Today, the same day state electors will officially certify Joe Biden’s decisive 306-232 victory in the Electoral College, the United States will mark a devastating milestone: 300,000 Americans dead of Covid-19, at a rate that is dramatically accelerating. Meanwhile, the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine reached hospitals, and frontline health care workers began receiving it.
Yes, help is on the way—from a Biden administration, and a vaccine rollout. But it is too late for a crushing number of our neighbors and loved ones—more than twice as many as died in World War I; five times as many as in Vietnam. It’s more than a hundred 9/11s. We are likely to surpass the 407,000 deaths of World War II, and soon.
These three milestones should focus us on our psychological and political tasks as we attempt to climb out of the triplex of Trump’s lawlessness, our continued pandemic suffering, and ongoing economic pain.
Should we be optimistic as we pass two of these milestones—we progressives, we Democrats, we members of the science-based community? I want to be. But none of us should underestimate how destabilizing the 10-month pandemic crisis—the mass deaths, the chronic illness, the claustrophobic lockdowns, the business failures, the endemic unemployment, the crushing boredom and loneliness of so many kids home from school—has been to each of us: to our sense of ourselves, of what’s normal, of what we can reasonably expect.
Even the most privileged of us, who can work at home and have stayed well (that’s me), are nonetheless missing our families, friends, and professional plus holiday rituals; the fact that we have it better than many other Americans causes us shame, which shuts us down. “Stop whining,” says an internal voice I hear a lot. But even the relatively privileged are struggling, with isolation and apocalyptic thinking, having become unmoored from our routines and our social supports, which help us reassure ourselves: “It’ll all be fine.” Maybe that’s a good thing, since it will definitely not be fine for millions of people, at least not for a long time.
Meanwhile, I try to be optimistic about the incoming Biden-Harris administration, but Trump’s continued assaults on our voting systems remain scary. His attacks aren’t working; they haven’t worked at all. (Bless you, Mark Elias and the Democracy Docket and all the teams of lawyers spread around the country; at last count, Trump is down 1-59 in the ludicrous cases he’s brought.) Even the Supreme Court, on which the GOP holds a 6-3 majority, has refused to entertain his daft legal arguments; elsewhere, state circuit and supreme courts, many controlled by Republicans, have cast the same dour eye on the ridiculous arguments of Trump and his “legal team”: Melting Rudy Giuliani, Sidney “The Kraken” Powell, Jenna “Oops, I have Covid” Ellis, and crazy Lin “Don’t support Republicans in the Georgia Senate runoff” Wood lose every case they bring.
It’s hard to describe the waves of hope and despair I’m riding these days. I think I speak for many. Is this an attempted Trump coup, as The Atlantic’s Zeynep Tufecki argued last week? (Clearly, if it’s a coup, it’s my first.) Or can we rest assured that “the system worked”? That’s a cliché I hear too often. Yet Trump’s many farcical lawsuits have been dismissed, his threats have been ignored, and we are steaming toward a Biden inauguration on January 20. Also: Should we be happier to have vanquished Trump? We did it! Or are we right to worry that we’re about to live in a country indefinitely destabilized by the claim that Biden’s election is illegitimate? It’s tough, because in our business, the news and commentary business, there’s a high premium put on confidence in the system, and cynicism about the possibility of real destabilization from right or left: “This won’t work,” we say. “It’s all bluster.” “Joe Biden will be the 46th president.” But yeah, those things can be true while an awful lot of damage gets done.
Also: I don’t want to be alarmist here, but there are clearly spreading threats of violence. The Michigan electors are meeting in closed session Monday—with livestreaming—because of threats against them; that comes after the terrifying kidnapping/execution plot against the state’s Governor Gretchen Widmer, allegedly for her Covid restrictions. (To be fair, Georgia’s GOP election officials have also received multiple death threats.) The Proud Incels and MAGA morons ran riot in D.C. Saturday night, resulting in multiple stabbings. In Idaho, Covid health officials have had vigilantes visit their homes. This has to stop.
Are we supposed to pay more attention to the admirable GOP governors, secretaries of state, and election officials—especially in Georgia and Arizona—who refused to bow to Trump, despite his insults and threats? (Um, in the old days, they’d just be doing their jobs.) Or worry more about Republicans like Georgia Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, fighting for Trump votes in their January 5 runoff, who have backed every Trump attempt to overturn election results, including in their own states, and trashed Republican allies like Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for refusing to overturn the results of the election they themselves ran?
What about the two-thirds of House Republicans, plus 18 state attorneys general who joined Texas’s failed appeal to the Supreme Court to overturn results in multiple swing states Biden won handily? Those House Republicans included minority leader Kevin McCarthy, minority whip Steve Scalise, and Representative Tom Emmer, the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, top caucus leaders. That’s unbelievable. The Supreme Court swatted them down, but a case like that should never have attracted so many prominent GOP supporters. It would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.
The “system” probably cannot work if a majority of Republicans declare Biden illegitimate. We are a long way from knowing how this ends. I want to take a victory lap when the electors put Biden over the top on Monday—like I danced in the streets when the networks called the race for him on November 7. But I don’t think it’s time. According to The New York Times, Republicans Mo Brooks and Matt Gaetz, cochairs of the House Doofus Caucus, are going to challenge the count of the electors in Congress on January 6. “All eyes are on January 6,” Gaetz told Fox News Friday night. Brooks added: “We have a superior role under the Constitution than the Supreme Court does, than any federal court judge does, than any state court judge does. “What we say, goes. That’s the final verdict.” It’s absolutely not, but they can still muck things up. And dominate Fox prime time, not to mention OANN and Newsmax, for days.
Brooks and Gaetz and crew will need a senator to back them up; both Ron Johnson and Rand Paul have indicated interest. (To be fair, liberal House Democrats tried this after the contested Florida election in 2000 and Hillary Clinton’s popular vote win in 2016, but never got a Democratic senator to sign on). Vice President Mike Pence will have to hold the line against lawlessness, something he’s never done before. Constitutional experts say even this sad gambit can’t work—but it will be an ugly play nonetheless.
So prepare for a lot of conflicting feelings on Monday. The vaccine’s arrival is unequivocally good news, and so is the Electoral College vote. Do I have faith that Biden ultimately will become our 46th president? Yes. Do I worry that our country could ultimately be wrecked beyond recognition, thanks to these past four years and the next four (at least)? I hope not, but it’s possible.