Caution: This is in no way a forecast that Joe Biden will lose or is likely to lose. While the race has, predictably, tightened somewhat, he is ahead in the polls and has a clear shot at victory. Instead, this is a rumination on the media and political world if that were to be the outcome.
How on earth, most journalists and commentators will ask, can Trump have won a second term?
That will be the dominant question reverberating across the media landscape, drowning out those who ask “how could Biden have blown his lead?” The media establishment, after all, was nearly unanimous in saying that Biden was a weak primary candidate--too old and out of touch--and was stunned when he defied their obituaries and came back to win the nomination.
Even if the outcome isn’t in doubt, most of the media--along with the Democrats--will be crushed by the thought of four more years of the man they have tried to portray as incompetent, unfit and unable to handle such crises as Covid-19.
They will, in legal terms, “accept” the results of a clear-cut election, but there will be endless essays and hand-wringing segments on what this says about America--none of it good.
This is confirmation, the talking heads will say, that America is a meaner country, a more gullible country, a more racist country than we realized. While some may look at the president’s policies and the way he appealed to, say, suburban or Latino voters, the overwhelming message will be one of despair.
There will be excuses: If it hadn’t been for Covid scaring off Democrats from showing up at the polls, Biden would have won. (Of course, if it hadn’t been for Covid and the shuttering of the economy, Trump might have cruised to victory.)
There will be dire warnings: Now that he’s not constrained by reelection, Trump will trample the Constitution and retaliate against the press, the Democrats and other perceived enemies.
And there will be new demands that the Electoral College be abolished as an awful anachronism, especially if Trump loses the popular vote.
I’m sure we’ll see a few pieces on how the mainstream media again misread the election and were blinded by wishful thinking, but those will be outliers. These will be eclipsed by stories on how the resistance must escalate its efforts through 2024, and interviews with celebrities threatening to leave the country.
The Atlantic is already bemoaning the possibility, saying a Trump win is “most likely to undermine faith in democracy, resulting in more of the social unrest and street battles that cities including Portland, Oregon and Seattle have seen in recent months.” (But wouldn’t they be protesting democracy in action?)
Writer Shadi Hamid, who considers Trump unfit, says his victory “would provoke mass disillusion with electoral politics as a means of change—at a time when disillusion is already dangerously high. If Democrats can’t beat a candidate as unpopular as Trump during a devastating pandemic and a massive economic contraction, then are they even capable of winning presidential elections anymore?” That would be a fair question.
Hamid even seems to anticipate violence: “A certain kind of cognitive dissonance—the gap between what is and what should be—can fuel revolutionary sentiment, and not just in a fluffy, radical-chic kind of way. In such situations, acting outside the political process, including through non-peaceful means, becomes more attractive, not necessarily out of hope but out of despair.” Not that anyone’s condoning that, right?
The Federalist has a much harsher take on this notion of suggesting or predicting violence:
“‘The Left Secretly Preps for MAGA Violence After Election Day,” reads a recent headline at The Daily Beast. ‘Is Trump Planning a Coup d’État?’ asks another recent piece at The Nation. ‘Is America in the Early Stages of Armed Insurgency?’ frets Slate. Similar pieces have run at the Washington Post (‘The election will likely spark violence—and a constitutional crisis’), the Atlantic (‘What might he do? What should Americans fear?’), Vox (‘Imagine that… Donald Trump refuses to concede defeat’), the New Yorker (‘Trump’s threats about rejecting the results come November are not idle’), and on and on. (These of course are framed as a response to Trump illegally clinging to power.)
“We now seem to be on the cusp of relitigating the question,” says writer John Daniel Davidson, “only instead of slaveholding southerners blackmailing the country with secession, it’s anti-Trump Democrats and left-wing radicals threatening to tear the country apart if Trump wins in November.”
The piece concludes: “The left simply cannot imagine an election in which Trump doesn’t win by cheating, hence they’ve decided they will accept only one outcome.”
Naturally, I hope there is no hint of violence and America, as it has always done, through war and depression, has a peaceful resolution of the election. But this will require the media and the president’s fiercest opponents to acknowledge that in a democratic society, your guy doesn’t always win.