The extraordinary idea of the break-up of America is receiving attention nowadays because of the dramatic Republican-Democrat divide in the country promoted by President Trump.
It was entirely predictable. The scenario painted in my article on 6 September, Fifty-eight more days before America explodes, is shaping up precisely. All that remains is the outbreak of violence, something which people of goodwill fervently hope will not happen. Unfortunately, President Donald Trump appears to be doing his level-best to create just this, by his persistent claims that the election is being stolen from him, for which he has provided no evidence. For months, goaded by Trump bellowing “fraud” at voting by mail, vigilante groups have been on high alert, loading their guns. It was always the case that “Covid cautious” Democrats would vote by post, while the “economy cautious” Republicans would vote in person, so that it would take time to count the ballot and arrive at a result. This has created a slow death of the Trump presidency, as little by little Biden overtakes him in the key swing states.
After falsely declaring victory on the night of the election, Trump and his allies are now setting the stage to claim that a Joe Biden presidency would be illegitimate, baselessly questioning the validity of ballots and how they are counted. Listen to Trump on Thursday. “If you count the legal votes, I easily win the election. If you count the illegal and late votes, they can steal the election from us.” Bill Stephens, Trump’s campaign manager, thundered: “The Democrats are lying, cheating and stealing. It’s happening all over the country.”
Close elections are common in the US, and there’s no proof of widespread irregularities in these closely monitored elections. But, as Trump has shown over and over, he can quickly get 40% of the public to believe whatever he says. This gives him strong support for the slew of law-suits attacking both the voting system and officials, which experts say are simply diversionary tactics. “The more desperate Trump becomes, the more baseless allegations there are about the ways in which the states count ballots, about our democratic process and his own authority over the process”, said one expert. Post-election litigation is normal in the US, but Donald Trump’s threats to sue his way to re-election are unlikely to succeed.
What they will achieve, however, is widening of the gap of the two warring tribes in the US. Already the hashtag #stopthesteal is going viral among both fringe and mainstream conservatives, and pro-Trump groups on Facebook are starting to organise real-world protests. Protests are perfectly acceptable in a free society, but when they involve militias using military-grade weapons, they could light the fuse that results in a full-blown crisis for democracy in America, possibly endangering the very existence of the country. These are very dangerous times for the world’s leading democracy, as even a moderate Biden presidency is unlikely to alter long-running political and cultural divides within the country.
America has faced worse divisions in the past and survived—at great cost. But with polarisation set to deepen over time, particularly with ex-President Donald Trump tweet-storming from the sidelines, and a Democratic President frustrated by a Republican Senate, the country could face paralysing political sclerosis or even calls for secession.
The extraordinary idea of the break-up of America is becoming more credible and receiving attention nowadays because of the dramatic Republican-Democrat divide in the country promoted by President Trump. A number of books have recently hit the shelves suggesting new countries: such as one involving the Democratic West Coast states leaving the union over gun laws; the other involving Republican Southern states led by Texas seceding because of abortion laws. What both scenarios have in common in a divided America is a sense that the opposing party that controls the national government is an existential threat that can no longer be combated through electoral politics. In reality, however, executing secession would be dizzyingly difficult in a country as economically interwoven as the US, and while ideological divisions are extreme, they don’t always run along state borders. It’s also prohibited by the Constitution.
Ideology is not the only threat to the future of the US. Population movements and demography are also playing their part. For example, if Democrats continue to congregate in heavily populated metropolitan areas, as projected, the American system’s skew towards rural areas and states would only grow. So much that by 2040, 70% of Americans could live in just 15 states, giving them voice in just 30% of the Senate. This type of non-representation is simply not sustainable, nor is it democratic. Change is urgently needed.
The first reform in order to avoid a constitutional crisis is to scrap the absurd Electoral College. This gives disproportionate sway to smaller rural conservative states such as North Dakota over the larger liberal ones like California. In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump received 3 million less votes nationally than Hilary Clinton, yet won the election because of the Electoral College and became President. Four years earlier, he called the Electoral College “a disaster for democracy”, yet in true Trump fashion he changed his mind when he realised that it won him the 2016 election, defending it as “far better for the USA”. Perhaps he meant “far better for Donald Trump”? Only once in the 44 elections between 1824 and 1996 did a winning presidential candidate lose the popular vote, but already it’s happened twice in the past 16 years. In a true democracy every vote should count equally and not be gerrymandered by boundaries.
The second urgent task of a Biden government is to reform the Supreme Court. Although the court remains the least disrespected among America’s three branches, the others being the legislator (Congress) and the Executive (the Presidency), the people’s veneration for it has been waning over past generations. Since Donald Trump took office, the hostility of a large section of America’s population to conservative constitutionalism has grown sharply because of his pact with the Christian right, which has resulted in three new Supreme Court justices, all having security of tenure for life. Trump’s actions have shattered faith in the idea of checks and balances. A larger court with a fixed tenure would restore credibility in America’s famous separation of powers.
What could a Biden presidency do to avert a US constitutional meltdown? The distressing answer is very little. The simplest step would be to amend the Constitution to make America more democratic. But amendments require approval by three-quarters of America’s 50 states and two thirds of each chamber of Congress. An impossibility in today’s polarised climate and the failure of the Democrats to win the Senate. Apart from a trivial amendment over congressional salaries, the last serious one was the 25th, which enabled a US President to be removed because of incapacity. Critics of Donald Trump have made recitation of the “25th” into something of a chant because of his alleged mental instability.
So, President Biden will be stymied in any attempt to make any meaningful changes which could reduce America’s divide and bring the nation together. His win will only scratch the surface of America’s afflictions. Although there will be much talk of a new normality and the need for a democratic reset, Trump’s departure will be no guarantee that the country will be mended as there are too many systemic issues infecting the US.
The inescapable reality of the election results is that Trumpism remains a powerful current in American politics. It’s akin to political tendencies in other parts of the world where strongmen have co-opted democracies. Trump’s brand of demagogic nationalism, his ceaseless campaigning through every year of his term and his unrepentant embrace of divisive messaging and tactics have clearly mobilised tremendous support. Trumpism has not been swept into the dustbin of history—it will remain part of the furniture. It may even define right-wing politics in the United States for years to come.
Now here’s a final thought. How about Donald Trump as candidate for the presidency in 2024? Provided, of course, that there’s no imminent civil war and that Trump in the meantime avoids jail for tax fraud.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.