Even if Trump loses, the truth is that to many Americans Trumpism isn’t a pathology but a new normal which is a product of a massive social divide caused by dissatisfaction with the political system and life in general.
The world watches with bated breath as the US Presidential election sits at a dead heat. It’s going down to the wire and nobody knows who is going to emerge victor yet. Despite polls having shown a comfortable Joe Biden victory, Donald Trump has again come out far stronger than expected and thus both parties are now chasing down every vote in crucial swing states to surpass the electoral college tally of 270.
The President however, has already declared victory for himself, and has threatened court action should things go against him with longstanding objections to mail-in absentee ballots. His defiance means that should he technically lose, a contested result is inevitable.
Audiences around the world are either way aghast. What they see does not fill them with confidence. In other western countries, the thought of enduring four more years of Trump or for that matter, that he’s still performing far better than expected despite everything makes little sense.
Even if Biden wins, such a tight and deadlocked outcome ultimately makes him unconvincing, revealing a sharply divided country which at large cannot find faith in an alternative to a Trumpism, which beyond its borders is widely derided as woeful.
The resilience of Trump’s platform either way is endemic of an American system that is simply not delivering. The last four years are not perceived as a “bad mistake” which will “go away” but a deeper and more pervasive identity conflict which will persist.
Public opinion in the United States and among its allies in Europe could not be further apart. When polled on their preferences for this election, the outcome was a no brainer for EU citizens who favoured Biden by margins as high as 80%. In their minds, Trump was so awful and so damaging to America’s standing in the world that for him to go forward again could not be contemplated. They have a lot of reasons to cite, too many to list in this article.
Many in the world were not quite prepared for the fact that Trump’s support would in fact hold up, and like in 2016 confound opinion pollsters. How could such a “safe hands alternative” as Biden have to fight a walking disaster to the knife edge?
Either way it goes, the affair paints a grim picture for American democracy. A loose cannon like Trump not only remains competitive, but it also shows there are underlying problems in American society which are yet to be addressed. Even if he marginally loses, there is a hard hitting truth that for all of its seemingly awful tendencies, to many average Americans Trumpism isn’t a pathology, it isn’t a mistake and it isn’t a bad smell that can be simply vanquished, it’s a new normal and a product of massive social divides in the United States which spells widespread dissatisfaction with the political system and prospects for life in general. Trump’s pleas to bring back jobs to America, to restore national glory and emphasize identity have widespread appeal even if we can point out their damaging consequences.
These factors have allowed Trump not to sink as liberal critics envisioned and were again complacent about, but to float. Sagas such as the Black Lives Matter protests which played out over the summer were hugely controversial, and irrespective of how you judge the situation, served in fact to further consolidate the polarization of rival camps and entrench identities.
The enormous acceleration in turnout illustrates that to many the stakes of this election were huge. In essence, it is a clash between two very different and antagonistic visions of America. Those who hate Trump may have turned out, but as have those who see the President as defending a way of life which they feel is slipping away.
Biden of course may still win, yet can we say he would come out smelling of roses? And for that matter would Trump? Absolutely not, these very divides as set out and the closeness of the result guarantee imminent controversy and anger, either way.
Such polarization means “the other half” is likely to express dismay and in the case of Trump losing, he’s going to incite chaos in contesting the result and will ultimately exacerbate the very identity conflict which has made him so influential to begin with.
Again to the wider world, this holds negative connotations for America’s credibility and political system, it does not radiate exceptionalism or grandeur in its democracy as many politicians like to claim, but chaos, uncertainty and a prevailing sense of injustice. If anything, even madness.
As we eagerly await the outcome, those who assumed Trump was doomed to certain failure were wrong, yet again. He could yet go down, but not without a wholly damaging fight with massive implications for the legitimacy of his successor, and vice versa. If anything, this has shown us that problems in American politics and society continue to abound in ways outside observers just don’t understand and have produced a bitterly divided country whereby multiple visions of its identity are competing, and neither is prepared to give up the fight so easily. Let’s see what happens.
Tom Fowdy is a British writer and analyst of politics and international relations with a primary focus on East Asia.