Can a new US emerge from the bitter polarisation of recent decades, or is the future more of the tempestuous same? Saeed Khan looks at the past, its possibilities and missed opportunities, and the every-degrading position of Muslims in the US present and future.
To paraphrase Voltaire, if Donald Trump did not exist, he would have to be invented. The fact is that Trump does exist, yet, ironically, one would not be incorrect to infer that he was the product of self and media creation. Centuries from now, people will question how a boorish, self-promoting failed businessman and reality television show star ascended to become 45th President of the United States. Such bewilderment, already underway, requires a lens of analysis that transcends a purely political focus. It involves a deep exploration of America’s cultural tides and storms as well as a 50-year extrapolation into the nation’s recent history to seek context of the origins of the phenomena that produced both Trump and the climate that reinforces him. Above all, to understand Trump warrants delving into that critical component of economics – the law of supply and demand. While Trump certainly provides the former, it is essential to understand the latter as well.
One would be hard pressed to find an American who responds with ambivalence when the name Trump is invoked. In Newtonian terms, for every strong aversion, there is an equal and opposite adoration for the occupier of the Oval Office. Yet, it is fitting that such deeply held, polar opposite sentiments exist as they are merely a reflection of the severe polarisation that defines American society today. Yeats warned that the centre cannot hold, and the American discursive landscape has proven him right. Polls affirm that most issues of political and/or social concern are perceived with strong opinions on either side, with no meaningful inclination toward nuance, even acknowledgment of an alternate possibility. The very idea of bipartisanship appears to be an absurdity or, at best, an anachronism from some bygone era when misguided politicians sought to achieve consensus through mutual compromise.
Evangelicals and the Reagan Revolution
The inauguration in 1981 of Ronald Reagan as America’s 40th President was a paradigm shift in the nation’s political history. The new decade portended the promise of new possibilities and a reset from what had been seen as the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s. The United States had experienced a significant amount of change, some of it positive, as with the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but it was also a victory won at tremendous cost. The death spasms of Jim Crow America confirmed that the country’s racism was not going to be terminated by the stroke of President Lyndon Johnson’s pen. The subsequent protests and riots that ensued in the remaining years of the 1960s clarified that racism was but one facet of broader, deeper societal inequalities that were delineated by way of the opposition to America’s military intervention in Vietnam. Reagan, an openly devout and self-professed Christian, awakened a dormant yet ambitious movement of Christian conservatives who now had someone in the White House unafraid to speak the language of their faith, weaving it seamlessly and unapologetically into political and social rhetoric. Reagan framed the Cold War as a battle between good and evil: the godly Americans vs the godless, communist Soviets. The end of the Soviet Union was seen as a victory of Reagan’s and a vanquishment by (Capitalist) Christianity over Communism, in both religious and socio-economic terms. The prospect of exerting further influence in the political arena and the promise of a new paradigm of social engineering has fueled the efforts and ambitions of such Christians, especially Evangelicals, ever since.
Right-Wing Populism and the Perfect Candidate
The 2008 Recession served as a turning point in American politics. During the closing overs of the George W. Bush administration, the credit crash and ensuing economic misery was the final repudiation of a Republican administration and system that had plunged the nation into costly and crippling conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and had addressed the financial crisis by bailing out banks and the wealthy at the expense and neglect of the working class. The ensuing discontent among a large segment of the electorate decided to punish the Republicans by staying home on Election Day, and helping to catalyse the rise of the first Black American president. But while Barack Obama’s election brought a sense of hope and guarded optimism for meaningful change and renewal, the reality was that America was still structurally flawed, and the systems that had created the malaise continued unchecked, yet seemingly embraced by both Democrats and Republicans. The counter-establishment on the Left constituted itself as the Occupy movement, while the equivalent on the Right emerged as the Tea Party.
The Occupy movement focused upon the institutions that had created substantial levels of social inequality, while somehow immunising themselves from both accountability and adverse impact of the 2008 recession. The movement lost its momentum midway through the first Obama administration, and many who had been Occupy participants shifted their attention away from institutions to the identity politics of various demographics seeking to assert their respective rights and grievances. Politically, the landing spot was progressivism, especially as personified by the consistent track record of a democratic socialist and political independent Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. The progressive agenda was refracted through a populist fervour. Unfortunately, for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, the establishment proved too strong and motivated to allow its institutions to be usurped by the upstart element that was growing in numbers and potency. Hilary Clinton represented everything that was conventional, seemingly safe, and ultimately, unsuccessful about the Democratic efforts to retain control of the White House in 2016.
By contrast, the Tea Party, similarly disgruntled by the intransigence of the status quo, underwent its own ideological reconfiguration. Unable to articulate its frustrations well, the right wing anti-establishment sector proceeded to undertake its own form of identity politics, coalescing not out of sense of demographic diversity, but instead, militant sameness. Right wing populism emerged as a preservationist imperative that sought to anchor American identity and the nation’s future in the past. It required a societal reset to an era and ethos that was familiar and definable by conventional, traditional lines of demarcation for society. For the vast majority of its proponents, right wing populism was code for white supremacy, Christian nationalism and legitimised nativism. Early on, the movement found a charismatic, though inchoate champion in former 2008 Vice-Presidential candidate and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Unable to repel the phenomenon that was Obama, the movement bided its time through the 2012 elections, that showcased the hyper establishment, and eventually unsuccessful candidacy of Mitt Romney. The yearning still existed in 2016, and the one individual that personified the antithesis of establishment and convention amidst a crowded field was a bombastic businessman of questionable veracity or credibility named Donald J. Trump. His shock victory was the ultimate validation for the very group Clinton had branded “the deplorables” in the election; their response was to wear the moniker as a badge of honour and view it as a validation of their agenda and ideology.
Moral Panics and Anxieties About a Changing America
Cultural racism highlights the ability to classify a people not based necessarily or primarily due to their colour or even ethnicity. Rather, it is based on examining and then delegitimising certain cultural values and practices shared by all members of that group. This form of racism appears more subtle and strangely, more acceptable because it does not involve conventional markers of racism which have by and large become discredited in society. In the United States, given the sordid nature of the country’s racial history, the opportunity to target yet another group with the same scope of treatment as that experienced by African Americans is limited and ultimately, unacceptable. Similarly, the professed secular nature of American civil discourse and constitutional mechanisms intended to remove the privileging or promotion of religion in the public sphere militates against the ability to single out a specific religious tradition for mistreatment. Cultural racism allows the focus to shift from a person’s physical attributes or religious “belief” to the more insidious attention being on how the person may express religious belief.
The Muslim community of America is arguably the most diverse in the world. An amalgam of every race, sect, ethnicity and linguistic family, no single subcategory can lay claim to being the quintessential Muslim American. But cultural racism allows the labeller to transcend otherwise unacceptable markers of bigotry, i.e. colour vis-à-vis African American Muslims, and focus on matters of culture as refracted through liturgy or religious obligation being inimical to the “sensitivities” of majority society. While the rhetoric levied against Muslims may appear to be couched in terms of ideology or theology – in the case of Islam, the hackneyed accusation that its imperious nature will oblige its adherents to conquer America through the spread of its law (and tenets) the impetus is a familiar xenophobia based on both nativism and Orientalism. While the public debate becomes obfuscated with alarmist concerns about “sharia law,” “stealth jihadists” and an existential threat to “American values,” the underlying antipathy appears less a function of Muslims for what they are; instead, it is based on the fact that they are.
The phenomenon of anti-Muslim sentiment that appears to pervade so much of the public discourse of late is not occurring within a vacuum. While there are certainly cases such as Oklahoma’s attempts to ban the consideration of Sharia law from its courts system, as in over a dozen other states, efforts to block the construction of mosques and Islamic community centres across the country and a general antipathy levelled toward Muslims in some quarters, there are several social currents surrounding highly contestable and controversial issues. Arizona and Alabama have passed measures aimed at limiting illegal immigration; while this is understandable for the former as a border state, it is puzzling for the latter which lacks a foreign land neighbour. These measures are seen as being less than veiled measures to racially profile people of colour and the scope of the laws will doubtless impact upon people who are legal residents and/or citizens, though deficient in “American appearance.” Some politicians and advocates for these measures have been claiming that in addition to protecting the country’s borders from the infiltration of ‘job stealing foreigners’, the legislation also helps prevent easy access for terrorists through porous boundaries.
Another key area of contestation among cultural warriors is over the definition of marriage. The 2015 US Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v Hodges affirmed the fundamental right to same-sex marriage as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution. Yet, despite the definitive court determination, the issue of homosexual rights, especially related issues of transgender rights and access to public spaces, remain a contentious and highly politicised aspect of public debate. Often, efforts to discriminate against members of the LGBTQ community are framed as legitimate exercises of religious freedom, as with claims to withhold service to LGBTQ individuals. Such justification could arguably be deployed to deny service and to validate discrimination to members, for example, of other religious communities, because of one’s contention that First Amendment religious freedom protections allow it.
While immigration and efforts to define traditional family conventions is nothing new, there has been a coalescence of various demographic shifts in the United States, culminating in the emergence of a new moral panic, where deep rooted fears of a significant, irreversible change in the social order is imminent. Spasms of such an anxiety have been present for some time – some may argue for at least the last several decades since the turbulence of the 1960s – but the intensification of these concerns appears to be related to the impending paradigm change in American demographics estimated for the year 2050. Midway through this century, the United States is scheduled to become a majority minority nation. For some, this is a source for considerable consternation as it brings with it the end of an era perceived to be a permanent part of the American experience and also the sense of uncertainty and possible foreboding of an America which may not readily be recognisable.
While a sense of ensuing anxiety related to inevitable and irreversible demographic shifts may permeate some segments of the public discourse, it is by no means isolated to it. In his final book before his death, Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington assesses the changing America.[i] He suggests that the country is moving toward a more entropic, dystopic future as it abandons its purportedly essential core identity- White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant- for an increasingly Brown, Latin-American, Catholic countenance. For Huntington and those who subscribe to his pessimism, several social currents have started to move in concert, causing moral panic and yet, simultaneously creating a sense of impotence to either change or prevent those seen as the visible agents of change. While the objects of anxiety and even anger may have been readily apparent, political and cultural realities would militate against the natural impulse for a backlash directed at them. The Arizona and Alabama immigration measures may have represented an expression of frustration over the influx of Hispanics into each respective state and the eventual cultural shifts that would occur. And yet, in neither case have the public debates explicitly framed the issue as a Hispanic “problem,” instead labelling it as a matter of illegal “aliens.” Similarly, the recent legalisation of same-sex marriage in a few states has led its opponents to respond with an affirmative espousal of what marriage is rather than what it is not. In both cases, those affected by moral panic are politically pragmatic enough to engage the issue that vexes them head-on. The Hispanic community is the fastest growing demographic in America and well established in many states that happen to be rich in electoral votes including California, Arizona, Texas, Florida and New York. Any aspersions against Hispanics collectively would be met with tremendous backlash beyond just the political arena. Similarly, the LGBTQ community has gained a reputation of being politically well informed and organised, whereby polemical attacks in the context of the marriage debates would face retribution.
If the cultural sands of America are shifting more than is acceptable for some people by virtue of the transformations of ethnic and social mores, the election of the first African American president in 2008 was seen as a significant change for the nation. While some were inspired by Barack Obama’s ascendancy to the country’s highest elected office and believed it was evidence that America had moved beyond its troubled racial history, it was not a universally held sentiment. Racism, which may have been latent in many quarters, manifested itself in subtle or tangential ways. The President was questioned about his faith, whether he was a Muslim, and about his eligibility to be president by questioning whether he was in fact a natural born citizen, or a Kenyan. In both instances, there was a concerted campaign to portray the President as being alien, a foreigner, someone ineligible to serve as Commander in Chief. Of course, his biography is a matter of public record and scrutiny, incontrovertibly stating that he was born in Honolulu, Hawai’i (the year after it was admitted into the Union) and is a Christian (despite having an atheist father of Muslim heritage and belonging to a congregation in Chicago whose pastor has been surrounded by controversy and notoriety).
Populism on the Left: Progressives and Identity Politics of a Different Priority
As the morphology of America changes with ethnic shifts toward a larger Hispanic presence and culture, the redefinition of marriage and the dismantling of racial homogeneity in the country’s leadership, Americans have also been saddled with uncertainties regarding the economy as well as the nation’s previously presumed dominance on the international stage. With emerging economic powers such as China, India, Russia and Brazil, the prospect of the United States declining so rapidly from being the world’s sole superpower to one nation among many is a frightening, demoralising prospect. Clearly, anger cannot be levelled against other countries, especially those that are asserting new conventions of strength. Similarly, on the domestic front, many of the suspect groups seen as driving the most dramatic social and cultural shifts are beyond direct and open reproach given their perceived strength politically, financially and historically. The only community remaining in America that is the object of derision and lacks social and political capital is the Muslim American population. As a result, the anger and hostility directed against it may appear to be disproportionate to its size unless one assesses such attitudes as being vicariously channelled towards it in lieu of their actual intended targets.
Rise of Conservative Media and Toxic Talk Radio
Ideological and political shifts rarely occur organically and incipiently from a void. Often, facilitators steer public debate, public consciousness and public activism toward a new, vocal and sometimes virulent counterpoint. Perhaps the most transformational phenomenon over the past 30 years, thus causing generational change, has been the rise of so-called conservative media, especially the advent of the Fox News Network and right-wing talk radio. These complementary, mutually validating outlets have influenced millions of Americans into a parallel discourse and, arguably, parallel reality.
Beginning in the late 1980s, conservative conglomerates embarked on an ambitious project of buying small to medium scale radio stations in media markets across the nation. They found an untapped and receptive audience that felt marginalised by the perceived left-leaning bias of conventional media outlets. These stations built up brand names and audiences and eventually, came to dominate large segments of the public, especially in geographic areas that are, unsurprisingly, Republican strongholds. The platform made superstars out of previously marginal voices like Rush Limbaugh, and also became the sounding board for a generation of disgruntled Americans who wished to express their frustration about their lack of agency in a country that was changing away from what they had hoped to preserve and control.
Simultaneously, the launch of the Fox News Network, the American incarnation of Rupert Murdoch’s toxic mixture of tabloid “sensationalism” under the pretence of professional news production, gained increasing momentum as a complement to conservative radio on television. Despite the ironic “Fair and Balanced” slogan being its initial calling card, Fox News appears to have dispensed with any claim to either adjective as it has lurched into the world of “opinion journalism” for a population that both grew acclimated to it and now has come to expect that tone and perspective. New commentators have gained celebrity status, including Bill O’Reilly, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Jeanine Pirro, and categorical acceptance from their audience as authoritative sources. Such uncritical adulation has allowed these broadcasters to indulge in rhetoric that moves far outside the purview of reportage to blatant political speech, even delving into extremist talking points. They peddle conspiracy theories and disparage vulnerable demographics, like Muslims, people of colour, and others, with impunity.
Perhaps most egregiously, and relevant to electoral matters, conservative media has effectively framed and fanned the flames of the so-called culture wars. It has persuaded, and affirmed for millions of Americans, that the country is under siege by foreigners, coastal elites and a litany of other individuals, groups and special interests purportedly committed to dismantling America through the erosion of long-held and seemingly uniformly cherished values. This moral framing is almost entirely structured along racial, ethnic and religious lines of demarcation as a decoy for the preservation of White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant (specifically Evangelical Christian) essentialism and power dominance.
The 2008 election of Barack Obama was certainly a watershed moment in recent American politics and history. Obama’s 2012 reelection proved to have even greater repercussions than the mere duplicated success of the incumbent or a referendum of his policies. It became a referendum and affirmation of America’s demographic shift. Almost as soon as the results were announced, prominent media voices, many on conservative outlets, acknowledged that the country was changing. For those speaking from the right wing of the political spectrum, the rhetoric intensified to warn of the loss of “traditional” America, a thinly veiled allusion to the dominance of the “white” majority population. The substantial gains made by the Hispanic population, particularly in its overwhelming support for the incumbent, the clear inclination of the women’s vote toward Obama and the overall minority support for the Democratic party provided Republicans and conservatives alike with an epiphanic moment that, although developing for some time, has become unavoidable: the gradual move toward a majority minority country.
The various groups that formed an unconnected coalition to bring Obama and the Democrats a victory in 2008 and 2012 constitute the very groups that will, according to most statistics, be the majority demographic segments of American society by 2050. Apart from the November elections, 2012 proved pivotal in furnishing other evidence of how this demographic and cultural shift has begun. For the first time in US history, the non-white birth rate surpassed the white birth rate, with Hispanic births in particular on the increase (US Census, 2011). In addition, and similarly unprecedented in the nation’s history, the majority of the country is no longer Protestant. With only 48% identifying as such, the nation is slowly turning toward other religious denominations gaining prominence, e.g. Catholics, no affiliation, etc., at the expense of the dominant religio-cultural faction (Pew US Religious Landscape Survey). For a country that has defined and maintained itself since its inception as a White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant society, the reduction of each of these identity markers is a dramatic transformation and a matter of great consternation for those invested in or as the status quo.
While preliminary reports suggest that the Muslim vote in the 2008 and 2012 elections was skewed heavily toward President Obama and Democratic candidates in general, it is difficult to ascertain how critical this vote was to the overall results (Pew Forum: How the Faithful Voted: 2012 Preliminary Analysis). Given its relatively small size and its diffuse presence throughout the country, the Muslim American community may be energised, motivated and active but not necessarily critical in the electoral process. Moreover, irrespective of any measurable impact on voting trends on a national, state or local level, Muslim Americans on aggregate lag far behind the demographic groups that clearly did make a difference in the elections, e.g. Hispanics and women, in the amount of social and political capital they wield.
The Establishment vs the Edges: The Battle for Voters
While efforts are currently underway by the Republican party to court potential voters from these segments of society, no such efforts are forecast for Muslims, in part because of their size and relative lack of political influence and also because Republican and conservative attitudes are by and large quite negative, particularly in comparison to Democratic and liberal sectors. As America moves further toward its demographic destiny, there is a likelihood that a shrinking majority will feel threatened and refuse to accept the changes about to come. Fear is an exploitable, even profitable commodity and may be manipulated for political and financial gain from those unable to foresee a new future where they will not be part of the dominant power structure. The process has already begun to assert and equate America as an eternally “white” country, making the nation’s narrative a racially based, rather than a sociologically or philosophically based imperative.
While white nationalism may identify certain “enemies of the state,” Muslim Americans may be the most convenient target given their numbers and weak political status. The gravamen of most white nationalists may not be the Muslim community; rather, it may be some of the very groups who brought success to the Democratic Party in the 2012 elections- women, Hispanics and the LGBTQ communities. Yet, there is a pragmatism, even among racists, that some battles are either too Herculean to be waged or futile given the low prospect of success. This allows the animus directed at Muslims to not only be an obvious, even easy choice, but ironically, amplified to compensate for frustrations that would have been pointed at the other suspect groups.
The Election: The Only News in Town
Notwithstanding the fact that 2020 was in many ways defined by a global pandemic, the US elections certainly followed the course of being yet one more episode in America’s four-year long reality television show with Donald Trump as the headliner. All prognostications of a smooth, immediately decisive outcome that would augur a Democratic landslide proved to be failures on all levels. Once again, the polls that had Biden ahead by double-digit margins in many states gave way to a race that required a shift from the status quo in its determination. Due to both safety concerns surrounding Covid-19, as well as President Trump’s own admonitions about the reliability of the postal service, an agency he has committed considerable effort to undermine, millions of voters, particularly on the Democratic side of the ledger, availed themselves of early voting in person or absentee voting by mail. Thanks to obstacles, largely placed by Republican controlled state legislatures, in-person votes from Election Day had to be counted before a single early vote could be tabulated. This inevitably placed pressure on an already burdened system, now made all the more so because of the unprecedented avalanche of extra absentee votes that required processing. It was no wonder that the returns on Election Night saw Trump ahead, but as absentee votes were compiled, the inevitable reversal of fortune occurred. With absentee ballots trending in some states as high as 4:1 in favour of the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden began to take the lead. In many states, with a painfully slow processing time, the race went from definitively Trump to “too close to call.” Finally, with the margin for recovery statistically out of reach for the incumbent, media outlets declared Joe Biden to be the 46th President-elect of the United States, pending both certification of the vote from the states and the exhaustion of a litany of litigation by Trump and his campaign.
Voter turnout for the 2020 election was the highest seen since the 1968 campaign that propelled Richard Nixon into the White House. An estimated 75 million Americans voted for the Biden/Harris ticket, a record for the most votes cast for a presidential candidate in US history. At the same time, the person with the second most votes ever cast was his opponent, Donald Trump, with 70 million. Biden won by a margin of over five million votes, roughly 3%, and nearly double the margin of the popular vote won by Hilary Clinton in her 2016 bid. While the largest margin of victory against an incumbent since Franklin Roosevelt’s 1932 victory over Herbert Hoover, a certain level of incredulity persists among Democrats as to why the election was as close as it was; conventional wisdom was that an impeached, boorish, heavily flawed Trump, who had proven himself utterly inept at handling the nation’s principal crisis of Covid-19 management and in the process devastating the economy, could and would be defeated in dramatic fashion. Yet, despite his myriad faults and failures, Trump still managed to maintain the loyalty and support of 47% of the electorate. America is indeed, and remains, a divided nation, with both different political affiliations and, seemingly, different realities.
Meet the New Boss; Same as the Old Boss?
The incoming Biden Administration will inherit a White House akin to a former tenant who has left the premises in utter shambles and a tarnished reputation with the neighbours that any new occupant will need to rectify immediately. On the domestic front, the United States will require a tremendous amount of healing and reconciliation. The past four years have been marked by a normalisation and even an endorsement, explicitly or implicitly, of bigotry, racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, among a list of attitudes that are antithetical to social cohesion. While the new president can certainly reset the official government tone of what will and won’t be tolerated, a recalibration of civil society may prove far more elusive, given the depth of discord and distrust among various factions in the country. The toxicity of the public rhetoric, enabled and encouraged by several conventional and social media platforms, will require more than a presidential directive; it will require a transformation of the social contract, well outside the presidential brief. The American electoral calendar does not permit a cooling-off period, as midterm elections are only two years away, with some by-elections scheduled sooner than that. The politicisation of discord is too alluring, profitable and exploitable to avoid for politicians, pundits and professional haters alike.
Speculation abounds that President Biden will seek to resurrect and revise some of the hallmark domestic programs and policies from the Obama era, when he served as Vice-President, and which President Trump made it part of an Ahabic mission to dismantle. Chief among these will be the revival and preservation of the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare). In addition, Biden has declared that he will nullify approximately 100 of Trump’s most odious executive orders within 24 hours of taking the oath of office. This pledge will help reverse many repugnant measures, including the so-called Muslim travel ban as well as other regulations that have adversely affected immigration and refugee relocation. Of course, first and foremost will be the impetus to control and contain the Covid-19 pandemic by implementing a national plan thus far scorned, ignored and rejected by the outgoing Trump administration.
In the foreign policy arena, the temptation to continue the course of American empire will be strong, but will be tempered by certain geopolitical realities that have evolved in the past four years. Biden will attempt to restore damaged relations with many of America’s stalwart allies, especially within North America and in Europe. This will require a retraction from the close ties forged between Trump and authoritarian regimes, both monarchies and also erstwhile democracies, including Gulf states, India, Hungary and Poland. Biden will also have to contend with a China that has taken its most recent great leap forward, especially in regions once dominated by America.
Trump had withdrawn the United States from both the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as well as the JCPOA (Iran Nuclear Deal), ostensibly because they were Obama era landmark achievements in foreign policy. Both were efforts to curb China’s growing geostrategic influence, the former more so explicitly than the latter. Trump’s actions facilitated China to enhance its dominance unfettered in the Pacific Rim, and develop close ties with Iran as part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative strategy. President Biden has indicated interest in re-engaging, even perhaps renegotiating the agreement with Tehran, in part due to its intended objective under the Obama administration of rebalancing the Persian Gulf and courting Iran away from potential Chinese and Russian influence. While the latter may be an unattainable goal at present, reduction of tensions in the Middle East through a more balanced, equitable approach to several of the involved parties might yet be feasible. It remains unlikely that the US can resurrect the TPP, given the loss of confidence that now pervades the international community in America’s commitment to agreements, even ones it brokered itself. Ultimately, and in the short term, Biden’s chief means of restoring America’s reputation worldwide may have less to do with a return to some semblance of the pre-Trump dynamics than a full commitment and plan of action to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic.
America After the Election: Lessons Learned or More of the Same?
How much will the election result change America? In some ways, of course; the country is polarised in a manner unseen in the past several generations. Victory is now defined as a win for half of the country, with utter neglect, to accompany contempt, for the other half. The notion of a unifying figure occupying the White House will depend both on that individual’s nature and character to inspire and call for much needed unity as well as the will and readiness of the body politic to acknowledge that the zero-sum-game of recent American politics has weakened its international standing, its domestic exigencies and perhaps irreparably, its fundamental institutions of governance. On January 20, 2021, the incoming President Biden will steward a nation that has deeply embedded structural flaws and vulnerabilities. The past four years has deftly exposed these weaknesses and has exacerbated their corrosive effects. It is doubtful that the President will possess the will or even the awareness of how these challenges will continue to weaken America because the repair, if even possible, will require an honest assessment that both parties must cooperate and collaborate to come up with ameliorative measures. The demographic shifts that are irreversible must be seen not as an existential threat but yet another recalibration of a nation that has endured several course corrections. They will not signal the death knell of the nation, as dreaded by the right wing, but will compel them to accept a dose of reality that America is and has indeed been a complex, diverse project of imperfection and opportunity. For those embarking on becoming part of the new plural majority, they would be wise not to gloat because the establishment will be unyielding to a level of change that will threaten its authority, power and dominance. The real question will be whether either side will subvert or pervert the rule of law and the mechanisms of the American constitutional and legal system, as a means of maintaining or gaining power, to the point that the system and the nation become unrecognisable. At the same time, America will be reengaging on the international stage with a world that has changed significantly and has, in fact, moved on from the threat of a unipolar, hegemonic force. While Biden will attempt to restore US standing across the world, he might have to do so by operating off his back foot with greater frequency, as new players and pretenders to the power game have emerged with notable efficiency and efficacy. Trump may be gone but Biden cannot erase the last four years and its dubious legacy. As a consequence, the victory in 2020 Presidential election may well be remembered as simultaneously delivering history’s greatest Pyrrhic victory as well.
Saeed Khan is Senior Lecturer in Near East & Asian Studies and Global Studies, and Director of Global Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit. He is co-author with Saeid R. Ameli of ‘What’s Going on Here? US Experiences of Islamophobia between Obama and Trump’ which is available to buy as a paperback or digital copy from the IHRC Bookshop & Gallery or other platforms.
[i] In Who Are We: The Challenges to America’s National Identity, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004, Huntington reorients his attention from the foreign policy arena which he had established in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998, to a domestic focus. A common denominator in his work is the framing of cultures along highly impermeable lines of demarcation.