There was no Democratic or Republican blowout. There was no final result. On Tuesday night going into Wednesday morning, America was left with a message that was far from clear — “too early to call” or “too close to call,” the cable stations said about tight races in battleground states.
What could be a better description of where we are right now?
President Donald Trump falsely declared victory before all the ballots were counted, and sent all-caps email missives to supporters asking for donations to fight the “chaos” of counting completely legal mail-in ballots: “THE DEMOCRATS WILL TRY TO STEAL THIS ELECTION! … I need YOUR HELP to ensure we have the resources to protect the results. We can’t allow the Left-wing MOB to undermine our Election.”
In the midst of a night of surprises that defied polls and pundits, you could count on Trump to remain infuriatingly true to form, reacting to the incomplete results with a promise to sic his phalanx of lawyers on the courts to challenge everything. While Vice President Mike Pence offered more calming advice to “remain vigilant” as the votes were counted, America’s president, as always, was the voice his stalwart fans chose to hear.
Compare the president’s statement to former Vice President Joe Biden, speaking in Delaware, calm as he said, “We feel good about where we are,” and in reference to the uncalled races, “It ain’t over until every vote is counted, until every ballot is counted.”
Biden had tried to make the 2020 presidential race a referendum on character, the “soul” of the nation. He said he decided to run after Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” remark, seemingly conferring moral equivalence on the “Unite the Right” marchers, carrying torches and shouting anti-Semitic and racist slogans in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, and the counterprotesters, one of whom, Heather Heyer, was killed by a car that drove into the crowd.
But was Biden as off as the preelection predictions?
America still faces a COVID-19 crisis, with more than 9 million infections and more than 230,000 deaths. While Trump insists the country is “rounding the turn” and promises that a vaccine is around the corner, Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, warns that “we are entering the most concerning and most deadly phase of this pandemic.”
The Americans who could least afford it are finding it hardest to recover from the economic collapse that followed, with more falling into poverty.
The masks that medical experts have repeatedly said are the best defense against the virus have become a political marker, with the refusal to don one deemed an expression of “freedom,” rather than a sign of consideration for friends, neighbors and fellow citizens.
Authorities are still searching for the parents of 545 migrant children, some under the age of 5, separated at the border in images that fell out of the headlines when the next scandal took its place.
The percentage of Americans who sympathized with Black Lives Matter, with goals of police accountability and reform and equal justice, has fallen, except among the Black Americans who won’t forget the names George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and the rest. The president, of course, chose sides, offering a defense of the young man who crossed state lines and is charged with killing two men at a protest over a police shooting in Wisconsin.
Business owners boarded up windows in expectation of postelection violence, giving the streets the look of a scene in the Middle East or Eastern Europe rather than a big-city or small-town American boulevard.
A caravan of vehicles flying Trump flags nearly ran a Biden-Harris bus off the road, an incident being investigated by the FBI but praised by Trump, who tweeted, “I LOVE TEXAS!” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the follower who once criticized Trump’s tactics, weighed in with his approval, saying, “We love what they did.”
To look at the postelection numbers — and experts are busily crunching them — divisions in America are stark: urban vs. rural, with the suburbs somewhere in between; those with and without college degrees; Americans with roots in Cuba and those whose ancestors hail from Mexico, though that’s complicated.
And there’s one that seems intractable, especially when aggravated for partisan advantage. Though it is never as “black and white” as that, racial division is an all-American gift that keeps giving Trump oxygen, from his racially coded specter of low-income city dwellers invading “Leave It to Beaver” land to his failure to hold police departments or his own administration or mace-carrying Proud Boys to the same “law and order” standards he demands from social justice protesters.
When Biden failed to work as a prime target, Trump turned his attention to California Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee and the child of immigrants from Jamaica and India. The president stooped to name-calling and insults; to many in his base, at least those who whooped at his raucous rallies, it worked.
Fear of the “other” has not lost a bit of its power, though every person in this diverse country is actually proof of America’s strength.
Even if Biden manages to eke out an Electoral College win, he likely faces a divided Congress, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell presiding over gridlock he seems to enjoy. Remember, a House-passed restoration of sections of the Voting Rights Act, promising greater access to democracy, gathers dust on the Kentucky Republican’s desk, even as he shamelessly invoked the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his reelection victory celebration.
The House, with a slight Democratic majority, will have some interesting new members, including Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, who supports QAnon, a baseless conspiracy theory deemed a domestic terrorist threat by the FBI, and North Carolina Republican Madison Cawthorn, dogged during his campaign by charges of being cozy with white supremacist statements and symbols.
Cawthorn’s first postelection victory tweet: “Cry more, lib.”
Biden’s appeal to reaching across the aisle seems quaint in the America of 2020, the GOP’s post-2012 election autopsy vowing to broaden its tent now a distant memory, or should I say fantasy? The Republican Party is the party of Trump, with roughly half the country endorsing its every move.
And as for America’s future, with one side or the other unconvinced of its opponents’ legitimacy?
“Too early to call.” “Too close to call.”
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.