America has never faced an election like this.
The president, infected by a virus his administration failed to tame, spent three days in the hospital earlier this month for COVID-19.
More than 212,000 Americans have died in the pandemic, and the virus is still spreading. Millions more are out of work, with shops and businesses shuttered in every state.
Wildfires have burned more than 4 million acres in California, fueled by the fast-warming climate. Protests and spasms of violence have erupted in dozens of cities over police abuses and systemic racism.
But the stakes on Nov. 3 are higher. In some ways, the future of American democracy is on the ballot.
Trailing in the polls, President Donald Trump has refused to say he will commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses. No previous U.S. president has threatened not to honor the integrity of a national election.
Republicans accuse Democrats, without evidence, of trying to steal or manufacture votes with mail-in ballots. Democrats accuse Republicans of seeking to suppress votes, with evidence in some states that lies in plain view.
When Trump won the White House four years ago, he was something of an accidental president. He lost the popular vote by almost 3 million votes, but won the electoral vote thanks to some 80,000 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
A one-term Trump presidency, if it ends in January, may be remembered as little more than a fluke of history, a brief detour into conservative populism after eight years of President Barack Obama.
But if the president wins a second term with a renewed or stronger mandate, the picture will be very different. Eight years would be an era — an opportunity for Trump to place his stamp even more deeply on the nation’s institutions and policies.
He will pass more legislation, appoint more federal judges, cement his control of the Republican Party and deepen his purges of the federal bureaucracy, a process an aide once called “the deconstruction of the administrative state.”
A second term could make the Trump Revolution permanent — or, at least, more durable.
A win by Joe Biden, on the other hand, would represent a decision by most voters that four years of Trumpism was enough.
Depending on Biden’s margin of victory and whether his party takes control of the Senate as well as the House, it could provide a mandate for a wave of ambitious Democratic legislation — although not the “socialist agenda” that Trump has ludicrously accused the challenger of secretly harboring.
In almost every presidential campaign, the candidates solemnly tell voters that this will be the most important election of their lives. This time, the claim may well be true.
“At no time before have voters faced a clearer choice between two parties, two visions, two philosophies or two agendas,” Trump said at the Republican National Convention in August.
He’s right; rarely in the postwar period have two candidates been so far apart on major issues from taxes and health care to immigration, climate change and foreign policy.
For all that, the two candidates are alike in some ways.
Both in their 70s, both hark back to the past. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” suggests a return to the white- and male-dominated America of the 1950s. Biden campaigns to restore and expand the progressive policies of the Obama era.
Trump has spent much of the last four years undoing regulations put in place by the Obama administration. If he succeeds in putting federal Judge Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court, which seems likely, he may get another wish: overturning or gutting the Affordable Care Act.
Similarly, a Biden administration would set about undoing much of what Trump has done — some of it, the candidate brags, on his first day in office, with executive orders on the environment, immigration and labor regulation.
More broadly, Biden would seek to revive a traditional Democratic agenda of federal activism in domestic affairs.
One of his first acts, Biden says, would be to federalize the nation’s response to the coronavirus — now fragmented among the states — by establishing a pandemic testing board and a medical supply task force in the White House.
After that would come a wave of legislation if Democrats win a majority in the Senate: bills to eliminate Trump’s 2017 tax cuts for individuals making more than $400,000 a year, modify and expand Obamacare to ensure it survives in the Supreme Court, provide “a road map to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants, and more.
So the fundamental choice voters face is between a thoroughly Trumpist future and a return to the pre-Trump world — those parts that Biden and his allies can restore.
To many on both sides, the stakes appear existential — a threat to the future of the republic as they see it. Even allowing for the excesses of campaign rhetoric, the contrast is stark.
“This election will decide whether we save the American dream or whether we allow a socialist agenda to demolish our cherished destiny,” Trump declared in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.
To Democrats, the threat is Trump’s not-very-veiled penchant for authoritarian rule.
“The president is literally an existential threat to America,” Biden told voters in Iowa.
“What’s at stake is whether or not our democracy endures,” Obama said last month.
They point to Trump’s recurring attempts to ignore or defy limits on presidential power: his refusal to submit to subpoenas from Congress, his rejection of Congress’ power of the purse by redirecting federal funds to build a wall on the border with Mexico, and his use of the Justice Department to investigate critics.
“Constitutional democracy is on the ballot,” William A. Galston, a political scholar at the Brookings Institution who worked for President Bill Clinton, told me. “If Trump wins, his relentless expansion of executive power would be ratified.”
What won’t change, no matter who wins the election?
Partisan polarization, Galston said.
“That’s going to persist — because each party sees the other as an existential threat,” he said.
The stakes in an election aren’t always clear before votes are cast. In 1860, probably the most consequential election in U.S. history, it wasn’t obvious that electing Abraham Lincoln would lead to the Civil War in only six months.
In 1932, it wasn’t clear that Franklin D. Roosevelt would vastly expand the federal government through his New Deal programs to cope with the Great Depression.
Americans who elected Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972 were given a clear choice — and that led to an expanded war in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation. Arguably the most important election since then was in 1980, when Ronald Reagan beat the incumbent, Jimmy Carter, and began to dismantle the liberal state.
Until the consequences occur, Yale political scientist David Mayhew wrote, “we can have hunches but not answers.”
But the stakes this year are clear enough, at least, to ensure that this election will rank among the most important of our lifetimes — which makes it imperative for every voter to consider the choice carefully, and cast a ballot by any means available.