“I feel like I can breath again”. It was a term often heard after it became clear Joe Biden had won the 2020 US Presidential Election. Yet if Irish people felt they could ‘breath’ as the votes pointed to a Trump defeat, what was going through the minds of Americans living in Galway?
Election 2020 was an election like no other. This is the most divided the nation has been since the 1960s - some would say the 1860s - and the last four years of Trumpism have shown that racism, discrimination, and xenophobia did not end with Obama in the White House, rather, such intolerance lay under the surface, re-emerging emboldened and near to the mainstream than ever, with the Trump presidency.
For Americans living in Galway, Election 2020, its aftermath, and what it means for the future of the nation, is something very intense, deep, and personal. The USA is, after all, their country, not ours.
“I know it’s 'interesting' and perhaps 'great news' for the rest of the world, but for me it is my safety,” says Claire Van Valkenburg, a 23-year-old from Hudson, Wisconsin, now living and working in Galway. “One thing Europeans don’t realize when they talk to us is just how very real this is. Please, don’t let the first thing out of your mouth be, ‘So, did you vote for Trump?’ It induces horrible anxiety and panic. I am not your token because of my nation’s politics, and I do not want to talk about it with someone who doesn’t understand my lived experience, or simply views my nation as an interesting case study. What is political is very personal.”
‘Relief’ to ‘indifference’ - reactions to the result
On November 3, the US went to the polls in what proved to be the highest voter turnout since 1900. More than 79 million voted for Democratic candidate Joe Biden, while close to 74 million voted for the incumbent, Donald Trump. With 98 per cent of the votes counted at the time of going to press, the electoral college vote is 306 for Biden to Trump’s 232.
“I was delighted for Joe Biden, a man who’s been through an awful lot and managed to win the big prize on his third try,” said NUI Galway law lecturer, Larry Donnelly, originally from Boston, and who is also a supporter of the Democrats. “I also think it was a good moment for the US after a tumultuous period. It is a profound shame Trump was elected president, but he is only a symptom of the malaise afflicting the country.”
'Republicans will look for someone who shares Trump’s general philosophy, but who is less polarising'
For the poet and short story writer, Susan Millar Du Mars, there is “relief” at Trump’s defeat. “However, it should’ve been a landslide against him,” she said. “I don’t think Biden is the best politician to lead us out of this mess.”
Susan is, like Biden, from Pennsylvania, but as she says, “I would not see him as belonging to Pennsylvania so much as belonging to the political establishment; a nice guy with no new ideas. God knows, I wish him luck.”
For Dr Richard Kimball, from Portland, Maine, and a strong supporter of Palestinain rights, neither candidate offered much. “I felt indifference at the result, both candidates leave a lot to be desired,” he says. “Back home, my friends and family were fairly evenly divided between the candidates. Those who supported Biden are overjoyed. Those who supported Trump suspect the voting system was rigged in key areas through postal and electronic voting."
Claire Van Valkenburg, though, sees the voting trends highlighted by this election as giving cause for, if not optimism, then at least, possibilities.
“More than 60 percent of people between ages 18-25 voted Democrat, which is a trend even stronger among Gen Z. Yet, the overall popular vote was 52 per cent Democrat to 48 per cent Republican – a much smaller margin. I’ve never believed old white men should speak for me, but it appears that trend will change as my generation takes office.”
Refusing to accept defeat
On Monday evening, it appeared that Trump had, if not conceded defeat, then was bowing to the inevitable, when he told his team to co-operate on the transition for President-elect Joe Biden.
Yet his vow to keep up his legal fight against the election result and his copious Tweets claiming fraudulent ballots, cannot but be corrosive to American democracy, and will further fuel his base’s distrust of politics.
"Harris as Madame Vice President Elect is significant. Representation is a powerful tool that can provide a pathway for marginalised populations”
“It’s staggering to see how many Americans are so disenfranchised, uninformed, and angry that they are willing to back Trump,” says Susan. “That’s a huge problem which will be exploited again and again by increasingly unhinged and malevolent characters. The problem does not end with Trump.”
“Democracy in America was broken long before Trump came into office," says Claire, "but he is the embodiment of that brokenness, bringing into the limelight the harm and hatred that is born of an antiquated system. America is broken, and it is dangerous to blame one man for its degradation because it will not be fixed simply by his removal.”
Kamala Harris as VP - a positive move?
Election 2020 made history in more ways than one - not only did voters go to the polls in unprecedented numbers to give both candidates the highest vote levels ever achieved, but for the first time, a woman will serve as Vice-President - Kamala Harris, the California senator, and a woman of colour, of Jamacian and Indian descent.
“I would argue Harris’s position as Madame Vice President Elect is one of the most significant accomplishments for representation and equality in modern politics,” says Claire. “I do not agree with all of her political views, however, I believe representation is a powerful tool that can provide a pathway for our most marginalised populations.”
'The Democrats have been taken over by ‘woke’ political activists out of touch with the majority of people'
Susan, though, feels the choice of Harris was a victory for “woke” politics over left-wing politics. “This dismays me,” she says. “I would far prefer a VP who champions the working class – be they black, white, Hispanic, Indian. Having said that, I’m happy the daughters of my US friends – particularly my black friends – now find it easier to picture themselves in the highest office in the land. That is a precious thing.”
‘Worse than Trump’
Trump did not create the divisions which came into the open in American society in recent years. He has enabled them, but he is also a product of such divisions. The concern comes then, that, having gone for a Trump like figure once, could voters opt for someone even worse in the future?
Susan fears a ‘worse than Trump’ candidate is “almost inevitable”, but sees education as the key to preventing this.
"The majority of states that went red this time also score near the bottom in terms of standards of education," she says. "Instead of responding to this with ‘basket of deplorable’ type insults, why don’t we fix it? Offer those states economic incentives to reduce teacher/student ratios, keep kids in school, offer more diverse programmes, bring up test scores? Get more adults into some form of higher education? Educated people make better citizens and better voters. Nobody asks to be born in a state where the schools aren’t good.”
For Dr Kimball, the Democrats need to change their approach and become a broad based party that can attract formerly disillusioned voters.
“In 2016, almost all of my family and friends voted against Hillary as a protest vote. Most would have considered themselves Democrats. In my opinion, the Democrats have been taken over by ‘woke’ political activists out of touch with the majority of people. Anyone could be successful running against ‘woke’ Democrats as long as they attempt to harness the traditional Democrat voter while appealing to Republicans.”
Larry Donnelly says he continues to “have faith in the robust institutions” of American democracy: “I keep reminding people the US is bigger and better – in every sense of those two words – than the man who has been the president for the past four years. I have never bought the idea that Trump is a dictator. Even if he were, I don’t think he’d ever get to do what some of his enemies allege he wants to do. The institutions are very powerful obstacles. I suspect next time out, Republicans will look for someone who shares Trump’s general philosophy, but who is a more tolerant and less polarising messenger.”
Healing the divisions?
In January, Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. However, he inherits a poisoned chalice as he attempts to begin healing a profoundly polarised nation. Is he truly up for the job?
“Four years cannot, and will not, bring together a nation so divided, nor can eight,” says Claire. “Political affiliations have become ideologies seeded in hatred.”
However she hopes Biden and Harris listen to their 79.8 million voters and “prioritize black lives, climate change, renewable energy, the abolition of the electoral college, equality and safety for trans and queer individuals. I can only hope that by the power of the people, Biden’s six million majority will grow with outreach, advocacy, and grassroots organisation.”
'Biden must address the right to be safe on the job and the right to sick pay; fewer jail sentences, greater access to education'
For Larry Donnelly, a start can be made through the incoming president making the restoration of civility to public discourse a priority. “I think Joe Biden should lead, and can help to start heal, by example,” he says. “He’s got a tough job on his hands, to put it mildly. I hope dearly he succeeds and I will be supporting and praying for him every step of the way.”
Susan notes how the gaps between social classes in the US have been steadily widening since the early 1970s. “Biden must address this,” she says. “Nationalised healthcare; a living wage; increased rights for workers, including the right to be safe on the job and the right to sick pay; fewer jail sentences, greater access to education - remember, Mr Biden: America is more than its middle class.”
Dr Kimball is concerned that American foregin policy will be a belligerent one under Biden and Harris. “Biden is well tied in with the military industrial complex,” he says. “The Canadian documentary, Weight of Chains, demonstrates Biden’s role in the destruction and pillage of former Yugoslavia, as well as his callous attitude towards the fate of people in eastern Europe and Russia. Further, both Biden and Harris’ support for Israel is simply frightening.”
“On a positive note, I welcome their stated intention to provide greater advances in basic universal healthcare and reform of the immigration system.”