The White House Atop A Knife’s Edge
How an unprecedented election has followed a very American pattern
by Timur von Polach
Description: Made on photoshop "Downfall" illustrates Donald Trump's fall from grace in the uncertain environment we currently find ourselves, how this "fall" will manifest itself remains unknown for now. Trump's continuing denial of his position demonstrates his god-like complex and causes us to question, not for the first time, the true meaning of his intentions.
With Joe Biden’s electoral win as the 46th President of the United States, President Donald Trump has achieved a new political hat-trick as the only President to; have lost the popular vote; be successfully impeached by Congress and not to have won a second term in office. With the precedent of 2016, this election cycle held more anticipation, compounded by both parties arguing that the future of America itself was at stake. It was also in no way the victory that many had expected and has again humiliated pundits, guilty of making the same fundamental mistakes that did not even consider a Trump victory in 2016.
Trump has achieved a new political hat-trick as the only President to; have lost the popular vote; be successfully impeached by Congress and not to have won a second term in office.
An article by The Washington Post recently showed that, due to the electoral college, a vote in Wyoming is worth 3.6 times the vote of a Californian. Once again, this election has brought the demographics of America and their importance to an election campaign into sharp relief. Joe Biden clearly out-performed Hillary Clinton due to his particular appeal and success with suburban and rust-belt voters, just as President Obama had done in 2008 and 2012, but which Clinton had fatally lost in 2016. This even included the Republican heartland of Georgia, which has not voted Democrat in three decades. Were Georgia to flip, commentators have coined it as Trump’s defeat, at the last minute, by a dead man; the late former Democratic congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, who’s Georgian 2nd District was the turning point in the state.
There are many reasons why Biden won, far too many for any singular commentary to account for. Personally, I cannot overstate the role of COVID-19 and the importance of the suburban and rust belt voters who have decided (at least) the past four elections. By the same token, it is wrong to believe that there was anything special about the Biden campaign - to many it offered more of the pre-Trump status quo. The best way to view this election therefore, as both Biden himself and the Associated Press put it, was as a referendum on the Trump presidency.
I cannot overstate the role of COVID-19 and the importance of the suburban and rust belt voters who have decided (at least) the past four elections.
We saw record voter turnout this year, as more people have been drawn into the political conversation in these tumultuous times. Perhaps, it was these people who were the true “silent majority”, who did not anticipate a Trump win in 2016 and have rallied around supporting or tearing down one of (if not the most) controversial American President. It should also be noted that this is one of the rare cases in American history where an opposing party or President has been elected during a time of national crisis, as crises typically favour those already in power.
In 2016, Trump ran on a campaign disabusing the American people of the idea that politicians were best at running the country, and that a (perceived) successful outsider could rewrite the rules on governance. His campaign was also deeply racial. He became the Republican nominee, despite the self-proclaimed 2012 Republican Party “autopsy”, which dictated a “...need to reach out to minorities”. As Harvard law professor Michael Klarman told Business Insider: “What Trump intuited was that he could, instead, double down on a disaffected white electorate”, as well as negative partisanship for the Republican party (whereby even if voters did not explicitly support him, they resented the Democratic candidate and party more) to squeeze out a final electoral victory.
As the London School of Economics observed; ‘Instead of running on a platform that amounts to “more of the same”, a party with a damaged reputation can propose a radical alternative. With this policy shift, the party sheds its old image as a purveyor of poor-quality mainstream policies and gains a new reputation as the party best qualified to deliver sweeping change. We call this phenomenon “tactical extremism”.’ A practice, they allege, which began with the Republican Party in the 1960s. However, after 4 years of polarisation, consistent scandal, a pandemic and, frankly, a lack of governance (Trump has enacted the fewest actual laws of any first term President), a second term was not to be.
Political commentators on the States, particularly those who foresaw President Trump’s shock 2016 win, have frequently cited a “pendulum-esque” model regarding the Presidency and public opinion. Each swing to the left has been followed by a sharper, more extreme swing to the right. Carter, immediately followed by Reagan, and Obama by Trump are the two most prominent examples. Obama has even pointed to this in his recent memoir, ‘A Promised Land’, writing: “American’s [were] spooked by [a] black man in White House” and that “[his] presence in the White House created a deep seated panic”. But, just as Reagan’s wave of conservatism (which ended with the presidency of his Vice-President George H. W. Bush) would be beaten by a moderate Bill Clinton, so too would Trump’s campaign be defeated by a moderate Joe Biden. It seems then, that the antidote to extremism is a moderate candidate, not extremism in return, as many had thought.
It seems then, that the antidote to extremism is a moderate candidate, not extremism in return, as many had thought.
However, this tight win by the Democrats is still damning. With such a close election, it is easy to imagine a climate without COVID-19 in which President Trump might have easily won re-election. The economy, and his handling of it, was after all his rallying cry. Furthermore, it is unclear to what extent this is a Democrat victory, as although the presidency is wrapped up, Democrats have performed poorly down-ballot (thanks, in no small part, to the extreme Republican gerrymandering of Senate districts).
The Congressional (above) and Senate (below) results paint a gloomy picture for the Democratic Party.
This means that they have a slim control of Congress (having in fact lost seats), but not the Senate as expected. Any commentator cannot overlook the fact that without the Senate, Biden flirts with the same powerlessness for which the more popular President Obama drew criticism from both sides of the aisle from 2011 onwards. However, as Senator Sanders told CNN: “Trump has shown the power of the executive order” and it falls to Biden how he wishes to use the same power. The true election will, therefore, only finish in January, with the conclusion of Trump’s legal challenges and the final elections for the Senate.
Interestingly, Republican sources suggest that the main reason for Republican support of Trump’s electoral disputes is to gain his approval so that he might help to continue campaigning for a Republican control of the Senate in January.
The sights also now narrow on the race for 2024. At 78 years old, the oldest elected President, Joe Biden’s second election campaign at 82 years old troubles credulity. It seems highly unlikely that Trump will run either, with the possibility that by 2024 he could be a convicted felon (if not pardoned by himself or declared innocent by his many appointed and loyal judges). Questions are, therefore, raised for the future of both parties. The Republican party has not groomed a true thought leader, other than Trump, the likes of which Senator Bernie Sanders brought to the Democratic party. While it should have been obvious that an independent, self-proclaimed socialist senator from Vermont would not win a presidency in America, he has invigorated the Democratic party’s future. The choice for the Democrats therefore, falls into two categories. The first, a centrist approach, for which Kamala Harris could be a clear choice, now armed with evidence that this approach can win, which was doubted by the radical arm of the Democratic party. Or, the second, a grass-roots powered, progressive, Sanders-esque candidate. President-elect Biden will elucidate much of the future of the party as his cabinet manifests as well.
The sights also now narrow on the race for 2024. At 78 years old, the oldest elected President, Joe Biden’s second election campaign at 82 years old troubles credulity.
A large influence on the decision will also be the movements of the Republican party, where Trump has left no clear successor either. The question will be whether the Republican factions rally around a previously traditional candidate, or if Trump has not been pervasive enough to throw a collaborator, or even one of his own children, into the fray. I believe it would be ignorant to immediately discount the latter, especially given Ivanka Trump’s suitability as a running mate.
While he may be defeated, we would be remiss not to understand that the domestic, global and cultural movement President Trump brought with him over 4 years has been more significant than the combined effect of many historic two term Presidents. This is especially with the appointment of three Supreme Court Justices, as well as a long list of smaller circuit judges (which he will hope to augment in his last months in office).
Trump’s defeated glance to the White House press corps on his way back from post-election golf, where he learned of Joe Biden’s victory.
Timur von Polach is a third year Biological Sciences (Biotechnology) BSc student at the University of Edinburgh.