I used to think elections were the epitome of drama and excitement: the concatenation of millions of crosses on pieces of paper that can change a nation, even the world, overnight. But since June 2016, my experiences have deteriorated: from caffeine-fuelled bemusement to righteous anger; pure shock (x2) to trembling fear. Joe Biden has at last vanquished Donald Trump to win the 2020 presidential election, yet I’ve largely experienced that final reaction. Full-body pulses of nervous adrenaline from Tuesday night have recurred as mail-in ballots are agonisingly counted; my screen has been endlessly refreshed. The confirmation of the result has brought little relief but rather a draining numbness: a reality check stronger than anything I experienced on that fateful night in 2016.
After four years priming the United States as the laughingstock of the world, amid 230,000 Covid-19 deaths, 8% national unemployment and despite myriad personal defects I don’t need to repeat, Donald Trump gained vote share. Biden, the supposedly palatable, uniting Democrat, scarcely eked out a greater vote margin than Hillary Clinton. Yes, he won more votes in the right places under the archaic Electoral College and, in a welcome twist, seems to have added Georgia to the Democrats’ column for the first time in 28 years. Nonetheless, Trump has strengthened his Latino support, especially in Florida, with his noxious machismo and allusions to Democratic “socialism”.
How was the election even close? This is assuredly the question for pollsters forecasting such outlandish prognostications as a Biden win in Texas or a 12-point popular vote landslide. I assumed they had corrected their 2016 error when the 2018 midterm “blue wave” materialised as expected. So I was ensnared again, with inflated numbers that suited me emotionally in the context of an all-consuming pandemic, and little in the way of good news.
Of course, there are two sides to Biden’s victory. There must be relief and congratulations even when your team ekes out a proverbial 1-0 win in stoppage time from a deflection off the crossbar. Still, I won’t believe that Biden is President until he places his hand on Chief Justice John Roberts’ Bible and repeats the Oath of Office. Trump has heaped lie upon pathetic lie as to the credibility of the democratic process, and he won’t leave without a fight. On 20th January 2021, he will leave a bitter, vengeful cult in his wake.
Story 1: To the victor, the poisoned chalice
It is a characteristic typical of 2020 that the polls were very wrong - again. Biden undershot his expected polling margin by around 5 points nationally, making Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania nail-biting victories where they were expected to be comfortable. Polls completely misjudged Florida and Texas, exposing Biden’s shortcomings with Latino voters and their own methodological blind spots in such communities. Despite gaining ground, as expected, with older whites and suburban women, the Democratic nominee haemorrhaged Hispanic support in such strongholds as the Texas Rio Grande valley and Miami-Dade County, Florida, where he underperformed Hillary Clinton’s margin by a staggering 23%. Biden would have won the state had he maintained Clinton’s percentages in Florida’s southeastern quarter. Following the Florida result, Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez commented: ‘we’ve been sounding the alarm about Dem vulnerabilities w/ Latinos for a long, long time. There is a strategy and a path, but the necessary effort simply hasn’t been put in.’ This remark might sound like sour grapes, but it suggests an alarming misstep when the Democratic party appeared - even in Clinton’s performance - ripe to capitalise on long-term demographic shifts in the U.S. population.
Furthermore, Biden’s more circuitous route to the presidency has fallen straight into Trump’s hands, as regards his long-threatened contestation of the result. As mail-in ballots trickle in - totally legitimately - from Georgia to Nevada, the President treats the evaporation of his early leads as fraud. ‘They seem to be able to find the votes they need’, complains the Superspreader-in-Chief. Trump thus undermines the safety of ballot counters; the county registrar of Clark County, Nevada, said yesterday that his wife and mother are worried about his safety. So much for the international image of the United States as an exemplar of democratic procedure. Robert Mugabe would have flinched.
The U.S. is more implacably divided than most pundits imagined (or more accurately, hoped). Apparently, a five point margin is the ceiling for a “blowout” election win in such circumstances. Biden may yet reach his national polling average of 52% while undecided voters bring up the President’s numbers from around 43 to 47%. This is the part which most eludes my understanding. Trump was given a chance in 2016 and sure, voters overlooked his crass showmanship and allegations of sexual assault in the desparate search for a nonpolitical figure to shake up the system. At a stretch, they had reasonable excuses. But ever since, they have watched his vision of American carnage materialise; overlooked his continued empathic void, racism and misogyny; experienced friends and relatives die from Covid-19 as he trivialised its threat; and felt the economy tank as he predicated a stimulus package on his re-election. Come Tuesday, these voters returned to Trump in larger droves, their pride and enthusiasm greater than ever.
The historian Timothy Snyder argued prior to the election that Red America has become a tribal society where ‘the chieftain defines right and wrong’. So it is that Trump declares premature victory from the White House, before all votes are counted and in violation of the 1939 Hatch Act which prevents the use of the executive branch in partisan electioneering. The President’s hypocrisy has never mattered to his followers, removed as they are from objective reality. Yet the image of sending thousands of lawyers to Arizona - where Biden is leading - to “count every vote” and Pennsylvania - where Trump led until a few hours ago - to “stop the count” is laughable. Snyder predicts it is the latent inequalities in the U.S., magnified by Covid-19, that will ‘render democracy impossible’. Yet the President is making a decent attempt at that already. What happens now, if 47% of Americans refuse Biden’s mandate? In a cultish political landscape, can there be the essential loser’s consent that allows the proper constitutional handover of power?
For the unthinking cult, I retain a degree of pity. But for the cynical careerists - the McConnells, Pences and Guilianis of the once Grand Old Party - I have nothing but contempt for their brazen pursuit of power on the back of such a con-artist. The President should be the custodian of the nation’s moral compass, not calling a free and fair election into question. Allegedly, senior Republicans seethe at Trump behind the scenes, but they have always publicly brushed aside his worst excesses. Silent and gutless, they flinch from rebuking the President even now his defeat is assured.
While Biden has narrowly clinched the presidency, and control of the House of Representatives was never in doubt, his coattails are most likely insufficient to give Democrats control of the Senate. Democrats have a net gain of one seat, winning in Colorado and Arizona at the behest of defeat in Alabama. Trump has inspired straight-ticket voting in softer Republican states like Montana, Iowa and North Carolina, where Senators were supposedly at risk. Susan Collins, the Northeast’s last remaining “moderate” Republican, survived handily on her state-based record in Maine. So the GOP will keep 50 seats: all eyes now shift to the two highly competitive Georgia runoff elections scheduled for early January, where incumbent Republicans, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, have been accused of insider trading ahead of the Covid-19 crisis to line their own pockets. Should even one triumph, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can bolster his glowing resume of legislative inertia and partisan gridlock. His defining legacy, a stealth conservative takeover of the judiciary for a generation, is already assured.
It will not be difficult for this President to martyr himself. His questionless “press conference”, a stream of incoherent self-pitying garbage, set the tone last night. He might frustrate the presidential transition and necessitate his eviction from the White House by force. At the least, I predict, Trump will not be standing on the podium overlooking the National Mall for the conventional Inauguration Day handover. “Gracious” and “loser” are incompatible in his vocabulary.
Story 2: The era of Trump is over (?)
But enough misery and gloom. We could do with some historical context to refocus on the magnitude of Joe Biden’s achievement: the zenith of a half-century of public service in Washington. Incumbent presidents don’t often get beaten. The last casualty was Republican George H.W. Bush in 1992. And united government, where the same party controls the presidency, Senate and House of Representatives, is similarly fleeting. Trump, Obama and Bill Clinton each enjoyed it for two years; George W. Bush for four; but Bush Senior and Ronald Reagan: not at all. There is no certainty, either, that Republicans will retain the Senate should Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock triumph in Georgia.
Aided by the wide prevalence of mail-in and early in-person voting, a record 74 million Americans - and counting - turned out to provide Biden with a significant mandate to govern, despite partisan divides. (This is far stronger than Trump’s 2016 minority-turned-majority thanks to 70,000 Rust Belt votes. Besides, governing with humility and through compromise never crossed his administration’s collective mind.) If there is any enduring positive from the Trump years, it must be the 2020 level of democratic engagement: amid a pandemic, no less. Epitomised by a 600% surge in turnout in Texas, young voters smashed misgivings about their own political apathy. That a 77-year-old D.C. insider was able to inspire such enthusiasm - even if it was principally anti-Trump - must be lauded. Biden retained multiple paths to victory, proving that the reliable Great Lakes states of the Rust Belt and the emerging, diverse Sun Belt can be fertile ground for Democrats. They can expect to reap rewards from Georgia, Arizona, North Carolina and even Texas by 2024 with a rejuvenated appeal to Latino voters. As for the old wisdom I referenced in my analysis of the Sunshine State, Florida and Ohio may no longer be regarded as national bellwethers. As Florida and Ohio go, so goes the old Electoral Map.
In policy terms, there are immediate advantages to be seized by the President-Elect. He will have free rein in foreign policy to rebuild international alliances fractured during the Trump years, and reassert America’s global reach. Principally, he must rejoin the Paris Climate Accords (which the U.S. formally left on Wednesday), reinstate American funding to the World Health Organisation and engage with global partners on Covid-19 treatments and potential vaccines. Domestically, his own Task Force must urgently impose public health directives to bring down record-setting virus cases, where Trump sowed doubt, misinformation, bleach and hydroxychloroquine.
We daren’t dream about what happens to the outgoing President, although experts suggest that Covid-19 can strike twice. Trump also lacks certain privileges beyond the only wall he has successfully completed: that which pens him inside the White House. I’m sure the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service will have something to say on his future liberty.
With that, I’ve frankly reached the end of my tether with American politics. I don’t mean to tarnish the clear majority of eminently sensible, rational U.S. citizens, but the study of your country is an exercise in ever-diminishing returns. Donald Trump and the Republican party he consumed have not merely scraped, but industrially cleaned the barrel of legitimate methods to maintain their minority grasp on power. Democrats have barely repelled a man who thinks the best way to steal an election is to publicise it in advance.
Perhaps my positivity has always been misplaced. Perhaps a nation, forged in the heat of battle, that relies on the cultish adherence to a flawed ideal - call it the American Dream, the Constitution, the Shining City on a Hill - is destined to revert to the uncharitable, inward-looking and individualistic ethos which Trump so embodies. As comedian George Carlin once said, ‘If you have selfish, ignorant citizens you're gonna get selfish, ignorant leaders.’ My relief at this result isn’t tinged with much positivity. In Trump’s wake stands a dynasty of beta models - Ivanka, Jared, Donald Jr., Eric - and that’s if he doesn’t decide to run in 2024.
Good luck, Joe and Kamala: I’m going to lie in a dark room and drink for a while. In the meantime, I’d gratefully accept recommendations for some new, enjoyable hobbies.