Never in the last four years did I believe Donald Trump was likely to win a second term in 2020. But that was not an unshakable conviction. At many points I thought he could have done so - but threw away the opportunity, or made deliberate choices that imploded his own prospects.
He entered as the president who owed few people, had fewer obligations, than any in generations at least. The strings on him were few, and his opportunities were large; this was one of the attractions that appealed to many of his supporters four years ago. He could have governed in a way that - practically as well a demonstrably - could have benefited enough people to almost ensure his re-election. In just one of the most obvious examples, he could at the beginning of this year have listened to his health advisors and taken their advice, put the United States in a position better rather worse among its peer countries, and many of the worst pandemic and economic and social troubles attached to it would be behind us by now. If he had, he would have been in a very strong position for re-election. But we all - well, most of us - know what happened instead. And that was only one prominent example.
Donald Trump threw away so many opportunities to govern right that he also threw away his political prospects, becoming only the fourth president in the last century defeated for re-election. The surprise for many people is that he still came as close to re-election as he did.
But he did come fairly close. On of Trump's most recent tweets, one that (unusually) was actually mostly accurate, he pointed out that he had won the votes of 71 million people. That was fewer than Joe Biden got, but Trump's numbers were large - as he said, record-setting for a president seeking re-election.
What all those voters were thinking as they cast those Trump votes will be the subject of much review. And so too what they are thinking now, and what they will be thinking in the weeks ahead.
One of the best feature stories I saw this weekend followed the last week in the lifs of a Massachusetts couple, a man and woman both strong Trump supporters. They were convinced, completely certain with no doubt, on Monday that the president would be re-elected. On Tuesday, they thought his re-election likely, and ended the day hopeful. Then, day by day, the news darkened for them. By Saturday morning, it was over, and they were coming to grips with the fact that the world was going to be a lot different than they has thought days before.
But this coming to grips was hard, and it led most easily to ideas that might disturb many Americans.
"Casting his mind into the future, past this election,” the story said, “he could imagine any number of outcomes. He could imagine the United States splitting into two countries, one governed by Mr. Trump and one not. He could imagine suspending elections so Mr. Trump and his family could rule without interruption for 20 years. ‘I guarantee you, Trump supporters would not care,’ he said. ‘I guarantee you, if you got 69 million Trump supporters, and you said, ‘Would you be good with Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump and Ivanka Trump as president?’ a lot of people would be 100 percent behind that.’”
The sub-cult of Q ought to be stunned by the Trump defeat - doubtless it too was part of the grand plan for how he will overcome all and rear up to defeat the blood-drinking pedophilic cannibals - but it is likely as eerily creative. (One report said, "QAnon followers can’t quite agree on how to process Trump’s likely defeat. As NBC’s Ben Collins reported, Q has not posted anything since Election Day, and his followers are becoming more and more agitated at the silence.")
This is scary, but it is not just the ravings of a single person: It is, in much of America, a commonplace. It’s another in the mountain of evidence that a whole lot of people who voted for Donald Trump were believers in him but not in self-government, not in the rule of the people, not in democracy or a democratic republic, not in what many of us long have thought of as the American project, but in rule by an autocrat.
You know: The same sort thing the founders of this country founded this country in opposition to.
Check out the conservative talk on websites around the country and you’ll find endless descriptions of Trump as the “god-emperor” - as often or more so than as president. Backers of Joe Biden consider him, broadly, as a good and decent man with intelligence, experience and useful perspective, but they do not consider him an all-conquering comic-book hero, all-knowing and incapable of error. They consider him a human being. Too many of Trump’s supporters - how many exactly we will never know, but large in number - appear to see their guy as more than that, as larger than life, larger than human.
Maybe some of them have seen a few too many super-hero movies.
Now Donald Trump is exposed, indisputably, as something other than the all-conquering leader he was made out to be.
Trump, who has always, always, before political life as well as during it, positioned himself a winner, defines himself in that context. Being a “loser” would be, for him, simply horrifying, life-altering, mind-shattering. So too, apparently, for not all but a good many of his supporters. The Trumpite MAGA crowd seems to be breaking apart.
Which brings me to the Millerites.
William Miller was a religious leader in northern New York state during the period in the early 19th century when the area was called the Burned Over District, as one description had it, because it “had been so heavily evangelized as to have no 'fuel' (i.e., unconverted population) left over to 'burn'(i.e., convert).” Miller had a distinctive take on his evangelism: That Jesus was returning soon, and not just soon, but at a specific time and place. These changed a little over time, but by the time he had a specific location (a few miles from where he preached in New York) and date - October 22, 1844 - he had attracted national interest and support. People came from near and far, left jobs and houses and their possessions, and came to western New York to wait for Jesus to arrive.
Instead, October 22, 1844 turned into “the Great Disappointment,” when the day ended much like the day before. And what did the Millerites do? Various things. Some of them continued to wait, in some cases for months. Some turned on Miller (and at least one Millerite church was burned). Some, disgusted, left and tried to resume their abandoned lives, or adopted other theories of the world and revelations to come, and some joined other religious sects with different predictions. Some stuck it out with Miller, though opinions split and varied widely as to what the Great Disappointment was all about what could or should come next.
But they did go on with their lives.
As will Trump’s supporters. But it will be a life different than the one they were expecting a week ago. And such trauma will have after-effects that will not go away quickly.
If Joe Biden is looking to unify the country, he will need all the empathy that is in him, and a good deal of agility as well. And so will we all.