It looks as if Joe Biden will scrape through as the 45th President of the United States, but not before a protracted, messy and acrimonious drama, likely to be punctuated by protests, recounts and lawsuits, particularly in the close-run states of Georgia, Arizona and Pennsylvania. Still, he has won more votes than any other presidential candidate in the history of the United States, and can be said to deserve the ultimate prize. But it is a poisoned chalice that he will inherit from an ungracious loser, Donald Trump, on 20 January next year.
The America over which he seems likely to preside is a deeply divided and polarised land, marked by harsh antipathies and levels of distrust that – according to a group of social scientists from 11 universities writing in the prestigious journal Science – border on hatred for the opposing side, infused with a toxicity that appears deeply harmful to society.
The antipathy intensified by partisan social media reinforcing each group’s beliefs, with politicians harping on divisive hot-button issues to demonise their opponents, and the growth of visceral identity politics that pits white supremacists on one side and immigrants, African Americans and other ethnic and sexual minorities on the other, has cleaved through the old homogenised ‘red, white and blue’ United States of America of popular legend. These are now the ‘Divided’ States of America: red on one side, blue on the other, and the white in between stained with blood and bile.
The USA is divided between the cosmopolitan coasts and the conservative heartland; between those who declaim ‘Make America Great Again’ and those who understand this really means ‘Make America White Again’; between urban and rural, rich and poor, educated and less educated; between those inspired by a historic sense of global mission, and those who defiantly assert ‘America First’.
Both sides despise the other; each sees the contest as a zero-sum game in which defeat is unthinkable and its consequences existential. That is why Trump says losing to Biden would prompt him to “leave America” (though we all know he will do no such thing, instead using his defeat as a platform to project himself even further as star of his own ‘virtual reality’ show). Biden pleads on Twitter that “we have to stop treating our opponents as enemies”. But judging by Trump’s claims that he has “won the election”, even when millions of votes are still being counted, and by his supporters trying to storm some counting centres, that plea has fallen on deaf ears.
When Donald Trump stunned the world by winning an election in 2016 that Hillary Clinton had been confidently predicted to sail through, members of the US establishment were quick to dismiss it as an aberration, a quirk of electoral politics enabled by a poor opposition candidate. As Trump, in office, took international observers aback with his remarks and decisions, he was shrugged off as an embarrassment, not at all typifying what America was about.
But this election has made it clear that Trumpism is not a ‘surreal interlude’ as some liked to describe it, but a reflection of America as it is today – nativist, protectionist, quite deeply racist and misogynist. The Americans we foreigners are likely to meet don’t like to see themselves that way, and preferred to speak of Trump’s behaviour, his demagoguery and populism, as idiosyncratic and untypical – but the election confirms that in fact at least half of America sees themselves in him, in what he stands for and the behaviour he embodies.
Biden’s predicted victory was seen as a restoration of ‘normalcy’ to American life, a reclaiming of the American soul from the clutches of one manifestly unfit for the exalted office he holds. Not so: Americans did not in fact reject Trumpism, despite his Administration’s mishandling of COVID, his encouragement to white supremacists, his irrational 3 AM tweeting, and his obsessive personal narcissism.
The pollsters got it wrong; they gave Trump nearly 50 percent of the vote. And what he stands for is clearly here to stay, even if Biden wins the presidency this time. A narrow Biden win in a closely-fought and disputed race can hardly be described as a repudiation of Trumpism.
There are echoes here in India of what we are witnessing in the US, despite the very different political and electoral systems in play. Our own nation is as divided and polarised as the US, and in similar ways.
Here too, we now see politics as zero-sum, a struggle for the nation’s soul. Liberal constitutionalism is America’s calling card, but its hold on the American soul is eroding; the same can be said, as I argue in my new book The Battle of Belonging, for the attempts of our rulers to shift India from the “civic nationalism” of our Constitution to the “Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan” ethno-religious nationalism of the Hindutva movement.
In America, race and identity have become the principal currency of American politics, just as religion and caste have undermined India’s pluralism and liberal democracy. Social media feeds our pathological hatreds and reinforces our prejudices, in both countries. A populist demagogue thumps his chest in both capitals. Impulsive and whimsical decision-making at the top have tripped up governments in both countries – if it was demonetisation, unemployment and COVID mismanagement here, it is surrendering to the Taliban, withdrawing from WHO and COVID mismanagement there.
Both countries used to enjoy a certain moral stature in the eyes of the world – ours conferred by Mahatma Gandhi and the legacy of our freedom movement, the US as the land of freedom and opportunity, the global paragon of democracy and human rights. In both cases, our stature has been grievously wounded; in both cases it is our toxic domestic politics that has undermined our credibility.
America will conclude its dysfunctional election before too long, but it will emerge from the shambles of its 2020 verdict torn and bleeding in its very soul. We in India, with so many of the same shattering trends visible, stand warned.