This column first appeared in Malta Today
You might think, as some do, that the US elections have nothing to do with Malta.
Some cannot understand the obsession of those of us who have been glued to the news for the last week until it was finally clear on Friday afternoon that yes, Joe Biden had won. Who cares, they shrug? How does it affect us anyway?
But it does affect us, more than we might know, even on a subconscious level, not only because of the ripple effect of Trump’s policies but also because of what he has come to represent.
This is the end of the road for perhaps the worst President the United States has ever had the misfortune to elect. If we ever had any doubts about his unsuitability for the office, Donald Trump’s behaviour as we waited for the official results, simply confirmed our belief. I suppose it was too much to expect for him to contain himself or act with dignity, but to actually feed the public with lies and misinformation at such a potentially explosive time, as votes were being counted, sent shockwaves throughout every media channel. Even Republican pundits were shocked, which is saying something. Commentators compared it to the kind of talk one expects in countries led by dictators; to think this was happening in the West, in the US of all places, was something they found difficult to digest.
As Trump was squawking (without any shred of proof) about conspiracy theories, election fraud and imperiously demanding that each state should ‘Stop the Count’, CNN and other media outlets took the decision to no longer report any of his Tweets because of the blatant disregard for the truth at a time when the American electorate had just exercised their legitimate right to vote, whether in person or by post. As he started filing numerous lawsuits to challenge the numbers emerging from the postal votes, news anchors stood firm and reassured viewers that there was no fraud, democracy was in action, and the counting process was fully transparent. Like every country, there are mechanisms in place should any vote be questionable and each party has their observers overseeing the process. Most TV channels said they would only call the result for each state when each single vote had been verified, counted and tallied.
Of course in Malta we are no strangers to political tension during an election. Heck, it is so much a part of our ‘tradition’ that when we saw the shops being boarded up in the US (for the first time ever) because shop owners feared the possibility of riots, we were unfazed.
But the way Trump handled the prospect that he was losing was a new low, even for him. The danger of someone in his position instilling the belief in his supporters that the American election was rigged is irresponsible beyond words. I completely agree with the newsrooms which decided to take things slow and not ‘call’ the election until everything was official, because they understood that at this delicate moment in time, the job of journalists is to defuse tension, and not add to it. If the President was not going to act presidential, they felt it was their duty to take up the mantle of responsibility, exercise good judgement and not add fuel to the fire.
The significance for us of Trump’s term of office coming to an end is because I believe this man fomented a misognyistic, bullying, hate culture of all those who are different, which spread beyond the US. He also completely disrespected one of the most important positions in the world, making it OK to act the fool, to not be well-informed, and to bring embarrassment to a whole nation which became the laughing stock of the world. “Look at the clown the Americans elected, they must be so stupid!” was something I got tired of hearing over these last four years. Trump never fully accepted that when one is President, one has to set a certain tone which is like a ripple effect that trickles down to the populace. He never understood what it really means to be a leader, to bring out the best in people, rather than to speak outrageously and flippantly for a few laughs and a few soundbites which can only please the lowest common dominator.
As for those in Malta who admired him for his machismo and delighted in his infantile pronouncements, I believe there is a case study to be made there. His policies, from separating immigrant children from their parents, to withdrawing the US from the Paris Climate Treaty, to his disastrous handling of the pandemic and his disdain for science can be seen reflected in the way some people talk. He has also influenced other politicians, and not in a good way. Our own PM has often been compared to Trump because of his bravado attempts to act like Covid-19 will go away just because he said so. Salvini in Italy often out-Trumps Trump with his racist rhetoric. He was a President who glorified ignorance, not because he was an ignorant man, but because he shrewdly knew that by speaking in a certain way he could appeal to those who were less educated. This is the type of thing which filters down and ends up being emulated by others (just listen to those who have been brainwashed by his dangerous rhetoric), which is why I long ago stopped finding it amusing or hilarious to see him being spoofed.
But, with the realisation that power was slipping away from him, he began to unravel before our eyes (on Twitter) and it was like that scene in the Wizard of Oz, when the curtain is drawn and the mighty ‘wizard’ ends up being a little old man with a microphone.
When Trump made his speech in the press room (even before Biden’s lead was announced) I forced myself to watch and he already looked subdued and sounded defeated. He was reading from a prepared script but even he didn’t seem to believe what he is saying. When he walked off, his shoulders were slouched and all his bluster had disappeared.
Of course, getting rid of Trump will not automatically heal America from its wounds caused by the deep divide, and Biden has his work cut out for him to try and bring some semblance of normalcy to a country which had become almost immune to the bizarreness which emerged daily from the White House. It will also not automatically mean that people will forget their political differences and suddenly get along over Thanksgiving and Christmas. There are whole families which have severed their ties completely because of Trump; marriages have broken down, friendships ruined, all because what Trump represented was so extreme that those who supported him unreservedly and those who were physically repulsed by him could never find any middle ground. The racism, the poverty, and the socio-economic problems will continue and the handling of the pandemic, like everywhere in the world, will still present its own unique challenges. But while Biden was not my favourite choice for President, when I heard him speak on Wednesday, asking everyone to be patient and appealing for unity, I just felt sheer relief to once again hear someone who knew what it meant to speak with gravitas, like a dignified statesman should. That alone, I feel, will already have a calming effect on the battered psyche of a nation which, from the way it voted, clearly wants and needs a change of leadership. It is a nation which is once again ready to have a mature person at the helm, instead of a (highly dangerous) man baby.
“He ended his presidency as he began, with zero nobility”, said a political pundit on CNN, and no truer words were spoken. In contrast, the same commentator quoted the exits of previous Republican presidents such as George Bush when he graciously conceded to Clinton, and more famously the disgraced Nixon, who despite the Watergate scandal, at least had a shred of decency left to bow out and leave. There has always been a smooth, peaceful, transition of power.
One only wonders whether Trump’s advisors and the Republican Party (which has an enormous role to play here) will manage to persuade him to at least do that much, and leave the White House quietly, and take his defeat on the chin, you know, like a man.