We still do not know who is the winner of the presidential election. But we do know who is the loser: the United States of America.
We have just experienced four years of the most divisive presidency in American history, which attacked the twin pillars of our democracy — truth and trust. President Donald Trump has not spent a single day of his term trying to be president of all the people, and he has broken rules and trashed norms in ways that no other president ever dared — right up to Tuesday night, when he falsely claimed election fraud and summoned the Supreme Court to step in and stop the voting, as if such a thing were even remotely possible.
“Frankly, we did win this election,” Trump declared, while millions of ballots remained to be counted in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada. “We’ll be going to the US. Supreme Court,” Trump added, without explaining how or on what basis. “We want all voting to stop.”
But if Joe Biden wins — and we may not know for days — it may be by just a sliver of votes in several key battleground states. Although he’ll likely win the popular vote, there will be no landslide — no overwhelming majority telling Trump and those around him that enough was enough: Be gone with you and never bring that kind of politics of division back to this country again.
I could not, in all honesty, tell them that with any confidence. I am certain “the better angels of our nature” are still out there. But our politics and our political system right now are not inspiring them to emerge at the scale and speed that we so desperately need
“Whatever the final vote, it is already clear that the number of Americans saying, ‘Enough is enough’ was not enough,’’ said Dov Seidman, an expert on leadership and author of the book “How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything.’’ “There was no moral wave. There was no widespread rejection of the kind of leadership that divides us, especially in a pandemic.”
We are a country with multiple compound fractures, and so we simply cannot do anything ambitious anymore — like put a man on the moon — because ambitious things have to be done together. We can’t even come together to all wear masks in a pandemic, when health experts tell us it would absolutely save lives. It would be so simple, so easy and so patriotic to say, “I protect you and you protect me.” And yet, we can’t do it.
This election, if anything, highlighted the fault lines. The president, using many different dog whistles during the campaign, presented himself as the leader of America’s shrinking white majority. It is impossible to explain his continued support, despite his unprecedented poisonous behaviour in office, without reference to two numbers:
The US. Census Bureau projects that by the middle of this year, non-whites will constitute a majority of the nation’s 74 million children. At the same time, it is estimated that by sometime in the 2040s, whites will make up 49% of the US population, and Latinos, Blacks, Asians and multiracial populations 51%.
Among many whites, particularly white working-class males without college degrees, there is clearly a discomfort with the fact, and even a resistance to it, that our nation is in a steady process of becoming “minority white.” They see Trump as a bulwark against the social, cultural and economic implications of that change.
A country reckoning with structural racism
What many Democrats see as a good trend — a country reckoning with structural racism and learning to embrace and celebrate increasing diversity — many white people see as a fundamental cultural threat. And that is fuelling another lethal trend this election only reinforced.
“Many Republican senators and congressional representatives — like Lindsey Graham in South Carolina and John Cornyn in Texas — won by hugging Trump,” said Gautam Mukunda, author of “Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter.” “That means that Trumpism is the future of the GOP. The tactically unique thing about Trumpism is that it never even tries to get the support of the majority of Americans. So the GOP will continue with the strategy of using every legal, but democratically deeply harmful, way to control power even though most Americans vote against them — like the way they just crammed through two Supreme Court justices.”
That means all the stresses on the American system of government will continue to grow, Mukunda added, because in our antiquated electoral system, Republicans theoretically can control both the White House and Senate — despite the desires of a large majority of the American people. “No system can survive that kind of stress,” he concluded. “It will break at some point.”
Nothing has happened, even if Biden wins, that suggests that Republicans will fundamentally rethink this political strategy that they perfected under Trump.
But Democrats have a lot to rethink as well, notes Michael Sandel, a professor at Harvard and author of “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good.”
Humiliation felt by working people
“Even though Joe Biden emphasised his working-class roots and sympathies,” Sandel told me, “the Democratic Party continues to be more identified with professional elites and college-educated voters than with the blue-collar voters who once constituted its base. Even so epochal an event as a pandemic, bungled by Trump, did not change this. Democrats need to ask themselves: Why do many working people embrace a plutocrat-populist whose policies do little to help them? Democrats need to address the sense of humiliation felt by working people who feel the economy has left them behind and that credentialed elites look down on them.”
Again, while Biden made small inroads with working-class voters, there seems to be no huge shift. Maybe because many working-class Trump voters not only feel looked down upon, but they also resent what they see as cultural censorship from liberal elites, coming out of college campuses.
I confess that the hardest conversations I had Tuesday night were with my daughters. I so badly want to tell them that all is going to be OK, that we’ve been through bad patches as a country before. And I hope that will turn out to be the case — that whoever wins this election will draw the right conclusion that we simply cannot go on tearing one another apart this way.
But I could not, in all honesty, tell them that with any confidence. I am certain “the better angels of our nature” are still out there. But our politics and our political system right now are not inspiring them to emerge at the scale and speed that we so desperately need.
Thomas L. Friedman is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author
The New York Times