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This Is the End

There's a simple reason why this election really is different.
August 31, 2020
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(GettyImages)

Until this election, I’ve never felt as if everything was on the line, that if my preferred candidate lost, something devastating and irrevocable would occur.

In the past, when I met people who felt this way, their mindset puzzled me. How could my conservative friends seriously have believed that four years of a Hillary Clinton administration could somehow end America as we know it? How could my liberal friends really have thought that Mitt Romney’s presidency could do the same? This impulse always seemed like a naivety that prized an artificially short-term view over the longer arc of American history.

Believing in liberal democracy means accepting a very particular bargain: that your team will lose some, win others, and that by and large, the world won’t end either way.

Sure, you might not love what happens to your marginal tax rate. You might favor stricter or looser environmental regulations. You might like or dislike certain judges appointed to the federal bench. But you also get to make a course correction two or four years later. Nothing can be fundamentally broken from one election to another.

And the truth is that adopting a sky-is-falling view undermines the every-day workings of politics. When you view your policy opponents as the devil, you refuse to engage in the compromises necessary for liberal democracy to function. Instead, you buy into a mindset that you must stop at nothing, adopt any tactic, and make common cause with any ally, no matter how noxious, in order to defeat evil.

Liberal democracy depends on a give-and-take across parties. But when you see the other side as inimically opposed to each one of your values, how can you possibly trade horses with them?

It’s not entirely the voters’ fault that they tend to see every election as monumental: We’re a country that brands anything as “historic”—from the Super Bowl to Labor Day car sales. Most of the time, though, presidential elections aren’t “historic” in the sense of defining events for years to come. They’re just referendums on a particular set of policies that, give or take, will nudge the polity in one direction or another.

I know all of that. I believe all of that.

And yet, this time, I can’t shake the feeling that the election has us on a looming precipice that’s pretty important. Historic, even.

I have a sense that if Donald Trump wins, the American project as we know it may not fully recover. The Republic will limp along, some pale echo of former glory, but it won’t ever fulfill the promise of offering “the last best hope of earth.”

So why is it that this time seems different?

The reason is actually pretty simple:

After his acquittal in the Senate, Donald Trump has fully internalized just how much the American constitutional order runs on the honor system.

And Donald Trump couldn’t care less about honor.

So he’s willing to torch the basic bargain of liberal democracy, just to get reelected: He has openly mused about postponing the election and acknowledged that he would like to defund the Post Office in order to prevent people from voting by mail, which would disenfranchise large swaths of Americans. He has said, over and over, that the election is rigged against him. He has refused to say that he will accept a loss. He’s figured out that, though he can’t use the military domestically, he can deploy various federal law enforcement agencies to assault protestors.

From his official perch in the White House, he has toyed with the idea that the opposing vice presidential nominee can’t legally run for office. He has dismissed the intelligence community’s conclusions that Russia is interfering in this election on his behalf. Meanwhile, if the lastgo around is any guide, his campaign will eagerly seek assistance from Moscow or other foreign powers. (Actually, they already have.)

Put another way:

Trump finally knows that he really does have a free hand to do whatever he likes because 40 percent of the country will support him, whether or not it’s legal.

And his responses to breaking the law have devolved from dissembling evasions or shaky rationales into—this is quite literally what his own chief of staff just said—“nobody cares.”


On top of all of this—and I didn’t even imagine this was possible—Trump and his surrogates have somehow managed to lean even further into a strategy of dehumanizing his opponents, making it all the easier to convince his supporters to permit extraordinary measures against ordinary Americans. Repeatedly chanting that Biden will “destroy suburbia” with an “invasion” doesn’t even pretend to hide the ball.

In truth, I shouldn’t be so surprised. Embracing bigotry has been Trump’s modus operandi from “Mexicans are rapists” through “ban all Muslims.” I honestly just didn’t realize it would reach this level of constant dehumanization so quickly.


These are authoritarian impulses, plain and simple, and they are dangerous precisely because they seek to undermine the social compact at the heart of liberal democracy: Even when you lose, you obey the result because the process was fair and you can try again the next round. You know your fellow Americans, your neighbors, have just as much of a right to govern the nation as you do.

But now one side is not-so-quietly saying, “Maybe not.”

With this election what’s at stake isn’t policies so much as the basic bargain that governs our political system. And for the first time in my life, I’m genuinely fearful that, should the other side win, I might not be able or allowed to right the national ship in the next election.

That’s new. That’s different.

And it’s why this really is a defining moment for the country.

Nathaniel A. G. Zelinsky

Nathaniel A. G. Zelinsky is a lawyer whose writings have appeared in the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, and the Yale Law Journal, among other outlets. He holds a J.D. and a B.A. from Yale University, and an M.Phil. from the University of Cambridge. Twitter: @NAGZelinsky.