WELL, 2020, aren’t you just the gift from hell that keeps on giving? The most expensive, divisive, and lengthy US presidential race in history is puttering towards the end with one side predicting victory and the other claiming it. If the Lincoln Memorial could come to life the great man would place his head in his hands in despair.

As it is, a country and a world are left scratching their heads. Donald Trump, the greatest showman to some, turned out to have a heck of an encore. The only surprise in his declaration of victory, while declaring a fraud had been perpetrated on the American public, was that it took him so long. “Sleepy Joe”, as he called his opponent, beat him to it, saying the Democrats were “on track to win”. Horns honked, supporters cheered, while the incumbent rushed to Twitter to announce “a big win”. The road to the courts, and more chaos, lies ahead.

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This was not how the pollsters said it would unfold. There was going to be a blue wave for Mr Biden but instead it was a slow-mo trickle. Mr Trump, written off by a majority of the media, appeared to repeat his Houdini trick of 2016. Only it wasn’t a trick. The pollsters might like to comfort themselves with notions of “shy” Trump supporters who rushed out at the last moment, but the picture is more complicated than that. There are large parts of American society, and this applies increasingly in other western nations too, that actively refuse to engage with polling organisations, and no amount of adjustments can compensate for that.

One pollster still worth listening to is Frank Luntz, who said election night proved one thing: that America is now a 50-50 country. “We are all members of the minority, and we should treat each other with empathy and respect,” he said, provoking an inevitable backlash on Twitter. Luntz is right about 50-50, though it is hardly a new phenomenon. Like Mr Trump, a divided America did not come out of nowhere. It is in with the very bricks of the nation.

There have always been two Americas. The America that divided, conquered and stole land from the original inhabitants is the America that championed democracy and freedom. The America that was so backward looking it treated black Americans like third class citizens right up till the twentieth century, is the America that elected its first black President. Parochial, insular America, the one that builds walls, is the same America that welcomed millions of immigrants. It is a huge, complex, multi-faceted country that has too often made the mistake of believing its own publicity. It so wants to be a Disney movie but at times it has been a tale straight from the Brothers Grimm.

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So we come to the ugly pass that is the 2020 election. To the outside world, and to many inside the country, this America is as Janus-faced as some of its predecessors. In simple terms it is the liberal, blue state America versus the Trumpist, red state America. It seems a very long time indeed since hearing Barack Obama declare at his party’s 2004 convention that there was not a liberal America and a conservative America, not a black America and a white America, or a Latino America and Asian America. There was, instead, a United States of America. It was a great line, one of many, but it was not true then or now.

If there was not a disunited states of America there could have been no Donald Trump, a populist outsider who exploited division. There had been Trumps before, but none of them had been able to get their message out to so many, so cheaply, and so effectively. Eventually, the system kicked in and eject them from the body politic.

But using first the tabloids, then television, followed by Twitter, here was a businessman who did not need the press or the DC establishment on his side to get attention. Indeed, he thrived on making them the enemy. But his message could not have hit home so successfully if many Americans were not already feeling alienated from politics.

Now we have an America where it seems one side actively believes the other does not just dislike it but actively means to do it harm. In such an atmosphere everything becomes about choosing sides, us and them, completely right and utterly wrong. Even when facing a common enemy in coronavirus the two sides cannot agree. True, false, mask, no mask, fire Fauci or venerate him. This when hundreds of thousands of Americans have died.

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How the 2020 election plays out from here is anyone’s guess. Even if everyone is patient and the count proceeds as it should, the outcome will not be universally accepted. The rot set in the moment Mr Trump cried fraud (which he started doing long before election day). No matter how bitterly fought an election, it is a given that a leader is able to stand before a country that at least agrees who won. A peaceful transfer of power cannot succeed otherwise.

If Mr Biden does emerge the winner, and the country remains as divided as it is today, where goes America from there? Where goes Mr Trump? We can entertain a fantasy of him taking a vow of dignified silence, but that is unlikely. Many in his party don’t want him but fear they need him. Should he find himself on the outside again it is doubtful he will spin off into obscurity, like others who have tried to buck the two party system.

In any event, whatever becomes of Mr Trump the anger and hurt that rocket-fuelled his rise from reality TV star to President will still be there. It would take a political giant to bring this disunited America again, and Mr Biden is no Lincoln or LBJ. It was the former who warned that a house divided against itself cannot stand. In that case it was slavery tearing the country apart.

“I do not expect the union to be dissolved,” said Lincoln. “I do not expect the house to fall. But I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or the other.”

We wait to see what will become of America now. What a tragedy that many do so not in hope but in fear.

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