A Very Special Episode ends in a Cliffhanger

It makes sense that Donald Trump, who was a reality television star before we’d even come up with the term, would expect that last night’s episode of “American Nightmare” should have had a nice, clean conclusion at the end. That’s how TV works, right?

Except that sometimes we have cliffhangers. They give a boost to the ratings, which is something The Donald understands. So last night’s episode ended with a big “TO BE CONTINUED” card, and today we’re watching Part Two. It is, after all, a Very Special Episode.

Another reason we expected things to be wrapped up last night is a half-century of televised election night coverage. Ever since computers started to be widely used to tabulate election results, the networks have put the scoreboard on-screen and made a big deal as each state could be “called.” Older folks will recall that they used to call the entire election fairly early, both because we were less evenly split nationally, but also because they were competing with each other to make the call first – to get that scoop! They’d do that before the west coast polls had even closed. So under pressure from the FCC, they voluntarily agreed not to call states until their polls had closed, which is still the way they do it.

The 1972 election was the first one I stayed up to watch. My parents preferred CBS News to the others, so we watched Walter Cronkite for four or five hours. It became obvious early that Richard Nixon was going to be re-elected, so my parents went to bed, but I stayed up until CBS ended their coverage. My memory is that it was quite late, certainly after 11:00 p.m., and that I put myself to bed while everyone else was asleep, probably the first time I’d ever done that (I was nine years old).

Walter Cronkite covering the 1972 U.S. election for CBS.
Walter Cronkite covering the 1972 U.S. election for CBS.

Things have changed since then. We’re very closely split down the middle right now, especially as it relates to the Electoral College (which is an idea that’s outgrown its usefulness, but that’s another discussion). And increased mail-in voting, both in states that already do it (Oregon, for example), and others that expanded it this year due to the pandemic, has ironically taken us back to the days before modern communication, when election results had to be “transmitted” physically, in person, a process which could take weeks.

Because of our long history of televised election nights, we’re used to having everything “end” by midnight on Election Day. Except that it never really ends that way. The “technicalities” that happen after we vote are legal steps in the process to certify the outcome of the election. They can’t be skipped. Trump didn’t win anything last night just because the clock seemed to have run out. This isn’t overtime; this is still part of the game. To do anything else would be a criminal disenfranchisement of millions of American voters.

I’m pretty sure that Trump isn’t going to like the end of Part Two. The problem going forward is what he and his gang might have planned for the rest of the season.