As you read this, there are just 12 days left until the US presidential election. It seems every election is described as "the most important of our lifetimes" - in this case of the 2020 election, I suspect it may be true.
Many elections have significant policy implications - and in the case of a global power like the US, those impacts are necessarily felt not only internally, but internationally. Here, though, in this election, the very foundations of democracy may be at stake.
Even to write that feels overblown - we are so wired for accommodation, for making the best of the hand we are dealt. Surely Trump is more buffoon than existential threat, a blow-hard, looking always for the next short-term gain? However, there are at least three (inter-related ) grounds on which the possible re-election of Trump is worrying in a way that goes beyond the normal ideological battles of elections.
A disdain for democracy
First, there is Trump's disdain for democracy. He has refused to state whether he will commit to a peaceful transfer of power, should he lose the election. This is the bedrock on which democracy is built: there are elections, and they have consequences. We may argue (vociferously ) about the process, pushing for every ambiguous vote to be called for us (or at least not for the other side ), but when the final result has been determined, it determines who is elected, and who is not.
'We are used to democracy just existing, but there is nothing inevitable about the continued existence of a democratic system'
The refusal to accept this principle when asked is a problem. Some shrug away Trump's comments - and his suggestions that the constitutionally-imposed term limits should not apply to him - as mere rhetoric. But mere rhetoric has a real impact. It acts to suppress turnout - if the election result does not matter, why bother? It erodes confidence in, and commitment to, democratic norms. And it provides cover - whatever Trump's actual actions - to those who act to undermine democratic systems, in the US and elsewhere.
We are used to democracy just existing - or have a sense of 'the long arc of history bending towards justice' (and democracy ), but there is nothing inevitable about the continued existence of a democratic system, or the concept writ large. In recent years we have seen Turkey, Hungary [under Viktor Orban - pictured above], and Russia move further away from, rather than closer to, democracy. In Poland, the independence of the judiciary has been undermined.
With five per cent of the world's population, and the world's most powerful military, the consequences of the United States abandoning democracy at a fundamental level would be significant - even if the trappings of local elections and congressional activity were to continue.
Embracing white supremacy?
Then there is Trump's long flirtation with - if not embrace of - white supremacy and various forms of bigotry and xenophobia. "Proud Boys, stand down and stand by" may have been a flubbed line - but there is a pattern to Trump's seeming inability to repudiate the support and positions of the far right.
Indeed, from the 1980s - when he took out full page ads calling for the introduction of the death penalty, specifically to execute the 'Central Park Five', a group of (later exonerated ) Black teenagers, suspected of rape - Trump has actively whipped up hatred and fear. The racism and sexism embedded in NBC's The Apprentice has been well documented by media analysts like Jennifer Pozner, and throughout Barack Obama's presidency he pushed race-baiting conspiracy theories that Obama was not really American.
It should not have been a surprise when the opening gambit of his presidential campaign in 2015 was to cast immigrants and asylum seekers as rapists, with dog whistle references to race and ethnicity. His ban on Muslim immigrants - struck down (initially ) by the courts - and his family separation policy were performatively cruel and bigoted.
Trump's response to the murder of Heather Heyer by a white supremacist in Charlottesville was to stress the "very fine people" protesting alongside the neo-Nazis, and - as he has so often since then - to cast those who protest and fight back against fascism as morally repugnant, on a par with the violent purveyors of the hate they are resisting. There is a reason that the former KKK leader David Duke and far-right activists like Steve Bannon and Gavin McInnes (founder of the Proud Boys ) have supported Trump - he and they are pushing for similar outcomes.
No place for facts and truth
The third area of concern is Trump's open disdain for facts and truth. Political spin is commonplace, as is selecting facts and shaping a narrative that will persuade an audience to your side. There is also a long history of the 'dark arts' in political campaigning, usually hidden in the shadows.
'Trump's dictatorial impulses, his open embrace of bigotry for political gain, and a commitment to Newspeak that would fit right into an Orwell novel, are dangerous'
However Trump and his enablers openly depart from established facts, making debate impossible. Kellyanne Conway, long before coining the term 'alternative facts' to defend Trump's lying and fabricated claims, made her living from deceptive push polling - a format in which you create 'alternative facts' by shaping questions to get the results you want. Sean Spicer - who must have filled his Late Late Show loyalty card at this stage - may have seemed ridiculous with his manifestly false claims about something as inconsequential as the turnout at the 2017 inauguration, but it put down a marker for the administration's approach.
Put together, Trump's dictatorial impulses, his open embrace of bigotry for political gain, and a commitment to Newspeak that would fit right into an Orwell novel, are dangerous. They are of course particularly dangerous for the already vulnerable - the Southern Poverty Law Centre noted in its report for 2019 that "hundreds of hate groups are operating in America, targeting immigrants and refugees, LGBTQA people, Muslims, Jews, Blacks, and other people of color". They note that the move "from the fringes to the mainstream" of ideologies of hate constitutes a political crisis.
Fighting back against Hate
That political crisis has implications for us all. We have seen the steady creep out of the shadows of previously (rightfully ) marginalised hate-groups in Ireland, taking advantage not just of crises like the pandemic, but also the background noise of Trumpism, which grants them visibility and a seeming legitimacy in the eyes of some.
'The far-right is ever more visible in Ireland, and we have our own longstanding issues with discrimination against Travellers'
This demands urgent action by us all. Whether or not Trump is elected in two weeks time - and recent polling gives room for cautious optimism - those in the media, politics, and academia, among others, must recognise their responsibilities. The cheap clicks and ratings boosts offered by presenting purveyors of hate as merely 'controversial' guests must be resisted by those in the media.
Pundits must offer substantive analysis, rather than the horse-race commentary that leads to musing on whether this is the moment - finally - when Trump "became presidential", or whether a particular act of hate will "play well with his base". And politicians must be vocal, unafraid to speak truth to power.
Our president, Uachtarán na hÉireann, Michael D Higgins, has of course always been a wonderful exemplar of this. So too, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin's ongoing work, from Seanad speeches to his involvement with the 'Irish Stand' project that provided a space for Irish-Americans to stand up against hate, at a time when Spicer and others were seeking to leverage their identity in the service of discrimination and bigotry.
There are less than two weeks until the die will have been cast, though it may, this year, take longer before the result is known. Whatever the result of that election, the fight against hate, fascism, and bigotry, must not end there. The far-right is ever more visible in Ireland; we have our own longstanding issues with discrimination against Travellers and others that must, finally, be reckoned with. La lucha continua.