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Rabbit unrested: a side view of US Election 2020

A puzzled world awaits a winner of the Battle of the Mask and the Flag in the face-off between supporters of Trump and Biden, writes Kofi Opare-Addo from Minneapolis

New York is a city that flourishes on the art of financial speculation, self-branding and high risk. So when, in the summer of 2015, Donald Trump made the self-promoted descent from his New York penthouse into US politics, the safe bet was not on the high reward of the presidency of the United States of America, but a quick disappearance into a parody the size of the city itself.

Ever since then, the joke has been on his political opponents, and now they have the chance to deny him another term.

However, in the mass hysteria of this year’s polls, America has forgotten everything. And so, like four years ago, the polls seem to point to a blowout for the candidate for the Democrats, Joe Biden, to ensure that Trump becomes a one-term president, like Jimmy Carter and George H Bush.

But lessons have been learned, so I am staying away from the drunken effects of polling and choosing instead a clear-headed focus on the implications of the 2020 US elections.

Who’s got soul?

Like in medieval warfare, the blue and red tribes have bunkered up behind their fortifications to make their symbolic mark on a slip of paper to show the direction Americans want to take their society.

Even for a country that self-identifies with exceptionalism and invariably projects itself as unique or extraordinary, this year’s election has been an unmatched mixture – of pandemic, racial justice and a sputtering economy – that so far seems to be defying the size and scale of Americans’ ability to innovate.

The subtext to this visceral fight for the “soul of America” features some of the same cast of characters that have dominated American life for the past twenty years. The bombast of Trump against the grandmotherly shrewdness of Nancy Pelosi, the board-game power play of Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer, the clichéd college-educated suburban woman and the blue-collar white man, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality, the aspirational pursuit of a multiracial society against the rise of white supremacy, globalisation versus nativism, affordable health care versus the perceived scourge of socialised medicine, voter suppression and participatory democracy, the decay of the industrial heartland pitted against the high finance of the East and West Coasts. All this comes against the non-stop braying in the background of ideological points of view by Fox News and MSNBC.

If this isn’t quite heady enough for you, throw in the most emotive of issues: religion, or, in the case of America, Christianity. Here the old cultural battle lines have been spruced up and repainted in bright colours, using the most visible possible symbol – the southern wall with Mexico. With the great wall, Christian empathy for the Other runs directly into the Christian commitment to defend the borders of the faith from invaders. Christian vows to save lives become frayed under the weight of a contradictory stance on black lives and abortion.

The shape-shifting ideas of Christian non-violence somehow interlock with a Second Amendment right to bear arms, and the Christian admonishment to be your brother’s keeper coexists comfortably side by side with unrestrained corporate profit.

Americans are used to this, so there is nothing un-American about all the cultural doublespeak, because this country was created by its founders to embody and encompass contradictions.

Land of the breathing freely

Also not new to Americans is the controversy that mass outbreaks of disease can cause.

The 1918 influenza pandemic generated vastly differing opinions on what the official response should be. Then, as now, there were suspicions that the reportage was overblown. But nothing prepares for you for this re-enactment of pandemic-related behaviour than the fight over wearing of face masks.

Despite Donald Trump’s own experience of infection with the novel coronavirus, and even though there is significant scientific proof that masks are a deterrent against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the face mask has taken on the additional significance of being a distinguishing cultural marker. Throngs of diehard, bare-faced Trump supporters complacently wave his flags in packed crowds, in defiance of both the virus and the mask. They see the government-mandated mask as representing their liberal opponents who are bent on muzzling their freedoms. Each wave of The Flag signifies a love of freedom more powerful than the fear of a virus that so far killed over 230,000 Americans.

Right-wing Republicans have a long acquaintance and a controversial relationship with the symbolism of the flag. For them, public displays of and adornment with either the Confederate flag or the US flag mean the same thing: patriotism.

Bamako … or Baltimore

On the eve of the election, the United States recorded 81,493 new cases of the novel coronavirus and 447 deaths from COVID-19, in line with an average this past week of 81,000-plus new cases every day. Two days previously, the total was just shy of 100,000 new infections.

So, the election is taking place with surging numbers of novel coronavirus infections and deaths from COVID-19 – and a surge in concern for what post-election America will be like is also driving nervous conversations across this country as voters watch the first few results trickle in.

Will Trump win? Will he concede the election if he loses? Will there be violence after the election? These are the kinds of questions you ask about elections in Mali, not America.

For all the rest that has been confounded by the scattershot policies of the Trump administration, who wins this election may come down to three things: turnout, the smoothness of the vote count and the possible role of the Supreme Court if there is a deadlock.

US Election 2020 timeline
Source: US State Department

For now, sit tight as you await the outcome of the farcical fight between the Mask and the Flag. And grab your hand sanitiser.

Kofi Opare-Addo in Minneapolis

* Asaase Radio 99.5 – tune in or log on to broadcasts online.
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