After an economic and public health shock, after four years of exhausting drama, after impeachment, Americans have not emphatically rejected either Donald Trump or Trumpism. Even if he loses the White House to Joe Biden, that will be the central lesson of the US election for a watching world, as much as for one nation’s anxious liberals.
An unfancied president made short work of Florida (the pollsters’ Waterloo) and put paid to rash talk of a blue Texas. At worst, Mr Trump will lose by a respectable margin. He may yet prevail, with or without the legal action he trailed in a statement that was no less grim for its predictability.
Naturally, a Biden win, even a slight one, is a better outcome for liberalism than Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016. But the absence of a landslide and a strongly Democratic Senate will sting. Four years ago, the party could cite excuses and circumstances: an unpopular candidate, an opponent with no political history to attack.
This time, they have no such solace. Democrats nominated a seasoned and unobjectionable moderate. They ran on the fundamentals of public health and prosperity. They amassed a Fort Knox of campaign money. They had the encouraging precedent of the 2018 midterm elections. Above all, they had Mr Trump’s ethical and administrative record to go after. All the raw materials were there for a crushing victory that would double as a purgative moment for the republic: a clean-up of sorts.
Yes, a Californian running mate was never ideal — the election hinges on the Midwest and the south-east — but there was no clear alternative to Kamala Harris. As for his avoidance of mass political rallies, Mr Biden could hardly run as a slayer of the coronavirus pandemic while holding them.
At this point in the search for unforced errors, the trail runs cold. Liberals are left to accept a deeper fact about the US. Far more than when the phrase started doing the rounds a generation ago, this is a 50-50 nation, or thereabouts.
There is almost no politician good enough to prise voters en masse from the opposing half of the electorate — the last to win more than 400 electoral college votes was George H W Bush, in 1988. And there is almost no deed or statement so bad as to cost a politician many votes from their own side. Whatever the pretensions of Washington’s architecture, politics is now better understood as a high-stakes version of team sport than as the discursive ideal of the ancients.
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What is more, liberals cannot even bank on demographic change to tilt 50-50 into 60-40 in their favour. Mr Trump’s apparent gains among voters of Latin American ancestry (in Florida, for instance) are ominous for the left. A more diverse nation is not axiomatically a more progressive one. Liberalism will have to fight for its future, not assume it.
The states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania may yet turn for Mr Biden. Arizona has gone from red to blue without much of a transition phase, just as Virginia did in 2008. Yet even these achievements would have struck liberals as the bare minimum on the eve of the election. Nor do they amount to any kind of national resolution. A system in which neither party wins or loses very badly — nor hangs on to unified government for very long — should be all the more peaceful. In practice, this half-a-loaf politics merely deprives whoever is president of pan-national legitimacy.
Of course, even the narrowest win is still potentially world-changing. It is no more possible to be half-president than half-pregnant. If elected, Mr Biden could unwind much of Mr Trump’s foreign policy, regardless of which party controls the Senate. His election would be toasted in Nato headquarters and the chancelleries of most US allies. Executive power will also matter in the fight against the pandemic. And even a raising of the presidential tone is worth something.
No, if there is a sense of liberal dread today, it is less about the scotched dreams of a progressive realignment than Mr Trump’s dismaying resilience. For four years, he has lived down to the Democrats’ direst expectations and remained electorally competitive. Not enough Americans regard him as a tyrant or a klutz, or care either way. Even if he loses, he has done well enough to remain the Republicans’ reference point in opposition and a plausible candidate in 2024.
And that is the best-case scenario for the cause of liberalism. Vote-counting, or a court ruling to stop it, may yet bring about the very worst one.