WASHINGTON — The political cataclysm that is the 2020 presidential election gathered a new and unpredictable energy with the death of liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday.
What's certain is that an admixture of cultural warfare over abortion, guns and speech will only serve to exacerbate the sense of upheaval wrought by a plague, its damage to the economy and protests over police killings of people of color that have led to unrest in cities across the country.
"Emergency 5X matching has been activated for ALL donations made to protect the White House, keep the Senate majority in Republican hands and ensure the next Supreme Court nominee is selected by President Trump!" Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst's campaign wrote in an email sent to supporters within an hour of Ginsburg's death being reported. Ernst said she hadn't approved it and quickly apologized.
But while President Donald Trump and Senate Republicans now have the collective power to nominate and confirm a conservative justice to succeed the anchor of the court's liberal wing at any time — fundamentally reshaping the balance of the nine-member panel for the first time in decades — it is already clear that voters motivated by the issues before the high court will be inundated between now and Election Day with appeals to make a confirmation fight their priority at the polls.
"President Trump's nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Friday night. McConnell did not say whether that vote would occur before the election or in a lame-duck session of Congress.
Most current voters have never been asked to select a leader — Trump or Democratic nominee Joe Biden — with so much on the line for their physical health and safety, their economic security, their ideological values and the balance of power at the core of the nation's republican form of democracy.
A president impeached by the House for abusing the power of his office is vowing to use more of it in a second term as a pandemic works its way toward a death toll of 200,000. As Trump points out, the bottom has never dropped out of the American economy the way it did during what amounted to a national commercial shutdown in an effort to corral the coronavirus earlier this year. The quick but uneven partial recovery has left wide disparities in how segments of the electorate view the current state of the economy — from the newly destitute to elites enjoying a Wall Street recovery — and which candidate is best suited to help them come January.
And the nation has been rocked by protests over police killings and systemic racial injustice that begot arson and vandalism; violent shows of force by federal troops and agents in Washington and Portland, Oregon; and the shooting of protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, allegedly by a teenager who had come from a nearby town in another state to protect property.
"I don’t know if it will change the outcome, but it will raise the temperature," said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California, of the development. "It adds abortion to the mix, and few issues generate more heat."
The most fitting analogs come from the most fragile eras in American history — the Civil War and the Great Depression — according to Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian and professor at Princeton University.
"I think the comparisons would be 1864 or 1932/36 when the nation was not just facing fraught time—but the entire nation was all experiencing multiple and pretty epic crises that impacted every level of society, meaning the fallout was total," Zelizer said in an email exchange with NBC News. "We are also in a moment where the stability of the country—our health, our economy and our democracy—are all in an incredibly fragile state. In 1932, the country felt that way, the bottom had fallen out on everything and we didn’t know what was coming next."
It is notable that in those precarious times, there was little mystery about which candidate would win the elections: Because the South had seceded, President Abraham Lincoln was competing only for the votes in his base states and took 212 of the 233 available electoral votes. Franklin Delano Roosevelt won with 472 of 531 electoral votes in 1932 and 523 electoral votes — 98.5 percent of them — in 1936.
But U.S. presidential elections in the modern era have become intensely competitive. The last five presidential elections, covering 2000 through 2016, are the first such period since 1884 to 1900 in which none of the victors won with 70 percent of the Electoral College or more. Twice in the last five elections, the winner of the presidency lost the popular vote.
Even before Ginsburg's death, the combination of competitiveness and atmospheric tumult may have made this election unique in terms of the pressures confronting each voter in the crucible of swing states that will determine the outcome and the stakes of their choices for all Americans.
Adding the political and emotional turmoil of a Supreme Court nomination fight will only intensify them.