/ 14 November 2020

Will Biden and Harris help us breathe again?

Us Vote Debate
Outside view: Even though Joe Biden won the US elections, nagging questions remain about why it was so close and why 70-million Americans still voted for Donald Trump. (Ariana Drehsler/AFP)

For most of 2008 the CD that played in my trusty old Toyota was Yes, We Can: Voices of a Grassroots Movement, a rousing collection of songs optimistically anticipating the election of Barack Obama as the president of the United States. It began with his commanding oration: “What we have seen is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation.” The songs were inspiring, interspersed with the prophetic voice of Martin Luther King. I would listen to it often, feeling confident that a new world order was on the horizon and I was living (and singing) through it. Even Kanye West featured with Adam Levine and Malik Yusef in the rap Promised Land.

It’s rare that I’d look to the US for motivation. But at the time, South Africa’s fledgling democracy was starting to crack. The Mandela euphoria was already lost to a frosty, tumultuous Mbeki presidency (but would pale in comparison to the rapacious Zuma era that awaited us). Freedom fighters who promised us a better life were turning into predictable postcolonial suits.  So I embraced the wind of change in the US to restore my faith in the audacity of hope.

Fast forward to 2016, I was in the US for a few weeks and living at a Florida university residence as part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship that Obama had initiated. He was delivering his swan songs during the run-up to the presidential election contested by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Everywhere I went, I was surprised by people’s political apathy. The “yes, we can” attitude of 2008 had all but faded.  Obama turned out to be a mortal and people felt underwhelmed by Clinton. Many assumed that a laughable character like Trump could not win a national election. Young people showed little intention of voting and mostly outsourced their civic duties to other active citizens, whom they assumed would vote for Clinton. I found this troubling, but hey, it wasn’t my country and, to be honest, this indolent attitude rubbed off. When Clinton arrived to speak at a rally at the university stadium one Saturday afternoon, I chose to skip it and took a drive to Key West.

And then the unimaginable happened: Trump won. My views were confirmed — voter turnout dipped in 2016 compared with the 40-year high of 62% in 2008.

As a South African, the past four years have been a mix of schadenfreude, disbelief, and fear. Trump emboldened the dark underbelly of American society. American imperialism sets a global tone for other countries, especially his ideological peers, such as India’s Narendra Modi, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Slovenia’s Janez Janša, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Make no mistake, Trump did not create new problems, he simply appealed to existing core constituencies. I wish the US elections did not matter this much, but they do. Trump emboldened his allies to refashion their own versions of violent ethnonationalism — which always involves reinforcing heteronormative patriarchy as the default social setting.

Now Joe Biden has beaten Trump and is taking Kamala Devi Harris, the first black woman vice-president in US history, into the White House. Despite the values of decency, compassion and integrity that Biden infuses into his politics of respectability, there is a gnawing irritation that refuses to fade away in the relief of a post-Trump era: why was the race so tight until the very end?

More than 70 million Americans voted for the vision that Trump set out for them: a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, right-wing nationalist agenda, propped up by an unapologetically anti-scientific, anti-intellectual, anti-diplomatic, ahistorical rhetoric, the likes of which the US has not seen (this brazenly, at least). This is a vision we have all had front row seats to, mostly through Twitter.

This ubiquitous medium proved to be an ideal space for him to communicate rapidly with his followers — a modus operandi defined by simplicity, impulsivity and incivility, according to Brian Ott, in a paper he published in the journal Critical Studies in Media Communication soon after Trump’s win. As Ott predicted, the past four years have seen a rise in a politics of debasement rooted in authoritarianism, narcissism and demagoguery. In his subsequent book published last year, The Twitter Presidency, Ott and Greg Dickinson, both professors of communication studies, argue that Trump reflects an aesthetics of white rage. He appeals most strongly to Americans who feel aggrieved at the decentring of white masculinity.

Trump symbolises a return to white American’s mythology of the “Founding Fathers”. He used the promise of restoring lost national pride as his inebriated Trojan Horse. He articulated a political incorrectness that, ironically, felt fresh and futuristic to a large portion of people who felt emotionally abandoned by the global rise in woke identity politics and alienating intersectional vocabulary. Detailed analysis is yet to emerge for the 2020 polls, but they will probably mirror the 2016 demographics: white men made up more than 60% of Republican voters, whereas 98% of black women chose to vote for Democrats.

Biden and Harris can finally carve out a new discursive space for civility and creativity; conversations that help spark genuine hope for the future, that mobilise positive grassroots activism, and ultimately dismantle the echo chambers of hostility and grandiosity that have defined the pugnacious Trump era.

But we know better than to hedge all our bets on the words of politicians. Trump, in his first speech as president-elect, promised to “bind the wounds of division”. Appeals to unity are bandied about, but politicians are rarely able to truly orchestrate such liberatory promises in their policy agendas.

The pandemic will not make things easy, but if I know anything as a psychologist it is this: hope and empathy are the ultimate contagions. Hope, help us breathe again.

I dug through old drawers and found that Yes, We Can CD. One of the songs on it is Love and Hope, by Ozomatli: “The hope deep in his eyes are dreams he must let fly!/ So sing this song with me./ This hopeful melody.”