Farewell to all that?
America will decide on November 3 whether to re-elect the 74-year old Republican President, Donald Trump, or to choose 77-year old Democrat, Joe Biden, as its new leader. Both are the oldest ever presidential candidates in the United States (US) history. The choice could not be starker.
A tale of two septuagenarians
Trump has ruled as a crude populist, often enabling white supremacists. He was overwhelmingly elected by a lily-white majority and still has the support of 57% of white males. He has portrayed immigrants as criminals and shown a total lack of empathy for migrant children separated from their parents and put in cages. Trump has also peddled conspiracy theories, and falsely claimed to have reduced the costs of prescription drugs; to be protecting patients with pre-existing conditions, and to have done more for African Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln. Despite his prejudiced jingoism, 71% of white evangelicals have continued to back Trump, revealing a country that has lost its moral compass. One cannot remember an American president who has gone to war with his own intelligence community and the mainstream media.
In stark contrast, the avuncular Joe Biden is an experienced moderate and a safe pair of hands. But even many of his supporters feared that he was too old and gaffe-prone. Biden, however, showed his experience, toughness, and maturity during the grueling hustings. He has been much more difficult to demonise than the despised and entitled, Hillary Clinton, who failed in 2016 to secure even a majority of white female voters against a thrice-married philanderer.
Debasing the debates
This election will most likely come down to two key issues: the COVID-19 crisis, and the devastating effect it has had on the economy, with 10.7 million jobs lost in seven months. Trump’s performance during this pandemic has drifted from inept to inane to insane. He clearly fiddled while America burnt, exposing an astonishing lack of judgment during the worst public health crisis in living memory. This has been the madness of King George in full horror, even as nearly 230,000 Americans – from Manhattan to Mississippi – have succumbed to COVID-19. Who can forget the president’s removing his mask and repeatedly declaring himself “immune” from Corona after his hospitalization with the disease? It is hard to believe that the “Leader of the Free World” could take “freedom” to such bizarre levels of alchemic quackery, suggesting in April that COVID patients be injected with bleach and isopropyl alcohol, or exposed to ultraviolet light. Trump has consistently ignored scientific advice, downplayed the threat of what he has crudely labelled “the China virus,” and prematurely and consistently announced the arrival of a vaccine.
His performance in the first presidential debate descended into pure pandemonium, with only the Satanic sulphur missing. He petulantly and aggressively interrupted and snarled at his restrained opponent, who calmly dismissed him as “America’s worst president.” A global audience cringed at the debasement of the American presidency, even as Trump’s numbers plunged in the polls. Republican threats to take away healthcare from 20 million Americans in the middle of a pandemic has clearly alienated voters. Biden, in contrast, has steadily focused on health-care, climate change, and immigration, as well as pledging to reverse the mismanagement of the COVID crisis.
Swinging through the battleground states
Biden is being careful not to repeat Democratic Vice-President Al Gore’s error in 2000 of losing his home state of Tennessee. He has proudly touted his working-class roots in Scranton, Pennsylvania. This election is expected to be decided by eight key battleground states, which have a larger proportion of white and older voters: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, and Iowa. Trump is desperate to hold on to blue-collar workers in America’s Midwest. Ohio is regarded as America’s bellwether state. No Republican has ever won the White House without triumphing in the state whose winner has gone on to capture the presidency in 29 of the last 31 races. Trump has, however, alienated many older and female voters in these crucial states. A troubling sign for the president is that Biden is level-pegging in Texas, which no Democrat has won in 44 years.
Despite Biden having led Trump in polling for most of the election, Democrats are still nervous, since Hillary Clinton also led most polls in 2016, and won 3 million more votes than Trump. She however lost the Electoral College, a bizarre, antediluvian system that awards electoral votes to candidates without properly considering the size of population or margin of victory. The Republicans have resorted to their usual tricks of voter suppression, but even this may not work. The large turn-out – 79 million people had already voted by 29 October, 58% of the 2016 total vote – is likely to favour Biden. Democrats have also massively outspent Republicans in media advertising. While the Democrats are expected easily to hold on to their majority in the House of Representatives, the battle for the Senate – where Republicans have a 53-47 majority – will be fierce in Maine, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Arizona, Iowa, and Colorado. Victory in the Senate would be crucial if a victorious Biden is to pass major legislation.
The greatest show on earth
Joe Biden would certainly be an improvement on Trump, but Africa should not expect too much from him. He was, after all, Barack Obama’s vice-president for eight years, overseeing the deployment of U.S. troops to about 20 African countries, thus continuing the militarisation of Africa policy initiated by the war-mongering George W. Bush. This was also the administration that launched the botched “regime change” adventure – alongside Britain and France – that has left Libya anarchic for a decade. This is the same duo that legitimised the blood-soaked General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi coup d’état against an elected government in Egypt in 2013. While Obama smiled, Trump has snarled. Obama, however, effectively used false ancestral solidarity with Africa to pursue pernicious policies towards the continent. In many ways, Trump is just a more crude and frank version of previous U.S. administrations, which have historically wreaked havoc across Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia.
The Economist gives Biden a 92% chance of winning the presidency. If accurate, Trump’s legacy will be four years of division, racism, and xenophobia. He seems to have run out of gas and appears to be running on empty. This is a tragedy of sound and fury told by an idiot, signifying nothing. Like the Shakespearean King Lear, Trump appears to be a paranoid ruler drifting into senility. The clown has finally run out of tricks, and the circus may be about to leave town. America’s farcical four-year reality show that has simultaneously shocked, spooked, amused, and appalled the world may be coming to a screeching end. Like a deflated hot-air balloon, Trump is finally likely to crash and burn. What an exhausting, entertaining, and eccentric four years this has been. Even by American standards of extravagant razzmatazz and billion-dollar electoral campaigns, this has been the greatest show on earth. If he loses as expected, the world will miss Trump.
Professor Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa.