“You’re going to have bedlam in our country.” So said Donald Trump of his expectations for tomorrow’s US presidential election and its aftermath at a rally in Newtown, Pennsylvania, on Saturday.
Scarcely inspiring as closing campaign arguments go, you might say: no “New Frontier”, no “Morning in America”, no appeal to the “better angels of our nature”. But it was, at least, the authentic Trump, never too shy to invoke “American carnage”, praise the “very fine people” among white supremacists, or tweet that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”.
In his first inaugural address in 1981, Ronald Reagan declared the orderly transfer of power in the US electoral system to be “nothing less than a miracle”. Almost four decades later, faith in that miracle is deeply diminished, thanks to another Republican president who has made very different use of Reagan’s slogan: “Make America Great Again.”
The National Guard has “regional response units” on standby in case of unrest this week. Shops and businesses have been boarded up in anticipation of disorder. A legion of lawyers stands ready to contest the count in every conceivable way.
In the final week of campaigning, Trump has shown remarkable physical resilience for a 74-year-old who was still in hospital suffering from Covid-19 less than a month ago. He looks to me like a man limbering up for a fight, rather than throwing his last few punches in the 12th.
Even if a clear winner does indeed emerge tomorrow night and the loser concedes defeat swiftly, this contest – fought in the shadow of a pandemic that has already claimed the lives of 231,000 Americans – has traumatised the nation’s soul like no other in modern times.
“Campaign in poetry, govern in prose” – for once, Mario Cuomo’s well-worn dictum has not held true. There has been no poetry in this race, which has been, at its core, a contest between two forms of desperation: the desperation to end Trump’s presidency and his desperation to prolong it.
What is at stake could hardly be more basic. This is not an argument between left and right, between libertarianism and big government, between the case for change and the incumbent’s request for four more years to finish the job. It is a struggle between infantilism and adulthood; between constitutional order and Trump’s flagrant indifference to the republic’s founding text that he swore in January 2017 “to support and defend”; between angry isolationism and America resuming its role within the family of nations. This president has reduced politics to instinct, blame and tribalism. Only his unambiguous defeat will do.
In which context, there is bleak comedy in the resort of normally rational Americans to the superstitious notion that even saying “Trump will probably lose” out loud could jinx the entire thing. People I have known for years inside the Beltway – hard-bitten politicians, seminar smoothies, cynical pundits – have been reduced to talisman-clutching horoscope-readers (“A tall orange man will play an important part in your life this week…”). They have been seriously spooked by a lone Des Moines Register poll published on Saturday that showed Trump seven points ahead of Biden – but only in Iowa.
Why so tremulous? Partly because the political-media class in America is still suffering from PTSD after failing to predict Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016. And partly because Trump, always a performer, has so successfully accelerated the annexation of politics by the entertainment industry – a world about which, as the great screenplay writer William Goldman teaches us, “nobody knows anything”. What power does a stable poll lead have against the dramatic impact of a horrible twist in the final scene? That is what they fear.
Two words of warning: first, if Biden wins tomorrow, you will see long screeds in the media about “what this means for the UK”. Read them if you like, but bear in mind the overarching reality that Brexit has made this country intrinsically less important to whomever occupies the Oval Office for the next four years.
I do not believe that Biden – a fixture in Washington for half a century – would be anything other than pragmatic in his approach to the UK, mindful of its contribution to Nato, and the fortuitous combination of the British presidency of the G7 and UN Security Security Council, and its hosting of the COP26 Climate Conference in 2021. It’s just that, post-Brexit, the UK is no longer, in any sense, America’s “gateway” to Europe – a diminution in geopolitical clout that we have chosen for ourselves.
I have no doubt that President Biden would happily go for a walk with Boris Johnson in the woods of Camp David as a nice photo-op. I just don’t think he would pay all that much attention to what the Prime Minister said.
Second: Trump’s defeat would not signal the end of Trumpism. Remember in 2016, when we were assured that senior moderate Republicans would rein in the president-elect? How did that work out?
In practice, the GOP is now little more than a database serving a cult of personality. The Republican National Convention in August even dispensed with the traditional pre-election platform – the US equivalent of a party’s manifesto. Its policy in 2020 is what emerges from Trump’s Twitter feed: a wretched abdication of collective responsibility by the party of Abraham Lincoln.
Worse, Biden has yet to offer a persuasive response to the converging forces that spawned Trump: blue-collar despair, economic insecurity, fear of pulverising global change, and hatred of the coastal elites. And there are plenty of smoother Republicans – Tom Cotton, Senator for Arkansas, Josh Hawley, Senator for Missouri, and Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State – waiting in the wings to cherry-pick from Trump’s raw populism and nativism in future campaigns.
They would do so in the knowledge that he has packed the benches (and not only the Supreme Court) with conservative judges, energised a network of heavily armed militias (whose violent potential has already been seen in Kenosha, Portland and elsewhere), and galvanised a formidable digital network of like-minded far Right activists.
Whatever the president’s fate may be – four more years in the White House, four years in prison, or something in between – there will be an enduring taste for his politics among a significant number of Americans, especially in the recessionary times that lie ahead.
My favourite story of the Trump presidency does not directly involve him. It concerns Tucker Carlson, star presenter at Fox News, and Steve Bannon, the President’s former chief strategist (arrested and charged with fraud in August), arguing over which of them should head the presidential ticket in 2024 when Trump stands down. It’s funny because it’s ludicrous. But it’s also funny because – since Trump’s election – anything is possible.
Do not misunderstand me: I hope that Biden wins tomorrow, and that a reasonable, decent person will once again be leader of the free world. But I take nothing for granted, even if he does prevail.
If he does, we should celebrate, but do so with great vigilance. There is no pendulum in 21st-century politics, no guarantee that we have reached rock-bottom. Hard as it is to accept, we are all aboard the swerving juggernaut of history, careering between hope and fear, towards uncharted terrain and limitless battles.
Photographs Getty Images