Americans cannot rationally engage with reality until they recall and confront the past. Unfortunately, it is clear that both major political parties lack the will and/or the capacity to do this.
Gore Vidal once jokingly described America as “the United States of Amnesia.”
Underlying the joke was a serious critique – America’s failure as a nation was caused by its refusal to recall and learn from its past. “We learn nothing because we remember nothing,” said the acerbic writer and commentator.
The aptness of Vidal’s quip has been confirmed this week by reactions across the political spectrum to Donald Trump’s narrow electoral defeat.
Republicans have supported Trump’s unprecedented and unprincipled refusal to concede defeat, and his hapless legal challenges to the electoral results – a dozen of which have already been thrown out by the courts in three states.
This is not surprising. Trump delivered the Republican Party the Presidency in 2016, and its transformation into an irredeemably populist party was well underway long before Trump took control of it. That process goes back to the Bill Clinton years, the Tea Party and Sarah Palin – and the Republican Party appears unwilling to cast aside its populist garb.
Trump, of course, has nothing but contempt for democracy, but one might have expected influential Republicans to criticize his behaviour after his defeat – if for no other reason that it de-legitimises the office of the Presidency and the entire democratic political system in America.
Republicans seem to have forgotten how recklessly irresponsible it is to trash fundamental democratic principles in a country as divided and fractured as contemporary America – especially in the midst of a pandemic that is raging out of control.
Individual Republicans have also suffered memory losses.
Ted Cruz, who called Trump “a snivelling coward” in 2016 and refused to support his Presidential campaign, this week enthusiastically endorsed Trump’s baseless allegations of widespread vote rigging. Cruz clearly wants to become the new populist leader when Trump steps down in January next year, and is eager to prove his credentials with the Republican “base.”
Even those few Republicans who have been critical of Trump’s behavior have forgotten their own complicity in his rise to power.
George W Bush may well denounce Trump, but it was Bush who took America into two disastrous foreign wars that prevented the country from dealing with its pressing internal problems. Mitt Romney also berated Trump this week, conveniently forgetting that he had given him crucial support over Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination only a month ago.
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Unfortunately, amnesia is not confined to the Republican side of politics.
At a press conference on the weekend, when Joe Biden was asked how he expected to work with Republicans if they won’t even acknowledge him as President elect, he said simply “they will”.
Biden has apparently completely forgotten the Republicans’ rabid and unrelenting opposition to Barack Obama’s entire legislative program during Obama’s eight years as President.
Republican opposition will be more strident for President Biden – who naively seems to believe Democratic Party propaganda that portrays him as the great Senate negotiator. That may have been the case in the 1970s and 1980s, but Congress is a very different place now. Has Biden not noticed that four years of Trump have coarsened and intensified political divisions?
The Democratic Party mainstream elite – which foolishly interprets Biden’s victory as a massive endorsement of their ideological views on climate change, identity politics, political correctness and cancel culture – is also in a state of denial (which, as Vidal once pointed out, is not just a river in northeastern Africa).
The truth is that Biden defeated Trump because a relatively small number of voters in a few mid-western states (Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables”) who voted for Trump in 2016 – because they detested Clinton and her elitist ideological views – were willing to vote for Biden this time, after four years of Trumpian chaos.
The Democratic Party elite’s interpretation conveniently masks their fatal mistake in having endorsed Clinton in 2016 (Trump would not have won against a credible Democrat candidate) and, more fundamentally, absolves them from any responsibility for creating the populist revolt in the first place.
Obama deserves a large part of the blame for this – his two terms as President were wasted years. In his new self-serving memoir to be published this week – titled, without irony, “A Promised Land” – he proudly boasts that he was “a conservative in temperament,” which perhaps explains why he did absolutely nothing to alleviate the cultural, racial and economic divisions that still bedevil America today.
Instead of modifying its elitist views, and attempting to bring Trump supporters back into the democratic fold, the Democratic Party elite’s wilful blindness can only exacerbate the political and cultural divisions within America over the next four years. And these divisions will become much worse if the party’s radical wing – led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – becomes more influential under Biden.
The Ocasio-Cortez wing of the party is, of course, even more deluded than the mainstream Democratic elite.
Ocasio-Cortez believes that Trump and the 70 million Americans who voted for him have now been airbrushed from history by Biden’s narrow victory, and expects that Biden will devote the next four years to introducing her radical program that includes her fanciful Green New Deal, “transformative criminal justice reform,” free higher education, and a “rejection of racism, cynicism and hate.” Good luck with that.
Trump’s subdued comments on the weekend suggest that he intends to hand over power to Biden in January, and that an immediate political crisis will be avoided. Having said that, one never knows with Trump – narcissists find it very difficult to accept defeat.
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In any event, the signs of continuing political and social discontent in America are already apparent.
On the weekend thousands of Trump supporters – who really believe Trump’s blatant lie that the election was stolen from him – gathered in Washington to protest. Inevitably, violent clashes with BLM protesters took place.
Victims of amnesia cannot rationally engage with reality until they recall and confront the past and overcome it. Unfortunately for America, it is clear that, at present, both major political parties lack the will and/or capacity to do this.
Until a responsible political leadership emerges in America, if that is indeed possible – whether from the Democratic or Republican Parties or elsewhere – America’s parlous state of division, conflict and decline can only get worse.
Gore Vidal, who died in 2012 aged 86, was an astute and perceptive critic of modern America and he would not have been at all surprised by his country’s current predicament.
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