An American melodrama is nearly over. Despite Mr Trump’s threats to litigate, Joe Biden will emerge as President-elect shortly and will be sworn in as 46th President of the USA on 20 January. We should get used to a distinct change in tone, writes Victor Hill.
A fairly honourable defeat
The most striking aspect of the 2020 US presidential election was that Donald Trump very nearly won. This was against the backdrop of a vicious pandemic which has claimed nearly 240,000 American lives, with 103,000 new cases – a record – registered on Wednesday. Not to mention the backdrop of a raging culture war – with Portland, Oregon still under siege – and the opprobrium of the liberal elite and its media. On polling day, millions of American shops and homes were boarded up in anticipation of violence on the streets propelled by Antifa and BLM. Gun sales were rocketing across the nation.
In this febrile polity, Mr Trump polled more votes this time round than in 2016, with support across almost every demographic, not least Hispanics. Roughly half of American adults think he is the bees’ knees. In contrast, Mr Biden does not have much by way of a personal following but was rather framed as the man who could get Trump out – an outcome half of Americans devoutly wished to contrive.
No one could accuse the president of running a lacklustre campaign. The 74-year old, who was struck down by Covid-19 just a month ago, visited all of the main battlegrounds in the last week of the campaign, often addressing crowds of adoring admirers in the open air without a coat. In contrast, Mr Biden’s final week of campaigning was low-key, deliberate and somewhat underwhelming, pepped up only by occasional appearances by Barack Obama.
Once again, the opinion polls proved a poor guide to voting behaviour on the ground. The national polls consistently gave Mr Biden a double-digit lead; but in practice, in many states, the votes cast for each candidate were very finely balanced. Numerous swing states could have gone either way. The pollster and pundit Frank Luntz has claimed that 19 percent of Trump supporters “were dishonest with their friends and family” – that is they were too embarrassed to confess their true voting intentions[i].
Mr Trump carried Texas and Florida on the day, as he had to do. By this morning, the outcome of the election came down to the declarations of a handful of swing states: Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in the mid-west, Georgia (which has not gone Democrat since Bill Clinton) in the south, and Arizona and Nevada out west. We were still waiting for the final declarations at lunchtime today – but things seemed definitively to be edging Mr Biden’s way.
Another striking feature of this election was that it activated the highest turnout – at 66.9 percent – of any election since the presidential election of 1900. Mr Trump always knew that a massive turnout by previous non-voters would count against him. But he was the force that has animated passionate interest in politics – both for him and against.
Mr Biden had the support of over 70 million American voters – more than any presidential candidate ever. Mr Trump garnered over 67 million votes – four million more than in 2016. Despite the claims of its detractors, American democracy is alive and well.
The basis of Mr Trump’s legal challenge
At about 02:00 hours EST on Wednesday Mr Trump famously announced that he had won – and that all further vote-counting must stop or face legal challenges. He spoke of a “giant fraud”. Not for the first time, he mis-spoke. There can be no legal basis in any democracy to stop vote-counting arbitrarily after voting day. What he meant – presumably – was that any mail-in ballot (postal vote) received after 03 November should be disregarded. That is reasonable – but at the time that he made the statement there was no evidence that any such votes were still coming in.
President Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and his son Eric also accused the Democratic Party of ballot fraud in the state of Philadelphia. Speaking with reporters on Wednesday night, Mr Giuliani claimed that Trump had won re-election when Americans went to the polls on Tuesday. Mr Trump’s outburst last night (Thursday) claiming “mass corruption” had to be interrupted by news channels to point out that the president had strayed into the realm of fantasy.
The Republican Party of Nevada confirmed yesterday that they plan to file a lawsuit there, claiming that around 10,000 votes were cast by people who no longer live in the state. Nevada was one of several states to send postal ballots to every adult registered to vote. Mr Trump condemned the universal mail-in ballot system decision during his campaign, claiming that it would inevitably lead to fraud. Nevada is now the fourth state where Republicans are filing a legal challenge to the vote. They are also requesting a recount in Wisconsin. The reason why the mail-in votes were counted last in Pennsylvania was that the Republican administration there legislated for that.
What is sure is that the Democrats undertook a long campaign to get people who were previously unregistered to vote to get their names on the electoral register. Then they encouraged people en masse to go the mail-in route. That is electoral politics. There have been logistical mishaps – consignments of postal votes going missing as so forth; but there is no tangible evidence, thus far, of systematic electoral fraud. That is certainly the opinion of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) which has observers on the ground.
One conjecture in circulation is that Mr Trump knows that he has lost but will not concede until he secures guarantees that he will not be prosecuted after he leaves office. There is even a suggestion that, during the interregnum, he will abdicate in favour of Vice President Mike Pence who will then pardon Mr Trump of all misdemeanours. You couldn’t make it up.
The absurdity of Trump supporters chanting “Stop the count” in Pennsylvania, while other Trumpists chant “Count all the votes” in Arizona, is palpable. If Mr Trump refuses to accept the inevitable very soon then he will invite comparison with Mr Lukashenko.
Trumpism will survive
The question that ultimately only history will answer is whether Trumpery was a temporary aberration from “normal” politics, or whether it was the start of something that endured. As I have argued in these pages over several years, economic nationalism is not extremism – it is what most countries, especially Asian ones, do naturally. Even within the EU the French have been adept at systematically protecting their interests, industrial and agricultural – by fair means or foul. (The response of French fishermen to a no-deal Brexit will be foul).
Mr Trump inspired a coalition of interests unique in American electoral history. He has attracted support from the very groups he supposedly discriminates against. His tent transcends the boundaries of class and race, embracing black rappers, Cuban Americans, Orthodox Jews and the Amish. (Google Amish Trump Train – the image is rather charming.) Even evangelicals love him: he has presided over four years of peace. And he has not been spineless during the culture war as certain other leaders have. A vote for Mr Trump is a vote against cancel culture.
What his opponents seem to loathe about Mr Trump is that he refuses to bow to the golden calf of political correctness. People mouth the trope that they want politicians who are honest and do not contrive; but when they get one (Enoch Powell was another) who expresses things as they see them, much of the public takes fright. Most people in North America and Western Europe these days just want politicians to tell them comforting bed-time stories, cuddle them tight (I find Mr Johnson’s phrase about putting his arms around the British people nauseating) and, most of all, just to keep shelling out the dosh. Donald Trump is not one such.
Steve Bannon is one of many commentators who has predicted that if Mr Trump were to lose (because the election was stolen from him) then he would run again in 2024. That is constitutionally quite permissible – Grover Cleveland was both the 22nd President (1885-89) and 24th President (1893-97). Mr Trump will only be 78 years old in 2024. Mr Biden turns 78 later this month, so age should not be a hindrance. Mr Trump is likely to remain a formidable figure of influence from his premature exile at Mar-a-Lago. And he will continue to enjoy a loyal following on Twitter. There are few upcoming Republican politicians who could rival his pre-eminence (or notoriety, if you prefer). He will no doubt broadcast a running commentary on the vicissitudes of the Biden administration as time goes by.
Mr Biden will face intemperate economic weather from the outset. The global economy has taken a hard punch in the solar plexus from the coronavirus pandemic. GDP is down almost everywhere, and global trade will not recover next year to 2019 levels either. Mr Biden’s response will be a reportedly $3 trillion fiscal blitz financed by more debt, partly dedicated to green projects. But will the Republican majority Senate buy that?
The political climate has just changed – it will be cooler and more measured going forward. We shall no longer be privy, on a daily basis, to the inner workings of the president’s mind on Twitter. More substantially, as I wrote earlier this week, the politics of climate change will be restored to orthodoxy. I’m not quite sure that Mr Trump was a climate change denier: but he was certainly a sceptic.
President Biden will seek to realign the United States with the Paris Accord on climate change on Day One. This will enable the world’s largest economy to regain the moral high ground. He will probably mimic China with a formal target to become net carbon neutral by 2060 at the latest – he previously mooted a target of 2035. In fact, despite Mr Trump’s scepticism about global warming, the USA has made huge advances in renewable energy over the last four years.
Mr Biden seems to want to ban fracking which would wipe out the important US shale gas sector. He has also pledged to phase out taxpayer subsidies to fossil fuel companies. The biggest such subsidy of all is the Warsaw Convention which prohibits the imposition of any taxes at all on aircraft kerosene. Opposing that really would frighten the horses.
Despite his personal frailties, President Biden will surround himself with brilliant young minds, and a few old ones. He will delegate policymaking to them. But the top cabinet positions might be occupied by seasoned Washingtonians.
Senator Bernie Sanders (79), the veteran left-winger, would like to become Labour Secretary. He is a strong advocate for unionised labour. Senator Elizabeth Warren (71), another contender for the democratic presidential nomination, has been mooted for the role of Treasury Secretary. Ms Warren excoriated the big banks after the financial crisis of 2008 and is not too popular on Wall Street. She would probably wish to reverse most of the Trump administration’s tax cuts. The former diplomat and National Security Advisor under President Obama, Susan Rice (55) is reportedly a candidate for the role of Secretary of State. Pete Buttigieg (38) – Mayor Pete – another Democratic presidential hopeful is also in the running for a top job. Other hopefuls include Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth (52) and Sally Yates (60), the Deputy Attorney General under President Obama.
How the markets are taking it
Even as the votes are still being counted Wall Street is betting that the new administration will not be allowed to be too radical, thus lessening risks to the stock markets. The major indices rallied on Thursday, with the DJIA jumping over 500 points, or 1.95 percent. The S&P 500 gained a similar amount and the NASDAQ advanced by 2.6 percent. These gains built on Wednesday’s strong performance and prefigured the best weekly performances since April.
The yield on 10-year Treasuries has been plummeting. Like little children playing in mud, the markets seem to delight in the mess.
As I submit this piece it seems that Scranton-born Mr Biden will take his birth state of Pennsylvania. And probably Georgia too. Both by wafer-thin margins.
Many Trump supporters will never accept the outcome of this election. The trope will be sustained that President Biden’s election was illegitimate. But if President Trump had won by the narrowest of margins the boot would have been on the other foot.
Expect President Biden in his first 100 days to make conciliatory gestures to the Red Wall of Trump devotees. His plea for calm last night was reassuring. But he will need to remain a restraining force on the more radical right-on elements of the Democratic Party who seek to rub conservatives’ noses in diversity and then tax them into submission.
That cannot happen now anyway because Mr Biden will not command a majority in the Senate, and the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives will likely be smaller than in the previous Congress. Constitutional change is out. The Democrats will not be able to pack the Supreme Court with bleeding-heart liberals and do-gooders. They will not be able to transform the District of Columbia (93 percent of whose citizens voted Democrat) into a Senate-voting state. Period.
In Boris Johnson’s weirdly Brave New World I am permitted to visit a garden centre but not to attend a service in church. The so-called science presented slide by slide last Saturday (01 November) has already been discredited. I am not the only person to have cancelled my monthly direct debit to the Tory Party. (In the same online banking session, I finally snuffed out the loony National Trust as well. No more summer high teas at Sissinghurst, then. Sad face.)
Bugger around with grizzled old geezers who have bank accounts at your peril…