In Tuesday’s US presidential debate, Donald Trump said China had eaten Joe Biden’s lunch when the latter was vice-president. Mr Trump was referring to the rise of America’s trade deficit with China during Barack Obama’s presidency, omitting that the gap in goods trade is not meaningfully smaller under his presidency.
In that same period, US politics has degenerated into a macabre shadow of its former self. Its democratic brand is in freefall. China is now eating America’s dinner and eyeing tomorrow’s breakfast.
Some of America’s declining reputation can be measured. The Pew Research Center recently found that fewer than a third of French and Germans had a favourable view of America. At 41 per cent favourable, Britain’s view of the US was a record low. Mr Trump’s impact is even more stark. Just 16 per cent of the world trusts America’s president to do the right thing, even lower than the 19 per cent who thought that about China’s Xi Jinping. Germany’s Angela Merkel got a 76 per cent positive rating. The surveys were carried out well before this week’s presidential debate.
Some of the reputational damage stems from the US’s mishandling of coronavirus. With more than 210,000 deaths, America’s mortality rate is five times its share of the global population — and more than 200 times the per-capita death ratio in China where the pathogen originated. A recent study of excess mortality found the US had a 28 per cent higher death rate than Europe, in spite of having a far lower population density, a younger median age and three extra weeks to anticipate the pandemic.
It would be tempting to place the entire blame on Mr Trump’s shoulders. Most of it indeed belongs there. He has refused to create a national coronavirus strategy, rubbished social distancing (most recently in Tuesday’s debate when he mocked Mr Biden’s mask wearing) and terrorised US government scientists. But not everything is his fault. Much as American democracy used to be a model, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention once set the global standard for epidemiology. The CDC wasted valuable weeks in pursuit of dud Covid-19 tests in February and March. Similarly, the Federal Aviation Administration has been rocked by allegations that it has been captured by companies it is supposed to regulate, notably Boeing. The Food and Drug Administration has also taken a hit. Not to mention the FBI and the State Department.
America’s ability to govern itself well — including its capacity to run efficient elections — was slipping long before Mr Trump took office. He has accelerated the erosion. Foreigners experience the shock of this in varying ways. They may tune into a US presidential debate and recoil at its sheer demagoguery. They may lament upon hearing its president incite vigilantes and discourage voting. They could just as equally be shocked by the country’s declines in life expectancy, second-rate infrastructure, racial discrimination, and waning claims to meritocracy.
It is a measure of America’s reduced expectations that the alternative to Mr Trump is a 77-year-old man who is past his prime. Mr Biden is a fundamentally decent person. His victory would be celebrated in most of Europe and liberal America. But he is a far cry from much younger predecessors, such as John F Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who so skilfully channelled American dreams. His candidacy is an admission of shorter horizons. It is about damage limitation rather than hope.
This week the world witnessed a new low in America’s political culture. If the country is lucky, it will escape a constitutional crisis in November. Mr Biden’s poll lead has been sufficiently stable to explain why Mr Trump was even more unpleasant than usual on Tuesday. His intemperate performance may even have cemented his defeat. Post-debate polls suggest Mr Trump’s tactics backfired. But his worsening prospects make him even more dangerous. The night’s most important line was the one Mr Trump refused to utter: “I will abide by the election results whoever wins.”
America is likely to be consumed by divisions for the foreseeable future. Either election outcome would suit China. A Biden victory might even be preferable since he would be more predictable than Mr Trump while lacking the means to restore US primacy. Mr Biden could stop America’s internal bleeding. That is ambitious enough. It would be a leap of faith to bet on more than that.