With old racial wounds ripped open, over a quarter of a million dead from the pandemic and the fabric of US democracy under threat, Niall Stanage in Washington DC looks at how America’s most divisive leader managed to inflict so much damage
Things can only get better — or at least they can hardly get much worse. The United States limped through 2020, its daily life muted by Covid, its oldest wound of racism reopened by the death of George Floyd and, above all, the fabric of its democracy strained by the behaviour of its outgoing president.
The year was bookended by two low points for Donald Trump, both of them self-inflicted. In January, he faced a Senate trial, having become only the third president in US history to be impeached. In November, he lost his re-election bid, then spent the weeks afterwards seeking to cling desperately to power. He traduced basic tenets of American public life in the process.
President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated on January 20, despite his predecessor’s protests. Whether Trump will attend the inauguration ceremony is, at time of writing, unclear.
It is very clear, however, that Biden will have a monumental job on his hands just to get the US back to some semblance of a regular footing. Biden campaigned as an antidote to Trump. The world will soon see if he can deliver.
The daily tumult of the Trump years has extracted a heavy cost. The New York-born reality TV star and property developer, who shocked the world in 2016 by winning the presidency at his first attempt, roiled the political waters on an almost daily basis once he was in the Oval Office.
The underlying reason for his impeachment — an effort to get the government of Ukraine to investigate Biden and his family, presumably to aid Trump’s re-election chances — was just one example. Congressionally mandated aid to the eastern European nation was held up during the period while Trump sought Kiev’s acquiescence.
The impeachment process drew enormous media coverage, but the Senate easily acquitted Trump, with only one Republican senator — Mitt Romney of Utah — voting for his removal from office. The whole episode barely moved the needle on Trump’s standing in the opinion polls.
There was nothing unusual about that. The various scandals and Twitter-led furores that dotted his single term rarely did anything to change the underlying dynamics of his relationship with the American public.
Trump has been, simultaneously, deeply unpopular with the nation at large and beloved by his supporters throughout his term.
Uniquely among modern presidents, his approval rating never hit 50pc in Gallup polling. He did not come close to winning an outright majority of the popular vote in either of his presidential elections.
Yet, for all that, his approval ratings never sagged to the low points suffered by President George W Bush as Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and, eventually, the financial crisis sapped public confidence in him.
In November, Trump received more than 74 million votes — a number that chilled the bones of his domestic opponents even as it fell far short of Biden’s 81 million-plus. It was the largest number ever received by a Republican president or presidential nominee.
In the Electoral College — the idiosyncratic mechanism by which presidential elections are decided — Trump came strikingly close to threading the needle once again, just as he had done in 2016. Had the states of Wisconsin, Georgia and Arizona gone for him, the Electoral College would have been tied. Biden’s margin of victory in each of those states was less than a single percentage point.
The chaos that would have broken out in the event of a draw is barely imaginable, given how much uproar Trump was able to incite having been clearly defeated. His claims he had won and the election had been rigged were expected. Trump had been telegraphing for months beforehand that he would blame any loss on chicanery.
What was more shocking, even by Trump’s standards, was the concrete efforts to undo the results. He phoned the Republican governor of Georgia, demanding a special session of the state legislature where the president apparently wanted his party colleagues to conspire with him to overturn the results in the state. He backed the increasingly absurd legal efforts to throw a spanner in the works.
Those efforts were headed by Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who, like so many others, trashed his own reputation in exchange for proximity to Trump’s power.
Meanwhile, Trump lashed out on Twitter and in person, desperate to avoid the label of ‘loser’ that he seems to detest — and fear — more than anything else.
None of it worked in the end. But that was attributable as much to the integrity of court judges and the courage of state-level public officials as anything else. They stood up while Republicans on Capitol Hill fell in line.
In Georgia, governor Brian Kemp and the state’s top election official — secretary of state Brad Raffensperger — rebuffed Trump. Both men are conservative Republicans and their refusal to bend the knee drew the wrath of the president’s loyalists. Raffensperger and his wife were threatened.
“You have people who are really emotionally spun up,” he told me, “and what is sad is that people have been spinning them up with a lot of misinformation, disinformation and outright lies.”
In Michigan, where Biden won by about 150,000 votes, dozens of armed protesters showed up on a Saturday night in December at the home of secretary of state Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat. Benson, who was at home with her four-year-old son, refused to be intimated.
Trump charged on regardless and his party in Washington mostly backed him up.
When, in early December, The Washington Post surveyed the 249 Republican members of the Senate and House of Representatives, asking the simple question of who had won the election, only 27 acknowledged Biden had done so. A shocking 220 refused to answer. Two claimed, in the face of all evidence, that Trump had won.
Later that month, 106 Republican members of the House of Representatives signed on to a spurious pro-Trump lawsuit mounted by the attorney general of Texas to overturn the election results.
The failure to stand up against the Trump power-grab augurs badly for America’s future in the eyes of many experts
“We are headed into very, very dangerous terrain,” Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said in early December. He acknowledged that some Republicans had “quietly rebuffed” Trump’s efforts, but noted that almost none had been willing “to frankly reject them as baseless”.
“That unwillingness,” he added, “I think is deeply disturbing — and damaging in the long term.”
There were other areas of damage too.
Racial injustice, particularly in regards to policing, is an age-old problem in the US. Protests have picked up in the past decade, perhaps because video shot from bystanders’ mobile phones has made the severity of the problem undeniable.
The grim familiarity of such incidents did nothing to lessen the shock of what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25.
Floyd, a 46-year-old black man and father of five, struggled for breath on the ground as a policeman, Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck. Chauvin stayed in his position on top of the prone and handcuffed Floyd for close to 10 minutes. Floyd was pronounced dead at a local hospital.
Footage of the incident enraged millions of Americans of all races and resonated internationally. Thousands took to the streets for protests in major cities, including New York, Washington, Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles.
One depressing yet telling fact: one of the marchers’ primary slogans — “I can’t breathe!” — was being repurposed. It had originally been used in the wake of the killing of 43-year-old Eric Garner, who died in broadly similar circumstances in New York in 2014.
The multiracial make-up of the crowds of protesters, and polls showing increasing backing for the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement, gave some grounds for optimism. But then there was Trump, whose propensity to inflame rather than douse racial tensions dates back decades.
He famously took a full-page ad in several New York newspapers in 1989 calling for the execution of the Central Park Five, who were later exonerated. His rise to political prominence was fuelled by his willingness to propagate the conspiracy theory that then-president Barack Obama had not been born in the US.
As the protests over Floyd’s death multiplied, Trump at one point tweeted: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” — a phrase coined by a reactionary Miami police chief in the 1960s. Even more controversially, Trump had protesters cleared by force from just in front of the White House to facilitate a photo opportunity of him holding a Bible aloft in front of a nearby church.
The upshot of it all is far from clear. Biden’s win places someone more receptive to police reform in the White House. Even so, policing is highly devolved to the local level in the US, making effective action by the federal government difficult.
Meanwhile, vandalism and unrest on the edges of some Black Lives Matter-inspired protests, as well as a contentious slogan — “Defund the Police” — blunted some of the pro-reform momentum. The protesters were, of course, also taking to the streets amid a catastrophic pandemic.
Covid-19 shuttered the United States, or large parts of it, from mid-March for the rest of the year. Small businesses were devastated and the nation’s children had to get used to home schooling — as did their frazzled parents.
In the initial surge, the virus leapt from an epicentre in New York to other cities and regions. There was a modest summer respite before the pandemic returned to wreak damage at a devastating pace.
By the second week in December, daily deaths in the US from Covid-19 topped 3,000 for the first time. The nation was experiencing well over 200,000 new infections each day.
Trump was again at the centre of the storm. His defenders noted that, despite the huge numbers in the US, its per capita death rate is lower than those of some European nations, including Italy, Spain and the UK.
But that only tells part of the story. Trump insisted during the early stages of the pandemic that it was under control or would go away of its own accord. He was — disastrously, in the view of most public health officials — openly sceptical about the wearing of masks.
After Democratic governors of three states imposed tighter restrictions in April, Trump tweeted that protesters should “liberate” those places.
In perhaps the greatest debacle of all, Trump speculated during a White House press conference that the virus could be treated by injecting disinfectant into people’s bodies. Several public health authorities had to issue warnings to dissuade people from following such dangerous thinking. The president’s briefings on the pandemic were significantly curtailed in the aftermath.
By year’s end, there was light permeating the darkness. The arrival of vaccines suggested that an end to the crisis was imminent. But for America, like everywhere else, there is a long way to go before a safe harbour can be reached. Some experts think the United States could be seeing over 300,000 new Covid-19 infections a day by the time Biden takes office.
The economy, too, will take time to recover. Unemployment has fallen significantly from its Covid peak of 14.7pc in April, but it remains elevated by historical standards. There are many unknowns around how fast and in what way American commerce and society will get back to normal — or whether the pre-coronavirus norm is gone for good.
No statistic can fully capture the toll the crises of 2020 have taken on the American cultural fabric, however. The world’s dominant nation has been strained and frayed. At times, it has felt on the verge of coming apart, its two political tribes of pro and anti-Trump forces not so much holding different opinions as inhabiting different universes.
Biden’s election may change things. He may lower the temperature. He will, undoubtedly, be a more conventional president. But whether he can knit the nation back together again is a different question.
The dispiriting reality is that it may already have gone too far for that.