I wonder whether there are presidential elections in the world more exciting than those in the US, despite their many stages and complexity. Every time you follow one, you get the feeling that it will mark a turning point in history, despite the US’s reputation as an institutionalised estate where the constitution is the algorithm that steers the US polity towards a bright and glorious future. Yet, anyone following the current stage in the presidential elections will have noticed how “history” as a term and concept has cropped up repeatedly to suggest that the US is looking at something unprecedented this time around.
Perhaps not since John Kennedy and, to a certain extent, Ronald Reagan has the personality of a single candidate dominated the electoral process as much as the character of the incumbent, Donald Trump, is doing today. The Kennedy-Nixon competition in 1960 seemed to be walking a historical tightrope between two generations, the World War II and the 1950s/1960s generations. Strangely, though, the pendulum began to swing back after Kennedy’s assassination, firstly with Lyndon Johnson and then with the rise of the Republican Richard Nixon for two terms (until he stepped down due to the Watergate scandal).
As with all electoral cycles, September is when the gloves come off. This time the US is so divided and the competition so intense that it feels like the US is on the brink of a civil war. Indeed, since the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, it actually looks like the country has been girding itself for “Civil War II” (the first took place in 1860-65). The US has plunged into waves of violence and counter violence that have spread to many cities, adding another contentious subject to dozens of other seething controversies.
The Republicans have moved onto the offensive, constantly accusing the Democrats of encouraging violence and anarchy despite how often the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, not only denies the charge but condemns the violence. The Democrats, in turn, maintain that Trump’s political statements and positions have incited White extremist violence against Blacks, non-Christians and minorities in general.
The question as to who is racist brings us to certain basic facts regarding the electoral process as it has evolved over the years. While the Republicans have long relied on the White Protestant majority, Democrats have forged a majority of their own consisting of the hodgepodge of ethnic/religious minorities in the US. In this, as in every round, victory will be contingent on the extent to which the parties can mobilise their supporters to report to the polls.
What is new this time around is that the campaigns are unfolding against a backdrop of a maelstrom of crises in which the current question of racism and intolerance of the other seems like only one facet of a larger syndrome that both preceded and will continue beyond the current election season. The nature of this syndrome begins with the question as to whether the US is still the world’s military, economic and technological leader. Is the “American Dream” still a source of inspiration to others in the world? Or has it been superseded by others, such as a dream born in China?
Domestically, the deeper problem is that the political polarisation has persisted so long that there is no longer a middle ground between the left on the Republican scale and the right on the Democratic scale on essential issues of concern to the US public, be it healthcare or, more significantly, immigration. The US was built on immigrants. But a significant portion of the migration was compulsory in the form of slavery which generated a chronic injustice that has remained unsolved, whether by civil war or by civil rights legislation.
This problem grew more complex with other waves of immigration from Latin America, Asia and the Middle East. From the Republican perspective, immigration no longer means just people looking for work or a better life. It means more votes for Democrats, which Republicans are determined to prevent, even if it takes building dozens of walls.
Structural crises are not the only cause of the fraught situation in the US. When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, it caught the US unprepared. In this year’s electoral climate, above all, it turned attention to the White House and its role in addressing this crisis. However, this president, who is seeking a second term, did not regard the virus that has afflicted the entire world as a major concern that required his leadership. In all events, wherever the responsibility should lie, the US, with its various federal and state bodies, has so far failed to develop a federal plan for contending with this national enemy.
On 29 August, Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin enumerated “The five dumbest Republican arguments for Trump.” Firstly, contrary to what the Republicans claim, Trump (if elected of course) will not give Americans law and order, not as long as Covid-19 continues to reap twice as many lives per week as the 11 September attacks and not as long as he contributes to inciting racist violence against minorities and makes political capital of disorder and mayhem. Nor is it true that he has been “great for the economy”.
Not only has it been demonstrated that the economy under Obama was stronger by multiple measures than the economy under Trump, Trump made it worse through tariffs that amounted to tax hikes for US consumers. Then he “crashed” the economy by ignoring the Covid-19 pandemic which put millions out of work, forced thousands of companies to close shop and left the federal government saddled with a record debt.
Thirdly, it is not true that Joe Biden is a “socialist” or that he will be lured by leftist forces into promoting more “big government”. For one, Rubin writes, the claim ignores Biden’s long record in office and his policy choices in the campaign. More importantly, if Republicans are worried by government interventionism they should look at the behaviour of Trump and the conservatives, such as his widespread abuse of executive powers and his meddling to benefit friends and cronies.
The fourth falsehood Rubin cites is that Trump has “vanquished the pandemic”. The amount of delusion needed to sustain this fiction is unfathomable, she writes. “We have more deaths due to the disease than any other country on the planet, many more deaths per capita than many advanced countries and no national testing-and-tracing programme.”
As for the fifth and “dumbest argument” in favour Trump, it is that he is “pro-life”. If Trump were more than just a token “anti-abortionist” and truly believed in the sanctity of life, he would not refuse to denounce the killing of unarmed Black Americans or trivialise the nearly 180,000 deaths caused by Covid-19 in the US so far. “When one party wilfully ignores a pandemic and treats Black lives as expendable, it loses any moral authority regarding the sanctity of human life. In refusing to be guided by scientific facts (be it on air and water quality, climate change or Covid-19), Trump puts at risk the health and lives of millions of people here and around the world.”
Of course, the Republicans have a number of points that they, in turn, are holding up like a mirror to the Democrats. They say, among other things, that the Democrats are “anti-freedom” and “unpatriotic” and that they have a candidate that is too old and unable to lead. Regardless of truths or falsehoods, one wonders: can the gloves get any more off than this?
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly