Donald Trump’s premature declaration of victory, as predictable as a setting sun, should have surprised no one, and yet it sent shivers down the spine of history.
He really did it. He wants to stop the counting and go to court – the very supreme court he succeeded in stacking only last week.
Amid the tempest he has done much to create, Trump has a distinct advantage: he is an aspiring autocrat who puts no apparent bounds on himself. With his breathtaking disregard for constitutional process or established protocol, he has taken the country to the brink of an unprecedented crisis and barely seems to have blinked.
The only question was and is how his opponent would respond.
Joe Biden, in the grand tradition of Democratic contenders since Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace after the Watergate fiasco, has run on a campaign of being an upstanding guy. You win some, you lose some. But perhaps the Bush-Gore debacle of 2000, in which the Democratic ex–vice president bowed out before things got too ugly, served as an object lesson to stay in the fight until the end.
The Republican party, going back decades, has been playing to win, and playing dirty. Faced with shifting demographics, the economic convulsions of globalisation, the slack religiosity of post-60s America and tumbling innovations in technology and pop culture, it has found a way to bring a constituency around the notion of conservatism.
That word may ring very different bells on Wall Street and in the Farm Belt and the Rust Belt and the South, but it gathers those who hear the call. The unifying note, if there is one to be discerned, is grievance – grievance over the denial of rights, whether they be social, economic, religious or political. Or just having a gun you’re convinced will be taken away. Never mind that the assertion of those rights might trample those of another.
Disingenuous to the bone and completely faultless, Trump is the perfect leader of his party: waving the flag so hard the stars separate from the stripes.
Most of all, however, Republicans have gamed the electoral system to turn their demographic minority into a governing majority. Through absurd gerrymandering, voter roll purges, voter ID laws, court challenges to ballot counts and other tactics, Republicans have made clear what they think of the democratic system they operate within and their real chances in it, all things being equal.
The Democratic party is not on the same playing field. It desperately wants to govern, but in a country that seems not to want to be governed too much, a country proudly astride its past perceived glories. Trump has shown that plenty of Americans can be placated with empty bluster, and the anxieties of the present and the future can be wished away if you shout loudly enough.
At the start of the race, forever ago, Biden seemed like a ring-in: the establishment figure, on in his years, who had no chance against the bucking youngsters with their big ideas (European social democracy–lite, fit for American consumption); the brilliant Elizabeth Warren, who would have fixed a different America; and the bronco Bernie Sanders, the slayer of economic inequality who, in a different country, might have launched and won with his own party.
Biden bided his time. And his biggest political gift was the unimaginable tragedy of a pandemic that has ravaged the country and brought home the need for a leader capable of human sympathy, who might also have spent some time around the White House.
Australians rightly fail to comprehend the depredations on display in this election. Regardless of how things end up, this drama will leave a long and lingering sense of confusion.
Australia has a population the size of a big American state, on a land mass – an island – nearly the size of the entire US. It has a robust and independent national electoral commission and compulsory voting. No one doubts the count in Australia. Not everyone likes the outcome; there are many battles to fight. But we’re a democracy – we’ll work it out.
It could never happen here. That’s what they all say.
Samuel Hendricks is the deputy editor of the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter magazine