With votes still being tabulated nationwide, Alive's columnist examines the lessons that can be gleaned from another close contest

If you know me in real life and I care enough about you, there is a good chance you have heard me advise, in a moment when you were spiraling in despair, not to borrow trouble from the future. If there is nothing you can do about the outcome of some impending development in your life, then your time is better spent not stressing yourself about the bad or painful things that aren’t happening.  

Taking my own advice, I leaned into my favored coping mechanism in the hours leading up to what was sure to be the most soul-crushing Election Day in my lifetime, sleep. I woke up early, walked down the block to vote, got in and out in about 45 minutes, went grocery shopping, steered more or less clear of social media, and fell asleep off and on throughout the day. I caught a good run of sheep somewhere between 8 p.m. and 1 a.m., when I woke up to see what world I was now living in.

The moment had notes of “Time Enough at Last,” the seminal "Twilight Zone" episode in which bookworm Henry Bemis, a man who has literally read himself legally blind, wakes up Rumpelstiltskin-style to discover that the world has been decimated by nuclear war. A horrible turn of events to be sure, but one softened by the realization that he could spend the rest of his life undisturbed, free to read all of the books he never could during the grind of daily life. 

And then he steps on his much-needed eyeglasses.   

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Similarly, I awoke to lots of data — piles of books filled with information — but not enough to come down on a decision about who the next president might be. All of the local races played out as I thought they would, since Franklin County is a fat blue dot in the rural red Ohio Sea. But some states that looked good for Biden didn’t pan out, and many were still too close to call. I hadn’t quite stepped on my glasses, but I couldn’t help feeling something underfoot. 

If you’re surprised by Ohio going for Trump then you don’t know where you live. Ohio is a pure swing state, its residents by and large enormous suckers for good marketing. It comes from a generations old tradition of being America’s preeminent test market. We don’t need for the product to be good, just entertaining. Even the people who hate Donald Trump can’t stop talking about him, so mission accomplished. Coupled with all of the racism that apparently permeates Ohio’s water like fluoride, no one should be surprised the state twice went for a white supremacist game show host. 

As I write this in the early morning hours after Election Day, more than 20 million legally submitted ballots remain uncounted. It is typical for votes to not be counted by the end of Election Day, though not usually this many. No one wants to pull the trigger too soon in calling state races. Everyone, that is, except for Trump.

The thing I most dreaded about catching up with the results overnight was the inevitable Trump speech, which was not only exceedingly on brand, but potentially illegal (which would also be on brand). He lied about the results of certain states and the election at large, claimed Democrats were trying to steal the election, and threatened to go to the Supreme Court to shut down tabulation of legal votes. And all from within the walls of the White House, no less.

He was still campaigning at 2:30 in the morning even though there were no more votes to collect. Before that moment, I was less worried about a lying president than I was by the thousands of people who wouldn’t realize he was lying. We aren’t boarding up buildings for the same reasons we did in June. The concern is less about Black Lives Matter protesters than it is Trump supporters kicking off a civil war, and it’s important to point out who strikes that match. Worse, no Republican has yet to step up to condemn Trump’s falsehoods. Maybe one will find their mettle to do the right thing in the morning.

Here’s an itinerary item I neglected to mention: I acquired a Nintendo Switch on Election Day with the hope of distracting myself by learning how to play the addictive "Animal Crossing." Unfortunately for my wallet, what’s become clear almost immediately is that my favorite post-election game will in fact be determining who voted for Trump based on what they post on social media. This week has suddenly become a rousing challenge to suss out the people posting about chocolate chip cookies as a coping mechanism from those who are genuinely content with four more years of Trump or, worst case scenario for them, a government that isn’t baldly attempting to eradicate them, and which they will survive just fine.

Morale in this country is so bad I don’t expect to see much in the way of celebration should Trump win, aka taking responsibility for things like the rolling back of civil liberties and children kept in cages. Most of his supporters will quietly carry on enjoying the creature comforts their particular horror of choice affords: more pictures of their motorcycles and cats in the face of civil unrest, some new pumpkin spice abomination, a hard pivot into professional sports analysis. If you discover someone who has posted a picture of a cat named Baker Mayfield with an American flag tied around its neck, congratulations: That’s a Trump Pokémon you can collect.

As a Black person, I am disconcerted. I have long resigned myself to my vote (and voting altogether, if I am honest), but I am distressed that the results are so close. Living under the pall of the last four years should have been a slam dunk for decency at the polls and it wasn’t. With a pandemic that has been set loose on the American populace and a banner year for civil unrest, you’d think that the race might not be so tight. And yet, here we are, piecing this so-called democracy together like a million chip puzzle, one on-the-fence vote at a time.

I am never surprised that the acknowledgement of racism isn’t enough to change America’s ways. After all, we have been at this for 400 years. This country is Teflon when it comes to owning up to racism. It is why I cautioned people months ago not to get too comfortable with the signs of change-gon’-come as represented by the shiny new diversity initiatives at their jobs, and the calls from newly awakened white people eager for racial education caught up in the heat of protest, some of whom would later chide me for not being satisfied that they showed up at all. I’d rather they found a way to stop voter suppression instead of mathing out in arguments with me about how to stay comfortable in the face of personal recrimination. I don’t take their racism as personal; why should they take my criticism of it as such?

Alas, the polls speak for themselves. We aren’t all waking up to a rudderless country today because Black people didn’t vote, but because of the ways in which white people did.

All hopes I have about the results of this election are reserved for the future. I hope that we will finally take voter suppression seriously. I hope that the so-called Latino vote will be parsed more constructively. I hope that the Black vote will better learn to leverage its collective bargaining power. I hope that the Electoral College will get a proper deconstruction before it is called into play next time. (As you can see, the popular vote actually does matter if there is enough of it to consider.) I hope that people who are on the same side of the political fence can learn to argue better and less, and keep their eyes on the prize. I hope that we all learn to see voting as a step and not a goal. I hope that all of us can see how all of these things can happen at the same time without taking a moment to focus on any one as a slight to all others.

And Lord, I hope that this will be the end of electability-only politics as a strategy, a necessary step toward the end of lesser evil politics. If nothing else, Trump has been useful in proving that Americans can still be led by passion and fire (even as it burns everyone in the process), and every faction should take note of how ineffective the old balms are.

America’s wounds are too severe for the Band-Aid of a politics of moderation. It turns out that tens of millions of people who have opted out of political engagement might need more than either fear or the same ol’ political spiels to be mobilized. Kanye West got 60,000 votes and he had the platform of a drunken bowl of sugar grits. Something has to change to break the political malaise inflicted on Americans every four years. And so, while we — contrary to Trump’s attempts at hypnotism — absolutely do not know who Americans have voted in as the next president, hopefully this exercise has exposed how much real change is needed to create a demonstrably better, greater America.