The morning after
Vinay Lal | 06 Nov, 2020
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
TWENTY-FOUR HOURS after the polls closed in the US, it is quite uncertain whether President Donald Trump will retain the White House or, as Democratic nominee Joe Biden put it, will have to pack his bags. Trump is, as was the case in 2016, certainly going to lose the popular vote. There will be the all too familiar demands for the abolition of the Electoral College, an obsolete institution that was designed when the US constitution was framed to support slaveholding states and has since benefited the sparsely populated and heavily Republican rural states, but once the noise has diminished the status quo will persist. Even supposing that the mail-in ballots that remain uncounted in some swing states should swing the election in favour of Biden, the fact remains that nearly half of the country would have voted for Trump—and that too in the midst of the worst public health crisis in the US (and indeed the world) in the last century. The coronavirus pandemic has left 235,000 Americans dead thus far and nearly 1,000 more Americans are dying each day. This death toll exceeds the death count in India by 100,000 and dwarfs the fatality rate of most countries. The US is about to reach the milestone of 10 million people who have tested positive, and ‘experts’—though, given the course of the pandemic, the failure of most epidemiological modelling and the shifting terrain of knowledge about the virus and its behaviour, it is uncertain how useful these ‘experts’ have been—are predicting that the winter may be yet more brutal. But Trump has been reassuring the country for months that the virus is on the verge of disappearing and has deployed the narrative of his own rebound from his short period of hospitalisation to great effect. For all practical purposes, to put it bluntly, the pandemic may as well have not taken place: if the idea that the US had been humbled and is the laughing stock of the world was supposed to have chastened the American people and moved them into inflicting punishment on Trump for his gross mismanagement of the pandemic, clearly the election results suggest that something is askance with such reasoning. Remarkably, the difference in the popular vote that separates the two candidates is about the same as it was in 2016.
This election has sometimes been described as a choice between the economy and the coronavirus, but Trump’s claim that he has presided over the largest economic expansion in decades if not in American history are unsubstantiated. It may be conceded that the pandemic has contributed mightily to the country’s economic woes, but Trump would not be the only leader of a country to advance such an argument. Both the pandemic and the economy aside, the election has thrown up some far more fundamental questions about what it means to be an ‘American’, the claims advanced on behalf of the US as an ‘exceptional’ nation, the future of the US and the prospects for democracy, and the tensions between state authority and the notion of individual autonomy. From the standpoint of Trump’s opponents, the support he has received from half of the electorate offers the most shocking and palpable evidence of the country’s descent into what may be colloquially termed madness but is closer to a form of terminal illness from which emanates a stench that is all but unbearable. This goes well beyond the disbelief from which the educated, liberal and (as they believe of themselves) decent class of people are reeling as they attempt to comprehend how the polls could, yet again, have had it so wrong. Did many Trump voters deliberately disguise their feelings to the pollsters to lead them astray? Can it be that the Republican National Committee was astute in its thinking that traditional television advertising, where Biden easily outspent Trump, counts for less than mastery over, and exploitation of, social media?
Though Democrats and liberals will agonise over how they could have misread signs, they are more deeply troubled by what Trump’s performance signifies about a country that they know they love and cherish as much as their opponents. The case against Trump seems rock solid to them. For decades the US declared itself, and was largely accepted, as the leader of ‘the free world’, but its international standing has greatly eroded. Moreover, the US no longer trusts international organisations and has also withdrawn from the Paris Agreement on climate change, and China is increasingly making inroads into international organisations and flexing its muscles as a global power. In a partial rejoinder to this liberal worldview, while at the same time not conceding an inch to Trump and his ilk, it must be said that not only the presidential debates but nearly the entire election campaigning on both sides has been conducted with nary a reference to US foreign policy. It is also possible to take the view that it was about time that the US ceased to be the self-appointed leader of the free world and that the Republican disenchantment with the rest of the world may not be without some benefit.
It is on the home front, of course, that the Democrats would appear to have by far the stronger argument in suggesting that the US under Trump is unravelling. In the language of Biden and many others, a defeat for Trump would signal the restoration of plain ‘decency’. One editorial after another has been penned by writers who bemoan the fact that the last four years have furnished little more than a daily onslaught of verbal incontinence from a president who can barely stitch together a sentence of English. Expecting Trump to be ‘presidential’ is akin to asking a three-year-old boy to sit through a two-hour concert without stirring, but what is especially galling, on the liberal view, is that he ordinarily acts little better than a two-bit hoodlum and speaks much like a street ruffian. Deceit and lack of decorum are to Trump what venom is to the snake and the sting is to the scorpion. But the distress that Trump induces goes beyond the complaint that he has rendered even sleep impossible to many. The country seems to have been in turmoil from the very first day that he assumed office: he had promised to stop the ‘carnage’ but, much like the generals and politicians who know no way to peace except through war, he has only unleashed more carnage. Trump pushed through, during the first two years of his presidency, what are termed ‘Muslim bans’ or executive orders seeking to restrict immigration from a number of predominantly Muslim countries. Muslims in the US saw themselves placed under a cloud of suspicion. This was followed by scandals at the US-Mexico border, where families were detained, caged and torn apart; indeed, by the recent admission of Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security, there are over 550 children whose parents cannot be identified. The indictment against Trump goes still further: American cities have burnt before as political dissenters and rioters have taken to the streets, but no one can remember anything like the summer of discontent through which the country has just passed. The country erupted when a video was posted of George Floyd, a middle-aged Black man, being kneed to death by a quartet of white policemen in Minneapolis. For days, demonstrators, Black men and women joined by likeminded white people, Asians and Latinos, took to the streets in principled protest to proclaim that ‘Black Lives Matter’ (BLM) and to call out the police for brutality. Curfew was imposed on dozens of cities and towns as rioters vandalised and looted stores and sought to establish their presence in the streets.
Certainly as much as the liberals and democrats, and perhaps even more so than them, Republicans have also been inclined to situate the election as a pivotal moment in the long simmering culture wars that first commenced in the 1960s. The present iteration of this conflict has, however, taken a different turn
Racial injustice has torn the country apart; unemployment is sky high; the social contract that calls for a modicum of civility has fractured. This is how liberals, Democrats and ‘decent’ people see it, and they wonder how it can be that their fellow Americans do not see in Trump the fascist monster that appears so palpably before their eyes. Biden concluded his election pitch on a note that he has sounded throughout his campaign, and one that resonates with the liberal sensibility: adverting to the bitterness, deep hostility, profound mistrust and racial rancour that have characterised not only the entire election season, but relations between Democrats and Republicans in recent years, he said: “It’s not who we are, not what America is.” If this election has shown anything, it may be that it has shown that America is precisely what it appears to be: not only deeply divided along the many seemingly obvious faultlines—Democrat vs Republican, blue states vs red states, the coasts vs the interior, urban vs rural areas, liberals vs conservatives, pro-choice vs pro-life, gun control advocates vs gun rights proponents, to name some—but a country that is supremely hospitable to xenophobia, white supremacism, vulgar masculinity and misogyny (a subject on which Trump has demonstrated his prolific credentials), and deep economic inequality. One can be sure that even as Jeff Bezos deploys his newspaper, The Washington Post, to expose Trump’s shenanigans and fire some volleys in the hope of exuding some notion of “our shared humanity”, he will continue to squeeze the last penny out of American workers and build on his gargantuan empire. One can also be equally sure that Mark Zuckerberg will profess that his principled defence of the untrammelled right to freedom of expression prevents him from censoring or even mitigating the blatant falsehoods of Trump and the far-right. Meanwhile, he too will pile on the profits. That is the American way of life.
The narrative from the other side of the ‘divide’ looks rather different, though it is similarly predicated on the defence of ‘the American way’. As one supporter of Trump put it to a New York Times reporter the day before the election, “Our freedoms and our way of life is [sic] at stake.” If in India the last General Election was above all a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the American election is just as surely a referendum on Trump. The President’s supporters applaud him for standing up to China, though whether Trump has the gumption to do anything more than shouting himself hoarse about ‘the China virus’ is a serious question. China has become greatly emboldened, rather than weakened, in the four years of Trump’s presidency and while the US reels under the impact of the pandemic, Chinese factories have roared back to life and become vital supply lines to a world in need of not only manufactured goods but masks, ventilators, personal protective equipment and sometimes just hard cash. Trump’s supporters feel empowered by his tax cuts, even if the benefits have fallen disproportionately to the very class of oligarchs to which Trump belongs rather than to the farmers, coal miners, industrial workers and others who envision him as a bulwark of economic and moral support. Reason is not the strong suit of Trump’s supporters; on the other hand, the phrase ‘tax cuts’ is like manna from heaven. Republicans are thrilled that the federal courts, and most eminently the Supreme Court, now reflect what are trumpeted as American values, among them the unabashed support of business, property rights, a respect for the constitutional right to nearly absolute ownership of arms and the reverence for life as manifested in the opposition to abortion. All this is chalked up by Republicans not just as admirable achievements, but as a striking display of Trump’s enviable cheekiness, his disdain for protocols, and a general and much needed contempt for sissiness. As they see it, the fact that Trump could hold close to 20 rallies in the last five days of the campaign, all in complete disregard of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s own guidelines on masking, is sufficient demonstration of Trump’s singular worthiness to hold the highest office of the land. Trump and his supporters have together scripted a new opera, though Biden may not be in attendance, for American life: ‘Goodbye, Fauci.’
QAnon’s adherents have furnished the best metaphor with which to assess the American presidential election of 2020. They await what they call the ‘great awakening’, and so hearken back to the 18th century religious revival known by the same name
CERTAINLY AS MUCH AS the liberals and Democrats, and perhaps even more so than them, Republicans have also been inclined to situate the election as a pivotal moment in the long simmering culture wars that first commenced in the 1960s. The present iteration of this conflict has, however, taken a different turn. It is entirely understandable, to take one instance, that demonstrators during the recent BLM protests should have vandalised or destroyed statues that commemorate the lives of slave traders or other outright racists. But BLM proponents or other activists did themselves no favours by bringing down statues of Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson. To say this much is scarcely to present these supremely iconic figures as immune from criticism. However, if Jefferson was a slave owner and like other propertied white men of his time took sexual advantage of his female slaves, he was at the same time the drafter of the Declaration of Independence, the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and in myriad other ways a gifted intellectual and thoughtful person. What is required is the recognition that the thirst for ideological purity must always be resisted. It is not surprising, then, that in the prelude to the election, the Trump administration announced a number of initiatives that seek to restore to American culture a form of imagined authentic innocence even as they are clearly opportunistic, emanating from the pen of a man who cannot distinguish Andrew Jackson from Andrew Johnson, two of his predecessors at the White House. Speaking on September 17th at the National Archives before original copies of the US constitution and Declaration of Independence, Trump announced his intention to create a “1776 Commission” to promote a “pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history” and encourage teachers to share with their students the “miracle of American history”. Following this up with an Executive Order on September 22nd, Trump declared that he would put to an end the mandatory diversity training in federal institutions. The order decries ‘the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country; that some people, simply on account of their race or sex, are oppressors; and that racial and sexual identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans’.
To enter into the mind of America and the maelstrom of contemporary American political culture, it may be productive to look in some detail at a recent phenomenon that may strike some as lingering on the margins and yet has entered into the nooks and crannies of everyday American life. Of all the conspiracy theories that have roiled the American cultural and political landscape, none seems as bizarre, breathtaking and curiously audacious as the one that goes under the name of QAnon. Its origins are sometimes traced to a conspiracy theory in turn known as Pizzagate, which alleged that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a pizza parlour in Washington, DC known as the Comet Ping Pong. A month after Clinton conceded defeat to Trump, a man by the name of Edgar M Welch from a town in North Carolina arrived at the Comet, whose owner had at one time corresponded with the Clinton campaign about a fundraising dinner, expecting to find kidnapped and sexually abused children huddled in a corner or hidden behind a closet. Diners with their children bolted for the door as Welch fired a few shots into the air. His search turned up nothing and minutes later the gunman surrendered to the police. In his first interview after his arrest, Welch explained: “I just wanted to do some good and went about it in the wrong way.” He conceded as well that “the intel on this wasn’t 100 per cent”, but nevertheless insisted that the sexual trafficking of children is a global problem.
Marjorie Greene, among Qanon’s early believers, has been elected to the 14th congressional district in Georgia, a predominantly White district where earnings are well below the national median income, support for Trump is overwhelming and where 6,000 residents signed a petition to preserve the public statue of a prominent Ku Klux Klan leader
Welch had armed himself with a military-style assault rifle, doubtless because he envisioned the possibility that he might have to shoot his way out of the pizzeria if he was up against a gang of malevolent child molesters. One might imagine that Welch had watched one too many B-grade Hollywood films, but it is also an indubitable fact that in America military-grade weapons in the arms of common people are nearly as common as kitchen knives. But his first media interview points to most of the elements that would go into the making of that heady brew described as QAnon. Welch, it transpires, habitually trafficked in conspiracy theories and listened to the radio talk shows of Alex Jones, a prolific conspiracy theorist with a massive following who has claimed that Hillary Clinton “has personally murdered and chopped up” children. One can think of Jones’ reach in several respects: if his InfoWars website receives 10 million visitors monthly, he also peddles ideas that go far beyond the visceral hatred for Clinton, who is only a metonym for “the swamp”, “corrupt far-left Democratic elites” and “radical Socialists” who “want to destroy our country”—ideas such as the notion that there is a demographic war being waged against white people and that the genocide of white Americans is imminent. Besides Welch’s attraction to conspiracy theorists, as his interview revealed, he was also taken in by evangelical Christianity’s promise to help men rediscover the God-given masculinity that resides within them. This is on the supposition that the ‘pansy culture’ of modern-day America, driven by political correctness and allegedly exemplified by feminists, socialists and the whole panoply of queers, lesbians, transgendered people and various other sexual and political misfits, does not permit men to be men.
Let us recall, however, that Welch insisted that he “just wanted to do some good”. When the great civil rights icon, John Lewis, passed away in the late summer, those who mourned him—and that number, notably, did not include Donald Trump—recalled that Lewis liked nothing more than the “good fight”. The followers of QAnon unhesitatingly advocate for what they deem to be the good fight, and there can be no greater ‘good’ than the elimination of the sexual trafficking of children and the punishment of paedophiles. QAnon supporters allege, needless to say without a shred of evidence, that the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles—among them Democratic politicians, liberal Hollywood actors and celebrities—who operate a global child sex-trafficking ring and are plotting against Trump, who, on this view, has been targeted as he was chosen by a group of high-ranking military generals to run for president and help break up this conspiracy. Many QAnon adherents claim that the criminals, besides being driven by paedophilic urges, kill and eat children with the intention of extracting a life-enhancing chemical found in their blood. QAnon supporters to varying degrees have also been linked to various other articles of faith that underlie their cosmographic imagination, among them an unremitting hostility to what they vaguely—if at all—understand as socialism, a disdain for something called the ‘deep state’, a distrust of vaccinations, and a belief in biblical prophecies about the end of the world and the emergence of a new utopia populated by the (chosen) survivors. QAnon adherents speak of ‘the calm before the storm’—the storm here may be likened to a lightning strike, when the cabal will be smashed with the arrest of thousands of its members.
QAnon’s adherents think the great awakening is imminent. The signs, I submit, are not propitious for such a momentous event. Nevertheless, I concur with QAnon, and the election offers unimpeachable evidence to this effect, that the United States of America is very much in need of a great awakening
JUST WHO ‘Q’ IS remains unknown but Q’s identity—an individual at first, slowly transforming into a collective and, some say, Trump himself—is not wholly germane to entering the worldview of QAnon. To some in the movement the Pizzagate antecedents are now forgotten and the proper beginning is seen in an October 28th, 2017 post by the anonymous ‘Q’, posturing as a government insider with access to highly classified information, that appeared on 4chan, an image-based bulletin board already reputed for its extreme vulgarity, grotesque memes and teardown culture. In time, Q’s posts would gravitate to 8chan/8kun, another image board that is also linked to child pornography, white supremacism, antisemitism and several mass shootings. Minutes before Brenton Harrison Tarrant went on a rampage that would leave 51 dead and as many wounded at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, he shared links to the live stream video on 8chan and on Facebook. Similarly, the perpetrator of a mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, which left 23 dead, posted his white nationalist manifesto on 8chan an hour before he commenced firing. QAnon’s supporters are scarcely troubled either by these nefarious associations or by the fact that Q’s numerous prophecies, none of which has materialised, are just plain drivel. Supporters have at hand a number of explanations, some altogether pedestrian and others somewhat more ingenuous. Thus, if 4chan and 8chan are home to brutal pornography, some of it of the very variety that the cabal against which the QAnon movement is waging an apocalyptic war is allegedly mired in, one can always argue that technology can be used as much for good as for bad. Since Q speaks much like an oracle, often in a secret coded language, leaving cues for the initiated (‘Q drops’), it is not surprising that his prophecies cannot be interpreted by those working with a commonsense notion of language. Moreover, aver QAnon supporters, ‘disinformation is necessary’. Thus the prophecies—regarding the impending arrest of Hillary Clinton, Zuckerberg’s forced departure from the US, the resignation of Jack Dorsey as Twitter CEO and countless other inanities—only appear to have failed.
All of this might rightfully be dismissed for the fantastic nonsense it is if it were not, its critics allege, so dangerous. The Federal Bureau of Investigation last year classified QAnon as a domestic-terror threat, but Trump has nevertheless not disavowed QAnon and has even described its followers as “people that love our country”. At his last town hall meeting before the election he claimed that he knew nothing of QAnon—except, as he has said on more than one occasion, that “They do supposedly like me.” He has also adroitly noted, recognising that one can always invoke the sublime innocence of children to one’s advantage as a form of cultural capital, that QAnon followers “are very much against paedophilia” and that he shares “this sentiment”. Supporters began showing up at Trump rallies in 2018, and in the present election 25 politicians—23 Republicans and 2 Independents—are competing in local and state races as avowed QAnon candidates. Marjorie Greene has been elected to the 14th Congressional District in Georgia: it is a predominantly white district where earnings are well below the national median income, support for Trump is overwhelming and where 6,000 residents signed a petition to preserve the public statue of a prominent Ku Klux Klan leader. Greene counts herself among QAnon’s early believers and she often has herself photographed in jeans and a cowboy hat—images of the rugged West, the adventurous spirit of the homesteader, the ethos of individualism—sporting an assault rifle. But there is more to QAnon: Nothing in America—not the most absurd ideas, nor such an intimate act of religious worship as prayer—is immune to the charms of the market and it comes as no surprise that the most entrepreneurial QAnon advocates have built small business empires merchandising QAnon t-shirts, books, videos, hats and other paraphernalia. The QAnon evangelist David Hayes, who goes by his online handle PrayingMedic, has 420,000 followers on Twitter, and his most recent tweet is both an unmistakable sign of the nexus between Trump and QAnon and the fact that Trump has a universe of surrogates and acolytes who stand by to do his bidding: “Trump has an insurmountable lead in Georgia, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. These states should be called. POTUS is closing the gap in Arizona. The only way Biden wins is by cheating.”
Just what animates the proponents of QAnon is a question that has been inadequately probed by commentators, though I have pointed to some elements of that story: the dread of socialism, the desire to do good, a fervent belief in the American way of life and a fear that the America they know is fading into history. One can perhaps equally gravitate towards another set of explanations, rooted in the anxieties that have been induced by rapid changes in norms of social life, the evisceration of rural lifestyles and the apprehension among some that they may not have much of a place in the America that is emerging in the wake of significant demographic shifts and the ascendancy of racial minorities in political life and the public sphere more generally. The place occupied by Fox News in the imaginary of Trump’s America, and more specifically QAnon, would require a book unto itself. Some commentators point to QAnon as the most recent instantiation of the American historian Richard Hofstadter’s thesis on the persistence of the ‘paranoid style in American politics’, but the talismanic invocation of this essay does more to obscure rather than reveal anything truly significant about QAnon. There is a more plausible argument to be made about the long history of millenarian movements and the fervent belief in apocalyptic Christianity which is a distinctive feature of American religious populism. QAnon’s own adherents have furnished the best metaphor with which to assess them—and conclude the present discussion on the American presidential election of 2020. They await what they call the ‘Great Awakening’, and so hearken back to the 18th century religious revival known by the same name. Its principal proponent was the New England Puritan preacher, Jonathan Edwards, whose sermon, ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’, cautioned his countrymen and women at a time when secularism was posing a threat to religious piety that they were to submit themselves to a wrathful God.
QAnon’s adherents believe in the Great Awakening and think, moreover, that it is imminent. The signs, I submit, are not propitious for such a momentous event. Nevertheless, I concur with QAnon, and the election offers unimpeachable evidence to this effect, that the United States of America is very much in need of a Great Awakening. Meanwhile, the morning after, one must—whether it is four more years of Trump or Trumpism without Trump—swallow the bitter pill of American democracy.