For months, Joe Biden has been campaigning with endless variations on a simple theme: vote and we can end this. We can end the craziness, the incompetence, the sheer exhausting daily spectacle that has been the Presidency of Donald John Trump. “I promise you this,” Biden said the other day. “I’ll end Donald Trump’s chaos and end this crisis.”
But not yet. The 2020 election—which Democrats waited four years for, since the stunning 2016 upset that made Trump President, in a quirk of Electoral College math—was not the Election Night knockout that Biden wanted it to be. The contest between Biden and Trump remains too close to call, and although Biden may yet end it, even definitively so, the spectre of days or even weeks of post-election legal confrontation that Trump has threatened may now come to pass.
Trump spent the run-up to Election Day preëmptively undermining the results. He declared the contest both the most important in American history and the most crooked—unless he won outright. Before any votes were counted, he called it a “Rigged Election!” He has repeated this outrageous claim nearly two hundred times since August, according to Factba.se, which tracks all of Trump’s public statements. The closer we got to the election, the more he said it. But the night is now over, and Trump has not been declared the winner. Will he bring on the whirlwind that he had promised? It only took a few hours to find out the answer: the President’s dangerous rhetoric was, in fact, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Before 1 a.m., with an apparent break toward Biden in Arizona, and with the former Vice-President telling car-honking supporters at a drive-in rally in Delaware that “we’re on track to win this election,” Trump attacked the results even before they were formalized. “They are trying to STEAL the Election,” he tweeted. “We will never let them do it. Votes cannot be cast after the Poles [sic] are closed!” Soon after 2:20 a.m., Trump spoke to supporters in the White House, where he was even more explicit that he will follow through on his threats. He declared that he won, and said that he will go to the Supreme Court to stop the millions of votes that are still being counted. “This is a fraud on the American public,” Trump claimed, with no evidence at all to back it up. The worst-case scenarios, tragically, seem to be coming true.
It never should have come to this. After nearly four years of Trump’s divisiveness and incompetence, the country has been beset by truly grave crises in 2020. With a deadly pandemic raging and an attendant economic catastrophe, more than seventy per cent of Americans said, in the latest Gallup poll, that they believed the country was headed in the wrong direction. In a previous era, Trump might have suffered a historic repudiation for what has happened to the nation on his watch. Yet Trump’s support from the Republican Party base never collapsed, and on the eve of the election almost every conceivable outcome was still possible, from a narrow Trump victory to a Biden landslide. The final poll averages had Biden finishing stronger than Hillary Clinton did four years ago, both nationally and in the battleground states, but only narrowly. In its final preëlection forecast, FiveThirtyEight gave the former Vice-President an eighty-nine-per-cent chance of an Electoral College victory. But, although it was highly likely that Biden would win, it was not impossible that he would lose.
Heading into Tuesday night, the key states were largely the same as they have been since 2016: Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. If Biden could manage to just take back Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—the three states that won Trump the Presidency, by little more than seventy thousand votes between them—the race would be over. That Biden, in the weeks before the election, decided to compete aggressively in previously solid Trump territories, including Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas, only underscored how much Trump’s campaign has been on the defensive these past few months. And yet, win or lose, Trump will almost certainly have commanded support from well over forty per cent of the American electorate. He might even end up with more popular votes than he had four years ago. He held on to Florida, Ohio, and Texas. His base has followed him through impeachment and family separation, his “love” letters with North Korea’s brutal dictator and even his coronavirus denialism. If he leads them over the cliff of a constitutional confrontation between now and January 20th, we have to assume that they will follow him there, as well.
Trump was always a minority President, governing for part of the country in opposition to the rest of it. The shock of his 2016 election upset became its own political rationale and, ultimately, for Trump, the blueprint for his reëlection plan. Why do something different when he had defied everyone and won the first time? When the final votes are counted, they will almost surely show Biden surpassing Clinton’s popular-vote margin of 2.87 million, and yet Trump believed until the end that nothing mattered except keeping the support of his Republican base. He may turn out to have been wrong, but it will have been a much, much closer call for American democracy than it should have been. And, even without final results, we can already say that there are still two Americas, and that Trump, despite the catastrophes of his rule, has retained the loyalty of the vast majority of red America—his America.
In the end, it wasn’t about the polls being right or wrong, though they certainly appeared to be off in some key states. It was about the uncertainty of a painfully divided country—perhaps the defining characteristic of Washington, and American politics more broadly, in the Trump years. Trump’s incessant questioning of the basic institutions of our government and electoral system has now produced his desired result, even if he may not be back for another four years: a superpower torn apart from within, no longer trusting of its own democracy. There have been many times, over the past four years, that covering Trump’s Washington felt like a foreign assignment to me, never more so than while driving around the capital these past few days and seeing boarded-up storefronts and streets cordoned off for blocks around the White House, in anticipation of unprecedented post-election violence. I have seen such scenes before, in places like Azerbaijan and Russia. This is Trump’s America. It is not the America I have known.
So what now? We can say one thing so far: the anxiety and uncertainty of this election season will extend into a post-election struggle, possibly a protracted one, with potential consequences for our democracy that go well beyond the narrow questions of when Pennsylvania’s absentee ballots will finally be counted and why suburban women in the Midwest appear to have soured on Trump so much more than Latinos in South Florida. We may get results soon from Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, but Trump has already said that he will not accept defeat in those states, if defeat is indeed what it looks like. Indeed, Trump, at his early-morning appearance at the White House, flat-out claimed to already be winning all three states, and suggested that votes should not continue to be counted, although there is no evidence at all that the outstanding ballots were not legally cast. Will his fight last until December 8th, the “safe harbor” date by which states are supposed to have their results finalized? Until December 14th, when the Electoral College is supposed to meet? All the way until noon on January 20th, when the next President will be sworn in at the Capitol?
Even before the election, the contours of the Republicans’ post-election strategy were clear: to disrupt the counting, to insure as few votes as possible in Democratic areas were cast, to claim there was widespread fraud. The goal was to get into court and sue, and Trump, saying the quiet part out loud, as is his habit, even admitted it over the weekend, declaring that as soon as the election ends “we’re going in with our lawyers.” On Sunday, Benjamin L. Ginsberg, for a generation the leading Republican election attorney, took the extraordinary step of denouncing this strategy, in an op-ed for the Washington Post. By Ginsberg’s count, the Trump campaign and the G.O.P. had already filed more than forty lawsuits around the country before the election, challenging various local or state-level voting and ballot measures, every single one of which had the goal of limiting the vote in some way. Ginsberg said that Trump’s claims of widespread fraud were being amplified by a Republican Party that knows they aren’t true but insists on promoting this “Loch Ness Monster” of a story anyway. “My party is destroying itself on the Altar of Trump,” he warned.
Whatever happens in the courts, Trump is all but certain to be his own vortex of uncertainty over the next couple of months, until Inauguration, and that will be true even after there is a decisive resolution. A vengeance-seeker in the best of times, Trump had already signalled before the election that he might fire a long list of officials in his government whom he views as insufficiently loyal or willing to go along with his orders. These include the director of the F.B.I., Christopher Wray; the Attorney General, William Barr; the director of the C.I.A., Gina Haspel; and, even in the midst of the pandemic, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci. He could seek to fire them even if he loses, or perhaps especially if he does. He could do it tomorrow. How do we know this? This is exactly what he did after the Republicans’ midterm-election loss, in November of 2018; he fired his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, the very next day.
Vengeance is not the only danger that lies ahead. Even defeated, Trump could use his executive powers to wreak significant additional damages before January 20th. He could break norms and traditions even more than he has already, and pardon his family, friends, cronies—even, potentially, himself. He could undermine public confidence in a coronavirus vaccine, or stop the government’s fight against it altogether. There are many scenarios for the havoc we might see, and they are very much consistent with Trump’s Presidency so far.
The truth is that, at every step along the way, he has been willing to say and do the previously unthinkable in American politics. He has cheered dictators such as Vladimir Putin and asked foreign countries to help him defeat Joe Biden. He has lied so much that the Washington Post recorded more than twenty thousand of his falsehoods and misstatements. He has personally profited from the Presidency, and he has abdicated “any responsibility at all” for his government’s failed response to a pandemic that has already left more than two hundred and thirty thousand Americans dead.
So the question now is not how far he will go to remain in office—the past four years have definitively answered that—but whether there is anyone left to stop him, as America enters the dangerous uncertainty of an election that does not yet have a winner.