Ever since Donald Trump succeeded in elbowing his way past a gaggle of Republican hopefuls on his way to the White House, his many enemies have taken less interest in his policies than in his peculiar personality. As far as they are concerned, the man is simply too uncouth to hold high office. After putting up with him for more than three years, they hope that enough of their compatriots will finally come to the same conclusion and boot him out. Now that Trump has caught Covid-19 that may not prove necessary, but even if the coronavirus does put a premature end to his astonishing political career, the United States will continue to suffer from the potentially mortal ailments of which he is just one symptom.
Unfortunately for the many of us who would prefer a more orderly world, the Democrats want to replace the man they hate with a character who is not much of an improvement. As Tuesday’s “debate” made scandalously clear, Joe Biden has a lot in common with Trump. Apparently convinced that what the US needs right now is a bare-knuckle fighter, he helped turn the long-awaited encounter into a shouting match between two elderly geezers whose behaviour should have been more than enough to disqualify both of them.
Who came out on top? Trump’s supporters said he did, Biden’s disagreed, but by letting the world know that his rival shared many of the characteristics his enemies find least appealing, the sitting president won a victory of sorts. From now on it will be that much harder for the Democrats to pretend that Biden represents a less feral brand of politics. After years of concentrating on Trump’s sheer horribleness, they have contrived to drag themselves down to the same level.
None of this would matter overmuch were the United States a squalid little country in which all disputes are settled by force, but despite the best efforts of its politicians, it remains the most powerful country on the planet whose leaders like to judge the performances of all others by what they assume are their own high standards.
By providing a spectacle as unedifying as the one featuring Trump and Biden, they brought themselves, and what they allegedly stand for, into disrepute. How can people in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America respect the United States after seeing the president and the individual who could succeed him spend 90 minutes exchanging schoolyard insults instead of discussing their differences in a more or less rational manner? If democracy boils down to allowing people to choose between two loud-mouthed braggarts, why prefer it to the more authoritarian arrangements which are on offer?
In comparison with Trump and Biden, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping come across as civilised gentlemen. No wonder the Europeans, Japanese and others who worry about the advances being made by tyrannical powers in their neighbourhood are asking themselves what awaits them in a world no longer dominated by a country with the means and the willingness to defend the rules-based international order which, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, seemed destined to prevail for many years to come.
According to the opinion polls, Biden is the current frontrunner, but nobody has forgotten that four years ago they told us that Hillary Clinton would win by a country mile. Back then, the Democrats were so confident of victory that many took it for granted that Trump had somehow managed to steal the election with the help of Putin. This time round, Trump alleges the Democrats are plotting to do much the same by stuffing ballot boxes with fake postal votes. By warning that this could happen, he ensures that, should he lose, his “base” will be every bit as keen as was Hillary’s to cast doubts on the electoral process and, like hers with the long and fruitless inquiry into Russian interference, will look for ways to remove the “usurper” from office.
Trump and the people surrounding him say Biden – a professional politician with an uninspiring record who presents himself as a middle-of-the road fellow – is beholden to left-wing extremists who have taken over the Democrat Party and for months have been looting and burning cities throughout the country. Biden and his backers respond to this by calling Trump a fascist in league with white supremacists who is determined to trample down the ethnic minorities they say he loathes. While in both camps there are some who fit such stereotypes, they are surely not dominant; either way, the reluctance of the contenders to disassociate themselves from them is disturbing. No matter who wins the electoral battle in November, people from the wilder fringes of their respective movements are certain to do their utmost to make the most of what they will see as an invitation to use violence against their own particular foes.
Progressives warn that if Trump or, presumably, a last-minute stand-in is re-elected, something akin to “civil war” could break out. Their opponents suspect that, should Biden prevail, the consequences would be equally unpleasant. Until quite recently such talk seemed exaggerated, but the rhetoric has reached such a feverish pitch that now there must be many people out there who are convinced that their own lives are at risk and they must prepare themselves to go to virtually any lengths to protect themselves and their families against whatever is bearing down upon them.
The pandemic, accompanied as it has been by the sudden irruption of the far from peaceful “Black Lives Matter” protests has certainly not helped calm things down. Gun sales have reportedly gone through the roof in a country in which many citizens had more than enough of them. In some districts, the sallies by black militants or the “Antifa” brigades Trump wanted Biden to disown, which he declined to do, have reportedly been repelled by “Latino” gangs defending what they regarded as their own turf and left-leaning activists have been regularly told that it would be unwise for them to try their luck in suburban or rural areas, especially the ones frequented by right-wing militia groups.
If, as seems to be the case, the “debate” – which habitually sober BBC commentators compared to “mud-wrestling” – between Trump and Biden faithfully reflected the mood of many in the US today, the world’s most powerful country is undergoing a mental breakdown. Just what this means for the months and years ahead is anybody’s guess, but it is sure to have alarming repercussions not only for North Americans but for everybody else. When the pandemic finally abates, whether thanks to vaccines or, as is more likely, to herd immunity, the world will have need of a “superpower” committed to shoring up order; the way things are going, for the foreseeable future the US will be incapable of playing that thankless but essential role.