The Genovese Effect and Trump's Threat to the Future

by Neil H. Buchanan

What did Barack Obama do during the 2016 election?  What I recall most clearly is that he tried (rather late in the game) to boost turnout among African-American voters for Hillary Clinton, either failing entirely or at least falling short.  What did he not do?  Interesting question.

Quoting from an extremely long piece in The New York Times about James Comey's impact on the election, Paul Waldman notes that, "at one point, then-FBI Director James B. Comey suggested that he could write an op-ed explaining what Russia was doing, but Obama 'replied that going public would play right into Russia’s hands by sowing doubts about the election’s legitimacy.'"

That decision can be defended on a number of grounds, not only in the way that Obama justified inaction but also by surmising that Republicans would have immediately spun any effort on Obama's part as illegitimate meddling by the sitting president.  We do know that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to join a united front against the Russians, deciding instead to make everything partisan, which hemmed in Obama.

Counterfactuals are fun yet frustrating.  I have argued, for example, against the claim that Bernie Sanders would have beaten Trump, pointing out that the right-wing outrage machine would have had a field day focusing the entire election on the word "socialism."  But who knows if that would have been as decisive as I think it would have been?

Similarly, I am one of the people who rejects the counterfactual that Al Gore would have won in 2000 if only Ralph Nader had dropped out, because I strongly believe that Nader's decision would have been spun -- with the enthusiastic participation of a press corps that clearly could not stand Gore -- as a corrupt deal to throw the election to the Democrat.  This, indeed, is in the same vein as Obama's understandable concern about being seen as helping Clinton in 2016.

Unlike in 2000, however, there is a common theme to all of the actions taken and not taken in 2016, which is that that everyone thought that the stakes were low because Clinton was clearly going to win.  And that has recently gotten me to thinking about the tragic case of Kitty Genovese.

For those readers who have never heard of Ms Genovese, the circumstances surrounding her death have come to be the leading case illustrating what is known as the "bystander effect," which Wikipedia defines as "a social psychological phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help."

Ms Genovese's name is attached to the bystander effect because of reporting about her murder in Queens in 1964, where as many as 38 people supposedly witnessed the stabbing death (which was not mercifully quick) yet none of them lifted a finger to help.  Plenty of theories have been offered to explain the onlookers' inaction, the most prominent of which became summarized by the statement, "I didn't want to get involved."

Surprisingly, it turns out that the actual Genovese story was quite different from the now-legendary version that The New York Times originally published, as The Times itself acknowledged just two years ago.  That in itself is an interesting discussion to which I expect to return in a future column, but for present purposes, I will refer to the widely known apocryphal version of the Genovese story.

Why would 38 presumptively decent human beings do nothing to help a woman who was screaming and being repeatedly stabbed while clearly visible in a public place?  Fear for one's own life would surely play a role, but the most obvious explanation is that each person thought that someone else would intervene.  "My inaction was not immoral, because I knew that my doing nothing would not prevent the problem from being solved."

Okay, so I suspect that it is by now rather obvious where I am going with this.  In 2016, Obama decided to tell Comey not to write an op-ed, and whatever his other reasons for that decision, surely he was also thinking, "Why worry?  Hillary's going to win anyway."  Comey himself said in his book and has repeated in multiple interviews that his fateful decision to intervene late in the campaign was not easy but was made under the assumption that Clinton would win.

Again, it is impossible to know whether Obama's inaction was the right call, because it is certainly possible that a different decision would have boomeranged on Clinton.  Comey's intervention is easier to describe as decisive, simply because of its proximity to the election and the razor-thin margins that allowed Trump to carry Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Still, Obama and Comey are two major players in the drama who both knew that their every action or inaction might actually have some impact (even if not a decisive one) on the election.  What about everyone else?

As I noted in a column early last year, the explanation for Trump's win in the rust belt states was ultimately not the now-accepted idea that Trump flipped working class voters in large numbers.  As Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr put it after analyzing election data: "The real story—the one the pundits missed—is that voters who fled the Democrats in the Rust Belt 5 were twice as likely either to vote for a third party or to stay at home than to embrace Trump."

Those third-party candidates themselves, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, steadfastly refuse to acknowledge their role in this mess; and given that they are both clearly more than a bit "off," I will leave them out of this.  It is the people who voted for them, as well as those who chose not to vote, whom we might call Genovese Effect Voters.

To be clear, I am not saying that everyone who voted for Johnson or Stein would have voted for Clinton.  I have no doubt that many sincerely disagreed with her and voted for one of the others as a positive vote and not a negative one.  But the evidence is incontrovertible that many others -- and certainly large numbers of non-voters -- were simply making their decision after concluding that their decision could not possibly matter.

This is not, I would add, the same thing as people choosing not to vote at all by saying that "one vote never matters," because these are all people who either voted in 2016 or had voted in 2008 or 2012.  This is, therefore, Genovese Effect behavior, with each person saying, "Well, I kind of have a bad feeling about Clinton, and even though I hate Trump, she's going to beat him anyway.  Why should I sully myself by voting for someone I don't like?"

Where did that dislike come from?  Gallons of cyber-ink have already been spilled on that topic, discussing both Clinton's own mistakes as well as the "Clinton Rules" that allowed mainstream reporters and pundits to pile on whenever anything remotely negative could be inferred about Clinton from even the most vague evidence.  The whole Clinton Foundation non-scandal, for example, which originated with Associated Press reporters hyping evidence that added up to nothing, was perhaps the most prominent example of this.

And it did not stop with the people whose jobs are to inform the populace.  The entertainers who report what use to be called "fake news" -- that is, late-night comedy shows -- found it irresistible to throw snark at Clinton at every opportunity.  Larry Wilmore's short-lived show on Comedy Central specialized in saying nasty things about Hillary with even more fervor than its attacks on Trump.

These decisions were all taken, as Comey's were, in a world where everyone was sure that Clinton would win.  The comedy shows rode the "Clinton is unrelatable" train, and younger voters responded by staying home in much larger numbers than we would otherwise have expected.  "Why should I get involved?  Sure, Trump would be a disaster, but somebody else is going to stop that from happening.  My inaction won't matter.  She'll live.  We'll live."

Other than recharacterizing the 2016 election, what might my analysis here suggest about the present and the future?  I have noted recently that there is a distinct tendency for some pundits, even now, to attack Clinton based on absurdly contrived logic.  And Trevor Noah considers it a given that he can begin sentences by saying things like, "So not only did Clinton not visit Wisconsin, but ... ," channeling bits of counterfactual nonsense that quickly became part of the conventional wisdom.

Such comments have current effect because they tend to legitimize Trump, diverting people's attention toward preexisting negative opinions about Clinton.  And this kind of gleeful return to form, the sense that commentators can pretend that the future of constitutional democracy is not under serious threat by Trump, can be seen everywhere.

For example, perhaps the most annoying of all of the New York Times's opinion columnists (which is no easy competition to win), Maureen Dowd, climbed into a time machine last week to take yet another swipe at Barack Obama, reviving her meme that Obama thinks he is "just too good for us."  That meme was silly in the extreme when Dowd was pushing it from 2008-16, but it is sickening to see her go back to it now.  Is that really how she wants to use her NYT column space, sneering at Obama?  Even a prominent (and inexplicably award-winning) columnist can simply say, "Why not?  What I do doesn't matter."

On the news side, consider a more subtle example of a decision that boils down to a choice to do the wrong thing while bad things happen.  The Times ran a story last week about a high school valedictorian in Kentucky who pranked his commencement audience by attributing an inspirational quote to Donald Trump but then revealing (after the crowd had cheered wildly) that the true source of the quote was Barack Obama.

That was clever and interesting, but what caught my eye was this: "The crowd burst into applause. President Trump is quite popular in Pineville and the surrounding area, which is the heart of coal country and overwhelmingly supported the president in the 2016 election after he promised to bring coal jobs back to America."

The suggestion that the residents of Eastern Kentucky supported Trump after he promised to bring coal jobs back is true in a post hoc ergo propter hoc sense.  That is, Trump did talk about coal jobs, and later the people there voted for him.  But the implication that they would not have supported him had he not talked about coal, which is to say that they would have otherwise directly or indirectly supported Clinton, is absurd.  Even if one does not automatically assume that Trump's voters were acting out of bigotry of various kinds, it is simply true that Kentucky, especially eastern Kentucky, was in Trump's column no matter what.

Kentucky's Mitch McConnell invented the "Obama's war on coal" lie, but even though Trump and McConnell clearly hated each other, Trump won the state's Republican primary when the nomination was still very much in doubt.  Indeed, McConnell and other Republicans themselves were probably under the sway of the Genovese Effect throughout the general election campaign, refusing to cooperate with Obama to expose the Russians because they assumed that Trump would lose but they wanted to prevent a rout that would threaten the party's congressional majorities.  Even cynical partisans like McConnell can be thus affected.

My point is that it is sloppy and lazy -- but safe -- for a reporter to write a column in this way: "Oh, you know Kentucky is coal country, and Trump likes coal, so that's what's going on here."  That NYT column, then, is but another small example of the phenomenon that I have decried in recent columns (here and here) in which reporters and pundits continue to act as if the world has not changed.  They are taking the comfortable route, saying things that they hope will not result in claims from right-wing trolls of liberal bias, even though such claims will be made in any event, and even though doing so at the very least amounts to a choice not to say what is actually happening, and at worst amounts to contributing to an affirmatively dishonest narrative.

At a time when the president and his comically inept TV lawyer are saying that he is above the law, is it too much to hope that people -- everyone, but certainly those whose choices might have some additional impact on the world (else why do the job at all?) -- might want to think carefully about how their choices amount to standing idly by while watching a victim die?  That the death of constitutional democracy in this country will affect those people themselves might also factor into their decisions, but perhaps self-preservation is overrated.