When Joe Biden was declared the winner of the US election over the weekend, I joined millions of my fellow Americans in their relief. The nightmare of the past four years was over. Donald Trump was done. I couldn’t be there in person but I retweeted a couple of things and hugged my family.
But after an exhausting election week – “North Carolina’s blue, now it’s red, wait only 17 people in the state have voted, what is happening?!” – the question remains …
How was it this close?
Turns out a quarter of a million dead from Covid just wasn’t that big a deal. Child separation? Not a problem. Democrats chose a compassionate, moderate, old white guy so no one would be scared off by identity politics and spooky “socialist” policies and 71 million people STILL said, “Nope. Give us the rich guy who’s in a lot of debt and pays no taxes and says that caravans of immigrants and thugs and animals will ruin our lives.”
2016 wasn’t a fluke. It was an entrée. More people voted for Trump this time, and he increased his support among minorities if you believe exit polls, which I don’t because the polls – and the punditry based on them – were useless. They promised a decisive victory for Biden but Trump’s strategy of combining D-grade celebrity charisma and appealing to people’s basest instincts worked.
As the famous saying goes, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but how your country can entertain you with a dark, ugly spectacle filled with chaos and emptiness.”
In May of 2008, I met an American woman in Sydney who’d been living in the UK. She was a Harry Potter fan (always suspicious for an adult) and insisted that she’d never move back to the US because “that place is f**ked”.
I was furious. I had just moved to Sydney and I wasn’t ready to throw my home country under the bus.
Then in 2016 Donald Trump was elected president.
Living abroad for the last 13 years has helped me appreciate the great things about my country (I’m also an Australian citizen). They were things I took for granted when I lived there – the energy and diversity of the cities, the geographical beauty, the Mexican food.
But the flaws seem much, much worse. The mass shootings (that’s not a problem here); the lack of universal healthcare (we’ve got it); the climate change denialism (um … no comment); treating asylum seekers like criminals (no, Australia isn’t perfect). There’s something about American ideology that won’t allow these problems to be fixed or even convincingly addressed.
The Trump administration wrapped up all of this and more into a bigoted package for its supporters – Trump never tried to be the president for the whole country – and stuck a big middle finger up to the rest of the world, which laughed in return. I’ve been living among the laughers. It’s not a good feeling.
In four years of low points, one of the most personally wounding came in July of 2019, when Trump suggested that four progressive congresswomen (all women of colour, three US-born) go back to where they came from.
With this classic battle cry for bigots, Trump and his supporters (including the Republican party – only four of their members joined the Democrats’ official rebuke) made it clear that I, the son of an immigrant from India and a Puerto Rican from New York, was not welcome. My family was not welcome.
One of those congresswomen, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, was forced to remind the children of America that: “No matter what the president says, this country belongs to you. And it belongs to everyone.”
For a lot of my country, those hurt feelings made me a snowflake crying lib tears. I had “Trump derangement syndrome”. I was taking him too seriously and literally – the President of the GD United States.
I know we’re not supposed to focus on identity politics and cultural issues, but it’s episodes like this that make Kamala Harris’s ascension resonate. The first female vice-president. The first black vice-president. The first Indian vice-president. Not only do we belong. We can be in charge.
Barring some catastrophe before 14 December, when election results are certified, America will try to move forward. Trump will do his best to make sure the transition proceeds with zero dignity for him or the country – he still hasn’t conceded and his 300 desperate lawsuits are still going forward, though many have been dismissed.
But the damage he’s done will stay with us for some time. Republicans complicit in the degradation of the country’s character who kowtowed to Trump were re-elected. A QAnon believer will join Congress, as well as a certain other representative who relishes owning the libs.
As most of the rest of world already knew, the myth of America as an incorruptible force for good in the world was due for dismantling. So in that sense, maybe Donald Trump has done the US a favour in showing us just how “normal” America is, no better than other countries that elect authoritarian populists with delusions of grandeur who encourage fear.
And if we accept that, maybe we can start to make practical changes that help people and convince them that popular policies labelled as socialist by the right aren’t scary. Maybe we can start to dismantle another American myth – that everyone is better off on their own, free to get rich or sink into destitution. Maybe 2021 can be the beginning of a new era, when we acknowledge that we have to be good before we can be great.
The 2020 election didn’t deliver the enormous repudiation America needed. It showed us how deeply divided we are. But a win is a win. Most of the country made the moral choice not to be represented by selfishness and hatred. And for now, that’s a reason to hope that America is a little less f**ked.
• Nick Bhasin is a writer and editor. Follow him at @nickbhasin