It Won't Really End on Tuesday

We are now in the final weekend of this extraordinary, fascinating, stressful and depressing election. Partisans on both sides are hoping that their candidate will win, but a consensus that whoever wins at least the election will be over is emerging throughout the country. Unfortunately, this consensus is wrong, although not literally. It is true that by late Tuesday or sometime Wednesday we will know who the next President will be, but the impact of this campaign season will be felt long beyond next week; and the threat to our democracy that Donald Trump has mobilized will not go away quickly.

The immediate threat that a Donald Trump victory will pose to our democracy is obvious. As a candidate he has advocated arresting his opponent, formalizing and legislating religious discrimination, suggested limiting media freedom and given a voice to the ugliest, most racist and anti-Semitic voices in our country. Bringing those policies, ideas and that tone to the White House would almost immediately make the US a less stable, democratic and safe country.

Trump, however, is not the favorite to win this election, Many of those expressing relief that this is almost over are implicitly saying they are happy that Hillary Clinton will finally win and put an end to Donald Trump’s candidacy. It remains true that Clinton is more likely to win than Trump is, but talk of a potential landslide, or of flipping states like Georgia, has come to an end as the race has tightened in recent weeks.

Clinton is not a perfect candidate. She is too conservative for some on the left, too liberal for many on the right and has a three decade long public life that has included success, failures, a questionable ethical compass and numerous scandals. A President Clinton will make mistakes and be unable to solve every problem that faces our country, but she will not undermine democratic institutions, foment hatred, intolerance and violence or push through discriminatory policies.

A defeat for Donald Trump does not mean that his movement will simply go away. Politics in the US has changed in the last year or two, even beyond where partisanship in recent years has taken us. For example, nobody is talking about Clinton’s first hundred days. Anybody who mentioned a Clinton honeymoon period once she comes to office would be laughed off the internet. Instead, we have a Republican Party who has promised unprecedented levels of obstruction, investigations and impeachment hearings in the likely event that Clinton wins.

That, unbelievably, is not the major problem the US will face even if Clinton wins. The most immediate challenge Clinton will confront is how to walk America back from the brink. She will come into office with a substantial minority who, encouraged by Trump’s irresponsible rhetoric, will believe that her presidency is not legitimate. Additionally, Trump’s efforts to undermine faith in American democracy and to embolden the most racist and bigoted people in the US could guarantee instability and an authoritarian movement that could get even bigger. 

It is a very real possibility that President Hillary Clinton will have to confront the overwhelming task of rebuilding a national pluralist and democratic consensus. There is, of course, no guarantee that she would succeed. That task would be even more difficult if Trump himself, realizing he is no longer welcome in New York or in many other quarters of the US where not everybody is white, straight and Christian, decides to keep his show on the road as some kind of permanent floating authoritarian rally.

As the campaign has wound down, we have seen the threat to democracy that Trump’s candidacy has facilitated and encouraged as his supporters have talked about revolution and civil war. While it is easy to dismiss this as the ideas of people who have seen a few too many war movies and have no real sense of what words like revolution and civil war actually mean, that would probably be a mistake. There is not going to be a civil war if Clinton wins, but those ideas could foment over the course of her term and beyond and gradually tear apart what is left of our national unity. These threats, while unlikely to be realized, are nonetheless, terrifying. I have worked all over the world in many countries where revolution and civil war are not just the fantasies of middle aged white men upset because their world is changing. The most important thing I have learned about civil wars through those experiences is that they tear countries apart, destroy lives, families and economies and that nobody really wins them. Preventing this from happening in this country that, despite all its faults, still offers more freedom and prosperity to more people than any other country in the world is an imperative that will not end even if Clinton wins.

Photo: cc/Nina Jean