Lame-duck Destruction and Political Paralysis

23 november 2020Leestijd: 5 minuten
Foto: EPA

If he lost, we all expected Trump to accuse the Democrats of trying to steal the election.  He did not disappoint us, commencing the false narrative only a few hours after Election Day drew to a close.  But the basis for Trump’s 3 am version of events did not get much traction, perhaps because he did not bother to provide any evidence of the voting irregularities that he alleged were committed against him.

Even in some corners of the Republican Party his hyperbolic accusation machine is wearing thin—it is hard to argue the ballots that re-elected Republicans to the Senate are somehow at the same time invalid for the presidential vote.  Moreover, the legal complaints that Trump’s campaign is showering the courts with are struggling to find any footing.  Twelve lawsuits have already been thrown out for being frivolous.

Count the Votes!
It does appear that attempts at electoral fraud did take place but were perpetrated by Trump megadonor Louis DeJoy, who is the current Postmaster General in charge of the U.S. Postal Service.  Two days after Election Day, the USPS revealed that it failed to deliver at least 150,000 absentee ballots that remained inside its facilities, including more than 12,000 in five of the states where races were close and had yet to be called.  Add to this the split-screen shots that showed Trump supporters in Michigan and Pennsylvania shout, “Stop the count!” because Trump was ahead, while in Arizona they shouted, “Count the votes,” because Trump was behind, and we get a confused message of why Trump should remain president.

But, if Trump’s narrative did not serve him well, the Democratic party also did not realize the “Blue Wave” it had hoped would sweep Biden to a decisive victory, flip the Senate to a Democrat Party majority and boost the number of Democrats in the House of Representatives.  Yes, several states that voted for Trump in 2016 switched to Biden in 2020, but for all that the vote was a tight one.

What does this mean for the world after 3 November?
Four years ago, I gave two presentations on election night at Maastricht University in which I said that no matter who won the 2016 American presidential election, it would be defined by its rejection of establishment candidates and the electorate’s embrace of insurgents, who openly waged war on their own parties. Certainly, Trump secured the Republican nomination by disagreeing with his party’s mainstream members on many core issues.

We also know that the Democratic Party had its own insurgent, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who did not win the primary competition but whose popularity, like Trump’s, emerged from disagreeing with the traditional Democratic Party on key policy stances.

I echoed these points in my inaugural lecture, in which I said Trump will change Washington more than Washington changes Trump.  Whether the world likes it or not, some aspects of Trumpism are here to stay.  So, it is with a mix of sadness and smugness that I read that several political pundits and respected media outlets agree with me that today “it is still Trump’s America.”

The Future of the Republican Party
Moreover, Trump himself will likely remain in the political spotlight and continue to affect U.S. politics in a way that is perilous for it and the future of the Republican Party.  More than 71 million Americans voted for Trump, an unprecedented number.  Republicans will want to find a balance between keeping these voters motivated to support the party in the future but, at the same time, reel in Trump’s incendiary rhetoric and race baiting. 

This dilemma is certainly reflected in the fact that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and most Republican leaders are unwilling to strongly dispute Trump over his falsehoods concerning absentee ballots, state election officials and vote counting procedures.

Additionally, we do not know how far Trump and his supporters are willing to go to fight the outcome of the elections.  If the Senate remains a Republican majority (which we will only know after two January 2021 run-off elections in Georgia), Biden might encounter gridlock and legislative paralysis for the next two years (when there is a midterm election) or even four years.

Two month’s left to Burn the House Down
Longstanding allies around the world exhaled on Saturday the 7th of November after Pennsylvania boosted Biden’s electoral College votes over the 270 mark.  But, they have not yet relaxed because Trump could do much that sabotages the future of American foreign policy during the two months of the so-called lame-duck session.  For example, on November 9th Trump fired his Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, in an act of personal vengeance that leaves a dangerous vacuum during this delicate transition period.  Esper’s crimes were that he publicly opposed using active-duty U.S. troops against protesters last June and he supported the renaming of military bases that honor Confederate generals.  Other officials, such as CIA Director Gina Haspel, who disagreed with Trump over declassifying unverified Russian intelligence, are also likely to be fired between now and January, with Trump loyalists replacing them.

I recently read that public opinion in Europe about America since covid-19 is in rapid decline.  Respect for the U.S. is draining from the continent.  Pundits are resurrecting Robert Kagan’s thesis that the Americans are from Mars and the Europeans are from Venus, which dates to differences in 2003 at the start of the Iraq War during the George W. Bush Administration.

What does all this mean?  I can feel a perceptible loss of U.S. soft-power—that Europeans find America less attractive today based on how Trump handled the pandemic (both at home and abroad).  At the same, I was also aware that Europeans were avidly watching this election, willing the American democratic system to correct itself.

Joe Biden’s narrow victory may not be what many hoped for and may all too soon produce disappointment and constrained policy.  Still, the fact that we have a 46th President of the United States is a very good outcome for the 2020 elections.