NICHOLS: Some of it is a memory hole. For those of you who are not up on your high school-era literature, of course the term is from the book 1984, where inconvenient facts were shoved into a little slit in an office that took them to a furnace, never to be seen again.

I was talking about people on the left; now this is people on the right. They view the past very emotively. Nick and I, of course, are big The Simpsons fans. What’s the line from The Simpsons? “Everything is bad if you remember it.” I think a lot of folks simply wave away things that happen and say, “Well, that was a long time ago,” or “I don’t really remember that,” and especially, Tatiana, as you are pointing out about social media, it leads us into a kind of presentism, that nothing happened yesterday, tomorrow is unknowable, and everything is happening in the immediate ten minutes of this moment that I am typing on social media.

You cannot sustain a democracy on that. To use another pop culture allusion, that means that everybody is like the guy in the movie Memento, who could not form new memories. Every morning he wakes up and has to look at pictures and check himself for tattoos and little notes he has left himself because every time he goes to sleep he forgets everything and has to start all over again the next day.

Informed consent and participation in the political process means that you accumulate, interpret, and analyze information over time and that you have some memory of yesterday and some ability to forecast into tomorrow, and that is not emotionally satisfying. Now that we live in a post-material political era, that is, where we are not constantly trying to figure out how we are going to eat food, keep ourselves warm in the winter, or survive to the end of the day against invading hordes, packs of wolves, or whatever—and by the way, that era came to an end a lot more recently than people realize—that now we are free to say, “You know, my material needs are all met and now I can just feel stuff about politics.”

It is especially hard for somebody like Joe Biden, who is trying to run on a record as an incumbent. It is easier for the challenger, Donald Trump, to simply say, “Everything you feel is true because I’m not in office and I’m not responsible for it.” You cannot run elections this way. No democracy can stay on this treadmill of vibes for very long.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Can I connect to your last point there? You are talking about Joe Biden running on a record. Four years ago it was Donald Trump trying to run on a record or at least to get people to accept what his definition of the record was, and it was Joe Biden as the challenger. Now we have flipped the script in a way.

There is this underlying sense also — and I liked your point about post-material politics — that no matter what happens, it just can’t get that bad. If I feel this, and if we make a choice, what is the worse that could happen? What does that mean for, again, our audience, the informed public, and citizens getting ready to vote, this sense of, “Well, it really doesn’t matter because how bad could it get?” Is there a difference this time around?

Again, we had you in 2020, days before the November election. We did not necessarily fully understand what might result from that election and then manifest itself the following January, but this time around what may be at stake? As you said, we cannot sustain a democracy on vibes for the long term. We cannot sustain a republic. What does this also mean, this sense that no choice is fatal, it doesn’t really matter, or how bad can it get?

TOM NICHOLS: The phrase we are looking for here is “normalcy bias.” No matter what happens, tomorrow is going to look mostly like today. That is true right up until the day it isn’t, and people have a hard time getting their arms around that. I will put in a plug for my magazine here, for The Atlantic. We did an entire special issue with two dozen authors saying, “This is what a second term of Donald Trump could look like,” because we wanted to help people imagine this. As my editor-in-chief Jeff Goldberg said, “And to put it in front of the American people and ask, ‘Is this what you want?’”

You have to make an informed decision. It cannot just be, whether you are a Trump voter or Biden voter, I don’t think anybody thinks—I shouldn’t say that. I think too many people think that a second Trump term is going to be like another term of Biden but with lower gas prices, but even Biden and Trump supporters, the most ardent ones, would say: “That’s not true. There would be dramatic changes.”

There is a great line from Ernest Hemingway about going bankrupt that I think applies to this kind of political change: “How do you go bankrupt? Gradually, and then all at once.” I think people are not internalizing how much things can change.

I think that is one of the reasons we had trouble dealing with the pandemic. I remember driving around those first weeks in 2020 and saying, “This is like a dystopian science fiction novel,” literally a once-in-a-hundred-year thing, and it took me a while to internalize. I remember my daughter asking me, “How long is this going to last?” I was like, “Gee, I don’t know. It could be three, four, five months maybe.” The idea that I would have said, “Look, our life is fundamentally different and will be for at least two years and it is going to change”—that was a hard thing to conceptualize. I think people are having a hard time conceptualizing any kind of serious political change.

Whatever my personal feelings about Donald Trump, that is not a partisan comment. These are things Trump himself is saying he will do that are dramatic departures from the norms of American politics, and I think a lot of folks and just saying, “Well, you know, it is just stuff people say.”

When we were talking back in 2017 it was all notional. We said, “Well, maybe it’s an act, maybe he doesn’t really mean some of that stuff, maybe he wouldn’t govern that way,” but after four years I think these are things that he said that we have to take seriously.

I think voters are not focused on that because again they have replaced a lot of what happens in the political world with the movie they are watching in their heads rather than what is actually happening out there because they have already made up their minds and are reverse engineering everything to get to their preferred political choice anyway.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Tom, I want to ask you from a doorstep angle — we have been trying to present international news related to the American audience in a way that is meaningful. Where do you think that stands? Do you think the American public is looking at international news or, to your point in our conversation, looking at whatever is in the moment and their feeling about it? I am wondering this in particular because what happened to Ukraine and why aren’t we talking about Iran more? How is this going to impact one of our questions from four years ago: What is the world expecting from us?

TOM NICHOLS: Unfortunately foreign policy is always secondary to most voter concerns. I don’t think foreign policy has taken a front seat in a presidential election I guess, you could say, since 2004 because we were actually in a shooting war, but even then there was a whole bundle of issues around that, and maybe 1984 with the Cold War and nuclear weapons playing a big part—the infamous “bear in the woods” ad that the Republicans ran about the Soviet Union and so on. Otherwise, the public does not pay a whole lot of attention to foreign policy.

It is like a kitten with a laser pointer. This gigantic war—and I keep trying to emphasize to people, the largest war since the Nazis went on the march in Europe—is taking place in the middle of Europe, and that has been pushed aside by Gaza, which has, for various reasons, engaged the public’s attention, particularly because of campus unrest.

Then the story became not Gaza and the war against Hamas but the protests about it on campuses, which actually reflect a small number of very vocal students. Once again, people are not focusing on huge foreign policy differences in this election. Donald Trump says things like he is going to pull us out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and people shrug, like, “I don’t really know what means, and NATO has always been there”—again, there is that normalcy bias: “Things can’t really change that much. He couldn’t really do that.” But there are a bunch of things that could happen that would change our place in the world and turn us maybe not into a second-rate power but into a much quicker declining power if we do not pay attention to them.

Again, I think most people have made up their minds about how they feel about the candidates and about issues in the world, and then they—I will use this expression again—“reverse engineer” how to get there. They say: “My guy does not like NATO; well then, neither do I. I have never really thought about NATO, but now I don’t like it.”

Interestingly enough, the Democrats have gone in the other direction. When I was a younger person working in politics, the Democrats were the go-slow folks on defense spending, confronting the Russians, and taking on the Kremlin, and now the Democratic Party has become the pro-NATO, anti-Kremlin party, but I just don’t think people are paying enough attention to that.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I wanted to pick up that reverse-engineering point because I think that it also speaks to something in our politics. Over the last number of months we have had a lot of attention paid and a lot of virtual ink spilled about members of Congress, the vote on the supplemental, support for Israel, and support for Ukraine. What we are seeing now is that voters may say in polling data, “I support aid to Ukraine” or “I don’t support aid to Ukraine,” but how their member voted on that supplemental doesn’t seem to matter. At the end of the day—and we are seeing it from a number of these primary challenges—“Well, you were against this, so we are going to run a primary challenge.” “Well, I disagreed with Congressman So-and-So on this issue, but at the end of the day I support aid to Ukraine, she voted against it, but that is not going to change my vote.”

Is there a sense that—again, going back to the vibes question—that people are not voting on platforms, they are not voting on what people say they are going to do or not do in office, and that it is more, “Do I feel that you represent me” or “Do you not like the people I don’t like” or “You’re going to hurt the people I don’t like politically” or otherwise? What are you seeing after two editions of Death of Expertise and speaking engagements all across the country over the last eight years? Where is this going?

TOM NICHOLS: There is no persistence of views about policy. One reason I think that the Republicans who voted in favor of the Ukraine bill did not pay a price for it is that once it was over nobody cared.

This goes back to Tatiana’s point about social media. A lot of people—I have argued this, as you say, Nick, when I have done speaking gigs. I say: “Look, you are not required to have an instantaneous opinion about everything all the time.” But people do that and it becomes the very online version of that discourse that most voters are not a part of. Most voters probably could not tell you how their rep voted on the Ukraine aid package. The ones who are very vocal about it and propel it into the narrative, discourse, or whatever we call all this, when we wave our hands and say “all this,” they feel very strongly about it until they go on to feel strongly about something else. So you get this kaleidoscope of changing issues that I think puts a lot of distance between elected officials and the public, because elected officials cannot keep up with that. They do not have that luxury.

I worked for a mayor, a state representative, and a U.S. senator. When people call with very contradictory or almost impossible things—“Good morning. What’s your issue?”

“I would like the senator to close down the Federal Reserve.”

“Thank you for your interest in government. That is not going to happen.”

Or the people even now who call their congressman and say, “I want you to repeal Obamacare, but I want you to keep the Affordable Care Act.” Your elected officials at that point go: “Okay, we’ll do that,” then hang up the phone and say, “We’re just going to do whatever we gotta do” based on other priorities or criterion including donors, money, vocal constituency groups, and so on.”

I think part of the problem is that we live in a post-policy world. The real way, Nick, to think about the “vibes economy” or the “vibes election” is that it is all a post-policy environment. I don’t think most people outside of the wonk world that you, Tatiana, and I live in cannot explain the policy differences that they are voting on in any way that is going to hold water. They say, “I want lower prices, I want cheaper gas, I want more affordable groceries, I want mortgage rates to come down,” but those are wants; those are not policy preferences that can translate into anything. Presidents especially do not have a lot of control over any of that. Those presidents don’t have control over it, but people say, “Well, if he did, this is the guy I would want.”

You and I have written about this. Political scientists call this the “Green Lantern theory,” the superhero with a ring that can do anything if he just concentrates hard enough. I did not coin that great phrase. I have written about it as, “The president is not Superman.” He cannot just fly fast and turn the Earth backward if you want him to, but people do not believe that anymore. We have come to believe in a very personalized and powerful presidency that bears almost no relationship to reality.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I want to go back to your point about not knowing what policy your representative is for. Some people do not even know who their representative is. I think it is even more dire.

As you were talking, I was thinking, the latest issue I just got of The Atlantic—Anne Applebaum, “The New Propaganda War”—and I know you wrote a piece about it too, “Autocracies are Winning the Information War.” I wonder if in part that is because of what we have been talking about here today, the fact that people are responding to an image or a feeling about an image rather than policy and information, so it is easier to promote propaganda if you are just going to relate it to a picture.

TOM NICHOLS: The authoritarians who are attacking our information environment understand one thing about us that is important. They understand what a bored society we are and how much we crave drama and entertainment, and they provide it.

There is an interesting feedback loop that happened between American television and Russian television. People who watch Russian nighttime TV have referred to the “Fox-ification” of Russian television, that nighttime Russian TV now looks a lot like Fox News with the chyrons, the dramatic sets, and the colorful backgrounds, the shouting, and all that stuff. But that feedback loop works in the other direction now. The Russians have been able I think to create stories that get play on the internet in some corners of American media.

I saw just yesterday that even though Tucker Carlson was finally forced off Fox his Twitter show, his podcast, videocast, that is now on Twitter, the Russians are going to start streaming it in translation, again this kind of crosspollination, because Carlson toward the end on Fox was a very reliable conduit of Russian talking points. I am not saying he was working for the Russians, but there was a feedback loop there, where you could tune in at primetime to the biggest show on Fox with millions and millions of voters—by the way, Fox’s demographic being a much more likely to vote demographic in the over-55 demo—and hear things that you would have heard on Russian television. Then on Russian television you would get the evening host saying: “Tucker Carlson is the smartest American commentator. Here is what he said today.”

The authoritarian governments in China, Iran, and others have played that well because they understand that we don’t want—this is an analogy I use all the time—nutritious, balanced meals of good information. We want junk food. We want sugary milkshakes and triple cheeseburgers, and they know how to promote that stuff.

I will just end this rant, pointing out that Aaron Rodgers, the football player, actually went out there about a month ago, in April, and repeated the old Soviet—not Russian—propaganda story about COVID-19, AIDS, and all these diseases being developed by the U.S. Army. The Soviets did that with AIDS in the 1980s and later came out and said: “Yes, that was us. We can’t believe we sucked you in on that one.” I think the head of the SVR, the Foreign Intelligence Service, said this in the early 1990s, and yet here we are 40 years later and Aaron Rodgers is out there basically sending out that same line.

Why? Because it’s interesting, because it’s dramatic, because it’s conspiratorial and thrilling, and the idea that sometimes stuff happens in the world, Americans have lost their appetite for that unfortunately. They want everything to be entertaining and dramatic so that they can cast themselves in the role of great warriors for great causes.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I want to take that last point and tie it to another point you just raised about voting and demographics. On the one hand, we have a reliable cohort of over-55 voters who come out. When you were with us last a big question was the youth vote, the under-29 vote: Was it going to turn out? How much would it turn out? What would motivate it to turn out?

Here we are four years later, and again the question of youth turnout and youth enthusiasm is still on the agenda, the question of will the under-29s vote, and who are they going to vote for, or if they are, who are they not going to vote for?

How is this playing out? This theme you said of wanting to be part of the bigger story, this has been something I think we have tracked in American politics that people always want a Selma moment, they want to feel that they are at the center of historical, moving events. In 2020 we had elements of a big pandemic. This was supposed to be the election to reset to normalcy. Now in 2024 the race looks to be a tossup, and you have young people saying we are not going to vote or we’re not sure who we’re going to vote for. How is all of this going to play out?

TOM NICHOLS: One thing that is true is that younger voters just don’t vote at the same rate as older folks. That has been true even since I was a younger voter. I was unusual as a young voter; I never missed an election.

Turnout rates among young voters are always bad, from the time they got the vote in the mid-1970s. There is a kind of “Lucy and the football” feeling when you are dealing with younger voters. They say, “Well, this time we’re definitely going to show up, this time the youth vote is going to matter.” It did in 2020 and we applauded the youth vote this time for only being 15 points behind everybody else. It was a higher-turnout election, but the youth vote lagged exactly the way it always does behind people much older.

If younger folks are watching this or listening to this, I will just say, “If you get mad about older people constantly getting their way with policy preferences about things like not forgiving student loans, the housing market, and other things, it’s because they vote. It is because the system responds to the people who vote.” We saw that bump in 2020 and then a dip in 2022.

With that said, I think in some races younger people really are coming around to the realization that this is their future at stake. I think overturning Roe v. Wade was a real shock. That is one of those normalcy things. I fell into that. For years I said: “Look, calm down. No one’s going to overturn Roe v. Wade.”

There is possibly an apocryphal story about one of Reagan’s staffers saying, “Now that you are president, are you are going to try to get rid of abortion?” and he said, “Do I look crazy?” Reagan was anti-abortion, but he understood that there were limits on that debate.

Now it has actually happened and you have states that are basically trying to criminalize not just abortion but all kinds of reproductive care. Younger people are cluing into that, and I hope that they do.

I think some of this too is social media or echo chamber stuff, when you have young people saying, “I’m not going to vote for Joe Biden because of Gaza,” well, okay. Joe Biden is not the president of Israel, but if that is the thing that motivates you, that is your preference. But then if you poll all young people Gaza falls to something like 15th in terms of the policy interests of under-30 voters. That is a very niche kind of campus-oriented view about younger voters dumping Biden over Gaza or their student loans or whatever.

My bigger concern is that younger folks don’t show up because it is in the nature of young voters not to show up. I think that is the bigger problem, and I don’t think it has anything to do specifically with Joe Biden.

Biden has trouble with younger voters because he is old. He looks old and he sounds old, and younger voters always want to have people—the last president who really engaged those voters was Barack Obama in 2008, but once again, once Obama was elected with a quick surge in the youth vote that vote fell off again, and by 2010 the Republicans were able to make huge gains, and by 2014 they had recaptured—in part relying on the youth vote not showing up—a lot of seats, and by 2016, as I try to remind people all the time, the Republican Party in the United States controlled the House, the Senate, the White House, most governor’s mansions, a lion’s share of state legislatures, and most of the elected seats in various levels of government across the United States. The only thing that saved the Democrats from being a permanent minority was Donald Trump basically scaring the heck out of a lot of people and changing the dynamic of those elections.

I keep trying to tell younger voters: “You could have everything you want. If you up your turnout by 7 or 8 percent, you could run the country,” but it is tough to do.

TATIANA SERAFIN: In all of this dismal news, is there any hope? What are you hopeful about as we look forward to the election and to the next year? What is your five-year outlook?

TOM NICHOLS: I’m not doing that five-year thing. That’s like asking me in 1985 where I thought the Soviet Union would be in 1990. I am onto your clever interviewer tricks.

What I am hoping for in the next five months is that people start taking what is at stake in this election seriously. I feel like we are an unserious electorate.

Nick opened this conversation saying half the people in this country think we are in a recession. That means two things: One is that no one understands what a recession is; and second, that people who self-report that their own well-being is quite high—we know this now from multiple polls. People say, “I’m doing fine.” When asked about life satisfaction, more than three-quarters of the people in this country say, “I am satisfied or very satisfied with my quality of life” and then somehow turn around and say “But everything is bad and we are in a recession and the S&P is down and it is a horrible time.”

That is not a serious conversation. You cannot create policy out of that. All you can do is fall into a kind of TV show competition about who you like better. In some years that’s fine; that’s just the way elections are. People liked John F. Kennedy more than they liked Richard Nixon. There is the old problem of the people who saw the debate on TV thought Kennedy won; the people who heard it on the radio thought Nixon won.

This time around, the stakes are just too high. I believe we are in an existential political crisis in the United States. I think if Biden wins the election we are going to continue being this churlish electorate that is probably going to hobble a lot of policymaking, although one of the things I like about Joe Biden in general is that he ignores social media and does not take his cues from the online segment of the population.

I think if Biden wins there will be violence. I think Trump is priming a lot of his voters for that, and I think if Trump wins there are going to be dramatic changes to our democracy that will include attacks on the rule of law, civil-military relations, and constitutional norms. I just wish people were thinking about that more.

In a way I would be more comfortable if people said, “Yes, I understand that Donald Trump is going to politicize the military, seize the Justice Department, use the Federal Bureau of Investigation against his enemies, and I want that.” At least that would be a real argument to have with someone, but I think it is very difficult when someone says, “Well, I don’t think he ever said that.”

I get that a lot when I have conversations even offline, in the real world, with friends. I ask, “How do you feel about this?” And they say: “I don’t remember that. I didn’t hear that. I don’t watch the news.”

I have a friend whose mother was a very staunch Trump voter, and during the January 6th hearings she asked her mom, “How do you feel about this now?”

“I don’t watch any of that. I won’t watch that.”

I don’t know how you have conversations with people who feel that way. I don’t know how you have conversations with young voters who say, “Joe Biden is willfully enabling a genocide,” which just isn’t true. That is a wall of emotion in front of people that you cannot break through without infuriating them.

Being bipartisan about this, I think it is just as difficult sometimes to talk to folks who say, “Nothing bad that has happened in the economy or Afghanistan”—this is a particular one. “The withdrawal from Afghanistan went fine. Nobody could have handled it better than Joe Biden.”

I wrote about it at the time. I said: “This was not a well-executed plan. It was bungled terribly. People died. Presidents have to take responsibility for that,” and I have had people say: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. It was magnificent.” That is the state of play in American politics now.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That is fascinating given that, Tatiana, we had a Doorstep that was essentially live from Kabul with our reporters there as this was going on telling us what was happening.

Well, Tatiana, you always say I am the pessimistic one. You asked Tom for a note of good news.

TOM NICHOLS: I didn’t give you any, did I?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That makes me look like I am all sunshine and light.

TOM NICHOLS: Let me try again and say that I think, no matter what happens in 2024, one of the real strengths of the American system of government is federalism and that the people who have argued that the day after Trump is elected darkness falls across the country, there will be some dangerous things that will happen, but they will not happen everywhere. There are still state governments, governors, legislatures, and a functioning Constitution. The idea that dictatorship happens in January 2025—it is more difficult to do than that.

I do have a lot of faith in the American public. I still think that they have not really clued into what is going on yet because it is May. We have not even had the summer conventions and debates that are coming and so on, but also I think one of the things we learned between 2016 and 2020 is that the president can issue all kinds of commands and orders but that there are plenty of states. We are a union of states. We are not a central government, we are a federal government, and there are plenty of states that said, “We’re not doing that, and we’re going to challenge you in court.”

The Muslim ban was a good example. Day one: “I’m going to ban”—he never called it a “Muslim” ban—“people from these Muslim countries,” and that got kicked back over and over and over again because there were lawyers, courts, and state governments that said: “No, you are not an emperor. We don’t just simply do these things.” There is my one attempt to put a little brightness into this otherwise gloomy thing.

I cannot help but end on a note of gloom. If people do not comprehend reality and engage with what actually happens in the world, keep living inside their own heads, and keep watching the movie that is playing behind their eyes rather than what is happening out in the world, we are not long to exist as a functioning democracy and a superpower.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I am going to leave it in the end on hope in our federal system. Thank you so much for joining us, Tom. This was a great conversation.

TOM NICHOLS: Thank you.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Thank you again for joining us for the penultimate edition of The Doorstep podcast. We want to welcome you to join us for our final episode, which will be live at Carnegie Council headquarters here in New York City. We will be speaking with Peter Goodman, author of How the World Ran Out of Everything: Inside the Global Supply Chain live. You can also catch us on the Carnegie Council YouTube channel, June 12th, 6:00 pm. Please join us.

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

You may also like

Left to Right: Nikolas Gvosdev, Tatiana Serafin, Peter Goodman. CREDIT: Noha Mahmoud.

JUN 13, 2024 Podcast

How the World Ran Out of Everything, with Peter S. Goodman

In the final "Doorstep" podcast, "New York Times" reporter Peter Goodman discusses how geopolitics is connected to the goods that end up on our doorstep.

MAY 13, 2024 Podcast

The Continuing Exploitation of the Global Sugar Trade, with Megha Rajagopalan

In collaboration with Marymount Manhattan College's Social Justice Academy, Tatiana Serafin & "New York Times" reporter Megha Rajagopalan discuss human rights & the global sugar trade.

APR 25, 2024 Podcast

Protecting Cyberspace, with Derek Reveron and John Savage

Derek Reveron & John Savage join "The Doorstep" to discuss their book "Security in the Cyber Age." How can we mitigate the harmful effects of AI?