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Artillery Row

The morning after

What we know and can say about the 2020 US Election

Months turned to weeks, weeks turned to days, days turned to hours, and finally it was Election Day. What a campaign it was! Grim but unfounded predictions of civil war parried confident yet premature victory declarations, nerdy but inaccurate statistical analyses, and longwinded if fanciful diatribes about America’s unknown future.

As the results poured in, expectations were blown to smithereens. Nearly unanimous polling that projected a comfortable presidential win for Democrat Joe Biden turned out to be uniformly wrong by astonishing margins. One swing state after another registered an early Trump lead.

Awakening the morning after felt like the aftermath of a one-night stand

The vaunted “Blue Wall” of decisive Midwestern states was punctured by striking Trump victories in Iowa and Ohio, with numbers trending at least initially in the president’s direction in Michigan and Wisconsin. The “Solid South” stayed solid for the Republicans, with talk of possible Biden victories in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and even Texas falling to dust, while only Virginia went for the former vice president. Predictions of a likely flip of the Senate to Democratic control, a fate widely accepted even by many Republicans before the election, died before midnight.

No one expected the House of Representatives to return to Republican control, but predictions of a ten-to-fifteen seat pickup for the Democrats turned into what looks like a Republican gain of at least five seats. Farther down the ticket, a majority of state legislatures remained in Republican hands.

After midnight, Biden gave a characteristically weak speech urging patience and caution to a populace that has little of either. Shortly thereafter, an energized Trump declared victory and positively relished in confounding his detractors yet again. The next day they reiterated their points in about the same tone, with Biden saying he “expects” to win and Trump declaring victory.

Donald Trump and what he represents is massively supported and here to stay

I lasted until about 3am, coming down after a lively Palm Beach watch party while texting back and forth with friends all over the country and world. Things looked settled but not decisively so. Awakening the morning after felt like the aftermath of a one-night stand. The mind reeled with many of the same reflective questions. Did anything go wrong? What went right? Was this the beginning of something sure and reliable, or a temporary entanglement that would slip away after a memorable but momentary resolution? How emotionally invested should I be? Were there any hints on social media? Should I regret it? Would something better come along the next day?

We got the old-fashioned fizzle-out. On 4 November, the world rolled over to confront the source of all its situational anxiety for the past year or so. Despite the early trends, six states holding a decisive balance of electoral college votes remained undecided, with two vital ones – Michigan and Wisconsin – starting to trend toward Biden by very small margins. Biden’s symbolically important but constitutionally irrelevant popular vote lead has swelled to about three million at this time of writing, matching Hillary Clinton’s lead in 2016.

Neither contender has yielded an inch. Trump’s recent tweet pouts that his early leads in important states with Democratic administrations “magically disappear” once they show him leading. He has already demanded a recount in Wisconsin, where he trails by about 20,000 votes out of over 3.2 million cast and has filed lawsuits to stop vote counts in Pennsylvania, where he still leads, and in Michigan, where he now trails. Biden’s campaign regards any limitation on vote counting as a barbaric affront to democracy, while his acolytes resolutely defend the integrity of the process. His partisans are already demonstrating in the streets of major cities. The final tallies may not be known for days or longer.

Trump can no longer be dismissed as an aberration or anomaly

Even in the midst of massive uncertainty, there are always some certainties. Certainty Number One for any interested person here should be that Donald Trump and what he represents – a populist nationalism that has thoroughly redefined American politics, seized nearly complete control of the Republican Party, and at least nominally stands for the traditional values of America’s conservative constitutional republic – is massively supported and here to stay. Not even a poorly managed once-in-a-century pandemic crisis, an attendant economic disaster of Great Depression proportions, unprecedented media bias and social media manipulation, a huge imbalance in spending by the Biden camp, and a brewing race war could dislodge or fully discredit it.

In the exceptionally unlikely event that Trump concedes the presidency by what can now only be a razor-thin margin, he can no longer be dismissed as an aberration or anomaly in a society that might otherwise reliably hew to a bland, middle-of-the-road path of compromise and moderation.

With or without Trump in the White House, “Trumpism,” if that is the right word for this phenomenon, will live on with the torch passed to a number of relatively young, highly intelligent, and very well spoken acolytes – Tom Cotton, Mike Pompeo, Dan Crenshaw, Kristi Noem – all ready to take up the mantle in 2024 without the baggage of Trump’s pathologies, scandals, abrasiveness, and pandemic missteps.

Nor, more broadly speaking, can the Republican Party be either written off as irrelevant to the evolving future of American politics or surrendered to a puny band of Lincoln Project outcasts who will pull up their khakis and reconstitute a wimpy but “respectable” centre-right that is content to lose like gentlemen again.

A Biden victory will be a pallid affair, devoid of any decisive mandate for comprehensive change

Another certainty is that a Biden victory, if he can eke one out in the late balloting or the courts, will be a pallid affair, devoid of any decisive mandate for the comprehensive change he promised in what many hoped would be a fulfilment of the incomplete Obama legacy. Lacking landslide popular support, a Senate majority, an increased House majority, an opposition open to far-reaching compromise, and the opportunity to alter the federal judiciary on the scale Trump has altered it, no leftist initiative could realistically obtain under a Biden presidency. His promised tax increases, health care reform, education initiatives, and energy plans will never even reach his desk for signature. The Green New Deal will be dead on arrival. This gridlocked outcome is in fact so certain that the stock market registered its strongest post-election bounce since William McKinley was elected in 1900.

Republican challengers will cast hungry looks at the House in the 2022 midterm elections, when the now reduced Democratic majority will be vulnerable, and, even more importantly, at the 2024 presidential race, in which a President Biden would run as an 81-year old incumbent whose mental faculties are unlikely to sharpen as he enters his ninth decade. Even if an elected Biden tries to recast himself as the centrist he long was, the Republicans have no reason to enable him and will both suspect and continue to benefit from his campaign-trail surrender to the radical left.

All the while, an energized Republican base whose own radicalism is its new norm, and who would undoubtedly believe that the 2020 election had been stolen, will demand and probably get paralyzing Senate investigations into the financial allegations against Biden and his son Hunter, and anything else that looks even slightly amiss.

No matter who wins, the biggest loser is the American media establishment. Already institutionally distrusted by about 70 percent of the population and considered biased by a record 84 percent of Americans, its partiality is no longer even a debatable question. It will remain hated on at least as mass a scale as it now is, and probably more so once right-wing commentators tear into all those moments over the past months when its actions or inactions aided the Biden campaign.

In the four years since Trump’s almost uniformly unpredicted election in 2016, the media has proved itself utterly incapable of any significant amount self-criticism. Smugly convinced of its superior virtue and dominated by strictly policed woke groupthink, it has neither the intention nor the motivation nor the energy to reform itself.

No matter who wins, the biggest loser is the American media establishment

Perhaps even worse, the mainstream media’s polling industry adjunct failed so completely that it is difficult – especially in light of its massive fails in 2016 and 2018 – to imagine any sensible person ever again taking it seriously. Polls generate easy news items and can give comfort and motivation to whomever they favour, but in 2020 the entire industry became a three-time loser. Relying on it for accuracy is now arguably the greatest risk a candidate can take in American politics, and a number of leading pollsters have in various colourful idioms pronounced their profession dead. If they had any sense, they would be spending this time of confusion looking for new jobs. As I completed the last sentence, in fact, a Fox News babe suggested they take up dog walking services.

With recount requests and legal threats already in the air, it may be some time before we know who will be president in January. Trump has long cultivated a strong narrative, and some evidence, casting doubt on the validity of the late counted ballots that are almost certainly sustaining Biden’s leads in Michigan, Wisconsin, and perhaps elsewhere.

It is unclear which legal avenues may be open to the incumbent president, and which he will pursue, but memories of the Florida recount of 2000, which went on for an agonizing 37 days, could mean that we are in for carefully monitored inspections of ballots, disputes over when and how they were delivered, or anything else crack legal teams can think of to shift an infinitesimal percentage of the over 130 million votes cast in one direction or the other.

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