Lawrence Douglas at a forum in 2019. Photo by Jiayi Liu.
FOR MANY PRESIDENTIAL SCHOLARS and election experts, the past year has been quite a ride.
For Lawrence Douglas, it’s been more like a rocket launch. The James J. Grosfeld Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought had done plenty of interviews over the course of his career and had seen his previous book, The Right Wrong Man, inspire the 2019 Netflix mini-series The Devil Next Door. But since the publication of his book, Will He Go?: Trump and the Looming Election Meltdown, Douglas’s media cred has taken off.
That’s because Will He Go?—written in 2019 and published in May 2020—examined in great depth, among other possibilities, a scenario in which President Donald Trump would lose the election and then refuse to concede. Sound familiar?
Both before the election and ever since, Douglas has been inundated with media queries—all while teaching two courses, conducting research and preparing for a prestigious Berlin Prize Fellowship he will take in Germany in the spring. He’s been featured everywhere from The New York Times to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to Vogue.com to National Geographic. One article even ran with the headline “Trump’s Fraudulent Fight: A Q&A with the Amherst Prof Whose Book Nailed It.”
Here Douglas reflects on his experiences as one of the 2020 presidential election’s most in-demand commentators and prognosticators.
Q: Did you get the feeling right away that the book would generate so much interest?
A: Not at all, actually. Right after the launch in May, we were very concerned—things were very quiet. It wasn’t until a June interview I did with Vox that things started rolling. After that, The New Yorker ran a piece by Masha Gessen [former John J. McCloy Professor at Amherst], and then Will He Go? was the lead book review in both the Times Literary Supplement in Britain and The New York Review of Books in the States.
Q: Do you have some idea of how many times you’ve talked to reporters?
A: Gosh, in the hundreds. It’s really hard to say. According to [Will He Go? publisher Hachette Book Group’s] calculations, I’ve talked with reporters from major media outlets in 27 nations—everywhere from Brazil and Colombia to Japan and Korea, and just about every European nation. English-speaking television networks I’ve appeared on include CNN, CNN International, NBC, BBC World Service, Canadian Broadcasting and Australian Broadcasting. One fun interview was for a documentary about the election that aired on German and French television. They sent a film crew up from New York to talk to me in person. Because of COVID-19, we shot that outside. They did some classic hokey documentary things where they had a drone flying overhead filming me walking across the lawn, carrying my book, looking very concerned about the future of democracy.
...having a conversation would be like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall.”
Q: Have you found one medium particularly enjoyable?
A: The podcasts are blasts because they’re often quite conversational. I really enjoyed the podcasts I did with The Washington Post, The Guardian and Slate—the [interviewers] had all read the book closely and asked probing questions. I’ve also enjoyed the challenge of television, particularly in the age of Zoom. At first, it was a tiny bit unnerving being on live television, knowing that there are millions of people who are potentially watching, and you don’t really want to screw up. Not to mention, for months I wasn’t able to get a proper haircut.
Q: What has been most surprising to you in the past couple of months?
A: I have generally found international correspondents to be very knowledgeable about the American electoral system. One thing they couldn’t believe was how decentralized our electoral system is and how much power individual states have during an election. Foreigners view the United States as the world’s most stable democracy and subsequently assume that our procedures are incredibly well-run and rationalized. It’s almost the opposite: the fact that we are so stable has permitted us to get away with procedures that are quite defective and irrational.
Q: Have you ever thought about doing a live interview with a commentator whose perspective is the polar opposite of yours?
A: On more than one occasion I have contemplated what it would be like getting into the ring with the likes of a Sean Hannity. But then I wonder if they’re just so good at cutting people off that it’s very hard to really get your points across, and if having a conversation would be like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. But I certainly indulge the fantasy of being able to do that. I’m pretty much a ham that way.