Just before the fall

Election Day is two months away. I don’t think we’re prepared for it. There are going to be arguments and hot air, there’ll be disbelief, there’ll be conspiracy theories, charges and counter-charges, accusations, psychological breakdowns, horror shows on the nightly news, psy-ops in broad daylight. Will there be violence? I sure hope not. But the trend lines aren’t too promising.

The last election season was vexed. This one is already beyond belief. With each news cycle, fresh obstacles to fairness, clarity, and calm resolution arise. No prior hazard is ever removed. We’re heading down the rapids toward an unprecedented national disaster, and nobody can do anything about it but gawk.

I hate writing pessimistic stuff. I feel like I’m gloomy enough as it is without reinforcing that for my reader — even if that reader is me. But I’ve looked at our predicament from every angle I can think of, and I have to admit that I don’t see how we’re getting out of this one. We’ve lived through hard years before, and we’ve always been able to rebuild what’s broken. This time seems different. In the hope that I’m wrong, and that I can look back on this in March 2021 and chide myself for my alarmism, I’m going to go ahead and lay it out:

  • An ongoing pandemic has killed 186,000 Americans, and put many more in the hospital. We don’t know the precise number, because state and national governments have gotten parsimonious about official communications. Yet we do know that the pathogen is highly contagious, and we fear there’ll be another wave of illness in the fall — right in time for the election.
  • A reasonable response to a respiratory illness that threatens to suppress voter turnout: mail-in ballots. Yet the President has done what he can do to discourage voting by post. He’s made it clear that he’d like to torpedo the USPS altogether, and he’s taken steps to do just that. People who don’t want to run the risk of catching the coronavirus are absolutely going to try to vote by mail. How long will it take to count these ballots? Can the post office be trusted?
  • The White House claims (with no evidence) that mail balloting will lead to fraud. This is apparent attempt at delegitimating mail-in votes, and, by extension, preemptively delegitimating the results of the election.
  • The campaign to re-elect the President isn’t even attempting to win an outright majority. Instead, they’re looking to massage the Electoral College, which, they hope, will deliver the Republican Party its third minority victory of this millennium.
  • After the prior minority victory, the President claimed, with no substantiation, that millions of votes had been cast illegally for his opponent. He has been using the same inflammatory rhetoric against his challenger’s campaign, talking openly about fraud, dirty tricks, and election-stealing. Should the former Vice President win the election outright — not impossible — many, many supporters of the President will view the election result as a criminal act of usurpation engineered by a shady cabal of fixers.
  • Millions of Americans already believe that the President came to office illegitimately. They’ve concluded that he cheated his way to the Oval Office with a helping hand from international crime syndicates backed by the Kremlin. None of these Americans think that the President is running an honest campaign. Should he win — and incumbents usually do — they’re not going to accept the results of the election.
  • Although ample evidence exists that those international syndicates are planing further election interference and should be countered, the President is instead focusing on an internal enemy: American cities run by Democratic mayors. He’s explicitly running an American vs. American campaign: he receives dissent as a personal insult, and reflexively takes the side of police departments against protesters. By now, it should be clear that mediation is well beyond his abilities, and he gives no sign he’s interested in it, anyway.
  • Just yesterday, the White House threatened to withhold money from those cities. The governor of New York responded that the President had better have an army with him if ever comes to Manhattan. This is straight-up civil war talk, saber-rattling right out in the public sphere at a time when accelerationism is on the ascent.
  • Those of us who live here recognize the President’s characterization of New York City as “anarchist” as the height of absurdist theatre. But not everybody is familiar with New York. It’s frighteningly clear that many of those who don’t are taking this rhetoric seriously and are actively engaging in, and furthering, a ridiculous misapprehension about American cities.
  • America is armed to the teeth.
  • No, really. There are at least 350 million guns in the United States. That’s more than 40% of all the guns in the entire world. Those weapons are concentrated in places that don’t have restrictive gun control laws. That means that a whole lot of firepower is in the hands of people who don’t live in American cities, and urbanites, by contrast, are relatively unarmed, depending as we do on police forces to protect us from violence.
  • Last week, a seventeen-year-old crossed the Wisconsin state line, arrived in Kenosha with an automatic weapon and appointed himself executioner. He brought a loaded firearm to a town that wasn’t his, and used it to kill two protesters.
  • Perhaps unsurprisingly, but deeply problematically, many influential Americans refused to denounce the shooter. That included the President. Millions of dollars have been donated to his legal defense fund.
  • In Portland, another man shot and killed a supporter of the President who’d come to town as part of a caravan of counter-protesters.
  • These street confrontations are taking place against the backdrop of nationwide protests against the police killings of unarmed black men. Many of those who support the police (and, perhaps, the police executions, too) see the Black Lives Matter movement as a socialist insurgency that needs to be stamped out. Yesterday, in shades of Charlottesville, a car slammed into a BLM march in Times Square.
  • The Department of Homeland Security has dispatched armed squads in unmarked vans to cities where protests are taking place. Anonymous DHS agents dressed in camouflage have pulled protesters off of the street and detained them without explanation.
  • Lots of people — way more than you think — believe wholeheartedly in a theory that identifies prominent politicians and celebrities as members of a Satanic cult of child abductors, sex criminals, and cannibals. For more than four years, they have salivated over the perceived imminent arrest of the Clintons, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, and other critics of the White House.
  • The President has consistently signaled unwillingness to transfer power to the opposition. Perhaps he truly believes that he is the victim of an international conspiracy, and perhaps he fears losing the immunity to prosecution that the office confers.
  • Because of the distortions created by the Electoral College, American Presidential elections tend to go down to the wire. It is possible that the outcome will be made clear by the voters on November 4. But it’s also possible that it won’t. There’ll be mail-in ballots to count, pathogens to avoid, and, inevitably, vote-suppression controversies to resolve. Long lines at polling stations during primaries did not augur well for the night of the general election.
  • If there are recounts, or even slow counts, we could be looking at days, or even weeks, of indeterminacy. Based on everything we’ve seen so far in 2020, how do you think those days are likely to go?

I am not a fighter. I don’t own a weapon, and I’m not going to go get one. Words have always been my defense, and they’ve held me in good stead so far, so I’m going to keep on using them. Yet I know that the battle hasn’t reached its highest pitch yet, and we may all be marching to a field where words are useless. Honestly, we might be there already, and people are just too polite, or too cagey, to tell me.

Because what I’ve learned over the past two weeks is this: I am a sitting duck, and the hunters are well-armed and well provisioned. I am effectively defenseless in my own nation. This is something I’ve always believed (and it’s something that black Americans always feel) but rarely has the point been driven home so authoritatively. If an angry teenaged vigilante from the sticks comes to my city with an AR-15 and shoots me, I understand that powerful people are going to excuse his actions. If I am loaded into an unmarked van and driven god knows where by a goon squad from out of town, those same people are going to say that I had it coming. All illusions are shattered: millions of countrymen aren’t my friends, and never will be. They’re not people with whom a peaceable conversation can be engineered. They don’t want to sit down at a table and break bread. They want to see me hurt.

As we all wake up, however groggily, to an internal conflict that started awhile ago, we’re coming to the realization that there’s nowhere to hide. The time to learn Norwegian and move to Oslo has passed — and they wouldn’t want us there, anyway. As a non-combatant by nature, my utility to the cause is minimal, and my desire to fight is less than zero. But to those authorities who are lighting the matches and pouring the kerosene, and engaging in calumny against the place where I live, I would like you to know: I see you. I know what you’re doing. You don’t want an election, and you certainly don’t want a discussion. You want a brawl. You want to use that arsenal you’ve amassed. You may just get your wish. I can’t say I’m ready, because I never will be. But I will not be taken by surprise.