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The Long Night: America’s Status Quo Election

ARTICLES - 5 November 2020

Americans often forget that their history is pockmarked with messy elections. So, when things are sloppy and uncertain, people get alarmed. Of late, however, the country has become more polarized. Nail-biting elections have raised fears of constitutional crisis and violence, just the kind of opportune setting for autocratic strongmen. 

After a long night that turned into a long day, many are breathing a sigh of relief that Donald Trump, the man, is going down to defeat. But Trump, the movement, has consolidated a realignment in American politics that has deeper origins than his shocking triumph in 2016, and which will outlive his narrow defeat in 2020. While Joe Biden edges to victory, it is almost as shocking that Trump took 48% of votes cast in the middle of a pandemic, that he made worse with a cocktail of malice and incompetence. 

In the strange mosaic that is American politics, several themes stand out. Together, they point to the making of a protracted, endogenous, crisis – where the causes of polarization are now fully integrated into the public institutions that are supposed to pull society out of its impasse. Government gridlock will go on. This plays into the hands of those who look upon government as at best a joke and at worst a meddling predator. Trump’s opponents will have to reckon with the fact that Trump still managed to claim the loyalties of nearly half of American voters. This is not a trifling minority hard-core base and it’s a bloc that thrives off the rancor. Trump critics within the Republican Party, or among Democrats, cannot dismiss Trumpism as an exception, a fleeting appeal to a small minority by a passing blow-hard. America is more polarized and fractured than ever. It cannot even grieve for what it has lost in lives and beliefs. 

Trump’s opponents will have to reckon with the fact that Trump still managed to claim the loyalties of nearly half of American voters.

The fact is, the Republican Party is molding to the man who led it these last four years, by thriving off the divides that have been growing for decades. With a disease run amok and an economy in a slump, the GOP script was to rule with a highly mobilized, strategically placed, political base, coupled to the resources of a few wealthy ideologues. That base is overwhelmingly male, working class, and more multi-racial than its critics realize. A surprising number of African-American and Hispanic men resonated to the Trump message and joined his maskless, flag-waving, legions. 

Plus Ça Change

America has become mired in an impasse. There is little sign that this will end. Indeed, the elections of 2020 laid the path for another endless cycle of fruitless gridlock. Democrats hoped to pick up more seats in the House of Representatives. Instead, they lost seats. Democrats hoped to tilt the Senate to a majority. They didn’t. Since 2010, the Executive and Legislative branches have been at odds; few laws get passed while the country’s infrastructure decays. That will not change after the long night.

The laws and statutes that do exist to inch the country into the twenty-first century have been steered into the nation’s courts, where Republicans have refined the art of judicial stonewalling. That power has been consolidated. Under President Donald Trump, the Judiciary has been stacked with judges selected for their faith in the small-state, originalist, commitments of the Federalist Society. Two hundred such hand-picked justices, including three nominations to the Supreme Court, with lifetime appointments, joined the federal bench in less than four years. 

Two months before the election, the journalist Bob Woodward released recordings of President Trump confessing that he had lied to the American public about the severity of Covid-19. He didn’t want to cause "panic" while on campaign. Thousands died. And yet Trump’s supporters did not flinch. His support in 2020 blew past his victory in 2016; if he got 63 million votes four years ago, on November 3, in the face of his mendacity, incompetence, and indecency, he claimed over 68 million votes. As a long night of election-watching turns into a long week, and a long week turns into long months, many in the opposition are asking themselves how he could have come so close?

Managing shared challenges of climate change, security, a global refugee crisis, and commercial multilateralism will have to take place without American leadership.

In fact, this election promises to extend the lease of Trumpism without its avatar. 

After America First 

This means that the world has to get used to two things. First: it will have to get used to a downsized, shrinking, American national state. Managing shared challenges of climate change, security, a global refugee crisis, and commercial multilateralism will have to take place without American leadership. Pundits have been ringing the post-American bell for some time. Their prophecies are now reality. If a federal government equipped with medical expertise and fiscal strength that’s the envy of the world could not lead its own citizens through a pandemic, it will do no better on a bigger, more complex, global stage.

America, the handmaiden of world order after the Second World War, has backed away from a role it enjoyed for decades after 1945. In recent years, America went from fatigued leader under Obama to resentful petulance under Trump. By 2020, it started to tune out the rest of the world altogether.

During the electoral roller coaster, foreign policy was all but absent. There were a few exceptions. Prompted by a reporter’s questions, climate change entered in one of the debates. Biden promised a pathway to carbon neutrality; Trump blamed Californians for failing to keep their forests clean. It was absurd. The migration issue struck a nerve over the 545 children who were orphaned by American border guards, separated from their parents who are now lost. Biden was outraged; Trump claimed to have improved their lives. It was shameful. There was some alarm about Russian meddling. But otherwise, the rest of the world receded from the American political imaginary. 

Contrast this with the last presidential elections. Gone are the 2016 days in which Trump promised to throttle China. Talk of a beautiful big wall – paid by Mexico – vaporized. There were no more ominous warnings about hordes of migrants threatening to invade the country, no more free-riding Europeans, no more cheating Canadians, no more adoring words for WikiLeaker Julian Assange.

For the most part, what Biden would do beyond US borders is a muddle.

Trump may be a nativist, but his nationalist hyperbole played no role in 2020. Instead, he banked his appeal on homegrown bravura, race-baiting, blurring the line between amour de soi and reasons of state, and a defense of an "open" economy even if thousands more die of Covid-19. Make America Great Again turned into a small, diminished copy of its once-grandiose, chest-thumping, original.

Can Biden Be Different?

Trump was not the only candidate to turn inwards. Biden showed little more concern about foreign policy. In 2016, Hillary Clinton promised to continue Obama’s cautious brand of leadership. She defended free trade, badly, but she did it. She upheld the Paris Climate Treaty. She redoubled American commitment to human rights. 

The contrast in 2020 is stark. Though Biden is seasoned in foreign policy, his vision has been invisible. Beyond vague gestures about restoring American stature, there was neither principle nor policy. Biden will rejoin the US to the 2015 Paris climate treaty, though America is so far behind its targets, that the treaty’s anemic enforcement terms will start to spotlight the US shortcomings immediately. One presumes the US will rejoin the World Health Organization, but with what kind of leadership will it offer after such a dismal showing at home? The prospects of a revitalized nuclear deal with Iran are almost impossible to envision; once Trump reneged on the deal, Iran slid out of compliance. It is hard to see how Iran would submit to renewed scrutiny when it has such a perfect excuse at hand to blame Washington. It is also likely that Biden will accept the Trump-brokered "peace deals" between Israel and a few Gulf states and hope the Middle East spares him trouble. For the most part, what Biden would do beyond US borders is a muddle. And much of it will continue the America-First legacy, albeit with a gentler, softer, touch.

This summer, the long Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force Report was long on domestic policy recommendations on innovation, taxation, homeownership, carbon-curbing, and jobs. It is impressive. But when it comes to the rest of the world, it was astonishingly short. Nuclear weapons are not mentioned once, even though the global arms control regime is now in shambles. The worst humanitarian calamity in the Western Hemisphere, the meltdown of Venezuela, is absent. So is Syria, Iraq, Europe.

Muddling through may be about all we can hope for at this stage. And it may be more gratifying because it is such a relief after four years of globe-bashing. The tone of diplomacy will change, radically. We can look forward to less insulting, less acrimony, and less coziness with despots. But beyond that? Not a lot. While American officials calculate their way to a Biden victory and inauguration, do not expect a major change in foreign policy.

The challenge for the world is how to reconnect with an America that searches for a new sense of global place and purpose that is neither the isolationism of the nineteenth century nor the superpower of the twentieth.

When Covid-19 hit, there was an opening for Trump the populist to become a wartime leader and rally the nation in a common cause. He did exactly the opposite, and in doing so, fractured the American credo even more.

It’s No Longer My Flag

That challenge is complicated because the world has to square up to a second reality: the America that searches for its place and purpose is still a large, powerful, and important player but it is deeply fractured. In the past, both the isolationism of the nineteenth century and superpowerhood of the twentieth enjoyed some basic consensus within. True, there were dissents. In the nineteenth century, a few Americans dreamed of playing with the imperial big boys (they finally got their chance in 1898). In the late 1930s, isolationists warned against American involvement in foreign wars. But until the Iraq War in 2003, there was a basic premise shared by the American elite and endorsed by broad swaths of the electorate, that the US was a global titan because Americans shared a common narrative, a credo even, about its values. When Covid-19 hit, there was an opening for Trump the populist to become a wartime leader and rally the nation in a common cause. He did exactly the opposite, and in doing so, fractured the American credo even more.

That credo is on life support. An overwhelming Biden victory might have given it a shot in the arm. But 2020 did not yield to a renewal of American vows to its own mythology. Far from it. The long night was long precisely because it revealed how equally weighted and how polarized they are. 

Walmart is an American oracle. What happens in the aisles of the country’s largest retailer gauges the country’s mood. As the tenor of American politics grows more contentious, the store managers have grown more concerned. In August, 2019, one Walmart outlet in El Paso, Texas, was the site of one of America’s ritual mass murders. A white nationalist opened fire on Hispanic people, leaving 23 dead. Since then, Walmart scaled back the sales of assault rifles and banned sales to people under 21. A week before the US elections on November 3, Walmart pulled their remaining stocks of guns and ammunition from the shelves of half of their 4,750 stores. Fearing civil unrest and potential looters, especially in the political "battlegrounds" in Miami and Philadelphia, the company warehoused their lucrative wares. 

The election was so clean and so massive that it put into stark relief just how splintered the country is.

The popularity of the battleground metaphor is an index of how combative and lethal American politics have become. Despite Walmart’s efforts, sales of firearms in America soared in the weeks before the election. Blythe’s Sport Shops in Indiana sold over 80,000 rounds of 9 mm ammunition within a half hour of opening on election day alone.

It was not just weaponry that flew off the shelves; so did the nation’s supply of plywood sheets. The luxury department store chain, Nordstrom, ordered half its stores to be boarded up. Fancy stores on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles also covered their plate-glass windows. Tiffany & Co., Saks Fifth Avenue, and other marquee retailers hired more security guards. As if Covid-19’s ballistic strike on American commerce were not enough, streetscapes from Beverly Hills to inner city Philadelphia braced for a brawl.

Fears have not borne out so far. In fact, the election went more smoothly and more peaceably than many feared. There was little violence. People turned out in droves and mailed in ballots in unprecedented numbers. By all accounts – pace the president – the ritual may have been the cleanest in American history. Indeed, the election was so clean and so massive that it put into stark relief just how splintered the country is. On election day, I was standing on the sidewalk in my town in central New Jersey and watched as a pick-up truck with a large trailer drove down the main street bedecked with massive TRUMP and American flags. In the preceding months, this kind of display was becoming more common, a kind of "take that" for genteel onlookers. Weaponized versions were on display among vigilantes during the summer’s street protests. As the truck went by, a woman standing beside me turned to speak through the gauze of her mask: "I feel like it is no longer my flag." She had lost her credo.

Trump did not kill it. It has been ailing for years, especially since the debacle in Iraq and the shameless bailouts of Wall Street that seems to reward the haves at the expense of the have-nots. The spectacle of policemen choking Black civilians while looking blankly into a camera, tax breaks for the rich, soaring student debt, poisoned drinking water in Michigan, concentration camps along the border, and the unabashed drive to suppress voters, have taken their toll on the credo. This does not include the everyday ways in which the humble facemask divided families and led to fist-fights in stores. 

As long as America is so cleaved, it will be so consumed with its internal drama (and force the rest of the world to watch as bystanders) that it will be hard to summon the capacities to be an effective partner with neighbors and allies. Trump may be consigned to the basement, Tweeting like a crazy uncle to his followers. But Trumpism is here for a while.


In the soul-searching that has already begun, two events went unnoticed. Election day was a sad one because Covid-19 infected an additional 92,660 people while citizens flocked to the polls. Another 1,130 people died in the quarantined solitude. The next day, the US’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Treaty became official. 

Trump may recede, noisily. But Trumpism lives on and will take new forms. New voices will emerge from the shadow of the man’s girth. The outcome of the 2020 elections will not change the fact that Washington is the capital of a fractured nation.





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