America awaits a verdict on the Trump era

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Is history’s wheel about to turn?

That is the real question — not simply what happens to President Donald Trump — that is being answered in a 2020 election that has energized Americans into voting in what may, by evening’s end, set a new record, and what may represent a decisive turning of the page in the nation’s political story.

Or maybe not.

By now most Americans are familiar with the pandemic-era reality that there may be fewer definitive answers than we are used to having late on a Tuesday night, or early on a Wednesday morning. Odd, isn’t it, that in an era of instantaneous everything we may now have a return to the 19th century reality that it might take quite a while to learn who won?

But all the wise cautionary notes about taking a breath and not jumping to conclusions shouldn’t bully people into full quiescence. The truth is there are likely to be plenty of very strong indications by the time your head hits the pillow of what is really going on in Trump’s America.

There is really only one scenario among the most commonly talked about possibilities that would represent a decisive break from the recent past.

That is that Trump loses in a way that is so decisive and acrid that it is beyond the power of aerosol spray — that it can’t be masked by squirts of conspiracy theory about election fraud or grievance over news media coverage.

This would need to be accompanied by widespread Republican defeats — the loss of the Senate majority, deeper erosion in the House, and electoral setbacks that reach deep into statehouses around the country. That last element is what happened to Democrats in the 2010 midterms, just as decennial redistricting was underway, and helped lead to a “lost decade” for the progressive cause.

It would probably take a result this emphatic and unambiguous to persuade most Republican politicians to end their accommodation not merely of Trump but the contempt-driven politics that Trumpism represents.

If this happens, there isn’t going to be a lot of mystery later tonight — even if some results are still outstanding — that a very big wave is crashing. It would involve Trump losing, or being on a clear trajectory to losing, in Florida, and in formerly solid GOP states like Georgia or Texas. Wednesday morning will bring a country that will feel very different than the one on Tuesday morning.

But other scenarios — arguably more plausible ones — will leave everyone wrestling with plenty of mystery.

Let’s say Biden slumps to the finish line with a modest victory that likely would be credibly forecast tonight but not official for some time to come. Pair that with a Democratic campaign to retake the Senate that stalls at the end. Perhaps that means capturing two Senate seats (Arizona and Colorado) but not the four likely needed (assuming a loss in Alabama) to take power.

Such a mixed result would end Trump’s White House term but likely not his hovering presence over national politics. And it would not necessarily indicate that the incentives for remorseless attack politics — a trend that Trump represented but which preceded him by many years — have changed for the Republican Party if its new mission is to torment a Biden presidency at every turn.

And what about another scenario — that Trump once again proves that he can ignite support among his partisans that runs deeper than most pollsters can see? He would once again lose the popular vote — even Republicans acknowledge this is the strong probability — but stitch together another Electoral College victory.

What if this victory involves successfully challenging votes, or not counting votes that were mailed on time but not delivered on time — perhaps along with a decisive Supreme Court intervention?

In contested circumstances, it would be a test of how dry the civic tinder of this country is. This summer, in cities around the country from Washington, D.C. to Minneapolis, to Portland, Ore., it seemed pretty dry. In 2000 and 2016 — two other occasions when the popular vote loser won the presidency amid questions about fairness — what was remarkable was how quickly the vast majority of people accepted the result. The country may be in a different place now.

If so, it will be another reminder of how thoroughly Donald Trump has infused his personality and politics into the culture.

In Wisconsin Monday night, it sounded for a minute like Trump was going to repeat the familiar piety of most political types that the election isn’t about the candidates but the needs and dreams of the voters. But in mid-sentence he seemed to decide to hell with it — why bother with artifice at this late date?

“This isn’t about — yeah, it is about me, I guess, when you think about it,” Trump said.

Yes, that’s true. For four years, every question, from violence by white nationalists in Charlottesville in 2017 to the pandemic and racial unrest in 2020 — has played out politically through the prism of what Trump says and does and how voters feel about what Trump says and does.

He dominates the narrative of America for those who loathe him no less than for his devotees. That might be about to change, but there is more than one scenario on this election day in which that would stay the same for the indefinite future.

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