Tuesday was a long day for me, up at 4 a.m. in the cold moonlight to be a poll worker, rotating tasks that led to my 7:15 p.m. emptying of 746 machine-read paper ballots from the big black box under the reader machine. Home by 9 p.m. The box reminded me of the kind of trick box magicians employ to make somebody disappear, then re-appear. It had a lock that I got to open with a color-coded key, and a wire tab I got to cut with wire cutters, observers from both parties and six other county volunteers looking on.

There was no sleight of hand about the results for the rustic precinct in that firehouse out by House Mountain in western Virginia – 598 votes for Trump’s electors, 127 for Biden’s. America has a very parochial system of voting. It must be frustrating for Putin’s hackers, and makes the Robin Williams movie “Man of the Year” a fictional impossibility, that a big federal contract could be let out to an evil tech giant to handle all the votes.

So, we’ll watch things play out over the next few days, or weeks — that very local system, under our system of laws, not men. (Chief Justice Roberts began 2020 with a New Year’s resolution for the federal judiciary to judge without fear or favor, with honor and integrity. The Times reporter called it a rebuke to something President Trump had just said about “my” Supreme Court.)

People see things in their own ways. This morning, I realized that my view of Trump may be a lot more personal and eccentric than I had thought it was. I thought most people could recognize a bully and a swindler. But now I think maybe it’s something in my own past experiences, maybe a suppressed trauma.

To me, Trump is not a Hitler, or a racist, or stupid, or an evil person, or even a conservative. (I’ve increasingly come to appreciate principled conservatives over the last four years, and may have actually become more conservative politically in my dismay over the bullying and the con-game.) I’m sorry these ordinary labels seem too ordinary – bully and con artist. Maybe it’s something from my own unique past that shapes my perspective. Fraudulent salesman. Swayer of crowds. I know these types.

I can’t remember being bullied, but I see the type and back away. I would protect the bully’s victims like Holden Caulfield, seeing phonies everywhere, imagines catching children in the rye before they fall off. That’s the compassion I feel for many Trump voters, like the friendly people I helped vote yesterday, a surprising number who knew me even behind my mask. 

Somewhere long ago, I was in a roomful of friends who agreed to listen to a salesman pitch a pyramid scheme. The idea of the money to be made appealed to some, maybe most. Not to me. Even if it was real and legal. The salesman couldn’t believe (or so he said) that I rejected his basic premise – that it’s better for me to have more that I had. No, I thought, not on his terms.

In journalism, we learn to look for the swindle. George Greiff, in the class on reporting I audited at Georgia State, taught us the classic cons and hoaxes. Those are rare, but all politics and business employ the same techniques to a lesser degree. Business and politics work for the common good, I think, only to the extent that people have the common sense to know how much of the con to make allowances for. Why don’t Trump voters see that their man is the ultimate con, with the unauthorized power of the ultimate bully? (I wish someone had written a comic novel that has him as its main character. What a great American novel that might have been!) Have they never been swindled? Bullied?

But the morning after is sobering. I realize mine may be a much smaller, more personal, more esoteric perspective than I assumed.  I wait patiently for the vote to be counted and for law to over-shadow our eccentric biases.

An incurable disease stalks the land. It is called democracy. The experts think they understand it, but then it tricks them. “It will just go away,” says the magician, our confidence man, and he might as well be talking about the rule of law and the facts of facts. “One day – it’s like a miracle – it will disappear.” When it comes to this virus of democracy, I don’t think so.


Image: this image is a screenshot from a video on twitter (fair use).

Doug Cumming

Doug Cumming

Doug Cumming worked for newspapers and magazines in Raleigh, Providence and Atlanta for 26 years before getting a Ph.D. in mass communication at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2002. Since then, he has taught at Loyola University in New Orleans and Washington & Lee University, where he is now a tenured associate professor of journalism. His first book, "The Southern Press: Literary Legacies and the Challenge of Modernity," has been published by Northwestern University Press. His father, Joe Cumming, was the Atlanta bureau chief for Newsweek magazine during the years of the Civil Rights movement.