The US election tells us more than just the result of a Biden victory
For many observers of the US election, we’ve experienced a rollercoaster of emotions for these past few days. In fact, the anxiety, fear and dismay that we experienced going into the wee hours of the morning after the election, when results were far too close for comfort, has been with us for much of the past four years — it’s just come to a head for most of 2020.
That feeling may have alleviated with a Joe Biden victory. But many of us were under no illusion that swathes of the American electorate would now have recognised the error of their ways for voting in Donald Trump back in 2016.
The result is not the landslide one would expect after four years of the most toxic presidency in US history. Nor is it the drawing of a line in the sand where America can now show itself as a moral authority, or one of global leadership.
An American president separated children of migrants from their parents and locked them in cages. He called white supremacists “very fine people”. If anyone wants to portray today’s America as a paragon of ethics, they can pipe down. The tenure of the 45th President, and over 70 million Americans who voted for and support him, refutes any such claim.
Trump’s racism, Islamophobia, casual misogyny and incendiary rhetoric were just fine with millions of Americans. Not only did they agree with everything he said, but he might have left them with a few extra dollars in their pocket. So as far as they were concerned, he was their guy. Just look at the Senate results. Millions of Americans really don’t care about the landscape of American society that they and their president contributed to. It was actually the black vote that saved America from it’s self-inflicted dystopia, which is ironic given their treatment at her hands.
So what if he’s a white supremacist? So what if he’s handled the response to the pandemic so abysmally that he’s even surpassed the incompetence of his white supremacist brethern, Boris Johnson? They didn’t care.
Even against a backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, where it’s become all the rage to be seen as ‘woke’ (despite the absence of actual allyship), the voting booth has always provided a sanctuary for racists who aren’t willing to say their racism with their chest in public and this election was no different. Seeing black people murdered by police, and the systemic racism that the Black Lives Matter movement has amplified, made absolutely no difference for those that sought to keep their state red because they thought they might marginally benefit financially.
Trump may resist a Biden presidency with legal challenges, bombast and stoking flames of racial tension. Although he can’t stop it from happening. So with the imminent exit of Trump, all is now well, right? Wrong.
Even with the result, this election tells us so much that is worrying. Support for the far right hasn’t been a flash in the pan. It’s been here for some time and it won’t disappear overnight either. Racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia have been normalised. And until the election, when they finally found their balls, mainstream media and social media platforms have provided a green light and platform for lies and rabble rousing. That has enabled the populist approach that led to the election of Trump, Modi and Johnson (and Brexit) as poster boys of the right.
People voted for Trump in their droves. People he doesn’t care about but can rely upon for his support base. If anyone thought Trump voters from 2016 were turned off by his unpresidential behaviour, they’re wrong. Even in the face of the pandemic, at the time of writing, government support was limited to a solitary stimulus cheque and America has the highest death toll and number of coronavirus cases in the world. Yet many Americans who may have lost their jobs and businesses, or even loved ones, would still have voted for Trump.
Incredulously, a regular helping of racism and xenophobia, and the belief that Trump would get them back on their feet, made a vote for their man palatable if not desired.
It beggars belief that it took the almighty shit show of Trump’s handling of the pandemic to actually erode his support. Had it not been for covid, I expect Trump would have been reelected.
At the crux of this is a toxic selfishness that politicians like Trump and Johnson exploit: put your personal interests first and disregard all others, no matter how damaging they may be. Regardless of the racial divisions and tensions these men have created in their respective countries, regardless of their incompetence, unstatesmanlike conduct and tarnishing of their countries’ global reputation, they don’t seem to lose support. What asinine logic and ethical void could possess someone to support them?
Amidst all the euphoria around Trump being en route out of the White House, we can’t forget that these attitudes will still exist in America. It’s a sobering thought but a necessary one if we’re to maintain perspective and understanding of the work that needs to be done going forward. Removing the President might change the shop front of Brand USA but it doesn’t mean the stock is any different.
Writing about this while living in the UK may seem odd. Yet you see, the parallels present us with more insight into how dangerous the situation is here.
The UK mirrors the US in many ways. We too have a white supremacist, racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, misogynistic demagogue, who came to power on a wave of right wing populism. Both knew they could exploit xenophobia and a deeply misplaced national hubris, peddled via slogans (MAGA and Get Brexit Done) and that their approach would appeal to an inherently racist population while attracting support like a moth or a flame. Or, probably more fitting, like flies to shit.
So what do we have to look forward to in the UK? Many wrongly assume racism isn’t as bad in the UK as it is in America (it’s impossible to believe the home of the British Empire can be subject to less systemic racism than its younger racist cousin in America) or that violence towards black people, particularly at the hands of the police, is a non-issue in the UK (deaths of black and brown people at the hands of police are well-documented). Similarly, many may suggest we aren’t facing a scenario akin to the last four years that Americans have experienced under Trump. But there simply is too much in common to ignore.
The exact attitudes that took Trump to office in 2016, and gave him over 70 million votes in this election, exist in the UK. Tory voters were content to vote for aggressive capitalism in the hope that they might be better off; the kleptocracy, racism and Islamophobia that came with it didn’t matter at all. Indeed, it was welcomed by many.
The British media too has failed to hold the Tories to account. Lie after lie is repeated to the public and in Parliament, only to be reported by the mainstream media without an iota of commentary to the contrary. As long as the lies are projected, the current of the water against the truth is simply too strong. What we are seeing here bears no difference to America.
That may not be a welcome thought for many but it is a reminder that if the Tories are to be removed from office, their hollow ethics and incompetence are unlikely to play a role in effecting that. Just as Trump didn’t receive the shellacking he deserved at the polls, the Tories can take solace in their lies and prejudice being irrelevant to many electors who see them in their image or the image they aspire to assume. It’s the classic con man trick of the right in convincing the working class that in exchange for your support, you too can live like they do. Alas, capitalism never fails in serving as a swindle for the majority while benefiting the majority.
Returning to America, the election of Joe Biden was not a particularly progressive one; it was a vote to get Trump out. Kamala Harris, as the first woman of colour VP, and of Jamaican and Indian descent at that, is a huge step. Nevertheless, it’s been clear from the outset that this is not a total reset for American politics or society and Biden himself realises that. This is just a reset from the Trump presidency. While Bernie Sanders would have represented significant change, just as Jeremy Corybn would have in the UK, an ignorantly driven repudiation of socialism was too strong to allow that to be effected in either country.
The 2020 election was therefore not a watershed moment for American attitudes, tolerance, altruism and global outlook; to believe so is naive at best. The work to achieve that begins now. Given the entrenched attitudes that led to the Trump presidency, it shan’t be an easy road to travel. However, given the year that history will never forget, it provides the opportunity for a step in the right direction.