WHILE it feels fraudulent to write about an election cliffhanger from my home-office in Brooklyn—a borough of New York in which you couldn’t see a pro-Trump placard for miles on end (in contrast to a blizzard of Biden on every block)—there’s no escaping the frown lines on faces in the city’s streets. Brooklyn is Deep Blue America—as hardcore Democrat as Ayodhya is hardcore BJP—and the day after November 3rd was supposed to be a time to exult. The pollsters had said that Joe Biden would win the election comfortably—in straight sets, in tennis terms—but as I write (on Wednesday night) the result is still unsettled. He was supposed to win Florida. He didn’t. He was tipped to win Ohio. He didn’t. He was fancied—believe it or not—to win Texas. He didn’t. America’s pollsters have been exposed as incompetent, partisan recidivists—they committed the same professional crimes in 2016.
Do pollsters commit seppuku? They should.
And yet, Biden sits on 253 Electoral College votes, just shy of the 270 that would give him the White House. It is very hard to see him losing from here. But President Trump has unleashed a full quiver of legal challenges, in addition to giving a speech on election night that must rank among the most toxic ever made by an American president—one in which he said, with little by way of supporting evidence, that he had won the election, and that any other result could only be achieved by fraud. Only a Trump victory is, by his narrative, a fair result. A Biden win is—by definition—the fruit of ballot manipulation. In the world’s dodgier democracies, it’s often the case that the political opposition questions the integrity of the voting process.
Here, in the world’s oldest democracy, you have an incumbent president doing so.
It is tempting to dismiss this opinion as just another example of Trump’s unlovely bluster, and of his lack of respect for democratic norms. In the debates, all the critical attention was focused on Biden’s refusal to state clearly that he wouldn’t pack the Supreme Court if he were to win. (Biden’s prevarication, here, was also toxic.) But Trump got a relatively free pass when he refused, equally, to say that he would concede the election if he lost. The fact that an American president should be asked that question struck me at the time as startling—akin to asking Virat Kohli if he’d leave the crease on being given out by the umpire. As we now see, it was a wise question, even as it was an un-American question.
America’s deplorables resent being treated like serfs and hicks and collateral damage in the technocratic elite’s game of globalism. Trump has made himself their talisman, their chivalrous protector. And they cherish him for it
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For Trump could be said to be, in many respects, the most un-American president thiscountry has ever had. He plays to baying crowds, eggs spiteful mobs to misbehaviour, and will not confirm that he will accept the verdict of the people. His family is an unshakeable part of his entourage, a gaggle of sons and daughters who cluster around their powerful father and feed off his power and the access he brings to material advantage. In some ways, he’d be a better fit in Brazil, or Peru, or Bolivia than in the US. In truth, the bar for acceptable presidential behaviour has fallen lower under Trump than under any resident of the White House before him.
But another aspect of the truth in which we now deal is that his words on election night found an avid and receptive audience. America is now so sharply divided politically that many supporters of the president genuinely believe that their man can only lose if he is robbed. And if he does lose, they will be consumed by a belief that he was cheated of a win. Some see a risk of violence, which may find expression if a Biden win is razor-thin, or if there is a prolonged litigation and stagnation in the courts. Shops in some cities have boarded up their fronts. There are ugly memories of the riots this summer, which were sparked by an instance of fatally excessive force used by a police officer against a Black man. Some of Trump’s resilience in this election can be attributed to a belief—entirely well-founded—that the Democrats were soft on the rioters. His base saw mobs run amok, and took careful note.
How we pine, now, for the year 2000, when a disputed election that seemed to be insoluble was brought to a close by a (controversial) ruling in favour of George W Bush by the Supreme Court. It was institutional closure, designed to bring an end to a massive political crisis. Bush’s opponent, Al Gore, took the verdict with astonishing grace (even as it destroyed his morale and unhinged him as a man). Trump will not, in a million lifetimes, do a Gore; so however the 2020 election result plays out, America will be a place of rancour and bad blood. The political grace has ebbed away completely from a country where divisions were once a matter of shades and gradations. Yes, there was an extreme right and an extreme left, but these nodes were connected by a landscape in which contiguous parts touched one another. You transitioned from left to right, or from right to left, and could hold conversations—which even included some instances of agreement—with people who weren’t exactly of your political stripe. America is now a country of chasms, Manichaean, overwrought, paranoid, intolerant and spiteful.
The Democrats and the media bear a share of the blame for this, with their condescension and contempt towards those Americans who threw in their lot—back in 2016, and then again this week—with Trump. America’s ‘Deplorables’—to use the word that probably cost Hillary Clinton the election—take great pride in their country, and view with anger its loss of strut and power, of its manufacturing base, its jobs, its mojo, and its ability to take care of its blue-collar class. America’s Deplorables resent being treated like serfs and hicks and collateral damage in the technocratic elite’s game of globalism. Trump, many believe with reason, has offered little by way of concrete solutions to the problems that afflict Middle America. But his supporters seem not to mind: They have found a president who doesn’t ignore them, and who isn’t uncaring of their pain, even if his professed solidarity often amounts to little more than political theatre. He has made himself their talisman, their chivalrous protector. And they cherish him for it.
The tweeting won’t cease, and could get even more intemperate than it already is. But Trump will own the Republican Party, playing king- or queenmaker from his aerie in Manhattan or his spread in Mar-a-Lago
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Trump may well end up a one-term president by the time you set eyes on this text. But he will continue to be a force in American politics, potentially the most raucous, intrusive, full-throated former president in American history. No quiet retreat into retirement for him. He will make Biden’s life—if Biden is, indeed, declared president—a testing one. The tweeting won’t cease, and could get even more intemperate than it already is. But he will own the Republican Party, playing king- or queen-maker from his aerie in Manhattan or his spread in Mar-a-Lago. He has remade the party in his image. It is an ugly image, in most respects, but it is also a riveting one. Reagan may have revolutionised the party. But Trump has subverted it more thoroughly than any revolutionary could.
So much so that Trump 2024 could very well happen. He will never go away.