The casual corrosion of democracy

Published by UnHerd ((5th November, 2020)

Shortly before 10pm yesterday, I was wandering along the boarded up streets of Washington towards the White House. I passed people dancing in clouds of cannabis smoke, gogo music blasting from a truck organised by activists with ShutdownDC, then watched a woman with ‘I am a Vagina Voter’ on her sweatshirt putting up posters on the protective fence hastily erected around the White House. Already, it was plastered with furious messages directed at Donald Trump. In one rare glimmer of wit, a hole left for taking pictures of the famous building had been framed with signs reading ‘Loser’, although the unfurling Florida result was throwing up questions over such instant assumptions.

Earlier in the week, a professor of politics had reminded me that election nights in the United States were traditionally times to heal campaign wounds and celebrate their democracy. No longer. For the mood of America is angry and divided — and this was seen all too clearly outside that famous white building, as results flowed in from around the country. One woman with a piercing voice preached Christian messages, while a person inside a papier-mâché Donald Trump waved its tiny hands nearby. A bearded man with a bandana, carrying the US flag, explained to reporters why he was not wearing a mask, watched by a Black Lives Matter protester whose head was encased in a gas mask. Nearby an enterprising soul pursued his vision of the American dream with a makeshift stall selling BLM T-shirts.

After watching this vaudeville show for a while, I walked back to my hotel to catch up on the latest results, only to find bizarre scenes outside on a roundabout. It was almost 11pm, yet on the lit-up steps of a large church a film crew was recording an ecumenical religious service as a couple of homeless guys stood watching. “That’s so off-key,” said one observer after a young preacher in red and white robes starting singing. On the other side of the circle scores of young protesters were gathering. Most were clad in black balaclavas, while many carried gas masks and some wore helmets and body armour, or held shields. About 20 police on bicycles watched them warily as a helicopter hovered overhead, then I counted as 18 cop cars in a convoy pulled up on an adjacent street.

The demonstrators moved off towards the White House, led by a figure waving an anarchy flag. They chanted the sort of stuff I had heard ten days earlier in Portland, Oregon, mostly revolving around the concept that all cops are bastards but also dismissing Joe Biden as much as Trump, as they disavowed the need for police or a president. They angrily rounded on a man who seemed to be urging them to stay peaceful and things briefly became ugly, but then they marched on letting off their fireworks and shouting their slogans. The police watched but did not intervene. This is, after all, a country where citizens have the constitutional right to protest.

These late-night sorties in the capital are another indication of the fissures in this country, exposed so starkly in the tight election race. I saw this clearly in Portland, where there have been almost-nightly protests for months and the city centre has been boarded up since May; I saw it when travelling into the heart of Trumpland in West Virginia, where many see Biden as a prisoner of the Left. One country but two very different outlooks on life, a nation filled with partisans that think their political foes deserve prison and protesters that believe they have the right to take the law into their own hands.

Look at the polls and there are stark differences in perception between the two tribes on everything from the state of the economy to the fight against the pandemic. Now look at the new electoral map and you see this sharp delineation across the land: a vast chunk of Republican red across the middle fringed by Democrat blue states on the left and top right.

Back in my hotel room, I watched, appalled, as Trump falsely claimed victory in states he has lost, made phoney accusations of fraud and pledged legal challenges to official state results. Even after four years of his leadership, which has so diminished the US, it was still shocking to watch a president deliberately stoke the fires of discontent smouldering away so dangerously in America.

Just over a month ago, I was in Belarus, watching protesters fighting to free themselves from the shackles of dictatorship. I saw huge numbers turning out each week in mass demonstrations over a stolen election, along with smaller marches by women and grannies. They have been met with sickening violence, mass arrests, water cannon, tear gas, rubber bullets. Some have been jailed, maimed, sacked from jobs. I was chased myself by the paramilitary police. But I left inspired by people showing bravery, restraint and unity in the face of state brutality, driven by their desire for the sort of freedoms that we take for granted in our democracies.

I had seen the same raw courage in Hong Kong a few months earlier, as another set of people, many of them still teenagers, confronted the terrifying might of the Chinese dictatorship with just umbrellas and wok lids to place over rounds of tear gas fired at them. They freely admitted their fears and the almost certain futility of defeating the Communist Party chiefs who were tightening the noose around their city; they carried on in the faint hope they could salvage democracy. “What alternative do we have?” asked one. “Who thought the Berlin Wall would fall?” said several others.

Back in the States, today, we have a shameless egotist in the White House, stirring up dissent in a volatile climate as he seeks to cling on to power. The leader of the world’s most important democracy is casually corroding the kind of political freedoms that those people in Belarus and Hong Kong are risking lives and liberty to achieve. At the same time, his behaviour offers succour to the world’s autocrats. This demeans both his nation and the nature of democracy at a time when it is losing support, especially among younger generations frustrated by its failures.

I am relieved if this is the end of Trump’s time in power. Yet while there is much to absorb from these results, they appear in many ways a terrible outcome. Nothing is certain as I write but it looks like a cliff-edge Democrat victory, close enough for Trump to spray around allegations of fraud and send in his army of lawyers to challenge results. It seems the Republicans may hold on to the Senate, ensuring the partisan games so off-putting to many citizens will continue to tarnish Washington. The narrow result means the GOP will probably remain wedded to Trump-style populism (although it may prove less lethal without such a skilled showman at the helm) while Biden will come under renewed pressure from progressives — inflamed into insane fury over four tough years of Trump — to turn sharply Left after squeaking to victory.

Biden is a genial character. He has shown unexpected strength in resisting the Left over his long campaign. But however genuine his desire to unite his nation, it is hard to see how this doddery and consensual politician will solve the deep-rooted issues that led to Trump’s takeover four years ago. Is he really the person to tackle profound issues of capitalism, globalisation, inequality, racism, technology and the desperate need for political reform that are tearing apart America? Sadly, whatever happens over the coming days and months, it is hard to be optimistic that the whirlwind of fury buffeting the soul of the nation can be salved, whichever elderly man is running the country.

Look at that electoral map again: after four years of the disruptive Trump in office, almost half the voters in the United States wanted to see him returned to power, even amid the pandemic, while the other half see him as devil incarnate. On both extremes sit unsavoury groups that proclaim the use of violence to achieve their goals in a country seeing surging gun sales. Only a fool would dare predict what comes next. Yet all is not lost, even when police chiefs and sober analysts discuss the possibility of serious civil unrest. For one thing still seems to unite pretty much all the people here, regardless of their political stance — the desire to end all the hate and patch up their differences. There is still hope for American salvation.

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