Can America survive 2020?
By Farhad Manjoo
My wife, Helen, and I got into a quarrel the other day about how to plan for America’s bleak future. Our family needs to replace an aging car, but I’ve been hesitant, wary of making any new financial commitments as the nation accelerates into the teeth of political chaos or cataclysm. What if, after the election, we need to make a run for it? Why squander spare cash on a new car?
Helen thinks I’m being alarmist — that I’m LARPing “The Handmaid’s Tale,” nursing some revolutionary fantasy of escape from Gilead. But I think she — like a lot of other white, Gen X native-born Americans who’ve known mostly domestic peace and stability — is being entirely too blasé about the approaching storm.
As an immigrant who escaped to America from apartheid-era South Africa, I feel that I’ve cultivated a sharper appreciation for political trouble. To me, the signs on the American horizon are flashing blood red.
Armed political skirmishes are erupting on the streets, and scholars are tracking a rise in violence and instability as the election draws near. Gun sales keep shattering records. Mercifully, I suppose, there’s a nationwide shortage of ammo. Then there is the pandemic, mass unemployment, natural disasters on every coast, intense racial and partisan polarization, and not a little bit of lockdown-induced collective stir craziness.
There’s also this: Helen skipped the Republican convention. I watched it wall-to-wall, and it drove me to despair. In that four-night celebration of Trumpism, I caught a frightening glimpse of the ugly end of America, an authoritarian cult in full flower, and I am not keen to stick around much longer to see if my terrifying premonition pans out.
I want you to know that I am straining, here, to resist partisan squabbling. There was a lot for a lefty like myself to dislike about the Republican confab, but what shook me was not any particular policy goal but instead the convention’s Peronist aesthetics and the unembarrassed profligacy of lies.
The convention certainly intensified my worries about a Trump reelection. Unloosed from all checks, a two-term Trump would, I fear, usher in a reign by his clan for long into the future. (Trump has repeatedly “joked” about serving beyond a second term.)
But the Republican convention also quickened my worries about American democracy even in the event that he loses. If Trumpism has charmed a sizable minority of Americans, and if the Trump dynasty retains its mass appeal, will America ever move on? Even if the country can get as far as a peaceful transition of power, can we expect anything like a functioning federal government beyond the inauguration?
In a new book, “Presidents, Populism and the Crisis of Democracy,” political scientists William G. Howell and Terry M. Moe argue that Trumpism is largely a symptom of growing populist disaffection with the American government’s inability to solve people’s problems. Even if Trump does lose, they argue, our democracy will still face serious questions about its viability. I asked Moe, a professor at Stanford, how America might recover from this damage.
“It’s not clear that we can,” he told me. “I think the Republicans, for now, are an anti-democracy party.” Their only chance of political survival is to continue to “make the country as undemocratic as they can so that they can win elections.”
The party’s complete submission to Trump was on full display at the convention. It adopted a platform that was essentially no new platform other than to “enthusiastically support the president’s America-first agenda.” There was no mention of Obamacare, the repeal of which was once a Republican policy obsession. There wasn’t a single reference to the number of Americans who’ve died from the coronavirus, nor even a passing recognition of the threats of a changing climate.
Instead, we saw a dynastic cult of personality: Of the six convention speakers who spoke for longer than 10 minutes, four were Trumps.
Then there was the blizzard of lies. The convention represented a new low in collective artifice and delusion. These weren’t lies about obscure details or matters of interpretation. These lies cut to the bone and marrow of reality — the rendering in the past tense of a pandemic that is still killing about a thousand Americans a day, or the description of an economy that is in the worst downturn since the Great Depression as roaring on all cylinders. How did the party get low-income New Yorkers to praise Trump? They simply tricked them into participating.
It’s not the lies themselves that worry me most, but the fact that millions of people might accept them. Can America endure such mendacity? When you don’t have social trust, when you don’t have a shared view of reality, do you even have a country?
This week, I asked my Twitter followers if they shared my growing alarm over the state of American democracy. Were they, like me, contemplating the coming unraveling of America?
I was surprised and dismayed to find I was hardly alone. Dozens of people responded saying they worried about the outright rigging of the race, the potential for violence over a disputed election, and the abandonment of democratic norms.
Nancy Bermeo, an emeritus professor of politics at Princeton who studies the erosion of democracies — what scholars call “democratic backsliding” — told me that she sees some reasons for optimism that American democratic norms may survive Trump. Recent polls show the military is increasingly critical of Trump — a positive sign if you’re worried about extra-democratic power grabs. The United States also still has a free press, and there remains widespread support of the basic ideals of democracy.
Still, there is more than enough reason for alarm. “There’s no doubt that there’s serious democratic backsliding going on,” she told me. “He’s doing things that are reminiscent of authoritarians in much less-developed countries with much shorter histories of competitive politics.”
In looking for reasons for consolation, she added, “I’m grasping for hope.”