Friday July 01, 2022

A colonial election

November 16, 2020

The political stalemate in the United States challenges many of the commonly held notions about democracy in the nuclear-armed, north American nation of more than 330 million people. The incumbent, authoritarian president, Donald Trump, at 74 already one of the oldest leaders in the G20, is clinging on to power and refusing to accept defeat by the even older opposition leader, Joe Biden.

In advance of the election, Trump built a barricade – a “non-scalable” wall – around the presidential palace, officially known as the White House, in the country’s coastal capital of Washington, which added to concerns that he may not give up power if he lost.

For the watching world, the question is how did it come to this? How could a country that promotes itself as a model democracy across the planet – “the shining city on a hill” – be so bad at conducting elections and containing a rogue president?

Strategically located between two of the world’s largest economies, Mexico and Canada, America is a country of deep contrasts – of breathtaking natural beauty, natural resources and friendly people, but also of ethnic divisions and massive inequality and poverty. It is a country that leads the world in scientific and technological discovery, yet is ruled by a corrupt, rapacious elite and struggles to come to terms with the legacy of its racist and colonial past.

Similarly, while Trump and Biden have much in common – both are wealthy and accused of corruptly exploiting public office to corruptly benefit themselves and their family members – they represent very different visions of the oil-rich country, which has long been considered an island of stability in a troubled region.

Four years ago, frustrated by a political elite that had presided over years of declining fortunes and betrayed hopes, a section of the American society, primarily made up of members of the ethnic white majority living in the vast rural interior of the country, turned to Trump, a political outsider with a hateful message which exploited ethnic divisions, demonised immigrants and refugees and promised a return to a mythical great past.

Yet Trump has achieved the opposite – by wrecking the nation’s traditional alliances and exacerbating its internal divisions, he has weakened the country and lowered its esteem in the eyes of the world. Even his economic successes, the foundation of his re-election campaign, have been blighted by his mishandling of the global pandemic which has so far led to the needless deaths of nearly a quarter of a million of his fellow citizens.

Now Biden has been elected by the other half of Americans, a coalition of ethnic minorities and moderate whites, also on a platform of a return to a mythical past, only a more recent one. He has been essentially charged with undoing the chaos of the Trump years and healing the divisions. However, the idea of a pre-Trump utopia is fiction. The fact is Trump is a symptom, not the cause of America’s problems.

Excerpted: ‘A postmortem of a colonial election’