During the presidential campaign of 1988, "Saturday Night Live's" Dana Carvey played then-Vice President George H.W. Bush as a lovable oddball and Jon Lovitz portrayed Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis as an emotionally detached technocrat, musing out loud during a debate, "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy."
Even though it was a comedy sketch, that line has been thrown in Democrats' faces ever since as an example of their arrogant elitism and failure to understand Real America. Don't you know that the average voter wants a president they can have a beer with, not some egghead know-it-all?
The criticism is a bum rap. Democrats spent years trying desperately to appeal to all those Real Americans. They did everything they could to appeal to the "NASCAR Dads" and "Waitress Moms." They spent tons of money, time and energy reaching out to the long-lost "Reagan Democrats," to little avail. Bill Clinton won both times with a plurality (and might not have won at all without Ross Perot in the race). It wasn't until Barack Obama put together a different coalition that the Democrats finally gained a governing majority.
But if there was ever a time that Democrats legitimately bought into that Lovitz punchline it was in 2016. Donald Trump's surreal candidacy was so over-the-top that it seemed impossible that anyone could "lose to this guy," much less the highly prepared and super-qualified Hillary Clinton. It was unthinkable that such a man could become president of the United States.
We all know how that turned out — and the result was a serious loss of confidence among Democratic voters. It's unlikely any of them will say "I can't believe we're losing to this guy" without knocking on wood ever again.
From what we can gather in this weird, truncated primary season, voters ended up choosing Joe Biden because they made the judgment that he was the best bet to beat Donald Trump. Desperate to put an end to Trump's manic reign, they picked a highly familiar mainstream white man, in the hope that they could cover their bases and avoid as much backlash as possible.
So naturally, after all the years of tut-tutting at Democrats for allegedly looking down their noses at the working men and women of the heartland, pundits and pollsters are now accusing them of giving Donald Trump and his ecstatic followers too much credit for being the voices of Real America. "Don't be so paranoid!" they say. "Democrats won back the House in 2018 in a big blue wave! Trump is behind in the polls by six points! Stop worrying — it's over!"
I suppose they have a point about the polling. According to the latest analysis by CNN's Harry Enten, Biden leads Trump at this stage of the campaign by significantly more than Hillary Clinton did at the same time in 2016. But you cannot blame people for wondering how in the world Donald Trump can even be within spitting distance of re-election after all that's happened these last three-plus years.
He still is. And Democrats' fear that he'll find some way to pull it off again is scoffed at as a sign of their own delusion — a form of Trump-era PTSD that attributes to him some kind of supernatural ability that he doesn't have.
The truth is that Democrats aren't paranoid about Trump winning again because they think he is a political savant. They're paranoid because the system is failing.
The 2016 election itself was a dubious outcome not because of the Electoral College, although there's certainly an argument to be made that it's fundamentally undemocratic. It was dubious because even though Clinton won the popular vote by a substantial margin, the final result was affected both by the last-minute actions of FBI director James Comey and the Russian government's plot to help Donald Trump. Perhaps neither of those things were decisive but they were substantial deviations from the norm and nothing has been done to stop those kinds of things from happening again.
If anything, it appears that special counsel John Durham's "investigation of the investigation" is a much more elaborate attempt to influence the 2020 election than anything Comey could have devised. And all the Intelligence services assure us that Russian agents are hard at work trying to sabotage our democracy once again.
But it's much more than that. Most Americans were taught in school that our government is a carefully devised system of checks and balances. No president could ever get away with open corruption or abuse of power because he would be held accountable by Congress and the courts. We can now see that this is really just a myth held together by a set of rickety norms and practices that are only as good as the people who respect them. Republicans no longer respect them.
Democrats have seen this president get away with massive corruption, incompetence, nepotism and criminal behavior. A highly respected special counsel found ample evidence that Trump went to great lengths to obstruct justice and his attorney general exonerated him with novel theories about presidential power. And after all that was revealed, the president saw his supposed exoneration as a green light to further abuse his power, leaving the Congress no choice but to impeach him. He was spared conviction by the shell of an institution once known as the Republican Party.
At every step of the way, the Republicans in Congress have backed Trump, giving him permission to purge the government of anyone he believes is disloyal and reward his most sycophantic admirers. That has led to the greatest government failure in modern memory. Faced with a global health crisis of unprecedented scope, America's hollowed-out federal government, led by this vain and shallow man, was unable to respond. The most technologically advanced nation on earth has the highest number of deaths in the world, and counting.
Yet Trump maintains the loyalty of his base and continues to have the full force of the Republican Party behind him. His cruel pettiness and narcissism only makes them cling to him all the more.
Now Democrats are supposed to feel confident that Biden's six-point lead in the polls means that everything is going to be just fine? Nothing is going to be fine. The series of events I've just described — along with the hundreds of atrocities I don't have room to mention — aren't just about Trump. They are illustrations of a failing country that has been in a weakened state for a long time.
Let's hope that the system is still strong enough to produce a free fair election and that Trump is uncharacteristically willing to accept defeat in a somewhat dignified manner. Keep your fingers crossed that his supporters will follow that lead. But don't feel ashamed of losing sleep for fear that somehow he's going to win — or that we wind up with some disputed result in which he tries to cling to power.
If the last three years have taught us anything, it's that there is no "normal" anymore. Your worries are entirely rational. We're in uncharted territory.