What’s at stake in the U.S. election: The Globe and Mail has asked a group of writers to offer their opinions. Scroll to the bottom for links to the full series.
It was Oct. 5, just days after U.S. President Donald Trump had revealed his coronavirus diagnosis. Fox News host Tomi Lahren mocked former vice-president Joe Biden on Twitter for… encouraging mask wearing: “Might as well carry a purse with that mask, Joe.” It was clear what she meant, if jarring to hear. Is that really where we’re at as a society, in 2020, sensitivity-wise? Professionals put their pronouns in their bios. Anti-racist books top bestseller lists, and boutiques across North America hoist Black Lives Matter banners above unsellable dress shoes. So what if Mr. Biden did wear a handbag? The fashion industry could use the boost.
To describe the cultural climate in the U.S. today as polarized would be an understatement. Everything is partisan, not just contentious social issues, but even whether a global pandemic is cause for concern. The virus itself spread through the Republican party’s upper ranks, but Mr. Trump stayed on message, tweeting: “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.” Of course he would say that, given that his re-election chances depend on Americans' willingness to forget everything that’s transpired since March of this year.
In 2016, Mr. Trump won largely because of the culture wars, and they remain his central promise. His campaign spoke to unapologetic bigots, but also to working-class white Americans tired of hearing how privileged they were from upper class white people. Weaponized hypersensitivity around identity issues puts off many Americans, including many who despise the current President. The refrain that Mr. Trump will be re-elected thanks to progressive excesses is either a threat or promise, depending on the speaker.
What’s happening culture-wise on the left is sometimes illiberalism (paintings, recipes, or interracial relationships declared problematic), but is more often a matter of misplaced priorities, with media outlets paying more attention to microaggressions at Harvard than macroaggressions in less-esteemed locales. There’s also a sense on the U.S. economic left (think Bernie Sanders) that liberals cynically employ identity politics, letting the rich keep their material advantages.
Mr. Trump himself is hardly above using culture-war concerns as distraction. How else to explain his administration’s reinstituting of a ban on transgender military service members, let alone his choice to crack down on critical race theory, of all things, in late September? It’s to his advantage to focus on riots and antifa, rather than the substance of the Black Lives Matter movement, in particular the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Black Americans.
Trumpism relies on a progressive culture of walking on eggshells – one that has, if anything, expanded since the previous election. I think of a recent letter to a Slate parenting advice column, titled My 2-Year-Old Doesn’t Seem to Care About Being Anti-Racist, or a Medium post, Dear Straight Women, Stop Calling Your Friends Your Girlfriends. Opportunities to get it wrong abound.
The more overtly awful Mr. Trump’s behaviour, the more egregious the revelations about his past, the better he does. He can’t be called out for political incorrectness. For his admirers, this is a feature, not a bug. He’s inherently uncancellable. But as long as American democracy survives, he’s not immune to being voted out of office.
If Mr. Trump wins, then the culture wars will only grow more virulent. Mr. Trump, who holds campaign rallies even when not campaigning, requires adversaries. Academia and activism will keep producing fodder, or if they don’t, there’s always the option of cherry-picking or inventing.
Mr. Biden’s strength as a candidate going up against Mr. Trump is that he doesn’t embody either the socialist strain of progressivism or the identity-focused one. The famously gaffe-prone Mr. Biden offers a viable alternative for any Americans fearful of saying the wrong thing, worried that everything’s sexual harassment nowadays and nostalgic for a time when a white man who looks the part but doesn’t necessarily inspire could go far. Mr. Biden also speaks to Americans who’ve found Mr. Trump’s refusal (or inability) to speak over anyone’s head refreshing.
If Mr. Biden wins, this would encourage Mr. Trump’s fans to feel like underdogs, but they already do. A Democrat in office could allow the left to trade infighting for productivity. Instead of an amorphous “Resistance” debating whether everything is worse than it’s ever been, or whether you’d have to be privileged to imagine things weren’t always terrible, maybe the U.S. could get itself universal health care, perhaps look into the gun thing as well.
Phoebe Maltz Bovy is the author of The Perils of “Privilege”: Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage.