Donald Trump made America so “great again” in just one term in office, the nation’s capital city is boarded up and locked down in fear and anxiety on the eve of tomorrow’s election, as if democracy were a natural disaster to be confronted with utmost dread and precaution. Imagine where the world’s most venerable democracy might be in another four years, if Trump is re-elected.
It has been quite a ride, and the entire world is eagerly watching to see if Americans decide to put an end to it and get off, or stay on, for more gut-wrenching, harrowing thrills. The world’s interest isn’t mere voyeurism; like it or not, people in other countries (Mexico more than most) must live with the decisions of the American electorate.
Given their stake in the outcome, many people outside the US are alarmed by the idiosyncrasies of the process. You know, about how we don’t actually hold one election for president, but 50 parallel contests in which the actual results, beyond winner and loser, don’t matter (win California by 10 million votes or 1 vote, it’s all the same). Nor do we have a federal election overseer or set of rules for counting votes, or for identifying voters. Something like Mexico’s Instituto Nacional Electoral still lies in America’s distant future.
The quirks of the Electoral College mean that it isn’t just voters in Mexico, Poland, or India who don’t play much of a role in a presidential election that will impact their lives. People in non-competitive US states like California and New York also don’t play much of a role. The two presidential candidates don’t even bother asking for their vote: of the ten largest cities in the country, only Phoenix and Philadelphia have been graced with Biden and Trump campaign events this fall. In what other country would a presidential election ignore the four largest cities altogether?
Much has been said about the damage Donald Trump has inflicted on our democracy, on our civic discourse, and cultural norms. And depending on how the president reacts to the results and behaves in coming weeks, the worst could be yet to come.
One thing that hasn’t been said enough about all the damage he has inflicted is how utterly avoidable it has been. The last four years, up to and including our response to the global pandemic (Trump: “I know, let’s politicize science!”) is a spectacular accumulation of own-goals. All of the Trump Show’s forced drama crammed into every minute of every episode makes it easy to overlook the fact that these have actually been placid years for the United States by historical standards.
Talk of American decline is greatly exaggerated. Compared to the problems past US presidents have faced at home and abroad, the present looks pretty enviable. Assuming Americans in the handful of states that are in play Tuesday remove the cancerous tumor from the White House, the vast majority of the world’s democracies will continue to hope for, and support, US global leadership over China’s – or anyone else’s. And most people overseas will continue to identify with American brands and cultural mores. In this digital age, the more people have been angsting over the decline of the US, the more American behemoths like Apple, Facebook, Google, and Amazon have been acquiring ever-expanding profits, power, and global mindshare. Only Americans are capable of putting an end to the “American Century,” and Donald Trump for one has been trying mighty hard to do so, backed enthusiastically by the Kremlin.
Such are the stakes in Tuesday’s election. Will America put an end to this act of democratic sabotage and reclaim its values and global leadership?
If it does, the damage can be repaired, and we can move forward. If we instead re-elect Trump, the stress test to the entire proposition of the American experiment intensifies, and the deepening damage could prove irreversible.
Moving forward, if we do remove this tumor, American society will still require some intense healing, and a renovation of our political institutions. One of the paradoxes of our democracy is how tethered we are to our two parties, even when one ceases functioning properly. It’s in everyone’s interest, regardless of our individual partisan leanings, for the Republican Party, which has lost six of the last seven presidential popular vote tallies, to go through a process of renovation and renewal, and de-Trumpify itself.
A good start would be for party leaders to review their National Committee’s post-mortem report entitled the “Growth and Opportunity Project,” issued after Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat. Remarkably, even before Donald Trump, the RNC worried: “Public perception of the Party is at record lows. Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the Party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country. When someone rolls their eyes at us, they are not likely to open their ears to us.”
Democrats too, win or lose, are in for a reckoning. The party is an unwieldy coalition of different ideological factions that will likely turn on each other to dictate policy and divide spoils if Joe Biden wins, or to apportion blame if he loses. In January of this year, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez rightly said: “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are.”
The coming months could bring round 3 of a generation-long civil war within the party. The first round took place with Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, when the Wall Street/free-trading wing of the party prevailed in setting the tone for that administration. The more progressive leftist wing of the party also lost round two of the struggle in the early days of the Obama administration, when the left sought to take advantage of the financial crisis by radically restructuring America’s financial system, but was rebuffed by the president, Tim Geithner, and Larry Summers.
Former Vice President Biden seemingly scored a third win for the party’s center in this year’s primary race, but the matter is far from settled. The left would still seem to have a great deal of momentum and energy on its side, and little appetite for Biden to embrace an administration of “national unity,” as he might be inclined to do, with Republican cabinet members and business leaders involved. On this score, it will be important to see who controls the Senate after Tuesday (I wouldn’t be surprised if Biden might secretly hope for the GOP to retain a majority) and to see the role Kamala Harris (who remains a bit of an incognita) assumes in a new administration, should the Democrats triumph.
But those are all questions for the day after Trumpism dies – a day this country desperately needs if it is to become great again.
* Andrés Martínez is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the editorial director of Future Tense, a Washington, D.C.-based ideas journalism partnership between ASU, Slate magazine, and New America Twitter: @AndresDCmtz