Even if this ends well, it will not end well.
Mind you, if it ends badly — that is to say, if Donald Trump is returned to the White House in November — America's likely future will be, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, "nasty, brutish and short." But the paradox of our predicament is that even if it ends well — Joe Biden becomes the 46th president — our likely future will, at least in the short term, be only marginally better.
That's not an indictment of the state of our economic, foreign policy, environmental, judicial or social affairs, though those, too, will be dicey. No, that's an indictment of the brokenness, the newly revealed fragility, of our society, of the rituals, traditions and unspoken agreements that make America.
As illustration, try a thought experiment. On Inauguration Day, by longstanding tradition, the incoming president meets the outgoing president at the White House. They exchange pleasantries and then ride over to the Capitol together. One imagines it can be awkward, especially if the new president defeated the old one at the polls. Yet Bush did it with Clinton, Carter with Reagan, Ford with Carter, Hoover with Roosevelt — a grand symbol of the continuity of government and the peaceful transfer of power.
Now, try to imagine Trump doing that with Biden. Try to imagine Trump as a "loser" — there's no description more damning in his vocabulary — not behaving badly, not pouting, not stomping tradition like a bully stomps a sandcastle. Try to imagine his gracious concession speech, his congratulatory tweets, the smooth transition period. You can't, not even if you had the combined imaginative horsepower of Jack Kirby, Walt Disney and Stephen King.
The fact that you wouldn't be even a little surprised if Trump showed his metaphorical — and who knows, maybe even his literal — backside right in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, speaks eloquently of how his tenure has damaged something ephemeral but irreplaceable. Who among us any longer expects statesmanship, dignity, honor, selflessness or compassion from a president? Who expects accountability, intellectual honesty or even intellect itself? Who expects bipartisan action in the common good?
As a nation that was never bound by blood and that is bound less every day by culture, such notes of grace assume outsized importance in binding us as a people. Unfortunately, if the last four years have done nothing else, they have made grace an endangered species.
And while it would be nice to believe it can be restored by choosing a decent and selfless man to replace a craven and self-interested one, we should brace for the likelihood that that will not be the case. At least, not immediately. The damage is too deep — again, not just to our concrete national interests, but also to the way we see our country, to the expectations we hold for our leaders. And for ourselves.
Nor would Trump's defeat end the damage. That would likely be ongoing as he and his enablers engaged in rhetorical guerrilla warfare, undermining everything that comes after him. There's also a real possibility of violence from his followers who, after all, thrive on rejection.
The point, then, is that America faces difficult days, no matter what happens in November and we should know that going in. Joe Biden's election would not be a magic wand ushering in so-called "normalcy." But it would at least suggest a nation drawing back from the precipice upon which we've danced for years. Besides, even if a thing doesn't end well, it still ends.
And some new thing can begin.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a syndicated columnist with The Miami Herald.