Was Donald Trump the president America “had to have”? Back in 2016, this “outsider”, “anti-politician” and “disrupter” was going to shake up the capital and run roughshod over the “do-nothing” politicians that many Americans have been raging against for decades. Although he never won a majority, Trump garnished support because he would “drain the swamp” of those who lined their pockets, cut deals with lobbyists and gamed the system to ensure their party’s dominance without delivering for the people.
Let’s try something new, voters thought back in 2016, because the old ways of electing “traditional” Republicans or Democrats were getting us nowhere. What have we got to lose?
Depending on your point of view, the answer was everything or nothing.
I began 2020 election day like every other keen observer of US politics with trepidation and excitement, conscious of a momentous historic moment and aware that a majority of “reliable” pollsters were predicting a Biden win. Like every American casting a ballot, I was buoyed up by the unprecedented number of early voters because sadly, in a nation touted as the world’s greatest democracy, our apathy usually leaves the US ranked 30 out of 35 for voter turnout among comparable democracies.
I was also keenly aware that Trump very likely would not accept losing.
I also had a momentary flashback to election day in the 1980 Reagan/Carter contest. I had accompanied former California governor Ronald Reagan as White House assistant press secretary on his campaign plane during the last frenetic week of endless rallies where the slogan “Make America Great Again” had its origins. We landed in Los Angeles, Reagan’s home town, and prepared for an expected long night of watching election returns before hopefully celebrating at the after-party. There is an incredible rush of satisfaction when this day is reached – no more campaigning, no more speeches, no more listening to endless loops of Lee Greenwood’s song, “God Bless the USA” (another Trump campaign steal). As fate would have it, we did not endure a long night of tense counting. Reagan won in a landslide, and most of the staff, including the Reagans, were barely slipping into our party clothes when president Jimmy Carter appeared on TV acknowledging his worthy opponent and graciously conceding the race.
I wake up in Sydney and here we are in 2020, listening to president Donald J Trump scowling, in the middle of the night from the stately East Room of the White House, that this election is “a fraud on the American public”, demanding that the vote count stop. And in an unbelievable final assault on the democratic process, he falsely claimed that “Frankly, we did win this election”.
What an extraordinary and chilling finale to one of the ugliest and most contentious US elections in history, held during a bleak year in America in which an out-of-control pandemic has killed more than a quarter of a million of its people and left its economy in tatters.
The costly and incendiary lawsuits Republicans are launching to overturn key swing state results will likely fizzle as judges calmly remind them that state laws determine election processes, not presidents. This includes deciding how long to count legitimate votes. Challenges will be a time-consuming exercise that gives Trump time to make up additional false allegations, doing further damage to a democratic system already under great stress.
Former vice-president Joe Biden has spoken confidently about his lead in the tally, reassuring the country that all votes will be counted. He acknowledged the difficulty in beating an incumbent president more than willing to use the White House stage. Only three incumbents in American history have been defeated, including George HW Bush, another president I served.
The problems in America will not go away with either Trump or Biden. Yet Biden’s experience and calls for unity offer hope that the country can heal and democratic institutions fully function once more.
Foreign democratic governments should not feel reluctant to speak to this disruptive moment. America needs its allies more than ever to reaffirm their commitment to the rule of law, stress the importance of every vote and allow time for those processes to take place.
Both the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, and Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, have set the appropriate and measured tone in their responses. “I have great confidence in the democracy of the United States, and I have great confidence in their institutions,” Morrison said.
Payne rightfully focused her comments on the critical tool of democracy when she said, “What is important is that every vote is counted. And I’m sure that they will be. I’m absolutely confident that they will be.”
Such comments are worthy of the close relationship shared between the US and Australia, and are to be commended.