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There will be blood

Only one thing is certain after all the votes are counted: the US will be even more polarised and divided following the 2020 election

Tyrone Carter a former NFL player from Minnesota Vikings leads a group of kids who support presidential candidate Joe Biden take a knee and block the road near a polling place in Minneapolis, Minnesota on election day, 3 November. Photo by Kerem Yucel / AFP via Getty Images

THE night before the US Presidential election, I went around to a friend’s house to watch the new documentary about Hunter S. Thompson’s ill-fated 1970 bid to become Sheriff of Pitkin County.

What better way to prepare for the most important election in our lifetime than to revisit that doomed attempt by a ragtag bunch of hippies to take on the Aspen establishment.

The Battle of Aspen was in some ways a proxy for the much larger battle for the soul of America being fought across the nation at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s.

With the carnage of the Vietnam War in the background, Baby Boomers found themselves in pitched battle against their parents’ generation. Music, sex, drugs, fashion and were flashpoints as much as politics in this conflict. From this tumult, Richard Nixon emerged as President in 1968.

Thompson was already a political animal, but he underwent a great personal awakening at the 1968 Democratic Convention, when he was beaten and teargassed by Chicago police while covering anti-war protests. He returned to his ranch at Woody Creek, outside of Aspen, to lick his wounds and determined to no longer be an observer but to throw himself into the fray as an activist. He got heavily involved in local politics and in 1970 was convinced to run for Sheriff himself.

Thompson took on the incumbent Sheriff, Carol Whitmire, with a radical agenda that anticipated future progressive change including renaming Aspen ‘Fat City’ to discourage property developers, protecting the environment from “land rape”, legalising marijuana, and disarming the police.

He lost narrowly in the end, but a couple of years later, one of his campaign workers, Bob Braudis, took up the mantle and served as Sheriff for more than a quarter of a century and implementing most of Hunter’s 1970 agenda.

Meanwhile, Thompson returned to journalism, covering the 1972 Presidential election for Rolling Stone magazine and his classic book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.

Nixon won a landslide second term that year, which also saw a 29-year-old from Delaware, Joseph R. Biden, elected to the Senate for the first time. But of course two years later, Nixon was forced from the White House in disgrace by the Watergate scandal and in 1976, soft spoken Georgia Democrat Jimmy Carter was elected President. Until the arrival of Donald Trump in 2016, Richard M. Nixon was regarded as the most reviled President in US history.

Omens were looking good

I left my friend’s house buzzing with renewed optimism that even in the darkest of days, truth, justice and decency can prevail, just as it did for the US and the people of Pitkin County in the mid-1970s. Even when you feel like all the political odds are stacked against you, if you believe in your cause and do the right thing, you can win.

The 2020 election takes place with the United States as divided, volatile and polarised as at any time since that momentous 1968 election that brought Nixon to power. Decades of widening economic inequality, festering resentments over race, a society awash with guns. Just a few months ago, major cities burned as riots spread from one end of the nation to the other in protest at police violence against minorities. The economy is officially in recession and more than 220,000 people have died from COVID-19. All these fractures have been worsened by the man in the White House.

Joe Biden offers a way out of this American nightmare, and on election eve the omens were looking good for Biden and the Democrats.

But good as I felt, I didn’t go to bed that night dreaming of a Joe Biden landslide in today’s election. Not at all. This is what I wrote in a Facebook comment on election eve:

“Biden will win the popular vote by 5 million plus, Trump will win Ohio and Florida, it will all come down to Pennsylvania that will be undecided on the night, and shortly before midnight Trump will declare victory challenging Biden to concede, and when Biden doesn’t Trump will claim voter fraud and then the riots will begin.”

So now, almost exactly 24 hours later, what have we got? Biden is on the way to a 5 million popular vote margin (it currently sits a bit over 2 million but there’s still a few more million votes to count); Trump won Ohio and Florida as predicted, and it is all coming down to Pennsylvania, which Trump is currently leading by a seemingly unassailable 619,000 votes, but there are still 1.8 million to be counted.

Shortly before midnight, Trump did take the podium to falsely declare victory and claim voter fraud. The only part which hasn’t eventuated — yet — is the riots, but the night is still young.

The point of this is not to say “I told you so”, but to counter the post election media narrative that today has been an unexpected “disaster” for Joe Biden, when it’s been anything but that. A disaster implies an unexpected outcome; this election is tracking exactly as expected.

Sure, some of the results we hoped for haven’t eventuated. Trump easily won his “home state” of Florida, banking the votes of Miami-based Cuban expats who were lured by his lies that a vote for Biden was a vote for socialism. But while a Biden win in Florida would have been nice, it wasn’t likely and it certainly isn’t essential for an overall victory.

At one stage in the afternoon, it looked like Biden could achieve the impossible and flip Texas. It didn’t happen, but again, it wasn’t expected and it’s not critical. And while Ohio would also be great to have in the bag — it has been a reliable indicator of the eventual winner for decades — Biden did not campaign heavily there, suggesting he does not see it as crucial to his path to the White House.

Meanwhile, it looks almost certain that the Democrates has won Arizona for the first time in almost three decades, and they are favoured to win in Georgia.

Do the maths and there are 3.6 million postal votes and absentee ballots still to be counted in four states — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Georgia — where Trump’s net lead is about 925,000, and the majority of them are likely to flow towards the Democrats.

No wonder Trump is so desperate to have those votes declared invalid and challenge them in the Supreme Court.

But the key take out from all of this is we need to separate what we hoped for from what the data told us to expect. If you can make that distinction there is great reason to be optimistic about a Democratic victory because while unrealistic hopes of a blue wave have been dashed, the expected narrow Biden win is on track.

Democrat supporters publicly airing their disbelief at this “disaster” that Biden wasn’t able to declare victory on the night need to think very carefully about what they are doing, which is reinforcing Trump’s malicious lie that the only votes that matter are those cast and counted on the day.

Millions of votes still to count

To his credit, Trump has managed to turn out his base and stem any chance of a landslide. As expected, his supporters turned out in their hoards to vote in person on election day.

It was always going to be, and will be, a slow and grinding process to count the votes and declare a winner.

But while there may not have been a blue wave, at the end of the night Biden led the electoral college vote by 238–213 and the popular vote by a solid 2 million.

It may still all boil down to Pennsylvania, but you would rather be in Biden’s shoes at the moment than Trump’s. Indeed, if all counting was to stop now and the winner declared on the results to date, Joe Biden would be on his way to the White House.

But that is not how so much of the media sees it. The narrative they adopted early in the night when the blue wave failed to appear was that it was a disappointing outcome for Biden and the Democrats.

Never mind that the result is playing out almost exactly as expected. Never mind that there were 90 million votes cast before election day and millions of them are still waiting to be counted. Never mind that even though Democrats haven’t flipped enough Senate seats to win control, the GOP’s majority will be wafer thin. Never mind that they will still have a majority of almost 40 in the House of Representatives.

Because Biden did not emerge as the clear and decisive victor on election night in this most unusual of years, the media pundits have already begun to adopt Trump as the winner.

But with so many uncounted votes, this is like declaring the winner of the Melbourne Cup with 800 metres still to be run. This is incredibly dangerous because it falls into the trap Trump has sprung where he can falsely claim to be the winner on the night, delegitimising further counting in coming days.

Trump’s election strategy was to firstly suppress the Democratic vote both before and on election day, and when that didn’t work to seek to invalidate it. Crucial to this is to have the aura of the winner of in person voting on election day. And the media narrative helps to portray him as the winner about to cruelly have his victory snatched from his grasp by the counting of postal and absentee ballots.

Trump is now preparing to go to the Supreme Court to stop those extra votes being counted and to disenfranchise millions of Americans. This is how desperate he has got and it poses a grave threat to American democracy.

Biden has the edge

Much of politics is about managing expectations, and the dream of a blue wave was always a case of false expectations. Biden’s campaign did its best to keep the lid on this, but the message didn’t get through to many.

In addition to wrongly relying on their heart rather than their head, many of those hoping for a Biden win have also had a crude reminder about Trump’s disdain for playing by the rules. They seemed to expect that once the result started to become clear, Trump would just meekly concede defeat and it would all be over.

But Trump has shown over the past four years that he has nothing but contempt for the conventions that hold America’s shaky democracy together. If he sees a rule, he tries to break it. And so it is with his behaviour on election night when he once again blatantly lied in declaring victory for himself.

The media pundits don’t help, but if we avoid them, Biden is still on track to win the Presidency. For a start, the pundits are blithely ignoring that in Pennsylvania, Trump scored twice as many votes on election day, but Biden is outscoring him 4–1 on absentee votes.

In Michigan the trend is 70–30. If those patterns continue, if Georgia and Wisconsin continue to lean his way, and if Biden maintains his 5% lead in Arizona, he will win in a canter.

But it is more likely there will be several days of nailbiting tension to come.

Trump will scratch and claw, cheat and lie to hold onto the Presidency. He will incite his supporters to take up arms to oppose a fair election result. He will try to convince the Supreme Court he has stacked with fellow conservatives to strike out millions of votes. He is a scoundrel and a crook but in the end, the weight of numbers is likely to be too much for him and he will be sent packing from the White House.

Whatever the outcome of the election, it has left the US even more polarised than before 2016. If Trump does prevail in the end, this division will only worsen; if Biden triumphs, he will face an uphill battle to heal and unite the nation. Of the next four years, one thing is certain: there will be blood.

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Mark Phillips

Mark Phillips

Writer, journalist & communicator based in Melbourne, Australia. Author of Radio City: the First 30 Years of 3RRR-FM.

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