It is already 12 days since Americans went to the polls to pick their president. The results say Joseph Biden of the Democratic Party won, beating the Republican Party’s incumbent President Donald Trump. Biden has declared himself President-elect and he will be the 46th President of the United States. Yet barely 10 weeks to the inauguration on January 20 next year, Trump is stonewalling and refusing to acknowledge defeat, much less to cooperate in the usual power transition process expected after an election. And it is not as if the US is in such a stable state as to be able to regard the change of administrations as routine: there is a Covid-19 tragedy unfolding which has to be dealt with ASAP.
So what’s happening in the US and are we, from the outside, witnessing a “benign” (Lee Kuan Yew’s word) superpower disintegrating into a banana republic? And what can we learn from the spectacle of an administration that is almost childishly making things difficult for the incoming one?
The answer to the first question is: No. There is division in the US, yes – Republicans versus Democrats in less than civil political rivalry. Yes, one of its pillars in the balance of power – the Fourth Estate (the press and news media) – has been relentlessly belittled by Trump in the four years that he has been in power, at almost every White House press conference. White supremacist fringe groups and racism have been shamelessly tapped by Trump for his base. The list of cracks in a once admired bastion of freedom for the world’s oppressed is long.
The picture is grim, especially as Trump continues to challenge the results without offering any shred of evidence that the election was fraudulent.
One theory why Republican leaders have not tried to rein him in is that they are still playing politics and continuing to hang on to his coat-tails, however slippery now. There is a pair of January runoffs in Georgia which are crucial for Republican control of the Senate. The other theory is that Trump can become a convenient excuse for any poor Republic performance at state or local level: “We were just being loyal to him.”
All the goings-on may not be what one would call politics as usual in a country which believes strongly in checks and balances. But the US has gone through far worse times. Someone asked Fox News’ Chris Wallace – who moderated the first Trump-Biden debate – whether he has seen any period more divisive than the Trump years. He said Yes. To him, the Vietnam years were worse: “I would say 1978 was far worse than anything going on now.” There were pitched battles in the streets and campuses between police/troops and anti-Vietnam War protesters.
Sometimes, we also underestimate American resilience. Americans are proud of their democracy and its voting system and would protect their integrity. I saw this spirit first hand when I was in the US once to observe how the system worked. All the voting booths were manned by impartial volunteers who took their work very seriously – whether a student or a homemaker: “And, sir, you see we have to decide whether to go ahead with the water tax while we also decide who we want to be our President. You push this lever and that and once you have made your choices, you pull the whole row down simultaneously.”
The real worry among concerned Americans is whether their eligible voters care enough at every election to actually vote. Voter apathy has been a problem. But not for the 2020 elections.
There has been a resurgence in the voter turnout. Only 54.9 per cent out of 235,248,000 voted in 2012. This year, voter turnout is 66.4 per cent out of 239,247,182, the highest since 1900. The 1900 election had recorded 73.7 per cent.
Of course, low turnout may also be seen as a protest against having to choose lacklustre candidates or spring from a sense of helplessness in a voter’s inability to make any difference anyway.
Trump has more or less compelled many to turn up, whether Republican or Democrat. In that sense, he is lightning-rod divisive. Plus there is probably a real feeling among many Americans that something has to be done about the Covid-19 crisis. According to an expert, the American situation is a pandemic fast becoming a humanitarian disaster. Imagine, Doctors Without Borders – an international NGO which usually sends its doctors to Third World countries – is despatching doctors to help out in the US which is supposed to be a nation of cutting edge medical excellence and which normally is the volunteer and donor nation!
It will pass, nevertheless. The US system – well thought out by its founding fathers – should be able to cope with its political turmoil.
Trump’s authoritarian streak and refusal to accept reality, nevertheless, offer a lesson for Singaporeans who are pushing for a better level playing field in our politics. We should not allow such things to happen here too.
We may be shocked by Trump’s mean streak. But if we look back at what the People’s Action Party was doing toits ELECTED political opponents, what Trump is doing looks familiar.
Chiam See Tong in Potong Pasir was denied the opportunity to carry out his duties in a manner befitting an elected Member of Parliament. The PAP’s refusal to cooperate with or extend a helping hand to elected opponents continued in the handing over to the Workers’ Party in Aljunied GRC and will likely persist in Sengkang.
Trump/Republicans or PAP – same same?
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.