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Toward the beginning of a wise and beautifully stated essay about American partisanship and the response to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death, lawyer and political commentator David French wrote, "I have never in my adult life seen such a deep shudder and sense of dread pass through the American political class."

I don't think the shudder was confined to the political class. And the day after Ginsburg died, I felt a shudder just as deep.

That was when supporters of President Donald Trump descended on a polling location in Fairfax, Va., and sought to disrupt early voting there by forming a line that voters had to circumvent and chanting, "Four more years!"

This was no rogue group. This was no random occurrence. This was an omen -- and a harrowing one at that.

Republicans are planning to have tens of thousands of volunteers fan out to voting places in key states, ostensibly to guard against fraud but effectively to create a climate of menace. Trump has not just blessed but encouraged this.

Color me alarmist, but that sounds like an invitation to do more than just watch. Trump put an exclamation point on it by exhorting those supporters to vote twice, once by mail and once in person, which is of course blatantly against the law.

Is a fair fight still imaginable in America? Do rules and standards of decency still apply? For a metastasizing segment of the population, no. That's the toxic wellspring of the dread that French mentioned. That's the moral of the madness in Virginia.

Talk about a shudder: On Wednesday, Trump was asked if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power in the event that he lost to Joe Biden. Shockingly but then not really, he wouldn't. He prattled anew about mail-in ballots and voter fraud and, perhaps alluding to all of the election-related lawsuits that his minions have filed, said: "There won't be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation."

We're in terrible danger. Make no mistake. This country, already uncivil, is on the precipice of being ungovernable, because its institutions are being so profoundly degraded, because its partisanship is so all-consuming, and because Trump, who rode those trends to power, is now turbocharging them to drive America into the ground. The Republican Party won't apply the brakes.

The week since Ginsburg's death has been the proof of that. Many of us dared to dream that a small but crucial clutch of Republican senators, putting patriotism above party, would realize that to endorse Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's abandonment of his own supposed principle about election-year Supreme Court appointments would be a straw too many, a stressor too much and a guarantee of endless, boundless recrimination and retribution. At some point, someone had to be honorable and say, "Enough."

Hah. Only two Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, broke with McConnell, and in Collins' case, there were reelection considerations and hedged wording. All the others fell into line.

So the lesson for Democrats should be to take all they can when they can? That's what some prominent Democrats now propose: As soon as their party is in charge, add enough seats to the Supreme Court to give Democrats the greater imprint on it. Make the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico states, so that Democrats have much better odds of controlling the Senate. Do away with the filibuster entirely. That could be just the start of the list.

And who the hell are we anymore? The world's richest and most powerful country has been brought pitifully and agonizingly low. On Tuesday, we passed the mark of 200,000 deaths related to the coronavirus, cementing our status as the global leader, by far, on that front. How's that for exceptionalism?

On Wednesday, The Atlantic rushed its November cover story onto the web with an explanatory, almost apocalyptic note by its editor-in-chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, that some journalism is too important to wait. The article is about the very real chance -- essentially confirmed hours later by Trump's "continuation" comment -- that he might contest the election in a manner that keeps him in power regardless of what Americans really want.

Several hours after Gellman's article appeared, Slate published one by Richard Hasen, a professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, with the headline: "I've Never Been More Worried About American Democracy Than I Am Right Now."

Sometimes an overlap of alarms like that reflects groupthink. Sometimes it signals hysteria. This isn't either of those times.

"The republic is in greater self-generated danger than at any time since the 1870s," Richard Primus, a professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School, told me, saying that Trump values nothing more than his own power and will do anything that he can get away with.

I spoke with Primus, fittingly enough, as he drove home to Michigan from Washington, where he was paying tribute to Ginsburg, for whom he was a clerk two decades ago.

"If you had told Barack Obama or George W. Bush that you can be reelected at the cost that American democracy will be permanently disfigured -- and in the future America will be a failed republic -- I don't think either would have taken the deal." But Trump? "I don't think the survival of the republic particularly means anything to Donald Trump."

What gave Primus that idea? Was it when federal officers used tear gas on protesters to clear a path for a presidential photo op? Was it when Trump floated the idea of postponing the election, just one of his many efforts to undermine Americans' confidence in their own system of government?

Or was it when he had his name lit up in fireworks above the White House as the climax of his party's convention? Was it Monday, when his attorney general, Bill Barr, threatened to withhold federal funds from cities that the president considers "anarchist"? That gem fit snugly with Trump's talk of blue America as a blight on red America, his claim that the pandemic would be peachy if he could just lop off that rotten fruit.

"Tribal," "identity politics," "fake news" and "hoax" are now mainstays of our vocabulary, indicative of a world where facts and truth are suddenly relative. Yours may contradict mine, eroding any common ground and preventing any consensus.

Those fires are burning hot, with dire implications for what happens after Nov. 3. Sizable camps of people in both parties don't see any way that the other could win honestly and won't regard the ensuing government as legitimate. Trump has essentially commanded his followers to take that view.

And he's foreshadowing legal shenanigans by his team that would leave many Democratic voters feeling robbed. Try this on for size: Litigation to determine the next president winds up with the Supreme Court, where three Trump-appointed justices are part of a majority decision in his favor. It's possible.

You know who has most noticeably and commendably tried to turn down the temperature? Biden. That's of course its own political calculation, but it's consistent with his comportment during his entire presidential campaign, one that has steered clear of extremism, exalted comity and recognized that a country can't wash itself clean with more muck.

He's our best bid for salvation, which goes something like this: An indisputable majority of Americans recognize our peril and give him a margin of victory large enough that Trump's challenge of it is too ludicrous for even many of his Republican enablers to justify. Biden takes office, correctly understanding that his mandate isn't to punish Republicans. It's to give America its dignity back.

There is another school of thought: Maybe we need some sort of creative destruction to get to a place of healing and progress. Maybe we need to hit rock bottom before we bounce back up.

But what if there's bottom but no bounce? I wonder. And shudder.

Bruni writes for The New York Times.


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