I know it’s unusual of me to write twice in a week, but it occurred to me that the last one might seem rather too focussed on my small world (Covid-19 is with us, we all know, nothing to see here, move along). This is especially so when I remember, helpless as I am here in Europe, that we are facing the looming events of next week in the USA. The Americans are about to vote for the next President in an election that is going to be very messy, probably inconclusive for several days if not weeks, and almost bound to feature bloodshed. For the last three-quarters of a century, since 1945, we in the lucky democratic west have lived in the belief that our elections are open and fair, as well as being the only way in which we have any say over who will comprise the membership of our governments and their oppositions for a period of years.
There is therefore something profoundly disturbing about the current situation in America, where a rogue President has been sowing the seeds of distrust among Americans in such a way that neither side has much confidence in and no affection for the other side, and he has persuaded a large number of Americans that they cannot believe their media, their pundits or anyone who doesn’t agree with them and him. Most especially, he tells them they should not trust the results of the vote. I mention two sides because this is an essential flaw in American politics, that effectively you have to be or at least vote Democrat for left of centre ideas, and Republican for right of centre ideas, and both parties have found themselves trying to marshal everything from that centre of the American political spirit all the way out to their furthest extremes.
Third parties, the Libertarians for instance, haunt the centre ground. Libertarians are mostly liberal about social laws, conservative for fiscal policies, and generally, they represent the American political spirit that resists all forms of government power, but nothing so much as Federal Government power. They’ll support Marx’s idea of a “government of things” and nothing more, and personally, I find I am more and more inclined to their way nowadays. In Ireland I might even find a Libertarian politician to vote for, and if enough of us do it, he or she could get a seat. In America, Jo Jorgensen, current Presidential contestant for the Libertarian Party, doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell of getting the job. She can’t even get a seat in either the House or the Senate. In Ireland and many other European countries she’d be in the parliament by now.
This makes this year’s vote for President of the United States hugely influential, There is no sense or even intention of holding the course, maintaining the equilibrium of the ship of state and suchlike ideas of keeping the speed of change gentle, no cross party compromise, no negotiation at all, that went out of the window in the 1980s with Thatcher and Reagan. That’s when the iniquitous Newt Gingrich started to campaign against any and everything the Democrats said or did and produced the infamous letter he entitled “Language, a Key Mechanism of Control” in which he defined the words to use to denigrate Democrats and the words to use to encourage Republicans. The politics of attack and denigration began then, and one might say inevitably, it has led to a President whose whole campaign and political persona is based on attacking and denigrating his critics, opponents and those he perceives as failed subordinates, or “losers” as he would call them. His Twitter storming is well known. It seems unhinged, but I suspect it isn’t. If he has mastered anything, it is social media and self-publicity. Trump shows little sign of caring for anyone but himself and his family, and this coupled with his childish dependence on relentless praise makes him seem an impossible choice for the sober role of President, and yet he appeals to a certain strand of the American spirit, and despite what the media often try to suggest, his followers are not all ill educated, redneck lunkheads from the boondocks. Serious economists, and people with their own good education qualifications vote for him, mostly for his policies, and some for his basic WASP positioning in the political landscape of modern America.
His awful manners and his attitude to women are not a problem to them, not that they approve of them, but that such things are simply irrelevant when choosing the person to embody the nation as its President. The Democrats and their supporters around the world may wish to act shocked by his boorish behaviour, but back in the mid-20th century politicians were not reported for their social behaviour. That was pre-Murdoch, and if I was predicting future history books I’d say the takeover of public morality by the Murdoch media organisation will be seen for the iniquitous force it has been. We all know now about the sainted President Kennedy and his predilection for new lovers. How would he have survived the Murdoch machine? Trump’s spectacular triumph was and still is in his ability to boast of his appalling misogyny and then get his rally crowds to laugh along with him. His fans have decided to ignore what they don’t want or don’t need to hear. This has given him the almost comical ability to attract the so-called religious-Right, that bible belt of fundamentalist Christians and their moral certainties, who have been persuaded to believe that he is sent by God, some believing he is the herald of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, and all the rest of that pagan mumbo-jumbo they spout from time to time. I’ve lost count of how many times the Second Coming, the End of Times, Armageddon and the Rapture have been predicted, date set, crowds on hilltops waiting for the first glimpse, and then trailing home the following day with some lame excuse for why it didn’t happen. I was raised as a Roman Catholic and was happy to stop listening to them decades ago, but at least they never tried to pretend they could predict God’s will. These evangelists are prepared to come out and say God told them this and that. What happens to your belief when it turns out God lied to you? Anyway, I digress.
The real danger next week is the steady undermining of public confidence in the integrity of the election and the sanctity and secrecy of their vote. Their own President has told them time and again that the vote cannot be trusted, that the absentee and other postal voting systems are open to fraud, even though the evidence is slim and flimsy and indicates only a very small number of incidents in the last twenty years. Louis DeJoy, the current USPS Postmaster General made an effort to ensure this was true by closing post collection boxes, and some Republican governors have limited the number of ballot boxes per county to make sure only people with cars and a job that allows them time off can vote.
There is one thing that used to stun me about the American Constitution that I have been learning a lot about in the past few years, and that is that the founders would put such a lot of power in the hands of the President. Well, it turns out this is a misreading. A lot of the Federal powers as they exist now, for instance things like the powers of Executive Orders, the powers of pardon and so on, were all created in subsequent Amendments (or simply became accepted practice over time), which went on being written for several decades after 1776, though no one seems willing to write an Amendment nowadays. The early Amendments were extensions of the Constitution as first conceived, so that they put in words the promises that were felt to require explication, for instance the famous 2nd Amendment Right to bear arms, which is now defined as the individual citizen’s right to buy any gun he likes, given some checks, though not at gun fairs in some States. One must remember that at the time, the 1780s, every gentleman in Europe was allowed to carry a sword, but only the King had the right to possess guns, a right which he granted to his armies and other lieutenants. The American right to own your own gun goes way beyond any right you may or may not have to use it. Nevertheless, this and some other Amendments can be seen to distort or alter or may be seen to obscure the meaning of the founders’ original intentions, and that is what gives the Supreme Court such a lot to discuss, not to mention the general public.
Meanwhile, another unique American institution that foreigners and quite a lot of Americans profess to be confused and shocked by is the Electoral College, the system set up to prevent a single state or combination of states from dominating the Federal Government forever by sheer force of numbers. It makes a lot of sense to its defenders and it seems stupendously dumb to its critics, depending on the subject under discussion and how the participants look at it. The main issue to prove it is dumb is the apparent dislocation of the popular vote from the final result, because all those popular votes are aggregated by the State’s Electoral College representatives, State by State, such that the popular vote has gone against the EC vote in the last three Republican Presidential electoral victories, G. W. Bush (twice) and Trump. Different states have different rules for how the EC should vote in the final College ballot, a few try to be proportionate to the popular vote, but most are happy to go with First Past The Post principle, and cast their vote as if their entire State had agreed unanimously, which must be very infuriating for those who are thus denied a voice. With a victory margin of 2.2% Trump was able to claim all 29 of Florida’s Electoral College, as if he had won 100% of the vote.
On the other hand, without the EC, the East and West Coasts would dictate the government of Federal America, all but unassailable by the other smaller states. I sometimes wonder if the Americans made a fundamental mistake in trying to form a single nation out of a continent the size of Europe (currently 38 nations, with separate legal and economic governance and each with its own language). Certainly this ungainly and highly provocative system doesn’t do them any favours, because it will never be put beyond discussion, every election is clouded by this controversy, which is never good, even when the popular vote nationwide matches the decision of the EC.
When I was a boy our mother used to say “Never write it down”, referring to your thoughts and opinions, because they can always be turned against you, given time. Written Constitutions are a fine example of this folly. I spend much too much time reading online discussions among impassioned American commentators, as they get more and more angry and frustrated by the other side, and as each side resorts to further and further extremes of insult and adamant defiance. Sometimes I sympathise with their refusal to listen to each other even as I wish they would, if only to bring the intensity down to conversation levels of civility, but that seems to be a lost cause now. President Trump is no help in this issue. He operates at shout level or FULL CAPS tweets to keep his closest followers frothing with delight, anger, euphoria, anger again…
Thus we come to the terror of next week. People are already bringing their guns and their anger and their bullying tactics to the polling stations, as the early voters get in line and try to avoid the crush of Election Day (According to the US Elections Project, as of 30 October more than 85 million Americans have already voted – BBC). It seems to me that whoever is the next President is going to find his hands full dealing with marauding gangs of either frustrated or triumphant Trump supporters dealing with their enemies as brutally as they can, and probably being confronted by gangs of their armed opponents from the rough end of Antifa and other such organisations. There are militias of every shade, and that’s just the ones we hear about. Who knows what will come out of the woodwork once the shooting starts.
A truly dreadful upshot of the Trump Presidency has been the rise of the assertion I often hear from self-professed members of the Right that if someone doesn’t agree with them and vote with them then they must surely “hate America”. America is a very young country and it is clear that they haven’t had time to settle their national identity. They haven’t even finished collecting their population. They extended the invitation to every struggling soul, and it turns out there are more of those than modern America is willing to take. It sometimes seems as if Americans of all parties and none cling to their separate heritages, and think they and their echo chamber are the only true Americans. Those who are voting zealously for Trump want the America they were told about when they were children, the story of the pioneers, all of them Europeans. They worry, as do many Europeans, that their culture is being subsumed in a multicultural society. Europeans may have the reasonable excuse that they are defending ancient rights and tribal heritage, but America is founded on immigration, and the famous promise of the Statue of Liberty, though they may not have meant it quite like that, is an invitation to the whole world, and the whole world has heard.
Opponents of that conservative view welcome the America they see being formed in the 21st century, they welcome change. They believe in their view as true Americans too. That is quite a chasm between the two stances.
This is not an argument Europeans need to have. As I say, of course there are some who argue about the current immigration numbers and the validity of the naturalisation process (though most embrace it for the enhancing results for our cultures), but the immigrants of the European nations who came during the last couple of millennia are not seen as “immigrants” any longer. A few hundred years has this effect, but America’s whole existence is hardly more than two hundred and fifty years or so. Our descendants here in Ireland, for instance, of the Vikings and French and Spanish and whoever else washed up here at one time or another, don’t have to assert their Irishness any longer. Modern America started out as a European idea, and a lot of the support for the xenophobe in the White House is from those Americans who want to preserve the Hollywood version of their early history. We have all seen those Westerns, the basic myth of the origins of modern America, the brave wagon trains of pioneers fending off the savage locals and outlaws and mountain lions, transforming the wilderness into a productive nation (as defined by European standards1), or the unruly cowboys riding the cattle trails and shooting up the towns. Did you know that approximately a quarter of all the cowboys herding cattle across the Great Plains in the late 19th century were freed slaves? What cowboy film have you seen where there are black cowboys among the extras, the background characters? In this century there has been some effort for First ADs to make sure they have a fully representative crowd in the background, but that was not the case when I was growing up, and those were the times when a large chunk of Trump’s base support were growing up. They fear for their future because they fear it will not resemble their past, and that’s frightening. For a hundred thousand years we have lived and died among a small community, our village or tribe. Then in the last three or four hundred years the Europeans have roamed the world and now we all live in a kind of worldwide community, but also our village or tribe. No wonder there’s problems, and America may be, as it often is, the crucible in which the future will be forged.
I don’t believe anyone will ever successfully set up a dictatorship in America, but right now we have someone who looks as if he’d like to, or at least to cement in power the oligarchy of wealth for decades to come. The only if potent defence against this is the very powerful sense built into the American Constitution that the people grant rights to the government, not the other way around. This definition of government is shared by all sides of the American political spectrum. The question is only how much power and of what kind should the people grant to the Federal Government.
Unfortunately much of this concept is undermined because the Americans, and in particular their Supreme Court, have allowed their government to become a plutocracy, financed by billion dollar corporations and other rich folk through Super PACs, so that apart from the occasional opportunity to vote, only the internet and crowd funding can assert the power of the citizens, the consumers who have to live under their government if they hope to oppose them, and even then it isn’t easy. Money was always the Big Idea of America, the land where anyone could get rich if they found the way, no class could corner the sources of wealth, nothing stood in the way of a free American except his own inclinations and efforts. In the 19th century and to some extent into the 20th that was true, but it isn’t quite so true any more. Sure, every year makes new American millionaires, but there is a structure of old money in America now, built up since the 18th century, and as exemplified by its political clout, it looks uncannily like the class system of old Europe (and modern Europe, if less so). The money in the world has got too big, the financial systems have become too complex, they are illusory. There is no direct correlation between the notional money in the various international markets and any tangible asset value. It’s all fiat, derivative, based on the endless promise of growth that is the founding belief of capitalism. There are no gold deposits to be found that have not been found and earmarked by big mining corporations, there is no more oil or gas to be found, it’s just a matter of extracting it. Everything that can be exploited is being exploited.
As a result, a vast underclass is being created, partially employed, usually frustrated, quietly angry, but hopeless in their powerlessness. Trump gave such people hope, he persuaded them that he would give them a voice. Actually, of course, he is the representative of the plutocrats, but his supporters are now so far steeped in their belief in him that if, to paraphrase the man himself, he shot a man on 5th Avenue in broad daylight, they would stand by him. If he has not brought back their coal mining jobs or their steel industry jobs, they forgive him.
I saw this man in a video taken at a Trump rally. His T-shirt shows the first term dates for the whole Trump family to become President for two terms, giving them a putative dynastic succession through to 2064 (President Barron Trump). This is the nation that overthrew the Royal Crown of Britain to escape such nepotist practices as the Royal line of succession. Now they have the most blatantly nepotist President in the world, now or ever, and that supporter wants the dynasty to rule for the next forty-four years (and would probably fill in the next generation if he knew their names).
This is not the recipe for a peaceful election and transfer of power, or even the peaceful continuation of Trump’s Presidency. He probably doesn’t think that far ahead, but next week we may see the result of his exhortations to his fans to feel angry, to get violent, to feel the need to grab the nation for themselves, and to repudiate everyone who doesn’t agree with them as “un-American”. We’ve heard it before and it is always an ugly idea. It is divisive and it has no positive outcome that I can see.
Sorry to end on a pessimistic note but I can’t think of a suitable alleviation. If you’re in a position to do so, vote for Biden. He’s not very inspiring, but he is a gentleman, he will seek reconciliation though it will be hard to find, and if nothing else, he’ll do for now.
1Chief Red Cloud of the Sioux Nations once said: “The white man calls it a wilderness. We call it home.” He also said one of the most perceptive and tragic things about the transformation of America: “The white man only kept one promise: he said he would take our land and he took it.”