By Rajan Philips –
In the last week of October, President Trump and the traditional Halloween pumpkin inspired the adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ fictional dwarf to create a new political meme – Trumpkin: “orange on the outside, hollow on the inside, and thrown out in November”. The November 3 US presidential election has come and gone. Americans voted in record numbers in spite of the coronavirus, and did throw Trumpkin out. But the big yellow head has got stuck in the nation’s garbage chute. It is refusing to budge, and political wags will have to come up with a different meme for Thanksgiving – a two-headed turkey? – to caricature their nation’s State (of affairs) after its so called consequential presidential election. ‘Some election, some consequence,’ Sir Winston would have growled. America’s political detractors around the world are delighted. This is their LOL moment of schadenfreude as they portray the world’s oldest constitutional democracy as its newest banana republic. Seriously, not quite. But the old American fact and the new Trumpkin facial can cohabit handsomely in the universe of alternative facts that Trump has created for his Republican followers. He has quite a flock of them.
There are two parts to the results of the 2020 American Presidential and Congress elections. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have made history as the oldest President elect and the first female-and-person-of-colour Vice-President elect, while amassing a vote tally that will likely reach a record high 80 million by the time every vote is counted. The defeat of Trump, the incumbent President, is in itself historic, as Trump is the first President in the 21st century to be defeated after a single term in office. There have been eight before, four each in the two preceding centuries.
The second part is that Trump was able to increase his vote tally from 63 million in 2016 to a potential 73 million in the final count in 2020, the largest by a sitting, and losing, President. Even though Biden achieved a great and convincing victory, winning both the popular vote by a much larger margin than Hillary Clinton in 2016, and the Electoral College Vote likely by the same margin as Trump did in 2016, it is not at all a convincing repudiation of the politics of Trump, or, as it has now come into vogue, of ‘Trumpism.’ Trump’s final vote tally is a shockingly powerful demonstration of the bedrock of resonance in the American social formation that a phenomenon like Trumpism can effortlessly tap into. The surge in the Trump vote helped the Republican Party to gain seats in the House of Representatives (although Democrats will keep their House majority), and to ward off the Democratic challenge for majority in the Senate.
There are still two pending Senate races, both in Georgia and scheduled for January 5, 2021. Democrats must win both to tie their Senate tally with Republicans at 50-50, which would give them the majority with Vice President Kamala Harris having the deciding vote as president of the Senate. If Republicans win even one of the two races, they will retain their majority and control the Senate for at least till the next mid-term elections in 2022. Gridlock in Washington will continue. Joe Biden will not be able to implement all or any of his aggressive legislative agenda unless he is able to draw from his long senatorial experience and persuade some of the Republican Senators who are critical of Trump to vote with the Democrats on critical issues.
After initial hesitations, more and more Republican Senators are beginning to publicly acknowledge Biden’s victory, while sending felicitations privately through their Democratic colleagues. The Republican Senate leadership is publicly standing by Trump for now – at least until the two Senate races in Georgia are over. They want to keep their petulant President engaged and his vote base in Georgia enthused to avoid Republican disenchantment in Georgia and a drop in their vote turnout on January 5. That might just happen in spite of all the Republican machinations. The Democrats clearly have their tails up, and the political wind behind them. Yet, it is a historically uphill task to win two Senate seats in a southern State at the same time.
Whatever the outcome, the Georgian Senate elections on January 5 will mark the formal beginning, if it did not begin already, of the end of Donald Trump’s first and only term as American President. If Republicans win, they will cajole Trump to leave office gracefully, while enticing him with the prospect of rerunning for a second term in 2024. On the other hand, if Democrats win both Senate seats in Georgia, it is all over – game, set and match, for Trump and the Republicans until the next time.
Trump and Trumpism
Until January 5, Trump is likely dig deeper into his petulance with irrational executive orders, firing and hiring, and all manner of legal shenanigans to upend Biden’s victory. Trump’s legal challenges are not seriously expected to succeed at any level in any of the courts. But they can and will have the effect of delegitimizing Biden’s victory among Trump’s supporters. Add to that all the confusion and disruption Trump is already creating using his executive powers, America is in for a rough period of transition in the midst of a raging pandemic. It is here that the dialectic between Trump and Trumpism come into play.
Jeff Goodwin, the New York University sociologist, has described Trumpism as a “contradictory, unstable amalgam” of social conservatism, neoliberal capitalism, economic nationalism, anti-immigrant nativism, and White nationalism. There is nothing new here, nor were any of these created by Trump. Pre-Trump, the Bush era Republican ideologues privileged social conservatism and neoliberal capitalism, while downplaying, even genuinely eschewing, the other ingredients of economic nationalism, anti-immigrant nativism, and White nationalism.
Then came the Tea Party, and with or without the backlash incentive of Barack Obama’s election as the first African-American President, forced the fusion of all five ingredients. But there was no one in the Republican Party to raise this fusion to the national level as a viable presidential platform. Until Trump came along in 2016. His perverse genius for marketing and his personal animus towards Obama found common cause with all the items of the Tea Party agenda, that other Republican presidential aspirants were simply too squeamish to touch all at once. The Trump Nation loved their Messiah’s crass candour, intimidating insults, reckless lies, and baseless boasts. Trump won the election in 2016 against his own expectations and those of everyone in the Republican Party.
The marriage of convenience worked, and might have continued for four more years, but for Trump’s inept and unempathetic handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. But even the pandemic could not stop Trump from being able to fool 10 million more Americans in 2020 than he fooled in 2016. The 73 million votes he was able to amass provides a solid base to challenge the new Biden-Harris Administration and launch a comeback in two years for the 2022 midterm elections, and in four years for the next presidential election. However, if Trump and the Republicans overplay their grieving hand, that will likely turn off a good majority of the people who voted for Trump but who are not part of the Trump Nation.
Another trouble for the Republicans is that Trump is not serious about their future or the future of Trumpism itself. He is not committed to the future of the Republican Party or any aspect of Trumpism either by conviction or any kind of persuasion. He might just pick up his wallet and leave politics altogether, or may be constrained to stay in politics as a way to forestall state and federal cases that he is likely to face when he is no longer president. Whether Trump stays in politics, or someone else emerges to take his place, the social presuppositions of Trumpism will remain alive and cannot be wished away in the afterglow of Biden-Harris victory.
Biden-Harris Victory and Challenges
To emphasize the significance of Trumpism is not to detract from the greatness of Biden-Harris victory. The Biden-Harris hyphenation would appear to be becoming the new normal, and it was symbolically asserted when Kamala Harris was given the honour as Vice President elect to address the nation first and introduce Joe Biden as President elect to deliver his address. This has not happened before and it will be interesting to see if there will be two inaugural speeches in January, if it would be possible at all to have a non-virtual inauguration given the pandemic and Trump’s post-election circus. Addressing the nation for the first time as Vice President elect, Kamala Harris rose to the occasion splendidly and captured the history of the moment, both symbolically – wearing a suffrage white pantsuit (a nod to Hillary Clinton), and eloquently – congratulating Joe Biden for his ‘audacity’ (a nod to Barack Obama) in selecting a woman of colour as his running mate.
The election of Barack Obama as President in 2008 and 2012, the elevation of Kamala Harris as Vice President in 2020, and the Trump presidency in between speak to the deep tensions in the very soul of America – between the persistence of systemic misogyny and racism, on the one hand, and ever widening possibilities for inclusion and diversity, on the other. Given its power in the world and its foreign policy misadventures, America is an easy target for self-righteous condemnation by others. But few other countries in the world offer official space and opportunity for equality and diversity. In fact, in many countries, big and small, equality in space and opportunity is denied by custom, convention and even constitutions.
Commentators have swung left and right to find presidential precedents that Joe Biden could draw from as he battles his way through his time in office – from Franklin Roosevelt to Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan. But Joe Biden’s unique political challenge is going to be in balancing the contending forces inside the Democratic Party. Already, the so called moderates are clamouring that the young progressives cost the Party a much bigger victory than what has been achieved. The accusation is a bit rich because conventional moderation would have dampened enthusiasm and turnout among the young and minority voters. Without progressive enthusiasm, eighty million voters would not have come out to vote for the Democrats. Although, in a way that same enthusiasm may have provoked the extraordinarily large Republican turnout.
The Biden-Harris Administration has its work cut out, and has offered an agenda that is both balanced and ambitious not only to address the many crises facing America, but also to satisfy the competing constituencies of moderates and progressives within the Democratic Party. There is no shortage of crises and challenges – from Covid-19, to jobs and the economy, climate change, government reform, health care, racial justice, immigration, taxes, infrastructure, and foreign policy – the list is long and daunting. The easy part on every one of them would be to stop doing whatever Trump was doing. Systematically ending many of Trump’s ill-advised and ill-planned initiatives would in itself be progress.