Not for generations has there been such a profound division in the US and question about whether the country will come out of this unscathed.
WORKERS BOARD up a store ahead of election results in the Manhattan borough of New York City earlier this week.
(photo credit: REUTERS/BRENDAN MCDERMID)
The boarded up stores in Washington and several US cities, along with the fear of election violence and rioting, has capped a turbulent runup to one of America’s historic elections. The election was historic because of COVID-19 and also because of the large voter turnout as well as the eccentric, controversial, divisive and sometimes chaotic nature of the Trump administration. That means this referendum on US leadership is different from many in the past. Not for generations has there been such a profound division in the US and question about whether the country will come out of this unscathed.
The fears of violence are part of a growing rhetoric in the US that talks of “civil war” and “burning it down,” phrases used on the right and left respectively. Gun sales are often reported to be high and there has been real violence this year, including killings at protests, and looting. Some of this results from anger over continued police violence, but the looting earlier this year also revealed that some Americans feel they have a right to destroy their own cities. The looters also seem to be from a cross section of society, not just disenfranchised, angry young men or minorities, but also apparently upper class youth underpinned by some toxic blend of anarchism and extremism. On the other side the far-right has been stoking rumors of violence, parading with guns and looking like armed militias from countries gripped by civil war.
These kinds of symbolic incidents of violence, whether in Seattle, Kenosha, Minneapolis, Chicago, New York or Washington D.C, and the allegations of a plot to kidnap a governor as well as stories about far-right movements within some US police departments, so-called “blue flu” law enforcement strikes, and the “three percenters” or groups that believe a civil war is coming, all stoke fears of violence. The Alt-Right movement of 2016, paired with militia movements, the Tea Party and QAnon conspiracies all have swirled around the run-up to the election. This has also come along with far-left protesters, whether Antifa or some portions of Black Lives Matter. The pulling down of statues, attacks on historic US city centers, and he anger on social media all make America appear hopelessly divided.
Other holy cows in the US are being challenged. The status quo of the Supreme court has been discussed with the confirmation of a new supreme court justice on the eve of the election. There are threats of revenge against the Trump administration members, court packing and even “truth and reconciliation” commissions that seem more like courts designed to purge the US of former administration members, than reconciling everyone. The shrill “sky-is-falling” headlines and social media hot takes all drove this before the election.
Now some are saying that the lack of violence on election night, the fact no one heeded calls to storm the White House, which was an actual rumor going around, means here may be a calm before the storm or perhaps fears were exaggerated. It’s very hard to gauge. Some may breathe a sigh of relief that voting has been done relatively normally without the feared “hanging chads” of 2020, which means endless recounts and court challenges and battles in states that are too-close-to-call. However the question marks in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada, Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina and Georgia, all left commentators wondering what comes next on Wednesday afternoon.
So far the mass protests have not broken out. Only one comment from US President Donald Trump, the call to end voting, created a little stir. It is unlike Trump’s calls during the lockdowns to “liberate” several states. The Biden campaign has been circumspect and moderate, carefully speaking about the need for ballots to be counted and for people to wait and see. This tone is a good one because it has not led to a crisis. However the overall feeling in the US over the last years has been one of crisis. There has been rising antisemitism and attacks on Jews by both the far-right, far-left and also antisemitism within the African-American community. There has also been growing fear of far-right violence, and a lot of people carrying guns in public over the last years. This has also been four years of more violent clashes between left and right wing protesters in places like Charlottesville in 2017, where one person was killed.
Regardless of who wins there does not seem to be an answer for the angry voices on the left and right, or answers for those who want to understand why ingrained racism appears to continue in the US, why decades after the Rodney King beating police forces appear more militarized, less accountable and more violent. The killing of Breonna Taylor and the fact that the left and right can’t seem to agree on the facts of the case are disturbing trends. That a young woman can be shot down in her own apartment by police using a “no knock” warrant leaves half of America fearful and the others siding with “law and order,” even when such an incident appears like lawlessness by law enforcement.
This division is deep in the US. While those who dislike Trump tend to portray Trump supporters as a radical fringe, the actual results illustrate that half of the voters in the US prefer Trump. Trump is portrayed as some kind of unlikable candidate who got in by accident in 2016, a kind of presidential version of the controversial Arizona governor Evan Mecham, an American Bettino Craxi, a candidate preferred by a small minority. But that is not the case. The referendum on Trumpism after four years was not the total disaster that polls and legacy media predicted. That is a result of confirmation bias in major media and increasing silos that people and commentators live in. It is why 67 million Americans are portrayed in some major media as if they are all far-right lunatics.
This is a symptom of the larger crisis, which is that the US appears hopelessly divided and that there has been rising violence and threats of civil conflict. The very fact that people felt normal talking of “civil war” or that well known American commentators seriously suggested “burning it down” in reference to the Republicans choosing a Supreme Court pick in the last month, illustrate how most of America appears up for grabs. It is like the bonds, the delicate line that separates a successful democracy from a country plunged into crisis and failure, those unwritten rules that keep citizens from fighting one another, are being broken. There is a kind of social compact that keeps the union together, certain sets of values or ideas. Today many of them appear to up for debate and that means many people are saying that if one side is willing to throw the rule book out the window, so will the other. This is part of a wider western crisis in democracies.
It is why the last decades have seen a shift from the pax Americana or new world order of the 1990s to isolationism today. It is why China, Turkey, Iran, Russia and other authoritarian states are rising and carving up the spoils as the US looks set for more global retreat. Trump promised to make America great again but he appears more like the last pagan emperor of Rome, the emperor Julian, trying to hang on to the ancient regime, than a real revolutionary character, even a fascist one. Trump was neither Mussolini nor Franco in that sense. Joe Biden is also more a Giovanni Giolitti, the elder statesman of Italy in the early part of the 20th century, a Nuri al-Said of America, than he is an answer to Trumpism.
If America avoids post-election violence, it will still have to deal with this problem that many things have become unhinged. Trump didn’t make America great again, he did provide novel solutions to some issues. Biden won’t be able to provide enough answers for those who have questioned basic aspects of the US in the last several years. That means it will be the 2024 election that may see real change. These two men, Biden and Trump, born in the 1940s, are not able to fully grasp the demons that appear to have been unleashed in the recent years of domestic turmoil.