For many Australians, last week’s US election felt personal. We’re steeped in American culture. We think we understand the place.
How then could nearly 71 million Americans have voted for a man who doesn’t believe in democracy? How could it have been so close?
Let me comfort you.
Joe Biden’s election was a resounding rejection of Trumpism. In fact this election was not very close as American elections go. Nate Silver, of FiveThirtyEight, projects Biden’s winning margin in the popular vote will be north of four percentage points and possibly as high as six. Since 1996 only Barack Obama’s 2008 win has been larger.
Biden is only the fourth challenger since World War II to unseat a one-term president. Democrats also flipped two Republican strong-hold states — Georgia and Arizona — and made Texas competitive. These changes would have been unthinkable two decades ago. As electoral rebukes go, it doesn’t get much bigger.
Yes, Donald Trump’s behaviour has been so monstrous, so destructive of democratic norms and institutions that it seems unthinkable any Americans would have voted for him, let alone 71 million. But Americans, especially Republican Americans, are more different from Australians than you think.
In 2002 I was part of an Australian 60 Minutes team that interviewed Trump — then a failing casino-owner and buffoonish fixture on the social pages — in his offices in Trump Tower, New York. We were reporting on New York’s recovery from the 9/11 attacks six months earlier. Trump was bankrupt and eager for attention. The hair was an architectural marvel, but the man was unremarkable — until the camera turned on. Then we got the show, the charismatic conman who would go on to dupe millions.
I mused that Trump exemplified the difference between Americans and Australians. He was the personification of “Big Time Barry”, the term my father uses for people who have more regard for themselves than their achievements merit.
Sceptical by nature, Australians are suspicious of such braggadocio. Trump would have been laughed out of the office of every prospective lender in Australia. But in America he was not only credible, he thrived. His poor business record didn’t stop large banks lending him millions. And then — astounding those who knew the truth — he became the face of corporate America for 12 million viewers of The Apprentice.
Americans are not sceptical. They believe in Hollywood stories. They are not disposed to be suspicious of a character like Trump.
Republican voters are particularly vulnerable to his con. For years, evangelical preachers in red states have taught congregants wealth equals morality. Their gospel of prosperity has convinced voters that conspicuous riches, like those of Trump, are God’s reward for creating wealth and jobs.
Republican voters also live in information ecosystems that resemble those of an authoritarian state. Right-wing media disinformation campaigns have exploited the deep fear of communism instilled in Americans during the Cold War. Many Trump supporters fully believe Biden will turn America into a socialist state. Any media that says otherwise is seen as part of the conspiracy.
From an Australian lens, Republican leaders have always had repugnant policies. And yet about half the American electorate always votes for them (43% of Americans did not think Nixon should be removed from office after the Watergate scandal).
Trump had some way to go before he caused as much destruction to lives and personal liberties as the last Republican president, George W Bush. Bush, a C student, was deluded by neocons Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld that toppling Saddam Hussein would install a democracy that would “send forth the news, from Damascus to Teheran, that freedom can be the future of every nation”.
That ludicrous notion underpinned the US-led Iraq invasion, giving birth to Islamic State and the death and displacement of millions of people across Iraq and Syria. More than a million returned servicemen and women from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan struggled with physical and mental health injuries that became burdens on families and communities.
The Bush administration forced all men in the US from Muslim countries — including some of my journalist friends — to register with authorities. The unlucky ones were detained without charge or recourse. At least 136 Muslim men were snatched and transferred by “extraordinary rendition” to secret black sites where they were tortured out of reach of international law.
A vast state surveillance was secretly established to monitor Americans. And Bush’s parting gift to incoming president Obama in 2008 was an economic meltdown that wiped out the wealth of large swathes of Americans and sparked a global financial crisis.
Every Republican leader in three decades has opposed badly needed reforms that would provide health insurance for all Americans. They routinely lower taxes to corporations and the rich while cutting the social welfare net and defending obscenely low federal minimum wages (currently $7.25 an hour). Republicans spend 15% of the government budget on the military, deny climate change and oppose reforms to address entrenched racial and gender inequities.
And yet every time, roughly half of Americans vote for them.
With his vulgarity and disregard for democracy, Trump offended our sense of our selves. But Americans are different. The backlash against Trump represented by Biden’s win last week is as good as it gets.
Prue Clarke is an Australian journalist who has lived in the US for most of the past 20 years.