A. J. Black reflects on the recent victory of Joe Biden, America in politics and culture, and where we go from here…
One thing that became clear in the run up to the 2020 Presidential election in the United States was that this particular battle was not just about America. It was about the entire world.
You will often hear from the more extremist or conservative Americans, upon any point of criticism regarding their politics, that if you’re not from America, you have no business commenting on the politics of the country. I’m not sure that’s ever been true. If Americans don’t comment on British or French or German elections, it’s more likely they simply aren’t paying any attention to European matters. It doesn’t work that way for us, in the U.K. at least, and in the matter of Joe Biden vs Donald Trump, it hasn’t been the case for the majority of a planet who otherwise, in any other electoral race, might only have paid a modicum of attention.
This one? We’ve all been watching.
The reason is obvious. Donald Trump has presided over perhaps the most tumultuous period of American history, and the most fractured and polarising government, in decades, if not since the 19th century. Was it this bad at the end of a protest-filled 1960s, having suffered presidential assassinations, dubious wars, and the murder of civil rights totems? Those alive at the time are the best people to attest to that. In my lifetime, the last almost forty years, America has never been so inflamed, outraged, horrified and terrified, not even in the wake of 9/11. That was my generation’s Kennedy assassination – the seismic psychological and political shock to global society, but we’ve never seen anything like Trump in the White House.
Now he’s going. For all his protestations, he will be gone. And I’m doing a great deal of thinking, about the recent past and the coming future…
I’m fascinated by American culture and politics. You’ve probably noticed that if you’ve read my writing on a regular basis. There is something eternally intriguing about a culture who promote themselves as the shining beacon of democracy yet are driven by innate hypocrisy down to their bootstraps.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Britain is no better. I sit on no high horse.
We’re saddled with an equally useless government proving themselves to be as divisive and ineffective as the Trump administration, and we’re embroiled in our own culture wars as our old Etonian overlords refuse to acknowledge our inherent white privilege and colonial past, and face our own existential battles to come, but what America has experienced in this last half decade has been truly remarkable. Trump used to be a smug, egotistical blowhard best known for The Apprentice, WWE and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, outside of his exorbitant business ventures, multiple wives and tabloid gossip, but who imagined he would be the centre of a constitutional whirlwind as the mouthpiece and totem of violent, loathsome white supremacy? The idea of him as President would have been as comical as Demolition Man’s President Schwarzenegger, which with hindsight now seems positively sane.
Watching this from beyond America has been sobering, because our two nations are so inextricably linked. The so-called Special Relationship suggests that Britain and America, after defeating fascism in WW2, looked beyond our initial late 18th century differences as America was born and united in progressive harmony. Ever since the war, Britain has been swamped by American culture – movies, TV, music, language, you name it. Generations of children have been influenced more by East Coast rappers or Marvel superheroes than they’ve ever been by British pop stars or Working Title dramas & comedies. Our lack of language barrier has aided this symbiosis; we are able to share common reference points far easier than our non-English speaking continental neighbours, and anyone beyond that who isn’t American just feels alien, culturally, to most British people.
The irony, of course, is that America might be far more unknowable as a culture than any French or German or Spanish confederate. Jon Sopel argues in his appropriately titled book, If Only They Didn’t Speak English, that American norms, politics and traditions are uniquely different from our own, and only the common English tongue keeps us blind to that. He has a point. Just stop and think about many American traditions and ideas if you’re British and think about how odd they seem – Thanksgiving, valedictorians, how they have to boil tea & coffee on the hob (that blew my mind). The differences are vast, especially for the traditions we haven’t embraced, because some we have. The prom, for example, is now a British secondary school staple, even if it is far more Poundland bargain basement here with much less pomp and ceremony. Whenever we try and wedge an American tradition into British culture, it doesn’t quite work.
Why is this? And why, equally, is the reverse never the case?
Think about it.
How often do you see a British cultural tradition become part of the American fabric? Have they all started drinking tea by the gallon? Do they eat fish & chips? They might love our actors, but do they replicate our films? They do often remake our TV but it’s rarely the same, or as effective. Americans often still view British customs, traditions and norms as comical and quaint, whereas we don’t think the same in response. We might sometimes consider Americans brash and over the top, even vulgar, but we absorb masses of their culture with abandon. Their norms have, in part, become ours.
I point this out because, in the last five years, I have seriously questioned whether our strong cultural and political ties to America are a good thing, especially as thanks to Brexit we have alienated our own European allies as a result. The majority of British people have watched in horror at how Trump’s racist, sexist, xenophobic, transphobic, corrupt, anti-climate, anti-abortion, anti-protest rhetoric has threatened to compromise not just his own nation, but the entire world around him. Trying to work in a school and remain balanced & measured around children, all of them looking at men like Trump (and he’s not the only outrageous huckster commanding governments these days) and asking why he is where he is, has been challenging. Trying to find a way to explain why someone so loathsome, so divisive, so unrepentantly charmless and vile in almost every context, has reached an office people are supposed to look up to and respect, is difficult. There is no answer anyone can honestly give that doesn’t boil down to: he’s rich.
The question that has troubled me, and still troubles me even in the wake of Biden’s victory, is this: what does Trump’s loss really mean for America?
He won more votes this time than in 2016. This is a President who is so corrupt and hateful, he makes Tony Soprano look like a sensible candidate for office. This is a President who colluded with Russians to win power. Who locked up children in cages and separated families. Who banned Muslims. Who suggested people inject bleach to cure coronavirus. Who pardoned crooks like Roger Stone. Who bragged about sexual assault. Who mocked the disabled. Who was impeached. The list even goes on beyond that. Ultimately, on his watch, around 300,000 Americans are dead thanks to Covid-19 and he doesn’t care. And yet still seventy million people voted for him. What does that say about America as a people?
Take Trump out of the equation for a second. What kind of people willingly vote for such a cruel, heartless, narcissistic sociopath unless they have some of those traits themselves, or have been so brainwashed by conservative media and conspiracy theory they truly believe Trump is the better choice?
I don’t understand and, you know what, right now, I’m not sure I even want to understand.
I can only assume many of those seventy million people are scared, so consumed by the hysterical fear whipped up by media corporations and social media about the laughable idea that Joe Biden is a demonic socialist who will take away everyone’s freedom, that they were prepared to bring on four more years of chaotic, incompetent governance, violence and hate. What sort of people are ok with that? It’s terrifying to watch, though I am at least heartened to see over seventy-five million people as horrified as I am; Americans who not just voted for Biden but against Trump and what he stands for. The demographics of where these pockets of people live relative to both candidates is unsurprising. American people, at least half of them, are not a lost cause. Many have felt the same horror, indeed to a larger degree given they’ve been living it. Yet I can’t shake the fact so so many people truly believed Trump was deserving of the most powerful office in the world. It’s an indictment on the American soul, and in many ways the country lost, even as Biden won.
There will be a positive effect on the world in the short term, including the U.K.. A Presidency built not on lies and corruption, and rather rule-bound, constitutional governance, will serve as a rebuke to genuine populist demagogues such as the leaders of Turkey, Brazil, Hungary or Poland, and nakedly self-serving incompetents like Boris Johnson. We will see a renewed focus on climate change, arguably a threat that goes way beyond anything else in the headlights, and a dial back of apologising to white supremacists and radical groups who would seek to choke democracy. My fear is that it will be temporary, and Trump put an ugly face on deep, global (not just American) resentments that have been there for a very long time. Globalisation, inequality and growing multiculturalism challenging white Christian orthodoxy are not projects that will disappear thanks to one hopeful election. The world remains filled with rage, which is far easier to stoke in our technological, connected age.
What personally I hope is that we learn a valuable lesson here, in that America is not the beacon of progressive, democratic governance it appeared to be. It is as vulnerable to authoritarianism, even possible fascism, as any other nation. I hope to see Britain detach from the notion that Americans are our spiritual cousins, because much the same way as I deplore what many Brexiteers in my own country believe in, I want nothing to do with the people who actively voted for such a hateful figure as Trump. They are arbiters of doom who will drag us, skipping and jumping, back to a Stone Age of repression and suffering for anyone who does not fit their worldview. There is no reasoning. There is no appeasing. There is no making many of these people understand. For all the promises of healing, that is ever more apparent.
It’s time to stop pretending we all want the same things, albeit via different paths, and accept some of us want truth, and the rest want fiction. And truth has to prevail.