A foreign correspondent’s journal
James Astill | 25 Dec, 2020
US President Donald Trump on the White House lawns, Washington DC, December 12 (Photo: Getty Images)
In any circumstances, chronicling American politics in 2020 was going to be a wild ride. Ever since his shock election in 2016, Donald Trump’s presidency had been building up to his re-election fight. He filed his candidacy papers for the 2024 election before he was even sworn in as president. He began campaigning for it—with his trademark thunderous, thrumming rallies—before he had even moved into the White House. Having no serious interest in governing, over the course of the previous three years of his presidency, Trump’s every tweet and speech during the first three years of his presidency was aimed at stirring his fan base to boiling point (and getting its members to fill his campaign coffers in the process).
No modern American politician has constructed such a fierce personality cult as he has. The Republican Party has become a fervid Trump cult, bewildering for longtime observers of American politics to see. But of course, because the do-nothing president has mainly instilled this love in his followers by badmouthing his opponents, he stirred up Democrats in equal measure. His inauguration in 2016 may be best remembered for the millions of people who turned out to protest his misogyny—in America’s biggest ever street protests at that time—the following day.
And Democrats’ determination to “cough up the orange fur ball” that Trump represented to the body politic, in the memorable phrase of a Republican commentator, had only grown during the horror show of his presidency. I have covered dramatic and violent elections in many places, from Congo to West Bengal. But by any measure, America’s two political tribes headed into 2020 on a hard collision course.
And yet, quite how hard it would prove to be could not have been imagined. We are all familiar with the sight of a government in meltdown: with the spiralling downward momentum, fed by indiscipline and self-doubt, that turns every slip-up into a raging scandal and ensures that just about everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. Well that was not just the Trump administration, but America in 2020.
Politically, the country has rarely been more turbulent. A year that started with only the third impeachment of a sitting president in 231 years would end with a losing president—for the first time—refusing to accept electoral defeat and seeking to undermine confidence in the very foundations of American democracy. As I write, over a month after the election and in the week that the electoral college met to rubber-stamp Joe Biden’s victory, Trump was still claiming victory.
Some of his more deranged supporters, such as his former national security advisor Mike Flynn, a once revered army general, are urging him to declare martial law. Most Republican lawmakers have either urged Trump to fight on or refused to congratulate Biden on his unambiguous win. A legal attempt to overthrow the election results in the decisive battleground states—including Georgia and Pennsylvania—was launched by the Republican attorney-general of Texas and co-signed by 19 other Republican state attorneys-general and 127 Republican members of the House of Representatives. Is the party of Lincoln still committed to democracy? It is at least worth asking.
And then there was the meta-disaster: Covid-19.
It needn’t have played into America’s political war—except by giving Trump an opportunity to shine, as American leaders generally do when a threat comes from abroad. George W Bush’s approval ratings hit 85 per cent as he rallied the country after the 9/11 attacks. That memory has ever since given rise to a popular Washington DC parlour game: ‘What would it take to bridge America’s partisan divide? Would a war do it?’ people ask. ‘Would another terrorist extravaganza do?’
Few would have doubted that the death of 300,000 Americans—more than America’s deaths in combat during World War II—to a deadly disease would have been sufficient to rally Republicans and Democrats together? But, far from it.
Trump’s response to the disease was largely to blame for that. The president has long been known for his tenuous grip on reality—for his lies and conspiracy theories and insistence on spinning every loss as a big, big win. He also has a history of disputing medical science; as in his sometime support for the ‘anti-vaxxer’ conspiracy theory that blames autism on childhood vaccines. He was never going to rise to the challenge that Covid-19 represented.
It took him weeks to acknowledge the seriousness of the virus in public. Fearing it would spook the stock market, he claimed to have it locked down. He then claimed it was a Democratic “hoax”. As it then proceeded to rip through New York, bringing the city’s ill-prepared healthcare system to its knees, the president briefly experimented with a more serious tone. But within a couple of weeks, he was back to playing politics with the disease—lambasting Democratic governors in the most stricken states; and offering his own deranged ideas on how to deal with it.
He proposed injecting Covid patients with disinfectant, mocked his public health experts and suggested mask-wearing was a waste of time. This had a predictably dreadful result. Surveys have consistently shown that Republican voters are much less likely than Democrats to wear face masks and maintain social distancing; many doubt that Covid-19 is a deadly virus. Had Trump behaved otherwise, this would surely not have happened, and thousands more Americans would then be alive today.
Beyond the dizzying effect the virus has had on American politics, it also turned upside down my own means of covering it. Offices in Washington DC, including my own, abruptly emptied in early March, and mostly remain empty still. Joe Biden’s campaign—to stress its scrupulous adherence to scientific advice—largely consigned its elderly candidate to the safety of his basement, at home in Delaware. It also disavowed in-person campaigning. The contrast between the intensity of the political battle and its remoteness—playing out on cable TV, focus groups and polls numbers, far from America’s suburbs and streets—was strange and disorientating.
For the most part, I therefore covered America throughout this momentous year from my home in a leafy Maryland suburb. At least I tried to do so when not struggling to log my three children into their Zoom classes. Most American public schools, including those my three sons attend, have been closed since the virus hit. My wife, also a journalist, has been in the same predicament. We are of course lucky to have been able to make this adjustment to our working lives as easily as we did—unlike the millions of Americans with less portable jobs. Such as the healthcare workers for whom American suburbanites gathered through the summer on appointed evenings to clap and cheer.
Or like the postal workers labouring long hours due to a combination of Trump administration cuts and the added burden of delivering millions of postal ballots. Or, for that matter, like the many construction workers occupied on a building site next door to our house. Working in close proximity, usually unmasked, they ran an obvious daily risk of infection. The site foreman once assured me no man had come down with the virus. I wondered if that were true.
But at least the builders still had jobs. As the economy was locked down in March, millions of workers were sent home. America’s unemployment rate promptly rose by 15 per cent: the highest rise recorded since the Great Depression. And yet, here was something America’s politicians got uncharacteristically right. The country’s recovery from the 2008 recession was stymied by the resistance of Republican opposition to a big fiscal stimulus. This time round, with the Democrats providing more constructive opposition, Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, was able to negotiate a series of massive and timely stimulus bills, pumping three trillion dollars into the economy just as the wheels were coming off it. It is testament to the enormity of the economic crisis that the effect of this bailout was fairly shortlived. By June, as its supplementary unemployment benefits began to wear out, the poverty rate began to climb. It has since risen by a quarter—by far the fastest increase in a quarter of a century.
Poverty and the virus were mutually reinforcing—especially among African-Americans. Just as the virus lifted a lens to America’s political dysfunctionality, so it magnified their historic grievances. The virus plays upon weakness, not only old age, but hypertension, obesity, diabetes. These are ailments that Black Americans, inheritors of generations of poverty, ill health and poor healthcare provision, suffer from disproportionately.
In Washington DC, a city starkly divided between its largely poor and Black eastern districts and fast encroaching white suburbs, African-Americans are more than six times as likely to die of a Covid-19 infection as whites. This tragedy was the context for the explosion of racial justice protests that America witnessed in May and June.
As Trump is now demonstrating, with his crazy election revisionism, he has emerged as American democracy’s single biggest political problem. It is not hard to imagine the damage another four years of him would have done to America’s alliances and domestic cohesion
The spark was the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis. The sometime DJ had been accused of using a counterfeit banknote when apprehended by the police in Minneapolis. Well-built but mentally fragile, he panicked as they tried to manhandle him into a squad car. Whimpering, he slid into the gutter, where three police officers pinned him down. One forced a knee into the unresisting African-American’s neck for eight minutes, forty-six seconds—killing him. Within a few days, Minneapolis was seeing nightly battles between protestors and police, and racial justice demonstrations were breaking out across the country.
A handful were also violent; in Washington DC, a few shops were burned, for example. Portland, Oregon, a city with a history of violence between rival white nationalist and radical left-wing thugs, saw more sustained vandalism. But the vast majority of the protests were peaceful; including one, outside the White House, that riot police attacked with tear gas and clubs in order to clear a space for Trump to parade outside a nearby church with a Bible.
I wandered among those still-dazed, bruised and sometimes sobbing protestors shortly afterwards. At least half were white—a distinctive feature of these protests, which made them quite unlike, for example, the race riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr in 1968. By the end of the summer, almost 30 million people were estimated to have marched for Floyd and for the activist group, which is also a slogan, most associated with his death: Black Lives Matter. These were by some measure the biggest protests in American history; in 2020, how could it have been otherwise?
And meanwhile much bigger fires were burning out west. Wildfires, started by lightning strikes or arson have been a growing calamity there this century. A prolonged drought, related to climate change, has combined with years of overzealous wildfire suppression, to leave the vast pine forests of Alaska, California, Montana, Oregon and Washington state a tangled mass of dead trees and brittle brush. Fanned by dry, gusty winds, many of this year’s fires exploded and combined, forming a series of record-breaking infernos, known as megafires. Over 8.2 million acres were consumed by the blazes, which tens of thousands of firefighters battled to try to contain. While America’s politicians argue over basic climate change (Trump doesn’t believe in it), the great American outdoors is already being transformed by it.
America was viral, divided and inflamed—both literally and politically. In the late summer, after a blissful holiday break in the backwoods of Maine, I returned to the campaign trail. Preferring not to fly (it was the chances of infection in the scrimmage for the plane that I feared, not the well air-conditioned planes), I drove from my Maryland base to several battleground states.
I first returned to the same unionised construction sites in Youngstown, Ohio, that I had toured in 2016. Their mainly white and formerly Democrat-voting workers had liked the look of Trump back then. Now they revered him. And never mind that most of the claims they made for his administration—that Trump had built his promised border wall, that he had sorted out the North Koreans, for example—were untrue. The conservative channels they watched were 24-hour Trump propaganda now. But even if they could have seen through its lies, they would probably have backed the president anyway. They considered the Democrats—the party of cosmopolitanism and diversity—threatening, condescending and remote. They saw in Trump, with his brash style and pounding of women, foreigners, immigrants, one of their own, a champion and protector. The Democrats were hoping that Biden, himself a son of white working-class stock, in hardscrabble Pennsylvania, would wean some of these voters back to their party. I saw little to suggest that was a realistic prospect.
Long road trips to Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina revealed much the same story. Most of the voters I encountered, on the doorstep with Republican canvassers, or in the long queues for early voting that formed a month before election-day, seemed highly wrought and deeply dug in. Of the hundreds I spoke with, hardly any were persuadable by, or even remotely civil about, the other side. “Trump campaign? You keep walking!” Republican canvassers were directed by Democratic voters. Finding some of their own voters, they would then enjoy a good gossip on the doorstep about Biden being “basically a communist”. The crises of the previous months seemed hardly to have influenced any voter. Democrats considered Trump incompetent and unconscionable—and his handling of the pandemic indicative of that. Republicans said he was patriotic, tough and much maligned—and that the flak he was getting over the pandemic encapsulated that.
The election results mostly reflected what I had seen and heard on the trail. The huge lead Biden had had in the pre-election polling was largely based on a perceived swing of working-class whites from Trump to him. In reality, there was no such movement. Mustering a record-breaking turnout in aggregate, both candidates largely maxed out their most reliable supporters: white working-class whites for Trump; non-whites and college-educated whites for Biden. There were a couple of important exceptions; Trump did well enough with Cuban Americans to ensure he won Florida, for example. But they were rare enough to prove the rule. Most Americans voted on the basis of their cultural identity, not the dramas and disasters of the previous nine months.
That does not bode well for America’s prospects of fixing the vulnerabilities that 2020 laid bare. If voters are not responsive to political failures, politicians have little incentive to correct them. But before pausing on that gloomy thought, consider the enormous potential America still has—as 2020 also underlined.
The federal government’s response to Covid-19 was mostly terrible. Yet, America’s decentralised system mitigated a lot of the damage. State governors were largely responsible for managing healthcare systems and issuing lockdown rules and, with some glaring exceptions, most did so pretty well. Excellent American pharma companies—including Pfizer, the US multinational that developed the vaccine that is now being administered to healthcare workers—did even better. (And how I look forward to getting my family and myself inoculated!)
Even Congress, despite its customary torpor, rose to one of its biggest 2020 challenges. The size and timeliness of the first stimulus bills explains why America’s economy is now recovering much faster than those of European countries with comparable infection and death rates.
Deeply depressing though America’s persistent racism is, the size and multi-racial character of this year’s racial demonstration protests were also somehow uplifting. It speaks to a society that is becoming inexorably more liberal, diverse and colour-blind—no matter what the reactionaries of the Trump right might wish to say about those qualities. It will be hard to reform the country’s highly fragmented police forces as the protestors demanded. Yet, by their mere presence, they are remaking the country to be less tolerant of the systemic racism generations of Black Americans have faced.
It is even harder to be upbeat about the climate crisis America has sleepwalked into. Yet, the size and dynamism of its economy puts it in a far stronger position to adapt to global warming than any other large country. And in Biden it will shortly have a president who not only understands climate change, but also one who has pledged to try to slow and manage its negative effects far more aggressively than any predecessor. Nothing in the incoming Democratic administration’s in-tray will be more important.
The big question, perhaps unsurprisingly, is whether America’s failing political system, gridlocked by inter-partisan loathing, will permit it to make much legislative progress. Democrats’ (and some Republicans’) great hope before the election was that it would deal a sufficiently thumping defeat to Trump to make his party retreat from the partisan fray; or at least pick its battles more selectively. But the electorate’s verdict was too close for that to be the case. Sober Republicans look on the fact that their party retained control of the Senate (at least until two run-off races are held in Georgia on January 5th) and that it picked up seats in the House of Representatives as a success. Other Republicans actually believe Trump’s claim to have actually won the election. That is more than an acceptance of—it is a positive endorsement—his mud-wrestling approach to politics and ‘America First’ agenda.
And even if the prospect of a serious Republican repudiation of that Trumpist agenda seemed more likely than I believe it is, there is the man himself to consider. He is likely to remain the de facto leader of his party even after his ejection from the White House. He is also said to be planning to run again in 2024; Senate Republicans certainly expect him to. Tweeting in the wings, while fulminating on Fox News, Trump might be expected to rail against Republicans making any proposed legislative compromise with the Democrats—even on such relatively anodyne matters as infrastructure investment.
He has already amply displayed his willingness to put political tactics before the national interest. Currently, over 3,000 Americans are dying every day of Covid-19; more than died when the Twin Towers came down on 9/11. Yet, Trump, maddened by his electoral defeat, has not stooped to make any serious comment on the pandemic in weeks. If Republican lawmakers will not take a stand against the soon-to-be-former president, they will not be able to work with the Democrats on any important new legislation. In which case, there will not be any.
The irony is that voters’ dissatisfaction with partisan gridlock in Washington helped create the conditions for Trump’s rise—railing against the elites—in the first place.
After such a year as this has been, it is not hard to be downbeat about America’s chances of fixing its dysfunctional politics. It may be too easy, however. As Trump is now demonstrating, with his crazy election revisionism, he has emerged as American democracy’s single biggest political problem. It is correspondingly not hard to imagine the damage another four years of him would have done to America’s alliances and domestic cohesion. But just enough voters—around 4,000 in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin, to be precise—were against that prospect. So Trump will soon be gone, at least for a while. And America’s prospects will instantly look far rosier as a result.