201022 US election
A lady in Phoenix, Arizona on October 15, 2020 encourages people to vote in the November 3 presidential and congressional elections Image Credit: AFP

Americans go to the polls next Tuesday to cast their votes in the presidential election, a birthright first granted in 1776 only to White, male property owners, and in later decades to women, Blacks and Native Americans.

Meanwhile, people around the world will be watching, knowing that what happens in America often always reverberates globally, willy-nilly affecting their own individual destinies. Ya, we all catch cold when America sneezes, though, having lived in its own political bubble over the last four years, this new America has lost its shimmer as “leader of the free world”.

President Trump, evidently, is betting on a replay of 2016, when, after igniting a populist surge in the country, he defied the odds and scored a win. We all remember those rumbustious rallies that year where he worked the crowds, lambasting Nato allies for not paying their share, slandering Mexicans as “criminals” and “rapists”, reviling Muslims as the other to be barred from entering the US and demanding that America come first.

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This year, the packed rallies are the same, as are the tattooed, red-hatted and, yes, mostly unmasked crowds (seemingly unperturbed by a harrowing new surge of Covid cases across the country) where Trump has hurled unsubstantiated accusations against Joe Biden, his Democratic rival, who he claims had, while in office as Barack Obama’s right hand man, “spied” on his first presidential campaign. At a rally in Ohio on Saturday, for example, his frenzied supporters began a “lock him up” chant, an echo of “lock her up” calls about Hillary Clinton.

Well, looks like the more things change around here, the more they stay the same. The important question now — and not important just to those who care about or are engaged in interpreting the Constitution of the United States — is what happens if Donald Trump, were he to lose the election, cries fraud and refuses to concede defeat, which he has repeatedly threatened to do in recent months? Will torch-holding villagers from the red states march on Washington wielding pitchforks?

Turbulence and controversy

Barton Gellman, best-selling author and journalist who in 2013 led the Washington Post’s coverage of the US National Security Agency (NSA), based on top-secret documents provided him by Edward Snowden, wrote a lengthy article in Atlantic last month in which he said this: “This is not going to be a normal election ... The danger is not that [it] will just bring discord. Those who fear something worse take turbulence and controversy for granted. Students of election law and procedure are warning that conditions are ripe for a constitutional crisis that would leave the nation without an authoritative result. We have no fail-safe against this calamity”.

Less than a week before election day and the red lights are still blinking ...And it is not just Trump supporters who may march in the streets and raise hell. Anti-Trump activists are also ready to “stand back and stand by”, a colloquialism given a menacing edge by Donald Trump during that night of bluster, insults and hectoring on September 29 that passed for the first presidential debate. A coalition called Stand Up America, for example, has been preparing its members to take to the streets if Trump were to contest the election results.

These are tactics that sound straight out of a lawless police state rather than a democratic country like the United States, accustomed to seeing social change, such as civil rights, women’s rights, minority rights and the like, adjudicated in the courts or debated by the legislative branch of government. But in a now polarised America, that’s where you go today to be heard — all the way, as recent events attest, from Portland, Oregon to Washington, DC.

Totally unqualified for the job

Imagine, the New Yorker — like the New York Times a revered and always cautious publication — last week had an article, by Lizzi Widdicombe, a level-headed and respected journalist, that carried the provocative title “What If Donald Trump Stages a Coup?”

But what do you do when an incumbent chief executive in the White House — who by all accounts has shown himself to be totally unqualified for the job — tells reporters, as Donald Trump has been telling reporters for months, that he effectively will not concede defeat were he to lose in November nor commit to a peaceful transfer of power! “There won’t be a transfer, frankly”, he said. “There will be a continuation”.

Never before in American history has one president enabled such lowbrow, pedestrian and anti-intellectualist impulses to insinuate themselves into the very soul of America’s political culture.

All of which invokes that lament by the late George Carlin (d. 2008), son of Brooklyn working class Irish immigrants and in his heyday arguably the most influential stand-up comedian of all time. “True, in America anyone can become president”, he deadpanned. “That’s the problem”.

— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile