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THE ANGST OF AMERICA

It has become commonplace to describe America as divided. But the recent US elections have made clear the inadequacy of that word.
Updated 15 Nov, 2020 01:02pm

It has become commonplace to describe America as divided. But what the recent US elections have made clear is the inadequacy of that word. The new US president, Joe Biden, will have to deal with the angst with which his predecessor Donald Trump not only defined America, but which he leaves behind



angst ∙ noun \ aŋ(k)st \ ˈäŋ(k)st \ äNG(k)st \ æŋst \ : a profound feeling of dread, anxiety, insecurity or distress; typically, an unfocused feeling about the human condition or the state of life in general.
origin German, fear. from angest, angust, ango, ange, anxt.

Historic is not a word that should be used lightly. It should nearly never be used for anything contemporary and only sparingly for events long past. Yet, it is being used with considerable frequency to describe the 2020 US Presidential elections; maybe, not inappropriately.

But leaving judgements of history to history, as we should, does not diminish the truly exceptional importance of these elections. Not just because of the trauma of the presidency they bring to an end, but even more for the turbulent times that they foretell ahead.

Even before the election results began coming in, it had become commonplace to describe America as divided. It is, in fact, so. But these elections — in their run-up as well as in their results — have also revealed the inadequacy of that word. Maybe angst is a better word to describe the state of this Union. This essay argues that the 2020 US elections have not only confirmed that Mr Trump leaves America in the grip of an epoch-defining angst, but that this angst will continue, possibly intensify, into the Biden presidency.

Here are three reasons why.

TRUMP’S AMERICA

By the time every vote gets counted and the final tally is in (sometime in early December), it is expected that nearly 80 million Americans would have voted for Joe Biden, who is already the presidential candidate to win more popular votes than any other in US history. Until before this election, that distinction was held by Barack Obama who (along with Biden as his vice presidential pick) had received 69.5 million votes in the 2008 elections on way to becoming the first African American to occupy the White House. That, in case you missed the math, is nearly 10 million (or 15 percent) more votes for Biden. Biden will be joined in the White House by Kamala Harris, the first woman and first person of colour to become the vice president of the United States. Impressive, indeed.

Pundits and scholars will, as they should, recount these and other distinctions of the Biden-Harris team when they talk about the 2020 elections in the future. But in this immediate moment and in the reality of this time, the more meaningful fact is that, in all aspects except for that all-important bit about winning a second term in the White House, it was Trump — or rather Trumpism — that owned these elections; more even than during the 2016 elections that he actually won. Let me explain how.

Even by current counts, more than 71.5 million Americans actually voted for Donald Trump. By the time all votes are accounted for, this number could be around 75 million. Just breathe that number in: it is not just the most votes ever polled by a sitting president (all the more astounding for a president being unseated), it is more votes even than were polled for Barack Obama in either of his two elections (2008 and 2012), and more — far more (possibly some 12 million and nearly 20 percent more votes) — than Trump himself received during his victorious 2016 elections.

All of the above could have been explained by the inordinately high voter turnout, except for two uncomfortable facts. First, it is not just that the numbers are large, it is that the margins were precariously thin. So thin that, in nearly every state that made a difference for Biden, the result could easily have flipped the other way. Second, and more importantly, in an election that can best be characterised as ‘Trump vs Trump’, the eventual victory went not to those who wanted Biden to win, but to those who passionately wanted Trump to lose. In essence, Donald Trump dictated the voting choice of nearly all Americans.

Here is what this means: the myth that the 2016 election was an aberration and whatever Donald Trump stands for does not really represent ‘real’ America, is shattered. The genie is out of the bottle. Trumpism is now a force. And Joe Biden is condemned to preside under the dark shadows of the America that Trump created. Angst.

PARTY GAMES

People dance on Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House, the day after a presidential election victory was called for former Vice President Joe Biden | Reuters
People dance on Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House, the day after a presidential election victory was called for former Vice President Joe Biden | Reuters

While America continues to pretend that it is a two-party system, the reality is that in the aftermath of this election both parties — Democratic and Republican — find themselves in disarray. Both come out of this election disillusioned, without a clear sense of future direction, and struggling against serious internal dissent.

The Republicans were already morphing into the ‘Party of Trump’ and, if this were Pakistan, they might have changed their name to Republican (T). The party did strikingly well in elections for both the House and the Senate and, importantly, nearly every candidate who won knows that they owe their victory in part (sometimes in very large part) to Donald Trump. Ordinarily, this would have cemented the hold of Donald Trump and his family on the party.

Except that he failed to regain the White House: the bully pulpit of his bullying politics.

This means that the more traditional factions within the Republican Party — and the many enemies that Trump has created for himself — have been given a new lifeline and the battle to wrest control back from the House of Trump has already begun. Although stripped of the White House, Trump knows that he has the following that no one else in the party does. More than that, he has Twitter: he will undoubtedly wield it like a weapon against Joe Biden, but as much also to shape and keep control of the Republican Party. Fasten your seatbelts; this could turn into a veritable Game of Thrones.

It is somewhat disingenuous to insist that these faultlines were not created by Trump. Of course, all societies have differences. But not only did Trump exploit them, he enabled their exploitation.

If anything, the Democratic Party is even more split than the Republicans. While there was great relief at winning back the White House, there was little visible joy. Partly, this is because the victory is so slim. Largely, it is because the party is so deeply divided.

The progressive wing of the party, identified most by Bernie Sanders but led now by a new generation of leaders such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), were willing to put their newfound strength behind Biden to get Trump removed, but are already clamouring for their pound of flesh. The earliest test of this may come in the legislative battles for the environmental manifesto known as the Green New Deal and for healthcare.

For Democrats, whose victory was so dependent on young voters, there is also the irony of age. Consider this: On January 10, 2021, when Joe Biden takes his oath to the office he first ran for 33 years ago (in 1987), he would have already turned 78. That would make him the oldest American president ever, on his very first day at work. Some 10 weeks older than what Ronald Reagan was (77 years and 349 days) on the last day of his second term. Interestingly, third on the list now will be none other than Donald J. Trump, who would have gone past Reagan if he had been given a second term, and is now scheduled to step down at the age of 74 years and 200 days.

The immediate implication of this is that Biden, who would be 82 at the end of his first term, will nearly certainly be a one-term president. That means that it is not just the Republicans but also the Democrats who are scrambling to figure out who would be their candidate for 2024. Fasten your seatbelts; lots of turbulence ahead.

Here is what this means: Both parties are in turmoil and in transition. Both parties are fundamentally split and in battle for a new direction. The politics of 2024 is already looming large on both horizons. The knives, clearly, are already being sharpened for battles internal as well as external. Angst.

AMERICA IS BROKEN

Covid-19. #BlackLivesMatter. Immigration. Border walls. Attacks on expertise. Protectionism. The Muslim ban. Job losses. Systemic racism. Climate change. Inequality. Nationalism. #MeToo and gender disparities. Distrust of the media. The rise of China. The list of crises the US faces goes on.

Amongst the many ironies of the 2020 US Elections was the fact that, at a time when the US faces some of its deepest policy chasms and when you had two candidates so diametrically different from each other in their policy positions, the entire election campaign was devoid of any meaningful policy discussion.

Maybe this was because the real choice was between the persona of the two. Maybe it was because the two candidates were so clearly different in their policy approach to each and every issue that it was meaningless to debate where the differences lay. Maybe it was because the country itself is so very divided on each of these issues that discussion would not have changed any opinions. Most likely, it is all of the above, and more.

No matter why it was so, the lesson of 2020 is that none of these issues is going to become any easier to talk about or deal with after the elections.

It is gallant of Joe Biden to insist that he wants to heal the wounds and bring the country together. But if America spoke on November 3, it seems to have spoken to remind the world that there is no ‘one America’; there are at least two diametrically different Americas. And, right now, those two Americas seem to have no interest in speaking to each other. That, more than all other, is the legacy of Donald J. Trump.

If one were to point towards one poignant symbol of this mutual disdain, it was in the first presidential debate, back in September. That image of the unwillingness and inability to talk about things that matter — to even stand in the same room — was so frustrating because it was so familiar. At its core, that debate was entirely symptomatic of what the US has become accustomed to see on its news channels, on its streets, even in Congress.

Of course, not all of this turmoil was invented by Donald Trump. But much was.

It is somewhat disingenuous to insist that these faultlines were not created by Trump. Of course, all societies have differences. But not only did Trump exploit them, he enabled their exploitation. He saw the cracks and gashed them into fissures. He empowered the most vile narratives and unleashed the most destructive sentiments. He has left for Joe Biden a country that is broken and there are no obvious fixes.

The context in which healing will have to be attempted could not be worse. On the one hand, there are the impacts of a grossly mismanaged global pandemic and its horrendous economic and social consequences. On the other, a rapidly rising China is threatening US hegemony in geopolitics and geoeconomics at the very moment when America’s moral legitimacy is at its lowest.

Here is what this means: The challenges that America faces internally are not just profound, they are existential. And they come at a time when the global context could not be worse. The healing that Joe Biden talks about is absolutely necessary, and he does sound like just the right person to do it. But his challenge is monumental, especially because there is nothing in the results of this election that suggests that the country is ready to heal. Angst.

BIDEN’S BURDEN: AMERICAN ANGST

A Trump supporter carries a semi-automatic rifle as he takes part in a ‘Stop the Steal’ protest in Phoenix, Arizona | Reuters
A Trump supporter carries a semi-automatic rifle as he takes part in a ‘Stop the Steal’ protest in Phoenix, Arizona | Reuters

Biden may have run for office reluctantly this time, but he has prepared for it longer than anyone in recent history. He has been thinking about what he would do in the White House at least since 1987, when he first ran for it, and nearly certainly longer. What he will be able to actually do once he becomes US President number 46 will, unfortunately, be defined mostly by the angst unleashed and nurtured by President number 45 and elections 2020.

Joe Biden ran as, and has declared himself to be, the president who will try to heal. It is the most difficult of goals; but possibly amongst the most noble for the American cause at this moment in time.

Not since the Great Depression during the 1930s have America’s internal divisions so thoroughly overwhelmed all else on its plate. That this comes in a time of such heightened geo­political transitions, a world still strewn by unfinished American wars, multilateralism under attack, human economies in stress, under the shadow of a global pandemic and with another global crisis of climate on the horizon, will give the Biden presidency much — too much — to worry about.

But the verdict of the 2020 US Presidential elections could not be clearer. His margins may be thin but, and precisely because of that reason, his mandate is unambiguous: Biden’s burden is to carry and care for America’s angst.


Header: A broken ‘Make America Great Again’ hat model lies on the ground as people gather at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington | Reuters

The writer is the founding Dean of the Pardee School of Global Affairs at Boston University, USA, and was the former Vice Chancellor of the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) in Pakistan. He tweets @AdilNajam

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 15th, 2020