We are now days away from midterm elections that are nothing less than a national referendum on the presidency of Donald Trump, and on who we are as a people. There are of course local issues and personalities that will be the overriding focus of certain contests, but this election is our first opportunity since the gut-check of 2016 to meaningfully express our views of national politics. The theatrics of the “resistance,” the bilateral histrionics surrounding the Kavanaugh confirmation, the anger and frustration of the #MeToo movement, all the outrage and condescension that has become the political patois of Democrats and Republicans alike, all these pale to insignificance next to what each of us does in the voting booth on November 6, when we will vote, in essence, on the existential question of whether the course of the Trump presidency and its enablers in Congress should be encouraged or contained.
Those votes will also be the acid test of my own personal theory of what happened in the presidential election of 2016. That theory presupposes that because essentially no one gave Donald Trump a chance of winning, the majority of the votes cast for him constituted a vote against Hillary Clinton, or a raised middle finger to establishment politics in general and both major parties in particular. There may have been a few hundred thousand alt-right zealots who thought that Trump’s unique brand of dumbed-down isolationism and thinly-veiled bigotry was just what the country needed and, moreover, that most voters would agree with them, but I believe that a significant percentage of those who voted for Trump were not actually expressing a desire that he attain the office, were shocked that he did (having lost the popular vote by three million and carried the Electoral College by a mere 77,000), and immediately if secretly longed for a do-over.
November 6 is that do-over, and joining the Trump recanters will be those who voted against him the last time, and some of those who carelessly didn’t vote at all, or cast their votes for Gary Johnson or Bernie Sanders on the universal assumption that Trump couldn’t possibly win anyway, but who now perceive that a vote is a terrible thing to waste, especially when the stakes are, however belatedly, so starkly clear. The combination of those factions, and the absence of the Electoral College vote subsidy this time around, should be enough, if not to constitute a blue wave, at least to deliver a bare majority of the House, and perhaps of both houses, back to the Democrats.
And yet, and yet. If the election of 2016 taught us anything, it’s that what seems to make sense is the first casualty in politics, and sure things are nonexistent. I could be wrong about my Trump recanters. They may have had their moment of buyer’s remorse immediately after election day, but then saw that, hey, they got the taxes on their capital gains reduced, some ostensibly sane men were named to the cabinet, a bunch of pesky environmental regulations got thrown out the window, abortion rights were once again up for serious debate, Helsinki and Singapore were entertaining, the economy was booming, their cherished gun collections were safe, Trump was more inept than malicious, the common man could, for the first time in all of American history, presume himself to be just as smart, and at least as articulate, as his President, Melania was a lot more fun to look at than old Bill Clinton would have been, and Hillary was, after all, a corrupt, condescending old hack that we were well rid of. They recanted their secret recanting and doubled down for the long haul. They’re real Trump supporters now, not just accidental ones.
Or my Trump recanters never existed in the first place, and some 63 million American voters actually wanted Donald Trump to be President of the United States, meaning that something more horrifying has happened over the course of my adulthood, that we’ve gone from a populace periodically sparring with one another over whether this or that politician with significant experience in government and articulable policy views should hold the highest office in the land, to one that believes that an ethically-challenged real estate tycoon with a talent for self-promotion and experience in reality TV would do just fine.
It’s possible, in other words, that I’m living in a different country than I thought I was, that as the voting population has aged it’s not only turned more conservative, but become so easily swayed that it can confuse celebrity with competence, or is simply willing to hitch its one-off policy preferences to whatever garbage train happens to be leaving the station.
It’s possible that the education we received was inadequate, that our long neglect of public schools and our skepticism toward the liberal arts has reaped an awful harvest of self-satisfied tribalism and unashamed ignorance. That we have become, in reality, a country that resents the very notion of meritocracy and the liberal values the republic was founded on, and are privately relieved not to have to live up to them anymore now that the man in the White House has shown us that ignoring them has no consequences.
It’s possible that the twin engines of capitalism and democracy have done their job too well, that the post-recession times have been too easy, the social media talk too loose, to expect anything other than appetite and narcissism to be the reigning passions of our age, and that a man who personifies them is who we really do want to represent us before the world. The Wall Street Journal recently ran an op-ed piece baldly proclaiming “Government Can’t Rescue the Poor,” so we can scratch that one off our collective to-do list.
It’s possible that the vitriol of current political debate will so alienate moderates and independents that many of them will once again be persuaded that their time will be better spent at work or at a movie than at a polling place on election day. Hillary Clinton, she of the foot-in-mouth “deplorables” speech, has been widely quoted by gloating right-wing pundits for her defense of incivility as a political tool, calling to mind Barry Goldwater’s famously tin-eared proclamation that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue. (He lost too.)
It’s entirely possible that the disciplined, decades-long Republican program of gerrymandering and voter suppression will achieve yet another milestone, skewing outcomes as no foreign interference ever could. Last June, the Supreme Court held that my home state of Ohio may continue its practice of purging its voter registration rolls of those who don’t vote with sufficient frequency. The losing plaintiff in the case noted that he doesn’t lose his right to bear arms even if he’s never owned a gun, yet lost his right to vote because he didn’t return an address confirmation form to the State of Ohio. Some rights are evidently more durable than others.
It’s possible, in short, that nothing will change this November 6, that both the House and Senate will remain in the grip of Mitch McConnell conservatives (no real point in calling them Republicans anymore), and all three branches of government will lurch onward under the Trumpian banner. Toward what, we can only imagine, though we have had a vivid preview in the personal vulgarity and civic nihilism of Trump’s first two years.
Some of the damage can’t be undone by an election. The politicization of the judiciary, and the Supreme Court in particular, will far outlast the Trump presidency no matter how or when it ends. Our undermining of the diplomatic architecture so arduously created after World War II will take many years and a different president to repair. The consequences of our abdication of environmental goals will be visited upon our grandchildren. The degradation of our civic discourse has not yet touched bottom, and the kind of leaders who might restore it are nowhere to be found.
But I continue to believe that, as in 2016, the majority of Americans don’t want Donald Trump to be our president, and disagree with his policy instincts to the extent they can be discerned. That majority must do several difficult things on Tuesday: ignore the media-charged vitriol of the extreme left and right, set aside fantasies of removing Trump from office by impeachment or via the 25th Amendment, help their neighbors get to the polling places; and finally, crucially, vote on November 6 in numbers that will leave no doubt about who we really are as a nation, how we intend to vote in 2020, and what kind of leadership we want in the interim.