At few recent times have the two separate Americas been as obvious as this week. For the third time in his presidency, Donald Trump was notably absent when past presidents came together to commemorate the death of a beloved American.
Marking the deaths of former president George H W Bush, of war hero Senator John McCain, both Republicans, and this week the civil rights campaigner and congressman John Lewis, a Democrat, retired presidents of both parties made a show of unity to demonstrate shared values and patriotism, as well as relatively veiled criticism of the incumbent president.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, again stayed away. Opinion polls show Trump down, but not out. Many still warn that he could win re-election, including the left-leaning filmmaker Michael Moore, who predicted Trump’s 2016 victory when most of his fellow Democrats were complacent.
So concerned are some in establishment Washington that Trump will do something to disrupt an orderly transfer of power that a group of about 80 retired leaders from the military, former top White House officials, politicians and political scientists conducted desk top war games to anticipate the consequences of a surprise Trump move.
Trump’s latest claim, that the elections will be rigged by postal votes, his refusal to undertake to abide by the result, undermining journalists, attacks on the ethnicity of judges and the use of security personnel for partisan ends fit a pattern that makes them worry about the unexpected. Postal votes have been widely used in the past, and studies found them to be reliable. This year, the volume is likely to double, which will delay announcing the results.
The National Task Force for Election Crises is testing scenarios for disrupting the campaign and voting, and the Transition Integrity Project considers what might be done during the 11 weeks between election day and the inauguration of the new president.
Participants include leading figures who have asked not to be named. Among those we know are Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, John Podesta, a former White House chief of staff, conservatives like the journalist Bill Kristol, and Democratic former governors and other elected officials. One of the most active is Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, a close aide to General Colin Powell both when he was a Republican secretary of state and when he was chair of the joint chiefs of staff, the highest position in the US military.
Colonel Wilkerson told WBUR that concern has reached into high levels of Trump’s Republican Party. A Republican Senator asked his staff to leave so he could ask Wilkerson: "What do you think the military would do if Trump lost decisively in November and departed the White House in a huff, and in that huff announced he would like his base (of supporters) to come onto the streets with guns?"
"You posed one of the most sensitive questions," the colonel replied. "Can’t tell you what they would do. I hope they would stay in their barracks."
The pandemic crisis came close to the president when one of his re-election campaigners, the former presidential candidate Herman Cain, died from Covid-19 after attending Trump’s Tulsa, Oklahoma, rally, where Cain proudly tweeted that social distancing was not being practised. And a routine White House test of Texas Republican Representative Louie Gohmert before he was due to fly with the president tested positive. Gohmert had also derided mask wearing.
Thursday saw the worst economic news in living memory, that the American economy contracted by a staggering 9.3% in the second quarter of 2020. Minutes later President Trump tweeted the suggestion that the election be postponed. It’s typical of his playbook: create a distraction from the bad news. Disrupt, and the media will follow.
Was it just a distraction?
The pattern is cooked into this presidency. Trump cares about nothing so much as a good economy, which is critical to his re-election prospects. Hence the tweet.
"With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???!"
Several Republican senators condemned the proposal, though one, Texan John Cornyn, called it a "joke".
"I don't know how else to interpret it," he told reporters. "Obviously he doesn’t have the power to do that."
The power to postpone an election belongs to the Congress. The president doesn’t set the rules, the election commission does, and he doesn’t run the election. The states do, under each state’s secretary of state.
American elections timetables are fixed. Elections were held right through the civil war, in both world wars and the great depression. Trump’s excuse wasn’t even the pandemic – it was because he didn’t trust postal ballots.
Was it just a distraction, or did he mean it?
Either way, the business policy-makers were being distracted from was extremely important. With the end of July, payments to workers laid off because of Covid-19 come to an end, and the Senate failed to pass a bill to extend it. This will undoubtedly lead to new, likely more severe, hardship.
And an important hearing with the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google showed both parties in a mood to rein in the tech giants. Representatives were unusually well briefed about claims of anti-competitive behaviour, including buying out rival companies with the purpose of shutting down competition.
These firms have increased their share prices enormously since the pandemic while many Americans lost all income. The closing of small businesses has been Amazon’s gain, and the online retailer was asked whether Amazon uses information from sellers on its platform to adapt its own products.
Dispute continues over Facebook and Google’s enormous revenue from content they obtain free from online newspapers that are struggling to survive. Firms this rich are able to buy out their competitors and creating monopolies which leave the consumer with less choice, and to use customer data for profit.
'An unimaginable disaster'
In 2016, the ratio of "junk news" to professional journalism shared on Twitter during the 2016 presidential election was one to one, according to a recent study. In 2021 the new congress is likely to consider legislation.
America’s dysfunction has damaged its own response to the pandemic. There is almost unanimous criticism from American medical experts of the administration for failing to develop and implement a national plan, or to provide consistent and reliable information.
"We’ve had crises before," Harvard medical school Professor William Heseltine said this week. "Leaders managed to unite our disparate parts into a single whole. It hasn’t happened this time. It’s an unimaginable disaster from my point of view."
Washington’s anti-democratic behaviour in the world’s oldest democracy hurts all democrats. No democracy is immune. Autocrats have noted that the American president appears to choose which parts of the constitution he will adhere to, like a diner at a buffet.
"The constitution really has been a workable document in many respects because we have had people who more or less adhered to a code of conduct," Colonel Wilkerson said after working through various scenarios. "That seems to no longer be the case."
America’s is not the only democracy that will be tested in these hard times.
John Matisonn is the author of CYRIL’S CHOICES, Lessons from 25 years of freedom in South Africa.