The campaign for presidential election in the USA is turning out to be rather bizarre. It is divisive, fraught with deception, lies and anger, the kinds of which have never been seen before in US elections. Most Americans believe that it is not focussed on major issues (59 against 39 percent) and that it is too negative (51 against 31 percent).
The opinion polls are hinting at a Democratic win, with persistent leads in polls in the swing states too. In Pennsylvania, a key state taken by the Republicans in 2016, Donald Trump's numbers are reported to be sliding back further, giving Joe Biden a 7-point lead.
With about two weeks remaining before the election, these figures can change further, and one should not be surprised if the end game turns out to be different and nasty.
There have been persistent claims by President Donald Trump (without any evidence) of past rigging in postal ballots. This, some argue, is his way of preparing the ground for such action by his own party. The recent appearance of "illegal" and unofficial ballot boxes in churches and Republican offices in California to collect ballot papers hints at vote rigging. But it is difficult to imagine vote rigging and election-related violence in a country like the USA with its strong institutions, democracy, and rule of law. But recent events and the possibility of Trump using newly raised special forces to tame "violence" do not exclude such possibilities.
The demonstrations after the death of George Floyd and their suppression in the hands of police can be an indication of how nasty things may turn out to be. The stakes in the case of a presidential election are much higher, and in the event of any anomaly with the voting process, the scale of protest can be high.
Trump's survival in his roller coaster business career with reported failures and his massive "outstanding loans", both to local and foreign financial institutions, testify to his dark business instincts and skills. His navigation through the maze of tax laws, having paid only USD 750 in 2016 and 2017 each, and not disclosing the tax returns during the pre-2016 election process reflect his "skills and smartness".
Trump has indeed whipped up extreme emotions among the American people as well as among many around the world. He is seen as an egoistic, self-serving person, a tax dodger, five times draft evader, and a sexist with very low respect for women. But he is also praised as smart and intelligent. Trump has "saved the United States", says former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. He's one of the "smartest, cleverest and most successful" presidents, says Fox's Jeanine Pirro. But he was also labelled "dumb and racist" by comedian Seth Meyers, and is guilty of "rampant corruption," according to commentators on MSNBC.
Caroline Giuliani, daughter of New York's ex-mayor Rudi Giuliani, wrote in an op-ed in Vanity Fair that Trump's policies are breaking families apart and that if being the daughter of a polarising mayor has taught her anything, "it is that corruption starts with 'yes-men' and women, the cronies who create an echo chamber of lies and subservience."
Trump created a lots of chaos this year, starting with the handling of Covid-19 and then peaceful protests of the "Black Lives Matter" movement. And in the process, America started counting deaths, around 230,000 by now. The Covid-19 death toll in the USA is expected to increase by another 160-170 thousand by February next year. Trump's show of force against the peaceful protests of George Floyd's killing also instigated violence.
And the last and the most damaging act he has engaged in is his nomination of a conservative judge, Amy Barrett, a month before the presidential election. This has never happened before. Abraham Lincoln, facing a similar situation, decided against a nomination in the election year, and Barack Obama's choice was blocked by the Republicans in the 2016 election year.
Donald Trump seems to have a three-pronged strategy for his re-election campaign. His first strategy has been to claim that Covid-19 is a hoax, and therefore there is no need to impose lockdowns, and hence avoid lockdowns and further unemployment. In so doing, he undermined his own health officials, but paid a heavy price through counting many more avoidable deaths.
The second strategy has been to reach the far right and white supremacist groups, and whip up their sentiments against immigration, the Chinese for giving Covid-19 to the USA and for taking their jobs (through unfair trade practices). He refused to condemn the white supremacists, only managing to say "stand back and stand by" when repeatedly pushed by the moderator Chris Wallace during the first presidential debate. He expects his call to "Make America Great Again" will again reverberate through American heartlands and the swing states. He engaged in orchestrating misinformation. Mary McCord, a former federal prosecutor and now a Georgetown law professor, noted that Donald Trump has become "the greatest threat to our democracy".
The third and most damaging strategy has been to systematically undermine the neutrality of the judiciary through the nomination of Republican-favoured judges, sponsored by the shadowy right-wing networks, and eventually the nomination of Amy Barret to the Supreme Court. The composition of the nine-panel judge with a 6:3 ratio favourable to the conservatives can be of much comfort to the Republicans.
The Republican strategy to tinker with the judiciary also included the elimination of the system of civil judiciary, which is protected by law against any corruption. In the confirmation hearing, Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democratic senator, revealed how dark money was playing a role in putting people of influence in right places in the judiciary of America.
Violence can break out between armed right-wing groups and the moderates in case the election results do not go in favour of Donald Trump. He has asked his supporters to "protect" polling centres for him. And in case of "contentious claims on results and election frauds", the Republicans can expect to get a favourable hearing in the Supreme Court.
The end game of Trump politicking may not succeed in putting him back in the presidential seat, but he is not going to go out without a fight.
Dr Atiqur Rahman is an economist, ex-adjunct professor at the John Cabot University, Rome, and ex-Lead Strategist of IFAD, Rome, Italy.