By the time this article goes to print, Joe Biden, the Democratic Party candidate, may have scraped through the race for the White House. However, for those of us watching the US elections from the outside, who eventually wins is, of course, crucial but the message that the election process has revealed is equally, if not more, important. The election has revealed, far more intensely than ever before, that the US is an ideologically divided country, and dangerously so. The danger is that the division is not on policies but on principles and ideals that this country should stand for. A division that sees the world so differently that it is bound to impact, and in fact dismantle, the world order that has sustained so far.
Millions of votes that Trump got point towards a vision of the US that is radically different from what its constitution proclaims, especially as regards racial equality. There is a rising and vicious racist and white supremacist streak that appears to be endorsed by about 48 percent of Americans. These voters believe that democracy—the US’s trademark selling point in the world—is not for all. It also revealed an inexplicable refusal to accept science and fact-based reasoning; it brought out a corruption of politics where partisanship overrides public welfare and where open demonisation of the “other” has become the norm, regardless of how much it harms the country. Republicans crossed no legal line in appointing the latest supreme court judge but it was not lost to anyone that partisan political consideration superseded every other factor. It revealed the dangerous risks that the US is willing to take by destroying the global order that has ensured, in however flawed a manner, a relative peace in the post-World War II period. It has also revealed that the US cannot be counted on as a reliable partner for global collaboration unless American interest is given the highest consideration.
In 2016, Donald Trump was the new kid on the block, the Washington outsider, the non-politician promising to “clean the swamp”. His candidacy could easily be considered a “fresh start”. Of course, those who really knew him and were familiar with his ways greatly doubted that anything good could come from such a man.
But in this election, he was the incumbent with four years of performance record, of leadership, of policies, of supporting causes, of taking position and of handling crises to judge him by—not to mention, the four years of outrageous tweeting. He was a one-man demolition squad for many American institutions and did everything to create doubt in the vaunted US election process by presenting it as full of fraud.
Yet so many American voters chose him. They chose him in spite of the fact that nearly 240,000 people have already died of Covid-19—which is twice the total US casualties in WW I, half of those who died in WW II, and four and a half times the number of those who died in the Vietnam war. Health experts have repeatedly said that more than half of them could have been saved through better management of the crisis.
One of the maddening things about the US elections is that it draws us all in, citizens and outsiders alike, with the latter sometimes being more involved because we understand the implications of the outcome more acutely than perhaps many others. We follow the trends, try to fathom the issues, learn all about the swing states, and attempt to understand how the citizens of the biggest military power, the biggest economy, and the country that has the capacity to do a lot of good and harm to the world, will vote. What was a curiosity became a worldwide concern after the reckless invasions of countries in the Middle East, destroying whatever state structure they had to govern themselves. Now we observe the US elections deeply perturbed about whether or not one of the architects of the present-day international order will resume to play a constructive role or be hell-bent on dismantling it.
My own fascination with the US elections started with Richard Nixon and the Watergate affair in the late sixties and early seventies. The more I saw how the US system held its elected officials, especially its president, accountable—through the myriad committees at state and federal levels, special prosecutor, endless hearings, etc.—and the role of the media, especially the newspapers (those days were far different from today’s digital and social media), the more my admiration for the American system grew. It was a welcome antidote to my rising disillusionment due to the US’s role in Vietnam. I stood astounded by what one single newspaper—The Washington Post, and its editor and two reporters with the firm backing of its illustrious publisher, Catherine Graham—could do when their head of state violated the law. Ultimately, Nixon had to quit office not so much for the break-in at the Democratic Party’s office in the Watergate Apartment complex (from which the incident acquires its name) but for the cover-up that he initiated.
Nixon’s case was a severe jolt for the US system where its highest office bearer was caught breaking the law. From this low in its history, the US emerged, in my view, stronger by showing that it could cleanse itself, even at the very top, and move on because institutions were stronger than individuals.
While Nixon jolted the system, George W. Bush, as the 43rd president, practically destroyed it. He made lying—about the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), to justify invading Iraq—patriotic. While Nixon had to suffer the indignity of being forced to resign—with impending impeachment hanging over his head—for abusing the power of the presidency, perverting institutions of governance and lying to the American people, President Bush was hailed as a hero for upholding “American values” for his ill-conceived war on terror. Trump picked up from where Bush Jr. left off and made misrepresenting facts and distorting information a regular practice, thereby destroying the system that runs on facts rather than fiction.
The reason I delve into the past is to bring out the contrast between the political values of the past US administrations and that of the present. It is not to say that past US administrations did not lie—the Pentagon Papers prove it convincingly—but only to differentiate that what was rare then is regular now.
What triggered rejection 50 years ago now generates embrace, what made voters stand up in disgust now provokes amusement, what was a no-no in US politics—like white supremacy and racialism—is now a common yes-yes, what would have once caused total outrage—the failure of leadership in the health sector—is now a fact that appears easily acceptable. Whatever sobriety there was in US politics is now replaced by breast-thumping, unabashed and self-defeating ultra-nationalism. The US appears to now live in a world of alternative facts and post-truth.
The biggest lesson from this election for those of us looking in from the outside is the fact that millions of Americans voted for President Trump and wanted four more years of his rule in spite of what he did, stood for and proposed to do. It is now clear that we don’t know and understand this new US that may be emerging, a US that does not want to know and understand the world but is totally enwrapped in its own vainglory.
Mahfuz Anam is Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star.