Monday 2 November 2020

Election 2020: No Longer Worthy

The 2020 US Presidential election is tomorrow. I almost wish I believed in gods, so I could pray to them to have mercy on us all. I don't; and if I'm wrong and the gods are real, they would seem to have a twisted sense of humour.

I hope Biden wins. I truly do. He would at least slow the American republic's descent into the abyss. He would give America a chance. That's worth hoping for. For American citizens, it's worth fighting for. But no matter what happens in the next few days, the rotting heart of America has been exposed for all to see. 

Trump and Biden with former President Obama, in 2017 as this nightmare got underway.
(U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Cristian L. Ricardo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

It's bad enough Trump was elected in the first place, but there were excuses. You could believe it was a fluke, a one-off; the triumph of showmanship over substance; the proof of HL Mencken's adage that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. It was a candidate whose message, hateful and empty though it was, resonated with a crucial segment of the electorate which had been patronised and ignored for too long.

The pressures of government would tame him. The adults in the Republican party would restrain him. His ineptitude and lack of substance would sink him.

At the time, I put little stock in these excuses. If anything, I was too optimistic. Short of nuclear war, almost every disaster I imagined has come to pass, along with a great many I didn't.

I need not go through all the crimes, catastrophes, and humiliations heaped on America and the world by Trump and his associates. Even before Covid-19, it was almost beyond comprehension. He should have been impeached and removed from office long ago, on any number of charges.

Then, of course, came Covid-19 itself. At the time of writing, it has killed some 231,000 Americans. The USA has 4% of the world's population, and 19% of its Covid-19 deaths.

This simple statistic should damn Trump beyond any hope of recovery. In a sane and functional polity, Trump would be doomed. Not so long ago, George W Bush had an approval rating of 27%, following Hurricane Katrina and the financial crisis. Trump's should be lower. The haters, idiots, and hateful idiots might support him no matter what, but an approval rating in single digits would be reassuring.

It's not there. Trump's current approval is 46%. Forty-six! More than nine out of twenty!

Similarly, Trump should be heading for a record-breaking electoral defeat. Biden should be on course to win 45, 48 or even all 50 states.

He's not. At the time of writing, 270toWin has Biden as clear favourite in 24 states plus DC; less than half of the 50 states of the union.

Now, the states with clear Biden leads are more populous. By themselves, they would give him a comfortable but not overwhelming win in the Electoral College; and he can be expected to pick up at least one or two others that are too close to definitively call. Even if there is a substantial polling error in Trump's favour, Biden's lead should be sufficient to put him in the White House. That is not the point.

It's hard to explain how completely broken this is. There has been no discontinuity, no storming of the palace and fall of the old regime, on the way from there to here. But somehow, a large portion of the United States has transitioned to a post-truth society; one in which facts, even facts so brutal as a quarter of a million dead Americans, no longer matter. Twelve years ago, America was a country where a failed President was despised; here it is one where he enjoys the support of nine out of twenty voters, and even a plausible chance of winning a clean election.

This brings me to the election itself, which will be far from clean. We are already seeing open attempts to interfere with voting and counting from the Trump side, which will only get worse during and after Election Day. Facts and legitimacy are irrelevant; their plan is to corrupt the vote by any means possible, and get the Republican-appointed majority on the Supreme Court to turn a blind eye and rule in their favour.

A democracy in which only one side wants the vote to be counted is no longer worthy of the name.

Our best hope is for Biden to win by such a huge margin as to overcome cheating.

A democracy in which the opposition party must win by a landslide, in order to be sure of taking power, is no longer worthy of the name.

It may become worthy again; but the road back to democracy and decency will be long and hard.

Our best hope is for Biden to take office and begin to undo the forces which have brought America to this pass. I like Biden, more so than I did at the start of the campaign. He's walked a fine line beteween righteous fury at Trump, and promising a return to calm and normality; and he's done it well. But no one human being can fix America; it's too big and too broken.

Biden is a rather ordinary nominee at an extraordinary moment. After more than four decades in Washington, he's a well-known quantity. He shows every sign of being a decent-but-dull Democratic candidate, in the footsteps of Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry. It is his good fortune that decency and dullness are widely appealing just now, in the face of a President who can offer neither.

Let us suppose Biden wins this election. Suppose he overcomes the cheating, the lies, the spurious lawsuits, the skewed Electoral College, and becomes the forty-sixth President of the United States. He will likely have to fight hard to do it.

Let us suppose that despite Trump's best efforts to cause mayhem, his departure from office is largely peaceful. Biden takes office on schedule; in the meantime, Trump blusters and whines but doesn't do much actual damage, at least not more than he already has.

Let us suppose Biden is backed by Congressional majorities, and takes steps to mend America's broken institutions. He fights back agaist voter suppression, reforms the courts, grants statehood to Puerto Rico and Washington DC, starts to get the pandemic under control. This fight will likely be harder than winning the election itself. It will require tenacity, ruthlessness and imagination. For all that we've seen a great deal of Biden over the years, it's unclear how much of these qualities he has; and whether, taking office at the age of 78, he will have the energy and vision to get the job done.

Even if Biden succeeds brilliantly, he will still be President of a divided country. He will still live in a place where forty-five percent approve of Trump. He will still have to face the Republican party.

The dream of responsible adults taking control of the Republican party is just that. Leaders with any trace of decency or reason are few, marginalised and largely powerless. Mitt Romney is not coming to the rescue.

Ever since Nixon formulated his Southern Strategy, Republican leaders have made use of the beast of racism and hate. Around election time, they would put it on a long leash to roar and stalk the landscape. Between times, they would throw it enough red meat to keep it alive, but little more.

Trump has unchained the beast. The Republican base have tasted his brand of shameless hate and bigotry, and they like it. They are enabled by the media bubble, online and on Fox News, which lets forty-six percent of Americans think Trump is doing a great job.

If Trump leaves office, he will ceaselessly tweet about how the election was stolen from him, how his followers must rise up and take revenge. It's not a question of whether they turn violent, but when and how much. We may see Trump supporters seizing federal land and buildings, kidnapping or murdering elected officials, and more. It is clear they will have sympathy, and even active support, from elements of the police, Homeland Security and the Trump-appointed judiciary.

The Republican party will keep to its tactics of hatred and voter suppression, and try to regain political power.

In the worst scenario, they will be led by a competent authoritarian; someone with the skills to thrill a crowd and play to Trump's base, but also to run a government with ruthless efficiency. In that case, it's all over for American democracy. It was nice while it lasted.

In a better scenario, the Republicans are led by an incompetent grifter: Trump himself, aging and defeated but refusing to let go; one of his children; or some creature from the looking-glass world of the Republican media bubble. Maybe if Trump's successors are beaten badly enough, again and again, his brand will be discredited. The forces of reason will have a chance to set America on a better course.

In the long run, if America is to be cured of its sickness, the poison of Trump and his followers will have to be driven out. They must be made into an irrelevant minority. The name of Trump must be spoken with the contempt it deserves. The Republican Party must be remade as a normal, responsible party of government, committed to democracy and the rule of law.

I don't know how that can be done. I don't even know if it can be done. But until it is done, America will be living on borrowed time.

The first crucial step, though, is for Biden to win this election. He's well ahead in the popular vote. He leads in critical swing states. If he and his team are not utter fools, they will be aware of the challenge of lies, cheating and violence from the opposition, and have strategies in place to counter it. I hope it will be enough.

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