By Kumar David –
The inevitability of Trump’s departure and the promise that covid-19 vaccines will be on offer within weeks has let loose euphoria in America not seen since the lifting of prohibition 97 years ago almost to the day – 5 December 1933. The Dow briefly pierced the 30,000-point ceiling, women and the elderly exposed to heightened domestic violence at the hands of cooped up bar-less men espied light at the end of a tunnel, and millions of Anthony Fauci defying asymptomatic youth took to the skies to go home for Thanksgiving to infect their grandparents. (“The young in one another’s arms; those dying generations at their song; caught in sensual music all neglect, monuments of unageing intellect”). But there is a dark side. There is some way to go before distribution and mass administration of vaccines become reality and science though pleased with the results so far remains cautious about the duration of immunity. And no vaccine can protect against reckless prancing of a hara-kiri besotted populace. In the interim, President Reject Donald Trump has all but ceased to function and all the institutions of state except perhaps the military are liaising with President Elect Joseph Biden’s team.
Challenges to Joseph Biden
This piece is not about covid-19 but an equally virulent plague. Rednecks and fascistic heavies gearing up for a counterattack in response to Trump’s calls to arms, literally by tweeting “we must overturn the results of the election” and other incendiary interventions. Trump has checked out of his current job, he rarely makes a public appearance, declines to take questions when he does, and refuses to intercede in burning issues like the explosive spread of the pandemic, the economy, foreign policy, or China. Instead he has taken to stirring up a counterattack on the election results and mobilising his semi-fascist troops. Mobilisation rallies have been scheduled by team-Trump in Georgia, Arizona and elsewhere though Trump’s participation remains to be confirmed. The attack on the incoming administration is centred on: Castigating Biden’s nominees as an Obama third-term team; saying Bidden retreats from US interests under the cloak of rebuilding international relations; is soft on China-trade and will let China get away with stealing American jobs; his accommodative policies in the guise of climate change harm the economy and let foreign polluters off the leash (‘Who is John Kerry? Obama’s Foreign Policy Tsar who sold out to Iran, now he will sell out America to US-hating Greens’). The thrust overall is that instead of putting America First, team-Biden will let others exploit America.
This will resonate with the rejected-dejected white working-class and a majority of poor less educated whites across a swathe of mid-western ‘red-states’. The Trump Base can disintegrate if and only if the underlying material problems that sustain it are resolved. Biden is putting together a squeaky clean elitist all-liberal cricket team to engage in no-holds-barred mud wrestling with the muck of Trump rabble. No amount of evangelical preaching that “we are all one”, unity, “I will be President for all”, love, compassion, mother’s milk and apple-pie can substitute for livelihood-problem solving. Old Joe will stumble unless he wakes up to reality. He poured cold water on the idea of nominating Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders to his Cabinet, suggesting that he would like to keep them in the Senate to carry forward his agenda. He even claimed, quite untruthfully, that there is significant progressive representation in his cabinet already; but he did add that nothing is off the table yet.
Biden’s thus far yahapalana appointments
From senior appointments thus far, it is clear that Biden wishes for a yahapalana, (good-governance) administration; liberal not radical. Trump’s conspiracy in collaboration with Senate Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham and media types Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity was to execute a palace-coup but this came undone when public, media and business pressure mounted on Emily Murphy, Chair of the General Services Office to release transition funds to the President Elect after Michigan and Pennsylvania certified Biden victories. Then in Georgia, Biden scored a third win in a third count. But Trump is selfish, petulant and a vengeful liar. Until his political coffin is sealed and riveted down at noon on 20 January 2021 just about anything is possible.
Musing on Biden’s leadership team and its prospects can benefit from reflection on the previous Sri Lankan yahapalana experience. Despite the chasm in wealth and historical experience between Lanka and the US there are useable parallels. Some common features are that in both diehard populism with racist overtones is entrenched, and in both there is deep resentment of the well-to-do classes (Washington Swamp, Colombo 7 elite) who have it all while working-people sink. A third factor is nationalism and xenophobia; fourth America suffered a loutish president, in Lanka a suave and avuncular former leader and his near canonised brother prevailed, in both cases these populists have a grip on sections of the mass mind.
Now a there is new parallel; Biden’s Administration-in-gestation and a hypothetically perfect-yahapalana have a common kernel. True, Biden is of working-class origin with an earned a BA – double major in history and political science and minor in English; Wikipedia says he was rated a C student. He also has a JD (doctorate by coursework). His stutter was an obstacle but it and personal tragedy endeared him to ordinary people. But his team as announced so far, consists of high-flying ideological liberals and liberals-in-economic-theory (the former pledge loyalty to justice, equality before the law, freedom of speech and religion, and racial parity, while the latter stand for free-markets and business-friendly policies). A former Fed Chair who defied Trump, Janet Yellen (Brown and Yale) is likely to be Treasury Secretary (Finance Minister), Antony Blinken (Harvard and Columbia) an Obama-era liberal will get State (Foreign Ministry), Cuban-American Alejandro Mayorkas (Loyola and Berkeley) will head Homeland Security and John Kerry, well known as Obama’s Secretary of State is climate-Tsar with cabinet ranking. All are policy wonks with a mission to rebuild, at home and abroad, the America that Trump wrecked. Non-Cabinet postings are also significant. Two able women, Avril Hains (Johns Hopkins and U of Chicago) will be Director of National Intelligence and distinguished black Linda Greenfield (U of Wisconsin-Madison) will be UN Ambassador. Jake Sullivan (Yale) will be National Security Advisor. If you look up their CVs you will see that this is a team with a strong intellectual, liberal or liberal-economic bent – better for a University Liberal Arts Faculty than a Cabinet maybe.
There is a wealth more of liberal talent waiting in the wings; Susan Rice, Pete Buttigieg, Vivek Murthy, Andrew Yang, Sally Yates, too many to name. On the left we have Bernie Sanders (Political Science, Chicago and a “mediocre student” in his own words) potentially for the Labour portfolio, and Elizabeth Warren (BSc Huston, hooray a scientist at last and a JD from Rutgers Law School) fit for any portfolio. However so far, both seem a bridge too far to the left for Biden to cross. So, Biden’s team may be all-liberal without a daub of red or radical. Thereby hangs a tale: Will this team deliver; will it be able to carry through a programme of economic and social restructuring to mollify not just the baying wolves of the Trump Base but all of less privileged America? Markets are cheering the choice of Ms Yellen instead of Ms Warren; America’s political and military allies heave a sigh of relief that the choice of Obama-era Blinken spells the end of a crank President who put alliances in jeopardy; Greens the world over celebrate the return of America to climate sense. This is what the liberals can and will deliver.
Where liberalism will fail
But there are critical issues on which liberalism will fall short as yahapalana did and opened the flood gates for the return of the Rajapaksas. The poorer three quarters of the populace be it in the US or Lanka have problems yahapalana-type liberal economics is not designed to address. Indeed, that’s why a Trump Base emerged in the first place and why a neo-fascist-populist option may storm back in four years. The plain truth is that while in January 2015 in Lanka, and today in America, the middle-classes, liberal intellectuals and the left hail the defeat of ugly autocracy and the affirmation of democratic values, the lower orders of society, the majority is driven by the need to feed families not by the bliss of liberal democracy. The Bidden team without added radical colouration does not inspire confidence that it lives on the same planet as rust-belt workers facing loss of livelihood – with prospects now further wrecked by covid-19 – or Midwest rural people who have lost hope in a capitalist economy networked into globalism. There is no hope in the eyes of the 74 million who voted for Trump that a business as usual America, unless it restructures profoundly, can salvage their lives.
One does applaud the return of decency, diversity and political discipline to the US. One is relieved the institutions of American democracy held up against the most brutal attack they suffered since the Civil War 160 years ago. However, none of that will save America now unless livelihood issues and the social cancer rooted in the country’s soul are taken in hand. I fear that a liberal-democratic Biden Administration which shuts out radicals and eschews a transformative programme will fall short. The failure of numerous yahapalanas style governments stud the contemporary global landscape.