The New York Times has just invited its readers to send letters predicting the winner of the Nov. 3 election. Or maybe it should call itself The Las Vegas Times? The Times’ editorial page has done strange things lately, but this I’ll say by way of reply: I’ll save my bets for the horses. This election is too serious for sport.
I have already cast my ballot. My choices were between a candidate several magnitudes below the level of endurance, intellect and integrity needed for the presidency, and an incumbent who must absolutely be driven from office. You can probably guess whom I voted for. I hope you do the same.
There are three possible outcomes for the election, each with its own load of disaster. Donald Trump might win the election narrowly, confounding the experts and the pollsters as he did in 2016. Joe Biden could win, with perhaps a decisively larger margin but not an unchallengeable one. Or Biden could win in a landslide that no one could plausibly dispute.
If Trump wins, the country as we know it will probably not survive. Its civil institutions have been ruthlessly politicized and corrupted in the past four years by a demagogue with no concept of — let alone respect for — the law. Half the country is implacably opposed to his continuance in office, and civil disobedience or worse might well ensue. The country is hurtling toward a crisis with its pandemic, and Trump has well demonstrated his complete incapacity to deal with it. The whole country may well find itself spending a winter in Valley Forge, with no spring in sight.
If Biden wins by a merely modest margin, Trump will unquestionably challenge the result. Since 50 states vote separately, each with its own protocols, the opportunities for litigation will be legion. The goal, as already announced, will be to get the election to the Supreme Court as in 2000. With the new justice, Amy Coney Barrett, certain not to recuse herself, the Court will have a six-to-three Republican majority. The outcome will be foregone, as will the resistance to it. The military may have to settle the matter, its stated refusal to do so notwithstanding. The Constitution, in any event, will never be the same.
If Biden’s victory is a landslide, Trump may well not concede defeat, as suggested recently by Barton Gellman in The Atlantic. What would happen then is anyone’s guess. Trump might try to raise a party from among his base, backed by right-wing militias. His Cabinet might or might not support him, or be split. It might or might not invoke the 25th Amendment to strip him of his powers, or be divided on that question as well. Congress, itself divided, is by no means certain to act. Here, too, the military may find itself compelled (or tempted) to intervene.
Alternatively, Trump might neither claim victory nor concede defeat, but simply refuse to collaborate in a transition while declaring the election to have been rigged, as he has already contended it has been. Or he might use this stance to negotiate a pardon, including a promise to drop all pending or prospective suits in state courts.
Whatever Trump does or does not do, he will have 11 weeks remaining in his term. His powers as president will be fully intact. He could proclaim a state of emergency, and declare martial law. He could start a war with Iran, or with China. He could start World War III. As president-elect, even if certified by the Electoral College as his duly elected successor, Joe Biden would have no powers at all.
In other words, the days between Nov. 3 and Jan. 20 shape up to be among the most perilous in our history. Nor would the disturbances they portend end with Inauguration Day. Biden would have had little or no assistance in a transition; the intelligence given him might be inadequate, misleading or false. He may have a set of crises on his desk bequeathed by a chaotic interregnum, or by hostile powers exploiting American disarray. And he will likely have a pandemic at its height, with any response to it paralyzed at the national level.
We have had presidents incapacitated before: Grover Cleveland with cancer; Woodrow Wilson with a stroke; a dying Franklin D. Roosevelt at the end of World War II; a senile Ronald Reagan. The only thing comparable to what we will face with a post-election Donald Trump however are the last days of Richard Nixon’s presidency. Nixon did not suffer a public breakdown. As we now know, however, he was drinking heavily, talking to White House portraits, and collapsing emotionally with those who, like Alexander Haig and Henry Kissinger, were trying to steer his exit from office. But Nixon had little more than a week between the Supreme Court’s order that he surrender the Watergate tapes and his forced resignation. Trump will have his 11 weeks. Nixon had a certain reserve of character that enabled him to see things through. I would be hard-pressed to find in Trump anything describable as character, unless extreme narcissism, pathological mendacity and utter indifference to ethical norms and human values be considered as such.
We have wasted a great deal of time in this country. The past 50 years, starting from the first Earth Day in 1970, have not protected our planetary environment but considerably devastated it as a place habitable for us. This has not been America’s sole doing, of course; much of the worst destruction has been done in Asia. As the world’s hegemon, however, we have failed utterly at climate leadership, and under Trump we have been merely a retrograde force. We have taken major steps back from social justice, and our race problem is more exacerbated than in decades. Our infrastructure is shockingly decayed. We have calamitously misjudged our responsibilities in the world and our evolving society at home. This has not been the fault of one political party but of both, and of our collective judgment as a people. And it is not news, but something long obvious.
Most incoming presidents have a brief honeymoon — the difference between hope and reality — and perhaps a year to succeed or fail at an agenda. Joe Biden, if elected and inaugurated without severe controversy, will have in COVID the severest public health crisis in a century, and a correspondingly large economic one. Much of his energy will go in dealing with it, and in the arduous job of restoring respect for America abroad among friends and foes alike. Far too little will be available for dealing with the catastrophe of climate change, already upon us and brooking no further delay.
Welcome to 2020. It is not the year about to end. It is the long year about to begin.