Adam Gopnik’s most recent book is A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism.
Many American observers see this campaign as the most consequential – the most fateful – of any election since 1864, when the existence of the Union, and with it the survival or extinction of slavery, was itself on the ballot. (And which Lincoln expected to lose. It was won, in the nick of time, by the mail-in votes of Northern soldiers.) Donald Trump’s presidency, and his takeover of a supine Republican party, seems to them (okay, to us) the most direct assault on the principles and institutions of liberal democracy and the rule of law that has ever risen from within an established liberal democracy. Mr. Trump has been working hard for four years to plunge the United States into a condition not unlike that of Viktor Orban’s Hungary or, for that matter, Idi Amin’s Uganda – or really‚ for that matter, John Gotti’s Staten Island: a polity governed by the whims and will, by the cronies and circle, of a single corrupt boss. (Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the actual admired model, is too well-organized in its kleptocracy to emulate.) The Justice Department turned into a private police force pursuing his opponents; a press intimidated by his hatreds and his “regulators”; voters intimidated by his vigilantes, rules garrotted and norms spat on… If re-elected he will be free to finish his remaking of the country in his own image.
Other views of the circumstance can, of course, be found. The right-wing attempt to salvage Trumpism depends not on denying his authoritarianism but on pooh-poohing its efficacy. In a profound piece, the historian of left-wing totalitarianism, Anne Applebaum, wrote recently about the psychology of collaboration, with Mr. Trump’s “Vichycon” supporters very much in mind: You simply shut your eyes to the obvious horrors of your allies, and conjure up a bogeyman on the other side so bad that it justifies your helpless shrug at the boss. Others still insist that Mr. Trump’s capacity to damage American democracy has been safely limited by his own ineptitude and by the residual resistance of its institutions. Meanwhile, they cry, “leftists” wrongly censor college speakers. (Which, to be clear, they do.) The pyromaniac has not yet burned the entire building down, the argument runs, so let us continue to weigh the virtues of both sides in the struggle between the firemen and the fire.
That Mr. Trump is said to be doing less damage than he might have in truth only reflects the malign “normalization” of the damage that he has already done. The sheer level of financial corruption in the Trump regime alone is unimaginable in any previous presidency, with Mr. Trump openly accepting bribes, in the direct form of lobbyists and foreign potentates paying money to his hotels, for favours. Mr. Trump’s secret is to spew so much corruption out at once that it’s difficult to count, or remember, it all. Had Bill Clinton been found to have paid off a porn star, with his personal lawyer sent to prison for doing it at his explicit order, not only would Republicans have been screaming for his resignation – so would The New York Times and the Democratic Party, and they would have gotten it.
A parallel view on the left is that the Republican Party was taken over so easily because it was ready to be taken over. The core Trump ambitions – to turn the Republican Party from a party of commerce with a conservative religious wing, and semi-libertarian tendencies, into an ethnic nationalist party – have been under way for a long while. Opposing Trumpism rather than conservatism itself, or making common cause with ex-Republicans against him, is a dangerous distraction. This is a familiar left-wing argument that helped to deface the 20th century. In fact, the difference between nationalist authoritarians and patriotic conservatives is profound, as the memory of De Gaulle and Churchill exist to remind us. Many conservative positions, obnoxious to the social-democratic mind, can be argued for with passionate sincerity by people committed to democratic practices. John McCain and Mitt Romney used to run for president.
No argument can reduce the truth: What we face now is a confrontation between evil and good, properly placed in that order rather than the more usual one. Mr. Trump is an anthology of human ugliness; his behaviour, feature for feature, is an encyclopedia of everything we use to indicate evil when we create a villain, in an epic poem or in a Disney cartoon: a compulsive liar who has contempt for the very idea of the truth; self-obsessed to a pathological degree, incapable of feeling compassion for anyone he thinks “weak.” Mr. Trump is also mindlessly cruel, lacking the most minimal kind of empathy; nothing more chilling than his smile and thumbs up at the hospital alongside a shooting victim, or the transparent reality that he does not give a damn about any of the victims of the coronavirus, other than his own heroic self.
Yet here Mr. Trump is, within spitting – or shooting – distance of winning re-election, for one of his most powerful unspoken subliminal assets is exactly the magnetic nature of demonic energy. In a world in which the rest of us are properly impeded by civilization from the blunt expression of all of our hatreds and prejudices, Mr. Trump simply goes on without impediments – and even when there’s nothing remotely admirable about that temperament, there’s always something deeply compelling about it, whether it’s Richard the Third pursuing the throne or The Penguin running for mayor of Gotham City. Evil is endlessly entertaining – until you are its subject, and by then it’s too late.
Joe Biden, by comparison, is merely, and unspectacularly, good – an ordinary democratic politician acting in the temporizing manner of an ordinary democratic politician. The election therefore also functions as a reminder of the most profound truth, hard learned in the 20th century: that the end of politics can’t be to pursue a phantom of Utopia, or ever to assure the triumph of the good, but merely to rein in and protect us from the worst. The word “merely” leaps in, but there is nothing mere about the lesson learned: we know good provisionally, but evil absolutely.
During and after the Civil War election, the American experience was crucial to the world’s; the restoration of the French Republic depended crucially on the survival of the American one. (The Canadian experience was very different, Confederation arising in part in fear of annexation, but equally reactive.) What was at stake in 1864 was the survival of liberal democracy as a credible model for the world. And here it is, at stake again.
What’s at stake in the U.S. election: The Globe and Mail has asked a group of writers to offer their opinions.