By now, we are all fed up with our lives being dominated by wall-to-wall coverage of Covid-19 and the indefinite nature of plans to contain it. Even those still able to work need a distraction, since holidays, socialising, nights out, and even a quiet drink with a good friend, are all off-limits. We need an entertaining distraction to take our minds off the resulting drabs. Thankfully, our considerate American cousins have supplied it.Normally, US Presidential Elections are of tangential interest to us. They are ritual affairs, involving perfectly coiffed grand-dads in suits, with a lot of red, white & blue razzmatazz thrown in. But not this year. We have an extraordinary vaudeville show that is entertaining half the planet. Say what you like about Donald Trump, but he has transformed the 2020 contest into a riiveting reality-TV show that makes Big Brother or Jerry Springer look bland.
Amidst all the tut-tutting and sucking in of breath from ‘serious’ commentators like the NY Times and the Washington Post about the damage Trump is doing to the US political establishment at home and the image of America abroad, The Donald is actually doing the world—not just 334,000,000 Americans—a big favour.
Because it was time for the boisterous teenager that was America to grow up.
That may seem a disparaging, if not insulting, comment to make about the country that has been ‘the leader of the free world’ and by far the richest economy for half a century. Indeed, it has shed benefits beyond its borders:
- the New Deal that ended the Depression
- the Arsenal of Democracy that out-produced the Fascists
- the Marshall Plan that rebuilt shattered countries
- the United Nations
- the space program
- the electronics second industrial revolution.
No other country—including China and the Soviet Union—had the resources, the can-do chutzpah and diverse talent, drawn from around the world to achieve all that. But the resulting hegemony had to end sometime.
In the aftermath of WW2, no country but the Soviet Union could have challenged America’s economic dominance. And forty years of trying left it in the dust, giving a end-of-Cold-War windfall to spread prosperity much wider than America itself. Because their main idealogical foe had crumbled, American enduring faith in the superiority of their culture over all others was reinforced.
Few Americans alive can recall the Depression. What older citizens remember are halcyon days of the fifties and sixties when gas, white goods, cars and even houses were cheap, land seemed infinite, resources were plentiful and even blue collar work paid handsomely. Thousands of factories, created to re-arm the country, turned out consumer goods and everyone had the money to snap them up.
There was a dark side to all this. The growth of what Eisenhower decried as the “military-industrial complex” and covert operations by the CIA, both justified by the perceived Communist threat, led to America assuming the role of ‘The World’s Policeman”. Despite public protestation of “protecting our ftrrdoms” this led to a series of misjudgements. Those driving these decisions lacked experience of other cultures and justified actions with the simplistic morality of Hollywood war films since John Wayne stormed the Sands of Iwo Jima. This led to major miscalculations like the Vietnam War and minor ones like Bay of Pigs, Nicaragua, Lebanon and Somalia. Given the present state of both countries, the ‘victories’ in Iraq and Afghanistan now seem no such thing.
The resentment this caused across the globe has had little effect in chaning America’s geopolitical stance. The primary reason why the USA has not is that both President and Congress pander to a public disinterested in foreign affairs. Political focus is internal, sometimes even local and parochial. No country is entirely free of this. But small countries like Singapore and Switzerland are so dependent on foreign relations that it looms large in their politics. Even important economies like Germany and Japan rely heavily on exports for their prosperity, and act accordingly. The USA has neverr operated under any such constraint.
So, while all politicians play to a domestic gallery, no country does it on the scale of the USA, nor with such international impact. In 1930, the Smoot-Hawley Act was signed into law by President Hoover, slapping tariffs on thousands of goods entering the country ‘to protect American business’. The result was the Great Depression.
It is not hard to find the spirit of Smoot-Hawley alive and well in most of Trump’s actions, especially those affecting international relations. His success in 2016 and his resilient popularity even today is grounded in shameless pandering to that large section of the American public (mostly, but not entirely, Republican) who have never been abroad and regard the Constitution as holier than the Bible. They don’t just see America as the greatest country in the world, but that benighted foeignes all aspire to be American. To them, there is no reason why halcyon days of the sixties cannot return.
This attitude derives from the country being so huge, with abroad being seen as irrelevant; it is because education focuses on teaching America’s greatness and unconditional loyalty to it. It is not brainwashing They simply have no other countrry with which to compare themselves, as the Dutch must deal with Germans or the Dames with Sweden. Without that, a fertile field of jingoism can be harvested by simplistic sound bites, in which Tump has shown himself to be fluent.
So far, the case being made is negative: that another Trump term will further blind American ambition with platitudes rooted in the past. Such inertia will permit Asia to eat their economic lunch. But why should Americans vote for the ‘B’ team of Biden? The man is old, uninspiring, slurs his words, has no more dynamic policies than Trump does. Is he the best they could find to challenge Trump’s planetary ego?
Because Biden will not be running the show the way Trump does. Reagan is fondly remembered as President. His tenure 1980-1988 was a time of prosperity, of recovery of global profile after Vietnam and of telling Gorbachev where to get off. How was this achieved, when Reagan was just an affable ‘B’ movie actor who was the same age as Biden? Indeed, Reagan wasn’t smart enough to do the job. But he was smart enough to know he wasn’t smart enough—so he gathered a Cabinet around him who were.
Quite apart from it running counter to his nature, Tump wasn’t smart enough to do that. But Biden will. He will staff the wreckage left by Tump among the departments of state with something other than a revolving door of yes-men. And, given the deep resentment among thousands of civil servants trying to be professional amidst chaos, he will be given a fair wind to do so.
Sadly—and perhaps more importantly—Biden may not last his term. POTUS is a tough job. If he wins, Biden would be 81 at the end of his term. Given his somewhat shaky performances to date, he may not last the term. And if he didn’t…
…Kamala Harris would become America’s 47th and first female President, sill in her fifties. She does not carry the ‘Washington insider’ baggage that scuppered Hilary Clinton’s bid. Harris gives every indication that she is smart enough to know not just who to include in her Cabinet, but also how to mend fences abroad that Trump has taken delight in wrecking to achieve political advantage at home.
Biden is Old School and so unlikely to even try to nudge America into a more collegiate role in the world . But Harris would revive the more thoughtful, statesmanlike approach followed by Obama. Harris may be the one to de-fang gun-toting retrogrades among Trump’s followers and chart a less overbearingly macho course for the 21st century.
The big question is: can Biden secure a wide enough margin of victory, such that Trump’s blatant plan to cast doubt on results beforehand, so he can challenge them if they are close, will come to nothing? But, if the result is clear by Wednesday November 4th, America may finally outgrow the teenage tantrums of the last four years.