Andrew O'Hehir

What will American politics be like after Trump? That question assumes he's going away

Over the last couple of weeks, the media caste has been indulging in extensive literary meditation in how and whether we can break our addiction to Donald Trump. "We" in this case is a large category: There's no question that everyone from tabloid-TV talking heads to Ivy-educated columnists has flocked to Trump like ants to a sticky-bun picnic, but also that our readers and viewers have enabled and encouraged us at every step.

When people asked me, during the first year or two of the Trump phenomenon, why Salon didn't simply ignore him, I would mildly reply, "Well, you should see the numbers." It was and remains true that stories about the awfulness of the Trump regime — about its total fascist victory, its impending downfall or anything in between — outperform every other category of reporting, commentary or analysis we can possibly offer. (In fairness, over the past few months recipes and food stories have been doing well too. I wonder why!)

But I also recognize there is something of the collaborator about that answer, something of the Nuremberg defendant assuring the court that he was only following orders, and had no particular investment in what did or didn't happen. Faced with the likely and then certain victory of Joe Biden in the presidential election, those of us in the defendant's box began to mop our brows in relief, mixed with no small amount of confusion: Whatever will we do, now that he's gone?

That has turned out to be a rhetorical question, at least so far. Like so many addictions or goblins or villainous specters in horror movies (full credit to Democratic strategist Chris Marshall for his marvelous and terrifying Salon article last week), Donald Trump has no intention of going anywhere. He has spent the last week — which felt like a year — shamelessly and unapologetically trying to overturn the results of an election that appears to have gone relatively smoothly and has yielded a clear and certain verdict.

Thank God for that, I guess, because if the result actually had been close, we'd probably be sweating this out right up to the Electoral College vote. It's an enormous national humiliation that our so-called president is eagerly attempting to find a pseudo-constitutional loophole through which to stage a coup that would end even the pretense of democracy in America. It might, through the long lens of history, be an even worse humiliation that the attempt is so amateurish, conducted by a deranged alcoholic lawyer with motor oil leaking out of his head and an assemblage of hacks and crackpots who allege, in the ever-quotable words of John Bolton, a conspiracy "so vast and so successful that apparently there's no evidence of it."

Trump's coup attempt is falling apart, do not doubt that. If the sniveling quislings of the Republican Party are reluctant to openly confront the massive edifice of unreality in TrumpWorld, they at least recognize that it will eventually collapse on its own, and sooner rather than later. Even Trump himself appears to understand that, after his own animalistic fashion.

As the New York Times reported on Sunday, Trump apparently intends to retain control of the Republican National Committee after he leaves office. This is, to say the most tedious thing possible, unprecedented — ex-presidents tend to retreat to the back of the room and stay quiet, and defeated ex-presidents even more so. You certainly didn't see Jimmy Carter or George H.W. Bush trying to wield any clout in their respective parties; they didn't have any.

Ronna McDaniel, the RNC's current chair, apparently intends to run for re-election on the premise that she's not as much of a Trump sycophant as those who might succeed her, such as Donald Trump Jr. or his dazzlingly evil girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, who struck terror in the hearts of children of all ages with her impromptu monologue from Roald Dahl's "The Witches" at this year's Republican convention. Maybe Trump wants to keep the party apparatus in his stubby grasp to freeze out potential opponents in a 2024 presidential campaign, Grover Cleveland-style, and maybe it's just a new iteration of the lifelong Trumpian con game. Honestly, what's the difference?

So the plaintive questions about what we will possibly do with ourselves after Trump leaves the scene are the wrong questions, or at least they're far too small to match the scale of our predicament. As fables and fairy tales always make clear, conditions had to be ripe for the evil giant or the dark queen, Sauron or Voldemort, to rise to power in the first place. The story about Eve, the apple and the serpent is a classic example of misogynistic blame-shifting, no doubt. But at least it puts the blame on an ambiguous human weakness we can all identify with: Of course she wanted to know; you or I would have done the same. And who is to say it didn't turn out better this way, and that no other pathway was even possible?

Who or what will Americans be after Trump? We will be the same flawed people and depleted, crisis-addled nation we were before, with the conflicts laid bare and no longer avoidable. It sounds incredibly callous to say that Trump did us a favor, and I certainly don't mean that anything about his presidency was beneficial to human life or the survival of the planet. But his cruelty, his vulgarity and his open contempt for democracy, the rule of law and constitutional order woke many of us up — and I don't entirely exclude his voters and supporters — to the deep wounds in our society, the lack of any shared understanding of reality and the profound apprehension about the future. (That, along with Netflix, is perhaps the only thing all Americans share.)

As for what politics will be like after Trump, the only possible answer is that we don't know yet and it's also too small a question. Politics will be like it was before, only more so: Mired in contradiction, with the two-party system deeply entrenched yet both established parties headed for the rocks. When you look at Trump's 74 million votes — nearly 12 million more than he got in 2016 — and robust Republican victories from the Senate and House on down, there's no doubt that the supposedly-doomed GOP has found a new lease on life on the worst possible terms, as the party of white grievance, "traditional" masculinity, unalloyed authoritarianism and paranoid conspiracy theory.

It doesn't seem as if Trump's toxic but undeniable charisma is the only factor driving this undead Republican revival, but whether anyone else can create a modified or improved "Trumpism without Trump" remains an open question, as well as an academic one, for the time being. Many people have their eyes on that prize — we could start the list with Tucker Carlson of Fox News, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota — but whoever follows Trump as the next Republican nominee may quite literally have to wrest the party from his cold, dead, aspartame-infused fingers.

And then there are the Democrats. Oh, the Democrats! What do you want me to say that hasn't been said a thousand times? They just elected a 78-year-old president, and the top three Democrats in the House leadership are all over 80. Chuck Schumer, who still has a mathematical chance of becoming Senate majority leader early next year, turns a relatively sprightly 70 this week. (Happy birthday, you plodding nonentity!) More to the point, the Democrats just conducted yet another campaign based on the stirring claim that the other party is crazy and evil and they're not — which has the admitted benefit of being more true than ever before — which concluded, as usual, with mixed and disputed results.

Anyone who has ever read anything I have written will probably conclude that I'm inclined to favor one side over the other in the Democratic Party's endless factional warfare between "progressives" and "moderates," or whatever terms of art you prefer. But I don't claim to know what would have happened if Bernie Sanders had been this year's nominee — that's a bit in the same category as "If my grandmother had wheels," isn't it? Whether Democrats lost seats in the House, and couldn't win winnable seats in the Senate, because of too much "socialism" and "defund the police" or because of not enough Medicare for All and Green New Deal — or because they ran anodyne, message-free candidates who declined to stand for anything in particular — entirely depends on where you're standing when you ask the question. To repeat myself, it's also too small a question.

Historically speaking, the Democratic Party has been an unstable electoral coalition since at least the Civil War, when it represented both native-born white Protestants in the South and immigrant white Catholics in the North. Those groups disliked and distrusted each other, but at least perceived a common enemy in the bankers and patrician classes of Boston and New York (and also, less salubriously, in Black people attempting to assert their right to citizenship).

While the Democratic coalition has been broken up and reassembled several times since then — most Southern whites, and a whole lot of Northern ones too, have fled to the other party — it remains, shall we say, less than stable. I'm not convinced the current intra-party struggle is so much about ideology as about literal class conflict and differential views of "economic justice." Maybe this is one of those cases where classical Marxist theory is correct and the former serves as a proxy for the latter.

To take two House Democrats seen as emblematic of the warring factions, it's possible to imagine a cautiously constructed policy agenda that could bring together Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a "progressive" who represents a working-class, majority-minority district in New York City, and Rep. Conor Lamb, a "moderate" who represents a working-class, predominantly white district in western Pennsylvania. Improved health care access (however we label it), a higher minimum wage, a government infrastructure program and free or low-cost public college would be immensely helpful to people in both those places.

But what do their constituents have in common with those of Rep. Abigail Spanberger, the former CIA agent who represents an affluent suburban district outside Richmond, Virginia? I'm not saying there's nothing. A desire to resist the vicious bigotry of Trump and his acolytes is not nothing. Defending reproductive rights for women, equal rights for LGBTQ people and civil rights for Black people and immigrants, in the face of determined right-wing pushback, is decidedly not nothing.

We can't possibly absorb the lessons of the 2020 election in two weeks, especially not while the defeated incumbent half-heartedly tries to stage a coup and the COVID pandemic grows more critical every day. But here's one lesson: Rhetorical gestures toward abstract ideals of justice, equality and democracy may have been just about enough to defeat a widely despised and famously incompetent president, but they are not nearly enough to defeat a surging fascist movement built on white nationalism, cultural dispossession, economic stagnation and anti-elite rage.

One political party in America now has a clear agenda and a loyal following, and has now taken a low-risk dry run at seizing and holding power without regard for laws or rules or standards of decency or those famous "democratic norms." That party didn't go all-in on that effort this time around, but it now sees that with the right leader and adequate planning — not to mention the necessary level of force — the task can probably be managed. The other party is against all that, gosh darn it! But it still doesn't know what it wants to be when it grows up, and it may not get the chance.


One election can't resolve the crisis of democracy

What unfolded across the United States on Saturday afternoon was breathtaking: an extraordinary explosion of relief and exuberance, not quite like anything else most of us now living have ever seen. While the comparison to V-E Day — which marked the defeat of Hitler and Nazi Germany in May 1945 — may be over the top, the emotional resonance was similar.

I wasn't expecting that at all, to be frank. Joe Biden was the ultimate compromise candidate, the ne plus ultra of "good enough for now," a potential safe harbor in a time of crisis. But the effect of Biden's ultimate victory — or, more to the point, of Donald Trump's defeat — was undeniable, and the national mood was impossible to resist. It almost felt like a physical sensation, literally as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders, and from the evidence, millions of other people felt the same way.

I only witnessed all those celebrations on social media and cable news, mind you. I've spent the last several months in a tiny village in central New York State — a liberal-leaning oasis in a deep-red region — and around here you wouldn't have had any idea that a major historical event had just occurred. Political signs for both candidates have already disappeared from most people's front lawns. Since about Thursday afternoon, I've seen no sign of the huge pickup trucks festooned with gigantic Trump flags that have become a fixture of rural life in America. The supermarket in our town was as busy as you'd expect on a beautiful Saturday evening in the fall, but I didn't hear one word about the election.

What has America gained, after this agonizing election and an agonizing week of vote counting? (OK, it was five days, which felt like years or geological epochs.) And what have we lost? I don't think we will know that for quite a while.

There is no question that this election, in which a clear majority of American voters repudiated the Trump presidency, was a triumph for democracy, on various levels. That's what we're all feeling right now, I think, and it's undeniable. But it's a triumph that comes with a warning, and wrapped in a paradox.

Joe Biden received more votes than any candidate for president in American history. By a lot. He's gotten 75.2 million votes so far, and with significant numbers still to count in major blue states like California, Illinois and New York, could easily hit 77 million or so. (The previous record was Barack Obama's 69.5 million in the landslide victory of 2008.)

But in a must-read piece for Salon on Saturday, Chauncey DeVega observed the observable, to borrow a phrase from Joan Didion that should be better known than it is. If Biden will be No. 1 on the all-time vote list, the No. 2 spot belongs to none other than President Boaty McBoatParade himself, who is currently biding his time rage-cheating at golf and sending hopeful "U up?" texts to Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

In other words, while Biden's victory is not in doubt — whatever fanciful theories to the contrary Trump and his acolytes have to offer — the notion that Trump and his so-called movement have been conclusively rejected certainly is. Trump has almost 71 million votes to this point, roughly 8 million more than he received while squeezing out an electoral victory in 2016. He increased his margin of victory in numerous red states, and also in supposed battlegrounds like Ohio and Florida. (Obama won those states twice, but both now appear out of reach to national Democrats.)

As you already know if you're attuned to the endless cycle of Democratic Party infighting and recrimination — which I do not recommend, if you value your mental well-being — Democrats lost several Senate seats they expected to win, and now must hope for a double miracle in Georgia to regain the majority. They've also lost at least a few seats from the House majority they won in 2018, and will face a midterm election in 2022 that looks favorable for Republicans, both in demographic and historical terms. Biden's entire first term will almost certainly feature Mitch McConnell in control of the Senate. (McConnell's hashtag-Resistance opponent in Kentucky, Amy McGrath, soaked up countless millions of small-donor dollars — and couldn't even break 40 percent.)

That sense of contradiction — and of partial victory, even in defeat — accounts for at least some of the extraordinary truculence coming from Republicans, who are by no means ready to cut the Trumpian cord, even by recognizing political reality. Only a handful of GOP normies, like Sen. Mitt Romney, Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland and former President George W. Bush, have even bothered to extend ritual congratulations to Biden.

All other prominent Republicans are either bunkered down in total silence, like McConnell, or all-in on dead-ender Trump conspiracy theory. Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, a potential 2024 candidate who really ought to be occupied with her state's worsening COVID outbreak, appeared on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday and refused to acknowledge that Biden had won the election. She cited alleged "illegal activities" and "clerical errors," without explaining how any such claims might be sufficient to overturn the results in multiple states.

In an attempt to summon the ominous specter of the Supreme Court's Bush v. Gore decision, Noem asked: "We gave Al Gore 37 days to run the process before we decided who was going to be president. Why would we not afford the 70.6 million Americans that voted for President Trump the same consideration?" That moronic rhetorical question would be profoundly disturbing if it weren't pathetic, and I guess it can be both.

There's been rather too much whimpering about "democratic norms" over the last four years (short version: Donald Trump farts in their general direction), but I don't think Trump and his inner circle realized until this weekend that certain of those norms lay outside their control. When Rudy Giuliani's "news conference" in the parking lot of a Philadelphia landscaping business — perhaps the most exquisitely bizarre moment of the entire week — was interrupted by the news that all the major networks had called the election for Biden, Giuliani made a manful effort at mockery: Oh, the networks! Who cares about them! It didn't work, and perhaps Rudy's great moment was swept away.

What followed was a well-worn narrative of the liberal-democratic tradition: Everyone cares what the networks say, it turns out. Everyone in the media (including the hosts on Fox News) began to describe Biden as the president-elect, and every major broadcast network and cable-news channel aired his victory address on Saturday night. Then came the flow of congratulatory messages from foreign leaders. It must have been hurtful, and perhaps incomprehensible, for Trump to see such purported allies as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and even — unkindest cut of all! — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, all extending the ritual greetings and good wishes called for by the moment. How many desperate calls did Jared Kushner place to Jerusalem this week, to be politely returned by no-comment tertiary underlings?

Since Trump understands nothing about politics or power, he couldn't possibly have grasped that those leaders are invested in their relationship with the world's greatest military and economic power, battered as it may be, and do not give a solitary crap about him personally or about his idiotic schemes to stay in power by way of 8chan conspiracy theories. Furthermore, those people are all more or less invested in the liberal-democratic order — having won elections that way and everything — and aren't especially psyched to hear a condo salesman who fluked his way into the White House telling the world that the whole thing is a fraud.

That democratic narrative still possesses an inexorable power, and it may slowly be sinking in at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that there's no road that leads backward from here. At least not this time. But how long that collective narrative can be sustained, when an ever-larger proportion of the public no longer buys into it, is an open question. There are early indications from exit polling that Trump may actually have improved his vote share, relative to 2016, among several demographic groups, including Latinos, white women and Black men. As individual data points those seem nonsensical, given the abundant and unconcealed racism and misogyny driving the Trumpian movement. As part of a larger picture — a picture that isn't just American but global in scale — they make slightly more sense.

One presidential election, won by assembling an emergency coalition and largely throwing ideology to the wayside, cannot resolve the crisis of democracy. For hundreds of millions of people across the "Western" zone of so-called capitalism and so-called liberal democracy, the economic and political system appears to be a dysfunctional scam that locks in inequality, squelches opportunity and condemns many or most people to precarious lives of wage-slave drudgery, bottomless debt and pointless consumerism. Many of those people are prepared to consider alternatives to the current situation, even when those alternatives appear — at least to the privileged and educated classes — to be warmed-over authoritarian drivel, delivered by a patently insincere second-rate celebrity.

If it sounds like I'm winding up to tell you that the Democratic Party must embrace a bold progressive agenda, or that Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could have led the party to glorious victory from coast to coast, I'm not. That's one possible conclusion, but there's no one-size-fits-all solution to the democratic (or Democratic) dilemma.

Centrist Democrats like Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia (a former CIA agent) are eager to blame Black Lives Matter rhetoric or "socialism" for whatever went wrong this year. Leftists of course blame the party's perennially muddled, middle-path messaging. Both sides have a point, honestly: Eventually the Democratic Party has to figure out what it stands for, in the context of 21st-century reality, and exactly where and how it's willing to fight. "We're not the fascists" worked medium-well this time around, but it's not much of a long-term program.

An impressive number of Americans — a clear majority of the electorate — voted last week to give our damaged democracy another chance, on the presumption that it offers the best chance of addressing our deep-rooted social and economic problems. A somewhat smaller number, yet still enormous by any standard and unprecedented in historical terms, voted for something quite different: Let's call it a quasi-imperial state, presided over by a professional con man with orange skin and cake-frosting hair who has failed at everything he's ever done — except television stardom! — and who thrives on ignorance, bigotry, cruelty and greed.

It's impossible to say where all this is heading, but it does no good to avoid the essential nature of the conflict. On one side are those who want to reassert or restore the long-established rules of political engagement, after what they hope was a momentary interruption. Those on the other side have long since concluded that the rules no longer exist or do not apply to them, or at best are only tools to be cynically deployed in the naked quest for power.

No democracy can long survive such a predicament, where the competing parties do not accept the same basic premises, and do not even perceive the same political reality. That second camp — the no-rules, fuck-your-democracy party — has suffered a defeat in this election, and will gradually and begrudgingly stage a strategic retreat. Its nominal leader will be forced into exile, and his supporters will grieve, after their own gruesome fashion. But nothing has happened in 2020 to break their will, or to convince them they are wrong.

Trump goes all-in on the nightmare scenario with millions of legally-cast votes left to be counted

None of us have seen a year like 2020 — and now it has finally snapped the tether that seemed to hold it to the realm of reality. After a relatively calm Election Day, leading into a nail-biter evening that left the result very much in doubt, President Trump did exactly what many observers feared he might do, prematurely declaring victory over former vice president Joe Biden, even though millions of votes in several important states remain uncounted.

It was a rambling, incoherent and extraordinary speech even by Trump's standards, delivered in an extraordinary setting — the East Room of the White House, rather than a campaign headquarters at a Washington hotel, as would be traditional for an incumbent president running for re-election. Whether it represents a genuine attempt to subvert democracy or was just an example of "Trump being Trump" and letting off some steam depends on one's perspective. Vice President Mike Pence attempted to assert the latter interpretation, arriving on stage after Trump had concluded and making relatively normal remarks about "the integrity of the vote," while of course praising Trump in fulsome terms and urging him to "make America great again, again."

None of us have seen a year like 2020 — and now it has finally snapped the tether that seemed to hold it to the realm of reality. After a relatively calm Election Day, leading into a nail-biter evening that left the result very much in doubt, President Trump did exactly what many observers feared he might do, prematurely declaring victory over former vice president Joe Biden, even though millions of votes in several important states remain uncounted.

It was a rambling, incoherent and extraordinary speech even by Trump's standards, delivered in an extraordinary setting — the East Room of the White House, rather than a campaign headquarters at a Washington hotel, as would be traditional for an incumbent president running for re-election. Whether it represents a genuine attempt to subvert democracy or was just an example of "Trump being Trump" and letting off some steam depends on one's perspective. Vice President Mike Pence attempted to assert the latter interpretation, arriving on stage after Trump had concluded and making relatively normal remarks about "the integrity of the vote," while of course praising Trump in fulsome terms and urging him to "make America great again, again."

"This is a fraud on the American public," Trump said, with no explanation of what that fraud might entail

Minutes after Trump falsely claimed, "As far as I am concerned we already have won it" — meaning the entire presidential election — the Associated Press called Arizona for Biden, the first state in a long and tense election night to flip from Trump in 2016 to Biden in 2020. While the outcome is by no means decided, losing Arizona makes Trump's path to victory exceptionally difficult

"We want all voting to stop," Trump added, asserting that it was "clear" he had won close swing states like Georgia and North Carolina, which have not yet been called by any major media outlet. "They knew they couldn't win," Trump claimed — without identifying the "they" in question — "so they said, 'Let's go to court.'"

In the realm of reality, all voting has ended. It's only a question of collecting and counting the votes, a process that differs widely from state to state and can sometimes take days or weeks. In this year of pandemic, that process is undeniably complicated, and millions of votes remain uncounted in key states like Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which now appear certain to decide the presidential election. Trump's attempt to claim there is something nefarious about the process flies in the face of election law, democratic norms and political history. One might be excused for asking what else is new.

Ironically, the president's comments will almost certainly hurt his legal team's chances in court — the path to potential re-election that Trump has long telegraphed he is banking on. Chris Christie, the former Republican governor of New Jersey who has been a frequent Trump confidant and adviser, said on ABC News that the president's extraordinary White House speech was "a bad strategic decision. It is a bad political decision."

That remains to be seen. Trump's gambit is certainly a terrible idea and an overtly anti-democratic power play that sent immediate shockwaves through the media and political classes, as inured to Trump's delusional theatrics as they have become. With the loss of Arizona and millions of Democratic-trending mail-in votes yet to be counted in major states, it appears probable that Trump is headed for a narrow electoral defeat — albeit a great deal narrower than most Democrats expected. Given that context, perhaps Trump's vicious election-night surprise is no surprise at all. It's the last and most desperate ploy of a man with no respect for the democratic process and no willingness to accept the verdict of the voters.


The feeling of powerlessness and despair felt many voters is emblematic of a much deeper problem in America

Donald Trump is not the central problem in American politics, and neither is the 2020 presidential election, as dire and urgent as those things seem at the moment. Our real problem is that our democracy is not a democracy, and that many Americans — most of them, I would argue — feel powerless, disenfranchised and despairing, confronted with a dysfunctional system that thrives on massive inequality and serves the interests only of the richest and most powerful. Those systemic problems made Trump's presidency possible in the first place, and created the circumstances that make this election seem like a last-ditch struggle against autocracy.

I'm here to tell you there are signs of real hope — but they have almost nothing to do with the question of who wins next week's election. Don't get me wrong: I'm invested in the outcome too. But I also suspect that in the longer arc of history, it might not matter all that much.

If you're reading this during the last days of October 2020, almost anywhere in the world, you don't need me to tell you that the final stretch of this presidential campaign has been agonizing. It's probably closer to the truth to say that the last four or so years of our nation's history have felt agonizing, not to mention draining and dispiriting, and that the coronavirus-dampened 2020 campaign has distilled all that into its purest form.

Time has simultaneously been stretched and compressed by the surreal theater of the Trump presidency, which has felt endless largely because the same damn things keep happening over and over — disguised as brand new outrages — in an atmosphere suffused with dread, as if we were trapped in some art-student horror movie. Lenin's supposed remark that there are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen (which he almost certainly did not say) needs reworking: There are days that contain years of turmoil and suffering, and entire years that vanish into memory like bad dreams.

There is just a week to go, as I write this, until we reach the culminating stage (perhaps) of an election that we have told ourselves is a crucial turning point in the history of American democracy — but may well be remembered by posterity more in comic or pathetic terms. It looks from here as if a majority of American voters are poised to deliver a sweeping repudiation of Donald Trump and the psychotic, zombified Republican Party that he nominally rules, quite likely in the form of a "wave" election that will reshape the political landscape for years to come.

At least that would be the logical conclusion: As I've written before, no incumbent president can reasonably hope to survive this much bad news. But logic and reason have little purchase in America's dreamscape, and right now nobody much wants to listen to conventional bromides about what could happen or might happen or will probably happen. Odds are you just want the whole damn thing to be over: the campaign, the pandemic, the rising tide of social unease and constant low-level threats of political violence, the perennial suspension of disbelief of the "Trump era." Who could blame you?

You certainly don't want me to tell you that none of that stuff will actually go away, no matter what happens on or after Nov. 3. Or that electing Joe Biden and a bunch of Democratic senators won't actually fix anything about our broken political system or resolve the deep-rooted social and economic contradictions that got us here.

Democrats and "liberals," of course, remain anguished and haunted by the never-to-be-resolved trauma of 2016, and by the subsequent years of ineffectual hope that somebody would make it all go away, or make it never have happened in the first place: God or Congress or the New York Times or Robert Mueller and his posse of establishmentarian white knights.

Trying to stir up drama in a race that has remained virtually stagnant ever since Biden locked down the Democratic nomination in March — at virtually the same moment as the coronavirus shut down the country — the mainstream media keeps gleefully reminding us that it remains possible Trump could win again, by fair means or foul. There's something to be said for steeling yourself against bad outcomes, but too many people in the left-liberal quadrant of politics — as in almost all of us — seem to be obsessed or paralyzed by those possibilities. We devour the latest polls but tell ourselves not to believe them, casting salt over our shoulders and muttering incantations to the numinous entities of our choosing.

Like frightened children left alone in the dark, we invent bogeymen and invest them with immense power: "Shy Trump voters" will come out of the woods and turn the tide; the Postal Service will delay or destroy millions of votes; Republican legislatures in swing states will defy the voters and appoint their own slates of electors; Justice Amy Coney Barrett, newly fitted for her robes, will write an eloquent Supreme Court opinion finding that according to the Constitution's original intent, votes in heavily Democratic precincts simply don't count. Somehow or other, Trump will refuse to yield power even after a conclusive defeat, and somehow or other — with the help of Russian propaganda, Bill Barr's devious machinations and the fine print of the 12th Amendment — he'll get away with it.

I'm not saying that there's no basis in reality for some or all of those fears, and it's only human to resort to magical thinking in times of great stress. As bizarre and unlikely as the outcome of the 2016 election was, it happened — and it did indeed feel like the hand of fate, punishing America for its arrogance and hubris. Mathematically speaking, it could happen again. But taken together, all that fear and fatalism have created a paranoid landscape in which ordinary Americans feel powerless, waiting in finger-chewing, insomniac anxiety for the verdict of history to be handed down. That will happen in just seven or eight days, as I said earlier. Or perhaps it will be more like 14 or 15 days, when a final vote count should be completed. Or maybe 40 days, the approximate deadline for the states to send their electoral votes to Washington. Or, hell, it could take 70 days or so, right up to the moment in early January when the new Congress must count those votes and certify the victor.

I know, it's torture, and it feels like it will never go away. But this waiting, this dread, this feeling of powerlessness and despair are emblematic of a much deeper problem in America's so-called democracy, next to which the question of President Biden or President Trump is nearly an afterthought. The real problem, as I said above, is that our democracy is not much of a democracy, a problem that is doubly or trebly multiplied in presidential elections. (I live in a state where my vote for president makes literally no difference at all. There's better than a two-thirds chance that you do too.)

Voting, the central ritual of American-style democracy, has become the subject of much conflict this year. It is endlessly fetishized and treated with mournful, religious reverence — both by those who would expand it and those who desperately seek to limit or suppress it. What neither side says out loud is that voting is always the most minimal and compromised form of political power, and that treating it as the be-all and end-all of democracy often distracts people from other, more effective, means.

I'm not saying that voting is not important. I'm not rolling out the old leftist line that both major parties are servants of the same corporate masters and there's no point even bothering. That's a half-truth that has metastasized into a lie, as is especially obvious here and now, and we have seen enough close elections in enough different contexts over the last few years to understand that exercising the franchise can be crucial.

But voting is just one helpful but minor aspect of democracy — and in a locked-down, binary political system, always involves a set of negotiations and compromises. It isn't sanctifying or virtuous, and when smug commentators start saying it is, I get that impulse to check whether my wallet is still there. People who don't vote because they think it's pointless and the whole system is bullshit may be overly cynical, but they've got a point. National elections in the United States have become a bizarre form of symbolic theater or public therapy. If you donated money to Amy McGrath's unwinnable Senate race against Mitch McConnell this year, I hope that made you feel better — because it certainly didn't accomplish anything else.

America's climate of near-permanent electioneering, in which the next presidential campaign starts as soon as the midterm elections are over, is itself a symptom of unhealthy democracy. Our quadrennial search for a messiah, or for the least bad option — staged as a mediocre, long-running entertainment spectacle — sucks up so much time, so much psychic energy and so much money that it is better understood as an impediment to democracy than as its demonstration or its instrument.

We don't have to go all the way to Mao Zedong's famous maxim that political power comes from the barrel of a gun in order to free ourselves from electoral hypnosis — although one could say that the armed militiamen who occupied the Michigan state house earlier this year had absorbed part of Mao's lesson, without any of his party-building discipline. Violence and threats of violence are certainly expressions of political power — and can effectuate change far more rapidly than the slow grind of electoral democracy — but in the 21st century more tolerant and tolerable examples are all around us, well short of the guillotine or the Bolshevik Revolution.

Indeed, America's election hypnosis sometimes conceals the obvious truth that direct action — peaceful or otherwise — is what moves the political process forward, not the other way around. In their famous White House meeting, Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. both understood that the constant ground-level pressure of protests (and the impending possibility of something more than nonviolent civil disobedience) was the only force that would compel reluctant Southern Democrats to support the landmark civil rights and voting rights laws that followed. According to Bill Moyers, the only other person in the room, LBJ told MLK, more or less, "You've got to make me do it."

Or consider the early to mid-1980s, when gay men and drug users were dying in large numbers from a mysterious illness, and neither political party wanted to touch the issue. People with AIDS were treated at best with pity and condescension, and at worst as disgusting sodomites who had brought a divine plague upon themselves. As Anthony Fauci could tell you, it was the often angry and controversial activism of groups like ACT UP and Gay Men's Health Crisis that changed the course of that epidemic and ultimately revolutionized the relationship between medical science, pharmaceutical research and the human beings those institutions were supposed to help.

In the late 1990s, the mainstream media was largely mystified or bemused by what was called the "anti-globalization movement," a series of confrontational protest actions that sought to unite labor unions, environmentalists and the anti-capitalist left, culminating in the "Battle of Seattle" during a 1999 conference of the World Trade Organization. Those protesters were depicted as '60s throwbacks, unwashed tree-hugging lunatics or (at times) violent anarchist radicals, and their movement was generally deemed an incoherent failure.

But it wasn't. Two decades later, both American political parties have largely abandoned neoliberal "free trade" agreements — and the vision of a new left activism, which seemed like a ludicrous dream in the Bill Clinton era, has come to fruition in multiple ways. That relatively tiny activist moment 20-odd years ago wasn't a '60s flashback: It was a new seedling that produced many offshoots and tendrils; leading more or less directly to Bernie Sanders' political campaigns and the resurgence of socialism, the more radical strains of climate activism, the street-action tendency now called antifa, Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter.

In our own time and a far more mainstream register, the Women's March emerged as a direct and extraordinary response to Trump's election — but can anyone doubt that the Democratic "blue wave" midterm election of 2018 was a direct result of the Women's March? In terms of restoring a sense of hope and possibility, along with the real potential of democracy, which of those things was more meaningful: Millions of women and men and children in the streets, proclaiming their rejection of an illegitimate misogynist president elected by a political fluke, or Nancy Pelosi?

In terms of conventional political outcomes, the recent explosion of activism among younger adults and teenagers, from the post-Parkland student movement to Greta Thunberg and the climate strikers to the massive Black Lives Matter protests all across America (and the world) this past summer, has not actually accomplished anything. But those are unmistakable expressions of political power that announce the rising consciousness of a new generation.

These younger activists have noticeably shifted the national temperature and the national discourse on guns and the climate crisis and police violence. (Consider how far the Biden campaign's rhetoric has moved since the beginning of the primary season.) They have helped create an environment where the widespread popular rejection of Donald Trump and the Republican agenda seems not just possible but nearly inevitable. There is no way to know what long-term political impact they will have, but they offer far more lasting hope for the renewal of democracy than whatever President Joe Biden and a hypothetical Democratic Congress may accomplish.

This year's election will come and go — and that can't happen soon enough. But Americans are beginning to understand what political power is, and how it works. Maybe they'll learn to use it before it's too late.

How to bring down the curtain on the pimped-out, pseudo-Wagnerian theater of TrumpWorld

If it weren't for the human lives damaged or destroyed by Donald Trump's presidency — the 215,000 or so killed by the coronavirus is only the beginning, of course — the whole insane experience could be understood as a brilliant, confrontational work of performance art. It's a vulgar and moronic performance, to be sure, and one that pushes the audience's willingness to suspend disbelief to its outer limits. But it's also a work of indisputable genius, one that has hypnotized media and public around the world for the better part of five years.

Viewed through the dark lens of a fully nihilistic or totalitarian aesthetics, where the work of art transcends all ordinary morality — and if Donald Trump had a theory of aesthetics, that would be it — even the cruelty and recklessness of his performance is an aspect of its brilliance. From the beginning, Trump told us that he could commit murder in public without alienating his supporters. Many of us understood that as a figure of speech. His greatest and most malicious accomplishment in public life (so far) has been to prove, on a grand scale, that it was literally true.

To cite another example, there is no viable argument that the partnership between Trump and Stephen Miller, his most notably sadistic adviser, has been politically successful. Almost all of their vindictive anti-immigrant agenda has been wildly unpopular, and much of it has been abandoned or thrown out by the courts. But as a theatrical display of faux-macho dominance, fueled by shared bitterness and unconcealed racial resentment, the Trump-Miller act has been immensely satisfying to its intended audience.

To suggest that Trump is fundamentally a salesman, a con man and a performer is certainly nothing new. He has been shaped by the worlds of New York real estate, tabloid publicity, professional wrestling and reality TV, where bullshit is everything and even the physical reality of land, buildings and human bodies is a disputable afterthought. But some people seem to get stuck on an imaginary dichotomy or contradiction between Trump as showman and Trump as wannabe tyrant, as if his oft-expressed desire to seize full power and rule forever were not in itself an aspect of the performance.

With the apparent implosion of Trump's re-election campaign amid his preposterous attempt to turn a major coronavirus cluster in and around the White House — including his own infection, and the possibility that he infected many other people — into a great symbolic victory, the distinction between Fascist Trump and Showman Trump has collapsed entirely.

I'm not suggesting that Trump didn't or doesn't want to "win" again and is consciously sabotaging himself, or that he doesn't enjoy the dimly-sketched fantasy world — its details no doubt supplied by Miller or Bill Barr or other factotums with a better grasp of logistics — in which he overturns the Constitution and is declared president for life. As New York Times critic James Poniewozik recently noted in an interview with Salon, Trump cannot conceive of any version of reality where he isn't a "winner," universally proclaimed as one of the great men of history. (He won't come right out and say the very greatest — but, you know, some people are saying that!)

Trump appears to possess no interior life worth talking about — I envision it as resembling an anthill, perennially under attack by a small boy with a stick — and clearly isn't capable of the kind of subtle introspection that might lead to deliberate self-destruction. But he only wants to be installed as Führer of a New Trumpian Reich if that too is a performance and other people do the real work.

We can all agree that Trump has shown no aptitude for governance, but despite the liberal paranoid trauma left over from the 2016 election, he's no good at politics either: His vaunted "movement" consists entirely of red hats and vile rhetoric. He has never demanded any sacrifices from his followers, let alone that they actually do anything. He cheers on their dipshit outbreaks of violence and farcical terrorist plots — remove yourself from the proximate sense of alarm, and the scheme to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer sounds like a future season of the FX series "Fargo" — but, honestly, you can tell his heart isn't in it. I don't mean that he feels any sense of compassion or responsibility, only that he's reluctant to endorse anything that pulls the spotlight away from him.

In the inner circles of TrumpWorld, whose denizens have sustained themselves by blending crime-family omertà with a shared delusion of historical destiny, the cognitive dissonance must now be off the charts. Faced with the prospect of a sweeping, landscape-shifting defeat just weeks from now, more cynical Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas — both of whom face unexpectedly tight re-election battles — have begun to subtly edge themselves away from Trump and rehearse the speeches they may need to make four or five days into November.

(Of course I'm aware of the nightmare scenarios that keep #Resistance liberals up all night: Millions of mail ballots thrown out, a reverse-engineered Electoral College, Trump re-elected in a state-by-state vote in the House of Representatives. It would be foolish to claim those things are impossible, or that Bill Barr hasn't considered all of them. But honestly: Is that the way the wind is blowing? At the moment, a Democratic landslide in which Trump is conclusively defeated and Republicans lose six or seven Senate seats is a far more likely scenario.)

But that cognitive dissonance is far less of a problem for Donald Trump personally than for the people around him. I think Poniewozik is on the right track in suggesting that Trump can turn whatever happens into a grand narrative of heroism and martyrdom, with himself in the starring role.

We've told ourselves all along that Trump is a pathological narcissist who doesn't care about other people, and sees them only as reflections of himself. (The temperament, in other words, of a diva.) He slanders and demonizes his critics and opponents, betrays his so-called friends without a moment's hesitation, feels only contempt for his worshipful supporters, and denies the existence of any objective reality. That was all true enough, but as things now appear, it was only the beginning.

If the chaos and ugliness Trump has channeled into American political life will be with us for decades to come — and is just one part of a worldwide crisis of democracy with no clear resolution in sight — he himself is about to transcend all that. Like any great performer, Trump is following his instincts rather than plotting out a rational course, and the culminating act of his public performance will synthesize and outstrip everything that has before. Rather than yield to any external force — political, legal, medical or scientific — Trump stands ready to destroy his own political career, and the political party he adopted, invaded and conquered.

It's a bit of a cliché at this point, not to mention overly flattering, to compare Donald Trump to John Milton's antiheroic Satan. But if Trump were capable of reading and understanding such things, he'd no doubt enjoy the comparison:

What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?

Given the pimped-out, pseudo-Wagnerian theater of TrumpWorld, a spectacular auto-da-fé is the only remotely adequate way to bring down the curtain. He will of course proclaim this self-immolation to be a great victory, and as seen in the rearview mirror of history, he may have a point. Like Satan, Trump has shown us how far we have fallen and how easily we are corrupted. To see him as the villain of the story is missing the point.

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