Networks are not public officials. They do not count the votes. They do, however, take data from officials who have that job. Within a day or day after this year’s election, it was clear that former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris had won both a sizable majority of the popular vote and at least the minimum of 270 electoral college votes to entitle them to assume the nation’s two highest offices on Jan. 20, 2021.
As others have observed, President Donald J. Trump had long set the stage for disputing the election. As the days since the election have turned into weeks, his persistence in refusing to accept the results, both by tweet and in a series of failed federal and state lawsuits, has properly disturbed many Americans, including many of those who voted for him. Mr. Trump’s subordinates have not limited themselves to claiming “alternative facts” — they have also refused to initiate the statutorily-authorized transition process. One senior official who spoke up for the integrity of the election has been fired.
We know all this. But what is less clear is why this is happening, and what must be going on in Mr. Trump’s mind.
Which brings us to An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, a famous short story written in 1890 by Ambrose Bierce. It is set during the Civil War and tells of Peyton Farquhar, an Alabamian, a fervent Confederate, a politician, who is to be hanged from a railroad bridge by Union Army soldiers. He imagines an escape—
He unclosed his eyes and saw again the water below him. “If I could free my hands,” he thought, “I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home. My home, thank God, is as yet outside their lines; my wife and little ones are still beyond the invader’s farthest advance.”
Bierce takes us through what the man imagined in the blink of an eye. An escape against all odds. A return to his home and family. Until it ends.
Another reference that comes to mind is James Dickey’s Falling, a poem about an 1962 incident in which an airline cabin attendant was sucked out of a plane and fell to her death. An excerpt:
Into another heavy silver unbreathable slowing saving
Element: there is water there is time to perfect all the fine
Points of diving feet together toes pointed hands shaped right
To insert her into water like a needle to come out healthily dripping
And be handed a Coca-Cola there they are there are the waters
Of life the moon packed and coiled in a reservoir so let me begin
To plane across the night air of Kansas opening my eyes superhumanly
Bright to the damned moon opening the natural wings of my jacket
By Don Loper moving like a hunting owl toward the glitter of water
One cannot just fall just tumble screaming all that time one must use
It she is now through with all through all clouds damp hair
Straightened the last wisp of fog pulled apart on her face like wool revealing
New darks new progressions of headlights along dirt roads from chaos
Do these literary sources suggest what must be going through Mr. Trump’s mind? Does he think that if an infinite number of lawsuits are filed, one “Hail Mary” complaint is sure to hit pay dirt? “Like a miracle,” the election will flip and he will be able to enjoy that same exquisite thrill Harry Truman surely felt when holding up the Chicago Daily Tribune’s “Dewey defeats Truman” headline?
Bierce and Dickey both suggest the infinite capacity of the human mind to invent outcomes — Farquhar will slip his bonds and swim away, the stewardess will land in water — when facing the certainty of a bad outcome. This is human nature. But what Mr. Trump is facing is not the result of some drumhead trial or the failure of an airplane hatch. Rather, it’s a reflection of the inexorable unfolding, against all odds, of the democratic process. Obviously, it is asking too much of this soulless man to recognize that his political misfortune need not be our national misfortune. If he suffers a hard landing, it’s on him.