Hello! Welcome to the first Abroad in America newsletter.
I’m writing this on a flight from San Francisco to New York. It’s surprisingly nice up here in the air, by which I really mean that even a cramped plane full of irritated passengers is less unappealing than a nation full of feuding citizens incensed over whether or not President Trump’s latest judicial candidate is qualified to serve on the Supreme Court.
How did it come to this? I do not know exactly. But starting today, I’ll attempt to help our foreign readers (and maybe some American ones, and maybe myself) understand what is going on as the United States approaches the midterm elections.
Let’s begin with a conversation I had recently in Washington, at an annual dinner of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-minded research organization.
One of the issues the country faces is how hard it has become to have courteous discourse among people of differing political views — how we all tend to demonize people who disagree with us in a way that rules out productive conversation.
At the dinner, I got to talking with an aide to a high-ranking Republican senator. I asked him all about what it is like to work with a president who is incomprehensible to so many people (even many Congressional Republicans) and who is also unpredictable, ego-driven, intemperate and inclined to vicious personal attacks.
I jotted down some notes and am paraphrasing his responses.
The 2016 election, the aide said, was a deeply humbling experience for Republicans — a wake-up call, he called it, that forced the party to rethink its attitude toward voters, what those voters wanted and what they expected from their government.
That is why even Republicans like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas — who has called Mr. Trump a “pathological liar,” “utterly amoral,” “a narcissist at a level I don’t this country’s ever seen” and “a serial philanderer” — are now welcoming Mr. Trump’s endorsement in their bids for re-election.
What about principled opposition, I asked, from lawmakers such as the late Senator John McCain of Arizona, or Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee or Jeff Flake of Arizona?
Pick your fights, the aide said. It does no one any good to be like Mr. Flake, prone to indiscriminately “whining” (that’s the word he used) about everything.
And of those three, Mr. McCain recently died of cancer, and Mr. Corker and Mr. Flake have decided not to seek re-election, mostly because their vocal opposition to the president has made them unelectable in the current frenzied climate. (Also, the aide pointed out, Congress does selectively rebuke the president, as it did after his summit meeting with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.)
It’s a calculus every Republican has had to make. This summer, Representative Mark Sanford, a South Carolina Republican, lost in his state’s primary, to a more Republican opponent, after his criticism of the president earned him a bad-tempered presidential tweet.
“There’s a different feel to this race, based on something that I’ve never experienced before,” Mr. Sanford said at the time. “With some people, the allegiance to ideas is secondary to their belief in the importance of their allegiance to a person.”
But what do you do, I asked the aide, when the president seems to be acting unhinged, repeating inaccurate information, sending out unpunctuated, poorly spelled pre-dawn tweets, publicly attacking members of his own Cabinet?
He’s the president we elected, the aide said. What you’re really complaining about is democracy.
What’s a Primary, Anyway?
“It would be great to explain to foreign readers how the election system in the U.S. works. I think it’s a little bit messy with primaries etc.” — Robert Socha, of Poland
“How about a simple (is that possible) explanation of primaries and when and why they happen?” — Alice Rutherford
We’ve been asking people to tell us what interests, horrifies or mystifies them about the election. Some questions have to do with policies, including immigration, taxes and Nafta (we’re getting a lot of those from our friends in Canada). Others consist of what I can only describe as huge existential howls of pain from afar, along the lines of “What the (insert extreme word of choice) is going on over there?”
I thought we’d start with the third group of questions, which ask about U.S. electoral procedures, particularly primaries.
We’ve been hearing a lot about them, in part because there are so many. It’s a big country with a lot of states, and each state has its own primary.
Most primaries are essentially interim elections to determine who will be the official candidate from each political party. Republicans run against other Republicans, Democrats against other Democrats, and the winners run in the general election against the candidate from the other major party. (Third-party candidates tend not to be major factors in U.S. elections, though they can get on the ballot and run.)
In many primaries this year, moderates lost to candidates somewhat outside the mainstream — the Democrats who were farther to the left, and the Republicans who were farther to the right. That means the contrasts between the candidates in November will be much starker this time around.
Different states hold primaries on different days, starting at the beginning of March and going through mid-September. If the process seems never-ending, it’s because it practically is.
For more explanation, here’s a good website.
Please keep the questions and feedback coming, and I’ll try to provide some answers. (Send your thoughts and your queries to firstname.lastname@example.org)
Meanwhile, Back in Washington
It’s hard not to be partisan in such a partisan environment. The center is not holding. I hope in this newsletter to provide perspectives from different points of view. Today, I offer two takes on the intense battle over whether Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh will join the Supreme Court.
The Republican-controlled Senate seemed certain to confirm President Trump’s nominee until the extraordinary Senate hearing last week in which Christine Blasey Ford testified that he sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers. Judge Kavanaugh’s own testimony, in which he angrily denied the accusation, admitted he “liked beer” but said he had never blacked out or been violent after drinking, has raised new questions about his temperament and honesty.
An article in National Review, a conservative magazine, ridiculed the Democrats’ case against Judge Kavanaugh.
The satirical program “Saturday Night Live” opened with a skit parodying the hearings, with Matt Damon playing Judge Kavanaugh.
Friendly P.S.A.: Go Vote
Finally, a reader from Israel, Rocky Peltzman, reminded me to remind American expats: There is still time to vote via absentee ballot. I did this for the 15 years I lived in London. It’s really fun and makes you feel that you are part of the democratic process, which God knows we all should be, especially now. Here is the link for more information.
See you on Friday.
In Abroad in America, Sarah Lyall attempts to help our foreign readers (and maybe some American ones, and maybe herself) understand what is going on as the United States approaches the Nov. 6 midterm elections. Subscribe here.