A Dangerous Year in America Enters Its Most Dangerous Month

The FBI is so apparently concerned about the nation’s combustible nature that it is planning a special command post to monitor election-related violence in the weeks ahead.

Government Mischief Already Afoot

Donald Trump’s administration has uniquely poisoned the well of national goodwill among the very institutions meant to protect the country from moments like this. Even leaving aside ongoing questions about the Postal Service and the census, the government’s security apparatus at all levels seems more focused on scoring political points than protecting the nation.

Through a year of protests that has seen the president deploy federal officers and tear gas for a photo op, he’s politicized the Department of Homeland Security, making it harder for the same department to play its critical role in helping state and local administrators protect elections. His attorney general has undermined the nation’s confidence in the Justice Department’s political independence; even Friday, as the president was rushed to the hospital with Covid-19, the Justice Department was touting its victory rolling back Michigan’s pandemic protections. Attorney general William Barr has seemingly spent the entire year planning an “October surprise” of his own to boost the president’s reelection. Meanwhile, the supremely unqualified director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, last week declassified a baffling letter about Hillary Clinton and the 2016 election that was widely questioned as specious, condemned as a hit job, and appeared to aid Russian disinformation efforts. No less an authority than Trump’s own former national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, accused the president last week of “aiding and abetting” Russia.

A Virus Still on the Rampage

The Covid-19 pandemic is a health crisis, but it’s also one of the greatest national security failures in American history. A virus that every other Western nation has effectively contained now kills a number of Americans equivalent to those lost on September 11, 2001, every three days.

Even half a year into the pandemic, cases are rising again in many parts of the nation. Some 100,000 Americans have been diagnosed with Covid-19 since the president was on Thursday.

Meanwhile, across the country, Americans continue to face the ongoing economic, social, and health effects of the virus. Tens of millions of Americans are out of work, facing the prospect of going hungry or being evicted. The country is literally measuring its bread lines in miles, and yet congressional leaders on Capitol Hill have been deadlocked for five months on any further stimulus or economic rescue packages. Now the Senate has been forced to close for two weeks because of the outbreak of Covid-19 in the ranks of the GOP’s thin majority.

A Challenging Election Under Any Circumstance

Federal, state, and local officials—not to mention civil rights and voting rights advocates—have warned for six months now that this fall’s election, from state legislatures to the presidency, would be challenged as never before, from misinformation online and a Covid-fueled pandemic of ransomware to the sheer logistics of processing millions of mail-in and absentee ballots. Voting places are moving, traditional poll workers won’t be showing up, and in quarantine many voters have relocated from their normal haunts. “[Election officials are] being asked to adjust procedures much more quickly than they normally would. That invites risk,” Matt Masterson, the top election security official at DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, told me this summer.

News organizations and election officials are already trying to set expectations that, unlike what Americans have grown accustomed to, the presidential results might not be clear on election night. Tallying the millions of mail ballots correctly might take days or even weeks.

Beyond the logistic realities of the election, Mother Nature seems likely to continue to spring disasters on us in the weeks ahead. A historic wildfire season still rages out west, while an unprecedented Atlantic hurricane season batters the East Coast. Either, or both, could cause disruptions, displacements, and devastation even as America begins to vote. (In 2012, Superstorm Sandy hit at the end of October and beginning of November.)

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