It was a wonderful time to be a baby—Mommy was at home all day, and no politician would kiss you. The corona-in-chief tossed out a pacifier—“We’re all one beautiful big American family,” he said—but the housebound were fraying and fearful. It was the early spring of 2020, and the survival of democracy itself was swirling with the pollen and the poison in the air.
Wise men saw it coming. “It has long been a grave question,” Abraham Lincoln had warned us in 1864, “whether any government, not too strong for the liberties of its people, can be strong enough to maintain its own existence, in great emergencies.”
Now the great emergency was deplaning from coast to coast. At the White House, a belligerent and bewildered man declared himself “a wartime president” and tried to snarl away the grim mathematics, spewing a mash-up of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s positivity and Richard Nixon’s self-pity. Real doctors stood behind him, rolling their eyes and chalking up the fatalities. Yet 55 per cent of Americans were telling surveyors that they approved of Donald Trump’s performance.
Meanwhile, across the Chesapeake Bay, a white-haired challenger with pre-existing conditions of confusion, plagiarism and grief tried to seize the reins of power by speaking woodenly into a lens, hunkered in his den. “Let me be clear,” Joe Biden said one late-March day, “Donald Trump is not to blame for the coronavirus. But he does bear responsibility for our response. And I, along with every American, hope he steps up and starts to get this right.”
On a shelf behind the former senator and vice-president, folded to display the starry blue field, was the flag that once covered the coffin of his eldest son.
This is how it was in the spring of election year 2020. Nothing—nothing except the love stored up within a family to be spent at times like these—was the same. The Olympic Games were put off. There was no rebirthing of baseball. College and high school seniors were going without their mortarboards and their rite-of-passage proms, and the churches were selling digital salvation. What was left of the old world were Donald Trump in his emperor’s clothes and Joseph Biden in his rec room, and the Democrats and Republicans fornicating around in Congress, set against the coughing of the infected, the ennui of the quarantine and the severest financial hemorrhage in the history of economics.
“Politics during this pandemic is going to be totally, totally, totally impossible,” a woman named Jane Hovington, chair of a county Democratic Party committee, was saying from Biden’s state of Delaware. “You can’t go around and knock on doors and canvass people, you can’t have rallies and you can’t have meet-and-greets. And no kissing babies.
“The voter is going to have to depend on written knowledge. So you send out mail, but how many people read it? You can go online, but what about the people who are not online? At the same time, you have all types of negative coming at you.”
Hovington is a decade younger than Biden but old enough to have gone to school when the classrooms of little Delaware were still segregated by race. The first African American to lead the Sussex County branch of Biden’s home-state party, she has known the former senator and vice-president for a good 40 years.
“Can Joe Biden win the presidency from his living-room couch?” Hovington was asked.
“No one can win from their living-room couch,” she answered, “but the fact of the matter is that he stands a very good chance of winning anyway.”
You can’t spell pandemic without D-E-M, and so it was the Democrats of places like Sussex County who stood to lose the most. (Subtract those three letters from the word and check out what remains.) At one point in March, needing to select pro-Biden delegates for the Democratic National Convention (should it not be cancelled), Hovington and her committee members arranged for party members to caucus in a parking lot without leaving their automobiles. But then even that was deemed too close for comfort and they put it off until Trump-knows-when.
“This pandemic is not going to last forever,” Hovington said hopefully, echoing the president she abjures. “I expect it to be gone by midsummer and they’ll be on the trail.”
By then, of course, Donald Trump may have claimed victory over “the invisible enemy,” the Dow Jones may be rocketing to the sky again, everybody may be back to work and Joe Biden may be buried in irrelevance and campaign debt.
“I don’t see how our Supreme Court allows this man to do the things that he does,” Hovington sighed.
“He appointed some of the justices himself,” she was told.
“Don’t remind me,” the Delaware Democrat grumped.
“You see this rather recent turn by the president from ‘This isn’t a big deal’ to ‘This is really serious,’ ” Richard Pan, a pediatrician and member of the California state senate, noted from Sacramento. “One of the things that I think is going to happen as it spreads is that people will start to realize that science is true whether you believe it or not.
“One of the things this outbreak is doing, and will do more and more, is get right in everyone’s face,” Pan said. “If you try to deny this is happening, people will get sick. If you try to deny this is happening, people will die. This virus doesn’t care what your ideology is, or your race, or your socio-economic status. We’re all in it together.
“This is not about divide and conquer anymore. People are starting to realize that reality matters.”
“Has American politics changed permanently?” a reporter asked the physician-legislator, who is known for his years of persistent opposition to anti-vaccination activists.
“Permanently is a very long time,” he answered, “but it may tilt it for a while. People who stood in long lines to get the polio vaccine 60 years ago valued it for a long time, but then after the vaccines had worked so well and people had been protected for many generations, time passed and they didn’t remember.”
Does he think that the people will turn on all politicians and blame them for what happened?
“We may learn that from Italy,” said Pan. “Right now they are still in shock, carting the bodies away. But who will be the focus of their anger when the shock wears off?”
Out of “personal vanity, or ambition, I confess that I desire to be re-elected,” Lincoln wrote on the eve of the 1864 balloting, in the fourth year of the Civil War. “God knows I do not want the labour and responsibility of the office for another four years. But I have the common pride of humanity to wish my past four years’ administration endorsed.”
In the early spring of 2020, it was only natural for Donald Trump to wish the same. But there were tens of millions of Americans who looked at the 45th president and saw “a false president yearning for a kingly succession,” which is what John Wilkes Booth said of Lincoln three days before pulling the trigger.
So there came a barrage of this:
· “Could Donald Trump cancel the 2020 election?” posed Yahoo! Answers.
· “Could Trump Cancel 2020 Elections?” asked dailykos.com.
· “Can Trump Cancel or Postpone the Election Over the Coronavirus?” wondered BuzzFeed News.
The arsenal of democracy had been through this before. In 1944, there were whispers that Franklin D. Roosevelt would invoke some sort of wartime exigency to cancel that year’s vote. “All these people around town haven’t read the Constitution,” Roosevelt rebutted. “I have.”
In 1970, articles began to appear in mainstream and alternative newspapers across the United States, hinting at the existence of a secret plot by the Nixon administration to call off the 1972 election because “rebellious factions using force or bomb threats” might make it too dangerous for voters to convene. It was all bogus, of course—but if the ’72 vote had been cancelled, the Watergate break-in would have been unnecessary and Richard Nixon might be remembered as one of the greatest presidents of all time.
Twelve cycles after the Trump-election angst surfaced, here it was again:
· “Could Trump Try to Cancel the 2020 Election?” (Politico)
· “What if Trump Tried to Cancel the November Election?” (New York Magazine)
· “Can Trump Cancel the November Election?” (Vox)
“Can Trump cancel the November election?” Maclean’s asked Amy Dacey, the former CEO of the Democratic National Committee.
“No,” she replied.
“The states can move their primaries, but the actual general election is a federal statute,” explained Dacey, who is the executive director of the Sine Institute of Policy & Politics at American University in Washington. “The U.S. code sanctions that the vote must be held on the ‘Tuesday next after the first Monday in November,’ four years after the previous presidential election.
“Under the Constitution, the president’s term ends at noon on January 20th, 2021. He doesn’t have the ability to change federal law. He can declare a national emergency, he can declare martial law—but even that doesn’t change federal law. Congress could do it, but Democrats control the House and I don’t see them wanting to change the date of the election.”
In a report entitled “Executive branch power to postpone elections,” the Congressional Research Service concluded in 2004: “The executive branch does not appear to currently have the authority to establish or postpone the dates of elections at either the federal or state level in the event of an emergency situation.” So people can stop asking if Donald Trump is going to achieve kingly succession by cancelling the November vote.
“My concern is that in the age of Trump that other governors might think, or that the president might ask, for a delay in the November election based on something, perhaps this, perhaps something else,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, keeping the beach ball from hitting the sand.
“We need to show that we are still a democracy in this country, even though people are afraid that Trump could try to seize power,” was the reaction of Samuel Abrams, professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College in New York and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
“Is that the only reason to have the election—to get Trump out of there?” he was asked.
“This election is about more than getting Trump out of there,” Abrams responded. “It is important for the United States to make a statement to the world. We need to show the rest of the world that these are not our values, this is not what we are.
“We are taught that the presidency is bigger than any one individual. What is interesting is how Trump has revealed just how powerful the executive branch can be. He’s behaving like a typical New York developer—build first and fight about it later—and he has revealed how weak Congress is to stop him.”
“Can Joe Biden win the White House from his living-room couch?” Abrams was asked.
“Probably not,” he replied. “There are plenty of people who are unhappy with the status quo, but Joe Biden has not unified people. As long as Democrats continue to have the infighting they have, it is going to be very hard to defeat Donald Trump. Biden is going to have to convince a lot of people in the middle that he can do this, that he’s agile, but we’re not there yet.”
From the other side came this:
“Biden may be the best they’ve got because the party leaders can tell him what to do and it doesn’t look like he’s had so many gaffes lately,” Joe Gruters, a state senator and chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, jibed from Sarasota. “However, his abilities are somewhat diminished.”
“Can Donald Trump win re-election without big rallies where he talks about ‘Sleepy Joe’ and Hunter and Burisma and everybody chants ‘Lock them up?’ ” Gruters was asked.
“Donald Trump is a larger-than-life personality,” he replied. “His steadfast leadership is showing what he is capable of and he’s proving it at a time of great stress. Just think if Donald Trump wasn’t our president to get us to the point where we were with the economy and the stock market. We’re so fortunate that he gave us that cushion.”
Not every politician in the early spring of 2020 was running for president. An addiction-medicine physician named Mitra Ahadpour had decided to declare her candidacy for a seat on the county school board in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. When her daughter was in middle school, Ahadpour had waged an effective anti-smoking campaign. Now the girl was in high school and complaining that “there isn’t one bathroom in the whole entire school that is vape-free—it is in all the classrooms and the hallways and the gym.” So Mom decided to try to make things better.
“I loved the movie Grease, even though it had smoking,” said Ahadpour. “But this high school wasn’t Grease.”
“Since I put my name in the hat, it has been an amazing journey,” she said. “I went in with the mindset of winning—I want to win this election because I have many ideas, a track record of innovative ideas.
“ ‘Vote for me’ was the easy part. Trying to fundraise was hard. When people donated money, I was wondering why are they donating money to me? I felt guilty for other people to spend money for my campaign.”
Then, suddenly, boom went the virus.
“Now, no forums,” Ahadpour sighed. “I’ve pulled back, not doing any fundraising. On my website, I have put a page asking for kindness and helping in the community. Priorities have changed—there are so many hardships on families.”
Ahadpour looked beyond Maryland to the national campaign and yearned for “someone who has the vision to really help with the coronavirus. Hindsight is easy. With hindsight, we can put everyone down. It is easy to say, ‘Why didn’t we do this?’
“Can Biden win from his couch? I think yes. I saw Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders on TV, there was no audience and they had their debate, and I think that’s fine. I think Joe Biden and President Trump can stand six feet apart and people could send in their questions and it would be doable. For the national politics, the big debate is how do we have civility and compassion?”
Sunil Dasgupta, who teaches political science at a satellite campus of the University of Maryland, will be on the ballot (along with a half-dozen others) opposing Ahadpour, if democracy survives until election day. His concerns, he said, were the same that Donald Trump and Joe Biden were facing in this horrifying year: “How should I run a campaign at a time of national and international crisis? How do I do this?”
“The virus has forced us to reconsider what campaigning has to be,” Dasgupta said. “We were always going to be digitally focused because digital density is cheaper than a lot of big printed materials, so we were somewhat prepared. I did my first online meet-and-greet and I found that I got into the swing of things and I thought, ‘Okay, I can do this.’
“It can be equally effective in terms of winning over people, which is what campaigning is supposed to be. But the question is”—and this was as true of the presidency as the board of education—“can we turn people out in those numbers?
“How can we develop a methodology where people feel they are a part of this?”
Every other year since the 18th century, through war and disease and economic depression, the little city of Georgetown, Del., has hosted a pageant that it calls Return Day, with marching bands and feasts and speeches and the clatter of hooves and drays. The event is held two days after Election Day, with winning and losing candidates riding together in the wagons, and the burial of a sharp, real hatchet in the sand.
Joe Biden has journeyed to Return Day in Delaware 19 times.
“No matter what office I hold, I’m still Delaware!” he crowed to the crowd in 2008 as vice-president-elect.
In 2012, Jane Hovington ran for the Delaware state senate against a Republican named Brian Pettyjohn and lost by 20 percentage points. Two days later, they rode together in a horse-drawn carriage around the core of Georgetown.
“There was no animosity between us,” she remembered now, as another election loomed across the country, come hell or high fever.
“Will you invite Joe Biden and Donald Trump to Return Day in November?” a caller wondered. She said that she would.
“Do you think Trump will show up if he loses?” the Democrat was asked.
“I doubt that very seriously,” she replied.
This article appears in print in the May 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Campaign of fear.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.