A moment of truth is at hand. Or perhaps a trial of strength, not just between two mutually and grievously hostile political tribes, but of the fortitude of American democracy itself and, above all, its presumption of a peaceful transfer of power from the defeated to the victorious candidate. In an unprecedented and shocking departure from normal practice, Donald Trump has given notice that his acceptance of the election result could be conditional on the decision going his way. Should that not happen (and at the time of writing it seems that it won’t), the cry of “rigged” will go forth from @realDonaldTrump. 

The first concession message by a defeated candidate was in 1896, when William Jennings Bryan wired congrat­ulations to William McKinley two days after the vote. “We have submitted the issue to the American people,” his telegram said, “and their will is law.”

Don’t expect that kind of gracious magnanimity from Trump. More likely is that his long campaign (without any evidence) to discredit mail-in ballots as riddled with fraud will claim that fake votes robbed him of a win, and he will proceed to do what he likes doing best: tweet-yelling, complaining and litigating. 

Anything short of a Biden blowout in which, say, not just North Carolina but Iowa turns Democrat-blue, may prolong the count for days or even weeks, creating a potentially perilous vacuum in which nothing will be settled. Infuriated foot soldiers will take to the streets and the cold cultural civil war that has been rumbling for years will ignite, in some places violently.

Up until now it is yard signs that have been set ablaze (or, in one startling case in central Florida, systematically bulldozed by a Trumpian zealot who stole a backhoe to do the damage). In that no man’s land between an initial vote count and a conclusive result, Trump, who has run as grievance warrior, will light new fires, while Joe Biden, who has run as conciliator and unifier, will be holding the hose. The flames may not go out until trust in the democratic transfer of power has been burnt beyond recognition. 

More than any election in living memory, this one is not so much a choice between opposed policies as a totalising and bitter fight to the death between two mutually exclusive visions of what America is meant to be. In the way of such battles of beliefs (more akin to a war of religion), each side is convinced that the victory of the other spells the end of the republic, so the contest turns into a competition of terminal nightmares.

Mike Pence declared with frosty certainty that in Biden’s America “you won’t be safe”, and the Trumpian nightmare features a socialist apocalypse in which the suburban idyll is invaded by low-rent riff-raff, city streets reduced to carpets of broken glass through which looting anarchists carry off appliances of their choice before setting your parked SUV ablaze. 

Voters in Chattanooga, Tennessee, queue to cast their ballots on the third day of early voting © Redux/eyevine
A line of voters waiting to cast ballots in New York last Saturday, the first day of early voting in the state © New York Times/Redux/eyevine

In this communist inferno much will be abolished, including, inter alia, Christmas, cows, large windows, the entire gas and oil industry and God. An opposing dystopia features the purging of civil service professionals and their replacement by political trusties; the demotion of science when its findings run counter to presidential self-glorification; the corruption of history into a cult of uncritical flag-wagging; the conversion of the Department of Justice into the enforcing arm of the executive — in sum, the end of constitutionally protected democratic America and the birth of a tinpot autocracy wallowing in spoils.

This nightmare has been spelt out not just by Democrats but by a number of Republican writers, many of whom served under Reagan and Bush, as well as a whole battalion of members of the national security community, high-ranking retired military eminences such as Admiral McRaven and General McChrystal; anodyne opinion-stiflers like USA Today; rock-ribbed conservative papers such as the New Hampshire Union Leader; and professional and scientific publications that have hitherto avoided political partisanship. 

Against this tournament of nightmares, one struggles to remember times when a bitterly polarised America was able somehow to overcome these endgames of mutual political annihilation. Believe it or not, there have been such moments and one of them came to mind during the last election debate, when Trump yet again insisted that no president since Abraham Lincoln had done as much for African-Americans as himself. At which point, I yelled three letters at the television: L, B and J, as in Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The 36th president, exposed in Robert Caro’s magisterial biography as a manipulative, power-hungry Machiavelli, his hands indelibly stained with the blood of Vietnam, may not, on the face of it, strike anyone with even a loose acquaintance with history as a likely Reconciler-in-Chief.

I saw him, close up, at the Atlantic City Convention in August 1964, revelling in what was as much a coronation as nomination, the thin-lipped grin spreading across his big face as tiny plastic cowboys rained down from the convention hall ceiling; a grimly uncanny prophecy of death from the skies over the Mekong delta. On the boardwalk, supporters of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party contesting the credentials of the all-white Yellow Dog delegation from the state, were harassed and worse by the police.

This was the summer of Mississippi burning. Three civil rights workers on a voter-registration drive were murdered in June. In July, a Civil Rights Act, originally drafted under the Kennedy administration, had outlawed discrimination in labour unions, as well as segregation in all public places including restaurants, theatres, parks, sports stadiums and hotels.

Column chart of Turnout (% of voting age population) in US presidential elections showing Turnout in elections is low - and usually lower still among African-Americans

Martin Luther King Jr called that act “a second emancipation”. But it had been achieved only at a price. As Johnson fatalistically predicted, the South would now go Republican for the next half-century. (This election may shake that certainty; watch North Carolina and Georgia.) Although the endless filibusters of segregationists were eventually broken after months of congressional slog, the notorious obstacles put in the way of African-Americans exercising their right to vote in southern states remained unaddressed by the act. When King called for an act to address the right to vote, Johnson demurred, saying he thought neither Congress nor the country was ready so soon for a second major piece of civil rights legislation.

The atrocity of Bloody Sunday on March 7 1965, when the 25-year-old John Lewis led marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge at Selma, Alabama, en route to Montgomery, changed his mind. Tear gas, rubber tubes, whips and electrical cattle prods were used on defenceless and peaceful marchers. TV cameras caught the ferocious assault.

That same night, horrifying images went out on network news. Johnson was appalled and, prompted by House speaker John McCormack, decided to call a special joint session of Congress. This would be on March 15, when he would urge a Voting Rights Act on senators and House representatives and the proceedings, as befitted a solemn national occasion, would be televised.

‘Bloody Sunday’, March 7 1965, when unarmed civil rights marchers (with John Lewis, centre) were brutally beaten by police on their attempted march from Selma, Alabama © Bettmann Archive

Johnson knew he needed a big speech. Cripplingly conscious of the honey-tongued Kennedy and aspersions by the Camelot gang that the rube from the Pedernales river was no match for his predecessor’s rhetoric, he brushed aside the originally assigned writer and called on Richard Goodwin, who had been part of the Kennedy word-mill but stayed on to write for his successor. At short notice, working non-stop for eight hours, Goodwin came up with a speech that ranks with Washington’s Farewell, Gettysburg and the JFK inaugural as one of the great statements about the meaning of being American. Goodwin waited until the last minute before delivering the text to LBJ to pre-empt the possibility that the president might make damaging alterations.

The speech started as it meant to go on, at the highest rhetorical pitch. Turning to the cameras, reading not from a teleprompter (no time to prepare one) but from his notebook, looking stern and studious, Johnson began: “I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.” That these simple opening words came out of the drawling mouth of someone notorious for his coarseness lent the one-line exordium instant Lincoln-strength gravitas. Watching it on television, as 70m others did, I felt the immediate electrical surge in moral power. 

The next sentences were that rare thing: (Lincoln again) an appeal for Americans “of all religions and of all colours” to come together in a great and just cause.

Then, a kind of hallowing, connecting the present crisis to the weightiest moments of American history: “At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox [Lee’s surrender of the Confederacy]. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man — a man of God — was killed. There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma. There is no cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial of equal rights of millions of Americans. But there is cause for hope and for faith in our democracy in what is happening here tonight . . . Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country: to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man.”

Sound familiar?

This cause, Johnson went on, spoke to “the values and purposes and the meaning of our beloved nation”, which could not and ought not to be measured in wealth and material success. “Should we defeat every enemy, and should we double our wealth and conquer the stars and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation.” Astonishingly, seen through the lens of our crass ego-politics, the audience, Republicans and Democrats alike, broke into applause, as they did 39 times, in response to the call to moral arms.

The promise of equality embedded in the Declaration of Independence was not just “clever words” or “empty theories”. “Those words are a promise to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man.”

The vote was at the core of that pledge, but in many places “men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes. Every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been used to deny this right. The Negro citizen may go to register only to be told that the day is wrong, or the hour is late, or the official in charge is absent. And if he persists and if he manages to present himself to the registrar, he may be disqualified because he did not spell out his middle name or because he abbreviated a word on the application.” Tests were devised for exclusion. “For the fact is that the only way to pass these barriers is to show a white skin.”

The bill that Johnson said he would send to Congress would make arbitrary and transparently discriminatory obstacles illegal and would empower the federal government, if necessary, to monitor observance and compel their elimination. Any departures from previous norms governing voting had first to be approved by federal authorities.

But, Johnson added, “Even if we pass this bill the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes but really it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

Poignantly, given the utter catastrophe of the war that would swallow everything he did, Johnson insisted at that moment that he didn’t want to be the president who “sought grandeur or extended dominion” but the one who “educated young children to the wonders of their world”; the president who fed the hungry and helped the poor to find their own way. “I want to be the president who helped to end hatred among his fellow men.”

Dr Martin Luther King Jr watching President Lyndon B Johnson on TV in March 1965 as LBJ addressed Congress with an appeal to reinforce black people’s voting rights © Life Images Collection via Getty

Perhaps that was the moment when John Lewis, sitting with Martin Luther King watching the speech on television, saw tears flow down King’s cheeks. 

Right now, on the cusp of an election that will be another defining moment not just for the US but for the fate of democratic pluralism throughout the world, challenged as it is by what Viktor Orban smugly celebrates as “illiberal demo­cracy”, heedless of such trifles as a free press and an independent judiciary, it’s hard to read it and forbear to grieve or rage. In the Senate the Voting Rights Act passed, across party lines, 77 to 19; in the House, 333-85.

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Forty-eight years later, in 2013, in Shelby County vs Holder, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, struck down that crucial provision of the act requiring states to seek federal approval before altering any electoral arrangements. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts claimed pre-clearance was no longer necessary, given what he thought was less evidence of discriminatory practice. Ruth Bader Ginsburg tartly replied that this was like throwing away one’s umbrella in the middle of a rainstorm because one was not yet wet.

The immediate practical effect was to greenlight Republican governors and Republican-dominated state legislatures to close polling stations, restricting their number and locations in minority-populated areas. In Texas, the state’s all-Republican Supreme Court has upheld Governor Greg Abbott’s jaw-dropping restriction of drop-off stations for mail-in ballots to one per county. So single drop-offs will have to serve for the 4.7m people of Harris County including greater Houston and the 1.2m of Travis County including Austin.

This is only the most egregious of recent attacks on mass voting. South Carolina requires a witness to sign off on mailed ballots. Wisconsin, under its former governor Scott Walker, reinforced by a Republican legislature, requires documents with a photo ID of the kind found on driving licences and passports, thus disenfranchising untold numbers of the most economically disadvantaged in urban areas who may well have neither. 

Column chart of Votes for Democratic presidential candidate minus those for Republican candidate showing Democrats have won the popular vote in four of the last five elections; the electoral college in only two

Sometimes Trump gives the impression that he’s not so much running against Joe Biden as against the election itself. But if the provisional numbers of early voters and mailed ballots around the country are to be believed, popular democracy is fighting back against all the subterfuges and strategies designed to limit and suppress it. In many states, votes already cast have equalled or exceeded the total votes cast in the election of 2016, and signs are that this election will see a turnout of the order of the elections of 1960 and 2008, when more than 60 per cent voted.

What seems like a shamefully low bar for a developed democracy, if surpassed, will nonetheless by American standards be taken as a sign of the robustness of the democratic process. Those long lines patiently waiting in all kinds of weather, sometimes for hours on end, ought to be a source of embarrassment; but to those millions waiting their turn, it is evidence of the pulse of citizenship still beating in the republic.

Lines of voters at a polling station in Pinellas County, Florida, last week © Reuters
Early voting in New Orleans as tropical storm Zeta approaches this week © Reuters

Not that all is well with democracy in America. Should Trump again lose the popular vote but win the 270 Electoral College votes needed for his re-election, the current grumbling about minority rule will erupt into uproar and kickstart the beginning of a serious constitutional reform movement.

Over the past 20 years, Republicans have won the popular vote just once yet have had the presidency for 12 of those years. Because of the skewed apportionment of Electoral College vote numbers in favour of the thinly populated and rural states, a vote in California is worth less than a third of one cast in Wyoming. The present Republican Senate majority, which fast-tracked a third Supreme Court Justice to confirmation at a time when 60m had already cast their vote, represents 15m fewer Americans than the Democratic senators on whom they impenitently imposed their will. Sooner or later, these institutional anomalies will be redefined as gross injustices. 

Or, for all the forebodings and anxieties, come next weekend you might be reading about an election that rousingly vindicated a stubborn belief in demo­cracy, in Churchill’s famous dictum “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. From Hong Kong to Belarus, fighters for the elementary rights enshrined in truly democratic constitutions — the free expression of opinion, the toleration of all religious practices and none; an independent judiciary that refuses to criminalise opposition or immunise the powerful when they violate the rule of law; the protection of an apolitical and neutral civil service — will have been watching and will be invigorated or devastated, depending on the outcome. 

I, who have lived more than half my seven decades this side of the Atlantic, have seen the best and worst, covered three conventions, written on six presidencies, stared in horror at the yellow poison cloud hanging over the ruins of the World Trade Center, still succumb to optimism. How could I not, the schoolboy who lost himself in Poe and Hawthorne; Mailer and ee cummings; Runyon and Nathanael West; Bellow and Carver; I, who can tell you where to find the best ribs in the world off a roadside stand in Texas; the best crab roll in New England; and the best ballpark hot dogs in America; who have walked through the sulphur bed of an American volcano and sat by Walden Pond with the trains rumbling beyond Thoreau’s cabin.

I still want it to work out well for this country and for that shrinking part of the world that looks to it, in spite of the evidence of its decadence and near-collapse, for inspiration and renewal. And in spite of everything my head knows, my heart says it just might.

Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor

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