On Nov. 8, 1864, Abraham Lincoln defeated former Gen. George B. McClellan to win reelection as president of a divided United States. Barely 100 miles from Washington, D.C., Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army was encamped in a line that began at the capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Va., and stretched to Petersburg, Va., as Lee faced off against the Northern forces of Ulysses S. Grant. Just a few months before the election, another Confederate army, led by Gen. Jubal Early, had threatened the capital, marching to within five miles of Washington before being driven back. Still, the election took place, and four months later, at his second inaugural, Lincoln declared, “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”
Last week, President Donald Trump suggested that a country facing a presidential vote during a viral epidemic should consider postponing its election amid fears of voter fraud. The unprecedented suggestion from a sitting president up for reelection that, for the first time in history, the United States delay a presidential election, was typical of the mystifying strategy — if that’s the right word — of Trump, an incumbent all too ready to accentuate the divisions, vulnerabilities, and uncertainties of our society. His proclamation sounded more panicked than presidential.
Some critics accused Trump of looking to distract attention from a sharp drop in the U.S. gross domestic product, announced shortly before Trump’s tweet. Though it’s sometimes hard to fathom the president’s motives (or those of his most persistent critics), the GDP decline was anticipated and not hard to explain; indeed, Germany just reported its largest drop in GDP in 50 years. But if Trump or anyone else thought floating an election delay was a shrewd distraction strategy, world financial markets certainly didn’t. They dropped precipitously July 30. As market analyst Jim Cramer said about Trump’s tweet: “It sows chaos, and chaos is bad for the stock market.” Chaos is generally not great for incumbents, either.
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