When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.”
In the days since the US election I have thought about Margaret Atwood’s reflections on time and narrative – of how it is only after events have passed that any meaning or consequence can be imposed on them.
Few people in 2000 could have known the consequences of that year’s presidential election between George W Bush and Al Gore, which was settled by the Supreme Court a month after polling day. Even fewer would have predicted that its aftershocks would be felt as far into the future as 2020, with Donald Trump challenging the results of an election, and his legal adviser Harmeet Dhillon imploring the Supreme Court to “step in and do something”.
If Trump’s stand-off with the American electorate has an origin story, arguably the tale begins in 2000. The election between Gore and Bush came down to Florida’s then 25 electoral college votes. The final result was close, and Gore asked that manual recounts be carried out in four counties. Florida’s Supreme Court later ordered a statewide manual recount, but, at the request of Bush’s legal team, the US Supreme Court intervened and ruled that the recount be stopped. Bush was elected president.
The ghost of Bush vs Gore haunts the 2020 election. Three of the lawyers who worked on Bush’s legal team – John Roberts, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett – now sit on the Supreme Court. One week before the election, Justice Kavanaugh cited Bush vs Gore in his opinion supporting the court’s refusal to extend the deadline for mail-in ballots in Wisconsin. “Those states want to avoid the chaos and suspicions of impropriety that can ensue if thousands of absentee ballots flow in after election day and potentially flip the results of an election,” Kavanaugh wrote. States, he went on, “want to be able to definitely announce the results of the election on election night, or as soon as possible thereafter”. This is the same argument Trump used when he objected to the counting of votes after election day in Pennsylvania and Michigan.
[see also: Is Donald Trump conducting a coup?]
Another legacy of the Bush vs Gore debacle centres on Barrett. In 2000 the then 28-year-old lawyer was sent to Florida as part of Bush’s litigation team to ensure that the 673 absentee ballots from Republican households in Martin County were included in the final tally, which may have made all the difference – Bush eventually won the state by 537 votes.
The idea that some votes should be counted over others, that counts and recounts should happen only if they serve Republican ends, was a feature of the recent election too. Trump supporters chanted “stop the vote” in Detroit but demanded it be continued in Arizona, where they thought Trump had a chance of winning.
The manner in which Bush won in 2000 isn’t the only aspect of his presidency to have affected the most recent election; what he did while in office also has consequences for today. The Bush administration established the political conditions – the series of laws, norms and practices – that enabled Trumpism. It was in those early post-millennium years that Fox News became the amplifier of ideological bombast and partisanship, undermining any sense of objectivity.
The Bush White House also created the Department of Homeland Security, through which Trump has executed some of his cruellest immigration and asylum policies.
The invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 ensnared the US in foreign adventures for decades, exhausting the country’s material wealth and moral authority. In 2016, and throughout his presidency, Trump exploited this exhaustion, channelling popular discontent into a nationalist message of “America First”.
The US Patriot Act of 2001, enacted after 9/11, turned the republic into a citadel of surveillance, proliferating law enforcement agencies and expanding prison systems, and intensified the vilification of Muslims. Trump took all of this – what the political theorist Corey Robin has called a “political infrastructure of fear” – to new extremes by banning travel to the US from several Muslim-majority countries in 2019.
Trump was not an aberration, then, but, as Robin writes, “an extension or fulfilment of the conservative movement rather than a break with it”. He was a political phenomenon born in the image of his maker – a culture of cruelty, chauvinism, prejudice and showmanship; one that exalts the sanctity of arms and revels in incuriosity. He is Americana run rampant.
The justices who decided the presidential election in 2000 could not have known the long-term consequences of their actions. Nor can we know the impact or reach of the events of this year’s vote. A sitting president has cast doubt on the legitimacy of his country’s election; millions of people believe him. That doubt will hang over US democracy. So, too, will the precedent of using voter fraud as a charge with which to contest electoral defeat.
The story of 2020, what happened and what it all means, is still a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood. We will have to wait until time passes. We will find ourselves telling it, to ourselves or to someone else, to know the meaning of this year. Just as we did 20 years ago.
Emily Tamkin will discuss the US election with Attica Locke, James Naughtie and Sarah Churchwell in an online Cambridge Literary Festival event on 21 November; cambridgeliteraryfestival.com
This article appears in the 18 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Vaccine nation