I’ve had a ring-side seat to the changes the US has undergone over the last decade. In Chicago in 2012, I worked as the digital rapid response director for Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. In 2016, I worked as a volunteer on Hillary Clinton’s presidential debate team in New York. But as knock-down, drag-out as those fights were, they now feel like they were held in different centuries – one governed by quaint and archaic rules of decorum and manners, and the other by the mob rule of frat boys gate-crashing a house party.
In 2012, I remember long, seemingly endless debates about whether or not we could say Mitt Romney had "lied" or was a "liar". You may laugh now, but we were banned from saying either so as not to be seen as “excessively negative”. Such gentlemanly considerations soon went out of the window as the race tightened and the election came to a heated, gloves-off showdown, of course – though all still remained under Queensbury rules.
For all the disagreements we had with the Romney team — and the differences were real, and deep, and meaningful — we didn't hate them or what they were trying to do. I know, based on conversations with members of his team since 2012, that they felt the same way.
Politics in 2020 is not like that. The Biden campaign is desperate to win: This is a battle for the soul of the nation, after all. But their focus is mainly on persuading voters their future will be brighter under a Biden presidency. The Trump campaign, on the other hand, long ago threw away the rule book. They aren't just willing to break the rules; they revel in doing so.
Back in 2016, Trump campaign staff boasted of using inflammatory Facebook advertising aimed at deterring Black Americans from turning up to vote. In a 2017 meeting with civil rights leaders, he appeared to celebrate the low Black turnout, saying it was “almost as good as getting the vote” when Black people didn’t turn up to the polls at all.
Over the last four years we’ve seen how Trump’s pandering, excusing and normalizing of America’s racists, radicals and far-right has emboldened the forces of division and hate around the world. More and more extreme right-wing rhetoric has entered the mainstream, those committed to far-right violence and terror have felt they are on the right side of history, and there is an increased support for conspiracies that are often rooted in age old antisemitism.
We can’t — and mustn’t — blame that on the US President alone. In many senses he is as much a manifestation of populism and division as he is an instigator of them. Nevertheless, the impact of a Trump presidency has been profound. A second term, with a vindicated and mandated Trump agenda, will make the past four years look calm in comparison.
Many across the world are pinning their hopes on a Joe Biden victory on Tuesday. They believe — or hope — that a Democratic win will mean a return to normalcy. Indeed, what looked like Biden’s weakness — that he’s “old politics — might turn out to be exactly his advantage.
I’m a dual UK and US citizen and have already cast my postal vote from London, so I have a clear interest in this election, but it’s rare to find anyone who doesn’t have a strong opinion on Donald Trump, whether they can influence his re-election or not. The decisions of the America’s president influence the lives of people far beyond the country’s borders. The waves that start in the US eventually wash onto Europe’s shores too before long.
Once populist, nativist sentiments are given a voice and democratic norms challenged, it’s hard to squeeze the toothpaste back in the tube. Extensive polling commissioned by HOPE not hate to examine both the social divisions and the space for finding common ground found that large — frighteningly large — numbers of voters were skeptical that liberal democracy works at all.
But if Biden wins, what then? Many Trump supporters don’t want him to concede defeat, even if he has actually lost. Even ff Trump is ejected from the White House, those sentiments won’t simply evaporate overnight — they will seek new outlets. A Biden presidency will be opposed by an increasingly radicalized GOP and a depressingly persistent, Fox News-driven, conservative media echo chamber.
While it won’t resolve anything on its own, a Biden win will create open up a space for change, and healing, to take place. He has staked his pitch on restoring empathy, respect, honour, truth and decency to American politics.
Whilst no-one is kidding themselves that Capitol Hill will be any less free of the political skulduggery, pork-barrelling and broken promises than it ever has been, what will be different will be a leader and administration that understands that pragmatism can’t be separated from values, that winning can’t be at all costs and that seriousness, dedication and sacrifice are at the core of true public service.
Once the entertainment is over, the ticker tape swept away and the world’s attention elsewhere, the unglamorous, difficult and hard work of uniting America, and building a future with opportunity, justice and equality for all, begins – a job not just for the president, but for all of us.
Matthew McGregor is Campaigns Director for HOPE not hate. He worked for the Barack Obama campaign in 2012 and advised the UK Labour Party under Ed Miliband, as well as social democratic parties in Scandinavia and Australia