Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European Studies at Oxford University, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of Free World: America, Europe & the Surprising Future of the West.
Bruce Heyman was the U.S. ambassador to Canada from 2014 to 2017. He is the co-author of The Art of Diplomacy: Strengthening the Canada-U.S. Relationship in Times of Uncertainty.
David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and editor-in-chief at DCReport.org, wrote The Making of Donald Trump and It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America. His book on Trump’s money and taxes will be published next year.
Jill Lepore is a professor of American history at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. A two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, her books include These Truths: A History of the United States, This America: The Case for the Nation and, most recently, If Then: How Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future.
Andrew Preston is a professor of American history at the University of Cambridge whose books include Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy.
With the caveat that votes are still being counted in several states, what surprised you most about the election results?
Timothy Garton Ash: That so many Americans still voted for Trump, despite, and perhaps sometimes even because of, his character. Rumours of the death of populism have been much exaggerated – and not just in the U.S.
Andrew Preston: That election day went off so smoothly -- no riots, no gun-toting militias, no shocking instances of violence or obvious fraud. And that it was a decidedly mixed election for the Democrats: The strong showings in Arizona and Georgia are offset by really underwhelming results in congressional races.
Jill Lepore: I thought the Democrats would pick up Senate seats.
Bruce Heyman: Honestly, I was very surprised at how close the election turned out. In reality, 2016 and 2020 are more similar than anticipated. I am disappointed more Americans don’t recognize the risks Trump poses to our democracy.
David Cay Johnston: That Trump got millions more votes than in 2016, despite having mismanaged the pandemic, contributing to more than 300,000 extra deaths, was surprising. Voters also re-elected most of the Republican senators who chose to become political jellyfish – blind, spineless and adrift in waves of Trumpian chaos.
If not outright wrong, many polls underestimated Donald Trump’s chances. Is it time to rethink our obsession with polls?
Preston: Most definitely. Polling now skews the actual outcome by either encouraging or discouraging people from turning out to vote because the polls seem to tell them it’s all but decided.
Garton Ash: Nice idea, but no chance in reality. What I do think is that newspapers, and other media, should devote less time to speculating about what will happen tomorrow and more to reporting what happened yesterday. The former we don’t know, the latter we have some chance of knowing.
Heyman: I think polls can be constructive when they reveal unexpected trends and opinions but recently, it is clear the process pollsters are using is deeply flawed. During this campaign, I asked people to ignore the polls because their results could foster complacency. I am glad I did.
Johnston: The 2016 presidential polls were highly accurate on the national popular vote, but Americans elect presidents by state through the Electoral College, where the polls were not tightly focused. Despite refinements, this year’s polls clearly overestimated support for [Joe] Biden. That said, I wish my fellow journalists had paid less attention to the horse race and more to policy proposals as well as scrutinizing the character and conduct of candidates.
The President at first claimed “a big win” and then cast doubts on the validity of the results. What did you make of his behavior in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
Preston: Though I’m still always shocked by Trump, nothing actually surprises me about his behaviour anymore. Election night was standard Trump -- erratic and unhinged, but nonetheless strategically shrewd.
Lepore: Trump is doing exactly what he said he would do. There’s nothing remotely surprising about it.
Garton Ash: Frankly, unprintable in a family newspaper. This was the most shocking thing I have heard from the mouth of an American president, certainly since Richard Nixon. It means millions of Trump voters will probably go on denying the basic legitimacy of a Biden presidency.
Johnston: Donald Trump creates his own reality. His declaration of victory and his baseless charges of election fraud demonstrate his utter disregard for the American Constitution, which his own statements show he doesn’t understand in either letter or spirit. Donald really believes he is the smartest among us and should be in charge of not just America but the world. Few in public life dare call that what it is: delusional.
Heyman: This was reprehensible, dangerous to our democracy and it was not surprising. There is no limit to this man’s mendacity, greed, and hunger for power. Trump’s comments were flat-out wrong. This is not how our electoral process works and any suggestion that he can decide what votes to count is false.
Whether he wins or loses, what do the results tell you about the future of “Trumpism"?
Garton Ash: That it has much too bright a future, and not just in the U.S. I fear that the likely economic consequences of the COVID pandemic will produce conditions – unemployment, insecurity, high public debt, perhaps inflation – conducive to populist nationalism in many places.
Heyman: Trumpism is antithetical to our value system and with it, places our country’s most vulnerable citizens in jeopardy. However, many voters who have not flourished under Trumpism continue to remain loyal and engaged. We need to attain a more nuanced grasp as to why and make necessary adjustments to prevent this from happening again.
Johnston: Trumpism will continue because Trump is the symptom, not the civic disease of an increasingly corporatist society. The infamous 1971 Powell memo urged corporate leaders to bring the news media to heel while blunting civic, consumer, labour and social justice organizations, recommendations the business community successfully implemented. My worry is about a future political leader who has Trump’s charisma but is also a competent executive, hard-working, steeped in philosophy and focused on using the American government to eviscerate the liberties of the people while favouring business.
Preston: It’s here to stay, at least for the next little while. The GOP will have trouble exorcizing it from their soul, but they’ll have to because who else can wield Trumpism but Trump? We’ll see if he fades like Sarah Palin, but I doubt it. Will he now try to set up one of his kids?
Lepore: After 2016, Trump’s opponents decided he was a fluke. They were wrong.
What, if any, lessons can Democrats learn from this election?
Preston: That’s a very difficult question because it’s so unclear right now. This much is certain: even if Biden eventually wins, this is a massively disappointing night for the Democratic Party and an ominous warning sign for the future of the party.
Lepore: Democrats have a lot of lessons to learn from this election, but there were a lot of lessons they should have learned from 2016, and did not, largely because they decided he was a fluke. The most satisfying explanation, for Democrats, about 2016, was that Hillary Clinton was a terrible candidate and ran a terrible campaign. Both of those statements are true! But Biden was not a terrible candidate and did not run a terrible campaign. So Democrats have some big questions to ask about why they can’t win elections.
Johnston: The party of working people has for decades been worse at touching hearts and minds than the conservative party of business. Nor are they effective at organizing; as a public speaker, I’m always struck that conservative groups run meetings on time, while progressives can’t even distribute name tags efficiently. Democrats need to teach people how much they are taxed to subsidize big business and wealthy individuals, cutting into money for programs that benefit them or lower tax burdens.
Garton Ash: That elections are won in the centre. That the Democrats can’t count on always having the Hispanic/Latinx vote. That all of us, small-l liberals, need a much deeper, more radical renewal of liberalism.
Heyman: While participation in our election was robust, too many people tried to hurt our election through their actions and language. We need to protect our postal system from interference. We need to also develop processes that allow people to vote easily and safely while securing protections from bad actors.
What do the results tell you about the United States and the future of democracy in the country?
Johnston: American democracy remains vulnerable to authoritarianism because the lowest-earning 90 per cent are saddled with debt, uncertain employment and little to no savings. They reported significantly less income in 2018 than 1973, effectively getting by on 50 weeks of income instead of 52. Civics is so lightly touched on in public schools that it’s easy to find middle-age adults who don’t understand our Constitutional checks and balances or even the role of Congress in making laws.
Lepore: Turnout broke records and the elections were conducted peacefully. That part is good!
Heyman: Democracy is thriving in America -- we had active debates, record turnout and record votes for the likely president-elect. Even with all the bluster and threats from Trump, the election happened on time as scheduled and the American people selected their representatives from the local school board to president.
Garton Ash: The U.S. clearly remains a great democracy but, alas, no longer a model liberal democracy. So it is up to other liberal democracies, such as Australia, Britain, France and Germany, to be the new “shining city upon a hill.” Or, in Canada’s case, the shining city upon a prairie.
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