If people thought that the last four years in American politics were divisive, then they’ve seen nothing yet. With Donald Trump off the scene, many seem to believe that the country’s political arena will emerge into a bright new future, but things are about to get a whole lot worse.
American polarisation pre-dates Trump by decades, but in the past few years it has intensified to such an extent that a paper on US tribalism from Cambridge University says it is now approaching levels of ethnic parochialism seen in Bosnia and Kosovo — two countries noted for their recent political stability. However, even before Trump’s election, a study of Democrats and Republicans showed similar levels of distrust as exist between Israelis and Palestinians.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Yet while many people recognise the symptoms of this American balkanisation, they do not recognise the cause. It is not just that people believe in different things, it is that they believe in different facts — there is no longer any agreement on what has happened and what has not. This applies from the most serious and major event to the most mundane, but it starts with the words people believe were said or not said
Take two of the claims about Trump that most enraged the Left in recent years: that he described all Mexicans as rapists and that he refused to condemn white supremacy. Both these are false. Neither accurately reflects what Donald Trump said, at the bottom of the escalator in Trump Tower on the day he announced his candidacy in June 2015, or in his response to the events in Charlottesville two years later.
Yet for four years the anti-Trump “Resistance” was happy to run with these claims. In the last couple of days, broadcasters on major American networks have claimed on air, on the basis of Trump’s Mexicans comment, that Hispanics have suffered more prejudice than at any point in their lifetimes. The same Hispanics who just voted for Trump in record-breaking numbers.
Meanwhile, Trump’s supposed failure to denounce white supremacy is such a part of the historical narrative that it came up in the presidential debates and was raised by Kamala Harris in her vice-presidential debate with Mike Pence. The transcript (what we used to call “the record”) shows that the claim is false; Trump condemned white supremacy clearly in his post-Charlottesville statement. As has been observed by others, Trump has not only said more lies than any other president, but he has also had more lies said about him.
And now the man who looks set to become the next president of the USA announces that he wants the country to heal?
This split version of reality extends beyond words. In the past month, American politics witnessed a scandal of potentially enormous proportions, a story that once would have exploded across the political scene to be met with the usual cycle of allegations and denials.
Hunter Biden’s laptop contained an awful lot of things, including photos of Biden Jnr allegedly smoking crack and exposing himself. But more damaging was the allegation that it contained emails suggesting not only that Joe Biden’s brother and son enriched themselves by selling their access to foreign powers, but that the man himself — “the chairman” — enriched himself through these means, too.
It may be said that the timing of the story was awfully advantageous to the Republican cause — and that would be right. Such a story emerging right before an election would have a major impact on a campaign; and obviously the Republicans wanted it to have such an effect. But in the end it did not — almost as if it never even happened.
Of course, the American public may well regard Hunter Biden’s personal life — quite rightly — as entirely a matter for himself. But these emails contained claims that in any healthy democracy would require serious investigation, implying monumental levels of corruption at the top.
The American Left, however, decided to pretend that the whole thing was either a Russian disinformation drop, that it was simply a matter of personal intrusion, or that there was otherwise nothing to see. With the help of social media, it smothered the story.
Twitter and Facebook decided to censor all references to the corruption scandal. It even locked the New York Post — America’s oldest newspaper — out of its own account and muted the Post’s story on their platforms. So except for the small number of people with unusual interest in hard-to-access stories, that portion of the country which gets its news from Twitter or Facebook did not actually know what the Biden laptop story was about. It simply doesn’t exist in that universe.
Half the country knows that the laptop scandal appears to contain questions about the Biden family’s search for funds. The other half either believes that the story is entirely fabricated or was content to pretend to believe that right up until the day of the election. Because whatever the Bidens may or may not have done, it was worth ignoring in order to see Donald Trump and his family leave the White House.
And now we have the biggest disagreement of all about reality. One portion of the country — some way over half — believes that Joe Biden won this election. Another portion — nowhere near a majority, but possibly a majority of people who voted Republican — believes that Donald Trump won. Trump himself is irresponsibly laying the groundwork for the next four years of his career by sticking to this claim. And while he may at some point say that he is stepping aside for the good of the nation — which would not entirely be in character — he and his many supporters are likely to hold to the idea that this election was stolen from them by a corrupt and rigged system.
The only counter that the Biden camp currently has is to pretend that this is wholly untrue and that there is no corruption in the US voting system, especially not when it comes to mail-in votes. And all the while, that crucial middle ground, those people who recognise that there certainly are voting irregularities in the American system and that, notwithstanding, Donald Trump lost the election, is vacated.
At such a moment, a society enters a crucially dangerous juncture. Because once we no longer share the same reality, we can no longer empathise with our opponents or compromise, and from that point on absolutely anything can happen.
The incoming president and vice-president will naturally state that they now seek to put an end to all this. In his first speech since the vote appeared to go his way Joe Biden invited the United States to end what he called the “grim era of demonisation”. The President-elect begged: “Let’s give each other a chance.”
And yet that is exactly what he and his party spent the last four years not doing. After the election of their adversary in 2016, the Democrats came up with a fake allegation about Russian interference in the election. They claimed that Trump and his family colluded with the Kremlin to get him into office, and when the official investigation into that bogus claim found it was indeed bogus, the same people then attempted to impeach the president on the basis of a phone call with his counterpart in Ukraine. And now they say that people’s families are off-limits and that it is time to come together? It is obvious that Biden and the Democrats only want the “era of demonisation” and divisiveness to come to an end so long as it does so on their terms.
What if the Republicans decide to do to the Bidens what the Democrats did to the Trumps, by delegitimising the election result and with it the democratic process. And why not? Since the Democrats spent four years pretending that the last election was fixed, why shouldn’t the Republicans spend the next four pretending that this one was, too? Even if they do not believe so — as many Democrats doubtless did not sincerely believe their own claims about 2016 — that’s the game now.
And if the Democrats can pursue Trump and his sons over claims of collusion with a foreign power, why should the Republicans not as a first order of business order an official investigation into Joe Biden and his family? Indeed why should they not announce (as Democrat operatives did after the last election) that they intend to impeach President Biden the moment he enters office?
All of this would be to play the game in kind — it would indeed be “fair” — and would have as much point to it as the Democrats’ Russian vendetta had between 2016 and 2020. It would also tear this country further apart.
The problem is that neither side is any longer dedicated to viewing the truth in neutral terms — and the Democrats are still at it. At the weekend, one former National Security Council spokesman for President Obama condemned Boris Johnson’s message of congratulation to Joe Biden. Calling the British Prime Minister a “shapeshifting creep”, Tommy Vietor said “We will never forget your racist comments about Obama.”
But Johnson never made any racist comments about Obama — the Prime Minister had remarked in 2016 that Obama’s far from warm attitude to Britain may have been influenced by his Kenyan heritage, something no one would find remarkable if applied to, say, an Irish-American like Joe Biden. Vietor had simply elevated his personal interpretation of Johnson’s words into the status of fact and then used them as a political weapon to use against the enemy. He does so at the moment of his own side’s victory and triumph, a lack of magnanimity that bodes ill for the future.
Trump has gone, but if anyone thinks the age of vitriol and division is over, then they are truly living in a different reality. If you liked the last four years of American politics, you’re going to love what comes next.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe