All You Need To Know #17

The 2020 US Presidential Election

As we blaze into our 17th week of doing this, I’d like to talk about waterfalls versus lakes. When you stand right at the bottom of a waterfall, you don’t just get drenched. You also get overwhelmed. On the other hand, if you just go downstream a ways, the water is calmer. You can still get wet, but the envrionment is completely different. And that’s how media works.

When you’re standing right at the bottom of the waterfall, furiously mashing your reload button in your browser or doomscrolling on Twitter, things seem crazy. Because they are! But if you can just get a little bit removed, you can get the appropriate perspective. So let’s look at the week through the lens of this metaphor, shall we?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Seat

The Republicans could afford to lose three votes, and this week we learned they’d only lose two when Mitt Romney signalled his support. The fight is over, and Trump is going to get his Supreme Court pick through. The court is going to go to 6–3 in favour of conservatives.

The bottom of the waterfall analysis is that abortion is going to be made illegal, the health care system (Obamacare) will be found unconstitutional, and every pressing issue in American politics is about to swing far to the right. And I’m sympathetic to that point of view. I don’t think it’s totally wrong. But let’s walk a bit further away from the froth and see how the view looks from there.

First, as I mentioned last week, this is not a vote vulnerable senators are excited to have on their record. FiveThirtyEight has a great Senate dashboard that contains this visual:

The eight most contested contests include seven Republican incumbents and one Democratic one. But some of the races aren’t close. Arizona is definitely going to the Democrats (77% chance) and so is Colorado (72% chance). On the other hand, Montana (66%) and Georgia (74%) are definitely going to the Republicans. So where does that leave us? With a map that looks like this:

If Biden wins, Democrats need to win two out of these three to get to the magic number 50. And that’s what the current polls are predicting. Collins is predicted to lose Maine (59%) and Tillis is predicted to lose North Carolina (64%). Even Ernst in Iowa isn’t in great shape. Her chances are a tossup, with a 53% chance of winning. She’s technically ahead, but only barely. She could be knocked over by a stiff breeze or bad news cycle. Or … an unpopular vote.

Which is why a Supreme Court fight is the best possible news for Democrats. The GOP will eventually win the Supreme Court battle, but lose the greater war around who gets to pass laws. If the current polls hold, Democrats will win the House, Senate, and White House. Meaning they can pass any laws they want. That’s the longer term view. That’s how things look away from the waterfall.

A Stolen Election

The view from the waterfall is pretty scary. All election season, heaps of thinkpieces have been written about what happens if Trump refuses to concede. They’re scary stuff, and no matter how optimistic or pessimstic you are, I think every living person knows Trump is incapable of admitting defeat. We all know he is going to call it a rigged election until his dying breath, and that his supporters will carry the message for generations. We know this.

But that’s also the good news.

For our different perspective, we’re going to go back in time to 2016. That year, North Carolina had an election for governer and the Republican incumbent lost. And then he simply refused to concede. He said there were voting irregularities and therefore he was the rightful winner. And that was that. It was hard to know what to do next.

An overlooked story in 2016 that had huge historical implications

It was a long and twisty road, but in the end the Republican governer did end up stepping down. I remember being anguished by the story, because while everyone’s attention was on Trump’s surprise victory over Hillary Clinton, it felt for weeks that this Republican governer could simply refuse to step aside. And if that was allowed to stand, our whole Democracy could be at risk.

But in some ways, we owe this immoral, undemocratic, selfish dictator wannabe from North Carolina our thanks. He was like a thief who breaks into your house to understand where your locks are weak. Or a hacker who penetrates a system to explain what software patches you should install. On one hand, it’s bad. But on the other hand, it provides a very helpful guide for how you need to improve.

And that’s the beautiful thing about Trump refusing to accept a peaceful transfer of power again and again, in multiple contexts, always on camera. That’s the perfect thing about that terrifying Atlantic article about what would happen if Trump attempts to run out the clock after the election. That’s the blessing of everyone on the planet knowing that Trump has no interest in governing, only ruling like a dictator. It means we won’t be flat-footed. It means we can all figure out what we’re going to do beforehand.

The Pentagon is sending clear signals that it will absolutely refuse to partake in any funny business on behalf of the president. The House just completed a bill called the Protect Our Democracy Act that helps strengthen all the locks that Trump has discovered are weak. Republicans are issuing statements carefully avoiding mentioning Trump by name, but saying they’ll insist on a peaceful transition. Meanwhile, Americans across the nation are all honestly grappling with what we would do, as a group, when (not if) Trump refuses to vacate his office. This is all very, very good. And to prove it, let me try painting the opposite picture. One that looked more like North Carolina in 2016.

What if Trump hadn’t spent early political capital arguing over crowd size when people could plainly see he was lying? What if he hadn’t repeatedly called the process rigged for the last five years? What if no one had thought to ask him if he was going to leave peacefully? What if people thought, in general, that he was a decent man? What if he hadn’t telegraphed his strategy so stupidly over all this time? What then? He would have pulled it off.

He’d have quietly lined up his allies, preparing for a contested election, meaning when he did attempt to lie, people would actually hear him out. The nation would mostly tune out Democratic protests out as the same old partisan bickering, and would make a gut decision that the president probably knows what he’s talking about, and give him the benefit of the doubt. That’s how he could have pulled it off, and we should be thankful we’re not there.

I’m as concerned as anyone about what’s happening to America. I’m as aware as anyone how weak our systems are, how polarised our electorate is, and how Trump and his enablers could absolutely contest the election, forestall the process, and end up with a slow motion coup. It’s terrifying to imagine.

But for all the power he’s trying to project, he’s missing the most important ingredients he’d need to be successful: the element of surprise, and the benefit of the doubt. Has anyone in human history ever had less of either?

And that’s the good news. See you next week!

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