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Editorial: A Narrow Escape

The US Presidential Election result shows the amount of work that needs to be done, at home and abroad, to combat the rise of authoritarian populism and the people it speaks to

EditorialA Narrow Escape

Though a historic win for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, US Presidential Election result shows the amount of work that needs to be done, at home and abroad, to combat the rise of authoritarian populism and the people it speaks to 

Democratic nominee Joe Biden is now President-Elect with over 75 million votes in the US presidential elections. A historic campaign came down to the state where Biden was born – Pennsylvania – with five days of counting postal votes, which overwhelmingly favoured the Democratic Party, which had asked its supporters to vote by mail because of the Coronavirus crisis

With Kamala Harris as his Vice President, this is also a historic moment as the first woman ever, and person of colour is destined to occupy that role.

But for all the jubilation among hard-working US liberals who turned out an extraordinary number of voters, the vote for Biden’s Republican rival Donald Trump rose by at least 5%. The incumbent Trump’s final popular vote tally is likely to be the second most votes of any American presidential candidate, proving that authoritarian populism now has deep roots in American soil. And, because the US is still the world’s most powerful and influential nation, those roots are destined to continue to spread to other shores. 

Trump’s first term enabled and encouraged other ‘strong men’ to pursue their agendas and interests across the globe. While Trump ridiculed the rule of law and due process at home, the role of international agreements has also been discredited, with the ‘world’s policeman’ absent without leave. 

Russia and Turkey’s expansionist ambitions have gone unimpeded; human rights abuses in Myanmar, Kashmir, Hong Kong and China’s East Turkestan left unchecked. Whatever happens to Trump, he has provided an inspiration for dictators and demagogues, while the post-war institutions formed more than 75 years ago seem powerless to stop this. 

Closer to home, Trump’s surprising demotic resilience will embolden his closest British ally, Nigel Farage, who continues to torment the Conservative Party and drag it further to the right. Neither the Foreign Secretary Dominc Raab nor his boss the Prime Minister Boris Johnson, dared criticise Trump, even when he openly flouted every convention in the democratic playbook, accusing his rivals of cheating, and calling out his ‘most loyal’ supporters to intimidate vote counters and those at polling stations in the days after the election.

In Arizona, where Trump hoped that late counted ballots would be in his favour, protestors (often armed) shouted “count the vote”. In places such as Pennsylvania and Georgia, where postal ballots were trending towards Biden, they demanded the opposite: “Stop the count.” Forget the contradiction. Trump’s forte is not to reason or for fairness, but to something much more emotional and almost mystical. 

His psychological appeal, like most strong men (and increasingly strong women) is only intensified when he lies and contradicts himself. Trump’s brief hospitalisation with COVID-19, and his heroic return to the White House, embodied that supreme will to power. It may look unhinged, but that’s the point. By defying reality and reason, charismatic leaders provide a simpler, engaged and more meaningful world to many millions.

This is just as true closer to home where Boris Johnson has built his career on lies, contradictions and failed promises. But, each time he gets caught out, he shrugs it off – and his admirers congratulate him on another escapade. Like Trump, the Prime Minister’s supporters seem to care less about what he can do for the country, and are more inclined to identify with someone who seems to be able to do whatever he likes for himself. His clownish acts represent a perverse form of hope.

None of this has much to do with representative democracy or the often tedious and technocratic administration of an efficient state – but this doesn’t seem to matter to these populist politicians’ supporters. Trump’s handling of the Coronavirus, presiding over 230,000 deaths, has been shocking but he still attracted significant support in this election. This should be instructive for us here in the UK.

Behind these leaders are vested interests who are happy to allow these Lords of Misrule make all the noise on stage while – behind the scenes – they can carry on the serious business of enriching themselves, avoiding regulation, accountability and the rule of law. 

In the case of Trump and Johnson, Byline Times has been documenting these since our first edition: the dark money flowing across the Atlantic to right-wing think tanks; the misuse of data and digital targeting with companies like Cambridge Analytica; and of course the attempts to subvert or divert the will of the people by Russian oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin or hedge fund billionaires. We will continue to expose the real forces behind the symbolic strong men.

But, as the 2020 US Presidential Election has shown, populism is more entrenched in the hearts and minds of many millions than previously suspected – and we all have to dig deeper into those feelings, and the social conditions that produce them, to isolate the global threat of the populist right.

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