There are nine days left until Election Day. In just over one week, we will know if there is a clear winner in the presidential race. But even if Joe Biden wins, and one national nightmare comes to an end, the nation will continue to face challenges that may not be easily addressed by a change in who sits in the Oval Office.
Four years ago, it was eleven days before Election Day when Jim Comey announced the FBI’s new investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, turned the presidential race on its head, and effectively put Donald Trump on a path to winning the Presidency. While some may debate whether or not Comey’s letter led to Clinton’s defeat, Donald Trump is quite certain of its impact. It is the reason he has been demanding that Attorney General William Barr or FBI Director Christopher Wray announce that they are opening an investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden. It worked before, and he believes it can work again.
Even as Joe Biden continues to maintain a wide lead in national polls — averaging 9.1% at Fivethirtyeight.com and 8.0% on RealClearPolitics — Democrats, along with a fair share of Republicans and independents, remain terrified that Trump will once again grasp victory from the jaws of defeat. That fear is not unreasonable. While Fivethirtyeight currently gives Trump only twelve chances out of a hundred to win a second term, 2016 was nothing if not a lesson in probability. A twelve percent chance is not zero, and a lot of things happen only twelve percent of the time and we are not surprised.
The difference this time around is that Donald Trump has a track record. This week, Gallup released a poll indicating that 56% of Americans believe that he does not deserve to be reelected, compared to 43% who believe he does. The 43% number is consistent with Trump’s approval rating, which rarely exceeded 44% over the entire course of his presidency. That number is significant because a president’s approval rating is widely viewed as the most reliable indicator of how he will perform on Election Day. Indeed, if you look through polls taken over the past several months — nationally and in the battleground states — 44% stands out as a ceiling that Trump has struggled to exceed.
The reality remains that Trump has lost ground across nearly every demographic group in which he held an edge four years ago. Biden has made strides among the military, the elderly and white women, and even to some extent with less-educated white men. Yet the fear of what may yet happen remains unabated.
Absent being able to engineer a Comey-style October Surprise — so far, Rudy Giuliani’s Hunter Biden gambit appears to have had little impact — the final presidential debate was Donald Trump’s last opportunity to reframe the narrative of the presidential race away from the pandemic and his own job performance. It has become a truism of politics since the first televised presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960 that the best way to predict voter reaction to a televised debate is to watch it with the sound turned off. And so it was last week. While Donald Trump was more restrained than in the first debate in September, the poll results were no better; he came across once again to focus groups of undecided voters as a nasty, humorless person. With the sound on you heard a man with no compassion for immigrant children torn from their parents’ arms. With the sound off, you saw a man scowling and glowering.
Trump’s comfort with cruelty is not something to which his most loyal supporters turn a blind eye. Rather it is what many of them love about him. He has engendered within our politics a dynamic of roiling bitterness and resentment that reverberates at his rallies. Dating back to his early flirtations with David Duke, Trump has sanctioned conduct and brought into the mainstream behavior that has long been kept at the fringes of society. While people were shocked to see white supremacists march in Charlottesville early in Trump’s presidency, little shocks us anymore — even when we see images of men with assault weapons lurking threateningly in state capitols. It barely makes news now when the FBI announces that it has made arrests in one plot after another involving plans to kidnap or kill state governors or Joe Biden. We fully expect active voter intimidation, if not violence, around polling places over the coming days.
Donald Trump has exacted a high moral cost on his supporters, as they have learned to think things and do things they likely never would have thought or done before. One example is the price paid by his supporters in the evangelical community. For forty years, evangelical leaders have undertaken a strategic effort to support Republican candidates in exchange for the GOP commitment to build a conservative judiciary and Supreme Court. This effort reached a new level in 2016, as evangelical support for Donald Trump was more unified than for any President in memory. Yet it was an alliance that came at a steep price. While Trump delivered the judges and justices he promised, the moral stature and credibility of those evangelical leaders who stood by his side and prayed in the Oval Office have been ground into dust as they have become complicit in tolerating deeply inhumane practices. The silence of those leaders as infants and children have been torn from the arms of their parents and held in prisons along our southern border reflects their compact with Trumpism. Giving cover to his cruelty is the price they paid to win the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
Over the past four years, as Donald Trump has given succor and support to white nationalist and conspiracy theorists of all stripes, the price that other Republicans are paying for their embrace of the President has become starker still. An interview last Sunday between Fox Business News anchor Maria Bartiromo and Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson provided a glimpse into the growing influence of conspiracy theories in Republican rhetoric. Bartiromo and Johnson, each prominent members of what was once the center-right political mainstream, bantered freely about Hunter Biden in terms that touched on elements of the QAnon conspiracy theory, and seemed more akin to Alex Jones’s InfoWars than a mainstream network.
QAnon — a conspiracy theory whose main villains are a cabal of Satan-worshipping Democrats involved in pedophilia and child sex-trafficking — has emerged as a growing force in Republican politics. According to recent Yahoo News/YouGov survey research, 50% of Trump supporters believe that “top Democrats are involved in elite child sex-trafficking rings,” and only one in six Trump supporters don’t believe it is true.
With nine days to go, polls continue to suggest that Joe Biden is favored to win the Presidency. Yet even if he does, the bad news comes in the shape of the world that he would inherit on January 20th. Over the past four years, Donald Trump has taken a wrecking ball to the soul of the country. While we were sorely divided before he arrived, to watch as he and his supporters — in Congress and elsewhere — have worked deliberately to exacerbate those divisions is to realize how difficult the challenges are going to be to rebuild some semblance of normalcy to our politics and to our country.
Even if he fails to win a second term and one national nightmare comes to an end, we are going to have to confront a deeper, perhaps more difficult reality. Liberated from the prospect of another four years of Donald Trump, the nation and the world will face the arduous — albeit constructive — task of figuring out where we go from here.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”
Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Follow him on Twitter @joedworetzky or Instagram at @joefaces.