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The election that made things worse

Lack of decisive win for either Trump or Biden guarantees more conflict

The election results are unlikely to quell the sour mood of the public anytime soon, Rothenberg writes.
The election results are unlikely to quell the sour mood of the public anytime soon, Rothenberg writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — As I write this, I don’t know who has won the 2020 race for president. But I do know that Tuesday’s election will not solve all the nation’s troubles, no matter the ultimate outcome. In fact, it will make things worse.

The past four years have taken a toll on America.

Norms were violated, institutions undermined. You can’t fix our nation’s problems merely by swearing in a president — even one who has promised to bring people together. You certainly can’t unite the nation by reelecting an incumbent who badly mishandled the coronavirus, spent four years dividing the country and demonstrated that he regards the nation’s political guardrails as a mere annoyance to be ignored.

If Joe Biden wins the presidency, he will be pulled a thousand ways, as some elements of the Democratic Party look for dramatic changes and others argue that the former vice president’s pragmatic appeal is the reason why he won. A Republican Senate, of course, would cripple Biden.

If Trump wins, he will seek to impose his will on other branches of government and institutions. Honorable public servants, well-educated experts and anyone who disagrees with the president will find themselves isolated, bullied and belittled. That is not a recipe for cooperation.

More division

In fact, the closeness of the 2020 contest guarantees bitterness, name-calling, legal challenges and anger — especially from Trump and his followers, should he lose. His initial claim of victory in the middle of the night and his call to stop the counting of ballots was classic Trump — as always, based on self-interest.

The country needed a clear, decisive result that would end the election quickly and allow pro-Trump and anti-Trump America to move on, maybe even look for a way to accept each other. That’s not what the election gave us.

No matter who wins, the prime-time “talk TV” folks at Fox News will continue to push hard for confrontation, especially if One America News Network starts to look like Trump’s favorite outlet. NewsMax is out there as well, as is conservative talk radio, which is more than happy to stir the pot of resentment, grievance and conspiracy, regardless of the facts.

CNN and MSNBC have also taken up arms and chosen a side. Their anchors offer opinions all the time, changing them too often from journalists to advocates who spend hour upon hour talking to the same reporters and commentators who answer the same questions over and over in the same way.

Meanwhile, our broad-based parties have become ideological battalions, constantly embroiled in a life-and-death struggle with each other.

Coalitions are hard to form when each side views the other as ideological extremists. How much better Congress would be with compromise-minded officeholders like Republicans Olympia Snowe (Maine), Connie Morella (Maryland) and Richard Lugar (Indiana) and Democrats John Breaux (Louisiana), John Spratt (South Carolina) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (New York) toiling on Capitol Hill.

But who’s kidding whom? We aren’t likely to get back to that point in any of your lifetimes.

A new normal

Outside groups, buoyed by big money and a grassroots army that is led by ideological bomb throwers on the right and left, have a large role in the nominating process.

On Tuesday evening, I asked a veteran Republican operative how Trump could do so well after four years of calling people names, lying about just about everything and being so nasty and narcissistic.

He didn’t disagree with my characterizations but offered a mercifully swift and clear answer to my question: Red America wanted to stop the leftward move that Biden would bring along.

Whether you agree with that or not, it’s instructive. Trump and the GOP ran a campaign of fear — warning that Democrats would impose socialism, communism, abortion, gay marriage and gun control on Red America if Biden was elected. That strategy either worked or almost worked. Either alternative is frightening.

To the non-Trump world, charges that Biden will usher in communism and open America’s borders to rapists and criminals is crazy. But to Trump America, the threat is real.

I remember primaries and general elections when candidates would campaign by insisting that there is no Blue America and Red America, only one America. Of course, that is not true. The two Americas have different values and priorities, and they distrust each other completely. Unfortunately, instead of bringing us together, the 2020 election made things worse.

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