As I write this article on Election Eve, it seems utterly in doubt who will win the presidency. It may be no more certain by the time it is posted. Donald Trump, who challenged an election result he won four years ago, will contest one he loses now. However that might fare in the courts, he will have supporters to call upon in the streets if the fanaticism they have displayed thus far is any indication.
Trump explained all this to us before, when he divided the human race into winners (the self-selected few) and losers (the dumbo many). The person absolutely chosen for the former category was Trump himself. There can be no bigger a win than in a presidential race. Ergo, Trump has no choice but to win — and we to grant him that victory, one way or another. Most of us accept the fact that we sometimes win, sometimes lose and often enough wind up in the gray middle. If that’s not an acceptable premise, then you can’t live in a democracy. Donald Trump doesn’t live in one, but by the “Alice in Wonderland” system (unique to America) in which you can win an election with fewer votes than your opponent, he is and has been for four years our leader.
Logically, then, we either live in a democracy and Trump is not our leader, or we don’t and Trump is our leader. Since most of us check off both positive boxes in the affirmative, we confess to living in absurdity. No wonder we are experiencing a collective headache. It’s very hard to affirm a contradiction. The cure for such a problem, as I devoutly hope a majority of my fellow countrymen agree, is an election that decisively votes Trump out of office.
Trump will never accept this result, but if enough others do, that will be his problem, not ours. Not everyone necessarily will do so either, of course, and if the election is close, Trump will have a battalion of lawyers and a stable of politicians at his disposal — not to mention the ultimate backstop of the Supreme Court. None of these individuals may actually believe that Trump has won, but all will find it to their advantage to say so. That is called corruption, and although corruption is always present in the body politic just as bacteria is in one’s gut, it is the death of democracy in its terminal phase.
The above scenario is a real possibility. But the damage to government has, in essence, been done. We are not simply in danger of losing our democracy; it has already been missing for four years. Congress has been neutered: unable to enforce subpoenas, control the public purse or remove a demagogue. The Supreme Court has consistently enabled a lawless executive. The Executive Branch has itself been compromised beyond recognition. True, we have had a steady erosion in our politics for some time, and Trump has been seen as a culmination of it, however unexpected. But that a personality both psychopathic and sociopathic — someone whose vision of reality is entirely a function of ego and whose attitude toward others is purely exploitive — should come to the helm of the nation was as startling as its consequences have been dire.
Much has been made not only of Trump’s sheer lawbreaking but also of his failure to observe the ordinary norms and guardrails of the democratic process. That misses the point. Trump has sometimes been forced to retreat temporarily by circumstances. He recognizes, however, no valid impediment to his will and no rule of either law or custom as anything but an obstacle to be ignored, circumvented or smashed through. That’s more than demagoguery. It is, simply, the definition of a tyrant.
Because there is still an opposition, although Trump regularly accuses it of treason; because there is still a free press, although Trump accuses it of uttering only the lies he himself is guilty of and because the courts are still open, although Trump continually seeks to obstruct and intimidate them, we are insufficiently attentive to the enormous structural damage he has done to the Republic. In a democracy, politicians have agendas, ambitions and interests, but they recognize the same elements in others and pursue their goals accordingly.
Trump may bestow favors, but he never compromises. In his world, no will exists but his own. It is for this reason that Trump makes the claims that others take as absurd boasts but which he intends with all seriousness. He means it when he says that he produced the greatest economy in world history, or that he has done more for African-Americans than anyone with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln, or that he has done a “tremendous” job of coping with the COVID-19 crisis and none better.
Perhaps these are jests at the same time, but only in the sense that no stable reality exists for Trump to measure them by and that whatever he thinks or utters at any given moment is, for him, the sole measure of truth. Put up with this for four years, and it may take 40 to undo it; put up with it for four more and it may be too late at all. Nearly half the country supports Trump, and many have learned to mimic his mindset and behavior. These habits will be hard to quit, and the grievances they sustain difficult to redress.
Both America and the world are on the cusp of a series of interlocking crises: climate change and ecological devastation; human overpopulation and species extinction; nuclear proliferation; interlocking monopoly and global inequality; racial violence and the degradation of work. If Joe Biden can win the presidency and get through to Jan. 20, we will have in office a mediocre product of the system that gave us Donald Trump in the first place. We need better, much better — but first, we must avoid the worst.