Those six hours defined two Americas while exposing the scale of the decision voters face in November.
At 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, the U.S. government announced that gross domestic product had suffered the largest drop on record due to a coronavirus-induced shutdown. Minutes later, Donald Trump warned on Twitter that “2020 will be the most INACCURATE and FRAUDULENT election in history” – and suggested it should be postponed.
As the morning progressed, it was announced that Herman Cain, a former presidential candidate who attended a recent Trump rally without a face mask, had died from Covid-19. And in Atlanta, Georgia, at the funeral of civil rights giant and Congressman John Lewis, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton paid tribute and frail Jimmy Carter sent a message of condolence.
Then came a glowing eulogy of Barack Obama, drawing stinging comparisons between the notorious racists of the 1960s and America today. “Bull Connor may be gone,” he said. “But today we see with our own eyes policemen kneeling on the necks of black Americans.
“George Wallace may be gone. But we can see our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful protesters. We may no longer have to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar to vote. But even as we sit here, there are those in power who do their best to discourage people from voting.
Shortly after the predominantly African-American congregation rose up and applauded Obama to a chair once honored by Martin Luther King Jr, Trump traveled to the Red Cross in Washington where Jerome Adams, the surgeon general, told him, “I was in Trump’s country and they told me to deliver a message to you, Mr. President.” They told me to tell you you look badass with a face mask.
The collision of these two worlds, so radically opposed in style and substance, unfolded live on cable news. In Washington, Trump, besieged by a coronavirus death toll of over 150,000, with a plummeting economy and corresponding poll numbers, discredited the legitimacy of the election and sparked a bipartisan backlash that left him isolated as ever before.
In Atlanta, four presidents from a less polarized era gathered to pay tribute to a man who, in his early twenties, had put his life on the line for the franchise and faith in democracy. For Democrats, the sight and sound of Obama at the top of his game has sparked a wave of nostalgia – and the resolve to go back by electing his vice president, Joe Biden, as the next president.
Moe Vela, Biden’s former senior White House adviser, said: “For me the whole day was almost a dichotomy. It has increased the choice that we Americans have in this election. This completely failed leader is playing political games with a legally unfounded suggestion to delay the elections. It worked for him all his life but it doesn’t work anymore. I’m sure he’s panicking because his old playbook isn’t working.
Trump spent much of 2016 claiming the election was “rigged” until he narrowly won it. He has made numerous statements that cast doubt on the 2020 version, insisting that an expansion of postal voting due to the pandemic will lead to widespread fraud – a claim belied by studies. Even so, his question of whether November 3 should stand as the election date has always drawn deep breaths and cries of fascism.
On one level, it was classic and remarkably effective Trump: the media fury softened the impact of shocking economic figures which showed a 32.9% contraction in annualized GDP in the last quarter. But while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others rejected the idea, noting that elections continued through Civil War and World War II, and that the president did not power to change the date, it looked like the Republicans had finally drawn a line. even Trump couldn’t cross.
On Thursday afternoon, at a White House press conference, the president sought to clarify, “Do I want to see a date change? No, but I don’t want to see a crooked election. This election will be the most rigged election in history.
That was, according to many commentators, the real intention: to make Americans wary of their own democracy. The coronavirus pandemic and the expected surge in postal voting raise the specter of a chaotic election riddled with delays, disputes and a myriad of legal challenges – all fertile ground for Trump’s conspiracy theories. He can choose to declare victory long before the last vote is counted and rely on the conservative media to militarize the message.
Tara Setmayer, former Republican communications director at Capitol Hill, said: “All indicators point to Donald Trump lost but it’s not 2016 and Biden is not Hillary Clinton. But who knows? Look what Trump is doing.
“This postponing tweet, even though it cannot constitutionally and legally, is sowing the seeds to get people to question the integrity of the election, which is more dangerous because the peaceful transfer of power is in part what has made this constitutional republic prosperous for 240 years. When you start gnawing at this it’s a very dictatorial banana republic and it worries me about what is happening in November. We don’t know what this madman is ready to do to sully the elections.