What motivates someone to start writing political conspiracy thrillers?
James McCrone writes that George W. Bush’s “chad-thin” victory over Al Gore in 2000 showed him just how fragile our electoral process can be.
Those who were voting age 20 years ago likely recall the Florida election judges trying to interpret voter intent from those hanging chads, which were dangling strips of paper from punch ballots. As Florida’s partisan secretary of state tilted the field where she could for Bush, armies of lawyers from both political parties swarmed around exhausted poll workers.
Finally, it took the Supreme Court to affirm that Florida’s electoral votes belonged to Bush with an official margin of less than 600 out of more than 6 million cast in the Sunshine State. Gore won the national popular vote, and there’s credible evidence that he actually won Florida but didn’t leverage all the legal and political weapons at his disposal to seek a full recount before conceding.
Oh, by the way, Facebook was still three years from starting as “Facemash” in Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm room.
MCCRONE’S TIMELY AND CAUTIONARY TALE
The 2000 election almost feels quaint today. McCrone’s dark, dystopian view of just how low politics can go might have seemed extreme in 2000, but much less so today, which makes his new novel, Emergency Powers, both a timely read and cautionary tale.
McCrone’s books explore what could happen if systematic, multi-pronged attacks undermined the Electoral College process so that the wrong people can seize power. In Emergency Powers, the only barrier to what amounts to a fascist coup is a small group of determined FBI agents marshaled against conspirators with tentacles everywhere.
Emergency Powers is the third book of a series involving FBI investigator Imogen Trager as she continues her investigation into a plot — led by an elusive figure called The Postman — that killed members of the Electoral College in order to put the “right people” into power.
Many Americans don’t realize that when they vote for president, they’re really voting for a slate of “electors” — people pledged to the candidate of their choice. The electors cast their ballots in each state, and each state’s votes are determined by the size of its Congressional representation. The candidate who wins an Electoral College majority wins the presidency — and no one wants the nightmare of Congress deciding if there’s no majority winner. That’s why candidates like Gore and Hillary Clinton in recent years won the nationwide popular vote but lost the presidency. Conspiracy buffs, election experts and political scientists have speculated for years about how the Electoral College system might be corrupted.
EXPOSING UNDERHANDED POWER GRABS
As the story opens, the U.S. has an accidental president as Vice President Robert Moore takes office following the unexpected death of President Diane Redmond. Trager knows she only briefly checkmated the conspiracy around “faithless electors” that she fought in the two earlier novels as the conspiracy leaders remain active. She’s highly suspicious that President Redmond’s death was no accident. She learns that Moore is a puppet who will use a brutal, false-flag terrorist attack to strengthen not only his grip on power but the hold that the other, unknown conspirators likely have on the new president.
Trager isn’t sure who she can trust, including the man she loves, in frustrating efforts to flip key members of the conspiracy to the side of the good guys before they get killed. The action moves across the country from Washington D.C. to Seattle and Cincinnati. Some of the best scenes are at remote airstrips as the agents try to penetrate the conspiracy through the pilots they’re hiring.
The characters are well-drawn, and McCrone shows a strong knack for plotting and dialogue. “Ripped from today’s headlines” is a trite cliché in many cases, but it aptly applies to Emergency Powers. You’ll find a fractured FBI, questions about the loyalty of the Attorney General and powerful people using any means necessary to grab power.
And McCrone takes “any means necessary” to a level that once seemed unimaginable. That it seems more plausible and possible today should give all of us pause.