In this final slow-mo stretch before Election Day, the air feels stale and tense. Fires are still raging. Coronavirus cases are surging. And then there is the political powder keg.
It's as if the whole nation were stalled on a weeklong layover in a decrepit airport. We're on edge, surrounded by chain smokers, and trying to sleep on our backpacks.
TVs, Twitter feeds, news sites have been nonstop air-raid sirens. Are these drills? Or is danger on the horizon?
It's been nearly two months since the FBI warned that threats and violence from domestic extremists would escalate as the election drew closer.
It's been a month since President Donald Trump instructed the violent, neo-fascist Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by."
It's been two-and-a-half weeks since a Proud Boys supporter threatened civil war in America if President Trump is not reelected.
And on Thursday, Walmart pulled guns and ammunition from U.S. sales floors, for fear they'd be stolen if violence erupts on Election Day.
All along, according to Mike Giglio in The Atlantic, another far-right pro-Trump group, the Oath Keepers, have recruited thousands of soldiers and police as they also gear up for civil war. Giglio describes the "dominant mood" among such groups as "foreboding."
In Pennsylvania, and other swing states where things don't seem to be going Trump's way, the Trump campaign has already dispatched aggressive "poll watchers" — menacing figures described by Philadelphia District Attorney Lawrence S. Krasner as "goon squads" — to intimidate early voters and videotape ballot drop boxes.
Even opponents of these tactics like Krasner are alluding to war.
"The Trump administration's efforts to suppress votes amid a global pandemic fueled by their disregard for human life will not be tolerated in the birthplace of American democracy," he told the New York Times. "Some folks learned that the hard way in the 1700s."
Another of the Trump administration's galling moves has been its litigation effort to stop every attempt in swing states like Pennsylvania to make it simple to vote. And even more egregious: It pulled the pins out of the U.S. Postal Service just as voting by mail became a widespread thing.
Under Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump appointee who supervised the widespread removal and in some cases destruction of high-speed mail sorting machines starting in July, the Postal Service's on-time delivery rate for first class mail is 85.6%, 5.5 percentage points below what it was before July.
"You should not rely on #USPS mail delivery at this point," Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont tweeted Wednesday.
And throughout the month, nightmare scenarios of a "rolling coup" have been keeping some pundits, and big- and small-D democrats, awake at night. It turns out there is a multitude of ways for Trump and company to destroy the machinery of American elections and keep him in power.
Here's one: Protests or skirmishes break out around the polls Tuesday on Election Day. There's violence related to the aggressive poll watchers, the foreboding militiamen and long lines at city polling places Republican restrictions have created. Trump could use these as a pretext to create a state of emergency to scuttle the election.
"The president can't cancel the election, but what if he says, 'We're in an emergency, and we're shutting down this area for a period of time because of the violence taking place'?" Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute asked in an article by Barton Gellman in The Atlantic.
Indeed, over the summer, Trump showed his willingness to, as he says, "deploy the United States military" on American citizens and soil. All summer, he established his target as "Democrat-run cities" — that is, populations who don't vote for him.
And then there is an even more stealth scenario, also laid out in The Atlantic. According to GOP sources, the Trump campaign "is discussing" a way-out plan to ignore election results entirely by gaming the arcane Electoral College system. Delays in vote counting could give the Trump forces time to appoint their own electors in states where Republicans hold the legislative majority and the vote is close. Like Pennsylvania. These electors could then vote the way the Trump campaign tells them to.
All of this attention to the threats from militias and machinators might be alarmism. And whether attacks on democracy are clad in the tactical athleisure of the Proud Boys or the owlish spectacles of Attorney General William Barr, they would be impotent if Americans in high enough numbers get to the polls to vote Trump out.
There are promising signs in the early voting turnout that the American people are not intimidated. However tense the atmosphere is these days — however unsettling are the threats of violence, coup, disease and disaster — voters are undeterred.
As of Thursday evening, vote trackers were reporting more than 80 million votes cast, nearly 60% of the total votes cast in 2016. A good percentage of these are in battleground states that will decide who wins the Electoral College.
In Pennsylvania alone, a state Trump won by a hair in 2016, more than three times as many Democrats have voted than Republicans, despite a Proud Boys show of force in September and the goon squad intimidators identified by Krasner, the Philadelphia D.A.
It's an edgy time. But anxiety cannot lead to defeatism. As Krasner put it, "We will not be cowed or ruled by a lawless, power-hungry despot."
Take your unease, anger, sadness and fear to the polls. Exercise your right to vote. That's where the remedy lies.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Virginia Heffernan is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
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