Four years ago, I stayed up all night watching the election results. I was in a bar in Neukölln packed with other people from the U.S. I had only planned to stay for one beer, but I was still there when the cops came at 3am. to throw everyone out. We had to search for another bar that would let us watch CNN until 6am.
This time around, I just went to sleep. In a dream, I saw a map in which Biden had won every single state. But when I looked at my phone in the morning, reality exactly as I had expected: Biden had won a few million more votes, but so had Trump. The two candidates were neck and neck, and the Times announced the beginning of a “nail-biter” that could last for weeks.
People in Germany wonder this could happen. If the U.S. President were elected in Germany, Biden would win by about 100%. (A dogged Exberliner reporter found a few Trump supporters in Berlin, but this is really the exception that proves the rule.) And just counting Americans in Berlin, my feeling is that Bernie Sanders would be President for Life.
Everyone here wants to know: In the face of more than 200,000 deaths, how could people vote for the candidate whose campaign promise is to do nothing? Do Americans really prefer macho posturing and xenophobic rambling to, you know, not dying of Covid? Not so long ago, conventional wisdom held that higher voter turnout would always benefit the Democrats. But the U.S. has now seen the highest turnout in generations, and Trump was able to mobilise millions of new voters.
What many people here don’t understand: life in the United States today is dystopic. It’s not just the acute crises of a deadly pandemic, an ostentatiously incompetent president, and mass unemployment. There are also the constant, soul-crushing fears of everyday life in the land of privatised healthcare, privatised education and no security. At any moment, you can get caught in the rapacious jaws of the hospital system, while you are drowning in college debt, and you could lose your job from one second to the next. In other words, even if you’re doing ok in the U.S.A., you are just one slip away from catastrophe.
And that despair, even if it’s not always on people’s mind, is bad for everyone. As Bertolt Brecht wrote about pre-revolutionary Russia: “Nobody had the desire to attempt a change. People had become accustomed to life crushing them with constant pressure. They did not expect any change for the better, and believed that all changes would only increase the burden weighing on them.”
As people in the U.S. are confronted with massive fires that blacken the skies and terrifying storms that get worse every year, the need for radical change is obvious. Yet radical change also appears totally impossible. The ancient U.S. constitution offers no way to reform itself.
The situation is terrifying. A significant part of the country focusses on paranoid fantasies about Antifa looters financed by George Soros (or even more extreme ideas). People vote for Trump to protect them from dangers that do not exist. And yet, this kind of political fever dream is actually a pleasant distraction from the actual, infinitely more horrifying dangers that humanity is facing: climate change is slowly making the planet uninhabitable before our eyes.
It wasn’t so much that Trump presents an attractive path. It’s that the Democratic Party has managed to make a monster look attractive by comparison. The presidential election is actually not giving people much of a choice.
Polls show that almost half of of people are opposed to fracking. And no wonder: it causes earthquakes, it releases methane that is frying the planet, and it’s not even very profitable. Still, we are asked to choose between two candidates who support it.
For many years, over two thirds of Americans support some kind of Medicare for All. But the elections offer a choice between two candidates who combine a fierce defence of privatised healthcare with useless platitudes about helping everyone.
Both candidates have long track records of supporting mass incarceration, deportations, racist police violence, and imperialist wars. But only one candidate is at least willing to defend his own policies — the other is cagey.
So given that “choice,” is it so hard to understand how desperate people might the candidate who is more dramatic? The one who at least doesn’t deny the fact that life in the U.S. feels like “carnage”?
The Democrats’ program, with Biden promising to billionaires that “nothing will change,” is what makes Trump seem like a realistic alternative to millions of people. Even if Biden is elected, the crisis in the U.S. will not stop all of a sudden. Many people are hoping for a return to “normal.” But if “normal” was the relative peace and prosperity that some people experienced for a short window in the 1990s, that is never coming back.
Trump is a product of capitalism in decline. Germany might feel like a fortress of civilisation at the moment. But capitalism will produce worse and worse forms of Trumpism all over the world as it falls apart. We are not safe here or anywhere until we throw this system onto the trashpile of history.
Four years ago, watching the electoral map switch from blue to red in the middle of the night at that Neukölln bar, it felt like we were experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime shock. But that was, and is, the new normal. People like to say that socialism has failed — but would anyone today be bold enough to claim that capitalism is working?