Donald Trump’s crushing defeat in the 2020 US presidential election was a psychological triumph for humanity at large. The peoples of the world needed catharsis from the terror of Donald Trump that Americans perpetrated upon them, so they wished for his humiliating defeat. This collective wish had nothing to do with his rival, Joe Biden. It had everything to do with humanity’s desire to return to sanity and reason after being subjected to Trump’s thuggery for four calamitous years
On the morning of November 7, when Joe Biden was finally called as the winner of the election, there was a sigh of relief audible across America and the world. But the respite was brief. Now Americans and the rest of the world are wondering how some 70 million people could vote for Donald Trump, after his racist thuggery was on full display for so long.
“How can 59,054,087 people be so dumb?” The question a British tabloid asked on its front page when delivering the news of George W Bush’s re-election in 2004 is perhaps one of the most memorable phrases in the contemporary history of US presidential elections.
The world had witnessed Bush’s invasion and occupation of first Afghanistan in 2001, and then Iraq in 2003. It had seen what kind of a man he was and how much damage he could inflict on humanity at large. Still, Americans had re-elected him as their president. So the British tabloid’s question was brutish and rude (especially coming from a country that was then being led by Tony Blair), but it was also legitimate.
And the questions persist in 2020. As of November 21, 73,781,603 people voted for Trump, which amounts to 47.2 percent of the total votes counted. The same statistics tell us 79,816,557 Americans voted for Biden, which is about 51.1 percent of the total votes counted.
These are not bad numbers – a majority of American people, especially Black people and other marginalised communities at the mercy of this country’s historic, systemic and incurable racism, voted Donald Trump out of office. There is much reason to celebrate that fact. But there is much reason for soul searching too.
Even when you look at the so-called “blue” states, like my home state of New York, you see thousands if not millions of determined Trump supporters. Trump lost New York in the 2020 election, but only 58.3 percent of New Yorkers voted against him. A solid 40.4 percent of voters used their ballots to demonstrate their support for a racist criminal who denies climate change and has the blood of more than 200,000 innocent Americans on his hands for failing to lead the country through the coronavirus pandemic. That is four out of 10 people I cross paths with every day on my way to work or my local park. This is a frightening fact.
Do not be fooled by these “blue” and “red” states. There is red inside every blue state, and blue inside every red state. There is no separate country somewhere between Ohio and Idaho, North Dakota and Texas to give to Republicans while the Democrats live their bicoastal lives in peace.
Democrats had declared the 2020 election “a battle for the soul of the country”. The fact that some 70 million Americans voted for the diabolic charlatan that is Trump has prompted many Americans to wonder what exactly is this “soul” they think they are fighting to save.
On November 5, the New York Times published an op-ed by Roxane Gay with the headline “This is America”. A day later, however, the headline was changed to “I am Shattered, but Ready to Fight”. This peculiar headline change was the embodiment of the anxiety that has engulfed not only the masses of Americans who did not vote for Trump, but also the so-called “paper of record”, in the wake of the presidential election. New York Times editors clearly do not know what to do with the millions of Americans who voted for Trump even after witnessing the range and depth of his evil character for four long years.
Though the headline was changed, the troubling fact remains in the body of the text, Roxane Gay writes: “This is not an aberration. This is indeed our country and who the proverbial ‘we’ are. The way this election has played out shouldn’t be a surprise if you’ve been paying attention or if you understand racism and how systemic it really is.”
Roxane Gay is not the only American who has started this soul searching. Living in a country where basically half of its people voted for a xenophobic freak who ordered babies to be snatched from their mothers’ arms and put in cages, four years after all such cruelties were on full display, is not an easy task.
“I think it’s a mistake to convince ourselves that Trump, or Trumpism, is easy to defeat,” Noah Berlatsky wrote in the Independent. “The truth is, as we are learning again, Trump, in all his incompetence, brutishness, and cruelty, embodies one powerful, ugly, and persistent version of the American dream.”
There is a problem with all such honest assessments, however. They all leave the Democratic Party off the hook. The corruption, incompetence and downright reactionary disposition of the Democratic Party cannot be ignored when trying to make sense of these catastrophic numbers. The Democratic Party told us Biden was the safe choice, and he almost lost the election to a racist brute, for Americans lacked a truly visionary choice befitting their dire circumstances.
There is no over-reading the results of this election. Americans were given a choice between a Republican crook and a worn-out Democrat – half of them choose one and the other half the other. What’s strange about that? Garbage in garbage out – as they say. “He may be a son of a b***h, but he’s our son of a b***h.” That’s what President Franklin Roosevelt is believed to have said about Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. Well, what goes around comes around. That is evidently what Republicans think of Trump, too: He’s their son of a b***h.
A significant portion of those who voted for Trump are no doubt irredeemably racist and eager to have a fellow white supremacist in the White House. They are the relics of a horrid history of racism that is, and will always be, definitive of this country. There is no curing them.
But this is not the full picture. There is also a significant part of this constituency that is redeemable, and their vote for Trump is an index of something very recent in America’s history. The question is whether people care to recall that history.
Ever since Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s, the epicentre of American politics has consistently been shifting to the right. In April 1980, Jimmy Carter’s infamous mission to rescue American hostages in Iran ended in catastrophe, wounded America’s military pride and paved the way for the bellicose militarism of Ronald Reagan. In his eight years in office, Reagan shifted American political culture to the right, and with it, the corrupt and cowardly leadership of the Democratic Party. Over the following few decades, Democrats travelled so further into the right that today modestly progressive politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Bernie Sanders are perceived by many as the vanguards of a Bolshevik revolution.
To save the “soul” of America, that epicentre must be pushed back to where it was before Reagan, in the aftermath of the Vietnam war when a fusion of anti-war sentiment and civil rights uprisings shaped the nation’s politics. This is the only way to reset American politics with a fundamental awareness of the historic terror it has perpetrated upon the world. This will not happen unless and until Americans see their domestic history as integral to the world’s history that is at the mercy of their warmongering militarism.
There was a full spectacle of this self-centrism on display when American media was celebrating Kamala Harris for “making history” by becoming the first Black woman to be elected to the second-highest office of the United States. Of course, Harris did not make “history” just for making her way into American history.
American history is not “history”. It is just American history. Dozens of women around the world made that history long before Kamala Harris. Sirimavo Bandaranaike made that history in 1960, some 80 years before Kamala Harris, when she became the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, followed by scores of other women in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
What happened in America was that after almost two and a half centuries of older white men leading the country, another older white man acknowledged a political necessity and appointed a woman as his running mate. It is this pathological provincialism of Americans that must be addressed and cured.
To recentre American politics is to reawaken its historical memory, to go back to the historic speech of Martin Luther King “Beyond Vietnam” in 1967, and remember the way he connected racism and militarism together – and thus to bring the US back to the fold of humanity at large.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and the entire leadership of the Democratic Party, from the Clintons to the Obamas, are the products of American provincialism. They can scarcely see it, let alone address and cure it. It is up to the most progressive forces of this country to make that historical fact a political reality. Give Americans better choices than the Bonnie and Clyde of reactionary politics, and they will make better decisions.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance