It’s possible that all of this will have a happy ending.
Maybe the polls are right, and Joe Biden is on course for a dominant 7 or 8 point win over Donald Trump. He could pick up a couple of decisive swing states that are supposed to finish counting votes on Tuesday night—North Carolina and Arizona, for instance—and short-circuit the president’s plan to first claim victory, then sue his way to a second term. There’s a chance that Democrats will eke out a Senate majority, too, so that they can actually govern come January, and deal properly with the deadly plague that’s reshaped our lives and crippled the economy. Perhaps there won’t be any violence at voting places, and people will be able to cast their ballots without getting hurt. Knock on wood.
But even if this election does bring an orderly end to the Trump era, do not for a second forget that absolutely everything about it, and the year that has led us to this point, has been utterly, incalculably insane, a 50-car pileup of reminders that we are a broken society with a broken political system that seems ever-more untenable, whether or not we are doomed to spend four more years with our addled president.
It is insane, for starters, that he even has a shot of pulling this race out. Nobody, least of all Trump, believes that he will win the popular vote. It is not even a discussion at this point. But we’re all trapped in a mad house erected upon the Electoral College, an anti-majoritarian barbarism that, according to conventional wisdom, now requires Democrats to win by at least 3 percent to have a shot at the White House and drives otherwise sensible Americans to spend sleepless nights and precious emotional energy freaking out over early voting patterns in Miami-Dade.
Other countries—the ones we like to think of as our peers, even if they see us more like a tragic, strung-out uncle these days—don’t do this to themselves. In normal, advanced presidential democracies, the candidate who gets the most votes actually wins. We’re the only one where the person who comes in second can still somehow end up in charge. There is no good argument for it, in this year of our collective misery 2020. It is nuts.
It is also pure lunacy that after four years of family separations, tax cuts for the rich, transparent corruption, and deadly ineptitude, more than 4 in 10 Americans are apparently ready for another round of Trump. We are literally living through one of the worst-case scenarios experts anticipated when he was first elected: A pandemic that has killed 231,000 Americans, thanks in no small part to the White House’s botched response, and is set to ravage the country for months more, since Republican leaders seem to have mostly decided to let COVID rip and hope for the best. This a man who caught a deadly pathogen because he wanted to look tough and felt silly wearing a mask, turned a White House Rose Garden party into a superspreader event, and ended up dragging the country through a week of steroid-fueled psychodrama as doctors blasted him with experimental treatments to save his life, then somehow concluded that, hey, the disease wasn’t so bad after all. Since then, he’s moved on to talking openly about firing Dr. Anthony Fauci, the most trusted disease expert in America, after the election as payback for criticizing the administration’s response.
And yet a substantial portion of the country looks upon Trump, and his record, and sees not only a successful leader, but one they love, a figure they are willing to pack into a cold airplane hanger to cheer on while unmasked, because they apparently want to own the libs and the germ theory of disease. As a polity, we are not well.
I mean, look: If the only thing you care about is stacking the federal judiciary with conservatives, Trump has been a stellar chief executive. I get it. He just scored a hat trick on the Supreme Court. But the fact that a sizable chunk of voters, not to mention Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, sees this as the single most important goal in politics is, itself, a symptom of our country’s institutional sickness; in a functioning political framework, picking judges just would not be that high stakes of an endeavor. It would be more like nominating members of the Federal Reserve—important, but not something to wage a cold civil war over. Here in the U.S.A., however, we appoint clerics for life who have final say on what laws are permitted by our two-century-old founding scripture. Much of our governance has been warped around that process of bestowing absurd, anti-democratic power.
Which unfortunately brings us to the question of whether we’ll have a free and fair election, even by our own low standards. I do not know if Trump planned his scheme to suppress Democratic votes ahead of time, or if he just sort of winged his way into it. But, one way or another, the president’s ravings have gradually evolved into a coherent effort by the whole conservative movement to snatch the presidency through the courts that they have jammed full of sympathetic judges. First, Trump spent years barking about voter fraud and warning specifically that Democrats would use voting by mail to steal elections. His supporters listened, and as a result, many more Democrats than Republicans have mailed their ballots in key swing states such as Pennsylvania. And now, Trump has signaled that he will do everything in his power to keep later-arriving mail-in votes from being counted, and insisted that states should announce their results by the end of Nov. 3. “We’re going to go in night of, as soon as that election is over, we’re going in with our lawyers,” he warned Sunday. This is not an idle threat. As the New York Times reports, “voting rights organizations and conservative groups are raising money and dispatching armies of lawyers for what could become a state-by-state, county-by-county legal battle over which ballots will ultimately be counted.” We are talking about the voter suppression equivalent of trench warfare.
And the Supreme Court’s conservatives appear happy to serve as soldiers in the battle, at least if the election looks close. They have spent the past weeks advancing exotic legal theories that would allow them to overrule state election officials and disqualify ballots if they saw fit; in a particularly embarrassing opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh even parroted Trump’s talking points about how it would be suspicious if states “flipped” from red to blue after election night.
It’s entirely possible that all of this angling won’t amount to anything; Biden could win so overwhelmingly that a few votes around the margins in the Rust Belt simply won’t matter much. But if the polls are off by a couple of points in the Sun Belt, and the election really does come down to a showdown in Pennsylvania, there’s a nonzero chance we’d be staring at Bush v. Gore Redux, which is fundamentally deranged. And even if it doesn’t, the entire Republican Party has made clear, at this point, that it is dedicated to preserving minority rule if remotely possible, that “we’re a republic, not a democracy” is its smirking, bedrock philosophy.
And what if Biden does win? Democrats will still need to take the Senate in order to have any hope of governing effectively, which at this point is not remotely a sure bet. Without it, Biden’s presidency could easily be smothered in its cradle, as we enter a new period of political gridlock against the backdrop of a public health and economic disaster. It’s unlikely that McConnell will approve a single judicial nomination by Biden; Republicans might greenlight his Cabinet picks, to be polite, but there’s a strong chance they will try to clip a Biden administration’s wings by holding up key regulatory nominations. Perhaps the new president could try to govern like Trump, by signing executive actions and stuffing the administration’s ranks with acting officials, but something tells me the Supreme Court might not look kindly on that sort of creativity from a Democratic White House.
Do we even have to talk about the ambient threat of violence around this election? To be honest, I’d prefer not to, because it’s hard not to sound like a loon going on about militias or Proud Boys or whether Trump would actually use a disturbance at polling places to send in the feds. It’s not encouraging that, so far, he and other Republicans are egging on some straightforward hooliganism, like that caravan that swarmed a Biden-Harris bus on the highway. (The president called them “patriots.” Sen. Marco Rubio said, “We love what they did.”) Hopefully, confrontations don’t rise to anything beyond that.
Again, maybe we dodge all of these bullets. Maybe Biden will pull off a resounding win, and even if Trump refuses to concede, the world will move on, and his refusal to promise a peaceful transition of power will just be remembered as one more inexplicably petulant provocation by a president who refused to make even token gestures toward normalcy. But the mere fact that we have to worry about the arraigned forces of minority rule returning a president this unfit and unpopular back to the Oval Office, or that his successor won’t be able to actually run the country, should make us deeply fearful for the future. If you’ve spent the past week wracked with anxiety over this election, don’t let yourself ever forget it if Biden wins. This is an insane way to run a nation.