Upon arriving in New York as a refugee, aged 11, I soon became a proud and grateful American. Later, as a US diplomat, I often pointed to the country's democratic institutions and venerable electoral process as models. Foreign friends endorsed this assessment. When people looked to the US, they generally liked what they saw.
This month those happy memories feel far away. Due to the antics of a president born with both a silver spoon and a forked tongue in his mouth, American democracy has been visibly and audibly debased. Watching the recent debate between Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, I felt as if I were trapped inside an erupting volcano with a howling dog. A president who claimed to represent law and order refused to abide by the debate rules his own campaign had accepted. He declined, as well, to condemn the forces of racial bigotry, or to promise to abide by the results of the election. Based on his record, none of this was surprising.
Shortly afterwards, Trump and several people close to him tested positive for coronavirus. Again, this was not surprising given the administration's cavalier attitude towards the pandemic. There followed a grossly inept effort by White House officials to portray their boss as someone who had "beaten" the virus, albeit with the help of an elite medical team and experimental drugs. Trump's message — that no one should fear the virus — is rebutted by the bones and ashes of 1 million dead.
Americans are now choosing a leader for the next four years. There is no grander democratic spectacle, yet this year there is also the potential for catastrophic disruption. Reasons include the challenge of voting safely in a pandemic, the logistical burden of handling a huge number of absentee ballots, the probability that foreign and domestic agents will seek to sway the process by spreading lies, and the president's own outrageous efforts to undermine public faith in democratic institutions.
By alleging that the election will be rigged against him, Trump is intentionally sowing the seeds of chaos, including the possibility of violent confrontations on election day and a flood of litigation in its wake. Should the outcome be close, the verdict may not be known for weeks and will likely be rejected as fraudulent by one side or the other. No election is conducted flawlessly, and disputes over ballots are common but this time Trump will try to inflate any minor discrepancy into a major conspiracy. There are some on the extreme left capable of thinking in the same way. Ultimately, the controversy may be settled by the Supreme Court, which for Biden supporters is a decidedly unsettling proposition.
It is possible, of course, that the tally will be one-sided enough to make partisan complaints irrelevant. I hope so. But we should prepare for the worst and three facts are worth remembering.
First, procedures for voting have been developed over many years and benefit from the guidance of non-partisan experts: widespread fraud is both extremely unlikely and relatively easy to detect. Second, a few glitches are inevitable but also remediable and should not discredit the whole process. Third, regardless of how honest and efficient the vote count is, allegations of cheating are sure to surface on social media and in partisan elements of the press. With or without real fires, there will be plenty of smoke. It will be up to responsible leaders in both parties and professionals in law, academia and journalism, to help citizens separate facts from exaggerations and lies. The more prepared we are for efforts to confuse, the better we can counter them.
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I am often asked how long it will take to repair the damage done by the current administration to the US's global standing. Certainly, the country cannot undo the experience of being represented by Trump. Just as a herd of elephants leaves behind traces of its passage, so will the Trump team.
Biden, if elected, will inherit a country diminished by his predecessor's search for "greatness" in all the wrong places. The new president's task will be daunting: to reassure allies; reassert leadership on climate change and world health; forge effective coalitions to check the ambitions of China, Russia and Iran; and re-establish the US's identity as a champion of democracy.
Are Biden and his team up to the job? With help from those who still wish the US well, the answer is surely yes. Will they have the chance? That depends on how US citizens have come to view the purpose and character of their nation. Does their vision bear any resemblance to the confident, outward-looking country that welcomed my family to its shores in 1948? Or has time so narrowed the popular perspective and muddied our capacity to discern truth from lies that the US I fell in love with has faded into history? For better or worse, we will soon know the answer.
The writer is a former US secretary of state and author of Hell and Other Destinations: a 21st Century Memoir.
Written by: Madeleine Albright
© Financial Times