The 2020 election was the darkest election in my lifetime.
- 1988 was dirtier.
- 1968 was deadlier.
- 1960 was the only one in my lifetime where cheating altered the outcome.
- 2000 saw the most incompetence in conducting an election (looking at you, Florida).
But none was darker than 2020. And because I love elections, that darkness felt personal.
And I do love elections. Look in my closet and you will see a box full of campaign buttons and bumper stickers. A whole section of my personal library is devoted to campaign histories.
Each election gives me an opportunity to delve deeper and deeper into its story. In recent years, I would spend between two to four hours a day reading and soaking up every bit of information I could find. With the internet, newspapers and news magazines, political blogs, 24 hour news networks, Sirius radio, friends who talk politics with me… I have to tear myself away from my election obsessions to do anything else: do church work, eat, feed Earl-the-Cat…
This year I decided to write an election diary and share it with any friends who were interested. After all, why not share what I was gleaning? And so I was thrilled when about 100 people asked to receive these diary entries by email. I could do what I love most: inform and entertain my favorite people on a subject that energizes me...and hear back from many of them. But as the 2020 election proceeded and became darker and darker, I also began to feel as though I was becoming a chaplain to my readers.
The trouble with being a chaplain: in every election, try as I may to be objective and cool-headed, I always end up caring passionately about who wins. And in my election diary, I chose to be honest with you about my preference. But while I never hesitated to be honest, I refused to use the platform of my diary to push my choice on others. The fact that I HAD a preference caused me to work extra hard to understand and respect the viewpoints of my friends who supported the other candidate.
A few things helped me stay balanced. My familiarity with history kept pulling me out of the “drama of the day” and helping me see the 2020 election in its larger contexts. And my Christian faith kept infusing gentleness and humility and grace into my perspective, also reminding me that our enemy is not ‘flesh and blood.’
When I started out I thought I would write forty or fifty diary entries, perhaps concluding on inauguration day, January 20, 2021. But as I write this final entry, I see it is only my 16th. What happened? Through the election, I kept getting sick… or exhausted. Writing is usually medicinal for me. But writing about the 2020 election just kept feeling heavier and heavier, darker and darker.
As with all elections, there was plenty of bad behavior coming at us from all sides. Hostility and polarization spilled through network news, social media, friendships, and even churches. Empathetic people became an endangered species. But one individual stood out above everyone else for his compelling powers over this election: Donald Trump. And he continued to dominate even after he was defeated.
In 59 elections, 20 American presidents who WANTED to be reelected were turned down by either the voters or by party leaders:
- J. Adams
- JQ Adams
- Van Buren
- A. Johnson
Grant (wanted a 3rd term in 1880)
- B. Harrison
- T. Roosevelt (wanted a third term in 1912)
- Wilson (wanted a third term in 1920)
- Truman (wanted to run again in 1952)
- HW Bush
If you don’t count Richard Nixon, who was forced to resign less than two years into his second term, only thirteen ended their presidential quests with a perfect 2-0 record (or 4-0 in the case of FDR): Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Lincoln (although he got shot a few weeks after winning re-election), McKinley (although he too got shot only a few weeks after winning re-election), F. Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton, G. Bush, and Obama.
In the past 155 years, seven presidents who wanted to run for re-election accomplished their goal, but fourteen were rejected. Presidents are twice as likely to get dumped as to get elected to a second term.
So, it is not unusual for a sitting president to be defeated. In fact, it’s the norm. It is also the norm for a defeated president to be able to read the writing on the wall, accommodate the truth, and step aside without throwing a tantrum, even if he felt cheated.
In the past 155 years, only two losing candidates contested the count, both with good reason: Samuel Tilden and Al Gore. Richard Nixon (an odd and unpredictable man) also had cause to contest the 1960 election but decided to concede for the good of the nation. But with both Tilden (1876) and Gore (2000), patriotism and belief that we can correct mistakes in the next election caused the candidate to concede, even though both believed they had really won. Tilden, Gore, and Nixon all trusted the democratic process in the long run. Trump subverted it.
In the history of presidential elections, Donald Trump is -- a dark and conspiratorial aberration. His behavior after the election was felonious and feral. He deliberately mislead trusting followers. And when he tried to get the courts to overturn the will of the voters, (often before judges HE had appointed), he won 1 case and lost 59. The only case he won was in Pennsylvania, where a judge ruled that voters who mailed in ballots with inadequate identification had only six days instead of nine to make corrections.
The nauseous dyspepsia that was building all through the 2020 election finally spewed out on January 6. In this speech that day, Donald Trump stuck his finger stuck down the nation’s throat and out vomited a legion of mutinous and deluded sociopaths. A river of bile flowed from the White House to the Capitol Building. And the whole world witnessed an orgy of death and destruction.
I got physically sick that night, at 3 a.m. I’m still not sure what hit me. Lab results showed infection, blood where it shouldn’t have been, and an odd item or two on a body scan. I visited doctors in the ER and convenient care trying to find out the source of my misery and exhaustion. I saw my family doctor and my urologist and my counselor. I lost sleep and crashed in exhaustion to the point that I took some sick leave (for the first time in 43 years). I’m doing much better now. And I am back at work, even though I still tire way too easily by the end of each day.
And while my doctors say they are confounded and confused, I suspect that the ailing in my body had something to do with the mayhem in my spirit.
It hasn’t just been the election, of course. It has also been the pandemic, the struggles of my two churches this year (Mattoon and Salem), my retirement and un-retirement, buying a new house, the death of my dad in August, and several painful “old geezer” health problems.
But not least of it all was Donald Trump. I didn’t vote for him….but I’ve prayed for him: for his health, for his success, for his family…that life would be kind to him. I didn’t vote for him…but I’ve rooted for his success: leading us against covid, growing the economy, protecting us against North Korea… I didn’t vote for him…but I’ve read his speeches and listened to him and been curious and listened attentively to why some of my friends supported him. I didn’t vote for him…but I respected him as the duly elected 45th president of the United States.
It is no surprise that my spirit would become disoriented when MY president doesn’t respect elections, or history, or the courts, or the Capitol, or the White House… or America… as much as everyone else I know does. By the grace of God, I am recovering. But it will be a long time before our political parties, our government, and our democracy recover.
Our political recovery is the responsibility of all of us. Even though I crashed in this darkness, I almost made it! And so I recount the things that helped the most: nearly abstaining from network news and social media political postings, reading history, and staying rooted in the principles of my faith that kept empathy, curiosity, and humor before me.
Thank you for reading these election blogs, for reminding of our political ideals, and holding me accountable for being the best citizen I can be. In another week or two, for my own sanity, I’ll begin writing my Sunday Letter again. I need sanity that comes with the disciplined writing of observing the life with amusement and playfulness.