The battle for America’s soul will continue long after this election

Published by The i paper (2nd November, 2020)

The United States is a nation in denial. On one side, Trump fans are convinced their disruptive hero is going to confound pollsters again and win the White House, as I heard repeatedly last week in his West Virginia heartland.

On the other, jittery Democrats worry that the prize of power may be snatched from their grasp again at the last minute despite a nine-point lead. Their fears are fuelled by a poll showing the President has taken a commanding lead in Iowa, talk of a slight uptick in African-American support for him, unrest in Philadelphia playing into his law and order arguments and concern over “shy” Republican supporters not showing up in polls.

I heard one analyst theorising that all those young people voting in large numbers might back Trump because they do not want lockdown since they are less scared of Covid than older citizens. Yet as one British commentator told me, it feels similar to our election last year when the message from the ground was clear but few dared to listen.

Only a fool would say Trump is definitely not going to win. Last time he lost the national vote but won by a tiny margin in three key states, delivering the electoral college victory. But all indications suggest that Joe Biden, a far less divisive character than Hillary Clinton with a bigger lead in the polls, will be elected 46th President.

This raises three big questions as the final day of voting in this strange yet seismic contest arrives tomorrow: will Trump leave office without a struggle if defeated, will significant violence erupt on the streets and what is his legacy on the nature of the presidency?

It is disturbing that we have to contemplate the first two questions in a leading democracy, which underlines Trump’s corrosive impact on his country. Yet the third is perhaps even more profound for American politics, which remains so influential around the world, as seen again over these past four disruptive years.

Trump sees himself always as a winner, regardless of the facts. Yet this egotistical man, who has even thrown his worst insult of “loser” at military heroes, has begun to contemplate becoming one himself. “If I lose, I will have lost to the worst candidate in the history of presidential politics,” he said last month. “If I lose, what do I do?”

The fear is he will answer as he always has done during difficult moments in his career: by tangling up his enemies in the courts. Already there is a barrage of Republican court cases and tricks attempting to subvert the right to vote of their foes. All eyes are on Pennsylvania, with its 20 prized votes in the electoral college, and new voting machines as a potential site of any legal fight for the presidency.

This is one reason why Trump’s talk of rigged postal ballots, his claims the nation must have a result on the day and his reluctance to admit he will go, is stoking such alarm. He has, after all, rarely been constrained by convention or decency in the past. Even in event of a landslide, might he declare victory based on initial results from voting in person that probably favour the Republicans before the blue wave sweeps in – and then spray around allegations of fraud?

We must hope not since the consequences could be so dark, with talk of serious violence, even something approaching civil war. This sounds absurdly apocalyptic. Yet as you travel this country, the divisions are horribly clear – although it is worth pointing out that, for all the focus on extremists, most citizens yearn for their country to come together again. 

Unfortunately Trump is a populist agitator who adores only himself. And whoever wins, one side will be bitterly upset in a nation seeing gun sales soar and armed militias strutting the streets. The police chief in a major city told me they expect a week of unrest regardless of the result. I was struck also by one young and female socialist leader telling me they had to arm themselves “because the fascists are heavily armed”.

I am now in Washington, where banks and shops are being boarded up. “I’ve never seen this in an election before since they’re usually celebratory events,” said Steffen Schmidt, professor of politics at Iowa State University. This veteran academic, who has analysed American politics for more than half a century and unusually foresaw Trump’s success, fears the former reality television star has irrevocably transformed both the Republican Party – aided by all those patsy careerists and supposed Christians who stayed silent over his excesses – and the presidency itself.

Trump was expected to be a weak leader given his political inexperience. Instead he has been an imperial president as he ruthlessly used executive powers, sacked foes, ignored conventions and gave courts a conservative makeover to aid his agenda. For all his flaws and incompetence, he has proved there are fewer checks on the president’s power than were presumed, with many perceived constraints based on political norms and historic traditions rather than statute. 

In many ways, this makes his pathetic handling of the pandemic all the more personal. Biden deserves credit for his genuine desire to reunite his nation in such divided times and for sticking to his centrist beliefs throughout his campaign, despite all the talk on the right that he is a helpless puppet of the hard left. No doubt he will try to follow a similar path if elected president.

But if the Democrats capture the White House and the Senate along with the House, it is hard to believe he will be able to thwart the furious desire of progressives to remake their country in a similar style, especially after they have suffered four years of Trump’s aggression and taunts. Only one thing is clear: the angry struggle for America’s soul will not end this week.

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