America after TrumpMonday, October 26, 2020
IT is being said that the US presidential election, to be held in just over a week, is the most crucial in that country's history. It is perhaps superseded only by the 1932 election when Franklin D Roosevelt challenged Herbert Hoover at the height of the Great Depression. Yet, given the state of America, and, indeed, the global landscape after four years of Donald Trump's presidency, this election may be no less consequential.
All the reputable polling organisations suggest that Trump will lose. But then that was also their prediction in 2016 and he was able to secure a majority of Electoral College votes, even though losing the popular vote to Hilary Clinton. I find it surprising that this time around he remains as competitive as he is, polling consistently in the mid-40s.
Trump is unique. No other US president, no matter how charismatic, was able to create the cult-like loyalty among his followers that he has. It is his most potent weapon. It is what strikes fear in the hearts of elected Republican officials who might otherwise have been prepared to stand up to him when he does crazy things. These loyal followers are the focus of his campaign and gather faithfully at his rallies. That focus may prove to be his undoing, since he is preaching to the converted and they are not sufficient in number to get him across the finish line. He continues to say and do things that are likely to turn off independent and moderate Republican voters, who ultimately will determine the outcome.
Trump's campaign is in a pickle. The economic gains made during his tenure were to have been his rallying cry. This was to have 'trumped' his erratic behaviour, abusive temperament, racist tendencies, foreign policy blunders, and egotistic blustering. But then came COVID-19, which wiped out those gains and became itself a major election issue for which his management has been found wanting. With just four per cent of the world's population, the US accounts for 20 per cent of COVID-19 infections and fatalities. Trump's “no big thing” attitude must certainly be repulsive to voters whose loved ones have died or are struggling with the virus.
Trump cannot simply shrug off the growing list of prominent Republicans — so far numbering over 600 — who have openly endorsed Joe Biden, including several former governors, Cabinet secretaries, senators, and members of Congress. Nothing like this has ever happened before. Many Republican candidates in marginal seats are caught in a vice — they cannot win without the support of Trump's base, but neither can they win if they are perceived to be a Trump acolyte.
The Democrats are well poised to not only win the White House but to take control of the Senate. Trump will no doubt dispute the result if he loses, but unless it is very close and compromised by irregularities that can be proven, there is hardly much comfort that the courts will be able to offer him.
CHALLENGES FOR A BIDEN PRESIDENCY
If Biden wins, his first order of business must be to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus and to do so in a manner that allows economic activity to be conducted in as safe a way as possible. It's not rocket science. National standards and vigorous enforcement will have to be applied. Tighter restrictions will have to be imposed on areas experiencing spikes until their rate of infection is brought in line. Rapid antibody-based tests must be made universally available, and at no cost.
More than a third of the population is unwilling to take a vaccine even if one becomes available. Persuasive public education will have to address this well in advance of the vaccine's arrival.
The fiscal deficit notwithstanding, the Federal Government will have to allocate huge sums to enable state and local Governments to cope and to assist schools and small businesses to operate within the required protocols. Control of the Senate by Democrats would make it possible to move quickly on this.
Biden will also need to find the balm of Gilead to heal the divisiveness that is tearing the country apart. A wise leader knows that a national crisis provides an opportunity to bring people together. Biden is well suited for this role, given his temperament and his consensus-building reputation. His willingness to consider appointing Republicans to his Cabinet — as did Bill Clinton with William Cohen and Barack Obama with Chuck Hagel — shows that he recognises the importance of cross-party collaboration in the tasks ahead.
However, repairing the breach so visibly evident in America's body politic will require more than bipartisan collaboration. Trump's election in 2016 came about because of a long-festering disaffection with the way Washington operates and its disengagement from the people. The causes of that disaffection must be clinically identified and appropriate reforms instituted.
Restoring America's image and reputation in the eyes of the world must also be high on Biden's “to do” list. Journalist Fintan O'Toole, writing in the Irish Times in May, expressed it so well:
“Over more than two centuries, the United States has stirred a very wide range of feelings in the rest of the world: Love and hatred, fear and hope, envy and contempt, awe and anger. But there is one emotion that has never been directed towards the US until now — pity.”
Tackling the issue of systemic racism must also be on Biden's agenda. Trump's election in 2016 and four years of his presidency have laid bare the fact that the struggle for racial equality has not advanced as much as we had thought. Trump didn't invent racism. There are large segments of the American population that have never been comfortable with its multiracial character. What Trump's ascendency has done is to pull away the curtain behind which it had lurked and encouraged those with racist predilections to triumphantly pour out of the woodwork because, in him, they have found a champion.
This is going to be Biden's most difficult task and it is one that cannot be accomplished in a single term, but he must initiate it. Enacting legislation can go only so far. His most enduring legacy would be setting in train a process that involves transformative interaction at the community level aimed especially at the young generation and geared toward Martin Luther King Jr's still unfulfilled dream. For Biden and, indeed, all of us, history beckons.
Bruce Golding is a former prime minister of Jamaica.
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