Timothy Egan: The day that decided the 2020 election

(Andrew Harnik | AP) Ambassador Gordon Sondland, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, center, appears before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, during a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents.

Election Day, 2020. The polls have just closed. All indications point to a resounding verdict. Historians, loath to make narrative sense of an age without waiting for the vapors of passion to pass, agree on one thing.

It was, they say, Nov. 20, 2019, that ensured the outcome — a day and a night that crystallized the choice for the majority of Americans ready to toss Donald Trump from office.

The impeachment hearings had been bumping along, the main story clear: a parade of impeccable public servants trying to uphold the values of their country against a gangster White House. A candidate who had gloated over chants of “lock her up” for an opponent who had used unsecured emails had, once elected, conducted foreign policy by extortion, on open cellphone lines penetrated by the Russians.

Most Americans felt that Trump had committed an impeachable offense, but barely half favored removing him by the constitutional equivalent of the death penalty.

Then came the bullet-headed Republican, Gordon Sondland, an oddball hotelier whose ambassadorship to the European Union was a million-dollar quid pro quo. Some predicted he would take the Fifth.

Instead, he said that the unusual diplomatic dance in Ukraine was not part of a rogue operation holding up American tax dollars as part of a scheme to take down a political opponent. It was White House policy, the government of the people in service of one person.

“We followed the president’s orders,” he said. “Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret.”

This was not a Democrat or a “deep state” operative, but someone with a character reference from Trump himself — “a really good man and a great American.” And after wincing at the shrapnel of this testimony, Trump reverted to form, the default mode of presidential mendacity: “I barely know the man.”

It was now clear beyond doubt; there were more smoking guns than you would find after a hunting trip with Dick Cheney. The corrupt president had become the corrupt policy. He’d run a fraudulent university, a dubious charity and bragged of cheating on prior wives; no surprise that he directed a foreign policy obsessed with a scheme to extort a fragile ally. As any novelist could have predicted, character was destiny.

Republicans had chased phantoms, political ephemera. Like Trump, they listened to propagandists in the right-wing press and fell into a hole of irrelevance. What about the whistleblower? Unmask him! He’s a deep-stater, a never-Trumper!

But the whistleblower was only a bit player, another in a long line of public servants whose vaccine of duty was strong enough to resist the contagion of Trump. The whistleblower’s motive was, perhaps, stated best by Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the Purple Heart on his dress uniform speaking loudly, who said simply, “Here, right matters.”

A month or so into 2020, Trump would be impeached. Sondland’s testimony could not get the Cult of Trump, and those cowards in office who fear that mob, to budge. But those who voted for removal put a tattoo on the 45th president that can never be erased: He violated the sacred oath. The record was there for all time.

It remained for the Democrats to do their part. At a crucial debate on the evening of the most consequential day of the Trump presidency, the opposition party needed to show that they were not the crazy Marxists of an election some had framed as socialists vs. the sociopath.

They had no clear front-runner. But they had an elder statesman, revered the world over, the two-term former president. When Barack Obama urged moderation, saying, “The average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it,” the Democrat who will win on this election night of 2020 heeded his advice.

That crucial debate came while the race was still in flux. But a trio of elections the same month had given Democrats a road map. They could win in deeply red Kentucky and Louisiana, and complete the political transition in Virginia, if they backed popular plans to elevate average Americans. That, and Trump’s policies of trying to deny health care to the poor, of running up a trillion-dollar deficit to enrich a handful at the very top, of turning a blind eye to mass shootings of schoolchildren, would take down Republicans.

Sanity prevailed. Most Democrats came to see that it would do nothing for their cause to gain another million progressives on the coasts if they still lost 80,000 people in the old industrial heartland. The key, as extolled by the eventual winner, was to rebuild the Obama coalition.

At the center of that legion of decency were women, wondering aloud why the United States was one of the few nations on earth without paid family leave for new mothers. They led by example. As Sen. Amy Klobuchar said on that debate night: “If you think a woman can’t beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day.”

Because the winner took these lessons to heart, because there was no denying the facts of Trump’s deep corruption and dereliction of duty, because every midnight of the American soul has been followed by a dawn, the outcome on this election night was never in doubt.

Timothy Egan

Timothy Egan is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.

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