Are there lessons for us here to learn from events across the Atlantic? asks Ivor Gaber

As Joe Biden, almost in slow motion, edges across the finishing line to become the 46th President of the United States and Donald Trump goes into melt down, are there lessons here for us?

There are, and perhaps the most important one is that democratic political systems are fragile.

Democracy depends on trust – that people trust that their votes will be properly and fairly counted and that politicians will accept the verdict of the electorate. Joe Biden has acted democratically, Donald Trump has not.

For months Trump, aware that he was behind in the polls (even if they were not entirely accurate) has been banging on about how the Democrats were planning to cheat him of his victory in November. Then, as the numbers started moving against him – bingo “I told you so” says Trump, on the basis of absolutely no evidence.

If this were just the rantings of a deluded old man (as they are) they would be of little consequence but coming from the President of the United States, who has just secured backing from almost half the voters, they are deeply disturbing.

Given the extraordinary levels of bitterness and anger that have divided Trump and Biden supporters, such words are incendiary. How long before Trump supporters, with or without guns, try and stop the vote-counting by violence?

And even if that were not to happen, what sort of legacy does Biden inherit after Trump has tried to undermine his legitimacy by challenging the process by which he has been elected?

So what’s this all got to do with us, we’re not like that? Or are we?

Certainly the divide that has opened up in this country, particularly since the Brexit referendum, is unlike anything we have seen here before, but it still has a long way to go before we find ourselves mired in the swamp that Trump has created in the United States.

In 2016 Trump convinced a sufficient number of voters – not a majority, Hillary Clinton won three million more votes - that there was an “elite” who have corrupted the American political system for their own purposes. And even though Trump is a billionaire, from inherited wealth, living a billionaire’s lifestyle, he was able to pull off the trick of persuading people that he was just “an ordinary bloke” who understood the everyday problems of working class Americans.

In 2020 the Trumpian mirage began to fade, sufficient numbers of voters in key states deserted him, so the President resorted to accusations of fraud.

Over here, before the pandemic further eroded trust in government, the respected independent thinktank the Hansard Society found a worrying lack of trust in politics in this country – the highest level yet in almost 20 years of polling. Over 70% were dissatisfied with the way our political system was working with 63% saying the system was “rigged” to favour the rich and powerful. And over half wanted “a strong leader prepared to break the rules”.

This research was undertaken before Boris Johnson moved into Downing Street, but it is not hard to see part of his appeal prefigured in this research.

And that’s not where the similarities end.

In both the campaigns that Johnson spearheaded – the 2016 Brexit referendum and the 2019 general election - there were widespread allegations of lying made against him and his campaign team (led by Dominic Cummings). Charges of lying are not unusual during elections but on both these occasions the independent fact checking organisations found that overwhelmingly most lies emanated from the Leave EU side in 2016 and the Conservatives in 2019 under Johnson (but not in 2017 under Mrs May)

Despite the lies, the victories of both Leave and the Conservatives’ were completely legitimate, but, in their wake, divisions were either opened up in the country, or more likely revealed, that have troubling similarities to what we have been seeing in America.

The situations here and in the US are not exact parallels but the trends are worrying.

We tend to think our institutions are stronger and that in Britain there is an innate sense of tolerance and fair play. But, until recently, Americans thought the same about their country.

The lesson I believe we have to learn here is that there is a chasm of difference between a political opponent and a political enemy. We argue against an opponent and accept that they have the right to their view even if we think they are wrong. We fear an enemy and seek to destroy them before they destroy us.

Let’s hope we can all just keep on arguing with our opponents rather than fearing our enemies.

Ivor Gaber is Professor of Political Journalism at the University of Sussex and was a political correspondent based at Westminster