At the time of writing this column, the final and official result of the race to the White House is not yet known. The race, it seems, is headed for a photo finish. The numbers may be close but the consequences would be wide apart — for the people of the United States and people living in plural democracies threatened by majoritarianism.
Scholars and analysts in the US, on both sides of the political divide, have defined this election as a fight to reclaim the “soul of America”. The supporters of President Donald Trump define that “soul” as being white and Christian. The enthusiasts of Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris, now including many Republicans, believe their Constitution’s core values of a liberal and plural society are being eroded by Trumpism. Not since the Vietnam war has the US been so divided.
Apart from the sheer vulgarity of Trump’s persona and politics, the racism, bigotry and white supremacist ideology of his political support base has not merely divided America and eroded its democratic credentials at home, but has deeply wounded the global stature of the United States. This at a time when the world needs to once again reaffirm its commitment to pluralism and the ideals of liberal democracy, challenged as they are by the rise of authoritarian and totalitarian ideologies and leaders of various hues across the world.
Whether Trump wins or loses, Trumpism has come to stay. It will remain an active force in US politics. American democracy has had to deal with racial and class divides time and again in its history. However, a nation or society being divided along lines of prejudice is one thing, for it to be defined by it quite another. A Biden-Harris victory or defeat has come to mean more than just an electoral outcome. Its consequences would be long-term and global.
America has had controversial presidents who have done as much harm to American constitutional values as Trump. However, there is a difference. Through most of the 20th century, the US was not just a great power but also a land of opportunity. The world tolerated the downside of America’s internal divisions because it liked the upside of the opportunities that its power and prosperity offered. However, after four years of Trumpism, the international community, so to speak, increasingly wonders why it should tolerate the leadership of a country whose head of state himself questions the values the nation espoused.
To be sure, Trumpism has emerged at a time when US power and influence are being challenged. Trumpism is, in fact, a response to that fact. However, the manner in which Trump has sought to revitalise America has harmed his attempt to re-assert US leadership of the “free world”. If many countries around the world, including India, are seeking the US out, it is only because China under Xi Jinping’s leadership is leaving them with no option. If the West pushed Russia and Iran into China’s arms, China has pushed much of Asia into the US’s. This is not what geopolitical analysts meant by “G-2” and “Chimerica” — an alliance between the Big Two to manage the whole world — but it is an inversion of the G-2 idea in which lesser powers are forced to choose between two bullies.
In the First Cold War, the choice offered by the West was between the values of liberty, equality and fraternity, on the one hand, and those of authoritarianism and totalitarianism, on the other. In the emergent Second Cold War, Trumpism offers no such ideological cover to naked self-interest. Trump’s platform of “America First” has been defined purely in terms of economic opportunity at home and technological leadership globally. But US power was not all about dollars and IT. The moral appeal of democracy was an essential element of its global leadership. Trumpism has devalued that.
Whoever wins the election finally, the task for American political leadership is clear. For the US to remain on top as the self-proclaimed leader of the “free world”, it has to demonstrate commitment to the values of its own Constitution. The decline in US influence has been faster on account of its inability to do this during the Trump years. If Trump manages to win, he would retain an office diminished by his presence, for he would be heading an even more divided nation. The Biden-Harris team, with its message of pluralism and liberalism, offers the US the opportunity to regain that moral stature, enabling the US to regain influence globally and enhance prosperity at home.
A Trump victory this week would be similar to Narendra Modi’s in 2019. The second victory was sweeter than the first, but its consequences have been more bitter. India is a more divided nation today than it was before the elections of 2019: A stronger government presiding over a nation more divided. That is what would happen if Trump were to return to office.
A narrow Biden victory could produce a weaker government, presiding over a nation as divided or even more. However, the Biden presidency offers the US an opportunity to regain moral stature globally. As China’s economic, technological and military capabilities and power rise, and as it marches forward challenging US power, the US cannot hope to retain global leadership without recovering its moral stature.
While Trump has understood the nature of the China challenge and has deployed some effective policy instruments to deal with it, he has failed to enthuse the world to embrace US leadership in the manner it did during the Second World War. The world then embraced the US as a country that helped defeat fascism in the name of freedom and equality. Countries that turn to the US today, like India, seeking help to check a hegemonic China do so out of compulsion, not choice. Trump’s transactionalism abroad and racism at home have robbed the US of a higher moral purpose in its global role.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 5, 2020 under the title ‘Divided state of America’. The writer is former media advisor to Prime Minister of India
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