The countdown to the election of our lifetime has begun4 min read . Updated: 02 Sep 2020, 09:47 PM IST
A highly divisive campaign in the US presages a polling exercise that could haunt us for decades to come
Many of us had not heard of Kenosha, Wisconsin, until a fortnight ago, but historians may come to regard the police shooting of an African-American there in August and all that followed as a pivotal moment for democracy. The protests and riots provoked by the injustice suffered by Jacob Blake, who is paralysed as a result, and the subsequent shooting of protesters by a 17-year-old, a member of a Caucasian armed militia group that resulted in two deaths, will be a recurrent playback to this election. On 1 September, US President Donald Trump visited the town of 100,000, despite the mayor and the governor’s requests not to, and chose not to meet the Blake family. He has argued the 17-year-old, Kyle Rittenhouse, had acted in self-defence. Just hours earlier, Trump likened police involved in shootings to golfers “choking" on a putt.
Kenosha could frame the electoral narrative. Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania are three states Trump won narrowly in 2016, which proved critical to winning the crucial electoral college, even though he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. If he is able to use Kenosha to galvanize hundreds of thousands of his support base of working class Caucasians in these three states who did not vote in 2016 to vote this time, he could win the three again.
This is the election of our lifetimes, an emblem for the success or failure of majoritarian politics. Ever since George W. Bush’s two-term presidency from 2001, US democracy has been a debased currency. The lies that led to the globally destabilizing Iraq War and the political polarization that followed cast a long shadow, and undermined the presidency of Barack Obama. But, Trump’s funnelling of patently untrue stories through partisan TV networks and social media such as Facebook has served as a model for demagogues everywhere. Late last month, Facebook made a rare admission of error for not having taken down posts by the armed militia of which Rittenhouse was a member.This week, Trump sounded as if he were hallucinating as he spoke of “dark forces" supporting his opponent Joe Biden. Without any proof, he claimed men in black uniforms were headed to Washington DC.
Much of India’s commentariat seems to view this election as if it were just another political contest, rather than a battle between an amoral politician and a decent, thoughtful one. The other theme—of India supposedly having better relations with Republicans in the White House—is also wrong-headed. As Shyam Saran, a former foreign secretary, told me, it is “difficult to generalize… the new element is India’s domestic politics coming under greater scrutiny in the US Congress." Trump’s relationship with India is transactional, from seeking a lifting of a hydroxychloroquine export ban to labelling it the “king of tariffs" .
If Trump wins re-election, it could amount to a death knell for democracy and rational politics. The personality cult around him already has echoes in India. Trump’s inflammatory comments to stoke his majoritarian base do not seem unfamiliar after speeches by a few Bharatiya Janata Party leaders during Delhi’s assembly elections this year or Gujarat’s in 2017. Nor would the capture of the speaker’s podium of last month’s Republican convention by members of Trump’s family, including his son’s girlfriend who made a loud and bizarre speech, seem altogether strange to anyone watching the state of affairs in India’s Congress party.
The deep inequality in incomes and hopelessness experienced by working class people in the US condemned to temporary work and poor paying service jobs because of the collateral damage of automation and globalization is also a global phenomenon. In Deaths of Despair, published this year, the economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case explained how deaths among Caucasians in the US between the ages of 45 and 54 had risen from 30 per 100,000 in 1990 to 92 per 100,000 in 2017: “They are drinking themselves to death or poisoning themselves with drugs", or committing suicide. The states with the highest increases in Caucasian mortality rates are also those that support Trump. India’s working class may depend on temporary jobs and be victims of inadequate education, but at least have family and community fraternities. Still, India needs to create upwards of 90 million new non-farm jobs by 2030 or face the same widespread spiral of negativity. Instead, India seems in the grip of a “premature" hollowing out of its factories, not unlike that seen in America over the past few decades.
Kenosha, which was once a base for the automotive industry, is thus a morality play for us all. In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that elected autocrats allow people to “continue to believe they are living in a democracy" while packing courts and bullying newspapers. They contrast this with General Pinochet’s coup in Chile in the 1970s: “We tend to think of democracies dying at the hands of men with guns." By encouraging gun-toting members of militias who come out in support of him in the South and the Midwest, and repeatedly casting doubt about whether the election will be fair, Trump has heightened the alarming possibility that, come November, the US will see more election-related violence than it has in living memory. The institutions weakened by Trump could be restored by a Biden victory, but the burden of such extreme polarization and his capture of the Republican Party will haunt the US for decades.
Rahul Jacob is a Mint columnist and a former Financial Times foreign correspondent.