The twin realities of America – the one where Donald Trump lost the election, and the one where he won it. These two realities are currently operating side by side in the US, and unless a major coup de grace or denouement occurs of such magnitude as to shift simultaneously the opinions of several tens of millions of Americans, they are likely always to exist.
The ramifications of the co-existence of these two continuously developing cultures remain unclear. Apocalyptic types talked of civil war for much of last year, but there seems to be little tangible that anyone is actually prepared to embark upon such a course on the ground.
Others talked of enhancing States rights – Democrats as a hedge against a Trump victory, Republicans as a way of emphasising that losing the popular vote ought not necessarily mean losing the Presidency.
On their own narratives, both sides will win the US Presidential election. The question that remains is simply: who will actually become President, not which side won.
It’s an important distinction because if, as looks likely, Joe Biden assumes the office of President later this month, not only will upwards of 74mln Americans not have voted for him, they will also continue to believe that he was not actually elected at all.
And, while it’s tempting to say that the Republicans’ refusal to accept defeat in this manner is unprecedented, it isn’t.
The Democrats acted in exactly the same way in 2016 and 2017, and even now it looks like they are going to retake the White House, there is still widespread disbelief in the notion that they actually lost it in 2016. Trump was not a legitimate President – we heard it time and again from almost all the major media outlets in the US, and often from those in the wider world that parroted them too.
Plenty of commentators can be found on both sides – and in the middle – who argue that this epistemological disconnect is a sign that democracy in the US is moribund, or at least in a state of advanced decay.
But that is to miss the major issue.
It’s not democracy that’s in decay, but culture. More precisely, it’s mutating.
All cultures must adapt to the times, and nothing is ever set in stone. To those who place an almost religious belief in the wisdom of the founding fathers, and their holy text, the constitution, the idea that change in fundamental governmental structures can or ought to be countenanced is anathema.
But it doesn’t matter. It’s happening before our very eyes anyway. Half of the active US electorate doesn’t believe in the legitimacy of the most recent US elections, evidence or no. And when the result went the other way in 2016, the other half the electorate didn’t believe it. And there was no evidence then, either.
This is culture at work, simply going round historical artefacts when they can’t be updated or re-tooled. The culture of denial is a genuine part of a culture, for good or ill. And for good or ill, America is becoming two cultures that are no longer able to meet in the middle, a middle that used to be held by the institutions of government.
Joe Biden is likely to be inaugurated, and from a strictly legal point of view, his inauguration will very likely be legitimate. But legitimacy is about more than the law. It’s about belief and trust, and shared values. Neither side in the US has any faith or trust in the other any more.
The result instead is a sense that we are watching are the slow and painful births of two new countries in the making, each with a distinct culture, sense of identity and shared purpose of its own. After all, isn’t that what countries are supposed to be about?