With the presidential election still very much in the balance, the Orange Incumbent predictably claiming fraud, and a potentially protracted legal road to an outcome ahead of us, what can we say we know on this first day after Election Day, 2020?
First and foremost, the massive repudiation of Trump and Trumpism that some expected and many hoped for did not materialize. The blue wave foretold by the mid-terms of 2018 never made it to the bedraggled shores of 2020. Democrats lost seats in the House. As of this moment, the Senate race is up for grabs, with two seats to be decided in runoffs next January. We remain, to a degree that yet again astonishes, a deeply and remarkably evenly divided electorate.
That Trump still has a hope of winning is in a way even more amazing than his victory in 2016. That stunning upset came with several ready rationalizations attached. Clinton was a personally unappealing candidate who gave short shrift to the critical “blue wall” states of the upper Midwest and bore the brunt of a deep-seated cultural misogyny. Turnout was low generally, and particularly among Democrats. What most voters knew of Trump was based on the cartoon hagiography of his reality TV show and a few months on the stump, where his insults and monosyllabic sloganeering could be interpreted as a refreshing departure from the wonky stoicism of the Bush/Clinton school of politics. The average Republican might have reasoned that surely he would learn on the job, become “presidential,” and all his buffoonery was just for campaign show.
My own personal theory of what happened in 2016 was that because essentially no one gave Trump a chance of winning, the majority of the votes cast for him constituted votes against Clinton, or a raised middle finger to establishment politics in general. 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 believed that a significant percentage of those who voted for Trump were not expressing a desire that he actually attain the office, were shocked that he did, and immediately if secretly longed for a do-over.
Last night left that pet theory in tatters. Trump is no longer an unknown quantity. The voting populace has had four long years to gawk in amazement as their president trampled one convention of leadership after another. His factual ignorance is so blatant that it seems willful. He isn’t running against an unlikeable woman trailing decades of political baggage behind her; he’s running against a fundamentally decent, relatable man who’s spent his adult life in public service. And whatever the putative achievements of his administration (primarily tax cuts and Supreme Court appointments), he’s been utterly inept at international relations, doesn’t understand that a tariff isn’t paid by the foreign exporter, is such a constant font of often dangerous lies that fact-checkers can’t keep up with them, has ballooned the national deficit, has fired nearly every senior aide of any proven competence, has shown himself to be rash and self-absorbed when faced with even minor challenges, and has clearly mismanaged the most dire pandemic in a hundred years.
Unlike last time, turnout by both major parties has been record-breaking, and I was clearly wrong about my secret Trump recanters. Upwards of 69 million Americans really, really do want the man described above to be president. They may have had their moment of buyer’s remorse immediately after 2016’s election day, but then saw that, hey, they got the taxes on their capital gains reduced, a bunch of annoying environmental regulations got thrown out the window, the Supreme Court was taken over by originalists, the economy was booming before this pesky Covid thing, 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 that schoolmarm Jill Biden, and Joe was, after all, a corrupt old lackey of the Socialist left. They’re real Trump supporters now, not just accidental ones. And maybe the pandemic, far from suppressing the vote, is part of the reason Trump wasn’t trounced; people don’t like to change horses in the middle of a hurricane.
We’re left with the inescapable conclusion that no, 2016 was not an aberration, that two dramatically different and ultimately incompatible sets of values motivate two nearly equal segments of our adult population. And that is both astonishing and dismaying.
The second thing we know is that, whatever his personal qualities, Joe Biden was a weak candidate, and it’s to the lasting discredit of the Democratic Party that they couldn’t field a better one. Four years ago, in the wake of the election, I opined that Joe Biden could have beaten Trump with one hand tied behind his back (my exact words). That may have been true four years ago, but those four years took a toll on Joe, and on his prospects of becoming president. Riots in the streets and calls to defund police departments handed Trump’s campaign a handy cudgel. Biden’s rallies were feeble, small-scale affairs – responsible, but dull. In his two debates with Trump, who did his level best to self-destruct, Biden looked and acted old, readily distracted, less than fully articulate. People don’t readily vote for someone they doubt will live out his first term. And Kamala Harris proved herself no great asset on the campaign trail, with no more appeal to the crucial women’s vote than Hillary had, and at least enough of a whiff of leftist fringe to scare off the retirees in Florida.
Another thing we know is that it is entirely possible that, for the third time in only 20 years, our election will “get it wrong,” and the candidate who overwhelmingly won the popular vote might not become president. But whoever wins, the ongoing travesty of the winner-take-all system of awarding Electoral College votes, which wildly subsidizes the political power of residents of rural, aged, less populous, conservative states, needs be addressed in a systematic, bipartisan way. One oft-proposed solution would be for the states to award electors by congressional district, as is currently the case in Maine and Nebraska, or in proportion to each candidate’s popular vote count in a given state. This could be done by state legislatures without the need for a Constitutional amendment or constitutionally suspect interstate compacts, would preserve the influence of less-populous states, and remedy the effective disenfranchisement of millions of American voters every four years.
And speaking of ongoing travesties, could we please bring the actual process of voting into the twenty-first century? It’s nothing short of shameful that the right to vote, unequivocally ensured by the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, is effectively reduced to a mere privilege to be earned by submission to bureaucratic hazing and standing for hours in long lines on a workday. Our collective genius can surely come up with a way for our votes to be privately and securely cast online.
That’s how much, and how little, we know. Now if only we can get those votes counted…..