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The State of the Nation

You can see Hungary from America's front porch.
November 4, 2020
The State of the Nation

Shortly after 2:20 a.m. on November 4, the president of the United States declared victory. He said, “Frankly, we did win this election.”

The president also said that the current process—in which votes are being counted across the country—is fraudulent. “This is a fraud on the American public,” the president said.

And then the president declared that he intended to stop unnamed forces from “disenfranchising” his supporters. “We’ll be going to the Supreme Court,” Trump said. And then he said, “We want all the voting to stop.”

This is an attempt to bring authoritarianism—real, genuine authoritarianism—to America. It is not mere irresponsibility. It is dangerous.

And here is what should scare you just as much as the specter of the president holding yet another campaign rally inside the White House, in flagrant violation of the Hatch Act:

Trump might still win through legitimate means. Probably not—the actual vote counting suggests that Joe Biden is on track to surpass 270 Electoral votes. But nothing is certain.

It is one thing for a country to fall under the yoke of authoritarianism because it is forced. It is another thing to choose it freely.

And in this moment, Donald Trump—the same man openly calling for the stealing of an election—will have received more votes than any Republican to ever run for president.

He will have—despite the quarter of a million dead, despite the racism, despite the debates, despite the unemployment—almost certainly have increased his vote share from 2016.

This—the authoritarian strongman—is what the American people want. Not all of the people. Not quite a majority of the people. But a large enough percentage to put our country at risk of Orbánism.

Nearly half of America chose this. Not once, but twice.

For the last four years, the sophisticates and the climbers on the right have waved away the notion that Donald Trump was a danger to the liberal order. He was too clownish to be dangerous, they said.

Today, there will be sophisticates and climbers who try to wave away Trump’s words. It doesn’t matter if the president claims to have won Pennsylvania, they’ll say. His saying so doesn’t make it true. It’s “regrettable.” It’s “distressing.” It might even be “irresponsible.” But, you know, no need to get hysterical.

They are wrong.

The commander-in-chief has claimed victory in an election. He claims that “fraud” is being committed and that American citizens are being “disenfranchised.” These remarks—all by themselves—should disqualify him from holding the office.

If we are lucky then this will only serve to make his supporters—again, some 45 percent of the country—regard the outcome of this election not as merely rhetorically or morally, but literally, illegitimate.

And if we are not lucky? You saw what happened in Lafayette Square. You saw how eagerly the president and his party floated the idea of invoking the Insurrection Act. You’ve seen how democracies have failed across the world over the last two decades.

We are standing on the cusp, right now. And we will remain there for the foreseeable future. Even if Joe Biden eventually wins the election and is sworn in as president.

Because this is what a very large share of our fellow citizens want.

Good night, America. And good luck.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.