The MAGA man (and woman)
In 2016, Donald J. Trump won the election by galvanizing a part of America that felt left behind. The part of America that felt the era of exceptionalism was over, especially after the many botched wars in the Middle East. The part of America that experienced a crisis of confidence in government and leadership as the result of the 2007-08 financial crash in which welfare for bankers took priority over help for middle-class mortgages.
The part of America that did not benefit from the wealth brought about by globalization but who instead bore the brunt of trade policies that fostered China’s rise and hollowed out U.S. manufacturing. The part of America that experienced a physical insecurity driven by a fear of crime and drugs that plagued decaying urban and rural communities. It was not that long ago that the prescription opioid epidemic filled newspaper columns rather than covid-19 deaths.
The Polarization of America
The sixty-three million Americans who voted for Trump in 2016—those Americans who felt that Trump was the cure for all those things that was wrong with America four years ago—very likely still feel that way today. Many of them continue to have real reasons for championing the man who promises to Make America Great Again.
It is also true that over the course of his presidency, Trump did very little to reach out to Americans beyond his base. In fact, he doubled-down on emphasizing his supporters’ grievances and squashed-identity politics. Trump also exaggerated the culture wars in the U.S. that focus on things like abortion and guns. Trump further amplified tribalization, which has been trending around the world, finding expression in Brexit in the UK and populist movements in many countries such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
The result of Trump’s amplification of grievance and identity politics is that today America feels like it is at war, with Trump being the president of white, rural America up against multicultural, multi-hued urban America. When I speak to my friends in different parts of the U.S. it is clear that the emotions tied to this election are extremely high. I hear of guns being used on Biden signs in Iowa and high schools expecting vandalism. Friends who were never interested in “politics” struggle with their hearts and minds over what they hear in their neighborhoods and read on their social media.
I see in my own Facebook feed the accusations that if you do not support Trump you do not love your country and that if Democrats win the House and the Senate the result will be the destruction of the constitution (in particular the Second Amendment and the right to carry a gun). I see Catholic friends wrestle with pro-life compassions and the recent directives from Pope Francis that are clearly critical of Trump.
The Delegitimization of America
Galvanizing his base is certainly one tactic that Trump is using to win a second term. A second strategy is to undermine legitimacy of the institutions upholding democracy. Every political machine spins the truth. A fact that was reinforced by my recent introduction to the Studium Generale + Lumière Cinema showing of the documentary film about Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign entitled The War Room. But, while every political machine “spins” in order to show their candidates’ best side, most do not create an alternate reality that questions the foundations of the entire election process as Trump has done with his attack on mail-in ballots. Trump’s own FBI Director, Christopher Wray, felt compelled to warn that “the steady drumbeat of misinformation … will contribute over time to a lack of confidence of American voters and citizens in the validity of their vote.”
That is precisely Trump’s goal in making accusations that mail-in ballots are fraudulent. Trump wants to destabilize confidence and augment his tactic to divide the American people as they prepare to vote. As Harvard University Professor Stephen M. Walt wrote recently, “In Trump’s world, one cannot imagine legitimate differences between equally patriotic and responsible Americans, the sort of honest disagreements that democratic systems exist to accommodate and reconcile. You are either with him, or you are evil, insane, crazy, nasty, a traitor, et cetera.”
If Americans start to think that those who hold views different from their own are evil or engaging in criminal voting, America loses the social fabric that holds it together. America is, after all, an ideal that exists because Americans share that ideal.
The State of Play
The polls going into November give former Vice President Biden a resounding lead, with the popular polling site FiveThirtyEight giving him an 87% chance of winning the Electoral College. This is certainly higher than Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers 4 years ago.
But, we all wary of polls these days. And, Trump’s probabilities are a little worse than the chances of rolling a 1 on a six-sided die. I know what you are thinking: we all take that chance to roll a Yahtzee when 4 dice are already in our favor. Still, Biden’s double-digit lead is trending large enough that traditionally red states like Georgia, Iowa, Ohio and Texas might now go blue, or in other words vote for Biden. In fact, Biden and Trump are tied in Texas, which has not backed a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976.
What if there is no clear winner on November 4th?
Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death has impacted the election in interesting and perilous ways. Trump’s eagerness for quick confirmation of a new justice has now thrust the battle for control of the Senate into the spotlight as well as overly politicized the Supreme Court. Filling RBG’s vacancy also raises questions about how the court might handle a contested election result. If the Supreme Court chooses the next president, its legitimacy as a neutral arbiter between the other two branches of government will be greatly undermined, thereby adding to the sense that the entire political system is unfair.
All presidential elections are consequential. But, rarely have Americans cast their ballots in an atmosphere in which their social fabric feels torn and frayed. Seldom have they been asked to vote in an environment that calls into question the institutions of their democracy. Rarely have they felt so misunderstood by their fellow Americans.
I do not know who will become the next president of the United States. I do know that he could benefit from the love and affection that Ruth Bader Ginsburg and fellow Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia had for each other. While they were at opposite sides of the ideological spectrum and often sparred in chambers and on paper, Ginsburg and Scalia were close friends. In particular, they shared a love for opera, which in turn inspired an opera written about them and their friendship.
Whoever becomes the next President of the United States should find some quiet time and listen to the opera’s signature aria: “We Are Different. We Are One.” Together, the characters Scalia and Ginsburg sing, “We are different. We are one./The U.S. contradiction/The tension we adore/Separate strands unite in friction/To protect our country’s core.” The American experiment with democracy survives because equally patriotic and responsible Americans could have honest disagreements that the U.S. democratic system could accommodate and reconcile. We all should want Americans to remember their shared devotion to the essence of their democracy.
Roberta Haar, professor of Foreign Policy Analysis and Transatlantic Relations at University College Maastricht