By SEAN QUINTAL
Towards the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln sat around a Virginia campfire with his Union Army’s General, Ulysses S. Grant. With weary hopefulness, Lincoln quoted to Grant this observation from his Secretary of State William Seward: “…there was always just enough virtue in this republic to save it; sometimes none to spare, but still enough to meet the emergency.”
As Americans, during times of strain, we seem often to seek out Lincoln as a balm for our jagged psyches. He did, after all, shepherd us through the most cataclysmic of our national crises. Usually though, invoking Lincoln feels a bit overwrought, like going to the ER for a stuffy nose. But in 2020, Americans can be forgiven for looking to the Great Emancipator for comfort. Because at this moment, we are in the midst of an unprecedented national crisis.
And in the context of politics, the word “virtue” itself feels like an artifact from another time. A time before a US President set about debasing and degrading the office to which he was elected. Before that same President began making it clear that he saw the presidency not as a position of public trust, but rather an opportunity for personal enrichment and self promotion. For someone like Donald Trump, who views relationships as transactional, and for whom domination and humiliation are the true markers of a successful transaction, the only “virtue” that matters is “winning.” And If winning is your brand, losing is an existential threat.
Donald Trump has now made it abundantly clear that he sees next month’s election as a process he is likely to lose. Faced with his own catastrophic failures as President, and confronted with the fact that his lies, corruption and incompetence have now been exposed to the American people, he realizes that not even an anti democratic mechanism like the electoral college is likely to save him. So he has desperately chosen to set fire to the very electoral institutions that have endured here longer than in any democracy on the planet.
The President is staring down a humiliating defeat in four weeks. Since he recognizes he cannot win a fairly contested election, he has set about trying to cast doubt on the electoral process itself, with an eye to invalidating the results, either formally or at least in the perception of his core group of supporters. In addition to standard Republican practices of creating barriers to voting for the economically disadvantaged and for people of color, Trump has launched an all-out assault on voting by mail. The incumbent President has lied about voting fraud since the day he was elected. He has repeatedly said illegal voters cost him a popular vote victory. Trump offers no evidence for this because none exists. He tried to empanel a commission to investigate this, but it prematurely disbanded in disgrace, after it became clear it was nothing more than an exercise in propaganda.
Trump’s incessant. belching and barking about voting by mail being a hoax, is laughable, since he has voted by mail for years and has already requested his very own mail-in ballot this year. Likewise, he has nothing to back up these claims because multiple investigations, over many election cycles, have found essentially no voter fraud in the US. In fact, a study this year of three vote-by-mail states identified just 372 possible cases of double voting or voting on behalf of deceased persons; that number is out of 14.6 million votes cast in the 2016 and 2018 general elections, which works out to 0.0025 percent. As a point of comparison, one’s chance of being struck by lightning in 0.03%, so voting fraud is somewhere on the order of 120 times less likely than catching a bolt from above.
To further its attempts to disenfranchise American voters, the GOP is going to court in jurisdictions across the nation. But courtrooms are not Twitter; court proceedings require facts and evidence. In nearly 90 state and federal voting lawsuits, judges have been almost uniformly skeptical of Republicans’ claims of voter fraud related to mail voting. In fact, in no case -not one- did a judge back President Trump’s view that fraud is a significant enough problem to sway a state-level presidential election. All these cases are designed to make it harder for Americans to cast a vote, or to facilitate the GOP goals of not having all Americans’ votes counted.
Only one of America’s two political parties wants all those registered in the country to vote. The other party is mobilizing massively, in the states that are likely to determine the Presidency, to actively keep Americans from voting. In this presidential race, only one candidate is running to disenfranchise every American who chooses to vote by mail, the other candidate is running to ensure every American’s vote is counted. One candidate is running to use the awesome power of the state and its law enforcement apparatus to suppress Americans’ votes, the other candidate is running to see that all Americans can vote safely and confidently amidst a pandemic.
Aside from his cratering political popularity, recent revelations have exposed Trump as a fraud and a tax cheat. He is vulnerable to ongoing civil and criminal investigations in multiple jurisdictions. His lawyers’ tortured argument for executive privilege are perhaps his last protection against finally being held accountable for his misdeeds. The law is coming for him. His unhinged recklessness to try to remain in office is understandable, as it offers him his last get out of jail free card.
As the election draws closer, and the stench of desperation wafts almost visibly from Trump, his anti democratic threats have become more sinister and overt. Perhaps most egregiously, in the recent presidential debate, the President would not commit to accepting legitimate election results, nor would he tell his supporters to refrain from causing civil unrest. In true narcissistic and sociopathic fashion, Trump has declared war on American democracy itself.
The walls are closing in on Trump. As he has shown all his life, there is no depth to which he will not sink to protect himself. This is quite literally the opposite of patriotism. It is a President subjugating the nation’s welfare to his own craven self preservation.
America has endured serious threats before and we will again. Trump’s menace to our democratic institutions is real and ominous. But fortunately, the American people can stand up to this threat, and can beat it back, as we have so many crises before. Let Trump threaten and complain all he wants. Because finally, he does not have the power to wrest from us our democratic birthright. We, all of us, can preserve it.
And we do so by the sacred act of voting, our shared, civic sacrament. Our right to vote has been blessed by the lives of those who have died to preserve it, consecrated by the blood of those who have been beaten to expand it, and sanctified by all those who exercised that right before us, and who have entrusted us to protect it.
This then, is “the virtue in this republic” about which Lincoln mused in the light of that campfire. Our shared understanding that we are not just the beneficiaries of our freedom, but also its stewards. That however large or pernicious our differences may seem, we remain bound together by a history both proud and painful, and united in a future that, though harrowing, is also hopeful.
This virtue is an inheritance that we are duty bound to preserve. Even when it is threatened by the occupant of the highest office in the land…especially when it is so threatened. As divided as we feel as a country right now, together we can once again show the world that there is still enough virtue in this republic to save it.
—Sean Quintal writes on behalf of the La Mesa Foothills Democratic Club.