Like millions of Americans, I am alarmed that Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States. While Barack Obama’s record as president is mixed, Trump has peddled hatred and suspicion, threatening to reverse everything positive that Obama has accomplished. But along with worrying about what is to come, I’ve been reflecting on some past elections that were also shocking or wrong, elections that brought great harm — but not quite the end of civilization as we know it. The chances are that’s what will happen this time too.
November 1980: One I Got Wrong
Mea culpa: I did not vote to reelect President James Earl Carter. Nor did I vote for Ronald Reagan, to be sure; I voted for Barry Commoner, a candidate I respected who had an excellent platform. Commoner was the nominee of the Citizens Party, and he got over 200,000 votes in addition to mine, somewhat less than the tens of millions needed to make him a contender. It was not a close election; Reagan won by almost 10 percent of the popular vote and a landslide in the Electoral College.In my state, Vermont, Reagan led Carter by about 6 percent, while independent John Anderson got almost 15 percent and Barry Commoner a tad over 1 percent. I had not expected him to win, and I doubt he himself was surprised when he came up a little short on Election Day.
Why did I do that? It wasn’t a planned strategic vote in a “safe” state, it just reflected how I felt about the candidates at the time. I thought Carter had let us down during his last years as president and did not deserve to be reelected; I also thought that Reagan couldn’t do much harm in his sure-to-be one-term presidency. Wrong on all counts. I now believe Carter was a much better leader than I gave him credit for at the time. And as for Ronald Reagan….
In 1976 I covered the New Hampshire opening of Reagan’s presidential campaign as a correspondent (unpaid) for WIN Magazine. After listening to him reply to questions, I wrote “I cannot believe that this animated cliché could become president of the United States.” Good description, bad prophecy! Although, it took until 1981 for the nightmare to begin. That year, the Reagan administration started backing, and sometimes creating, terrorism in Central America that makes Osama bin Laden look like a small-time amateur. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people lost their lives while the US president fantasized that he was fighting the Soviet Union. That was only one of the ways in which the Reagan presidency was a disaster; economic recession and huge budget deficits, threats of nuclear war with the “evil empire” (fortunately Reagan later reversed course on this), the Iran-Contra conspiracy and support for right-wing military dictators around the globe were a few more. But despite all that he was reelected for another four years.
As for President Carter, his term in office began with major successes in foreign policy. His later years suffered by comparison, when the ferocious opposition that arose made further constructive progress all but impossible. Still, Carter deserved a second term, and without the Iran hostage crisis — the bad luck of the failed rescue and the Republican manipulation of the hostages’ release — plus the new racist opposition by the religious right, he might have won that election. In any case, he should have had my vote in 1980.
March 1990: Shock in Nicaragua
I arrived in Managua for a six-month stay in March 1990. It was a day or so after the election, which the governing Sandinista Front (FSLN) lost to the opposition UNO coalition. The nation seemed to be in shock. The Sandinistas had expected to win easily; there had been many polls before the election, and the most legitimate ones confirmed an FSLN victory. Despite their US backing and aggressive talk, the UNO leadership seemed to be completely unprepared for an actual victory.
In the first days after my arrival, people I met eagerly offered explanations for the FSLN’s loss. It was the mothers who did it, because the Frente did not promise to end the military draft. No, it was UNO’s vote-buying that made the difference. The terrible economic situation (mostly caused by the United States economic blockade) was the reason. Too many people cast protest votes, I was told, wanting to express their dissatisfaction with the government but never dreaming that those votes could matter. Most important, I think, was the realistic fear that the United States would continue the devastating “contra” war as long as the Sandinistas were in power. It looked painfully like a surrender, but voting them out seemed the only hope for peace.
US propagandists had disparaged the election, casting doubt on its legitimacy as they had done earlier in the 1984 election that the Sandinistas won. This time, however, the United States liked the result so it had to change its tune — praising the election while expressing doubts that the FSLN would actually turn over the government to UNO. But they did. The Sandinista leaders respected the outcome and yielded government power after several months of transition marked by agitation and demonstrations, though not much real violence. The contra war faded away and Nicaragua turned to an uneasy peace, marred by a shattered economy and a wave of crime as thousands of soldiers on both sides demobilized. The World Court had determined that the United States owed Nicaragua millions of dollars in reparations for its aggression, but the US rejected the court’s judgment and refused to pay. No official help, or even apology, was ever given. The Reagan team was shown to be guilty of atrocious terrorism, but never held accountable.
November 2000: Who Won?
In 2000 I was in San Salvador on US election day. (I had voted early, before leaving home.) No use staying up for the returns there, so after a night’s sleep I went out for a newspaper to learn the result. But there wasn’t any result; the votes were still being counted. This was an unpleasant surprise since I had expected Vice President Al Gore to win easily, and when I bought the next day’s paper I looked more apprehensively to learn who would be my next president. Still no answer. What could be going on up North?
Now we know: the election was being stolen. Of course, not everyone agrees and books have been written about what happened, but here are a couple of clear-cut points. Florida was a key state, and George Bush’s official margin of victory there was only 537 votes. A statistician friend had testified in Florida’s Martin County about one irregularity favoring Bush which alone almost surely gave him more votes than his winning margin. A far greater factor in that election was the suppression of hundreds of thousands of votes by means of laws and state policies, in Florida and elsewhere, designed to keep minorities and poor people away from the polls. Florida’s lifelong disenfranchisement of people ever convicted of a felony even after they complete their sentences was just one part of that, but it was a big one that prevented over 800,000 people, disproportionately African Americans, from voting. In the end, the US Supreme Court stepped in to stop a recount, handing the state’s electoral votes, and the presidency, to George W. Bush.
I thought that Al Gore’s campaign could have been better, and if so, the election might not have been close enough to steal. Gore did win half a million more votes nationally than his opponent, but thanks to America’s bizarre Electoral College system, five members of the Supreme Court and other villains, Bush, not Gore became president. The criminal and disastrous invasion of Iraq was only one of the horrors inflicted on the world, and on the United States, by that sadly wrong result.
And Now 2016: Worst Ever?
Certainly Donald Trump conducted the most negative presidential campaign in living memory, featuring continual appeals to fear and prejudice as well as blatant lies. It’s not clear that the election was literally stolen, although widespread Republican-backed voter suppression again played a big role. Three recent anti-democratic rulings by the Supreme Court went far to prevent a clean and fair election, flooding the campaigns with dark money and allowing discriminatory laws making it harder to vote. In spite of all that, the Democratic candidate won the popular vote — by over two million this time — but as in 2000, the Electoral College awarded the victory to Trump. We can only hope that he does not keep most of his campaign promises, and that his presidency turns out less badly than the horrific picture he painted of what he’d do if he won. The appointments he’s making during the transition do not bode well.
Let’s abolish that Electoral College before the next time!