Come November, the Coronavirus might claim its most significant victim in the United States. It could be the presidency of Donald Trump. If that were to happen, it would be a fatality not attributable to the virus directly, but to the socio-political destabilization that it has created in the American ethos by its raging conflagration. From time to time , President Trump himself has likened the disease to ‘flames’ or ‘embers’: though his claim is that he has managed its spread by putting out where it has assumed threatening proportions, he now faces the prospects of being engulfed in it. Almost every electoral poll in America shows him trailing behind his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, some by unsalvageable double digits. While there might still be three months to go with many a slip between the cup and the lip, each passing day increases the tremor in the Trump Tower, threatening to bring it down, metaphorically of course, in a heap on the polling day , 3rd of November.
Trump came to office over three and half years ago as a rebel. He was not a traditional Republican. He promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington, and rescue the US from the misdeeds of professional politicos. He would put his nation’ first’ in all his policies and make America great again. It appealed to his conservative base of around 35 per cent of the population, the redneck whites without college degrees, who felt losing their grip over a reasonably good life that they believed they were entitled to. They were tired of their foreign entanglements, and supposed exploitation by friends and foes, constantly drummed into their ears by Trump. They were joined by the real gainers of the Trump Administration, the Wall street folks and millionaires, who saw their tax amounts fall and fall. What followed, however, was a dismal, dysfunctional, chaotic governance from Washington flowing from an utterly incompetent leadership. When rational America gave up on Trump, his base persisted. Indeed, he sought to consolidate his support with his overt racism, which found resonance among his backers. Then came COVID 19 and its unbelievable mishandling by the Administration. Deaths soared, over 140 000 Americans at writing, and the economy nosedived. The base was shaken. That was the last straw on the camel’s back.
Recently, Trump gave an interview to Chris Wallace of Fox News that brought out some disturbing features. One appeared to be his state of mind that reflected a sense that his Administration was flailing in the face of the burgeoning adversities. He claimed that the polls that showed Biden as leading were “fake news”, including that of Fox News, the conservative channel that was his favourite. He also accused Biden of wanting to “defund” the police without evidence, and when challenged by the Wallace on the issue, called for papers to prove it. When the document was fetched, Trump was unable to do so. He thereafter threw a bizarre challenge to Wallace to take the same cognitive tests that he had taken, and, as he claimed , had passed, insisting that Wallace would not be able to answer the last five questions on the test.
A second was his innate racism when he mockingly queried that if names of US military installations were to be changed, would the alternative be to name one, Fort Bragg, after Reverend Al Sharpton, a black American civil rights activist, when for much of contemporary America, that might seem entirely appropriate. Trump appeared utterly oblivious to current sentiments prevalent in the country, and in the world.
The third was most ominous of all. For some time now, Trump has been making the point that mail- in voting is going to rig the elections. When he reiterated this point in the interview, Wallace asked him, if he lost the elections would he accept defeat. When Trump appeared to dilly-dally in responding, Wallace pressed hard for a clear response, all that Trump stated was “I have to see”, adding that he could not say “yes” or “no”. This spoke to a rising apprehension that Trump might act against the grain of a fundamental rule in American political tradition of a peaceful transfer of power after the acceptance of results of polls by all sides in a Presidential election. It is worth recalling that at one stage, when Biden was asked about such a scenario of Trump’s non-acceptance of election results, the contender had responded that the military would march him out! If anything close to those circumstances were ever to develop, the US would lose whatever respectability its politics commands in the international arena.
It is true, in America the absence of any kind of European feudalism caused all political streams to embrace doctrines of one kind of liberalism or another. But American liberalism also produced stupendous tragedies. The belief in White America’s “Manifest destiny’ eradicated native American civilization almost in its entirety. The economic edifice of liberal America was largely built on slave labour. Black American had been unable to exercise their electoral privileges till the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Indeed, in the admission of their most senior Military Commander black Americans fought for rights for European allied nations during the World Wars in the 20th century which they themselves did not enjoy at home. Racism was not just systematic, it was systemic. This is what the current protests, the great social upheaval that has radiated to all parts of America is about.
In the seven or so past decades that the US ruled the roost, it did succeed in making a tremendous contribution to global material culture. It was the world’s largest economy. It opened its borders and embraced the world’s brightest minds, which rendered that country the global innovation hub. It helped set up multilateral institutions that oversaw the global economic and political order. It’s hard power in terms of strategic capability was immense. Yet, ‘liberty and freedom’ and undertook to spread it around as a global public ‘good’ was really a myth. Many saw the American leaders during this period as seeking to propagate a new version of ‘White man’s burden’ of the Rudyard Kipling ilk and having little qualms about arrogating to themselves the cognomen of ‘the leader of the free world’. Ironically , it was Trump ,the self-proclaimed champion of American greatness, who both voluntarily and involuntarily , helped break the myth, as he fell back on the ‘real core American values’, not of the higher kind touted at home and abroad, but the ones that his support-base identified with. At the end it might not be sufficient to return him to office for another four years in the elections come November. Even if it does, it would not alter the inexorable march of history. The age of western preeminence is perhaps over for good. A new power is emerging from Asia in the east might well be on its way to that position, China. But that subject merits separate essays.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, National University of Singapore. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President of Cosmos Foundation Bangladesh. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg