ONE THING both camps can agree: the presidential elections on 3 November will decide the fate of US democracy. They even agree on who threatens it – i.e. “fascism” – although they disagree on whether it is a “far right” or “radical left” fascism.
Moreover, a growing group of people in both camps distrust the electoral process and believe the other side can only win by cheating. Obviously, one claim is based almost completely on unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, while the other relies predominantly on a multitude of disturbing facts and ominous statements.
When Donald Trump was elected, to the surprise of most in November 2016, many commentators and supporters thought he would govern not as he had campaigned. They were wrong. They were also wrong that his radical style, in terms of behaviour, discourse and policies, would push many of his voters away.
While it is true that the number of self-identifying Republicans has slightly decreased, almost all of those that remain have by now fully embraced Trump and “Trumpism”.
Consequently, the party elite has given up on trying to rail him in and has, by and large, withdrawn from the November elections, making Trump the platform and staying in the background themselves (to preserve deniability in case Trump loses).
Having failed on Covid-19 and (as a consequence) on “re-opening” the US economy, Trump has campaigned on the classic populist radical-right trilogy: authoritarianism, nativism, and populism.
He argues that “America” is threatened by the “radical left”, personified by Antifa and Black Lives Matter, who allegedly control his Democratic opponent Joe Biden, and that only he can keep (female) “suburbanites” safe from “urban” invaders (both are strongly racialised terms in the US). Biden largely targets the same audience, hoping that they are more scared about Trump’s incompetence and radicalism than by radical left youth and people of colour (a risky bet in a country steeped in white supremacy).
While the polls show significant leads for Democratic nominee Biden, including in several of the key “battle states” and even in some that are not, we should be careful not to declare victory prematurely again.
Even as more than 220,000 Americans have died of Covid-19, and unemployment is at record levels, Biden’s lead is only six to seven percent in many polls, while he probably needs at least a four percent lead in the popular vote to win the deeply undemocratic Electoral College – and that is not even to speak about the orgy of voter suppression we can expect before and on voting day. Moreover, we know from recent elections in Hungary and Poland that conservative candidates who transform into far-right leaders can win re-election.
Should Trump win, we can expect not only an unhinged but also a largely unopposed president – as it will mean that the Senate remains in Republican hands too. No Republican leader will dare to stand up to him, terrified of being primaried with Trump’s support, while Trump believers and opportunists will further fill the party ranks.
At the same time, anti-Trump bureaucrats, from the Department of Justice to the State Department, will resign and leave their positions either open or to Trump appointees. The damage to both US democracy and simply the US state will be tremendous and could take a generation to rebuild.
Trump’s re-election will also reinvigorate authoritarian leaders around the world. Far-right parties in Europe will hope for a ‘Trump Bump’ in their own national elections – even though there was none after 2016 – and could profit from a further mainstreaming and normalisations because of tacit support by the White House.
For instance, US ambassador to the Netherlands, Pete Hoekstra, has been interviewed by the Forum for Democracy (FvD) YouTube channel and party leaders had a meeting with Hoekstra at the US embassy. Similarly, far-right leaders like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel will feel untouchable, knowing they have Trump on their side.
But this will even apply to other strongmen, from Kim Jung-un in North Korea to Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, who will know that the US won’t lecture or sanction them on human rights abuses.
This would change, significantly, with the election of Biden, who will largely return to an Obama-era US foreign policy. Internationalising domestic politics, one could even imagine Biden to be more outspoken against the global far right than President Barack Obama was. However, he would still face a significant far- right challenge in his own country.
Assuming Trump eventually accepts his electoral defeat – which, and such is the state of US politics today, is not even a certainty – Biden is likely to be faced with a heavily armed and highly mobilised far-right movement, including new militias like the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers, which have close ties to local law enforcement and state Republican leaders.
While these groups don’t have the military or popular strength to challenge the US state or democracy, assuming the military (including the National Guard) will support the new president (again, likely but far from certain), they could terrorise parts of the country and population, with tacit support of local and state Republicans, and help frustrate Biden’s probably already modest anti- racism and social justice agenda.
Although I remain convinced that the country is not facing a “fascist” threat in any meaningful way, Trump’s authoritarian and anti-democratic tendencies are clear to see. He might not replace liberal democracy in the US, mainly because he has no clear ideological agenda, but he can and will significantly weaken it.
While Biden might not create the post-racial America Obama promised, and might “sell out” to Wall Street, there is no doubt that he will defend and respect the essential institutions and values of liberal democracy in US and abroad. Hence, anyone claiming there is no real choice in November, sadly still a popular sentiment among some of the social media supporters of Bernie Sanders, are either blind, disingenuous, or just painfully ignorant.
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