Dr. SJ made the most delicious lemon cake, and as we sat around the table sipping tea and licking lemon glaze off our fingers, she asked me, “Do you think it’s possible that Trump could actually win?” “Sure,” I replied, in the “anything’s possible” way that I do. Not so much at the hand of people who like Trump, but at the hand of people who reject the possibility that Biden will be the last liberal president, and while Trump has done enormous damage to the institutions of government out of his combination of astounding ignorance and self-aggrandizement, the institutions are still there, badly bruised but standing.
Will Biden pay back the left wing of his party, the Squad, Bernie and Liz, by letting them reinvent a nation in their image? Will they follow Biden into power and do so then? Will Biden last long enough to keep the ambitious Kamala from doing so, not because she has any belief in progressive destruction of the institutions of government but because it will promote her ambition to pretend to be woke rather than a cop?
“Sure,” I told Dr. SJ. As much as the past four years have been consumed with the hourly impulses of a fool, the next four present a harder problem, because they won’t be at the hands of a fool and won’t be so obviously idiotic. And as bad as it’s been, it can always be worse.
The peaceful transition of power is the hallmark of the United States of America. We take it for granted as it’s how our government has always worked. No matter how deep our differences, how personal the animosity, how absurd the rhetoric, an amazing thing happens every four or eight years. A bloodless coup. The old person walks out and the new person walks in. They shake hands, whether for real or show, but they then fulfill their part of this glorious regime change.
Who gives up control of this mighty government to someone they believe will do damage? Who walks away from such vast power and prestige, to the extent it’s still prestigious, on their own? After all it took to get there, who just willingly walks out the door? Our president. Our past president. It is the most amazing, wonderful thing about the existence of, and perpetuation of, our democracy that we have maintained this peaceful transfer of power after more than two centuries.
Sure, there have been shenanigans along the way. Gluing the keys of the computers. Hiding papers. Leaving nasty notes. People haven’t always been good about it, “big” in their largesse at handing over power to who they perceive as their mortal enemy. People are jerks. Yet, it happens. Every single time, it’s happened.
Will it happen again, should Joe Biden win the election?
I will presume it will, because the presumption of regularity remains integral to our institutions of government. While Trump has ignored laws and norms by using his office for his own self-enrichment and self-aggrandizement, it’s mostly been small potatoes stuff in the scheme of a nation. He’s a small potatoes guy, so it’s the best he can conceive of, and wrong as it’s been, our institutions have managed to remain intact and deal with most of it. Our courts still shut down his most dangerous schemes and prosecute his “best people.” It’s been imperfect, but Trump hasn’t managed to screw them up badly enough to end their functioning. They’re still standing.
This election will present difficulties that no prior election presented. COVID has given rise to substantial reliance on mail-in voting, and we are poorly prepared for it. While we never technically “knew” who won an election until the results were officially certified in the past, we knew. This time, we won’t know, and we’re just going to have deal with it. There will be screams of voter fraud, but while there will be instances of it, it won’t come within a million miles of mattering.
There may be disruptions, conflagrations, riots and violence at the polls, designed to create chaos and sow the belief that our election can’t be trusted and no outcome can be accepted as the true reflection of the nation’s will. A good president would do everything possible to prevent this from happening. Trump is not a good president. And if it’s not his adoring nationalist militias, it will be the forces of social justice burning down the “system.”
But until this happens, and despite the potential flamed by the New York Times in advance, I will still anticipate a fair election and a reliable outcome, even if it takes longer than anyone would like. It’s not that such concern is unwarranted, but speculative fear, even in the face of a not-insubstantial showing that the seeds have been sown for it to happen, leads only to confirmation bias. To bastardize the Washington Post’s masthead slogan, “democracy dies in hysteria.” I refuse to let hysteria dictate my choices or actions.
If and when bad things happen, we will be constrained to not only face them, but decide how much damage they’ve done to the fabric of our democracy. It may fray at the edges, but having weathered the past two centuries, it’s proven itself to be pretty damn tough. There is no reason, despite all the possibilities and screams of voter fraud and voter suppression, that we will not end up with reliable election results.
Perhaps even more importantly, we need to rely on the results rather than indulge the insanity that could surround them. It would be great if the election produced a landslide for the winner, so that no one could question that minor claims could have changed the outcome, but that’s up to the voters. It does not appear likely to happen, and so the battles will be fought over every claim, real or imagined, or just a total fabrication to try to con a nation into chaos.
Eventually, a winner will be named, even if there are some who refuse to accept the outcome as happened in 2016 to no avail. I will accept it, because the institutions of our democracy matter far more than any individual who gets to sit in the Oval Office. But if the loser of the election refuses to relinquish that seat, to leave the seat of power so the next president can take office, that’s when the line has been crossed. I can tolerate a lot of bad things for the sake of maintaining the viability of our American institutions, but I cannot tolerate the refusal to acquiesce to the peaceful transfer of power.