Warning lights are flashing red. Warning sirens are blaring.
Yet history may look back at this summer of 2020 and wonder why Americans and the famous names we trusted to save us — the leading voices of our government, politics and yes, the news media — just didn't seem concerned enough to heed and lead. Even though the warnings were unmistakable and unprecedented in American presidential politics.
Our world's greatest democracy is on the verge of being plunged into its most dire threat ever — plunged there by a president who openly admires dictators who proclaim themselves rulers for life.
President Donald Trump has been talking about ways of delaying and/or invalidating the results of America's onrushing November election ever since his polls began plunging. Lately, he has refused to promise he will leave office if he loses the November election. That's unprecedented. Yet our leaders have mostly dismissed it as just political small stuff compared to the COVID-19 pandemic. Trump, whose initial and most persistent response to the pandemic was to insist it would soon just vanish, pushed his unthinking followers into immaturely and prematurely reopening our economy, partying and playing in unmasked packs — allowing the pandemic to defeat us. Our president and all who trusted him seemed to lack the self-control, grit and guts shown by the leaders and followers in Europe and Asia as they shut down, toughened up and minimized the pandemic's menace.
Trump was always sure a strong U.S. economy would guarantee his reelection. Until the morning of July 30, when two flagrantly related things happened:
One: Trump's Commerce Department released devastating second-quarter economic statistics. "A Collapse That Wiped Out 5 Years of Growth, With No Bounce in Sight," said The New York Times' lead headline. The subhead added: "The percentage decrease in G.D.P. is by far the biggest on record."
Two: Trump fired off a tweet proclaiming something no president ever dared to say in public. He warned the pandemic-caused massive shift to mail-in voting will lead to "the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history." Then came his precedent-shattering threat: "Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???"
That so shocked Washington's shock-resistant company town that even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who so fears Trump's ire he usually develops political laryngitis in such times, declared: "Never in the history of the country, through wars, depressions and the Civil War, have we ever not had a federally scheduled election on time. We'll find a way to do that again this Nov. 3."
Trump backed down on delaying the election. But then he stepped up his warnings (voiced more than 70 times since springtime) that massive voting by mail will create massive problems and tabulation delays.
And — fasten your seat belts — on that point, we have been all but ignoring evidence that Trump's warning may become our democracy-threatening reality.
In state primaries we have seen Election Day crises that should have been solved long ago, but weren't. And we're not just talking about problems in backwater rural places. Probably the biggest prolonged foul-up happened in two congressional districts in boastfully big-time New York City.
Predictably: After New York's pandemic-delayed primary finally happened on June 23, 10 times the usual number of mail-in votes were cast. Unacceptably: It took six weeks before the results were announced; and thousands of votes were disqualified because U.S. postal officials shamefully didn't postmark them.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who strongly shut down his state and beat back COVID-19 (in ways Trump never did), and local officials blamed each other. No one led. In state after state, we've seen much the same.
Now this: Trump's new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, who got his job because he was a major Trump fundraiser, just issued a cost-cutting memo that will create significant delivery delays just as we begin to vote by mail. He ordered mail carriers to leave mail behind at distribution centers if it wasn't ready on time — and barred them from returning to get and deliver it that day.
Any vote-by-mail delays can only please a U.S. president who is already scheming to invalidate or ignore any election he doesn't win. (And please a Russian president as he parties in the Kremlin.)
Now this: Governors in all 50 states need to lead in this area where the president has no intention of leading. They should have long ago convened a summit with U.S. Postal Service officials and worked out a system by which each state can fix this very solvable problem.
It can be done. It must be done. It will be unacceptable if America's presidential election ends up vulnerable to the legal (or not-so-legal) challenges of a loser who would rather fight than leave. Just like those global rulers-for-life he so admires.
Tribune Content Agency