The President’s voice starts out a little raspy, but before long he’s in full roar. “We’re going to have a big victory, and that will be the end of it,” Donald Trump says. “Because you know what? One more defeat and they’re going to accept it.”
A murmur rises from the sweaty, jubilant crowd in this horse-breeding hub northwest of Orlando. Thousands are packed onto the airport tarmac in the blazing October sun. Nearly everyone is wearing a Trump shirt or hat–keep America Great, make liberals cry again, no more bullsh-t, adorable deplorable kid for Trump–and almost no one is wearing a face mask. They’re going to win Florida again, Trump says. There’s going to be a big red wave.
In the other version of reality, things are far less hopeful for Trump. Most polls say his opponent, Joe Biden, is ahead in Florida, a state without which it’s almost impossible for Trump to win, where more than 16,000 people have died of COVID-19 and nearly 4 million have already voted. The President is on the defensive in the battlegrounds he won four years ago, struggling even in states he should have locked up, like Ohio and Georgia. At a time when the nation’s problems are urgent and obvious, Trump’s closing message is an argle-bargle of conspiracy theories and personal grievance.
As the President rallies in Florida, Biden is in Michigan doing normal-candidate things: giving a pat speech on health care, holding a drive-in rally at a fairgrounds in Detroit and posing for (masked!) selfies with a youth choir. But what Biden is doing is almost beside the point. This election isn’t about Biden, and everyone, including Biden, knows it.
It’s about Trump: the ultimate referendum on this norm-shattering presidency, the climactic episode of our national nervous breakdown, the final reckoning. From the start, Biden has been calling his campaign a “battle for the soul of the nation,” and as trite and grandiose as that may sound, it’s hard to disagree. It is a campaign premised entirely on emotional contrast–compassion, trust, inclusion–and a plea for an ending, a do-over, a return to normal times. “Everybody knows who Donald Trump is,” Biden says in Michigan. “We have to let them know who we are.” But as Trump is fond of pointing out, if the old normal was so great, he wouldn’t have gotten elected in the first place.
An embattled Trump insisting the prognosticators are wrong, while chaos swirls and his opponent attempts to play by the old rules: in so many ways, it feels like 2016 all over again. Gloomy Republicans fret that Trump is dragging the party down with him. One Republican Senator recently called the President a “TV-obsessed narcissistic individual,” while another isn’t supporting his Supreme Court nominee; Trump, of course, lashed out at both of them on Twitter. The campaign pros wish he would listen to them and behave, rather than, say, pursuing a vendetta against Dr. Anthony Fauci, the scientist held in far higher public regard, or hyping dubious reports about Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine, which some experts suspect may be Russian disinformation. Trump needs to “stop whining about people picking on him or trying to steal the election,” says Republican strategist Charlie Black. “What he’s got to do is talk about the economy, talk about packing the Supreme Court, and little else.” Trump’s own aides privately admit that his touring schedule is as much about keeping the President busy and emotionally satisfied as it is an actual political strategy.
So many things have happened, yet nothing ever seems to change. We have been through a lot since 2016: the shocks, the scandals, the protests and riots, the hundreds of thousands dead and millions out of work. The travel ban, Robert Mueller, kids in cages, covfefe and Sharpiegate, Stormy Daniels and Kim Jong Un, disinfectant injections, Kanye West, emoluments, impeachment. Very fine people on both sides. A debate where the candidates and moderator spend the whole time yelling at each other and then one winds up in the hospital. The past four years have been a political fever dream, a man-bites-dog story where no one can agree which side is the dog and which is the man. A large swath of the public has become convinced that Democrats are in league with a Satan-worshipping pedophilia cult, and Trump won’t say it’s not true, because that swath of the public loves him.
Everything has gone screwy, and anything could happen. This is the biggest difference from 2016: though all the data seem to point to a Trump loss, the pundits who were so certain four years ago now have a haunted air. To count Trump out is to tempt fate. And so we need this election not only to decide who will occupy the White House for the next four years but also to settle the great national argument that has consumed us since 2016. On Nov. 3 (or, hopefully, soon after), we will finally get an answer to the question of what these past four discombobulating years have meant–whether Trump was what America wanted or some kind of exceedingly consequential fluke. It is a decision not about what policy proposals to pursue but about what reality we collectively decide to inhabit.
One more defeat and they’re going to accept it. Everyone dreams of a victory so total it will discredit the opposition and drive them into exile. But it will not be so easy to knit this torn-up country back together, as the virus makes its winter surge and the institutions of democracy teeter. “They can get rid of Trump, but they can’t get rid of us,” Raymond Tedesco, a 58-year-old in sunglasses and a TRUMP 2020 hat, tells me in Ocala, where the medics are hauling away audience members as they faint from the heat and thousands of disposable masks are piled unused by the metal detectors. “We ain’t going nowhere. You can put that mental case Joe Biden in office, we’re just going to get madder and louder.” The people around him–a homeschool mom, a horse trainer, an African-American would-be TikTok influencer who owns a local gym–nod in agreement.
“These people are all wonderful, nice people. I’m not so nice,” Tedesco continues with a toothy grin. “They want to come for me, they better bring some body bags.” I ask what he does for a living, and he says, “I make trouble.” One way or another, this election will be over soon. And then who knows what fresh trouble may start.
On my flight to Minnesota for another Trump campaign rally, my seatmate gets into an argument over masks with a flight attendant. When I get to the rental-car counter, the otherwise normal-seeming clerk has a sticker on his phone that says Q: Trust the plan. 2020 is nothing if not on brand.
The corner of 38th and Chicago in Minneapolis is cool and still as the sun rises on a September morning. Jersey barriers keep traffic out of the intersection, and the lit marquee of the boarded-up Speedway gas station tells you where you are: George Floyd Square. The protesters are gone now, but the streets bear witness to the paroxysms of grief and rage Floyd’s killing unleashed. You are now entering the free state of George Floyd, says a sign. Respect one another. Two miles away, cranes are repairing the looted Target store; across the street, the former Third Precinct police station lies in ruins.
It’s four hours’ drive north to get to Trump’s rally in Bemidji, through flat green farmland dotted with pretty lakes and the occasional roadside political sign. Nestled between reservations, the town is “about one-third Native, one-third white and one-third hippie,” a local tells me. One afternoon at the beginning of June, a retired Lutheran pastor named Melody Kirkpatrick set up a lawn chair and a homemade social-justice poster by the side of a road and began to knit. The “knitters for justice” have met every day since; Kirkpatrick estimates about 75 people have joined her. “They think we’re here to knit, and I say, ‘No, that’s just to keep from strangling somebody,'” the cheerful, gray-haired 68-year-old says with a laugh. Her face mask says std–stop The Donald–don’t let the infection spread.
In the hours before the President’s plane lands, the Trump Shop, a converted trailer unaffiliated with the campaign, is doing brisk business selling buttons, key chains, flags, socks, caps, glasses, koozies, stickers, hoodies and the occasional face mask. Tractors flying massive Trump flags cruise up and down the town’s main artery, Paul Bunyan Drive. But Kirkpatrick has plenty of company too. Local Democrats and members of Indivisible Bemidji line the route with homemade signs like vote him out before he kills us all.
Rural Minnesota wasn’t always a hotbed of political activity, but Trump’s victory was born in places like this: the hollowed-out towns of the industrial Midwest, where his pugnacious affect and broadsides against trade deals and immigration galvanized legions of non-college-educated white people. Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania went Republican for the first time in decades. Minnesota came within 1.5 percentage points of flipping too.
Since 2016, many have analyzed the revolution after the fact. Trump has been hailed as the tribune of a working-class realignment and scorned as the demagogue of white-identity politics. Theorists like his former adviser Steve Bannon envisioned a tectonic electoral shift as a new politics of nationalism, isolationism and protectionism supplanted the GOP’s stale supply-side economic dogma.
But Trump engineered something else too: an awakening on the other side. Shell-shocked liberals, most of them women, poured into the streets and formed local clubs from Oakland to Oklahoma City. They rallied for many causes–racial justice, health care, immigrant rights, women’s rights–but the organizing principle was getting rid of Trump. There was indeed a realignment, but the number of working-class whites flocking to the GOP was dwarfed by a massive swing of college-educated white voters, suburbanites and women to the Democrats. Add in a surge of young voters, voters of color, independents and seniors, and Biden has “created a coalition that’s completely unique in Democratic politics for the last 20 years,” says John Anzalone, his lead campaign pollster.
For all the tortured explanations of 2016 and its aftermath, the political history of this era may be simple: most Americans didn’t want Trump to be President in the first place. A confluence of circumstances–the right opponent, Russian interference, James Comey’s letter, the Electoral College–put him in the White House. Trump was not a political theorist and applied no particular focus to movement-building beyond the roar of the crowd, the flattering of his ego. The millions who loved him gave him a feedback loop of affirmation and turned swaths of white rural America into Trump Country.
But the majority of Americans–particularly the half of the electorate who live in suburban areas–have taken to the polls over and over again since to express their displeasure, from local elections to the 2018 midterms. And Trump has done little to persuade them to change their minds. “Trump’s base is charged up. Energizing them isn’t the issue,” says Larry Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. The rural white voters he’s brought into the GOP fold, Jacobs says, are vastly outnumbered by the urban and suburban voters he’s driven to the Democrats, with the result that he’s likely to do worse in Minnesota than he did four years ago despite making it a top campaign target. “This is one of those years that the President is so unpopular, a referendum on him could be a wave all the way down the ballot.”
The Trump rally in Bemidji is America’s zillionth but this area’s first. Supporters cram into the small airport hangar to hear the President say that Democrats want to fill their state with third-world refugees like the liberal Minneapolis Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. He spends an extended digression praising the military skill of General Robert E. Lee, goes on for several minutes about Hillary Clinton’s emails and gleefully describes the “beautiful” sight of a reporter being hit with a projectile on live television. Later, health authorities will report that the rally in Bemidji was the source of nine COVID-19 cases, two requiring hospitalization.
With a steady lead down the homestretch, the Biden campaign is focused on avoiding mistakes. “If we learned anything from 2016, it’s that we cannot underestimate Donald Trump or his ability to claw his way back into contention in the final days,” Biden’s campaign manager, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, wrote in an Oct. 17 memo to supporters. The front runner’s team, working from their houses and apartments and team-building over Zoom and Slack, is on high alert against complacency. “If you’re a Biden supporter, there’s no reason you should be feeling this bad,” says one Democratic consultant close to the Biden team who blames “2016 PTSD.”
In national polls, Biden is viewed far more favorably than Clinton was, has a larger national lead and does not face a substantial third-party vote that could erode his standing. State polls show the Democrat in a more comfortable position than Clinton ever truly enjoyed in Wisconsin and Michigan, though other key states, such as Florida and Pennsylvania, remain tight. A massive fundraising advantage has allowed Biden’s team to outspend Trump on television by almost a quarter-billion dollars in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Arizona, and he has the airwaves almost to himself in Ohio and Iowa. Democrats also have a clear edge over Republicans when it comes to early ballot returns. Biden has opted to campaign lightly, content to keep voters focused on the incumbent.
If all goes as planned, Biden will look like a political genius for executing the most basic stratagems: run toward the middle, avoid distractions, let your opponent self-destruct. But then what? “Donald Trump is mortally afraid of being seen as a loser,” says Miles Taylor, a former Trump Administration appointee who’s now campaigning for Biden. “He’ll cast any loss as illegitimate to make himself feel better. And the enormous detriment will not be to Donald Trump–it will be to the country and our democratic institutions.”
Should he win, Biden will face a set of thorny challenges beyond the pandemic and attendant recession. His unwieldy coalition includes centrists and socialists, apostate Republicans and rank-and-file Democrats, COVID-nervous seniors and angry young voters of color. He has laid out an ambitious economic agenda that promises to “build back better,” spending trillions to expand health care, build new infrastructure and address climate change. Some liberal activists have turned their attention to pushing for procedural changes such as eliminating the Senate filibuster and adding seats to the Supreme Court, without which they say his agenda will be blocked; others argue this would represent an unacceptable escalation of Trump’s norm breaking.
“Our system has suffered greatly from the irregular order of Donald Trump, but Joe Biden knows how to get us back to normal,” says Taylor. If there’s anything Trump’s election should have taught us, though, it’s that normal was always an illusion. America was always a weirder, angrier, more divided place than its politicians ever seemed to recognize. There is no going back; the only way out is through.
–With reporting by CHARLOTTE ALTER, BRIAN BENNETT, LESLIE DICKSTEIN, PHILIP ELLIOTT, SIMMONE SHAH and ABBY VESOULIS
This appears in the November 02, 2020 issue of TIME.