Joseph Robinette Biden is the president-elect. We know the will of the people, and, although it was a gut-wrenching week, the final tally is not all that close. In the popular vote, Biden, with the most votes of any candidate in history, leads Donald Trump by close to 3 million votes, a number that will grow as more of always slow-moving California gets toted up. And in terms of electoral votes, it looks like the number might be 306—maybe less, if Arizona doesn’t hold, maybe more, if somehow North Carolina goes the way of Georgia once they start counting absentees. But the point is, it won’t be a mere 270 or 271.
Whatever the number ends up at, the people have spoken. Yes, a lot of states were close. But a lot of states were close in 2016, too; besides which, Donald Trump lost the popular vote by 2.8 million. But he never allowed for an instant that his victory was anything less than legitimate. And under the rules, that was his right. Even I grudgingly acknowledged it at the time, writing that “it was Trump who won in a dubious way—although I cannot, alas, say that it wasn’t in a way the Founders intended.”
Biden will have won a victory that was similar to Trump’s in electoral terms (Trump won 304 electoral votes), but with the added moral backup that he will be the clear winner, by maybe 4 percent or more, of the popular vote. In a country as divided as ours, 4 percent isn’t that close. So the will of the people here is clear.
What is not yet clear, of course, is whether it will be fulfilled. We enter now what could be the most perilous month for our democracy since the Civil War. You’ve read that sentence many times over the last four years, undoubtedly even from me. It was true when we wrote it. But now it’s really true. This is our fateful hour.
Two paths lay before us—and unfortunately, not to say chillingly, is it Donald Trump who will largely dictate which path this nation takes.
The first path is the path of our best traditions. Early Friday morning, I watched a one-minute clip of the heart of George H.W. Bush’s concession speech in November 1992. “We respect the majesty of the democratic system,” President Bush said. “I want the country to know that our entire administration will work closely with [Bill Clinton’s] team to ensure the smooth transition of power. There is important work to be done, and America will always come first, so we will get behind this new president and wish him well.”
That was particularly gracious, but every loser since William Jennings Bryan, who set the precedent for the concession speech in 1896, has expressed similar sentiments. “I’ve sent the following wire to President Truman,” Thomas Dewey told the country in 1948. “My heartiest congratulations to you on your election and every good wish for a successful administration.”
Perhaps the most dramatic one of all time was Al Gore’s in December 2000, after those hideously tense five weeks when we were at each others’ throats. Yes, Gore fought the results for a while, seeking a recount in Florida—which was his right, just as it will be Trump’s right to seek legal recounts in states where the margin is within the statutory recount limits. But when the Supreme Court ended that recount, Gore decided to stop fighting: “I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of this nation.”
That’s one path. But obviously it’s not the path that anyone is naive enough to think we’ll follow with Trump calling the shots.
The second path is one for which 2000 was a mere dress rehearsal. Trump signaled that he’s taking us down this dark path Thursday evening, with a speech that was drenched in bellicose lie after lie—a speech that will live on as one of the most vile moments in presidential history. He’s kept banging that drum since, writing tweet after tweet that Twitter has to block because they’re such lies.
But interestingly, it was also in many ways a passive speech. His tone was not defiant. What was striking was how dejected and, well, low-energy he was. He seemed to know he’s lost. He knew that he’d need others to cheat for him to “win”: state legislators seating different electors, or the courts. And he seemed to know that, for the first time in his life, they weren’t going to do it. This has never happened to him, from Daddy to Roy Cohn to pre-reborn Michael Cohen to Bill Barr to Fox News, which is in about the third stage (of five) of dumping him. And of course behind it all, he ponders the possibility that he’s looking at prison time someday.
In other words, Trump is contemplating something much worse than being a one-term president, humiliating and total loser-ish as that is. He’s staring at getting called, finally, on his entire 40-year con of the world. He has skated through his entire life with lies, and, crucially, with enablers who propped up his lies and helped him slink his way through a situation in which he brought only hell and ruination, whether it was bankrupting casinos or letting 235,000 people die.
But seeing what's coming doesn't mean that Trump will go down easy, or finally become presidential. Just after Fox followed the AP and NBC and CNN and called Pennsylvania and the election for Biden, Trump — on one of his golf courses of course — issued a lengthy, bitter statement, that began “We all know why Joe Biden is trying to falsely pose as the winner” and then ripped the media, of course, and pledged to fight on in the courts.
He has his enablers now: The disgusting Lindsey Graham, who endorsed to Sean Hannity on Thursday night the notion that GOP state legislatures could seat pro-Trump electors, which would be maybe the most outrageous assault on democracy in our history. And there’s Ted Cruz, who also on Hannity supported Trump’s baseless claims of electoral fraud. And Kevin McCarthy, who echoed Trump’s lie that he won. And naturally there’s Newt Gingrich, topping (or bottoming) everyone by saying that Bill Barr should arrest Pennsylvania elections workers and make the state do a mulligan.
Perhaps more dangerous than any of those was C-PAC chief Matt Schlapp, who tweeted Thursday (no, not linking, just trust me) that any Republican or conservative who wanted to speak at a future C-PAC or seek the presidential nomination in 2024 had better hop on board the Crush Democracy Train toot suite. Donald Trump Junior and Eric Trump issued similar threats and, in short order, Tom Cotton, Nikki Haley, and others obliged. Schlapp has taken the entire party hostage, in effect, to say or do anything for Trump, and he just might have the leverage to do it.
Finally, there’s the question of Trump’s heavily armed supporters. Election officials in various counties need police escorts to walk from the election center to their cars. Even though it’s been called, they’re still counting votes. Will the fact that the race was called make the #StoptheSteal people go home, or will it enrage them?
Suppose there is some random instance of violence committed by a Trump person against a vote-counter, an elections official, or someone else? And yes, the violence could go the other way around. But in that case, I’m 100 percent certain that Joe Biden would condemn it forcefully and call for peace.
But what would Trump do? I’ll just let you mull that one.
This is the moment. Republicans who believe in at least this one manifestation of our democracy, that we must count the votes in an election and honor the result, must speak out. And one would hope that that might include George W. Bush, by the way, who might set aside his brushes and canvases long enough to note that he benefited from Al Gore’s act of democratic grace, and that such acts are what sustain a democracy.
A lot of moments seem important to us at the time, and they are. But from the vantage point of history, most of them are frankly disposable. This moment is not. This is a moment that history will remember and judge. Are any Republicans up to it? Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey said there’s no evidence of fraud. That’s one. He’s already announced he’s retiring.
The people have expressed their will. People who are small-d democrats honor that expression. We’ll find out in these next few weeks who some people really are