The Memo: Tense and fractured nation braces for Election Day

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Two Americas will go to the polls Tuesday — one believing President Trump is an existential danger to democracy itself, the other seeing him as the victim of political chicanery and media prejudice.

The split in the nation goes deeper than during any other election campaign in living memory. 

The 2020 contest is not merely a disagreement over normal ideological or policy differences. It’s a zero-sum struggle for victory between two political tribes that increasingly appear to inhabit different universes — and dislike each other intensely.

Opinions about virtually every political issue, including the appropriate response to the coronavirus pandemic that has transformed daily life, break along partisan lines that have solidified into near-rigidity.

Trump’s Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, has cast the election as a battle for the “soul” of the nation. But that soul looks likely to face more trials this week, especially if Tuesday’s results are close.

Ominous signs are popping up everywhere, pointing to a fraying of the national fabric.

Over the weekend, Trump supporters traveling in convoy caused traffic disruption on New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway and on New York’s Mario Cuomo Bridge. A Democratic event in Georgia was canceled out of fear of militia activity.

In perhaps the most high-profile incident, a Biden campaign bus in Texas drew the hostile attention of Trump supporters. (Neither Biden nor his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris [D-Calif.] was on board.)

Exactly what happened next is in dispute, but there were allegations from Democrats that the Trump loyalists had sought to slow the vehicle down or even run it off the road. 

“I love Texas!” the president wrote on Twitter, alongside a video of part of the incident.

That kind of sentiment from any other president would have sparked a days-long controversy. When, in 2009, then-President Obama merely said that police had acted “stupidly” by arresting a black Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates, knowing he was in his own home, conservative pundits excoriated him at length.

But tweets from Trump appearing to gloat about intimidatory behavior have become just one more passing storm. During his first term in the White House he has rained insults down upon opponents, sought to cast the media as the “enemy of the people” and sparked numerous other furors, as when he suggested that the four nonwhite Democratic congresswomen known as “the squad” should “go back” to where they came from.

Trump did eventually back off his assertion during the first presidential debate that the far-right Proud Boys should “stand back and stand by” for the election’s result. But he has consistently sought to cast a shadow on the election’s legitimacy.

Sources in Trump’s orbit believe he is willing to declare victory on Election Night, even as key states remain undecided. Axios reported this plan at the weekend, drawing a denial by the president that even some people in his circle do not appear to believe.

Trump’s attacks on the legitimacy of the election appear to have had an effect in terms of public opinion, too.

An Economist/YouGov poll conducted from Oct. 25-Oct. 27 asked 1,500 registered voters whether they had confidence that the election would be held fairly. Among Democrats, 50 percent said they had “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of confidence in that outcome. Among Republicans, the corresponding figure was notably lower, at 34 percent.

Democrats, meanwhile, were more skeptical about whether Trump would actually give up power in the event of a defeat at the polls. Sixty-two percent of Republicans thought it “very” or “somewhat” likely there would be a peaceful transition in this scenario. Only 43 percent of Democrats agreed.

In counterpoint to Democratic complaints about Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, Republicans highlight the disorder that has taken place around some street protests in recent months. In downtown Washington, parts of Manhattan and other major cities, many businesses have boarded up their storefronts in anticipation of trouble in the wake of the election result.

The nation’s polarization did not begin with Trump, of course. The United States had been on a course of deepening division for years before the president began his political ascent.

A study by the Pew Research Center in 2014 — the middle of Obama’s second term — found that the proportion of Democrats who said they held a “very unfavorable” view of the Republican Party, and vice versa, had more than doubled over the preceding two decades.

At that time, half of people with “consistently conservative” views and more than one-third of those with “consistently liberal” views said it was important for them to live in a place where “most people share my political views.”

The president’s rise was helped along by those kinds of divisions, but his approach has surely accelerated it. 

On Monday, during his final full day of campaigning, the president referred to Obama and his 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton as “criminals” and one of his leading congressional foes, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) as a “psycho.”

It’s little wonder, then, that the nation is bracing for impact as the election looms. 

A close result could see the process of declaring a winner drag on for days — or weeks, if legal suits start flying.

Whatever the result, America’s wounds will not be easily bound up. The nation feels, instead, as if it is teetering on the brink of real peril.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags Adam Schiff civil unrest Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Kamala Harris presidential election

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