Of the myriad episodes that have defined the Trump administration’s idiocracy, few can top the Peak Stupid of Sharpie-gate. 

You know the gist: A week ago Saturday, President Trump warned that Hurricane Dorian posed a serious risk to Alabama, though forecasters had days earlier said Alabama was out of danger. The next day, after receiving calls from worried residents, the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service tweeted that “Alabama would NOT see any impacts from the hurricane.”

For reasons best left to a shrink, Trump spent the next week insisting that he was right and the NWS was wrong. By Wednesday, he was in the Oval Office with a week-old hurricane forecast map altered by a Sharpie to include Alabama in the storm’s projected path. By Friday night—after the storm had left the North Carolina coast, and long after we should have moved on—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a statement “correcting” the Birmingham NWS’s tweet from a week earlier. 

This, we later learned, followed the secretary of commerce threatening to fire NOAA officials if they didn’t back the president. 

By Sunday, The Washington Post had reported that, the day after Trump’s Alabama flub, NOAA sent a directive ordering NWS staff not to contradict the president, then a similar note after the Sharpie display. 

“I have never been so embarrassed,” the head of the NWS union tweeted

So say we all, pal. 

Under different circumstances—say, if he were hosting a reality TV show—the president’s pathological need to be right and his lackeys’ compulsion to assuage his fragile ego might be amusing. But this is real life, and undermining the credibility of government information during a disaster could put lives at risk.  

More important, it’s part of a larger problem. On Friday, Business Insider reported that “aides and confidants are concerned about [Trump’s] mental state after days of erratic behavior and wild outbursts.” According to one former White House official: “His mood changes from one minute to the next based on some headline or tweet, and the next thing you know his entire schedule gets tossed out the window because he’s losing his shit.”

In the UK, when Trump-lite prime minister Boris Johnson tried to circumvent Parliament to facilitate a no-deal Brexit, he was blocked and then prevented from calling snap elections by defections from within his party. The defectors put country over party, the national interest over politics. 

Here, however, administration officials have shown no such spine, even on matters as banal as Sharpie-gate. The higher the stakes—and the more unhinged Trump becomes—the more dangerous that gets. 

Plenty of ink has been spilled explaining how we got here—how, since the civil rights movement, the Republican Party’s embrace of white racial grievance and cultivation of authoritarianism in its pursuit of power have eroded liberal democracy’s guardrails. 

But we shouldn’t overlook the behind-the-scenes roles played by men like Thomas Hofeller, who made the radicalization and intellectual degradation of the GOP possible.  

Hofeller, who died last year, was a Republican redistricting consultant, a number-cruncher who helped gerrymander congressional and legislative districts all over the country, but most famously here in North Carolina. The districts he helped create in 2011 were struck down as racial gerrymanders. The congressional districts he helped draw to replace them were then struck down as partisan gerrymanders—though, earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering was constitutional. 

But last week, a Wake County Superior Court panel struck down the redrawn legislative districts, ruling that extreme partisan gerrymandering violated the state constitution. Facing a Democratic-controlled state Supreme Court, GOP lawmakers declined an appeal, meaning the General Assembly has to redraw its maps again, and North Carolina could see its first fair legislative election in a decade in 2020. 

This is where it gets fun: Much to Republicans’ chagrin, Hofeller’s daughter turned over thousands of his files to the good-government group Common Cause, which sued lawmakers over the gerrymanders. On Friday, The New Yorker reported their contents. They showed that Hofeller compiled “intensely detailed” data on race, as well as things like whether college students were likely to have the state-required ID to vote.  

The files also showed that Hofeller was involved in Republican gerrymandering efforts in Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, Texas, and Florida, and that “he was part of a Republican effort to add a citizenship question to the census … which Hofeller believed would make it easier to pack Democrats and minorities into fewer districts, giving an advantage to Republicans.” 

(Trump, you’ll recall, championed this cause even after the Supreme Court rejected it because his administration didn’t bother to hide its political motivations.)

Here’s the rub: Hofeller and the Republicans who employed him contorted democracy to their own ends. But by creating ruby-red districts in which Republicans could only lose in primaries—districts impervious to the whims of voters, in which GOP lawmakers answered only to activists within their own party—they helped foster an incentive structure that pulled Republicans hard right, rewarding politicians who played to nativist fears and snuffing out any vestige of moderation. 

This resulted in the kind of asymmetric polarization that, in short order, gave us a president who draws hurricane projections with a Sharpie and a party that whistles in democracy’s graveyard.

Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at jbillman@indyweek.com.

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