The playwright Tom Murphy said that the most important question to ask about any drama is: what is at stake? When it comes to next Tuesday's presidential and congressional elections in the US, the obvious but unhelpful answer is: everything.
The moment seems so obviously crucial that it can be hard to keep track of the reasons why this election matters so much, both to the US and to the world.
The personality of Donald Trump sucks so much air into itself that even those who hate him find themselves agreeing that it is all about him. This was true in 2016, but it is doubly so now. Trump is at the head of both party tickets – the Democrats' being Trump-Biden-Harris, very much in that order.
Yet, paradoxically, “Trumpism” has much less content now than it did in 2016. Trump campaigned then on a series of propositions that were crude but intelligible: ban Muslims, build the wall to keep out Mexican rapists and drug dealers, invest massively in infrastructure, appoint right-wing judges, stick it to China, bring back muscle jobs to America, drain the swamp of Washington corruption, repeal Obamacare.
And now? Me, me, me. There are no real promises, just threats: socialism, Antifa, Blacks moving into white suburbs and destroying them.
Trump no longer even pretends to put forward a notion of what will happen if he is re-elected. He relies merely on the conjuring of a hellish vision of what will happen if he is not. Beyond that awful void, there is just: me, me, me.
For most Democrats the coming years are filled with the nightmare of a second Trump term
Or, if you hate Trump: him, him, him. He himself is the awful void. His behaviour has been so obnoxious, his malice so gleeful, his corruption so naked, that the mere thought of his absence is joyous. The negative seems much more important than any positive. Not being Trump is in itself the overwhelming virtue of the challenger, Joe Biden.
The combination of these two negatives does not, in this case, make a positive. It generates, rather, an even bigger absence – the future. It is not that Biden and the Democrats have not articulated a plan for the next four years. It is that, however important those policies, they cannot complete imaginatively with the big Not.
For most Democrats the coming years are filled with the nightmare of a second Trump term, and the words they use about that are “unthinkable” and “unimaginable”.
Yet we have to think and imagine. One of the paradoxes of this election is that it underscores the reality that the US still has a massively outsized place in the world. Trump’s presidency has trashed American prestige and hugely diminished its global standing. Almost no one looks to the US for leadership anymore.
The coronavirus disaster, in which the US has been much worse at protecting its own people than many of what Trump charmingly calls “shithole countries” has cruelly stripped away its superpower status. MAGA has come to stand for Must Americans Grieve Again?
Yet, even in this belittled condition, the US still has vast political, military, economic and cultural power. There is hardly a place on Earth where people will not be tuning in to find out what’s happening in Macomb County, Michigan; Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania; Winnebago County, Wisconsin; and Pinellas County, Florida.
Everywhere, people know that the stakes are high – not just for Americans, but for all of us. This election is at least as epoch-defining as any in US history. Internally, it ranks with Abraham Lincoln’s re-election in 1864 against George B McClellan, who would have ended the civil war on terms favourable to the Confederacy. It is as resonant as Richard Nixon’s narrow defeat of Hubert Humphrey in the pivotal year of 1968. Globally, it perhaps matters even more than either of them.
So, to try to answer the Tom Murphy question, what is at stake?
1. The survival of the United States as a republican democracy
The election is crucial, not just for its outcome, but for its process. It is clear that, if all citizens are allowed to vote, and if those votes are counted, Trump will lose the popular vote even more heavily than he did in 2016. Thus, for him to hang on for a second term, one of two things has to happen.
The most benign of these is that Trump benefits even more outrageously than he did against Hillary Clinton, from a freakish run of results in swing states that gives him victory in the electoral college. This might be just about tolerable to the anti-Trump majority if he were to behave graciously and modestly and pose as a conciliator.
There is as much chance of that as there is of him taking a vow of silence and giving all his money to the poor. On the contrary, Trump would (as he did in 2016) claim that he really won the popular vote “bigly” and that anything else is fake news. He would deny that the majority even exists. Can any democracy hold together when the majority of voters is not merely denied power, but provoked, taunted and delegitimised?
And that’s the benign scenario. The malign one is that Trump does what he has said he will do, which is to seek to have postal votes declared fraudulent and fight the election result all the way to the US supreme court on which, after this week’s confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, he now has three hand-picked loyalists. The peaceful transition of power after a free and fair election is the cornerstone of democracy. If it doesn’t happen, the US can no longer be counted among the dwindling band of countries that still practise it.
2. The slide into authoritarianism
In either of these scenarios, a continuation of the Trump presidency will be contested, not just within the political institutions, but on the streets, by black people demanding an end to violence against them, by women seeking to protect their reproductive rights, by citizens whose votes have been rendered impotent.
Trump has thoroughly prepared the ground for his response to this in his handling of the Black Lives Matter protests. There is no need to speculate – the plan has already been implemented. Declare peaceful protests to be a violent uprising by "Antifa", an organisation that does not exist. Invoke anti-terrorist legislation – Trump's most important enabler, attorney general William Barr, has already designated "Antifa" as a terrorist organisation and instructed the FBI's anti-terror units to act against it. And encourage armed fascist and white supremacist groups to "protect" the law-abiding public from these anarchists and terrorists.
Trump has publicly instructed one such group, the Proud Boys, to "stand back and stand by". After the disclosure of a fascist group's plot to kidnap and execute the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, Trump responded to chants of "Lock her up" at his rally in the state by adding "Lock them all up" – "them" being, not the criminals but anyone who is not on his side.
Trump knows that his voters and his media base will cheer on almost anything he chooses to do against immigrants, "terrorist" protesters etc
Emboldened by victory, Trump will certainly try to do as much of that as he can.
Bear in mind, too, that Trump has used his first term to test market extreme measures against those he has dehumanised. The separation of 1,030 children (including babies) from their parents at the Mexican border in 2018 and the detention of those children behind chain-link barriers was, from Trump’s point of view, a great success.
His base – and more importantly Rupert Murdoch and his Fox News network – found it perfectly acceptable, even pleasurable. Before last week's final presidential debate, it was revealed that 545 children seized from their parents have still not been returned to them. Trump's response was that the children are "so well taken care of".
This normalisation of extreme cruelty means that Trump knows that his voters and his media base will cheer on almost anything he chooses to do against immigrants, “terrorist” protesters and anyone else he defines as a threat. Such knowledge would be dangerous in anyone’s hands. In Trump’s it is incendiary.
3. The deranged presidency
The US has had a deranged president before, and within living memory. Richard Nixon in the year before he resigned in 1974, was clearly in the grip of paranoia and obsession.
But Nixon's madness was largely manifest behind closed doors. Trump's is open and self-advertised: the recommendation that people inject themselves with disinfectant to ward off Covid-19; the hissy fit when Denmark wouldn't agree to sell him Greenland; the claims that Biden, a devout Catholic, would "hurt the Bible, hurt God"; the plan to have his face carved on Mount Rushmore; the claim that the 1919 flu pandemic "probably ended the second World War, all the soldiers were sick"; the weird public ramblings about shower heads that limit water flow ("So what do you do? You just stand there longer or you take a shower longer?"); the demented ride out from the Walter Reed hospital to wave to his fans.
None of this is going to get any better. The chances are that, inflated by a second victory, Trump’s malignant narcissism would get even worse. At best, he grows steadily more unmoored from reality. At worst, the craziness becomes increasingly dangerous.
4. The chances of controlling climate change
Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate change accords takes effect next Wednesday – on the morning after the election. The timing is hardly coincidental. The intention is to mark his victory with the triumph (for himself and his financial backers) of the US formally becoming a rogue state.
This is not just about the world’s biggest economy refusing to play its part in sustaining human life on the planet. It encourages other ecocidal regimes – most obviously that of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, the Trump imitator who has custody of the Amazon rainforest.
It allows China to assume a position of global leadership on the single most important issue facing humanity – not, for obvious reasons, a great sign for the future of democracy.
And it melds with the attack on science so obvious in Trump’s response to the pandemic and sure to become an all-out war in a second term, as climate-related crises accumulate.
5. The nature of Brexit, not least for Ireland
It has been obvious for some time that the Boris Johnson/Dominic Cummings administration in London has been waiting to see what happens in the US before committing itself to a deal with the EU. A Trump victory would encourage them to believe that they don’t need one after all.
Brexit took an increasingly radical turn after Trump’s election in 2016. The extremists were able to argue that the UK was not cutting itself off, but was, on the contrary, on the crest of a great wave of reactionary nationalism sweeping the world. Johnson decided to follow Trump’s star, in the hope that it would lead to a new golden age of Anglo-American alliance.
Trump is not a throwback or an exception. He is the great exemplar of political change in the 21st century
If Trump wins, this recklessness will come surging back. The contempt for international law, displayed so openly in the repudiation of parts of the withdrawal agreement, will seem to be vindicated. The implications for Ireland are profound – not just the economic disruption of a disorderly Brexit but the probability that an emboldened Tory government will feel even less compelled to honour its commitments to avoid a hard border.
Conversely, of course, a Biden victory will have the opposite effect, hugely strengthening the position of both Ireland and the EU and forcing Johnson to realise how isolated his country is in danger of ending up, out of the EU but with the mirage of a new “Anglosphere”, reuniting the US with the mother country, rapidly vanishing.
6. The future of liberal democracy
The typical form of government now is “electoral autocracy”, where there are still elections, but the underlying conditions, including an independent judiciary and a free media are under assault.
This is now the most common form of government in the world, practised in 67 countries or almost 40 per cent of all states. The number of electoral autocracies has almost doubled from 36 in 1972 to 67 today.
In the early decades of this period, the increase was because existing totalitarian regimes were joining the club. But over the last decade, the rise in electoral autocracies has been mainly the result of the breakdown of what used to be liberal democracies: India and Hungary being striking examples.
In this sense, Trump is not a throwback or an exception. He is the great exemplar of political change in the 21st century. He has pointed the way towards a rapidly emerging future. The hope must be that his defeat will point the way towards a future that is radically different.