It’s fitting for the Trump presidency to end under a cloud of lawsuits, recount requests and accusations of ballot dumping. The spectre of illegitimacy has defined the last decade of American politics. Birtherism and Russiagate have now yielded to the notion that votes can’t properly be counted, that the election system is corrupt, that whoever becomes president may be a thief. As its avatar and publicist, Trump is responsible for this disorder, and the fever is worse on the right, but only a few months ago liberals were pointing to the apparently routine removal and rearrangement of mailboxes as a sign of chicanery afoot. Trump has a way of infecting his opponents with his vices, but they are never as potent secondhand. ‘Lock them up’ is frighteningly rousing when the crowd takes it up at a rally. It doesn’t have such a galvanising effect in the form of a lengthy piece about Trump’s post-presidential legal prospects in the New Yorker.
Joe Biden’s campaign tactics were unorthodox: go outside as little as possible; focus your message on voters from the other party; use a watered down version of your old boss’s catch phrase (‘no blue states, no red states, only the United States’) despite growing evidence of the country’s geographic polarisation; talk about policy as little as possible; make the bulk of your message about your opponent’s personality defects; offer in his place a handful of platitudes – decency, respect, dignity etc – around the vague theme of healing, from the plague, from the trauma of history, from this vulgar presidency. The pandemic was a double handicap. There was both the risk to the elderly candidate of contracting the virus, and the need to appear as the party of caution, mask-wearing and social distancing. Biden’s rallies were either drive-in events or gatherings at airports, with a few dozen spectators sitting in safety circles drawn on the ground, set six to ten feet apart from each other.
The pandemic became another front in the culture war, a supplement to Trump’s bellowing about political correctness. He could stoke fear by claiming that Biden would lock down the country for months: children not going to school would suffer, the economy would turn worse than the Great Depression, and all for nothing. He mocked Biden’s mask-wearing and the months he spent campaigning from his basement in Delaware. After Trump caught the virus himself and recovered, he could go back to his old talking point that it wasn’t so bad after all and wonderful therapeutics had been developed. Indeed, he took to the trail with more gusto than ever. Campaigning, not governing, is what he relishes: the adoration of the crowds, the chance to demean his rivals, dancing off the stage to the Village People as if he had reconvened some outdoor rural version of Studio 54. (Video evidence suggests his dance moves haven’t altered in decades.) Researchers at Stanford linked Trump’s rallies in the late summer to 30,000 Covid-19 cases and 700 deaths. Death was not part of Trump’s vocabulary. Instead he preferred to compare himself to Jesus, not because he or his campaign had received a death sentence and risen up, but as a rival for the title of ‘Most Famous Person in History’. On this count Trump averred, in a rare instance of deference, that Jesus was more famous and we all had to take orders from ‘the Boss’. Such lip service is apparently all it takes to satisfy the religious right these days, as long as they get their anti-abortion judges.
Trump remains an effective celebrity. The level of scorn he engenders in liberal spheres – especially among a media class that identifies with power and relishes following rules, particularly unwritten ones (the norms Trump was constantly ‘violating’) – is matched by the passion with which he’s embraced in zones where liberals lack a robust presence. Here their standards of etiquette do not hold, and Trump’s swaggering insult humour and flag hugging draws sincere applause. The message of respect and dignity put forward by the Biden campaign was echoed on Fox News and turned inside out. Showing Trump speaking to vast crowds in rust belt towns, Tucker Carlson could ask on the eve of the election: why are these people coming out for the president? Because he is the only politician who cares about them. The ‘coastal elites’ had forgotten them, Tucker intoned, they had let their jobs be taken away, and gloated as their communities became ghost towns. Trump delivered comic defiance. With the president comparing himself to Jesus and wiggling to disco in the sunlight, it was harder for the Democrats to portray him as a cruel dictator or frontman for an incipient fascism, even as the macabre ‘Blue Lives Matter’ flag hung behind him. Most comedians who tried to satirise him were reduced to repeating his words almost verbatim. Only Obama, an equally or more effective celebrity, managed to land a punch on his successor in the home stretch. ‘He’s still worried about his inauguration crowd being smaller than mine. It really bugs him. He’s still talking about that. Does he have nothing better to worry about? Did no one come to his birthday party as a kid? Was he traumatised?’
This was an inversion of the therapeutic language prominent in the Biden empathy campaign. What’s a more effective political message: anti-bullying or actual bullying? Biden may have won the election, taken more votes than any candidate in history, and a greater portion of the population than any candidate since Reagan in 1984, but his failure to bring about a landslide demonstrates that liberal politics, though still commanding popular majorities, cannot secure a mandate at the federal level. In that sense, the true winner of this election is Mitch McConnell. The Senate majority leader got what he wanted from Trump in one term: a tax bill massively in favour of corporations and the wealthy; rampant deregulation; a heavily topped up military budget; and a conservative super-majority on the Supreme Court. With the Senate still under Republican control (pending runoff elections in Georgia), Biden will be unable to roll back any of these measures. The filibuster will not be abolished. Washington DC and Puerto Rico will not become states. The courts will not be packed. It’s doubtful McConnell will allow Biden to fill a Supreme Court vacancy even in the event of a sitting justice’s death. ‘With Joe and Kamala at the helm,’ Obama said on the stump, ‘you’re not going to have to think about the crazy things they said every day. And that’s worth a lot. You’re not going to have to argue about them every day. It just won’t be so exhausting.’ But it isn’t just that they won’t be saying crazy things: voters won’t have to think about the things they’re doing, because they won’t be able to do much at all.
Not much isn’t quite nothing: American presidents have been governing more and more by executive order over the past decades, and Biden will be able to counter Trump’s most draconian measures on immigration (the product of four hundred executive orders that can simply be reversed) and the climate. These policies made Trump demonic in liberal eyes for his inhumane treatment of migrants, especially children, and in Noam Chomsky’s words ‘the worst criminal in human history’ for hastening environmental devastation. Biden will be able to restore old policies when it comes to asylum seekers, immigration enforcement and the Paris Agreement. But anything like the initiatives he was proposing – trillions on climate change and infrastructure; Obamacare reform to include a public option; a $15 minimum wage – have dim prospects as long as the Senate is under GOP control. (The post-election spike in the value of oil and healthcare stocks suggests the market is confident no major changes are in store.) Biden’s favourite message since he entered national politics in 1972 has been the one he delivered yet again on 6 November, calling for an end to ‘partisan warfare’. Against McConnell, though, bipartisanship won’t mean much beyond capitulation to the Republican agenda. After another Covid-19 relief bill loaded with corporate giveaways, it’s hard to imagine what form this could take. An early excerpt from Obama’s memoir – surprisingly cliché-ridden and full of pabulum about the first family’s pet dog – details the way he and Biden failed to get what they wanted on healthcare, a plan with a public option, even when they had sixty votes in the Senate.
Yet the future of the GOP is also unclear. McConnell, who is 78 years old, has won another six-year term. If the projections hold true and the nuisance lawsuits fail, Trump will be out of power, probably reduced to the role of high-profile troll. Will the values of the conservative movement – austerity, free enterprise, a bloated military – be again ascendant or will reactionary populism retain its hold on Republican voters? None of Trump’s possible successors among actual officeholders – Mike Pence, the senators Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley, the former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador Nikki Haley – possesses the weird charisma that propelled him into office. Unlike the president, his children Donald Jr and Ivanka haven’t had a hold on the national imagination since the 1980s. Carlson hosts the highest rated cable news show on television, but there’s no telling whether his twerpy bow-tied insouciance – a parody of the moribund WASP patrician style – would make him a formidable politician. Trumpism without Trump is a headless horseman for now, unless Trump himself runs again. In 2024 he will be 78, the age Biden will be when he takes office. He may run just for kicks.
The silver lining for the left – the notion put forth by Bernie Sanders that Biden would turn out to be the most progressive president since FDR – now seems a mirage. Harris’s presence on the Democratic ticket didn’t translate into a left populist surge. But her campaigning was impressive. She preached to the liberal choir, kept the spotlight on Biden at the top of the ticket, and maintained a greater emphasis than her running mate on the material deprivations faced by many Americans. She was said to be the choice of the Democrats’ donor class, and her progressive credentials are dubious at best, but during the primaries she was more willing than Biden and the other centrists to come out for parts of the left agenda, especially single-payer healthcare. Fox News, as far as I could tell, could barely lay a glove on her, resorting to sniping about her accent (supposedly Southern-inflected and phony when she campaigned in Alabama) and its own presenters’ difficulties in pronouncing her name (was the first vowel short or long; they had her on video saying it both ways). No doubt she will be the focus of right-wing ire and paranoia in the coming years.
Another casualty of the election, aside from the reliability of polling and forecasting, is the notion that American elections can still be bought. Around $14 billion had been spent by mid-October, and the Democrats had a massive advantage, on the strength of both small donations and generous outlays by billionaires like Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg. It got them neither a landslide nor victories in Senate races where they put more than $100 million on the table. The returns were meagre even though polling on the issues consistently reflects a widespread preference for Democratic policies: a higher minimum wage, action on climate change, expanded public healthcare. The lesson may be that Biden didn’t talk about these things enough, preferring to stick to the mainstays of liberal sentimentality: civility, respect, dignity. A difference between 2016 and 2020 was a reluctance on the part of the mainstream media to cede airtime to Trump. Where once the networks had been willing to put him on in the name of ratings whenever he felt like calling in, they turned a cold shoulder to his antics until the drama of his Covid-19 infection. The press was right to be sceptical of the Hunter Biden scandal – the notion that he was his father’s ‘bag man’ on foreign deals turns out to be unfounded – but the lid put on the story by Facebook, Twitter and the mainstream outlets opened up another talking point for the right: censorship in America, where the Democrats, Wall Street and Silicon Valley are now aligned, is as oppressive as in China. Though overblown, the meta-scandal had some truth to it, unlike the scandal itself. It mirrored Russiagate, where Trump flagrantly tried to obstruct the investigation, even as the investigation failed to prove collusion.
In another instance of Trump causing his opponents to adopt his own flaws, Biden’s hawkishness on China came to reflect the president’s with a funhouse distortion. Trump’s rhetoric had a crude coherence: as he talked of deals and penalties and spat out numbers whose meaning was hard to grasp, it was at least clear that he had an attitude of combative nationalism, whatever its efficacy. Biden could call Xi Jinping an ‘adversary’ and speak of making China ‘play by the rules’, but he couldn’t describe the game (globalisation) or which side he was on (that of global capital rather than American workers). On foreign policy, Trump has acquired a reputation as an anti-war president that’s largely misplaced – airstrikes in Syria, Yemen and Somalia only increased on his watch – but he did shy away from invasions and regime change, even as he authorised foreign arms sales. Adventuring abroad is the one area where President Biden will have something close to a free hand. The neoconservative brain trust has largely rallied around him, and since the 1990s there’s hardly been a foreign intervention he has failed to support (one exception is Libya, though he failed to convince Obama). As he said of Obama during the 2008 campaign, a new president is inevitably ‘tested’ by unforeseen events, and in America there’s nothing quite so ‘presidential’ as starting a war.