Federiga Bindi / Nov 2020
The tension across America is high, people are holding their breath waiting for November 3rd. Yet, the results may not be known for a while. Whatever the result, however, the next few months are likely to be difficult, not only because of COVID - now hitting almost 100,000 people a day - but because violence is widely anticipated, with shops covering their windows with large wood panels.
How is it possible that the eldest democracy in the world got to this point? To try to understand it, we will first briefly assess the Trump’s presidency and then analyse current events and possible scenarios.
In 1992, the Clinton campaign became famous for its: “It’s the economy, stupid”. Voting with a hand on the purse is indeed a characteristic of the American voters. During its first three years, the Trump presidency continued to enjoy the economic growth initiated with Barack Obama in 2010: the Washington Post analysed the economic trends of the two presidencies and the continuum is evident. The philosophy is also similar: raise the debt and get the economy going.
The first years of the Trump’s presidency were particularly favourable to white unskilled workers and to his peers, the super millionaires. The main losers – indebted and with a reduced buying power - were middle class workers.
Yet, until COVID struck, Trump had a good case in claiming the economy was rocking, also thanks to all-low interest rates. COVID shuffled the cards and changed the narrative: one American in four is today unable to pay his bills, a ratio that becomes one-in-two among poorer workers. Unemployment, in ever growing numbers, deprived people of their health coverage, at a time when it would be more necessary than ever.
Even economic growth came at great cost, for instance in environmental terms: from energy efficiency to water pollution, Trump repealed over 125 environmental safeguards enacted by the Obama presidency.
Trump’s major success is without doubt courts’ nominations: 300 federal judges, 60 in the Courts of Appeal circuits, and 3 Supreme Court Justices, a bounty that will shape the US for decades to come. Amy Barrett’s nomination was the icing on the cake for his supporters. In 2016, Joe Biden wanted to run exactly because he was aware of the slew of judicial nominations to come.
Other areas where Trump leaves a heavy legacy are foreign policy and domestic cohesion.
Should Biden win, foreign policy would be the easiest to fix. A former Vice President and Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden enjoys personal ties with international leaders, and he would be quick to bring the US back into the realm of traditional alliances and multilateral fora. While initially Trump’s foreign policy was characterised by continuity, soon his schizophrenic action brought the US out of the Paris Agreements, the JCPOA, UNESCO, TPP, the UNCHR, and the WHO (the complete list is here), not to mention the 545 Latino children whose parents are nowhere to be found, the erratic relations with China and Russia, and even with NATO and the UN.
Despite this or, better, because of this, America’s traditional allies are eager to go back to business as usual. Europe was sadly unable to fill the vacuum left by the US. On the contrary, four more years of Trump, would irreparably damage global relations. In the vacuum, China and Russia would emerge as global leaders, with consequences hard to imagine.
The question of social cohesion is more complex and harder to solve, and only a person with Joe Biden’s humanity may have a chance at it. It is not by accident that Biden keeps repeating that he is the Democratic candidate, but that he will be the President of all Americans.
Contrary to common wisdom abroad, the US is a fragmented and deeply diverse country. Fragmented in terms of wealth, education, race, language, occupation, religion, interests, geography, political idea, lifestyle, just to mention a few. The North/South gap between former slave states and the others still runs deep. Just 66 years ago, the US was a segregated country: in 17 states, blacks were – according to the law – lower beings. The Supreme Court historic decision of 1954, Brown vs Board of Education, only formally ended segregation. In the 1970s, Vice President candidate Kamala Harris was among the kids of colour who were “bussed” to white schools to force integration. Only in 1964, with the Civil Rights Act, President Johnson brought an end to the Jim Crow laws that made it almost impossible for blacks to vote.
The election of the first African American President, Barack Obama, was an historical moment. Many saw it as a reparation for centuries of hardships, and a sign that America was finally integrated. Without doubt, things have improved. In 1967, when the ban on interracial weddings was finally lifted, only 3% of American couples were mixed. In the 1980, it was 7%; in 2015, 17%. Should she be elected, Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff will be the first interracial and religiously diverse vice-presidential couple. But the reality is that scars runs deep, divisions are hard to mend, and de facto segregation still exists in many areas of the country.
In The Fractured Republic, Yuval Levin argues that there is a nostalgia of the (white) middle class’ golden age, the 1950s and 1960s. While Obama enacted progressive policies welcomed by liberals, the poorest whites silently grow rancorous. One only needs to leave the main arteries to see Third World-style poverty: shacks and trailers camps, at times with outside toilets, are all over the country. Poor whites with no education, skills, or perspectives in an ever-evolving world, blamed the first African American for their hardships. White supremacist groups resurfaced. Donald Trump was able to detect that discontent and run on it. In the US, the President set the tone of the country; with Obama’s decency and courteous tone long gone, verbal and physical violence surged.
Yet, Obama’s legacy meant that people – coloured and progressives – are not willing anymore to stand by injustices such as the killing of the George Floyd or Breonna Tailor. Protests ensued: clashes between protesters, white supremacists, and police took place all over the country, from Seattle to Washington DC. They are a sample of what is likely to happen in the coming weeks.
Both Trump and Pence refused to say whether they will accept defeat, should that happen. The rushed Amy Barrett’s nomination was an electoral cadeau to Trump followers, but mostly to himself: a solidly conservative Supreme Court that would support him should it come to decide on the results of the elections.
As of Saturday 30th October, over 60% of the 2016 voters, had already performed their civic duty, the highest number of mail-in voting in American history. As mail-in ballots are mostly going to be counted after the elections, and experts are unanimous in claiming that they are in majority Democrats, Trump has lost no opportunity to affirm that they are rigged. There is evidence of Jim Crow tactics in the South. Both sides are preparing to fight with armies of lawyers as the November 3rd results are likely to diverge from the definitive ones; legal challenges have been already launched by conservative groups in Texas.
As COVID spreads across the US, firearms sales surged and Trump’s proximity to white supremacists like the Proud Boys is all but reassuring. Should he lose, his narcissist ego hurt, he may cause mayhem in the remaining two months of the presidency. He may even break with Constitutional customs by pardoning himself to avoid federal prison once presidential immunity ends on January 20th. America’s motto - God Bless America – may soon be needed.