The stark choice confronting US voters has big implications for the EU, too.
This should force us to do some soul-searching of our own.
America’s weight in the world means that every US presidential election attracts huge interest from other countries. However, this election really does feel like an epoch-defining moment. At no time in living memory have Americans faced a starker choice between two completely opposing visions of both America‘s sense of self and its place in the world. This election is about Americans deciding who they really are. However, it is also an election which should force us Europeans to ask ourselves who we are and what our place will be in the tectonic plate shifting world in which we now find ourselves.
America First, America alone?
President Trump offers the reversal of what he sees as years of decline due to an excess of political correctness and left-leaning policies. His infamous “American carnage” Inaugural Address in 2017 is more Cormac McCarthy’s The Road than Obama’s The Audacity of Hope. He believes that America has been taken advantage of by its allies and trading partners alike. His agenda is one of discontent, divisiveness and disruption.
Trump has succeeded in a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, which has chosen to give him free rein. His electoral success in 2016 was based on playing to the aggrieved, the bitter and the resentful. He openly flirts with racism, misogyny, far-right extremism and even armed militias. His biggest supporters are angry, non-college-educated white males, evangelical Christians, social conservatives, and well-off businesspeople. They forgive his many personal failings, his bombast, his tweets and his lies because they believe, in spite of all this, that he speaks for them and will pursue their wished-for agenda.
But that agenda is often contradictory. Tax breaks for the rich do little for the unemployed. His trade wars have hurt farmers and US manufacturing. The trade deficit has never been higher, despite his promises to rebalance it. The fiscal deficit has ballooned, in flagrant breach of Republican fiscal orthodoxy. In foreign policy, he scorns alliances, offends allies and cosies up to adversaries, all without generating any obvious benefit to real US interests.
Despite these contradictions and his all-too-evident personal flaws, many Americans share Trump’s sense that the country has lost its way and needs a renewed sense of self-assertion, both domestically and internationally. The country is more divided and polarised than at any time since the 1930s. The divide between the urban and the rural, the coasts and the heartland, the rich and the poor, the socially liberal and the socially conservative has never been greater. The percentage of Americans who no longer believe that their children face a brighter future than they did has never been higher. The conveyor belt of American optimism is broken.
Winds of change?
To a certain extent, former Vice President Biden is swimming against the tide. He offers a more traditional menu of moderate Democratic values: inclusiveness, tolerance, and confidence in America’s ability to offer prosperity and social progress at home and be an international force for good. Where President Trump seeks only to please and appease his aggrieved base, Biden is trying to build a broader coalition across regions, ethnicities and income groups.
Biden might well benefit from the US’ demographics, which have moved decisively in favour of a more pluralist society. Between 2000 and 2018, the net increase in the non-white population was 76%. The comparable figure for whites is 29%. They are expected to be a minority by 2045.
Furthermore, the most populous US states are increasingly the most liberal. California is starting to lead the way on issues like data protection and climate change. Even in traditionally conservative states, such as Texas and Georgia, the cities – think of Austin or Atlanta – are often progressive and liberal. As the current election demonstrates, the growth of those cities is making Texas, Georgia and other states more competitive. Even in such a polarised country, there are still many who want to build a more optimistic future rather return to a divisive past.
A polarised and disruptive election
So, this is the America that will go to the polls on 3 November. A divided nation, choosing between two sharply contrasting candidates. The bombast and the safe pair of hands. The disruptor and the builder of bridges. The defender of the ‘animal spirit’ of American individualism and the advocate of a gentler and more inclusive society.
If the polls are correct, then President Trump’s dazzling defiance of political gravity may soon come to a halt. Nevertheless, the polls have been wrong before, and a surprise can never be ruled out. Equally, there are real concerns that the election result might not be clear or take time to emerge. If President Trump declines to concede or the Republican Party chooses to contest the outcome, the US could plunge into a constitutional crisis.
A changing transatlantic partner
We in Europe should care deeply about the outcome. If President Trump is re-elected, then we can expect his policies of the last four years again – but on steroids. If President Biden wins, there will be an immediate change of tone and style. However, it would also be naïve to expect a return to the America of the last century…
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Even with a Biden victory, Europe needs to become a more equal and mature partner to ensure that the transatlantic relationship will continue to deliver for both sides.