I have written many times that the nomination and election of Donald Trump in 2016 was a symptom, not a cause, of serious, possibly fatal diseases in American politics. Donor networks had long dominated both parties by then, and serious candidates needed access to those networks. That was why so many presidential candidates were either former Vice Presidents (such as George H. W. Bush, Al Gore, and Joe Biden), or closely related to Presidents (such as George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, and the 2016 Republican favorite Jeb Bush.) The two parties had collaborated in the outsourcing of American industry via NAFTA and other agreements and the deregulation that produced the financial crisis in 2008. They pursued the same foreign policies, many of them disastrous. They had completely failed to solve the problem of illegal immigration or to stop the trend towards more and more inequality, and they used various tribal loyalties to hold their voter bases together. Both, in short, had completely failed to meet the challenge of the fourth great crisis in American national life. Millions of Americans had decided that neither party leadership had anything to offer them. Donald Trump won easily over a field of standard Republican candidates, and narrowly defeated Hillary Clinton in an election in which the votes for both the Republican and Democratic candidates fell relative to 2012.
Trump has made the crisis worse in two ways. First of all, he has allied himself with the Congressional Republican leadership and the party's major contributors such as the Koch brothers to continue, at breakneck pace, the destruction of the federal government and the legacy of the last 120 years or so. This would not have been possible if more people still cared about it. Secondly, Trump is such an utterly incompetent individual, so totally focused on his own narcissistic needs, that he can neither solve a real problem nor trust anyone who can. The COVID-19 epidemic has exposed this for all to see, and it looks likely to cost him his re-election. Biden leads him by a solid 8 points in national polling, a margin much too big for the Republican electoral college advantage to overcome. Biden leads comfortably in enough of the battleground states to win a solid electoral majority. Now, however, a new threat has emerged.
Mail-in voting has become very popular in the country in recent years, and the Trump Administration, led by the new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy--a major Trump fundraiser and donor who has helped run a competitor of USPS--is trying to sabotage the whole postal service so as to make it impossible for ballots to arrive and be counted on time and, it would appear, provide a basis for challenging results. The Postal Service has stopped overtime, removed post office boxes from the street in various cities, and threatened to retire a great many sorting machines. Trump meanwhile is arguing falsely that mail-in voting is wracked with fraud. The experience of a number of recent primaries suggests that it could take a week or even several weeks to get a full count of the mail-in votes in some states. Exactly how Trump might try to use all this to assure himself a favorable result is not clear, and I hope to research it further in weeks to come. Yet the DeJoy appointment and what he has done in office persuades me that some one is working on a well-developed strategy to use controversy over the election to keep Donald Trump in office.
Democrats must not allow themselves to be led the slaughter by more determined Republicans, as they were in 2000. A full recount in Florida, it later developed, would have shown that Al Gore was the winner--but his team never even demanded a full recount. This time, the problem is to use mail-in voting as little as possible, or, alternatively, to take advantage of other ways--and there are other ways in most states, if not all--to get the early ballots to the authorities. In my own state of Massachusetts one can hand carry his ballot to the office of the Town Clerk. One can also vote early in person, as I have in the past and plan to do again. The Democratic Party and the Biden campaign need to set up an interactive process on line that will inform voters about these options in every state and help them make use of them. And last but not least, it must appeal to voters who have not arranged to vote early to get to the polls--despite the health risks of doing so. Hundreds of thousands of American soldiers died in the last two great crises, the Civil War and the Second World War, to preserve our way of life. Simply showing up at the polls as a last resort will show the world that we still value our institutions enough to take some risk to preserve them.
The rot in our political system runs very deep, and how much a President Biden will be able to do to regenerate us remains a very important question, dependent on many things that we do not yet know. We will not emerge from this crisis strengthened and more confident to the extent that we did from any of the previous three--but we can emerge with our system intact and keep some new possibilities open for the future. That will however require attention, dedication, and even serious risks, to make sure that the American people can make their will felt on November 3.