The Day After: It IS “Who We Are,” and No, We are NOT “Better Than This”

Biden is ahead in Nevada, Michigan, and Wisconsin. If his lead in those three states holds up, as it very likely will, then he will gain exactly the 270 electoral votes he needs. Additional states he might win: Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina.

Meanwhile, as I lay in search of sleep, I thought of Nero Wolfe, who was forever instructing Archie Goodwin to “act in the light of experience guided by intelligence.” Put another way, that would mean relying on the best objective data available, interpreted in the light of experience and common sense. In 2020, that technique proved to be a fragile reed on which to rely.

Writing about an hour ago, Paul Waldman summed up the state of affairs today, and least as he and I see it:

“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?,” said Donald Trump almost six years ago. “It’s, like, incredible.”

That may be the most stunning result of a stunning election. Though as of this writing it looks likely that Joe Biden will win — and Trump will certainly lose the popular vote, as he did in 2016 — he hasn’t really lost any support. So what does it say about America that it’s even this close?

Or to put it another way: What more could Trump have done to alienate voters? Was being the most corrupt president in American history not enough? Was being the most dishonest politician literally in the history of the world — and if you doubt, tell me who comes close — not enough?

How about bungling a pandemic that has killed more than 230,000 Americans and counting, and that threw tens of millions of Americans out of work and destroyed untold numbers of businesses — was that not enough?

Was it not enough to be the most morally repugnant human being in American public life, a bigot and a misogynist and a xenophobe and a tax cheat and a petty, insecure narcissist? Was that not enough to lose an election by a wide margin?

Hold on, you might say. While we wait for the results in Pennsylvania and a few other states, it’s clear that Biden will win more votes than Trump. Trump lost ground compared to his 2016 showing in many places and with many groups of voters. In fact, Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections, an extraordinary run that says a great deal about the sentiments of the American public.

But Democrats were hoping not just that Trump would lose but that he would lose badly, a clear and emphatic repudiation of him and everything he has done. In 2016 it was at least possible to say, as many voters did, “What the hell, let’s give this guy a chance. What’s the worst that could happen?” You can no longer say that, because now we know. It’s a nightmare we live with every day.

And don’t forget that in this election, Democrats eschewed their most charismatic, inspiring and visionary candidates in favor of the one they collectively decided would be the most inoffensive to the largest number of voters. We can’t nominate a woman, they said to themselves — that’s too threatening. A person of color? Forget about it. We’ll go with the old White guy.

That may have been enough to win, but not by much. There are still likely to be around 47 percent of voters who decided that four more years of Trump was just what they wanted.

There are many reasons; the simplest is partisan polarization. The overwhelming majority of Republicans — 93 percent, according to the data we have so far — decided that there could be no Republican so incompetent and corrupt and immoral that they would vote for a Democrat to replace him.

But the truth is that those who reluctantly cast their vote for Trump were far outnumbered by those who did so with a kind of gleeful rage. They may cite the Supreme Court or low taxes, but it’s Trumpism that they love, a politics unconstrained not only by rules or laws but by basic human civility.

When Trump tosses around childish insults and acts as though any American who doesn’t support him is his enemy, they don’t say, “I don’t like that; it’s the other stuff I like.” Trump’s vulgarity and hatefulness is exactly what they like. It’s a feature, not a bug. Seeing a political leader who enacts their darkest impulses on a daily basis thrills and intoxicates them.

So even if Trump loses, within the Republican Party, Trumpism has been validated. Consider young Madison Cawthorn, just elected to a House seat in North Carolina. Upon learning of his victory, he tweeted a three-word message to the world: “Cry more, lib.”

This is now the distilled essence of the GOP, a party of elementary school bullies for whom nothing is more important than seeing other Americans suffering and unhappy.

Republicans do not give each other earnest lectures on how better to persuade Democrats to see their point of view. They do not counsel patience and understanding, telling each other not to condescend or treat liberals’ perspective dismissively. They are the minority party, yet they have no interest in winning more adherents. They want only to deride and degrade those who don’t agree with them, then find ways to suppress their votes.

Yes, they can’t win a national election and their power is based on exploiting the anti-democratic features of the American system. And yes, the slow tide of demographic change reduces their proportion of the population with each passing year.

But they’re still about 4 in 10 of us. They spew their rancid bile into the air, then dance joyfully in the toxic cloud while mocking the rest of us for wearing masks to avoid breathing it in.

If Biden becomes president, as it looks like he will, we can let out a sigh of relief. At least the daily horrors emanating from the Trump administration will cease, and at least we won’t have to care what Trump himself is thinking and tweeting from hour to hour.

But if you believed Biden when he so often responded to some new misdeed by pleading, “This is not who we are. We’re better than this,” you were wrong. This is who we are. We are not better than this. And we won’t be for a long time to come, if ever.