In the smoldering aftermath of an electoral outcome that the nation needed to avoid, but that the president and his party hoped and planned for, the American project is more battered than at any time in 160 years. Unlike in 1860, however, this is not a constitutional crisis: The institutions have not buckled. But this republic’s institutions, however well devised, cannot channel, dampen and refine the passions of a public evenly divided by mutual incomprehension.
Ransacking his mental thesaurus in search of exactly the wrong words, and finding them, Donald Trump, in his early Wednesday morning coda to his kamikaze campaign, distilled into six words a suitable cri de cœur for the leader of a party that has now lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight elections: “We want all voting to stop.” Wading waist-deep in the rubble of their reputations, many national and state Republican leaders worked this autumn to put the nation in today’s precarious position. They did so by complicity with Trump’s pre-election rhetoric — the passive complicity of silence, and the active complicity of measures taken to minimize the number of votes cast, or counted.
His rhetoric was calculated, with feral cunning, to preemptively delegitimize the election. So, the list of this century’s failures of governance now includes a sixth episode crammed into just 20 years: the intelligence failures preceding 9/11; the Iraq debacle; the 2008 financial crisis; unpreparedness for, and feckless national leadership during, a pandemic; and the inability to nimbly adapt to the pandemic by conducting elections that bolster public confidence.
Like Hans Castorp, the protagonist in Thomas Mann’s novel “The Magic Mountain,” Americans are getting used to not getting used to things. Slightly more than half of the voters, exhausted from four years of being embarrassed, voted to end what they consider the Trump fiasco, thereby preventing a historic first — a fourth consecutive two-term presidency. Slightly less than half the voters feel validated by presidential behavior that embarrasses their fellow countrymen.
Looking on the bright side, as prudent people are generally disinclined to do, the post-election messiness might redound to the benefit of the bruised but invaluable institution whose remit includes the judicial supervision of democracy. The Supreme Court has been diminished by pernicious, and profoundly mistaken, rhetoric, especially by progressives, portraying its justices as political actors. (Remember Hillary Clinton’s promise that as a president she would nominate only justices who would commit to vote to overturn the Citizens United decision.) Immediately before speaking the six words quoted above, Trump spoke these nine: “So we’ll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Good. There, nine fine minds will sift the complexities of federal and state responsibilities. And the court’s still-respected imprimatur, applied to whatever outcome disinterested judicial reasoning requires, will do much to dispel mischievous preconceptions, perhaps by disappointing the court’s most prominent petitioner.
Americans, said novelist William Dean Howells, like “a tragedy with a happy ending.” Tragedy has happened — the pandemic, and four years of the nation’s life that the locusts of curdled politics have eaten. A somewhat happy ending is imaginable if, as seems likely while this is written, amateur hour has ended.
Of the six persons for whom the presidency was their first non-judicial elective office, two (William Howard Taft and Herbert Hoover) had been cabinet members and three (Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower) had been generals. Only the 45th president had no record of public service. Joe Biden’s fourth year of the presidential term that he seems, as this was written, to have won will be his 50th year in elective office.
Much depends on the 46th president’s political experience having prepared him to speak as the 16th president did almost 160 years ago, when he urged “my dissatisfied fellow countrymen” to “think calmly and well.” The mystic chords of memory are difficult to hear just now in a nation that dangerously neglects the cultivation of the shared memories of its turbulent but honorable history.
After the fiercely fought 1800 presidential election — the world’s first election resulting in a peaceful transfer of power — Thomas Jefferson said in his inaugural address, “Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.” On April 14, 1865, hours before going to Ford’s Theater, Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter saying he hoped to create “a Union of hearts and minds as well as of States.” Such aspirations recur in this intermittently raucous country. So does harmony, more or less.