If Trump prevails, he’ll do it the same way he did four years ago, in the Electoral College, with a popular-vote loss quite possibly larger than last time. And this will mean not that Democrats have lost public opinion. It will mean that they won public opinion but that America’s electoral institutions are failing to register and respond to it.
That is a recipe for a precipitous collapse in the perceived legitimacy of those institutions. If we hadn’t just lived through several months of urban unrest, with widespread protests frequently crossing over into rioting and looting, and rates of violent crime surging in cities across the country, I might be convinced that the result would be little more than intensified online flame wars while the overwhelming majority of Americans tune out and ignore the political circus. It would be the kind of virtual civil war Ross Douthat describes in the most cogent chapter of his recent book on our decadent society — a scenario in which committed partisans indulge in vicarious digital violence while the rest of the country withdraws further into indolence and apathy, leaving the real world perfectly peaceful.
But the past five months have showed us a different and much darker path — one where another Trump upset is followed by public demonstrations much larger, angrier, and more violent than the ones that briefly flourished in the early days of 2017. Imagine the George Floyd protests from late May and early June at their most volatile but amplified and augmented by the scalding realization that at this moment the country’s electoral system is deaf to plurality or majority public opinion.