This is the era of expecting the worst while hoping for the merely tolerable. Some might say that the worst is already happening—economic disaster and 190,000 dead from a pandemic—while the president and his surrogates insist, in a feat of self-delusion, that the “best is yet to come.” As someone who has argued against catastrophism—I don’t believe Donald Trump is a fascist or a dictator in the making, and I don’t believe America is a failed state—I find myself truly worried about only one scenario: that Trump will win reelection and Democrats and others on the left will be unwilling, even unable, to accept the result.
A loss by Joe Biden under these circumstances is the worst case not because Trump will destroy America (he can’t), but because it is the outcome most likely to undermine faith in democracy, resulting in more of the social unrest and street battles that cities including Portland, Oregon, and Seattle have seen in recent months. For this reason, strictly law-and-order Republicans who have responded in dismay to scenes of rioting and looting have an interest in Biden winning—even if they could never bring themselves to vote for him.
In presidential elections, once is a fluke; twice is a pattern. I struggle to imagine how, beyond utter shock, millions of Democrats will process a Trump victory. A loss for Biden, after having been the clear favorite all summer, would provoke mass disillusion with electoral politics as a means of change—at a time when disillusion is already dangerously high. If Democrats can’t beat a candidate as unpopular as Trump during a devastating pandemic and a massive economic contraction, then are they even capable of winning presidential elections anymore? Democracy, after all, is supposed to self-correct after mistakes, particularly mistakes as egregious as electing Donald Trump—whose unfitness for the nation’s highest office makes itself apparent with almost every passing day.
Liberals had enough trouble accepting the results of the 2016 election. In some sense, they never really came to terms with it. The past four years have witnessed the continuous urge to explain away the inexplicable, to find solace in the fact that the voters betrayed them. How could so many of their fellow Americans side with a racist and a fabulist, someone so callous and seemingly without empathy? It was easier to think that those Americans had been lackeys, manipulated and deceived, or that they simply hadn’t understood what was best for them. Moreover, the Russians had interfered, and tipped the balance in an extremely close election through propaganda, fake news, and collusion with the Trump campaign. Perhaps, as former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid suggested, the Russians had even tampered with the vote itself.
That was then. This time, it would be worse. In 2016, Trump hadn’t ever held political office, so no one could truly grasp just how bad, and exhausting, a president he might become. Perhaps in 2016, too many voters were unwilling to believe that America was “already great” (and, for too many, it wasn’t). They had no reason to be content with the status quo, so their willingness to try something quite risky was understandable. Now, though, everyone should know the risks. Moreover, Hillary Clinton was an unusually polarizing candidate, whereas Joe Biden tends to attract attention for not attracting attention.
Because Biden’s poll numbers this year have mostly been higher than Clinton’s were in 2016, a Trump victory will be even harder for the left to absorb. Until Democrats (and commentators like myself) started panicking recently, overconfidence had set in. The polls offered good reason to think that a Trump victory was drifting out of reach—and they still show the former vice president with a significant, if diminished, advantage. No matter how the polls shift, a Trump win means a squandered lead and shattered expectations.
If Trump manages to win, recent polling data indicate, he will likely do so despite losing the popular vote. That will fuel disillusion not just with the election outcome but with the electoral system. The popular-vote numbers will be used to argue that Trump won without winning—again. In theory, this could be a good thing, if it birthed a mass movement to change the way Americans choose their presidents. In practice, though, Republicans, after prevailing only in the Electoral College for the third time in six elections, will vehemently oppose any attempt to abolish it, further driving despair among Democrats that change can come about through “normal” politics.
Liberals have convinced themselves that Republicans are, in one way or another, cheating. In addition to all of Trump’s norm-breaking, the GOP is gerrymandering, purging voter rolls, and shutting down polling places in Black neighborhoods. Yet Republicans wouldn’t have been able to do these things if they hadn’t won enough statewide and local offices in the first place. They have put themselves in a position to enact their favored redistricting and election procedures by finding candidates and pursuing policies that made them competitive in formerly Democratic states, demanding a level of party discipline that Democrats can seldom muster, and getting their supporters to turn out for down-ballot races. Republican manipulation is what the democratic process itself has produced, however unfair, and it can be undone only through that same process, however flawed. To some degree, this is just how the game is played, and Democrats need to play it better if they want to win the Electoral College. Having won the presidency twice in the recent past, Democrats are surely capable of prevailing via normal means, but promising voters a slightly improved version of the present may not necessarily be the best way to do it.
Considering the lopsided stakes, Democrats have every right to be nervous. The anxiety gripping the two parties is asymmetric: Biden is at least marginally more acceptable, ideologically and certainly temperamentally, to Republican voters than Trump is to Democratic voters. Trump represents the nativist wing of an already nativist Republican Party, so it is understandable that Democrats of any stripe would fear him more. Biden, on the other hand, is a conventional Democrat, representing the center of the Democratic Party. If Biden, of all people, is beyond the pale, then so is half the country.
Of course, Republicans will be angry if they lose, and Trump himself will almost certainly attack the result. But if Biden wins, he’s likely to do so with both the popular vote and the Electoral College—and by potentially significant margins. A clear win for the former vice president means that Republican officials, with the same self-interest that drove them toward Trump in the first place, will have strong incentives to distance themselves from a futile delegitimization campaign waged by a sore loser. Meanwhile, expectations also matter for Republicans, but in reverse. For anyone who had been following the polls, a Biden victory will prompt little surprise. It is easier to accept the things you had already come to expect.
Accepting the things that never should have happened is far more difficult. A certain kind of cognitive dissonance—the gap between what is and what should be—can fuel revolutionary sentiment, and not just in a fluffy, radical-chic kind of way. In such situations, acting outside the political process, including through nonpeaceful means, becomes more attractive, not necessarily out of hope but out of despair.
This distance between what a society should be and the tragedy of what it actually becomes is less of a problem in democracies, because democracies are supposed to be responsive to voters’ demands and grievances. But they aren’t always. The gap will grow larger under a Trump presidency than a Biden one, and this has implications for mass unrest and political violence across American cities. For democracy to work, the losers of elections need to believe that they can win the next time around. Otherwise their incentives to play the spoiler increase. A breakdown of democracy is always a possibility, but the country is more resilient than it may seem, and consolidated democracies seldom break down in any circumstance. That said, this is one of those propositions that is better left untested.