With or without Donald Trump at the helm, the future of the United States should concern everyone, writes Stephen Scher.
In 2016, 63 million Americans voted for Donald Trump, which was puzzling. Why vote for someone with the presentation of a used-car salesman when you could vote, instead, for a person who was one of the most qualified presidential candidates in U.S. history? The answer, in retrospect, is that Trump played into the anger of aging white Christians in the ‘heartland’, into the anti-elitism and distrust of government that has long been promoted by the Republican party, and, decisively, into the deep dislike of Hilary Clinton.
Fine, but an even greater puzzle remains. Why, after nearly four years of watching the shenanigans of Donald Trump, who is without doubt the worst, most destructive president in American history, are there still tens of millions of Americans who will vote for him to remain in office? After four years in which Trump has done his best to shred democracy in America and destroy its position of international leadership, why would anyone vote for him?
For example, just this past week—during the interview that occurred in lieu of a presidential debate—Trump was described as acting not like the President but like ‘someone’s crazy uncle’.
The situation is clear: instead of making America great again, Trump has turned the country into the world’s laughingstock, and not just because of its handling of the coronavirus. Trump supporters’ unresponsiveness to the facts leaves one wondering whether they are actually sentient. Do their brains still work?
My own explanation — the only thing that makes any sense no matter how much I read and how much I discuss the situation with others — is to invoke the Indian legend about the two wolves. On the standard telling of the legend, a grandfather tells his grandson that two wolves, one bad and one good, reside within every person. In response to the grandson’s question about which one ultimately wins, the grandfather says, ‘The one you feed.’
Racism has been part of America since its inception, and Trump has done a brilliant job of feeding it, and to the extent that nothing else really matters.
As originally adopted in 1787, the US Constitution included numerous clauses protecting slavery, and black slaves had no specific rights under it. As everyone knows, slavery was at the centre of the Civil War (1861–65), and it was only in 1870, with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, that black men (not women) obtained the right to vote. Although women were given the right to vote with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, the voting rights of blacks were still sufficiently compromised half a century later that fundamental new legislation — the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — was needed.
But here’s what I think is the crux of understanding the present political situation. Although the racist history of America cannot be denied, there was also a widespread, public, shared recognition that racial prejudice was simply wrong and that judging (or prejudging) persons by the colour of their skin was wrong too. It was not that the prejudice was not, in some way, always present, but that it was, insofar as possible, to be disregarded and suppressed. In tens of millions of American homes, this sort of prejudice was not just unwelcome, but to be countered and, over time, eliminated.
The strength of racial prejudice, along with the percentage of persons embracing it, varies dramatically from one part of the United States to another, and across all socioeconomic levels. It is only in the last few months that states in the deep South have been willing to surrender some of the enduring symbols of that region’s rebellion against the North during the Civil War. But some serious prejudice endures even in what are the most civil and enlightened regions of the country.
Just outside of Chicago, the village of Kenilworth — one of the richest in the United States — retained and tried to enforce ‘restrictive covenants’ (no blacks, no Jews) on property sales until at least, as I remember, the middle of the 1970s. And the social pressure against black or Jewish or even Asian property owners continued at least into the 1980s.
Likewise, in major American universities and university communities, both overt racism and anti-Semitism were common throughout the same period. Oddly enough, in the 1970s, when the federal government started to push universities to pursue racial equality in their faculty hiring decisions, the persons who most benefited initially were relatively light-skinned Oxford- and Cambridge-educated blacks who had been drawn to those universities from throughout the British colonies.
But despite all of the above, racism was generally considered unacceptable and wrong, no matter what one’s own baseline reactions might be, by the large majority of the American population. One must note here, however, that severe, de facto racial inequalities have continued into the present.
Despite the general population’s nominal objections to racism, the impact of skin colour on one’s life prospects remains daunting. The quality of schooling, housing, health care, public safety, and all vitally important social goods continues to be lower in communities of colour despite the absence of explicitly racial policies in many locales.
In the last four years of Trump and Trumpism, we have seen utterly astonishing outpourings of anger and hostility against anyone and anything that isn’t white and Christian. To return to the Indian legend, Trump has fed the bad wolf, and what has long been latent and suppressed has suddenly, for his loyal supporters, become a source of angry opposition to the values and institutions at the core of America’s democracy. Trump has brought out feelings and encouraged actions that are seen as way, way beyond the pale by the vast numbers of Americans for whom ‘America First’ is American individualism run amok.
Trump is willing to feed this destructiveness no matter what the cost. He is a malignant narcissist feeding his own ego by bringing out the very worst part of the complex amalgam of people and cultures that we know as America.
With good luck, Joe Biden will become president on January 20, 2021. And he will surely make every effort to feed the nation’s ‘good wolf’. The question is whether that effort, no matter how well-intended and no matter how strong and persistent, will succeed in quelling social and political conflict. Millions of loyal Trumpers will remain angry and hostile, no doubt, but the hope is that they will be relegated once again to the radical fringe.
One would hope, too, that the recent protests on behalf of Black Lives Matter signals new social and political efforts to actually improve black lives.
Another unknown is whether the Republicans in Congress and elsewhere — who have been Trump’s crucial enablers in the last four years, and who have, for the last three decades, remained aggressively opposed to social and political progress — will continue to see US politics as a zero-sum game, a fight to the death.
Even if the Republicans are in the minority both in the House and the Senate, Republicans’ potentially bellicose opposition to the Democrats may help keep alive the fires of Trumpian hostility to American values and political institutions, and to America’s efforts to regain some suitable, productive role on the world stage.
If the coming efforts to achieve a workable political settlement fail (assuming that Biden will, in fact, win the coming election), America would remain a compromised country and a potentially unreliable international partner, both politically and in terms of trade. And even those efforts are largely successful, at least in the short term, the question remains as to how many current Trumpers, even if relegated to the radical fringe, will remain assertively, even violently present in everyday life and politics, and how much such actions will further disrupt the country’s social and political fabric and continue to undermine public trust.
Trump himself may, or may not, remain at the forefront of such efforts, and even if he somehow disengages from the public scene, others may potentially try to take his place.
In ‘normal’ times, such demagogues have failed to generate enduring support. But there may now be a critical mass just waiting to break out.
Everyone I know in America is terrified by the prospects. You should be, too.
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