The presidential election that awaits the United States at the beginning of November will be one of the most important in the nation’s history. Although polls more or less favor the latter of the two, the outcome of the duel between Republican Donald Trump and his Democratic rival, Former Vice President Joe Biden, who served with Barack Obama, is uncertain. What factors will ultimately decide the race? Speaking of the U.S., what is America like today? This article is precisely about these questions.
Judging by numerous discussions in which I either participated directly or which I witnessed, the majority of Czech people have formed a very clear image of the United States. They see it either as “the land of freedom” and “the great democracy across the sea” that we have historical reasons for to be grateful for, or, in contrast, as a country from which it is necessary to distance ourselves as much as possible in order to preserve our own interests. This second perspective has been gaining strength among Czechs in recent years, and in this we are no exception. This trend is natural in light of developments in domestic U.S. politics. Nevertheless, the majority of Europeans have one thing in common: a feeling that they know and understand America. At the same time, they consider Americans in general to be buffoons who know nothing about Europe, but would nonetheless want a say in European affairs.
Actually, perhaps nothing could be further from the truth. Here is a concrete example. Europeans are generally outraged, or perhaps in some cases amused, that many Americans cannot generally locate individual European countries, even the larger countries, and can’t identify their capitals. They think of this as certain evidence of American insularity. Americans, on the other hand, react to similar situations indifferently. What’s more, Europeans do not really know America any better. During my many years as a professor, I would frequently ask my university students where the state of Washington was located in the United States. The overwhelming majority of them responding with supreme confidence located Washington state in the northeast part of the country. I could provide many similar examples of glaring ignorance. Simply put, in this regard, Europeans and Americans have no reason to find fault with one another.
A more serious matter is the lack of understanding about how large, and above all, how diverse the United States is. What is significant is not so much its area in square kilometers (the third largest in the world after Russia and Canada) or the size of its population (the world’s third largest after China and India), but its diversity. It is not as if we Europeans haven’t had our own experience with diversity. Northern Swedes are in many respects “a different species” in comparison to Greeks from the eastern Mediterranean. Even if they are all citizens of the European Union, they are also citizens of different countries. Because of this, we somewhat naturally understand these differences at both an analytic and an intuitive level.
With regard to America, however, we are bewildered that an intellectual from Boston or New York and a cattle wrangler from Arizona or Texas are both citizens of the same country, with everything that entails. We also have a hard time comprehending that they both speak a common language. (The absence of a common language is, by the way, one of the factors that effectively thwarts the creation of a European federation or European “superstate,” which is the dream of the political elite in Brussels, Strasbourg, Paris or Berlin.) In spite of the commonalities of language, federal government and flag, there are regional or sociocultural differences among individual citizens of the American federation that are at least as great as, and perhaps even greater than, differences between the above-mentioned “hard-working and thrifty” predominantly Protestant Swedes and “lazy and spendthrift” Orthodox Greeks (one of the favorite European stereotypes). In short, it is more fitting to compare the United States of America to the European Union than to an individual European country. It is precisely this fact that one must keep in mind when evaluating American history and current events.
From time immemorial, an important component of any discussion about the past, present and future of the United States is the question of immigrants and minorities. White Americans are still by far the largest ethnic component of the country (slightly more than 73%), followed by African Americans (about 13%), Asians (nearly 4.5%) and other races. Included in these statistics are Latinos (nearly 15%), who count themselves among one of the aforementioned races (usually white). For currently developing and future demographic trends, it is very important to note that Latinos are the most rapidly growing segment of the U.S. population. We can attribute this in part to a high birth rate among Latinos but also in part to a high rate of immigration (both legal and undocumented), primarily to the southern states (Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas and also in comparable numbers to Utah). Within two decades, Latinos will form the majority in these states.
This reality naturally projects onto state and local politics. For example, the success of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio was due in part to the fact that they are both bilingual, and therefore accepted by Latinos. This trend is not limited to the southern states. For quite some time now, even in the subway stations of New York, important notices have been written in English and Spanish. Many Czech people, and Europeans in general, find this surprising. So then, it is no wonder that after Obama’s victory against Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election, the majority of political commentators concluded that the Republicans would not be able to win future presidential elections if they did not begin to focus on gaining the votes of ethnic minorities. Trump’s triumphant 2016 presidential campaign, which focused strongly on “forgotten white voters,” cast significant doubt on this viewpoint, but only for a time. From a medium to long-term perspective, those commentators were correct, and it is only a matter of time before their predictions are confirmed.
Religion is another important factor that is critical to understanding political events in the United States. In the predominantly atheist Czech Republic, we are not accustomed to religion playing a significant role in everyday life, and this is especially true of major politics. (In Europe there are countries where church and religion have little influence in politics, or less influence [Czech Republic], although, of course, there are also countries [Poland and Ireland] where church and religion have significant influence.) In the United States, the issue of religion is absolutely foundational. George W. Bush won the 2004 presidential election, not primarily, but at least in part because he changed from being a casual alcoholic into a potentially sober and moral national leader. This transformation took place under the influence of his wife, Laura, and also as a consequence of converting from Episcopalian to his wife’s Methodist church. For many Americans, Bush’s transformation was not only believable, but also completely commendable, and many gave him their vote for precisely this reason.
On the other hand, the successful presidential campaigns of Democrat Bill Clinton (president from 1993 to 2001) was due in no small part to the fact that as a long-time Southern Baptist, he demonstrated the ability to transform himself during the campaign into a convincing “high priest,” appealing to his “flock” from a position widely respected in society. It is scarcely necessary to mention the significance of white Evangelical support for Trump, based on his support for the anti-abortion movement, among other things. Without Evangelical support, he would never have become president. Since we are on the subject of religion, the official motto of the United States of America speaks volumes: “In God we trust!” This motto was established by law in 1956, and was signed into law by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who held office from 1953 to 1961.
Messianism is the conviction of many Americans, mainly politicians, but also multitudes of “common” citizens, that their purpose is to save the world. One must keep this factor in mind during presidential elections, even though it is significantly weaker now than it once was. One would have especially little reason to charge the pragmatic Trump, with his “America First” and “Make America Great Again” platforms, with taking an exceptional interest in spreading democracy and general prosperity abroad in the world. (Contrast this, for example, to the above mentioned Bush.) By the way, from this perspective the reluctance of NATO member states to contribute the requisite 2% of gross domestic product to national defense seems to be shortsighted, and perhaps even dangerous. If Trump were to win reelection in November, it would certainly not be long before he raised this point again with regard to the trans-Atlantic alliance, and this time much more forcefully than before.
Since I’m writing about of pre-election America and how we in the Czech Republic perceive the situation over there, there is one more thing I must mention. Many Czechs (and not only Czechs) who have become accustomed to travelling to the United States in recent years have developed a feeling that they know that country very well. Not so! New York, Florida, California and the national parks — these do not make up the United States. More precisely, they are only small and very specific parts of the country. In order to understand what the U.S. is really like (and American politicians with national ambitions must strive to gain this knowledge if they are to get votes), it is necessary to travel and get to know the country’s northern regions as well, but chiefly the Midwest and the West (that is, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, both Dakotas, Tennessee and Texas, but also Nevada, Oregon and Washington). One must visit all of those usually dilapidated and godforsaken places, which in many cases still look like something out of David Lynch’s celebrated film “Wild at Heart” from 1990.
That is the real America. Presidential candidates must vigorously vie for these voters, too, with their own perspective, worldview and perception, with their own desires, notions about the nation and the world, and with their prejudices. With this in mind, I strongly suggest that readers look at maps that show the results of different presidential elections. In many cases, you will see that one party won narrow coastal strips in the East and Southwest, while the other party won the center or remainder. The final result of an election has often rested with swing states, where it is not clear beforehand who will win. (These include Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.) In that case, the unassuming state of Ohio with its “mere” 18 electors may be more of a prize than the great, but already decided state of California with its 55 electors. This has been the case more than once, and it could happen again. Both Trump and Hillary Clinton could speak to this at length from their own perspectives.
In short, many factors will be in play this November, including some that until now have not been very significant. Which factors? For example, there could be potentially massive voting recounts that result from close results, official protests, a large number of absentee ballots, court orders from individual states and Supreme Court rulings such as the ruling in the 2000 presidential election. Another factor could involve refusal by the losing candidate to recognize the winner and the corresponding potential for unrest in large cities. In truth, America is, in its own way, nearly at war, and I fear it would not take much for that to happen.
But let’s not jump ahead of ourselves, though. There is still plenty of time until the election, during which there will be developments in the COVID-19 crisis, with corresponding developments in unemployment and the economy. The pre-election rallies and televised debates will go on, with COVID-19 here and COVID-19 there. During these debates, we somewhat expect that Trump, with his “bulldog style,” will “destroy” a fragile and less aggressive Biden (or will go too far and damage his own campaign). Not to mention the possibility of yet another unknown surprise. (The first of these was COVID-19.) Who knows? Until then, however, it is certain that we will return again and again to this, the key political subject of the year.