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America is overdosing on the apocalypse

At what point do prophecies become self-fulfilling? Under America’s despairing skies the hope has to be never. If you believe the left, Joe Biden’s presidency is as good as finished: US democracy’s days are numbered. If you listen to the right, the nation is approaching a civil war fuelled by a globalist plot to replace Christian America with free-loading heathens. At a time of peak US division, there is at least bipartisan unity on one matter: the country is doomed. To quote The Wizard of Oz: “Not so fast, not so fast. I’ll have to give the matter a little thought.”

It is easy to forget that a country founded on the creed of self-belief — not the customary blood, soil and messy evolution of the rest — can turn dark when its self-confidence goes. Doom is the flip side to the hope of US exceptionalism. Just as the American upside is overdone — and highly selective in its self-image — so the darkness can become a self-soothing cult. Today’s America is divided into two camps. One spends its time doomscrolling the internet to confirm all the dark motives they suspected. The second is getting on with their lives. The latter, which others have dubbed the “exhausted majority”, is the source of whatever hope is to be found.

The first camp — call it the “permanently outraged” — could do with a reality check. One year into his presidency, Biden does indeed look weak and embattled. But his first year only looks bad against the wildly unrealistic expectations many supporters set for him. In the past 12 months, the US has created more jobs than during any year in its history. It has gone from none vaccinated to almost two-thirds of the population. For the first time in many years, Congress passed a bipartisan bill to upgrade US infrastructure. It could have been much better, of course. And things may be about to get worse. But we are not yet at the end of days.

Liberal America’s chief worry, which is not a figment of its imagination, is over the future of US democracy. The fact that Biden is unable to pass his election reform bills, and that the system has so far been unable to hold the plotters of last year’s January 6 failed putsch to account, is the deepest source of angst. Yet there is an underrated distinction between the next presidential election and last year’s one — the people occupying the White House.

Whatever happens, between now and January 2025 no other American will come close to wielding Biden’s power as commander-in-chief. An electoral coup requires federal connivance, which it will not get in 2024. The doomscrollers might pause briefly on that fact. It was Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s vice-president, who refused to go along with last year’s plot to reject the result of the electoral college. No such courage will be required of Kamala Harris in 2024.

The Democrats’ rational fear ought thus to be that they will lose the next presidential election fair and square. That is plausible. The prospect of a rerun of the contest between Biden and Trump is enough to turn the bubbliest of souls into nervous wrecks. But a lot can happen in three years.

Two years ago, few had heard of the pandemic. They could obviously never imagine Covid-19 vaccines. Thirteen months ago, few thought the Democrats could regain control of the US Senate. In their euphoria at having done that, many Democrats lost contact with reality. Biden was never going to be the next Franklin Roosevelt. Having failed to reinvent the New Deal, many liberals are now anticipating fascism. Such wild mood swings are rarely conducive to practical thinking.

Time is no friend of the US right’s doomsday cult. Biden, 79, is ageing, but so is Trump, 75. The former president is served by a loyal media, which is rarely true of a Democratic one. The unity of rightwing propaganda for Trump is mirrored by a professional media that increasingly disdains Biden. That asymmetry gives Trump an advantage. But it should not be confused with winning.

The maths of America’s media habits are oddly reassuring. Most Americans have switched off. The most demagogic Fox News anchor gets about 3.5m viewers a night. Betting on an apathetic majority may sound odd. But they still greatly outnumber the fanatics.


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