America survives the Trump years


In the end, the result didn’t come as quickly or definitively as many wanted, and as the nation deserved. President Donald Trump and his remaining sycophants are still clinging to fading fantasies about fake ballots and systemic fraud. And the transition of power, if it happens, may be messy, brutish and short.

But make no mistake—America’s interminable, contentious election concluded with the best possible outcome; president-elect Joe Biden will take office in January, and Trump, the worst, most unqualified and inept president in America’s 244-year history, will be banished to the history books.

I’m relieved at the outcome. But not surprised.

First, some things about the 2020 election were surprising, even shocking. Like the fact that more than 72 million Americans saw Trump’s immorality, his racism, his lies and his unfitness for office play out over years and still decided they wanted to see him in office for another four years. And like the fact that Trump’s Republican Party enablers were not trounced at the polls for their willingness to slavishly stroke Trump’s ego and abide his worst instincts.

And I am pleasantly surprised that despite the warnings that turnout might be tamped down by the deadly coronavirus pandemic, a chaotic US mail system, and concerted efforts at voter suppression by Republican officials, a record number of Americans were undeterred, and the election proceeded relatively smoothly.

But the outcome was not surprising because I never lost faith in America and its remarkable capacity for self-correction. At some of its darkest, most dire periods—the points at which critics at home and competitors abroad start whining about the declining superpower and writing the obituary for the American dream—the country, and its citizens, have managed to confound the cynics time and again.

The 1960s were as turbulent and divisive for the US as the present era, with protests, civil rights marches, urban riots and political assassinations. But out of the turmoil, the country moved closer to its goal of a more perfect union, with laws guaranteeing equal rights for blacks, women and eventually the LGBTQI community.

After the dark days of the RIchard Nixon era, with ‘enemies lists’, illegal wiretaps and a criminal conspiracy run out of the White House, Americans rebounded and elected Jimmy Carter, an honest, decent man who is one of America’s most underappreciated presidents—and the model of an ex-president out of office.

In the early 1990s, there was talk about the supposed American decline and retreat from the world, as productivity, wage and global competitiveness were all in freefall. Then came the internet, the rise of powerful new global technology companies, and an American economic resurgence.

America’s global image took a battering during the eight-year presidency of George W. Bush, with the internationally unpopular invasion of Iraq, the revelations of torture at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib jail and the massive electronic eavesdropping campaign revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. There was the immorality of America’s ‘secret prisons’ around the world, and Guantanamo where terrorism suspects were denied basic rights, eroding the image of the US as a country committed to the rule of law.

America’s obituary was written during those dark years after the 2008 financial crisis rippled around the globe, revealing a flawed economy built on a mountain of outstanding debt. Many were bemoaning the loss of American leadership and heralding the end of the American century and the rise of China as the newest superpower at the centre of an altered global order.

But Americans responded by electing Barack Obama, the first black president, with an uplifting message of hope and change, who became a global icon. Obama’s election, and his organisational campaign strategy based on thousands of volunteers, inspired an entirely new generation of political emulators, notably France’s President Emmanuel Macron.

Under Obama, America’s global image was restored, and the election of a black man to the nation’s highest office once again underscored America’s promise as the land where anything is possible.

After four years of Trump’s erratic, disruptive, often dangerous presidency, the cynics and critics around the world (and some at home) have been crowing about America’s decline.

Trump’s ‘America first’ policy, his disdain for alliances and his hectoring of long-time US partners have many convinced that the country can no longer be counted on as the Western world’s global leader. Trump’s affinity for dictators and his own authoritarian instincts have raised concerns that America’s democratic institutions are, at best, fragile. America’s hapless response to the coronavirus pandemic has made the US the object of bewilderment, even pity.

And America’s enemies have used the chaos, the pandemic response and apparent political dysfunction to decry democracy and tout their own authoritarian systems as the superior model.

But Biden’s election—still to be officially certified, and denied by a few bitter-enders—once again shows that America is in for a course correction. When Biden is inaugurated on 20 January, it will show the world that the Trump years were an aberration, not an indication of decline.

Biden put it best in his upbeat victory speech the Saturday after the election. ‘It’s always a bad bet to bet against America’, he said.

It was a line that sounded familiar to me. I recalled I first heard it when Biden travelled in China in August 2011, as Obama’s vice-president, on a visit to get to know the incoming Chinese leader, vice-president Xi Jinping.

That was during another of those times when cynics were speaking of America’s decline. US politics looked dysfunctional with the Republican-led Congress and Obama unable to agree on a budget deal. World financial markets were in turmoil. Standard & Poor’s, the rating agency, had just downgraded America’s credit rating. America’s debt was causing concern over the safety of US Treasury securities, with China owning US$1.17 trillion worth of American debt.

But Biden’s message was calm, soothing. ‘I have absolute, unequivocal confidence in the strength and vitality and the growth of the American economy’, Biden said during a roundtable meeting with Xi. ‘No one’s ever made money betting against America.’

It was a sentiment he echoed later in the southwestern city of Chengdu, when answering questions from a university audience at Sichuan University. Despite the apparent political dysfunction and market turmoil, Biden told the audience, the United States remained ‘the single best bet in the world in terms of where to invest’.

Biden’s words and message haven’t changed in all those years. And it’s one I wholeheartedly agree with—it’s a safe bet to bet on America.

It may sound hokey or old fashioned, one of those ‘Bidenisms’ like ‘malarkey’ and ‘here’s the deal’. But coming after four years of Trumpian chaos, it sure sounds reassuring. And lordy, lordy, we need that right now.

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