The most important election since 1864?

The pandemic is the core problem that will very likely unseat President Trump, writes William Milam

The most important election since 1864?
The 2020 election in the United States will be, by the time you read this, only a few days away. Joe Biden, the former vice president in the administration of Barack Obama and now the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, sees this election in stark Manichean terms of good and evil, and he would certainly agree with those who say it is the most important US election since Abraham Lincoln was elected, or reelected, during the civil war. “This election,” Biden says, “is for the soul of the nation.”

There may be something to his apocalyptic views, as I will discuss below. The coming election permits such elisions in part because fear of the future seems to be its prominent feature. Historians would tell us that US elections have not normally reeked of despair as this one does with many voters who are certain that losing would bring disaster on the country. This may just reflect the fearful times in which we live and the fact that, inter alia, we are voting during a resurging pandemic which makes it dangerous. But many American voters are acting as if they believe that Biden’s view of the importance of the election is spot on. As of the time I write this over 40 million of them have already cast their vote in the increasing number of states that allow early voting, and nearly 20 million mail-in ballots have been received and registered. So almost 60 million Americans, possibly a third of the electorate, have voted already, with about 9 days still to go before the election. This compares to 47 million early voters for the entire early voting period of the 2016 general election. In a few states early voting begins this week, and in the last week before the election on November 3,  with early voting, in person or by mail continuing at its current pace in a majority of the more populous states, it is possible that well over half of the electorate will have voted by election day.

That does not make the task of the state election officials any easier. In many states, early ballots cannot, by law, be counted until election day. These election officials are warning that the final results may not be known for days, even weeks, after November 3. This possibility only heightens the fearfulness, as the president, among his many other departures from the norms that have informed the actions of political leaders in our history, has intimated that he might take action to contest the count of mail-in ballots, which he claims without a shred of evidence are fraudulent, or in some other way move unconstitutionally to remain in office. This has only served to increase the fear which seems to be driving the surging turnout.

Two things about this voter surge are clear: first, they see it as important to get to the polls early, possibly because of the danger catching Coronavirus, which is currently surging in much of the United States, and getting caught trying to vote in the long lines and large crowds in confined polling places is a bad idea; and, second, unless the numbers of voters choosing to vote early either in person or by mail suddenly falls dramatically in the days left before the election, the turnout for this election is likely to be higher than in the any previous US election in their adult lifetime. The campaigns of both Biden and Trump seem to have recognized that turnout is the most important variable between now and election day. They are concentrating their final week of campaigning on maximizing their party’s turnout.

It is not so clear what really is motivating these record numbers to show up at polling places to vote early. Surely the threat of Coronavirus is a factor, particularly for those in the most vulnerable age brackets, but that group will probably vote mainly by mail. The crowds showing up personally for early voting appear to be in the lower age brackets, young voters that historically do not show up in great numbers at elections, even Presidential elections. And this large surge of young voters is likely motivated by fear - fear of the candidate they do not support. For most younger voters President Trump’s erratic behavior, bullying conduct, constant mendacity, and what they suspect are authoritarian tendencies have made his defeat their aim. His reelection is what they fear. And who is to say they are wrong; certainly not me.

A great many believe that he would continue to trample the democratic norms, mostly unwritten but well understood, that undergird American democracy. A constant refrain is that Trump’s reelection would be the end of democracy in the US. Given his clear authoritarian leanings, this is not an impossible nightmare. This would be even more likely if his Republican party were to continue to control the Senate, and worse, win back the House of Representatives.

Fear of Trump’s authoritarian nature is probably not, however, the core of the fear and loathing of the President, and by extension, his party. The pandemic itself is the core problem that will very likely unseat President Trump and not only elect Biden, but very possibly provide him with the necessary and sufficient conditions for a successful term — that is Democratic Party control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The virus has become the main topic of discussion and demonstrator of the character differences between them.

The stark difference between Trump and Biden on how to control the pandemic and restore economic growth and lost jobs was on view for all to see in the final TV debate between the two. Trump was quite open about his desire to simply ignore the Coronavirus and to open up the economy completely. He seems to be captive of the dubious theory of “herd immunity” (which Trump has called in what was perhaps a Freudian slip of the tongue “herd mentality”). This theory, in simple terms, is that by not taking any measures to control the spread of the virus, it will spread to enough of the population that all will be immune. Of course, what Trump seems not to comprehend, but possibly just ignores, is that letting this virus spread uncontrolled and unmitigated would lead to significantly more deaths. The experts agree that herd immunity becomes possible when around 60 percent or 70 percent of the population has been infected and survived. About 10 percent of the US is now immune and getting to the numbers needed for herd immunity would be very costly in lives. Trump does not seem bothered by this implication. Biden stressed in the debate that the economy cannot be restored until the virus is under control, and the way to ensure that is to adopt and adapt the guidelines laid out by all responsible medical and scientific officials: increase testing and tracing; allowing states and localities to reopen gradually following a set of guidelines that are proven to work if followed fully. Biden also demonstrates his differences with Trump in his careful campaigning which adheres to the usual social distancing strictures. Trump glories in his unmasked, bunched-up rallies which seem likely to be spreading the virus (perhaps in pursuit of herd immunity). Biden also points out that academic and non-partisan studies that show that had Trump followed the advice of his medical and scientific advisors regarding mitigation policies he could have saved many thousands of lives; as of Monday, October 26, over 8.6 million Americans had contracted Coronavirus, and over 225,000 had died. For a country with only four percent of the world’s population to have had almost 20 percent of the world’s deaths, is not a recommendation for reelection, as Mr Biden keeps reminding the voters as they stream to the polls.

Prediction: I do not have space to write about the difference between the erroneous polls of 2016 and those of this election which show Biden winning. I think the current polls are much closer to the real story; thus, I think Biden will win the election handily. The real question is whether he will pull at least three or four new Democrats into the Senate. On this I am very hopeful, but totally confident. Without the Senate in Democratic hands, Biden’s dream of being the FDR of the 21st century has little hope.

The writer is a former diplomat, and Senior Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.  

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.