Everyone has two politics: their own, and America’s. You have a party you like or dislike in your own country, and another in America. America is the stage on which the world watches the human comedy played out, in its most garish and outsized form. Why should its elections be any different?
To love America is to love what is human, with all its capacity for good and evil. There never was a people so beset by violence, bigotry and greed, and yet so fired by idealism, so resolutely hopeful, so determined to prevail. It is the country of slavery but also of the Declaration of Independence, of vast poverty but also the Great Society and the New Deal. The United States is a country. America is an idea.
But that America is disappearing, imploding before our eyes. Once it tackled immense projects, did great things, led the world. Now it is floundering, divided, confused, and easy pickings for a two-bit con man – not just once, but very nearly twice. That is, so far as anyone can tell. The country that won two world wars and put a man on the moon cannot even organize itself to count the votes in a timely fashion.
That sense of decline has been evident to visitors for some time. The great power of our age shambles through decrepit airport terminals, drives on crumbling roads, parks its kids in mediocre schools, and permits, to this day, 26 million of its citizens to go without health insurance. But it took Donald Trump to expose just how deep was the rot in American democracy.
How easily its defences were overcome. How fragile its institutions were revealed to be. How shaky are its very foundations, when so many millions of its citizens are so prey to the authoritarian impulse, so fearful of outsiders and mistrustful of their fellow citizens as to be willing to overlook, excuse or even embrace the behaviour of a blustering man-child, if only he will promise to protect them from both – even now, after four years of lawlessness and bedlam.
It may be possible to remove him from the office to which he so desperately clings – and that is no sure thing at this point – but his malignance will remain. Even the satisfying thumping the polls suggested was at hand would not have undone the effects of four years of Donald Trump’s misrule, never mind this narrow, ambiguous result. He has been defeated, it would seem, but not, to his supporters, discredited. President Trump himself may shortly be gone, but Trumpism will be with us for years to come, as will the conditions that created it.
Primary among these is the radical polarization of American politics, so deep and so intractable as to make elections almost beside the point. Fifteen states, including California, New York and Illinois, have voted for the Democratic candidate in every one of the past eight presidential elections. Six more have voted Democrat in all but one. Throw in more recent, but seemingly permanent additions to the Democratic fold like Colorado, Nevada and Virginia, and the party starts each election with about 24 states in its pocket.
The effect is even more pronounced on the Republican side. The least-reddish of the Red States – West Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee – have voted GOP in six straight elections. Over much of the south, they’ve been voting that way in nearly every election since Nixon. That’s nothing: western states like Idaho, Utah or Wyoming have been solidly Republican since Eisenhower. Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas have elected only one Democrat since 1936. All told, the Republicans, too, can count on the support of about 24 states, without even breaking a sweat.
There are really only two states – Florida and Ohio – that can reliably be expected to be in play in any given election. Mr. Trump took just enough votes in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in 2016 to add them briefly to the Republican column. Joe Biden looks to have done the same this time in Arizona and Georgia. That’s about it. American politics used to be visited every so often by great waves of change: Clinton in 1992, Nixon in 1968, Roosevelt in 1932. Now the prevailing mood is one of inertia, stalemate and frustration.
Add to these regional cleavages the country’s deepening divisions of race, class and education; expose these to further stress by means of a series of frightening and disorienting events, from 9/11 to the financial crisis of 2008 to the coronavirus pandemic, all of which seemed to baffle the experts and discredit elites; throw in the rise of social media as people’s primary source of news, rumours, conspiracy theories and hatred, and you have an electorate that was primed for Donald Trump’s special brand of lies, demagoguery and shamelessness.
Disposing of President Trump was the most urgent need. A second term would have been even worse than the first, a vindicated Trump devoting his remaining years to filling his pockets, revenging himself upon his enemies and evading criminal charges. His removal, moreover, is the necessary precondition for America’s revival, even if not sufficient in itself. The factors that produced Donald Trump, and Trumpism, would remain, but it takes a man of his peculiar gifts to exploit them.
Healing the divisions in American society, restoring some sense of sanity to public discourse, will be the first and perhaps most challenging test of Joe Biden’s presidency, and one well suited to his abilities. But I cannot help wondering whether the divisions that have sapped America’s strength are not themselves in part a consequence of its weakness. A people more easily divide against each other when they are persuaded the whole thing is pointless, that they are not engaged in, or are incapable of achieving, any important national objective, to which their energies can be devoted and in whose success they can take pride.
A nation has been defined as “a body of people who have done great things together in the past, and who hope to do great things together in the future.” Americans have done great things together in the past. What great things will they do in the future?
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