A cartoon in London’s free and therefore mass circulation Evening Standard shows US President Donald Trump screaming: “This totally discredited, completely fraudulent election … has been won by me.” The searing contradiction of that rant may well reflect the profound conviction of the 68 million fanatical Trump devotees. It is what 78-year-old US President-elect Joseph R. (Joe) Biden must address if the next four years of American history are not lost in bitter political wrangling, interminable legal battles, vicious racial conflict and bloody fighting in the streets.
During the last four years the United States suffered what former President Barack Obama calls “truth decay”. He warns, moreover, that it will take more than one election — meaning Mr Biden’s historic victory this month — to undo the damage done during the Trump presidency. The mix of toxic conspiracy theories, denigration of respected international institutions, intensely narrow nationalism as highlighted by the belligerence of Mr Trump’s “America First” slogan, the spate of sackings to purge the administration, especially the Pentagon, of all but Trump loyalists, and a reckless populism that has divided American society from top to bottom has created wounds that are in desperate need of healing.
Abroad, the mix found support only among leaders who share some of Mr Trump’s personal and political characteristics — Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, and our own Mr Narendra Modi among them. At home, Mr Trump’s divisive demagoguery enjoyed the backing — apart from influential power brokers who are always in the shadowy background — of an extreme right-wing fringe, lower income group whites in the so-called “rust belt”, and a surprising number of women and Latino voters who also saw Mr Trump as a champion of the underprivileged. Like India’s Sangh Parivar, this coalition, too, was able to single out the enemy within and charge it with doing the majority out of its rights. Similarly, Mr Trump accused, without a shred of evidence, countless anonymous enemies as well as the financier George Soros and voting machines manufactured in Venezuela of cheating him of his majority.
A Biden presidency’s real tasks lie at home where it must counter such dangerous fantasies and persuade all Americans to accept reality. But what it needs to accomplish abroad naturally commands greater attention in the media outside the United States. India and Britain both offer examples of such expectations. Mr Modi’s concern for H-1B visas and Green Cards may not be shared by a Democratic administration, not even by Mr Biden, a friend of India who wrote to President George W. Bush asking him to remove the sanctions on India that President Bill Clinton had imposed after the 1998 Pokharan-II nuclear tests, but saying the time was not ripe for easing up on Pakistan. At the same time, he warned India not to take advantage of the Afghanistan crisis because, as he put it, the whole world, not just the United States, was looking at the Kashmir problem. This comment provoked Jaswant Singh, who was visiting the US as external affairs minister under Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, to cancel his appointment with the then Senator Biden.
As for Britain, Mr Johnson, facing bankruptcy because of the costs of the coronavirus pandemic and nowhere near achieving a divorce settlement with the European Union which he must do by December 31, desperately needs a trade pact with the United States. But whereas President Trump was solidly behind the British Prime Minister, proudly calling himself “Mr Brexit”, his Roman Catholic successor with roots in Ireland’s County Louth, has not rushed to Britain’s defence. On the contrary, he has made it clear that the Good Friday agreement which Mr Clinton had brokered must be honoured and a soft border retained between Ireland and the six British-held counties of Ulster (Northern Ireland).
Beyond such specific challenges, a Biden presidency must reintegrate the United States into pragmatic global politics. It must forge rational new alliances with leaders of the European Union like Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and France’s President Emmanuel Macron. It must return to the Paris climate accord and abandon the insensate persecution of Iran in favour of a coordinated strategy to meet Tehran’s legitimate threat perceptions, if any.
Above all, Washington must come to grips with the challenge of a rising China. A firm stand is certainly necessary when it comes to China riding roughshod over the rights of smaller East and Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea as well as China’s aggressive militarism in Ladakh. But ranting and raving about the Wuhan virus, drawing facile distinctions between the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party, and targeting even the World Health Organisation for apparent subservience to China makes a mockery of diplomatic activism. It is as childish as dubbing North Korea’s Kim Jong-un “Rocket Man” until the two finally met under Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s aegis in Singapore. Yesterday’s enemy was then transformed into today’s sweetheart… until they fell out again!
It is a matter of regret to the world and should be a matter of shame to the United States that some 30 of Mr Trump’s election complaints have already been rejected by the American courts, and that a number of civil and criminal charges may be levelled against him after January 20, 2021 when his immunity from prosecution lapses. None of this is a good advertisement for democracy in an increasingly undemocratic and authoritarian environment. The world’s only superpower enjoys a responsibility to the global community that goes far beyond the demands of domestic party politics. Americans simply must not allow Trumpism to outlive Donald Trump.