(Originally published here in South China Morning Post on November 10, 2020.)
In an inspiring kumbaya moment for America, Joe Biden called for unity on Saturday after being named the country’s next president and vowed to work as hard for those who didn’t vote for him as for those who did.
The message came after four years of top leadership that sought to crush any person, group, institution or norm that didn’t serve the presidential agenda. It felt like rain after a long drought for anyone who took pride in America’s rule of law, separation of powers and its fundamental understanding that there are some challenges, like pandemics, that require solutions devoid of politics.
Biden will do his best to reverse an orientation in Washington that made America unrecognisable to its closest allies soon after US President Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017 and, for the world’s autocracies, a new member of their club.
However, the president-elect’s words, while welcome and necessary, won’t be enough to eliminate the rancour that, more than any time in at least half a century, threatens to tear the country apart.
His victory was not the landslide that some polls had predicted. While Biden got more votes than any presidential candidate in America’s history, Trump took second place in that category. More than 71 million people cast their votes for a man who has relied so heavily on divisiveness for political expediency that he was never willing to condemn white supremacy.
The jubilation in Washington on Saturday, from the late-morning media declarations that Biden had won, to late into the evening, played out against a background of boarded-up windows. Many businesses took the precaution in case the outcome went the other way, a result that might well have plunged America’s cities back into the kind of chaos we saw after George Floyd’s death under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis.
At the time of writing, Trump had shown no sign of conceding. This raises the potential for such an outcome, no doubt to the delight of Moscow, Beijing and Tehran. There is hope, though, in an interesting development that was largely overlooked as we watched vote tallies in the battleground states of the 2020 election.
Voters in the Trump country states of Mississippi, Montana and South Dakota did what many of America’s more liberal jurisdictions have been doing for years and legalised marijuana. Mississippi will allow it for medical purposes only, but this step often breaks the floodgates, leading to an eventual green light for recreational use.
These reliably Republican states should want weed. Most people there would have had to undergo some dramatic cognitive disjuncture to back a slick New York City property developer who has denigrated American soldiers like the late senator John McCain, taken the word of foreign dictators like Vladimir Putin over US intelligence officers, paid off porn stars and so on.
The list of Trump transgressions that run counter to traditional conservative ideals is long, but the president has been a master at keeping the hypocrisy from bringing him down for several reasons. To simplify things, let’s break Trump supporters into two broad groups. The first is those who thought tax cuts and deregulation justified the wholesale elimination of the principles that made America a world leader.
The others – the most hardcore, science-denying part of Trump’s base – are those who cheered when Trump insisted that some of the white supremacist contingent in the violent 2017 clash of demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left one dead were “very fine people”. They were also elated when reports surfaced in 2018 that he had referred to Haiti and African nations as “s***hole countries”.
This group would need substantial psychoactive assistance to look past the fact that the president, a reality show host, apparently found every possible loophole to, according to an extensive New York Times investigation that Trump has never fully denied, pay next to nothing in taxes for many years.
In normal times, nothing would frost Southern and Midwestern populists more than the idea of a New York city slicker with white shoe lawyers and accountants gaming the system to enrich themselves.
This is where the ushering in of marijuana to the red states of America might just be the country’s best hope of keeping the start of a civil war at bay. You’re less likely to want to launch an insurrection when enjoying a nice indica high.