We are headed into a firestorm, the headline blared. Is there any reason to think otherwise? Four years ago, in his inaugural address, Donald Trump looked at the country that he had been elected to govern and saw carnage. It may have been hyperbole, but if it was not the reality of our country when he won the presidency, four years later, carnage is what he will leave us with. If we are lucky.
For four years, Trump has specialized in turning Americans against each other in all manner of ways for his own political advantage. Four years after his American Carnage address from the steps of the Capitol, the country is beset by political division, disease, racial strife, and economic collapse. Gangs armed with assault weapons freely stake out the steps of state capitols, plot to kidnap elected officials, and stalk Trump’s political opponents on the highways, doing their best Mad Max imitations from their flag-festooned pickup trucks. Except ours is not a post-apocalyptic world, but rather a pre-apocalyptic one — if the headlines are to be believed — in which each of these groups had, and continue to have, every reason to believe they are doing the President’s bidding.
Looking back over the past four years, it’s hard to point to any significant acts Donald Trump has taken as President that have been geared to the common good rather than his own self-aggrandizement, personal self-interest, or tied to his own political ends. As we look forward to the weeks that will follow election day, the sense of dread predicting the firestorm to come reflects the widespread acknowledgement that every action he will take will be firmly in pursuit of his own interest. The impact on the nation, the impact on our sense of common purpose, and the higher responsibility we each have as citizens in a democracy — none of that registers with this President, as Ted Cruz warned the nation early on.
James Madison, John Jay, and other founders of the Republic warned the nation early on that the sine qua non for a successful system of self-government was not the language or laws set forth in the Constitution, but the virtue of the leaders committed to the greater good that would make it possible. The requirement of “republican virtue” was the context of the famous Benjamin Franklin quote, i.e., that the drafters at the Constitutional Convention had given us a republic, rather than a monarchy, “if you can keep it.”
Donald Trump is not a virtuous man. If there is a single question on which overwhelming majorities of Americans agree, it is that. Even his core supporters, particularly women, who cling to him out of their visceral distrust of the media and elites view him as a narcissist, a bully and a racist. Evangelicals made their deal with the devil knowing full well that they were pinning their political hopes and dreams on a man who lacked the core virtues that they have historically supported as an essential requirement of leadership. The Republican Party has long held character and virtue to be threshold requirements of its candidates. Republicans struggled with Ronald Reagan’s multiple marriages. They castigated Bill Clinton for his personal conduct. Before party leaders could do anything about it, however, Trump got his hooks into the party base, and the rest of the Republican Party set aside the warnings of Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham.
Now we are all paying the price, exactly as the founders warned. Donald Trump has been committed to voter suppression — because he believes that the more people that vote, the less likely he is to win. He has worked for months to foment distrust in the results of the election; and in just a matter of days, if not hours, we are going to see how far he is prepared to go to manufacture victory through legal maneuvers, should the electorate vote to deny him a second term. For months now, he has telegraphed his intention to litigate the election outcome to the Supreme Court, as well as his view that the justices that he has placed on the Court owe him a duty of loyalty to deliver the election to him when the time comes.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh deeply damaged both his own and the Supreme Court’s credibility last week when he appeared to endorse Donald Trump’s campaign against late arriving ballots — including those timely postmarked — foreshadowing the legal and political drama that many expect to see unfold. The second of Trump’s three Supreme Court appointees, Kavanaugh suggested that counting absentee ballots that arrive after election day could lead to “suspicions of impropriety,” despite the fact that counting such duly cast ballots is the law of the land in many states.
Under our federalist system, voting practices are governed by state rather than federal law; and some states allow absentee ballots to come in after election day, while others do not. Accordingly, states whose absentee ballots are due no later than election day — and that allow such ballots to be opened and counted as they arrive — may well know their results on Tuesday night. Other states — including those that accept ballots postmarked by election day, or do not allow the counting of ballots to begin until the polls close — surely will not. Rather than calming the waters, reaffirming faith in our federalist system, and encouraging all Americans to be patient as all legally cast votes are duly counted, Kavanaugh lent credence to fears of election fraud and manipulation that Trump has been working diligently to incite, and to Trump’s stated desire to have the Supreme Court intervene to halt the counting of ballots after election day.
Writing in the Washington Post this weekend, two of the foremost experts in election law, Republican Ben Ginsberg and Democrat Bob Bauer, offered soothing words during the current election tempest. Trust the process, they suggested. For more than two centuries, people on local boards of elections across the country have made elections work, even in tumultuous times, and provided the basis for an orderly transition of power. Unfortunately, however, the challenge we face is not related to the effectiveness of election systems at the local level, but emanates from the top. President Trump’s own Commission on Election Integrity searched to no avail for evidence of corruption that might bolster his claims. Yet those results did nothing to temper Donald Trump’s claims of corruption and fraud.
The notion that faith in local election systems may not be enough to assure a smooth outcome to the election was echoed this week by Marco Rubio and other members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who raised fears that Trump’s plans are providing a path for Russian and Iranian information operations to pile on and further exacerbate public distrust and discord. “This is a really dangerous moment,” Senate Intelligence Committee member Angus King (I-ME) commented, echoing headlines in the media. “The only antidote is a landslide.”
And so it may have to be if we are to find a viable path forward. Only a landslide offers the prospect of shaking up the political landscape and sending a strong enough jolt through the Republican Party that GOP leaders in Congress will stand against whatever steps Donald Trump might actually take to overturn the results of the vote and cling to power. Anything less than a landslide may well leave Republican leaders hamstrung between their sense that Trump could ultimately prevail, and the better angels of their nature.
Long lines at polling places in Texas and Georgia leave me hopeful that a landslide is possible. Each time I see the images, I am reminded of women in Afghanistan, a decade or so ago, with purple ink on their fingers, their faces radiating with joy at the thrill of democratic participation. Then I remind myself: this is America, it is not supposed to be this way.
Despite the warnings of the founders, we simply never thought it could happen here. A populist demagogue, elected to office, and fully prepared to tear a nation apart to keep himself in power. But it did. With a bit of luck, if Americans across the country are treating their right to vote with the same reverence as once did the women of Kabul and Kandahar, we may yet have the landslide we so urgently need. If we don’t, the consequences will likely be dire. Within days, if not hours, we are going to know the answer.
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.