In retrospect, I guess there was no other way for the 2016 election to end than in a giant, flaming ball of confusion and with a razor-thin final result.
A week ago—hell, less than 72 hours ago—this race was over by every conceivable metric: Hillary Clinton led in one national poll after another—sometimes by double digits—as well as in enough state polls to clear 270 electoral votes and keep right on chugging. What’s more, Donald Trump appeared to have abandoned any residual interest in taking this election seriously, spending most of his days plugging his tacky products and incoherently whining about how the entire democratic process is fixed.
Hence every sensible political pundit predicting that, unless something very weird happens between now and November 8, Hillary Clinton will easily be elected the 45th president of the United States, and we will all be able to return to our regularly scheduled lives.
And then on Friday afternoon, something very weird happened: The director of the FBI, James Comey, publicly revealed the existence of a mysterious set of emails found on former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s computer—emails that may or may not involve Hillary Clinton and may or may not contain classified information.
In other words, the entire 2016 election was brought to a screeching halt by the sudden appearance of a shiny object.
Will the nature of this object—whatever it is—prove decisive next Tuesday? Everyone has a theory, but the truth is that we have no effing idea. Maybe the electorate has already decided how it feels about the damn emails and this won’t change a thing. On the other hand, maybe there are just enough undecided voters for this new “scandal” to tip the election in Trump’s favor.
The only thing we know for sure—other than that we don’t know anything for sure—is that James Comey’s disclosure is precisely the deus ex machina that Trump needed to remain even slightly competitive in this bizarre race, and now that it’s happened, Hillary Clinton’s presumed victory is no longer a foregone conclusion.
To which I humbly ask: Isn’t this what we secretly wanted all along? Namely, a wild finish to an equally wild campaign? A Super Bowl decided in the final moments of regulation? A World Series that goes to seven games? The nail-biter to end all nail-biters?
Perhaps your first instinct to that question is to spit your coffee onto your computer screen and then slam the computer against the wall. Believe me, I know how you feel: The morning after Comey’s announcement, I found myself in such an existential panic that I wandered into a screening of Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden—two-and-a-half hours of psychological torture and hardcore lesbian sex—just to calm myself down.
But let’s not dance around the fact that we Americans have spent generations treating elections like sporting events, and that the worst thing a sporting event can possibly be is boring—particularly at the bitter end.
Ask any sports fan on Earth what he or she wants from a high-stakes competition and—to a person—they will all say the exact same thing: “I just want the game to be close.” Indeed, even if the contest involves the person’s home team and everything is on the line—cash, pride, emotional stability—raw excitement is on an equal plane with victory. Winning may be the primary objective in the short run, but the thrill of losing in a memorable way is the stuff that dreams (albeit bad ones) are made of. And while having your team win in a blowout is undeniably satisfying, it’s nothing—nothing!—compared to the satisfaction of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. (Here in Boston, for instance, 100 out of 100 Red Sox fans will affirm that beating the Yankees 4-3 in the 2004 ALCS was more gratifying than winning the World Series a week later in a clean, dull sweep.)
Does this same, slightly masochistic attitude apply to electoral politics? Well, the media sure seem to think so, continually chasing whatever shocking plot twist comes down the pike in order to maximize ratings and keep anxious American hearts pounding. Individual news networks may have a bias toward one political philosophy or the other, but when it comes to the news media writ large, the only bias that matters is the pursuit of sensationalism at all costs, and this requires that the race remain tight.
And yes: Whether through the click of a remote or the click of a mouse, we, their dumb audience, eat up every last drop of it, breathlessly keeping up with every new “bombshell” development and working ourselves into a tizzy that—as Trump claimed on Friday—“This. Changes. Everything.”
In short: Of course we are complicit in following politics the way we follow sports: If we didn’t buy it, the media wouldn’t sell it.
The truth—the one we always know but rarely speak aloud—is that we will use almost any excuse not to talk about “the issues.” For us, elections are primarily—if not entirely—about character, and in a race like this one—with two of the most distinctive characters we’ve ever had the misfortune to know—nothing is more compelling than the clash itself, and the thousand and one dynamics that are playing out at the exact same time on the largest stage in the history of the world.
Let’s face it: The 2016 election has to go down to the wire, because otherwise it wouldn’t have been worth it. It would’ve felt wrong—or at least anti-climactic—for this contest to have given us such a massive, continuous stream of material from the very beginning, only to end with a predictable and embarrassingly one-sided result.
Don’t get me wrong: In a rational, moral universe, any presidential campaign that involved Donald Trump would’ve ceased being suspenseful the moment Trump became the Republican nominee. Ideally, this race had no business being this interesting; by now, even a challenger as flawed as Clinton should’ve been ahead by at least 20 or 30 points.
Unfortunately, we live instead in the Land of Deplorables, where nearly half the country is prepared to vote for a confessed sexual predator just to avoid voting for a woman. Until we grow up as a nation—and cease being so inherently polarized—we are fated to never have a lopsided presidential election ever again. And if that’s the case, we might as well savor the intense, if nauseating, excitement of a contest that may not be decided until very, very late into the night of November 8, hoping—as we’ve never hoped before—that it will come out right in the end.