We have come to take US presidential elections for granted. We shouldn’t.
The parallels between Australians and the people of the United States are remarkable.
Like us, most Americans have Europe in their DNA. Their history, like ours, has been driven by the idea of conquering, taming and exploiting the land they live on. Race relations, including unresolved issues with Indigenous peoples, are important in both our stories.
While we kept political ties with our former colonial overlords, the US devised its own government system. But it draws upon many British structures and practices, including the same common law base, and despite points of difference there’s enough in common to see us all as an extended family.
So when things go pear-shaped in the US, we all need to sit up and take notice.
The present state of the Union has been a long time in the making. We can go back to the resurgence of corporate America after World War II – the undemocratic “military-industrial complex” that president Dwight Eisenhower warned about in 1961.
Reaganomics – 1980s economic policy under Ronald Reagan – was another step in the transfer of power from elected government to unelected corporations. When he slashed income and corporate taxes, Reagan argued that a less restrained economy would deliver higher tax revenue. (It didn’t.)
Political and legal actions by later administrations, both conservative and liberal, further empowered private money at the expense of government authority. By the time Donald Trump won office in 2016, a new breed of robber barons was primed to take over the country.
Thanks in part to those earlier power shifts, and in part to a president who knows and cares nothing about the responsibilities of public office, we are now facing an era without the United States we grew up with. This is still far from certain, but it is entirely possible.
I don’t mind admitting US politics fascinates me, and not just for its host of amazing stories. The country is an enormous wellspring of ideas and insights, brilliance and stupidity and everything in between, in the name of democracy.
All governments, ours included, tend to inflate the levels of freedom and accountability in their own systems. In truth, democratic principles are always imperfectly applied. But the US has gone further than any society in codifying these ideas and arguing them out in its court system.
Over the years those principles have been tested and re-tested, most famously in the early 1970s. The Watergate affair saw a sitting president, Richard Nixon, forced out of office for subverting the democratic process. He was never tried, but in the end most Americans accepted his guilt.
Nixon was caught breaking rules, but as an experienced politician he understood how US democracy works and generally abided by conventions of behaviour. Donald Trump has shown no interest in any of those things. For someone who speaks so often of constitutional rights (free speech, the right to bear arms), he remains startlingly ignorant of the hallowed US Constitution.
The Constitution aims to sustain democracy by limiting the power of any one person, giving equal authority to the President, Congress and the Supreme Court. That principle is crucial to understanding the threat posed by the Trump regime to America and to democracies everywhere.
The forceful advocacy of Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg made her a liberal icon in the US. Her death 10 days ago sparked a storm of controversy around Republican intentions, amid a pandemic that has killed over 200,000 Americans and seen Trump fall behind in opinion polls.
Shockingly, Trump has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power and has indicated he will legally challenge the election if the vote count is against him. He is now working at record-breaking speed to have his conservative nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, installed in the Supreme Court ahead of an election whose outcome may hinge on that new judge’s vote.
Trump compares himself favourably with another Republican, Abraham Lincoln. In May he had himself interviewed on national television sitting at the feet of Lincoln’s giant memorial effigy in Washington.
In his 1863 Gettysburg speech, Lincoln called on Americans to dedicate themselves to the proposition that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” It was a noble idea, and it remains so, but it has never faced anything like the phenomenon of Donald Trump.
The democratic ideal depends heavily on the strength of democracy everywhere. The outcome of this presidential election, and the response of those counter-balancing institutions, the Congress and the Supreme Court, matters for us all.