I know—it’s not 2016. All kinds of things are different. But among those different things is that Trump’s in the White House, and he’s thought of everything.
Lately, when I talk about this election, I sound like Debbie Downer. With polls showing Biden with a lead in most battleground states, why don’t I have champagne on ice ready to celebrate the blowout a few days away?
Many political analysts, and a fair number of psychiatrists, say folks like me suffer from PTSD triggered by the 2016 election and it prevents us from seeing the blue wave headed our way. Polls, they say, are different this time. Really? It’s a fun indoor MAGA sanctioned sport to punk pollsters, an extension of the fake news. It’s much more satisfying to deliver a November surprise on Election Day.
Our anxiety is due to things we saw all too clearly four years ago and some we’ve only begun to see in the last few months. Trump loves to say the only way he can lose is if Democrats rig the election. The truth, usually the opposite of whatever Trump says, is that the only way Biden can lose is if Trump rigs the election, which is exactly what he’s been doing for some time now. If Trump can’t beat Biden at the ballot box, he’ll work the refs. And if that doesn’t work, he’ll see Biden in court.
This makes PTSD a sensible response in 2020. This month four years ago, Trump bounced back from a sexually explicit Access Hollywood tape bragging about sexual assaults that would have killed any other candidate. He lost three debates and it mattered not at all. He built an unshakable coalition of racist, misogynist, heartless pragmatists, joined by evangelicals, tax-averse Greenwich billionaires, and struggling workers who mistakenly felt that he felt their pain. It’s a group willing to overlook his cheating on his taxes, his wives, children with cancer, vendors, banks, and the United States Treasury, abetted by his adult children. One of the main customers propping up his failing hotels is the government he charges for every glass of water and bogus resort fee. Through it all, a core of 40 percent of Americans approve of him, rising to 46 percent in the latest Gallup tracking poll ending Oct. 27, and 87 percent of Republicans.
Trump’s so confident he told a roomful of donors in Nashville last Thursday that he “can’t really get involved” in races made close by Trump himself. “You lose your soul if you do.”
Ignore that Trump claims to have a soul and skip to the part where he won’t jeopardize it for those senators who gave him theirs. Campaigning alone Tuesday, Lindsey Graham joked through sorrow that he didn’t understand why Trump hadn’t come. They have so much in common, he said. “I like him, and he likes him.” Another story of ingratitude and unrequited golf. He thoroughly humiliated Sen. Martha McSally in Arizona Wednesday. “Martha, come up just fast! Fast! Fast! Come on. Quick! You got one minute!” he said as some in the crowd laughed. “They don’t want to hear this, Martha. Come on. Let’s go.” There go the women of Maricopa County, and for what? A rush of gratuitous cruelty.
Given Biden’s emotional steadiness and the appeal of calm and competence, why can’t we relax and count our eggs, if not our chickens? November 2016 is ancient history. But there’s a lot that Trump’s done these last few months to sow doubt about the election, raising the specter he doesn’t have to win, as we think of winning, to stay in the White House, and that he can suppress the vote like it’s never been suppressed before, even more effectively than closing thousands of polling places. If he doesn’t beat Biden on the field, he’ll beat him behind the bleachers and said so last week. He pronounced that the numbers of votes clocked on Nov. 3 will determine who won. Any counting beyond that “won’t be allowed” by the courts.
He seems to believe the networks and Sean Hannity declare the winner and not election officials in all 50 states. As usual, he overplays his hand. But he’s teed up a mess of an election. He hobbled the mail part of mail-in ballots he’s convinced favor Democrats by slowing the Post Office, the 200-year old institution relied on for Social Security checks, meds, Amazon boxes, and Mother’s Day cards. He appointed friend and donor Louis DeJoy to do what neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night could, slow the mail to a crawl. The USPS announced this week that even though it gives priority to ballots, it can no longer guarantee delivery by Election Day.
With that done, Trump is moving on to hindering the processing of those ballots, limiting how late mail-in ballots can be accepted and intimidating people voting early with elaborate signature checks and by videotaping their votes. He tells horror stories of mail-in ballots rife with fraud, harvested by partisans, thrown into rivers and dumpsters, cast by dogs and the dead. In Michigan, armed militiamen in Hawaiian shirts and Walmart camo are allowed to hover outside voting places, one more hurdle to getting an “I Voted” sticker. Trump’s thought of everything.
Wednesday night, the Supreme Court declined to hear an emergency plea from Pennsylvania Republicans to block a three-day extension for accepting mail-in ballots. It’s not good form to overrule the states and disenfranchise voters before the election, but they haven’t said they won’t do so, as in Bush v. Gore, after the election. Democrats are gearing up to fight that—Sen. Chuck Schumer is leading a group backed up by experienced election lawyers —but Trump will still have the White House to fight from. In 2000, neither Bush nor Gore had squatting rights.
What should have knocked Trump out of the race—COVID, COVID, COVID, as Trump puts it, as if a virus that killed a thousand people Wednesday is cutting into his press coverage—hasn’t. There’s a lot of pandemic fatigue going around even among devoted mask wearers who keep their social distance. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, really? Voters in focus groups say the surge in cases proves the virus is something no one can control. Jared Kushner, who spends his days making Trump’s behavior worse, boasted that Trump had taken back the pandemic from the doctors and would be rewarded with being the “open-up” president versus the close it down Biden. Perversely, Trump getting over the virus added to his macho appeal to his white working-class followers and convinced many to take their chances. If Trump in his shape could beat it, so can they.
It’s hard to believe that a candidate who leaves infection in his wake at rallies he shouldn’t be having will be rewarded for it. But in Tampa, a cheering crowd Thursday risked dying to be with him. James Carville recently altered his famous slogan that won the White House for Clinton to “it’s the pandemic, stupid.” But what if it isn’t? I won’t be sleeping until this is over. Sadly it won’t be Nov. 3.