The trauma of Trump is over
Published by The i paper (9th November, 2020)
For a brief moment, it felt like another country. First came a black woman standing before the United States of America as its elected vice president, such a powerful symbol of hope for so many of her fellow citizens left on the margins for so long. Then came the elderly man selected by people voting in unprecedented numbers with a heartfelt plea for healing in his wounded nation. “Let’s give each other a chance,” said Joe Biden, who rose superbly to the occasion to offer his nation the soothing words it needed to hear with his call to end “this grim era of demonisation.”
There were cheers and whoops of delight in Philadelphia’s bars as I watched this historic moment, while the dancing in the streets that began the day before as Biden took the lead in this key electoral state carried on into the night. Suddenly Donald Trump, so dominant of both US and global agendas with his mean-spirited tantrums and self-adoring tweets, felt like a dark historical diversion. Several people told me it felt like their country was waking from a four-year nightmare.
Yet this vile president refuses to concede and remains in office for ten more weeks, while the divisions that scar American remain deeply embedded in society and profound issues of dislocation that fostered his rise to power remain entrenched. Biden deserves credit for reaching the top after such a long journey, for resisting demagogues on both flanks and for sticking to his belief in moderation. He looked finished in February but never changed his message of reconciliation.
Yet the battles battering this country will not end with a few well-crafted words. Over the past weeks I have travelled into liberal and conservative heartlands on both coasts, listening as people patiently explained why they feared the racists or communists on the other side. This is a land of two tribes who live in very separate bunkers. One man in Biden’s home town of Scranton told me he could no longer talk to his father about politics since they cannot agree even on the facts under discussion.
Perhaps the widespread yearning for unity or some unforeseen event will see the country start to come together, restoring the “harmony and affection” that Thomas Jefferson said were essential for liberty in his inaugural address. But the omens are not good.
Senior Republicans, having defiled themselves by enabling Trump these past four years, backed his assault on democracy last week. “President Trump won this election,” claimed House minority leader Kevin McCarthy. Others were complicit through silence. Instead of predicted electoral disaster, their party made gains in the House and may cling to the Senate, so the savagery of the Washington wars will not abate – especially when many supporters believe their victory was stolen.
Meanwhile the bickering has begun in the Democrats before the results are fully declared. Centrists blame the progressives for alienating swing voters with talk of defunding police and socialism, while the left predictably say their policies would have inspired more people to support the cause. These struggles for the party soul are likely to intensify during the grind of government, especially when confronting the giant problems of pandemic and consequent economic damage.
A hunger for radical change is noticeable among younger voters, while the Black Lives Matter movement demands more than tokenism. These would be giant challenges for any president, let alone the oldest one in history taking office in such tempestuous times.
Do not be fooled by the failure again of pollsters. There was no landslide, as they suggested. But Trump is being turfed out because his corrosive populism – with its bitter divisiveness, its incompetence and its cavalier approach to truth – has been decisively rejected. This is something his soulmate Boris Johnson might care to note. It is not usual for a White House incumbent to lose, especially without splits in his party or serious third party challenger. Biden lured back substantial numbers of swing voters, probably reclaimed five states from the Republicans and looks set to win more votes in the electoral college than Trump achieved in 2016.
Now look at Georgia, a state that has not been blue in a presidential race for nearly three decades. The Democrats also forced two runoffs in Senate races that could decide the fate of their agenda. This success is partly due to demographic changes that can be seen in other parts of the south. But it is also down to the efforts of Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the election for governor two years ago and has since put effort into overcoming voter suppression, raising funds and registering an astonishing 800,000 voters. She may end up shaping her nation as much as Biden.
Abrams shows how success in politics still relies on the hard slog of local street fights. I was struck by a conversation with the founder of a group that spent $75m to help win back Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan for the Democrats. They stopped talking about Trump, finding that target voters did not trust other politicians making relentless attacks on his probity, and focused instead on everyday family concerns such as health and economic insecurities. See again how the old style of politics can defeat the toxic new populism.
During this brief moment of optimism, here is one more thing to celebrate. Last week, 22 million more people participated in the election than in 2016. So more than two-thirds of the electorate cast votes in a nation that traditionally has some of the lowest turnouts in the democratic world. The pandemic has inspired new ways of voting that will hopefully sustain. So for all Trump’s assaults on the integrity of the system, this infantile man who inspires such passion among those that love or hate him may have proved ultimately the underlying vibrancy of American democracy. Now Biden must show his nation can survive the trauma of Trump.