My stomach twinges just asking the title question. Never have I been this anxious before a presidential election. Even in tumultuous 1968 as an 8th grader following all the news about the Vietnam War, assassinations, racial unrest, riots, the Cold War, and the Nixon vs. Humphrey campaign — I believed that America would persevere. There was never any doubt because I lived in the greatest, most powerful country in the world. (A common mid-20th century post-war mindset widely taught in public schools and politically represented by the “silent majority.”)
However, 52 years later, my foundational confidence has developed cracks. Yes, I still believe the USA is #1, but decline seems inevitable in our powder keg nation.
Three months before Election Day, America is at a combustible crossroads where factors “known and unknown” have created a “cone of uncertainty.” (Recently heard on the Weather Channel, the “cone” technically describes a hurricane model but aptly applies to this election forecast.)
Those who follow politics know that any mention of “known and unknown” must include former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld’s iconic reference. During a 2002 press conference, Rumsfeld famously answered an Iraq War question saying:
“As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
(Watch the video because Rumsfeld’s reply was spontaneous, sincere, and ultimately, became his calling card.)
Which brings us to:
The Knowns within the Cone of Uncertainty
In the COVID-19 war, the list of disturbing “knowns” grows daily, with over 158,000 “killed in action.”
“Casualties” also include record economic losses, double-digit unemployment, small business devastation, and unimaginable stress on our education and public/private health systems. Meanwhile, since the pandemic’s first wave of attack has not abated, when the virus meets the flu season, expect even more chaotic battles.
People are on edge because during the initial pandemic days of March/April, there was general psychological anticipation that by fall, “things would be back to normal.” But those hopes were dashed with the realization that, for now, our nation is losing the COVID-19 war. “Losing” means the worst economic ripple effects involving housing and business closings are still to come.
Layered upon the “knowns” are anxiety and fear about the integrity of the election. President Trump is repeatedly communicating that the election will be “rigged” and a “disaster” due to a vast increase in mail-voting and “fraud” associated with delayed tabulation. A most unusual phenomenon for the Chief Executive to inject pre-election uncertainty as a reelection strategy leaving voters asking, “Can we trust the results?” (Especially if the outcome conflicts with one’s vote.)
Earlier this week, I reached out to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump surrogate, asking what he feared most about the election.
Gingrich answered, “My greatest fear is the unending Democratic Party effort to steal the election as illustrated by the recent Nevada power grab where they rammed through radical changes in the state election law on a straight party-line vote to make it easy for them to corrupt the election process.”
Then I asked Roger Stone — still celebrating the president commuting his 40-month jail sentence — what he feared most before November’s election. Stone somewhat echoed Gingrich saying:
“While I have great confidence in the president’s skills as a candidate and communicator, I am deeply concerned that those in his campaign are not battle-tested and fully familiar with the importance of early voting and absentee ballots and unprepared for the kind of widespread voter fraud that I expect from the Democrats.”
After listening to and hearing from numerous Republican voters, the most prevalent “known” is fear of a leftist, Marxist, socialist take-over if Biden and the Democrats prevail. That also includes rampant crime, open borders, high taxes, unlimited abortion, restrictions on religious freedom, and the “end of America” as we know it.
Conversely, what Democrats “know,” and fear is four more years of an unhinged “racist,” narcissistic, lying authoritarian who is destroying our nation and must be stopped.
Voters in the middle are despondent over the choices. But how they break will determine the winner.
With the knowns known, the unknowns are most disconcerting. Traditionally known as the “October surprise,” it could arrive at any moment.
The surprise might be discovering blatant foreign interference in the election, or an international crisis involving an act of aggression against an ally. Such hostile action, likely perpetrated by China, Russia, Iran, or North Korea, would test our political and military response while America languishes in the cone of uncertainty.
Moreover, here is a list of horrible unknowns:
A domestic terrorist attack timed around the September 11 anniversary. (As well as an international attack against American assets.)
A major natural disaster.
The “big one” hits the west coast.
A man-made disaster.
A Supreme Court justice dies.
The stock market crashes or an equivalent economic calamity.
Either Trump or Biden has a life-altering health crisis or the “unmentionable.”
Trump replaces Vice President Pence on the ticket.
The U.S. Post Office has a ballot delivery melt-down.
Finally, an event so earth-shattering we can’t even imagine. (The “unknown unknowns” in Rumsfeld-speak.)
When I asked a leading GOP presidential strategist about his election fear, he “hated to voice this thought out loud” and refused to be named, saying:
“A cyber-attack on top of everything we’re already dealing with would be devastating. You know our adversaries are looking to hit us when we’re down. What better time?”
Three months out is still an election eternity
Therefore, if our nation is to survive the next three months and prepare for what could be, according to Trump, the “greatest election disaster” lasting weeks or months, we must have a unified mindset to “expect the unexpected.” Let’s mentally prepare for dramatic news that could change the trajectory of this election in a distressed nation longing for normalcy.
Note that three months out is still an election eternity within the cone of uncertainty due to how quickly unexpected events can impact the nation. For example, in December 2019 (pre-COVID “normal times”), I wrote a RealClearPolitics piece headlined “The 2020 Election: Most Consequential? Most Contentious?” The two factors I mentioned were:
“How does an impeached president run for reelection? How does the opposing party run against him? Sounding like the plot of a fictional Netflix series, the 2020 race is set to rest upon that bizarre foundation.”
Then suddenly COVID and the economic shutdown pushed impeachment to footnote status. Now it is virtually never mentioned as a factor in the 2020 election.
Then I wrote, “The second reason why 2020 will be the most consequential and contentious presidential election ever waged is the racial and gender composition of the tickets and the electorate.”
There is still some truth to reason number two, along with if Biden picks a “woman of color” for his running mate. However, since his choice is “expected,” after the initial announcement, the news pales in comparison to COVID raging, the economy sputtering, our national culture shrinking, and headlines generated by Jim Clyburn, the third-ranking member of the House of Representatives talking on national television about the President of the United States:
“I don’t think he plans to leave the White House. He doesn’t plan to have fair and unfettered elections. I believe that he plans to install himself in some kind of emergency way to continue to hold onto office.”
But have no fear, Clyburn’s remarks on the Rumsfeld scale qualify as a “known unknown.”
How our nation survives all the prospective “unknowns” should be our greatest fear.
Cross-posted at Medium.com