The conventional wisdom is that the upcoming election is really all about one man – Donald Trump.
As obvious as that may seem, it might really be about another man – Barack Obama.
It is really about us.
Trump wants to be re-elected to the presidency for his own sake. To win in 2016 and then to retain his core constituency, he has chosen to serve as the conduit for conservatives claiming they want change. He plays for their support out of sheer ambition, not strong conviction.
If Trump wins, it is because his constituency turns out to be large enough to produce a majority of electoral votes. It would have to be far larger than his opponents like to admit.
If Trump loses, leaving Joe Biden as the winner, it is because of the growth of a shared opposition among self-styled moderates and liberals to his methods and policies.
He has bent the Constitution and overturned traditional understandings about how the American political system functions. He has reduced America’s standing in the world. The voting bloc that would reverse these actions must be large enough to defeat his core backers.
Obama’s election and re-election announced a fundamental and seemingly inevitable change in the U.S. The persistent theme of Trump’s presidency has been to erase everything Obama did and delegitimize his predecessor.
Trump and his backers demand a strange kind of change. The only change they want is to reverse the political and demographic transformation of the country symbolized by Obama’s elections.
The U.S. has had 45 presidents. Of them, 43 were white, Protestant men. One Catholic, one Black and no women or American Indians. In 244 years. It is not difficult to figure out who has run America.
“Make America Great Again” is a slogan that does not apply to those who have been powerless. If you see yourself as part of the group that has run the country, you may want to keep it that way. You voted against Obama and will again vote for Trump.
But change is coming. The Census Bureau projects that a majority of the U.S. population in 2045 will be non-white. That does not depend on massive new immigration. In parallel and at an even faster rate, women are moving toward the leadership of American politics.
A majority of non-whites and many whites, led by women, elected Obama. Though Trump, the candidate of fading forces clinging to control, won in 2016, his victory was a surprise even to him.
Faced with the inevitable change in the American people and a transfer of power, the Republican Party has openly set about to suppress voting by the rising groups. Even if temporarily successful in some places, it can only delay but cannot deny change.
Trump’s victory had the unexpected effect of giving voice to many opposing the inevitable passage of power. Obama’s elections shocked them into action. Their alarm leads them to ignore Trump’s character failings, especially his chronic lying, and to seek security in gun ownership.
It is easy to label Trump’s supporters as racists who have come out of the closet, no longer muffled by “political correctness.” Some are undoubtedly racists; all are members of a group that sees its power eroding. Trump is the ambitious television celebrity who has successfully taken up their cause.
Of course, issues still factor into the elections. The handling of Covid-19, law and order, health care, the environment, sexism and racism will all influence the outcome. But each of them falls along the same fault line as the conflict over the transfer of power.
This will probably not be the most important presidential election in history. But it will be a major milestone in the political transformation of the U.S. now under way. That remaking of politics and society may be as momentous as the Civil War and the New Deal.
No matter who wins, the election will show how quickly change is occurring. Texas, Georgia and Arizona last voted for a Democrat decades ago. Each is now in play. If Biden wins in these states or even comes close, it will be evidence of the change. If Trump wins, the transition will go slower and continue to be hard fought.
Whatever happens in this election, serious and possibly violent political conflict is likely to continue, perhaps even grow. While politicians blame extremists – QAnon on the right or antifa on the left, deep differences divide millions of average Americans.
The most important result of the voting may be less who will sit in the White House for the next four years and more about how and when we will transfer power in America.