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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

When Shenandoah relaunched under the editorial vision of Beth Staples in fall 2018, I was lucky to be on board as the journal’s first comics editor. That rebirth issue featured comics artists Mita Mahato and Tillie Walden, and the subsequent issues have included seven more comics by creators: Miriam Libicki, Rainie Oet and Alice Blank, Marguerite Dabaie, Holly Burdorff, Fabio Lastrucci, Gregg Williard, and Apol Sta. Maria, Marlon Hacla, and Kristine Ong Muslim.

Issue Volume 70, Number 1 just went live this week, and I think Beth was being a little too kind to me, because it features almost twice as many comics titles as previous issues:

Also, unlike those first few issues that featured only works from artists I had personally solicited, these artists all found their way to our Submittable portal unprompted–which I take as evidence of Shenandoah‘s increasing reputation not just as a prestigious literary journal (it’s been that for decades), but now also as major home for literary comics. The term “literary comics” is a new one, but I’m glad to see Shenandoah helping to define it. I had organized an AWP panel on the topic, “Comics Editors & Literary Journals,” but the pandemic had other plans. Happily though, Shenandoah is expanding its comics reach with guest comics editor Rachelle Cruz curating the Spring issue (if you don’t know her textbook Experiencing Comics, you should check it out).

First though, let me give some teasers for the winter issue’s cast of artists, starting with Angus Woodward’s The Art Table.”  I’m especially impressed by how Angus pushes against comics conventions, while still providing the narrative pleasures of the form. 

Amy Collier’s “Birds You’re Watching and the Complex Histories You’ve Made up About Their Personal Lives Due to Boredom” is an especially (yet subtly) timely sequence that indirectly (and comically) evokes the psychological effects of the pandemic lockdown. 


Grey Wolfe LaJoie’s Unfished Unfinished in an artful comics ars poetica, shifting from black and white line art to full watercolor as it literally turns the form sideways. 

Mark Laliberte’s two excerpts from “AM/FM/PM” turn the form on its head, experimenting with the wonderful weirdness of juxtaposition (and, because of the online formatting, even a hint of match-cut animation). 


Jenny Lesser’s watercolors imbue her Anger Management with paradoxical pleasure that invigorates even the letters of the static words. 


We also owe Jenny an additional and massive thank you for the original watercolor portraits she painted of readers (poets, fiction writers, memoirists) from the Zoom launch party last week:

They’re all in the new issue!

 Dancing After TEN (9781683963165): Chong, Vivian, Webber,  Georgia: Books

I’m always intrigued when I see two author names listed on a graphic memoir. I know what that usually means for a graphic novel: the first name belong to the writer, the second to the artist. But both Vivian Chong and Georgia Webber, the co-authors of the graphic memoir Dancing After TEN, are artists. For monthly comic books, that usually means the first name is the penciler’s, the second the inker’s. But again, not this time. Chong’s and Webber’s individual art sometimes occupies separate pages, sometimes separate panels on the same pages, and sometimes separate elements within shared panels. The combination is an interwoven visual conversation, based in part on actual face-to-face conversations they had at Chong’s kitchen table (as drawn by Webber). The memoir also merges—and in some cases literally tapes together—artwork spanning more than a dozen years.

Fantagraphics Books on Twitter: ""Across the book, images register both how  Chong is seen by the external world and how she feels, translating  sensation to the page..." Dancing After Ten by Vivian

Chong, who is now blind, briefly regained a portion of her vision and immediately began drawing a memoir of how she lost her sight to a rare syndrome (toxic epidermal necrolysis, or “TEN” of the title). Her regained sight only lasted a few weeks before the syndrome left her permanently blind, but she sketched dozens of images first, all in a frenetic sometimes scribbled style as her eyes worsened and she leaned her face closer and closer to the paper. She abandoned the project, but kept the pages and eventually shared them with Webber (via a theater director currently working on a play about Chong).

Webber once suffered a severe vocal injury, and Fantagraphics published her memoir, Dumb: Living Without a Voice, two years ago. She and Chong worked together, arranging and filling-in and further widening Chong’s initial artwork. The result is one of the most fascinating collaborations in the comics form I’ve ever seen.

Dancing After TEN' Graphic Memoir Will Move You - PopMatters

I’m always interested in process and how a finished product encodes the history of its making, and that is nowhere more evident than in Dancing After TEN. Where the sudden shifts in style (Webber’s lines are thick, clean, and flowing—essentially the opposite of Chong’s thin, choppy ones) might feel disruptive in another work, they always gesture to not only the creative process (Chong and Webber seated together working) but the parallel disruptions in Chong’s actual experiences. The surface of Chong’s drawings tell the story of her losing her vision (her ex-boyfriend’s sister lied and gave a her pill that triggered the syndrome while they were on vacation), while their hectic execution evokes the much later story of her briefly regained vision.

Dancing After TEN' - Vivian Chong | Georgia Webber | Graphic Novels -  Engelstalig | Studio Hoekhuis

The combinations are also artful in themselves. Webber’s lettering and speech containers appear within Chong’s drawings, and Chong’s drawings often provide backgrounds for Webber’s art. The two artists also chose a fitting two-color approach: each page combines a range of black and blue gradations, further unifying the memoir. Later pages also give space to each artist individually. Webber abandons the two-row panels that dominate the memoir for an open arrangement of more detailed figures and settings. The stylistic change parallels and so helps to express Chong’s psychological change as she embraces her new life. That includes taking up the pen again.

Dancing after TEN, a graphic memoir by Vivian Chong and Georgia Webber

The final pages feature Chong’s new art, drawn with Webber’s encouragement. As Chong explains in an ending note: “TEN did not take away my ability draw, just my ability to see my drawings.” Some are abstract, a spray of lines evoking emotions. Others are representations of herself, sometimes with her seeing-eye-dog, sometimes her dancing alone. Her contour lines evoke shapes, movement, and, through their misalignments, the challenges of and her energetic responses to living without sight. 

Vivian Chong was creating her new graphic novel. Then she went blind.  Here's what happened next | The Star

As much as I admire the combined artwork, I suspect most readers will be engaged by Chong’s story—not just the struggle and bravery of overcoming hardship, but her skill in shaping events and the extraordinary details of the plot. The opening chapters leap between distant moments: leaving from the airport for the eye surgery, arriving in St. Martin for the fateful vacation, deftly making tea for Webber in her apartment, waking from an induced coma. Wong weaves the fragments into emerging coherence that reverses the trajectory of her own trauma within the story.

Dancing After TEN | CBC Books

She also depicts two of the biggest asshole boyfriends I’ve seen in a graphic memoir. Her portrayals are forgiving—literally when she declares her forgiveness to the one who abandoned her in the hospital and lied to their friends about where she was. The other one asks her to “watch” his bag at the terminal, complains that there’s no TV in her hospital room, leaves instead of taking notes for her while she’s consulting with doctors, hints that he doesn’t want to wait there if the surgery is gong to be long. I forget which one started sleeping with someone else while she lingered unconscious for two months. The grueling tale of her physical recovery parallels the psychological recovery from dating such shitty human beings. 

The last third of the memoir loses some plot focus as a result. There are still fascinating details (Chong learns yoga, becomes a stand-up comic, overcomes her fear of dogs, loses her hearing), but the narrative shape is less satisfying—until the last portion draws in the memoir’s sweeping energy again. Dancing at TEN documents both an extraordinary life story and an extraordinary creative process that crowns it. Now I want tickets to Dancing with the Universe, a play that includes Chong dancing and performing as herself.

Sweet Time and Other Stories GN #1-1ST NM 2020 Stock Image

It’s a little too early to announce my favorite comic of 2020, so I’ll just say Weng Pixin’s Sweet Time & Other Stories is one-hell-of-a contender.

Though the art of Sweet Time is by definition comics art, it stands impressively far apart from most of the conventions and genre expectations of the medium’s mainstream publishing history. In terms of form, Pixin is a comics artist—because she is composing sequences of juxtaposed images—but the visual impact of her artwork escapes the norms of most other graphic literature.

Exclusive Excerpt: "Infatuation" from Weng Pixin's SWEET TIME & OTHER  STORIES - SOLRAD

This is true despite her working with traditional panels and gutters. Though how often does a comics artist carefully construct and layer strips of paper to form gutters that are as visually engaging as the content of the images they frame? How often does a comics artist focus attention on the qualities of her brushwork as her impressionist dabs widen into the thick swaths of an expressionist? How often is a comics viewer able to appreciate the texture of the paper absorbing the watercolors? It might be more accurate to simply call Pixin an artist, one who happens to be working in the comics form.

Book Giveaway: "Sweet Time" by Weng Pixin

Categorizing Sweet Time is pleasantly difficult too.  What do you term something that combines fiction and nonfiction—though maybe doesn’t? Graphic memoirs are sometimes called graphic novels despite prose novels indicating fictional content. Whatever the nature of Pixin’s content, the second half of her title, & Other Stories, implies a collection, so even the more recent and inclusive term graphic narrative falls short.

The fifteen subtitled subsections range from four to thirty pages, though most hover in the teens. Four are sequences of visual diaries organized by place: New York, Argentina, Lampung, Home. Other sections strike an autobiographical tone: a childhood crush, conversations with boyfriends, meeting a stranger in a bar, lots of mildly disturbing sex. The scene between an anthropomorphic frog and an anthropomorphic cat is obviously fantastical, though the flavor of its dream logic seems grounded in experience. But the young couple in the row boat who float past a burning funeral pyre, is that a dream too?

Sweet Time by Weng Pixin – GiantRobotStore

The one wordless section, “Past Basement for Gold,” transcends the fiction/nonfiction dichotomy in the way any painting or sequence of paintings avoids such literary analysis.  No one asks if an O’Keefe or a Rothko is autobiographical. While most of Pixin’s images are representational, sometimes the degree of abstraction is so high, they begin to dissolve into pure form. That’s a real rarity in traditional comics, and one of the many strengths of Pixin’s.

Technically there’s no difference between the abstractions of fine arts painting (Picasso’s cubist distortions, for example) and the abstractions of comics cartooning. Both simplify and exaggerate. Pixin brings them even further together by employing an aggressively abstract style to repeating figures that, even though they appear in comic strips, resist the clichés of cartoons. Her blocky shapes and wonky perspectives are so rudimentary they can evoke children’s drawings at times, and yet their consistency and precision are equally striking. I especially admire the full-page paintings in the longest sequence, “The Boat,” for capturing nuances of emotion through the figures’ facial expressions, while also emphasizing the formal effects of the brushstrokes that create them. Better still, the textures of the strokes on the page, while not directly representing anything in the story-world, evoke emotional qualities in themselves, doubling the overall impact of the images. That’s arguably what people mean when they distinguish something as “art.” Form and substance combine to achieve something that transcends each individually.

Sweet Time | Books | Illustrated Picture Books | Woods in the Books

Pixin makes the most of the comics form, while literally turning it sideways. Though Sweet Time is a standard size and shape for book publishing, its rectangular pages are wider than they are tall, and so the spine attaches at what would be the top edge of most other books. The internal panels run left-to-right, most often two to a page, but some of the collection’s best sequences compress a dozen panels across three rows, each image only slightly larger than a postage stamp. The result should be cramped, but Pixin’s improbable combination of precision and looseness gives each page a feel of natural balance, as though no other formal approach would suffice. She also arranges three of the sequences as columns instead of rows, requiring the viewer to rotate the book and flip the pages like a calendar, before rotating it back again for the next sequence.

Pixin’s narrative style is equally eclectic. Each diary entry is a stand-alone semi-distorted snapshot-slice-of-life with no overarching plot or thematic focus unifying the progression, and yet the artistic effect is still unified. Her presumably fictional “stories” do share subject matter, as their similarly drawn protagonists navigate some thorny moment of a relationship, whether long-term or newly formed.

Drawn & Quarterly's latest graphic novels are a balm for our troubled times  | Georgia Straight Vancouver's News & Entertainment Weekly

The archetypal figures and nudity made me want to read “Roses” as a riff on Adam and Eve, a continuous visual motif undercut by the couple’s eventual break-up and the woman’s wandering out into the wilderness alone. “Pairs” concludes both more positively (no break-up) and more darkly (the gray watercolors of the woman’s dying father interweave with the couple’s love-making). The title story concludes the collection with a love-making scene that literally dissolves into pure abstraction, before rebooting the next morning for a cringingly precise second bout followed by a one-panel scene of estranged coffee.

Others are harder to summarize, which is appropriate. No summary of a painting or a poem is ever adequate. That’s the point. Whatever you call Sweet Time, it’s a welcome expansion to the practical definition of comics as an art form.

At Home with Weng Pixin - YouTube

A week before the election, I gathered and posted conglomerate polling numbers from FiveThirtyEight (updated October 26) for the ten battleground states. Here they are again, now with the actual outcomes:


Polls: Biden up 8.

Results: Biden by 3.

Difference: 5 for Trump


Polls: Biden up 6.7.

Results: Biden by .6. 

Difference: 6.1 for Trump


Polls: Biden up 5.6.

Results: Biden by 1.

Difference: 4.6 for Trump.


Polls: Biden up 3.0.

Results: Biden by .3.

Difference: 2.7 for Trump.

North Carolina

Polls: Biden up 2.5.

Results: Trump by 1.3.

Difference: 3.8 for Trump.


Polls: Biden up 2.4.

Results: Trump by 3. 

Difference: 5.4 for Trump.


Polls: Biden up 1.2.

Results: Trump by 8.2.

Difference: 9.4 for Trump.


Polls: Biden up .4.

Results: Biden by .3.

Difference: .1 for Trump. 


Polls: Biden up .1.

Results: Trump by 5.7.

Difference: 5.8 for Trump. 


Polls: Trump up 1.5.

Results: Trump by 8.

Difference: 9.5 for Trump. 


So the one good moment for the state polls:

threading the Georgia needle by .1.

The worst moments:

missing Iowa and Ohio by almost double digits.

Even worse:

missing seven of the ten states by more than four points. 

Worst overall:

under polling Trump every time. 

Okay, but what about the national polls? 

On the day before the election, Biden was up by 8.4 at FiveThirtyEight, and by 7.2 at RealClearPolitics. The national vote results are still dribbling in, but Biden has at least 3.7, and FiveThirtyEight projects an eventual 4.3. So the least possible mistake is 2.5 for Trump, falling barely within a 3-point margin of error. At worst, the mistake is 4.7 for Trump. 

That’s a lot worse than in 2016, when the RealClearPolitics final average put Clinton up by 3.2, and then she won the popular vote the next day by 2.1. That difference of 1.1 is pretty good. The mistakes in 2016 were only in some states polls, and, like with the popular vote, those mistakes only grew in 2020. 

Pollsters have at least one line of defense: their margins of error were often 5 points. I wrote here two weeks before the election:

“Placing states with Biden or Trump leads under 5% as toss-ups, on Tuesday October 20, two weeks before Election Day, the state polls put Biden at 259 electoral votes.”

Only Michigan and Wisconsin were outside a 5-point margin of error. So according to the October 20 polls, the Electoral College was a toss-up–though with a massive Biden advantage. But a week later I wrote: 

“As of today, Monday October 26, eight days before the Election, the polls would put Biden at 279 by including Pennsylvania. All of the other battleground states remain in the toss-up column’s margin of error.”

And that’s what happened. Biden won Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, with contested leads in Arizona and Georgia.

Of course that doesn’t explain the mistakes always falling in the same direction. If these were just garden-variety sampling errors, at least some should have favored Biden. None did.  

It’s not clear why the polls were wrong. Michael Moore offered one rationale a week before the election:

“Don’t believe these polls … the Trump vote is always being undercounted. Pollsters, when they actually call a real Trump voter, the Trump voter’s very suspicious of the ‘Deep State’ calling them and asking them who they’re voting for. It’s all fake news to them, remember. It’s not an accurate count. I think the safe thing to do, this is not scientific … whatever they’re saying the Biden lead is, cut it in half, right now, in your head. Cut it in half, and now you’re within the four-point margin of error.”

Is Moore right? Do Trump voters lie to deep-state pollsters?

Maybe. His “not scientific” cut-it-in-half methodology proved about right, but there’s no test for evaluating the accuracy for his explanation. And yet Nate Cohn (the Nate who replaced Nate Silver at the New York Times) now echoes Moore:

“It’s hard not to wonder whether the president’s supporters became less likely to respond to surveys as their skepticism of institutions mounted, leaving the polls in a worse spot than they were four years ago.”

Cohn also wonders about a mirror effect from progressives:

“the resistance became likelier to respond to political surveys, controlling for their demographic characteristics… Like most of the other theories presented here, there’s no hard evidence for it — but it does fit with some well-established facts about propensity to respond to surveys.”

The pandemic may have influenced that even further with a “post-Covid jump in response rates among Dems” because they “just started taking surveys, because they were locked at home and didn’t have anything else to do.” Cohn also wonders whether the high turn-out helped Trump, with the polls’ focus on “likely voters” (where Biden was up much higher) missing the actual votes of the less likely but registered voters who did show up on election day after all. 

So bottom line: the 2020 state polls were as bad as the 2016 state polls, the 2020 national polls were worse than the 2016 national polls, and we don’t know why.

If you ignore the margins of victory in each battleground state, the 2020 forecasts did much better. They all predicted Biden, though with a wide range of differing Electoral College totals. 

First, to their credit, all of the forecasters correctly placed Wisconsin and Michigan in the Biden column, giving him a minimum of 259. 

Politico said Biden would win with 279 electoral votes by taking Pennsylvania, but they left Arizona in the toss-up category and incorrectly predicted Georgia for Trump. So they missed two states, one for Biden, one for Trump, and dodged calling five states, including three (Florida, Ohio, Iowa) that Trump won easily. 

Crystal Ball, Cook Political Report, CNN, and NPR all said Biden would win with 290 votes, correctly predicting that he would take not only Pennsylvania but also Arizona, leaving five states in the toss-ups.

U.S. News predicted Biden with 290 too, but they also correctly placed Iowa and incorrectly placed Georgia in the Trump column. 

Things go down hill from there:

Inside Elections gave Biden 319 by adding Florida to his column.

The Economist gave him 323 by including Florida and North Carolina but not the toss-up Arizona.

Decision Desk, PredictIt Market Probabilities, and FiveThirtyEight all gave Biden 334, giving him Florida and North Carolina.

JHK Forecasts and Princeton Election Consortium predicted 335, the extra one point coming from Maine’s second district.

Since Biden’s actual count is now 306 (the same as Trump’s self-described 2016 “historic landslide”), just over half, seven out of the thirteen forecasters, overshot.

That’s mainly because they all incorrectly predicted Florida for Trump. Since Trump won Florida by a safe three points, Florida is both the polls’ and the forecasters’ biggest 2020 failure.

Five of the forecasts also gave North Carolina to Biden, but since Trump won it by only 1.3, North Carolina seems legitimately purple. Though not the incandescent purple of Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Arizona where Biden’s margin was under 1%, very similar to Trump’s 2016 margins. 

So, like in 2016, the final map hides how close the Electoral College race was. 

Of course if we elected our presidents by national popular vote, a Biden 4-point margin of victory isn’t close at all. 

I wrote this nonsense four years ago:

“Before the election, I had a vision of the U.S. coming together. I fantasized that Clinton would announce in her acceptance speech that she would fill half of her cabinet positions with Republicans and challenge Congress to send her only bills co-authored by Republicans and Democrats or face her veto. I was imagining a Democratic-controlled Senate too, but instead of shoving a leftwing Justice down the remaining throats of the GOP (as they so deeply deserved for refusing to vote on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee last March), I wanted Clinton to renominate moderate Merrick Garland in a show of compromise and goodwill. I wanted this despite the fact that my personal political beliefs are over there with Bernie Sanders and the rest of those Socialist-hugging, LGBQT-loving, Wall-Street-regulating, Climate-Apocalypse-fighting do-gooders. I actually believed that being part of a democracy meant accepting and even celebrating that fact that I should only get what I want about half of the time. That even some of my cherished principles come second to the national need for our government to work from the center, to bridge extremes and find common ground. I was a Radical Moderate.

“Until November 9th.two-face-origin-story-part-3

“Law-abiding District Attorney Dent, AKA Two-Face, became a supervillain after a thug threw acid in his face. Which is also how Donald Trump cured me of Moderatism. Though technically I don’t think Dent ought to be labeled a supervillain, since half of his actions should end up doing good. When faced with a tough choice, Two-Face flips a two-headed coin. I know that sounds like a rigged decision-making system (something the majority-losing President-Elect no longer talks about), but Two-Face carved a giant “X” through one of George Washington’s faces. Which is a perfect metaphor for the U.S. right now.

“I’ve literally put myself inside that two-faced quarter, and I will stay there until Trump and all of his rock-throwing GOP punks are gone–via resignation, impeachment, or nuclear Armageddon, I really don’t care. If you would also like to make a Two-Faced version of yourself, I’ve included step-by-step instructions:

“Step 1. Watch country elect pussy-grabbing bigot for president.

“Step 2. Stop shaving.

“Step 3. Shave right half of face.

“Step 4. Take selfie.

“Step 5. Shit around with selfie in Word Paint while country plummets into moral abyss.

“Step 6. Vow vengeance in 2018.”


It’s four years later, and Biden came pretty close to the acceptance speech I fantasized for Clinton:

“It is time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again, and to make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as an enemy. They are not our enemies: They are Americans — they are Americans.

“Folks, I am a proud Democrat. But I will govern as an American president. I will work as hard for those who didn’t vote for me as those who did. Let this grim era of demonization in America begin to end here and now. Refusal of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another is not some mysterious force beyond our control; it is a decision, a choice we make.

“If we decide not to cooperate, we can decide to cooperate. I believe this is part of the mandate given to us from the American people. They want us to cooperate in their interests. That is the choice I will make. I will call on Congress — Democrats and Republicans alike — to make that choice with me.”

Of all the things that are changing, this is the absolute least important. After Biden’s speech, I went on Facebook and changed my profile image from the Two-Face selfie to this arty nonsense:

Four years ago, I also made this bumper sticker:

Of all the things that I could have focused on after Trump won, I decided gerrymandering was Job One. In retrospect, that seems more than a little bizarre. But it wasn’t stupid: draw fair maps and Democrats win. And sometimes they win anyway. In 2017, the GOP’s gerrymandered supermajority dwindled to a single seat (determined by a literal coin toss), and the 2019 blue wave (see “Vow Vengeance” above) flipped the legislature to Democratic control. Having seen their future as the minority party, the GOP had already started the process of amending the Virginia constitution with a redistricting commission that would prevent the majority party from rigging the maps the way the GOP did for the last decade. The referendum passed last week.

The fight to end gerrymandering in Virginia is over.

Which brings me to the second least important change in the U.S.. Over the weekend I switched my Facebook book cover from the End Crooked Districts bumper sticker to this:

Those are some of my actual book covers. The last one, Creating Comics, is due out in January, between Georgia’s two Senate-majority-determining run-off elections and Biden’s inauguration.

Which is to say: quit shitting around and get back to work.

I’m sure as hell no superhero (or supervillain), but this fifty-something, straight, cis-gendered, white guy is damn proud to be a member of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ legion of 75,000,000 sidekicks. I wanted a landslide last week. As the last votes peter in, it looks like they won the popular vote by 2.9%, up from Clinton’s 2.1% in 2016. That will do, but it’s nowhere near the double-digit wave of redemption I needed to feel good about my country. 70,000,000 Americans want another four years of Trump, either despite of or because of his bigotry and misogyny. A few thousand votes here, a few thousand votes there, and the Electoral College tips either direction.

That’s a brutal quarter edge to balance a nation.




I wrote this back in June 2019, in response to a question asked by a conservative member of the Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society. Another conservative member later laughed at me for taking the question seriously, but at the time I thought trying to have meaningful conversations across the partisan divide was worth a great deal of effort. I’m now questioning whether it’s ever possible, and I’m certain that the existence of Donald Trump makes it essentially impossible–at least not while he’s tweeting from the White House and millionaire pundits like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity continue to cash in on their viewer-financed misinfotainment brands at Fox News.

But this was my sincere attempt at a thoughtful response, and reading it sixteen months later, I’m not changing a single word:

  1. I didn’t like Trump before I didn’t like Trump.

Before he was a politician, I knew Donald Trump only as one of those self-fulfilling celebrities famous for being famous. I never watched an episode of The Apprentice, but everyone knew the one-man promotional brand playing himself on TV. I categorized him in my head with Hulk Hogan. Saying I didn’t like him is misleading. He was no more real or relevant to me than Paris Hilton or a Kardashian. Except his caricature was even less savory. A serial adulterer marrying absurdly younger trophy wives while flaunting his comic wealth. None of this has anything to do with politics.  It never occurred to me to wonder what political party he might belong to because political parties involve groups of people banding together to pursue common goals. The goal of Trump was exclusively Trump. This was before 2014—before I knew he was running for office. At first I didn’t believe it, not really. It had to be another gimmick product, Trump Wine, Trump University, Trump for President, one more way to expand his business brand, pump up his ratings with more outrageous showmanship. It didn’t occur to me that he could win a primary let alone a nomination. It didn’t occur to me that someone, anyone, could view him as anything but a pop cultural personification of ostentatious greed, because I sincerely understood him to be that and only that.

  1. Trump says things that aren’t true.

Some people call that lying. Others say he’s only using exaggerations—or just savvy business practice. Whatever you call it, Donald Trump knowingly and wantonly makes statements that are not true. He also knowingly and wantonly makes statements that are true. The accuracy of his statements is irrelevant. He says whatever is most useful to him. His 1987 memoir ghost-writer called it “truthful hyperbole,” a way of playing “to people’s fantasies,” “a very effective form of promotion.” Admittedly, an indifference to truth sounds useful in a cutthroat business environment, and as long as Trump remained in that environment, his exaggerations, lies, and hyperboles were no concern to me. Then he became a politician, a profession known for its own brand of mistruths. But Trump is different. Look at all the presidential nominees of my adult life: Mondale, Reagan, Dukakis, Bush, Clinton, Dole, Gore, Bush, Kerry, Obama, McCain, Romney, Clinton—all of them were constrained within a similar range of allowable spin. I’m not arguing any are better, more honest people. If they could have gotten away with Trump’s level of mistruth, they probably would have. But his go unpunished. Maybe it’s his business savvy, his ability to sell anything, but its application to U.S. politics deeply disturbs me. Again, this has nothing to do with political parties. If Donald Trump had run as a Democrat, he would be the same democracy-gaming salesman appealing to a slightly different set of voters with a slightly different set of self-promotional hyperboles.

  1. Trump says things that offend me.

I’m not going to say Donald Trump is a racist. Conservatives tend to define that term as a necessarily conscious belief, that only a white person who actively believes he is superior to non-whites can commit racist acts. I don’t know if that describes Trump or not. I suspect when he refers to Central Americans as rapists, murders, etc., he is not expressing deeply held personal convictions but politically useful hyperboles of the kind discussed above. That doesn’t make it any less offensive to me. I also don’t know if he ever committed sexual assault, but I know he bragged that he did. Some defended his words as “locker room talk,” that it’s normal and therefore okay for men in the privacy of other men while unaware of being recorded to brag about assaulting women. I never have, and I have never heard any male friend or acquaintance of mine brag about assault either. Maybe I’m the wrong kind of man. Maybe Trump is no different from all our other white male presidents, saying out loud what the rest privately thought and privately committed. If so, then they all offend me equally. Again, this has nothing to do with political parties. No one who brags about sexual assault and expresses offensive stereotypes about ethnic groups should be electable, and I’m offended that Donald Trump got elected anyway.

  1. Trump thrives on the political divide.

It never even occurred to me that he would keep using Twitter after the election. It never occurred to me that he would continue to attack and mock his political opponents at literally a daily rate. Maybe I’m just old. I remember when George Bush’s campaign rhetoric went into panic mode a week before the 1992 election. He said, “My dog Millie knows more about foreign policy than these two bozos.” He nicknamed Al Gore “Ozone Man” because “we’ll be up to our neck in owls and outta work for every American.” Those sound like presidential tweets now, and during a Trump presidency, it’s always a week before the election. I’m not suggesting Trump created the political divide. Exactly the opposite. He got elected because the divide was already so extreme, and he is the perfect salesman to thrive in that political marketplace. And even this isn’t about political parties. I want a president—preferably a progressive one—who tries to bridge differences, not focus exclusively on his base by stoking their outrage in an endless get-out-the-vote campaign.

  1. I don’t like his politics.

Now, finally, this is about political parties. I’m a Democrat. Democratic candidates more often reflect a larger number of my political preferences than Republican candidates. That’s an absurd understatement. I have never seen a Republican candidate who came even close—though McCain during the 2000 primaries did make me sit down and really look at his plank-by-plank platform. I long for that.  Still, if Romney had been elected in 2012, or McCain in 2008, or Dole in 1996, I wouldn’t have responded to their presidencies in any way like I’ve responded to Donald Trump’s. When Bush was reelected in 2004 and elected in 2000, and when his father was elected in 1988, and Reagan in 1984, I had voted against them but accepted the outcomes with disappointment and only disappointment. November 2016 was nothing like that. I felt personally betrayed. I felt that the norms of decency had either been overturned or revealed to have never existed. Even when Clinton’s polls dropped three points after the release of the Comey letter in the last days of October, it still never seriously occurred to me that Donald Trump—a man who to me represented misogyny, bigotry, narcissism, and greed—could be elected. Clearly, I was wrong. But I maintain that it is not possible for anyone to have voted for Donald Trump if they understand Donald Trump to be the person I understand him to be.

And maybe I’m wrong about that too.  Maybe my impressions of him from the 80s and 90s and early 2000s unfairly biased and blinded me to his real character on the campaign trail. Maybe I have an idealized, antiquated notion of proper politics and my disappointment isn’t against Trump’s divisive style but the political arena that makes it effective. Maybe most or all white men who rise to power are at least latently prejudiced and abusive, and Trump has merely revealed that fact. Maybe it’s okay to use mistruths when it’s for a cause you and your followers deeply believe in. It’s also possible that my dislike for Donald Trump is really motivated by political preference, and that if a Democrat with the same traits had risen to power I would have accepted his shortcomings and supported his agenda. I hope not. But I fear it is possible. It’s also one of the things I most dislike about Donald Trump. He’s motivated a lot of good people to embrace a lot of very bad things.

Have you heard the argument that eliminating the Electoral College would undermine democracy because then only a handful of states would matter in presidential elections? That’s the status quo. As far as the Biden and Trump campaigns are concerned, the U.S. consists of ten states, AKA “battlegrounds”:

A couple of times in the last year or so Minnesota has joined that list, but it’s not currently in play. Apparently, Michigan and Wisconsin aren’t either, since all election forecasters predict Biden will win both. No battlegrounds are unanimously predicted for Trump.

Stacking the forecasts from smallest Biden lead to largest Biden lead reveals how each battleground state factors.

Biden 259

FORECASTER: Polls as of October 20.

New polls are released essentially every day, and so the conglomerate numbers are in constant flux. Placing states with Biden or Trump leads under 5% as toss-ups, on Tuesday October 20, two weeks before Election Day, the state polls put Biden at 259.

If Biden wins Michigan and Wisconsin, but loses both Pennsylvania’s twenty electors and Arizona’s eleven electors, he’s at only 259. To win the election he’d need to pick-up one more toss-up: Florida, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, or Ohio. Iowa’s six electors wouldn’t be enough. For Trump to win, he would need to sweep them all but Iowa.

Biden WINS with 279

FORECASTER: Politico, Polls as of October 26.

If Biden wins either Pennsylvania or Arizona, he wins. Arizona would pull him up to exactly the magic 270 (assuming he also wins the one elector from Maine’s second district), and Pennsylvania would put him over at 279.

As of today, Monday October 26, eight days before the Election, the polls would put Biden at 279 by including Pennsylvania. All of the other battleground states remain in the toss-up column’s margin of error.

Politico predicts Pennsylvania for Biden too, leaving Arizona in the toss-ups and shifting Georgia and Texas to the Trump column.


Biden WINS with 290

FORECASTER: Crystal Ball, Cook Political Report, CNN, NPR, U.S. News.

If Biden wins BOTH Pennsylvania and Arizona, he wins in the Electoral College by a margin of twenty. Four of those five maps feature five toss-up states: Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, and Iowa. U.S. News gives Iowa and Georgia to Trump, and all give him Texas too.


Biden WINS with 319

FORECASTER: Inside Elections.

Biden wins not only Pennsylvania and Arizona, but also Florida, leaving four toss-up states: Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, and Iowa. And Texas goes to Trump.

Biden WINS with 323

FORECASTER: The Economist.

A week ago The Economist agreed with Inside Election’s count, but they’ve since moved North Carolina to Biden and Arizona to toss-up. They also give Ohio to Trump.

Biden WINS with 334

FORECASTER: Decision Desk, PredictIt Market Probabilities, FiveThirtyEight.

Biden wins Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina. Two of these forecasts leave Georgia, Ohio, and Iowa in the toss-ups. PredictIt, which is based on actual betting where there is no such thing as a toss-up, gives all three to Trump, though by the smallest margin range possible. All give Texas to Trump.


Biden WINS with 335

FORECASTER: JHK Forecasts, Princeton Election Consortium.

Sorry, did I forget Maine? There’s one swing vote in Maine’s second district. That’s how Biden might pick up on additional elector. Both JHK and Princeton leave Georgia and Iowa in the toss-ups, but JHK predicts Ohio will go to Trump. And Princeton is the only forecaster placing Texas in the toss-ups.

So the two most popular predictions are Biden at 290 and Biden at 234/235, each with five forecasters.

Combining them all, using Biden’s worst-case scenario and Trump’s best-case scenario, leaves four states in the unknowns but leading toward Biden: 

A majority of the forecasters predict Biden will win one, two, three, or all four of the middle column. No forecaster predicts Trump will win any of them, and Trump needs to win all of them to win the election. Biden needs to win any and only one. 

Here are the currents polls (according to FiveThirtyEight and updated October 26) for the middle column:

Pennsylvania: Biden up 5.6.

Arizona: Biden up 3.0.

North Carolina: Biden up 2.5.

Florida: Biden up 2.4.

And the current polls for the other battleground states:

Wisconsin: Biden up 6.7.

Michigan: Biden up 8.

Ohio: Trump up 1.5.

Iowa: Biden up 1.2.

Georgia: Biden up .4.

Texas: Biden up .1.

Many of these polling numbers are well within the margins of error (Texas and Georgia are really dead heats), but if they reflect actual votes, Biden will win with 394, taking nine of the ten battleground states:

With a final map that looks like this:

Is that too much to hope for? Definitely. Handicapping Biden with a two-point Trump-favoring margin of error produces this map:

And raising that margin to three points looks like this:

Raising it to four points makes no difference. And neither does five points. In all those scenarios, Biden wins.

For Trump to win, Pennsylvania’s polls have to be more than five points off. FiveThirtyEight puts Biden ahead there by 5.6. The right-leaning Real Clear Politics says it’s only 5.1. FiveThirtyEight also gives Biden an 86% chance of winning Pennsylvania, an 87% chance of winning the election overall, and a 31% chance of a double-digit popular-vote landslide. If state polls are as wrong as they were in 2016, they still predict Biden wins with 280. 

When will we know the outcome?

Both Arizona and Florida expect to report on election night. If Biden wins either, Trump has no plausible path to victory. If Trump wins both, we have to wait for Pennsylvania, which probably won’t report its count until late Saturday November 7 (because it has to accept mail-in ballots arriving as late as November 6). Whoever wins Pennsylvania almost certainly wins the country. 

I had a dream that progressives and conservatives could overcome differences, that we could strip away reductive stereotypes and destructive rhetoric, that a path toward common ground was only a matter of choosing to believe that political opponents are not bad people intent on bad things, but good people disagreeing on how best to achieve good.

I co-founded a local group and Facebook page, Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society, dedicated to those goals, and spent a couple of hours every day talking to people with opposing partisan backgrounds and ideological reflexes. I thought if I worked hard enough, reasoned through each issue, addressed all objections, provided verifiable support for every claim, and, most importantly, built trust and friendship, that we could bridge our local portion of the political divide.

I was wrong.

I blame Ann Coulter.

Not just Ann Coulter, but Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and Tucker Carlson and all professional political pundits, who most definitely include Ms. Coulter.

I’ve not met her, but I once sat in a gymnasium of folding chairs twenty yards from her podium. James Carville, another for-hire-horseman of the Democracy apocalypse, was slouching at the other podium. I have no idea how much money my university poured on them to perform their political theatre skit, but let’s assume buckets. W&L stages a mock convention every four years. I’d watched a startled Newt Gingrich saunter onto that same stage to the thump of Rocky III’s “Eye of the Tiger” and the thunder of the improbably conservative student body. Bob Dole literally phoned it in, as he and his campaign faded into the static of his departing plane.

The Coulter-Carville show was 2012, within spitting distance of the first primary. Gingrich was duking it out with Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. Rick wanted to eliminate the Department of Education. Newt wanted to go to Mars. Coulter, a savvy reader of conservative weather patterns, staked her tent in Romney territory. When asked about Gingrinch’s still-formidable polling, she performed a diplomatic pause and said: “He’s not attracting our more thoughtful voters.” And I thought: “Hey, this woman’s okay.” That was before she said “Chinamen” were taking our jobs, and that the audience of youthfully open-minded undergrads would someday be home-owners and not want certain unspecified kinds of people moving in next door.

That’s Coulter c. 2012. Coulter c. 2020 is a Gingrich groupie who regularly throws Romney under the wheels of her MAGA bus.

How do you explain her change?

You don’t. Because she didn’t. Ann Coulter today is exactly what she was then: a professional commentator paid to say things that appeal to her market audience.

Eight years ago that audience leaned Romney, so Coulter leaned Romney, entertainingly contemptuous of little Newt. Now her audience bleats in harmony with the Trump Twitter account, so Coulter swings hard right, out-Gingriching even Gingrich. So does Hannity and Limbaugh and Carlson and anyone else trying to make a fortune as a conservative pundit.

Despite its appeals to fixed traditions, “conservative” is a fast-moving target. A century ago Coulter and Co. were hocking the anti-American horror of women voting. A half-century ago they were demonizing John Lewis and Martin Luther King as pinko agitators hellbent on desecrating our founding fathers. Today they’re telling their revenue-producing viewers that Marxist pedophiles have infiltrated the Black Lives Matter movement and the Main Stream Media. They’re asking whether Democratic governors’ and mayors’ decision to promote rioting is a smart reelection ploy. If Biden is elected, Antifa will be invited to the White House, all borders will be open, all police departments will be eliminated, and the United States will become a socialist dictatorship. First-term Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, they tell their thundering audience, commands the entire Democratic party.

There’s a word for all of that.  Philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt calls it “bullshit,” describing a “bullshitter” as someone who “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” The pundits’ purpose is to please a conservative audience and so attract advertisers who indirectly pay them salaries. For Carlson that’s $6 million a year, for Hannity $40 million, and Limbaugh $85 million. Coulter isn’t currently holding down a salaried job, but her net worth is $8.5 million.

Do they actually believe Marxist infiltrators are plotting to overthrow America? I don’t know, and I don’t care, because I know they don’t care.

But a lot of people do care. I used to chat with them regularly on the Civil Discourse page. Most still absorb their political content from Fox News. I’ve spent literally years arguing that biased sources are the driving wedge of our two-reality political divide. Every time I criticize Fox News, I include MSNBC in the same damning sentence. I cancelled my internet subscription to the Washington Post and stopped skimming inflammatory headlines at CNN. I balance my daily New York Times reading with my daily Wall Street Journal reading. I study the polling data at both RCP and 538.

The Civil Discourse conservatives continue soaking in the comfort of daily Fox News punditry. As a result, they believe in Revolutionaries, Deep State saboteurs, and Socialist policies designed to eliminate capitalism and America with it. They’re not capitalist Coulters contorting themselves for profit. They’re sincere and sincerely patriotic conservatives incapable of thinking through complex national problems from multiple political angles. Unlike the pundits they parrot, they actually care about and believe in the truth of the bullshit they soak down to their DNA and regurgitate with foot-thumping certainty. 

So after two years of shepherding the politically diverse participants of the Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society page, I’ve retired. The pundits won. My Facebook corner of the Internet is Coulter Country now, same as the rest.

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