Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
It’s a cold, crisp morning on the 20th of January, 2021. A huge crowd, a genuinely huge one this time, has gathered at the US Capitol for that perennial fixture of American politics, the swearing-in of the president. Sean Spicer, as one of the guest co-anchors for Fox News, good naturedly confirms that yes, the crowd might even be “a tad bigger” than four years ago.
The ceremony itself is delayed by a wave of boos and jeers as the president arrives, his lower lip jutting out in defiance, his eyes clearly betraying his lack of enthusiasm for the occasion. He has aged more than a man should in four years. Melania hasn’t.
The crowd settles eventually, and then Martin O’Malley, President-elect, Democrat and former governor of Maryland, steps forward to take the oath of office, his wife to his side. Near him Kamala Harris, former US Senator of California, the first black female vice president, smiles at the incoming first lady.
Governor O’Malley takes the oath, and then turns to face the crowd as a euphoric, almost orgasmic cheer erupts. The long national nightmare is over. The nuclear codes are once again in safe hands. Everything is going to be OK. People joke that we’ll all look back and look at it not as much as the Trump administration, but the Donald Divergence, a weird moment in history when a great nation temporarily took leave of its senses. But it’s all OK now.
Except it’s not: despite years of truly awful poll ratings President Trump managed to actually increase his share of the vote. Not as much as the Democratic nominee, but he wasn’t humiliated. The electoral college restored the blue wall and Florida and Ohio put the O’Malley-Harris ticket over the top, but it was no landslide. A few hundred thousand votes the other way and it would have been another four years of shenanigans. Millions and millions of people voted once again for him, this time knowing exactly what he’d be like in the White House. None of your The Office Maketh the Man rubbish. They knew exactly what they were getting.
Am I being a bit fanciful for a Tuesday morning column? Perhaps. I love a bit of future speculation and the odd “What if”. But the fundamentals are sound. Maybe the majority of Americans are turning resolutely against President Trump, as opposed to the They’re As Bad as Each Other tone of the 2016 election campaign. Millions still support the man.
The fear is not that he won’t be beaten in 2020, assuming he stays in office that long. The real worry should be that even if he is ousted by the voters, the country will remain bitterly divided.
It’s not fair or accurate to say that every Trump voter is represented by the central casting rejects who marched under confederate and nazi flags in Charlottesville last week. But it is fair to say that nearly all of them are not really alarmed, but indeed even comfortable with a president who is not seemingly bothered by what they represent. I don’t think he’s a nazi. I think he may actually be worse than that, a man so vulnerable to flattery that if it comes from a white supremacist he’ll lap it up and give them what he calls a fair hearing.
The question is not getting him out in 2020. The question is what is left behind. A sizeable portion of the country, millions of people, who voted for Trump and post-Trump will be looking for a new political berth. Supposing he or she comes? A new paragon for the hard or even far right but without Trump’s weaknesses. Who does read his briefings, and retains facts, and knows when to keep his mouth shut and not alienate people for no actual gain. But still believes in that hard right agenda? Many call Trump a buffoon. What if the next one isn’t?
That’s the question many moderate Americans will be asking themselves. Supposing they do dodge a bullet and elect a moderate candidate in 2020. What happens next?
Will Trump voters even accept the result? Will he? Or will his ego refuse to be tamed, and let him tell maybe 60 million voters that their votes were stolen from them. What about all those combat cosplay militia clowns who turn up at these events, taking up tactical positions and jutting their jaws as if they have some sort of mission that “civilians” don’t understand. We may laugh at them, but we can’t laugh at their assault rifles.
For millions of his voters, a 2020 Trump defeat will not be a fair sportman’s go. It won’t be better luck next time. For many it’ll be like an invasion, the nation’s capital once again in the hands of alien values.
Can a country keep going on like this, every election a punch in the gut for half the country? With the exception of maybe Belgium, you’d be hard pressed to find a modern democracy where half the country is so deeply suspicious about the other half. Spain, with Catalonia, has it too, but both countries are in the EU, and so devolution and maybe even separation, as Czechoslovakia proved, isn’t too bad if there’s an agreed framework for after.
Is it time for an ironic US style Brexit out of the US and into a looser EU model?
Is it time for the US to look once again at the issue of states rights and to relieve the fear of another Trump imposing his will on states like California or New York or Massachusetts? Is it time for issues like same sex marriage and religious freedom and gun control and campaign finance to be devolved to the states to be decided by the prevailing culture in each one?
Yes, there’s that term. States rights. We all know historically what it was code for. But maybe it’s time to confront that there might now be two Americas. Maybe it is time to accept that most of the former Confederacy is effectively, culturally, a different country. Maybe they should go.
Would the north fight to keep them? With their statues and Dixie flags and obsession with who is using what bathroom and the freedom to hate through baked confectionary? With heavily-armed plump middle-aged guys searching the aisles of Walmart for a transgender Muslim Prius-driving Ellen Degeneres watching IS cell? Fight them? I suspect the two coasts would hold the door open for them.
Sure, you’d have migration on a huge scale as those with conflicting values fled. But that would just take a few years to sort out, along with a European Economic Area style trade area. They could even keep the same currency, and have a common customs union.
Would it be sad to see the United States break up, even peacefully? Of course. But if that was the price for the north to never have to fear another Trump, and for the confederacy to be free to return to the 1950s where so many of its white people seem to desire to go?
Hell, it may not be the price of peace. But it could sure as well be the price of peace of mind.