Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind: An American Exile Looks South

By Tom Sandborn

Vancouver, BC. November 4, 2020. Like many others, I have been paying obsessive attention to the febrile grotesqueries of American politics these days. My angst is similar to the nervous apprehension of someone who discovers himself living upstairs from a crack house. The US, where I was born and spent my first two decades before escaping to Canada, has recently been wracked by a lethally mismanaged pandemic, murderous police violence, economic collapse, a president who clearly wants to install himself in authoritarian permanence and growing evidence that the Republicans’ dog whistle politics of resentment has tapped into and promoted a distinctively American  kind of racism. It all evoked a mood of Hunter Thompsonesque fear and loathing. The news that even the vile Mitch McConnell, looking more and more every day like the result of a love match between a shark and a giant slug, is going back to the Senate does nothing to improve my mood.

As this column is being written, victory in key states has not yet been called by media observers and it remains unclear whether Biden or Trump will get the nod from the ornately anti-democratic College of Electors when all the dust (and desperate, bad faith litigation from Republican operatives) settles. The returns that have been counted and announced suggest that Biden, like Hilary Clinton, will win the (constitutionally irrelevant) popular vote by a margin of millions. It remains to be seen whether he will end up with the necessary 270 electoral votes.

Even more uncertain is the question of whether a peaceful transition of power will occur in January. Trump made the expected but flagrantly false announcement early this morning that he had already and definitively won the election. He called for an end to counting the vote, invoking again the theme he voiced throughout the election- that the unprecedented level of mail-in  voting this election- inspired by concerns that in-person voting exposed voters to Covid danger- created an opening for massive voter fraud. No one outside the fever swamps of Trumpland takes that purported danger seriously, but it has become a recurring trope on Fox News and other pro-Trump outlets, where many benighted voters turn for information and analysis.

Even if Biden wins both the popular vote and the electoral college contest, we have no reason to be expect an orderly hand over of power in January. Trump clearly means to take the issue to the Supreme Court to “stop the voting.” And there is no reason to think that The Orange Beast will urge his white supremacist followers in the Proud Boys and other neo-fascist formations to “stand down,” even if the Federalist Society partisans he has added to the SC cannot stomach the judicial coup he hopes for. We could still see the armed struggle in the streets of America the Boogaloo Boys and their testosterone inflamed allies have desired for years. Trump has already signalled ill-disguised encouragement for vigilante violence and the Bubbas with Bazookas may very well rise up to demand another term for their boy Donald, no matter how the final vote count reads.

And that takes me to my final and darkest reflection today. Even if Trump is unsuccessful in his attempt to pervert the electoral process, the whole world has to deal with the fact that millions of Americans did vote for him. That means that a significant share of the electorate supported Trump despite the heart breaking images of refugee children held in cages, despite the bungled Covid response that drove up the pandemic death count and despite four years of evidence that the president is a mendacious misogynist, a ranting racist and, to use one of his favorite tropes, “a bad hombre.” (At this point, it looks like Trump will emerge from this election with a larger share of electoral support than Hitler got from the German voters in their last election before the Nazis came to power!)

As a recovering American who left the Excited States in protest against the Vietnam War, I have a life-long love-hate relationship with the country of my birth. Today’s reflections do nothing to diminish or resolve that  tense dialectic. The fact that so many Americans voted for Trump signals big trouble yet to come, I fear. This prospect saddens and frightens me. We may well see eruptions of street violence from Trump’s white supremacist supporters, and yet more public chaos that will make it even harder for America to deal with the butcher’s bill of Covid deaths that mounts every day. We are likely to see an emboldened far right swaggering on the streets of America and trying to pick fights with Black Lives Matter, antifa and moderates. 

All of this is rooted in America’s original sin, chattel slavery. The Trump phenomenon cannot be understood without taking into account slavery’s long shadow and its foundational relationship to American capitalism. We are still in that dark shadow today, and Jefferson’s anguished comment on the institution he criticized but never broke with is as pertinent now as it was when he first wrote: “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever;”

Whether we share Jefferson’s conflicted Deism, another form of religious faith or no faith at all, the warning is timely. We should all be trembling now. Trump, for all his glow in the dark evil, is not the only problem here. Progressives around the world have our work cut out for us. We need to think deeply about the implications of the Trump phenomenon and build on the hopeful mass mobilizations by people of colour and their allies over the last four years. We have a lot of work to do, no matter who sits in the White House next year.

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