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This nightmare has to end on 3 November

Democracy itself is at stake in the US Presidential election

THE rest of the world may not have a vote but that doesn’t mean the US presidential election on 3 November is of no consequence to those of us living elsewhere. Far from it. This election is the most important in our lifetime wherever we may happen be.

The stakes are incredibly high. If Donald Trump wins, not only will it usher in the final decline of the American empire, but it will send a signal to other right wing strongmen that fascism is back in fashion.

But if he loses, it will provide a glimmer of hope that values like decency, optimism and truth still matter.

Jacinda Ardern’s comprehensive victory two weeks ago shows that these values are not dead, but let’s face it, New Zealand is a tiny country with virtually no influence on the world stage. The main game is in the US.

Worst president in history

The last four years have been an unfolding nightmare for Americans. The 2016 election of Trump, a repeated bankrupt and failed reality TV celebrity with knack for self-promotion, felt like the inevitable result of the deterioration of American culture and the collapse of its political system. But nothing prepared us for just how deeply Trump would drag his country down once he was in the White House.

By any objective measure, Trump will be judged by future generations as the worst president in the 243-year history of the United States of America. This was the case even before the pandemic and Black Lives Matter exposed just how badly equipped he was for the job.

The final quarter of 2020 finds the US at rock bottom, torn apart by violence, crippled by the coronavirus pandemic, diminished as a world leader, its economy on its knees, tens of millions in poverty, uneducated and vulnerable. A failed state sliding on the seemingly inevitable path to some form of civil war. This decline began before Trump’s ascension to the presidency, but it has accelerated at lightning speed during his four years in the role.

He won the presidency by sheer fluke in 2016, receiving almost three million votes fewer than Hillary Clinton but benefiting from a gerrymandered electoral college to scrape home.

Casting himself as an anti-elite outsider determined to shake up a cosy Washington Establishment, Trump pushed a grab bag of populist ideas aimed at harnessing the grievances of a diminishing demographic of working class whites from rural areas and flyover states. He was openly racist, xenophobic, spouting blatant lies and revelling in the notoriety his abrasive personality generated. Everything about him and his campaign was fake, but it worked: the voters he was hoping to appeal to lapped it up.

Trump never wanted to be president — his candidacy was originally a stunt to promote his ailing business empire — and from his very first day in the White House has shown himself to be completely unfit and incapable for the role.

Trump’s list of crimes and misdemeanours is too long to go through here, but his behaviour over four years ranks with the very worst of the hall of shame of shonks, fakes and crooks alongside the likes of Marcos, Mubarak or Berlusconi.

His unsuitability for the Presidency is brought into sharp relief by the dignity and grace with which Barack Obama conducted himself over two scandal-free terms.

But Obama’s qualities are now just a distant memory in the face of Trump’s crude bullying and scandal prone four years. This is a man who has faced multiple accusations of sexual harassment and sexual assault and does not deny paying off a porn star he had an affair with when his wife was pregnant. A man who lies and distorts every waking minute, who happily gives a platform to conspiracy theories and deliberately inflames violence against his political opponents. Yet we have become so normalised by Trump’s behaviour, that we no longer blink an eyelid at stories like these, nor at his blatant corruption.

Whereas the president should be a unifying figure, a statesman who serves his country regardless of whether you voted for him or not, Trump has overtly sought to divide the nation, to widen the fractures in American society, and to hurt and punish the weak, the vulnerable or anyone who does not blindly support him.

He has not only trashed the office of President, but he has imperiled American democracy and the constitution on which it was founded. In 2020, democracy itself faces an existential crisis.

Referendum on Trump

More than any other election in history, 2020 is a referendum on the President himself. The spectre of Trump’s character overshadows all else.

Trump has treated the presidency as an opportunity to enrich himself and his family at the expense of the American people in an operation not dissimilar from that of an organised crime syndicate. His behaviour has been so outrageous that before the final year of his term had begun, moves were underway to impeach him.

Under his watch, gun violence has worsened, race relations have deteriorated, structural problems with healthcare, education and the economy have gone backwards, the climate crisis has escalated, the world has become a less safe, more volatile place, and that is without even contemplating the 220,000-plus Americans who have died during the coronavirus pandemic because of his wilful mismanagement of the public health crisis.

Some of this can be put down to sheer incompetence, but much of it is due to reckless and deliberate sabotage.

Trump has delighted in undermining the institutions that hold the US together, driven by childish spite to wreak as much damage as he could in the period he held office. He is willing to incite violence and to encourage heavily armed right wing extremists with no concern for the consequences.

After four years, he does not have a single policy achievement to celebrate, apart from tax cuts that rewarded the ultra-wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle classes. His signature policy, the “wall” on the Mexican border, remains a pipe dream.

Rather than “drain the swamp” as he pledged to do in 2016, Trump has exploited the presidency to selfishly fill his own pockets and that of his family. Now, Trump is the swamp. His promise to take on and shake up the Washington establishment has seen him behave like a petulant, vindictive brat for his entire time as president.

There is no method behind Trump’s madness. He is no political genius. He is just plain dumb and either too stupid or too uncaring to mitigate the damage he causes every time he opens his mouth.

Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic and his refusal to treat the virus seriously or prevent its spread will long be remembered — but it’s also terrible politics. At a time when tens of thousands of Americans are getting sick every day and closing on a quarter of a million have died, trying to pretend it doesn’t exist, treating it as a left wing conspiracy or advising people to not let it “dominate your lives” will end up costing Trump millions of votes. Americans look to their President to protect them, and Trump has not done that. He has effectively turned his back on the suffering of his fellow citizens because he doesn’t have an ounce of humanity within him and for this he will be punished at the ballot box.

His is a form of government conducted tweet by angry and irrational tweet. He declares war on the media, lying every time he opens his mouth, and yet tarring them as “fake news”. Whenever there has been a crisis that requires action from the White House, Trump has gone into hiding on one of his golf courses rather than deal with it as the President should.

The existence of someone like Trump in the White House, the supposed pinnacle of American democracy, has emboldened and legitimised other national leaders cut from the same cloth such as Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duda in Poland, Duterte in the Philippines, and even Boris Johnson and Vladimir Putin.

The rest of the Republican party has been complicit in these crimes, not least Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham and the rest of the Senate leadership. Their day of reckoning will also take place on 3 November.

His own worst enemy

A fortnight out from election day, every public poll has Joe Biden well ahead of Trump nationally, and leading in the key battleground states. As each day passes, Trump is slipping further behind and his egotistical approach to politics is costing him as swinging voters throw their support behind Biden.

A record number of more than 56 million Americans have already voted, a clear sign of how eager they are to oust him from office. In some key states, early voting by 18–29-year-olds — who are more likely to vote Democrat — is almost ten times higher than the comparable stage in 2016.

Even the Republican sycophants who have meekly indulged him over the past four years are deserting him in droves fearful that any association with him will mean the end of their own careers.

Trump may have divided a nation, but he has unified his opponents, bringing together Republican moderates and Democrats who are determined to see him ousted.

Every public utterance from Trump is aimed at his base, those 25–35% of gun-toting, Fox News-watching voters who will never desert him, no matter what. They believe in Trump even more than he believes in them, and to turn on him now would mean betraying themselves and everything they hold dear.

But here Trump is his own worst enemy. He has never been able to expand on that core of voters, and there is clear evidence that his constant appeals to his base have further alienated the middle ground he needs to win a second term.

He just can’t help himself, whether it’s criticising the country’s foremost infectious diseases expert, mocking military veterans, inciting right wing extremists to assault or kill his opponents, or attacking the memory of Joe Biden’s dead son.

Trump’s biggest problem is he still thinks it is 2016. He has no vision for America, he’s been unable to articulate a policy agenda to deal with the growing list of problems the country faces, so all he can do is repeat the same list of grievances and attack the same bogeymen of 2016 and hope for a similar miracle.

How else can you explain that his campaign slogan continues to be ‘Make America Great Again’, surely an admission that his past four years have been a failure. He has learnt nothing from the Democrats’ comprehensive blue wave in the 2018 mid-terms which represented a complete repudiation of Trump and Trumpism.

All this grievance politics may fire up Trump’s base of uneducated white males, but it tells the rest of America that Trump has nothing to offer them or the country. He has no second term agenda at all.

They are no longer interested in anything he has to say and just want the nightmare to end.

Trump’s attempts to paint himself as the challenger once again are doomed to fail. Now he is the incumbent, the man supposedly in charge, and to pretend otherwise is delusional.

After four years, Trump has changed America for the worst but he’s unable to change himself. All of his character flaws — his lying, his narcissistic self-gratification, his vindictiveness and bullying — have just become more extreme over that time. There is good reason to believe he is clinically insane.

Biden is everything Trump is not

Trump’s 2020 opponent, 78-year-old Joe Biden is far from perfect.

He is not a charismatic, once-in-a-generation type of candidate like the past two Democrat Presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, were. Biden’s entire adult life has been as part of the Washington political establishment, where he has been more of a plodder and it is depressing that the choice for President is between two elderly white men.

Many would have preferred Bernie Sanders and his policy agenda of radical change while Biden was exactly the type of safe, steady-as she-goes moderate they wanted to avoid.

But cometh the hour, cometh the man, and in the most volatile year of our lifetimes, Joe Biden is just the right person to replace Trump.

Biden’s greatest selling point is he is the opposite of Trump: solid, dependable, decent. Someone who was not born with a million dollar trust fund, who has real empathy for his fellow humans, and who has kept his dignity in the face of incredible tragedy and obstacles. Perhaps boring — but boring is an undervalued virtue after years of Trump’s chaos.

A key factor in Trump’s 2016 win was the visceral dislike of Hillary Clinton, including among many on the Left. But whatever other emotions Biden may generate, hatred is not one of them.

Biden is safe. He is not inspiring but another divisive radical is the last thing America wants now; it needs someone to repair the damage, heal the wounds and get the nation back on course. A father figure who can be trusted and inspire trust. People are voting Democrat out of a sense of relief rather than hope for major change.

Trump has thrown the kitchen sink at Biden. He has called him sleepy Joe, senile Joe, socialist Joe, crooked Joe and establishment Joe. He has mocked his family, attempted to humiliate Biden himself, constructed grand conspiracies that Biden is a Trojan Horse for anarchists to take over. None of it has stuck, because none of it is true and Americans have become immune to Trump’s insult-laced form of politics.

Despite all of Biden’s faults, as every day passes, it becomes more clear that the Democrats made the right choice in choosing him as their candidate instead of Bernie Sanders. Sanders would have been an easy target for Trump’s lies and distortions, and with his more radical political background would have found it more difficult to distance himself from the Antifa accusations during the hot summer of riots and looting. He also lacks the gravitas and authority that Biden’s eight years as vice-president have imbued him with.

And don’t underestimate how progressive Biden’s agenda is; he has adopted much of Sanders’ platform as all Democrats did during a primary season which dragged the party to the left. If he wins on 3 November, he will be bringing into the Oval Office a program that includes expanding public health care to millions more Americans, reining in police brutality and incarceration, raising the minimum wage, and a real plan to reduce carbon emissions while transitioning the US economy to a cleaner, greener future.

But it won’t be enough on 3 November for the Democrats to only win the keys to the White House. It is already too late to save the Supreme Court but the Democrats must build on their majority in the House of Representatives and seize control of the Senate to put this era to an end and then be ruthless in strengthening institutions against the next Trump — because it is certain there will be another one at some stage in the future.

A clean sweep of the White House, House of Representatives and Senate would mean the end of the Republican Party for at least a generation. What emerges from the ruins will not be the Republican Party as we know it. It has been dragged so far to the right by Trump and his acolytes that it has no hope of recovery as a centre-right party. And as America changes demographically, the grip of the GOP will loosen even more.

The mainstream media will also face deep soul searching whatever the outcome on 3 November. Ineffectual and ill-equipped to deal with someone who can’t lie straight in bed and gleefully taunts them every day, the media enabled Trump’s rise and they were unable to act as any brake on his abuses over four years. Surely they have learnt that non-partisan ultra-objectivity is useless in the age of social media and cable television.

Trump could still win

It would be foolhardy to completely write off Trump, even at late stage.

No-one gave him a serious chance of winning in 2016, yet he pulled off the greatest upset in US electoral history that year.

Although polls put Biden as much as 8% higher nationally, the race is much closer in must-win states like Florida and Pennsylvania. And as 2016 demonstrated, polls can be notoriously unreliable as a gauge to true voting intentions.

The underlying conditions that gave Trump victory in 2016 are still there. Once again, the election will be won or lost in a handful of states: Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, possibly Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin. Biden has not repeated Clinton’s mistake of 2016 of taking the rustbelt states for granted, but Florida is the big prize and the most difficult to pick. On the flip side, the Democrats have a strong chance of scoring upsets in the Senate races in states like South Carolina and Texas.

The environment that allowed Trump to win four years ago exists today. Despite everything, 40% of American voters still support Trump and they will stick with him to their dying day because voting for him is a cultural statement.

While Trump has been unable to expand his base, that base is arguably more rusted on now than four years ago and more motivated to see him re-elected. That’s 40% of the voting population Trump can rely on, and if they turn out to vote, they give him a strong foundation for victory, particularly in key battleground states.

That leaves perhaps 20% of voters in play; these are the ones Biden must appeal to, the middle ground of swinging voters who gave Trump an edge in 2016. Biden’s strategy is to woo those persuadable swinging voters but Trump’s is the opposite.

Trailing badly in the polls, Trump appears to have given up trying to appeal to swinging voters and is now concentrating all efforts on maximising turn out from his base as his only hope. It’s a risky strategy because it is questionable how politically engaged that base is.

Meanwhile, Trump and his Republican cronies have done all they can to rig and suppress the Democrat vote, to pre-emptively cast doubt on the result, and to refuse to commit to accepting a defeat or leave the office peacefully should he lose.

With less than a fortnight to go, the Trump dirty tricks machine is already in overdrive, with the fingerprints of shysters Steve Bannon and Rudi Giuliani all over last week’s farcical New York Post splash which farcically implied Biden was the head of a criminal enterprise involved in shady business dealings in eastern Europe. Trump also has the most sophisticated propaganda machine in the free world, Fox News, at his disposal.

At one stage there was even the very real possibility that Trump could pull the ultimate stunt of using the pandemic as a reason for the election not to go ahead at all. That would have required the complicity of the Republican controlled Senate and a conservative Supreme Court; perhaps that was too audacious even for their corrupt selves.

While that risk has faded, there is still a strong chance that Trump will dispute the election result and refuse to leave office. Trump has refused every opportunity to give an assurance that he will accept the result and go quietly.

This would provoke the greatest constitutional crisis in US history, raising the prospect the military could be forced to intervene to remove him from office in an effective coup.

If that occurred, US democracy will have been shown to have failed its greatest test.

What happens if Trump wins? It hardly bears thinking about but he will feel unrestrained to expand his kleptocracy and he will pursue a vendetta against his enemies like nothing seen before, including the media and minorities.

If Trump wins, democracy loses

American democracy itself is at risk this year. Trump’s four years in office have shown just how fragile and flawed the US constitution is in the face of a President who simply snubs his nose at all legal conventions and norms.

Throughout his term Trump has shamelessly sought to pervert and undermine democracy itself.

The process of impeachment, which was written into the constitution precisely to remove a character like Trump, has been shown to be toothless if one or both legislative chambers refuse to do their job impartially and independently and instead act to buttress the President.

The checks and balances written into the constitution are useless if the Senate or House operate hand in glove with the President. Judicial review is pointless if the courts are filled by the President with judges who share his politics. The bureaucracy is powerless to stand up to the President if he has the ability to hire and fire without restraint.

Predictions are for mugs, especially in politics, but here is one prediction that is safe to make: if Trump wins on 3 November, democracy loses.



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