Moats: The morning after — what will it be like after this presidential election?

"Nov. 3 promises to serve as bookend to that moment in 2016 when we woke to the reality of Trump’s narrow win," writes David Moats. Photo illustration by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Editor’s note: David Moats, an author and journalist who lives in Salisbury, is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He is editorial page editor emeritus of the Rutland Herald, where he won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials on Vermont’s civil union law.

Early on the morning after the election of 2016, all I could think to do was to go back to work. The coffee place around the corner hadn’t even opened. When I got to the Rutland Herald, it wasn’t yet 7 a.m. 

I had been writing editorials for newspapers in Vermont for 40 years, and I had followed politics going back further than that. Now I had to write an editorial for the following day about the election of Donald Trump. As I sat at my computer, after only two hours of sleep and no coffee, I had to figure out how to address what looked like a historic catastrophe.

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This year I’m not alone in looking forward, with a mix of hope and dread, to the morning after the election on Nov. 3. The result four years ago has made optimism seem like a foolish and naive indulgence. At the same time, the past four years have convinced millions of people, probably a majority, that a result like the one four years ago would compound the disaster that occurred then, with catastrophic repercussions for democracy and the world.

Four years ago on the morning of Nov. 9, it was hard to put into words my astonishment and despair about what had happened. It would do no good to dwell on the obvious: that the president-elect was a cowardly, corrupt individual, a man who lacked a conscience or a glancing acquaintance with truthfulness. It would be said again, but it had all been said before. 

At that grim moment, it seemed I should look to Vermont. Vermont voters had elected a new governor, Phil Scott, a Republican who had never endorsed Trump and who appeared to loathe him. So what was in store for Vermont in the coming era? 

The editorial that appeared in the Herald on Nov. 10 began like this: “Vermonters will be looking to Phil Scott during the next two years for steady leadership, principled politics and decency of character.” Vermonters wouldn’t be getting principled leadership from the White House; the best we could hope for was that Vermont might chart its own course by its own standards of decency.

The four years since then have confirmed those fears and hopes. The rage and grief felt in Vermont following Trump’s election were felt across the nation, as seen the day after the inauguration when millions turned out for the Women’s March. Thousands thronged Montpelier. Bernie Sanders, Madeleine Kunin and other politicians and activists spoke to the massive crowd assembled in front of the State House. As it turned out, the racism and cruelty of Trump’s campaign foreshadowed the racism and cruelty of his four-year term. But in Vermont, Scott’s honesty and common sense have been a repudiation of the politics of narcissism practiced at the White House.

The contrast between Washington and Montpelier was starkly evident when Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, appeared by Zoom at Scott’s press conference in September. He described Vermont’s response to the coronavirus pandemic as a “model” for the nation. Masks, social distance, hand washing and testing — it’s not that complicated. But back in Washington, Fauci has had to struggle in defending the truth amid the cloud of misinformation and falsehoods emanating from the Trump administration about the deadly pandemic.

Thus, Nov. 3 promises to serve as bookend to that moment in 2016 when we woke to the reality of Trump’s narrow win. The approach of Election Day 2020 allows us to take stock of this discrete period — a four-year interval that will stand out either as a hideous anomaly in American history or as prelude to a disaster of deepening global consequences.

And yet there are ways that the Trump presidency is less an anomaly than a culmination. Vermont may be the anomaly. The state’s town meeting tradition has accustomed Vermonters to believe their local politics springs straight from a civics book, where everyone has a say and rules of order prevail. The state’s anti-slavery history and its role as a leading foe of the pro-slavery South have convinced Vermonters that they have long been on the right side of the battle for equality. Recent leadership in the struggle for gay rights has confirmed that notion.

Despite this history, however, the last four years have revealed realities showing that Vermont is not as much an anomaly as we like to think. Around the country, proud white supremacists, emboldened by a racist president, have been on the march. And in Vermont, white supremacists have used intimidation and threats to harass leading black activists, including a member of the Vermont Legislature, who felt compelled to resign her position as a result. Meanwhile, police departments in the state continue to grapple with the problem of racial profiling.

“It Can’t Happen Here” was the 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis, set in Vermont, showing the insidious way that fascism may creep in to destroy democracy. In 2016, people were rediscovering Lewis’s fictional account and telling themselves that it couldn’t really happen here. Could it?

Four years later, it’s happening. Private armed militias have surged into the Michigan state capitol, have patrolled the streets of Portland, Ore., have showed up with their guns at polling places. Federal agents with unmarked vans have dragged innocent people off the streets, and at the southern border, immigration officials have stolen children from their parents. Lies and misinformation, in the style of Vladimir Putin, have become the norm, all of it signaling the arrival of authoritarian rule.  

The litany of Trump’s abuses is familiar. His supporters are not impressed by the outrage of liberals, or of anti-Trump conservatives. He has tapped into strains of anti-democratic feeling that have always been there, going back to the founding of the republic. Slavery is not the issue anymore, but people are seeking a reckoning for the continuing murder and mass incarceration of African-Americans, stoking the racism that is always there. 

And yet the racist currents Trump has been able to exploit are only part of what is roiling the present political moment. Racial resentments have joined together with economic and cultural resentments in ways that made the outcome in 2016 possible and which make the outcome in 2020 uncertain.

Numerous authors have drawn attention to the historic shift that occurred in the nation’s politics in the 1970s and 1980s, when business leaders decided to fight back against the liberal trends prevailing since the New Deal of the 1930s and accelerated with advances in environmental and consumer protections. That was when the lobbying industry began to metastasize in Washington and the conservative revolution led by Ronald Reagan took hold. Regulatory and tax changes occurring after the 1980 election launched a trend creating economic inequality not seen since the 1920s. Unchecked money in politics worsened the trend. And now a conservative majority on the Supreme Court may undo many of the constitutional underpinnings allowing the government to serve the people as a whole, rather than serving the oligarchy of rich people that holds the government captive.

As the election approaches, polling results are a sign of how the country’s view of these trends has become weirdly bifurcated. As of late last week, polling in individual states showed that Joe Biden had a 34-point margin in Vermont and Trump had a 35-point margin in West Virginia. Biden led in California by 26 points, in New York by 33 points, and in Massachusetts by 42 points. Trump led in Alabama by 22 points, in Mississippi by 24 points, and in Wyoming by 36 points.

Everyone is fixated on those states where the margin is apparently close: Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Arizona — even Iowa, Texas and Georgia. But the wide divergence between the super-blue states, such as Vermont, and the super-red states, such as Wyoming, indicates points of view so divergent as to be inexplicable to one another. Democrats find themselves in the unusual position of having to defend democracy. Meanwhile, Republicans are fostering an anti-government movement that historian David Blight has called “the new Confederacy,” racist and undemocratic, “weaponizing” truth so as to make it “oddly irrelevant.”

To sabotage elections, to spread paranoid fantasies, to undermine the rights of racial minorities, to encourage violence by armed posses, to enlist the help of foreign dictators — these are anti-democratic methods showing that the Republican Party has become less a party than an anti-government insurrection. Trump has tried to paint Biden as a socialist, but the most radical thing about Biden is that he has dared to present himself as a pro-democracy moderate.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has unleashed its own forms of paranoia. The zealotry of those who oppose efforts to halt the pandemic — wearing masks, closing down businesses — has the hallmarks of a death cult, according to author Caroline Fraser. Trump’s cavalier attitude toward the coronavirus, including his own case and the cases of those close to him, has compounded his criminal ineptitude, playing into the strains of fatalism that have allowed people to rebuff an effective public health policy. 

Kurt Andersen’s recent book “Evil Geniuses” describes what he calls the “unmaking of America,” showing how the new oligarchy has seized control of politics and economics and the people have floundered in defending their own interests. In the past, countervailing forces have been required to curb the predatory tendencies of the free market. These have taken the form of banking regulations, labor unions, environmental regulation, tax policy and other forms of restraint on the power of money. It has been the evil genius of the conservative revolution to persuade millions of Americans that these necessary protections are actually doing them harm. During the pandemic, the Trump administration has exploited people’s hostility toward government in order to turn people against the very measures that would keep them alive.

It may be that the conservative revolution that began in the 1970s has finally exhausted itself. The anti-government rhetoric of the past few decades has yielded an administration determined to dismantle government, to make government incompetent, and to destroy the countervailing forces essential to curbing corruption, racism, pollution and inequality. 

The consequences are all around us. The failure of the government to deal with the pandemic has cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Its failure to address climate change has produced epic climate disasters. Its failure to secure the welfare of the people has put millions of Americans at the mercy of big business and economic trends that are impoverishing them.

So as I look back at that grim morning in 2016, the record of the last four years bears out the fears shared by me and millions of others. If it were not so serious, it would be a farce — the bungling effort to enlist Ukraine to corrupt the U.S. election, the bromance with the leaders of North Korea and Russia. 

Now, with Nov. 3 approaching, the obnoxious personality of the president is the least of our worries. More important is the historic need to seize the moment, to put the government to work for the people, to show that democracy, and the institutions that uphold it, can fight back. 

After the outcome of 2016, no one is willing to express optimism about the defeat of Trump, but one senses that those outraged by his dereliction of duty will form a surge of voters and that turnout in opposition to him will be massive. The wide pro-Biden margins projected in populous states — California, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Colorado, Washington — indicate that Biden is likely to win the popular vote decisively. If the Electoral College vote is close and for some reason the courts have to weigh in, one hopes they understand the danger inherent in thwarting democracy.  

No one knows what will happen. For now we have to vote. And then we have to wait. Maybe the morning after will be different than it was four years ago. A Biden win won’t eliminate racism or corruption or usher in a golden age of democracy; those battles will continue. But a Biden win would signal that the American people still know what democracy is.

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David Moats

About David

David Moats, an author and journalist who lives in Salisbury, is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He is editorial page editor emeritus of the Rutland Herald, where he won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials on Vermont’s civil union law.

Email: [email protected]

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