The contest between Donald Trump and Joe Biden for the US presidency is more than a clash of competing visions – it is a vote on whether American democracy itself deserves to survive.
When Mr Trump was elected four years ago, we warned that he was the least qualified president in American history; he had repeatedly shown himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a bully and a narcissist. His conduct in office has merely confirmed our view.
The supposed leader of the free world has defended white supremacists, indulged despots, empowered conspiracists and celebrated police brutality. He has begun US withdrawal from the Paris agreement on climate change, halted funding to the World Health Organisation and sought to overturn the Iran nuclear deal, which is supported by Britain and the EU.
The Covid-19 pandemic has magnified Mr Trump’s unfitness for office. Throughout the crisis the president has cast doubt on whether the disease is harmful, promoted quack cures (such as injecting bleach), verbally abused scientists and experts, and disdained social distancing (ultimately contracting the virus himself). The catastrophic result has been more than 230,000 US deaths and one of the world’s highest per capita mortality rates.
In advance of Covid-19, the US was regarded as one of the countries best prepared for a pandemic. But Mr Trump abolished the National Security Council’s global health security unit in 2018 and stripped funding from anti-disease programmes.
The US’s problems – the absence of universal healthcare, endemic poverty, racial inequality, dilapidated infrastructure – did not begin with Mr Trump. But he has only worsened the nation’s social ills. The promised “infrastructure revolution” amounted to little: the average US bridge is still 43 years old and government spending on research and development has fallen from more than 1.5 per cent of GDP in 1960 to 0.7 per cent today.
Supporters of Mr Trump, such as his former chief strategist Steve Bannon, vowed that he would be a champion of the “left behind”, but in office the president has stuck to Republican orthodoxy: 83 per cent of the total savings from his tax cuts will flow to the top 1 per cent of earners. Far from expanding healthcare, Mr Trump has sought to abolish the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which extended health insurance to 20 million Americans.
If the weaknesses of the US president are immediately apparent, the strengths of his opponent, Joe Biden, are not. The 77-year-old career Democrat would be the republic’s oldest president. As a senator, he voted for the Iraq War and supported crime policies such as mass incarceration. He often rambles and his arguments can be incoherent.
But Mr Biden is pragmatic and has enduring strengths. In contrast to Mr Trump before his election, Biden has experience of high office and would seek to restore dignity and civility to political and global discourse. Having endured personal tragedy – the death of his first wife and daughter in a car crash and the loss of his adult son and political heir, Beau Biden, to brain cancer – Mr Biden embodies the quality that Mr Trump lacks most: empathy.
Though the Democrats’ policy programme is incrementalist rather than transformative, Mr Biden has embraced important progressive demands: a $15 minimum wage, the abolition of the death penalty, $2trn of investment in green technologies, a net-zero carbon target, and the expansion of health insurance to most Americans. He has the potential to be a transitional president, opening the way to a new era in the United States.
Mr Trump is the autocratic leader the Founding Fathers most feared. Far from constraining Mr Trump, as intended, a servile Republican Party has empowered him. Mr Trump has disgraced his office and diminished the standing of the United States. If American democracy is to begin to recover, the removal of the “boastful buffoon”, his family and his enablers from office is not only desirable, but essential.
This article appears in the 28 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Reckoning