One of the undoubted advantages of a Trump rally is that you can get the experience of reality TV without having to stay at home. The star is right there on the podium, just a stone’s throw away, surrounded by a crowd of 20,000 who may claim the status of longtime fans or enthusiastic converts. It should have been predictable that Trump would make no concessions to the pandemic. Without a pause or explanation, he continued the mass events that have kept his voter base eager through every twist and turn of his chaotic presidency. On the Sunday before the election, he held rallies in Michigan, Iowa, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida – a jet-fuelled version of the whistle-stop tour by which Harry Truman in 1948 demonstrated his political nerve against the favourite and eventual loser of that year, Thomas E. Dewey. The implied comparison, in 2020, was with the passive, careful, non-reactive campaign of Joe Biden, who arranged to be caught on camera in a face mask, projecting grandfatherly reassurance from his basement headquarters. Biden’s mental debility has been exaggerated, both by Trump and by his own nervous supporters, but beside the warthog dynamism of Trump himself, running through a litany of insults and anecdotes with the professionalism of a talk-show host in the insomniac hours, the former vice president had a convalescent look.
What possessed the Biden-Harris campaign to approach their victory as a foregone conclusion may never be known: it seems, at any rate, to have been a tight operation, unlikely to extrude the usual mass of memoirs. Kamala Harris might have been supposed to have marred her chances by the one-liner with which she tried to sink Biden’s candidacy in an early debate. Biden was not a racist, she allowed, but he had taken a reactionary stand against the school busing that brought black students into predominantly white neighbourhoods; and, from her personal experience, she knew that it was wrong to oppose busing: ‘That little girl was me.’ (T-shirts blazoned with ‘That little girl was me’ were being sold online just hours after Harris uttered the remark.) As attorney general of California before she was elected to the Senate, Harris was a rigorous prosecutor, with a respectable haul of drug convictions for small offences, and no reputation for leniency. More recently, she positioned herself on the cultural left of the party; and on 1 November, the Biden-Harris campaign posted a fifty-second ad in which, helped by a cartoon of two boys climbing a hill, she explains the difference between equality (‘equal opportunity’ backed by non-discrimination laws) and ‘equity’ (the equal finish that is assured by a truly equal start). The Biden-Harris combination must have been meant to assure voters of several kinds of diversity: age, sex, race. The two go together more plainly in having never ventured far from the consensus of their party in their generations.
Trump is always Trump: a supremely selfish and reckless tycoon who seemed an unimaginable fit for public office when he ran in 2016. Undoubtedly, he expected to lose; entering the presidential race had been a publicity gimmick like any other; but Trump throws himself into a relentless salesman’s posture for whatever product he happens to be selling. The Democrats made the mistake of assuming that his vulgarity and ignorance were self-evident: the voters had only to see them to know he was unfit for the presidency. This year, they made the same mistake, and they came eerily close to a second disaster. Biden-Harris lost Florida, where they could have clinched a victory early on election night. They also lost Ohio. The races in Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina, Nevada and Arizona remained for days too close to call. None of this was expected; the opinion polls, with the same near unanimity they showed for Hillary Clinton, led every insider to expect a happier result. Still, it looks as if the Democrats will one way or another secure the presidency this time; and they have kept their majority in the House of Representatives, though they won’t gain control of the Senate.
At a rally in Pennsylvania last month, Trump made a pathetic appeal to ‘suburban women’ to ‘please like me.’ Why? Because he was the one who would protect their suburbs from housing projects and the attendant crime and loss of market value: ‘I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream,’ he said in a July rally, ‘that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low-income housing built in your neighbourhood.’ The pitch to the suburbs was also a way of calling to mind the urban riots that followed the police killing of George Floyd last summer. These outbreaks – euphemistically referred to as ‘unrest’ by the liberal press – were recurrent in Minneapolis, Austin, Philadelphia, New York City, Los Angeles, Oakland, Louisville, Chicago, Washington DC, Atlanta, Seattle and Portland. They must have contributed to the high Republican turnout that blunted the Biden-Harris triumph on 3 November.
Trump had all along been planning to run as the president who restored full health to the economy after the financial collapse of 2007-8. Covid-19 forced his hand. Since the Democrats were running once again as not-Trump, responsible mask-wearers in a time of pandemic that had already killed more than 200,000 Americans on Trump’s failed watch, he would run as the man who doesn’t hate America. He tested positive for the virus on 1 October, but got over it fast with the help of an experimental drug cocktail (which he promised all Americans would be offered very soon). He immediately resumed his mass rallies, giving confused and contradictory advice about mask-wearing.
By Halloween, it was clear that Trump, whose strategies are all short-lived, was intent on provoking civil disorder (he didn’t much care what sort) to disturb the law-abiding process of election day and throw doubt on any result that might be declared. If it was a close call, he had already indicated in speeches, tweets and interviews that he would do everything in his power to call it into question. On 31 October, the Saturday before the election, he was saying that no early result could be a true result. ‘We’re going to be waiting,’ he said at a rally in Pennsylvania, ‘November third is going to come and go, and we’re not going to know. And you’re going to have bedlam in our country.’ Three days earlier, the US Supreme Court had ruled that Pennsylvania could accept ballots received as late as 6 November. ‘This is a horrible thing,’ Trump said, ‘that the United States Supreme Court has done to our country. And I say it, and I say it loud and I say it proud.’
How did these prophecies and complaints add up? If a conclusive result came in early and was solid against Trump, his followers were not to trust the count, since the real numbers would only emerge a long time after. (And bedlam would intervene.) The result might alternatively come early but go only narrowly against Trump: he would then mount endless legal challenges – as he has done to tie up lawsuits against his organisation as they go through the courts – until he emerged as the winner. Or, if the election result were delayed because the vote was too close to call, his followers should blame the Supreme Court: the very court to which he had lately added three justices to make a conservative majority. As it fell out, Trump panicked at 2.30 a.m. on 4 November. With a strained look and a dry throat, he rattled off (twice in succession) the states he had already won and those he might still win. He then declared that the counting had mysteriously turned corrupt and the election had been stolen:
We were getting ready for a big celebration, we were winning everything, and all of a sudden it was just – called off … This is a fraud on the American public … So we’ll be going to the US Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop. We don’t want them to find any ballots at four o’clock in the morning and add them to the list, OK? … To me this is a very sad moment, and we will win this. As far as I’m concerned, we already have won it.
Benjamin Ginsberg, a lawyer who worked for the Republican Party in the Florida recount that sent the 2000 election to the Supreme Court, was interviewed on NPR a few hours after Trump made his rambling remarks. He confessed he had no idea what path to the Supreme Court could have been in Trump’s mind. As a sort of sick postscript, at 9.12 the next morning, 5 November, Trump tweeted: ‘STOP THE COUNT!’ This was a summons either to official intervention or vigilante action, addressed, in true gangster grammar, to no one in particular and to all hands on deck. Trump has been called many things, tyrant, fascist, dictator-in-waiting, but an adjective does better than any noun. He is dangerous.
Since his recovery from Covid-19, Trump has seemed both more stimulated and more addled than usual. He had passed from exultation to despair in the days immediately before the onset of his infection. On 26 September, he nominated Amy Coney Barrett to fill the seat on the court vacated by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and pushed her to be confirmed quickly by the Republican majority in the Senate. The next day brought an engrossing and carefully documented New York Times story by Russ Buettner, Susanne Craig and Mike McIntire detailing Trump’s ‘chronic losses and years of tax avoidance’. The reporters detected no obvious violation of tax laws, but a major embarrassment for Trump lay in the burden of debt that might be inferred from the investment disasters that excused his long train of deductions. The outlets that gave maximum attention to the tax story were meanwhile dismissive of the New York Post’s stories of emails disclosing Hunter Biden’s business relations with the Ukrainian gas firm Burisma and the Chinese government. Any politician would have been vexed by such treatment, but Trump always takes things to the next level. As the autumn weather cooled and the Covid numbers kept getting worse, Trump was asking his attorney general to indict Hillary Clinton for the erased emails on her private server, and Barack Obama for spying on him.
The alliance between the Democratic Party and the liberal media has become a fact of the political culture so well understood as to short-circuit embarrassment. It now forms an exact counterpart of the alliance between Fox News and the Republican Party. The slack habits induced by such an understanding, the easy pressing out of inconvenient facts, has compromised the independence and weakened the deliberative powers of the Democratic Party. It was a misjudged conceit of Biden’s in October, for example, to warn constantly of the ‘dark winter’ of Covid-19 that is about to descend. You talk that way in the middle of a crisis when you see the light at the end; nobody likes the ferryman who ushers the dying to the land of the dead. But ‘dark winter’ was a poetic touch of the sort that news presenters are supposed to enjoy. For similar reasons, perhaps, the Democrats have been tempted to offer Biden to the country as a ‘healer’; but talk on these lines can easily grow unreal and rather clammy. What most people actually hope for is that Biden will somehow talk down the violent extremes that seem on the verge of an open clash. Popular worries about the election led to a drastic spike in gun purchases. ‘The country,’ Biden said in a campaign speech in Gettysburg, ‘is in a dangerous place. Our trust in each other is ebbing.’ Gettysburg was an impressive choice of a venue to deliver the warning. This was in fact the tone that Abraham Lincoln adopted in his First Inaugural when secession had already been declared by every eventual Confederate state except Virginia. A rage for civil purification, a factional fury associated with the Tea Party, BLM and a host of lesser militant groups, has been spreading across America for a decade or more, but Trump sped up the action, and the distemper now afflicts opinion-makers on all sides. ‘The white racist, sexist, xenophobic patriarchy,’ Charles Blow wrote in a New York Times column on 25 October, ‘and all those who benefit from or aspire to it are in a battle with the rest of us, for not only the present in this country but also the future of it.’ In Trump’s last-minute legal appeal for lower court judges to stop the vote counting in Pennsylvania and elsewhere – a stratagem condoned by Lindsey Graham, the chair of the Senate judiciary committee – there are indications of a more deep-seated motive. As far back as the late 1970s, Republicans have presumed the illegitimacy of a Democrat in the White House.
Attention, these past few months, to the meaning of the latest street clashes in DC or Portland has served to displace much serious discussion of foreign policy. On the face of things, Biden has surrounded himself with the conventional advisers of the Clinton-Obama circle – Jake Sullivan, Samantha Power, Susan Rice, Thomas Donilon, Ash Carter, Michèle Flournoy. It is hard to imagine any of them straying far from the Cold War groove of shepherding Nato against Russia and finding a field for occasional military exercise in a humanitarian war. Yet Biden in the past has shown unexpected powers of resistance: he sided with Douglas Lute and General Cartwright, against Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates, in telling Obama in 2009 to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan immediately. Again, in the case of Libya, Biden made the right arguments (though again Obama declined to follow them) in opposing the overthrow of Gaddafi. It will take the same nerve, under greater pressure, to repel the temptation of using foreign adventures as a way of marking a contrast with the deal-making gestural nationalism of Trump. The US recently announced plans to deploy the Coast Guard in the South China Sea – a long way off to interpret as the West Coast of America. The next president will be advised to take many further steps on similar lines, and all the advice will be bad. Foreign policy has been a century-long distraction from America’s confrontation with itself.