Opinion

This US election is the pinnacle of American individualism

As the US President calls for an early end to voting, we need to rethink the ruthless self-involvement that has fuelled his campaign, says Alastair Reid

“We want all voting to stop… we don’t want them to find any more ballots at 4 o’clock and add them to the list.” 

At roughly half two in the morning local time of November 4, a sitting American president took to the stage in the White House’s East Room and called for a dismissal of the democratic process. 

This should not have come as a surprise for many. Trump had spent the months preceding election night laying the groundwork, planting seeds of doubt in the minds of his supporters as to the legitimacy of the voting system, much as he did in 2016. The brazenness, even now, was shocking, if not surprising.

The other notable part of his speech, however, was as explicit as everyone expected.

“As far as I’m concerned, we’ve already won,” Trump said falsely, with major states yet to declare votes, millions of ballots yet to be counted and Democratic rival Joe Biden ahead in the electoral college count.

That speech should be where the American Dream, already weak and wheezing with age, is rushed to intensive care ready for emergency resuscitation. But it is also the final form of a unique brand of Americanism: Democracy for me, to hell with everyone else.

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America’s support for brutal dictatorships around the world throughout the 20th century laid that principle bare for anyone who cared to look. From Argentina to Afghanistan, successive US administrations have funded, armed or turned a blind eye to dictators and despots while championing “freedom” at home. Now those chickens are coming home to roost in painful, horrifying fashion.

It is too early for a full post-mortem of the election, of course. The votes, lest we forget, have still to be counted, and that could take days. Biden could still win. As could Trump. The President could, as he declared in his speech, go to the Supreme Court to get his proclamation rubber stamped, a court into which he has just rushed a supporter in the form of Amy Coney Barrett. Such an appointment in the weeks before a crucial election is unlikely to have been made without some discussion of election night. A constitutional crisis beckons.

Many in the country have turned away from the values they claim to revere, unwilling to make space for others when times get tough, and unable to allow opponents the same freedoms they demand

But it helps to ask how we got here. Trump may have spent the summer kneecapping the electoral process while simultaneously casting its legitimacy in doubt, but it has been the media, both established and social, that facilitated the strategy. The Trump election machine found the media’s weak spot way back in 2015 and has played it to his advantage like no one else.

For five years the television and social networks have replayed and rebroadcast the lies of the Trump family and their associates, aghast at any suggestion they bore responsibility for some of the chaos unfolding as a result, agog with skyrocketing numbers of viewers and users drawn to argue over the details. Major TV networks and tech firms may as well have rolled over while Trump tickled their bellies.

But it is not quite that simple. There are no easy answers here and both news organisations and social networks have made late attempts to alert their audiences to the misleading nature of many of Trump’s claims. The answer is certainly not to draw a blanket of silence over proceedings and let such ruthless operators work in the dark.

But lacking in all of this has been a self-awareness, from a whole range of third parties, as to their responsibilities in the process. It is rare for the powerful to admit they are wrong, that they made a mistake and are willing to change. But it is a quality, as the world continues to battle with all the myriad impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, that is needed now more than ever.

Which way America turns in the coming days is still anyone’s guess. But the lessons for the world should be plain to see. Many in the country have turned away from the values they claim to revere, unwilling to make space for others when times get tough, and unable to allow opponents the same freedoms they demand.

When there is no space for honesty, humility, empathy, or community, life becomes a free-for-all where those who wield power do so with increasing ferocity. You only had to look at the summer’s protests throughout the US to understand that.

Naked individualism works for a ruthless and lucky few. America is showing just how far a system defined by such values — often above all else — can stretch without breaking in two.

Alastair Reid is digital editor of The Big Issue.

Image credit: WhiteHouse/Flickr

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