Four years ago, on election night, I was happily working in San Francisco at a victory party for Proposition 64, which legalized recreational cannabis in California.
It was also supposed to be the night of Hillary Clinton's historic victory. Those of us in the crowd stood with our mouths agape as an election needle moved dramatically from the blue "Hillary Clinton wins" side to the red "Donald Trump wins."
I will never forget that sinking feeling and like a lot of Americans, I have never really recovered from the shock of his win.
It wasn't just that the intellectual equivalent of a carnival barker trailing bankruptcies and lawsuits like Charles Schultz's Pigpen trailed dirt had prevailed. It was his vulgarity, his disrespect for anyone and everything.
How could Trump's message of hatred and division, and his fantastical lies about reviving the industrial Midwest — including the coal industry — have resonated deeply enough with the electorate to send this unqualified, intellectually incurious reality star to the White House?
I blame a racial backlash that dates to our first Black president, Barack Obama, but I also blame the arrogance of the technocratic ideology embraced by Democrats like the Clintons and Obama: We know your factory is closing, but just believe us — with a little retraining, you'll be building electricity-generating windmills in no time!
Trump's 2016 victory taught us so much about ourselves; about the corroded soul of this country, about how easy it is for an ideologue to summon and exploit the worst angels of our nature. It showed us how easy it is to pit American against American, and America against the world. It showed us that the changing demographic of this country — white people have long known they will be in the minority by around the middle of this century — has created a toxic kind of anxiety that will be with us for some time to come.
As I write, on Tuesday night as the West Coast polls are closing, I have been riding a roller coaster of emotion. Despite weeks of warnings from political analysts that the race may not be decided for days, every switch on the leaderboard has me jumping out of my skin. Trump is up, Trump is down; Biden is up, Biden is down.
I had to turn off the television at least 20 times, and it became clear that the election outcome wouldn't be certain before my deadline Tuesday night.
Donald Trump did not invent the ugliness and toxicity that has inflamed the country since his election, but he unleashed it, encouraged it and thrived on it. Trump voters are by no means all racists, but they have all voted for someone who is.
I hardly think it's mere coincidence that the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements took flight during his first, and I hope only, term. If the presidency is a bully pulpit, Trump has used it to shout his unsubtle racism, sexism and xenophobia to an all-too-willing congregation.
It's a strategy that has a built-in expiration date. It's just not clear exactly at this moment when that will be.
Eight years ago, after Republicans were stung by Mitt Romney's loss to President Obama, it seemed that a reckoning for the GOP was nigh. In a post-mortem coordinated by then-GOP National Chairman Reince Priebus, the party acknowledged the country's shifting demographics, and vowed to do better to attract people of color, gay voters and others disenfranchised by conservative policies.
"The Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself," the authors wrote. "We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue. Instead of driving around in circles on an ideological cul-de-sac, we need a party whose brand of conservatism invites and inspires new people to visit us."
The rise of Trump and Trumpism blotted out that moment of clarity, and Priebus went on to become, briefly, Trump's chief of staff.
What the GOP has become in the last four years is a party of white grievance and isolation with so little respect for reality and science that its leader has effectively become the head of a death cult. I'm not joking; Stanford University economists concluded last week that Trump's rallies resulted in more than 30,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and likely caused more than 700 deaths among people who attended and their close contacts.
"The communities in which Trump rallies took place paid a high price in terms of disease and death," the economists wrote. All because people insisted on ignoring the advice of doctors to wear masks, social distance and avoid large gatherings.
And the pandemic rages on. The death toll stands at 232,000, and counting. Our children can't go to school, we can't work in our offices. The economy continues to suffer, millions remain out of work and most Americans say that efforts to contain the virus are going badly. Our public health officials — the most prominent of whom Trump has threatened to fire if he wins — warn that the worst spike is yet to come.
Given such negligence, that Trump would be rewarded with a second term seems inconceivable to me right now.
I'm not yet willing to concede that Trump has won a second term, but even if Biden wins, the Democrats better be prepared to face a reckoning of their own. In an America that lives up to its ideals, the 2020 presidential race could never have been this close.
Robin Abcarian is an opinion columnist at the Los Angeles Times.