The incomplete defeat of Donald Trump

The Republican candidate David Andahl won office to the North Dakota House of Representatives. Andahl died of COVID-19 in October.

It was that kind of evening.

At time of writing, Joe Biden looks the likely victor, although a Trump win remains technically possible.

Even saying that feels bizarre. The latest figures show the United States with 9,733,119 cases of COVID-19, resulting in over 200,000 deaths from the virus. Trump’s failure to protect Americans mirrored his failure to do much of anything else, in a four-year term devoted to Twitter feuds, sudden policy jags, perpetual culture war and a marked disinterest in even approximating normal governance. He’s a racist, a self-declared sexual predator (‘when you’re a star, they let you do it!’) and a climate conspiracist.

Yet, somehow, the result remains too close to call – even before we get to the inevitable court challenges.

We might blame the bizarre workings of the American system. In an election conducted according to modern norms, Trump would have been quickly bundled out of office, the clear majority of voters having opted for the Democrats. The byzantine Electoral College system, explicitly designed to frustrate the popular will, facilitated Trump’s 2016 win and keeps him competitive today.

That in itself exemplifies a broader issue. The broken institutions of American democracy mirror a deeply broken society, one now so dysfunctional that no-one in the political class even discusses reforming the electoral system along democratic principles – a task considered entirely beyond the scope of the possible.

In response to the Trump clown show, the Democrats ran Joe Biden as the candidate of normalcy. It was a disastrous mistake. As CNN’s Van Jones said, rather than a moral victory – a complete repudiation of Trump’s agenda – Democrats achieved only the narrowest of political wins.

Liberals might like to imagine that the late unpleasantness of the Trump years could be simply forgotten; that a sensible centrist could give the White House a hasty steam clean and return to the familiar grooves of The West Wing.

But, right now, ‘normal’ doesn’t mean what pundits think. We’re living through a period of rapid transformation, as the economic and political order of the twenty-first century collapses and the American empire slowly falls apart. In that context, Biden’s pitch (‘Make America Prosaic Again’) sounded, to most people, dull but also utopian, an impossible promise in a time of crisis.

Once again, the Democrats thought that revulsion at Trump would, in and of itself, work for them. Once again, they were proved wrong.

Despite his incumbency, Trump ran as the outsider, the underdog standing up against the American establishment. Where 2016 Trumpism presented a billionaire developer as champion of the people, the 2020 version depicted the most powerful individual in the world as a beleaguered everyman sticking it to the elites. It was preposterous, yet it clearly struck something of a chord. Throughout the campaign, Trump supporters repeatedly contrasted the numbers and enthusiasm at their guy’s rallies with the tepid response to the few events Biden bothered to hold.

On election night, many observers took Trump’s declaration of victory as the prelude to a coup. Certainly, his claim that Democrats would steal the ballot increased the likelihood that his alt-right supporters might harass officials or attack liberals or the left. Yet it’s far from clear that Trump could actually rally the American state behind any attempt to cling to power (all the evidence suggests he’s widely despised by the military and the FBI).

One suspects that the relevant precedent derives less from Pinochet in 1973 and more from George W Bush in 2000, with the Trump team acutely aware of how Republicans back then managed to claw a last minute victory by monstering the Supreme Court. As a shonky businessman, Trump’s accustomed to lawyering up – and, as a reality-show performer, he knows the value of creating chaos in the final scene.

If, as seems now probable, Joe Biden eventually takes office, we should expect an administration distinguished mostly by its torpor. Not only will the Democrats lack a Senate majority, they’ll almost certainly double down on their disastrous centrism, concluding that Trump’s unexpectedly strong showing means that much of America skews to the right. Obama spent eight years trying to collaborate with Republicans. Biden will, most likely, do the same, even with a GOP increasingly infected by Trumpism.

The ensuing policy paralysis will not necessarily be the worst outcome, if only because, as the late Alexander Cockburn used to say, ‘Gridlock keeps the bastards at bay’.

For instance, the American foreign policy establishment wanted Biden to mount a more coherent challenge to China than Trump ever managed. The internal divisions within the United States probably makes that kind of hawkishness less likely – and so, perhaps, takes ‘war with China’ off the 2020 bingo card.

More generally, the election means nothing has been resolved. Trump might be done but his defeat – if that’s what we’re seeing – wasn’t sufficiently crushing as to destroy his legacy. On the contrary, many would-be demagogues, both in the US and elsewhere, will see his surprisingly strong showing as evidence that the old culture war incantations still retain some of their magic.

Meanwhile, the country remains in the grip of a pandemic, facing an unparalleled economic crisis, and with none of the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement even partially resolved. And every day, we’re losing time on addressing the worsening climate catastrophe.

This is the beginning. It’s certainly not the end.


Image by Gage Skidmore

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

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  1. In spite of having a deep personal hope for it, a moral revolution never seemed seriously realistic after the Supreme Court came into play. The conservatives know what’s at stake and were always going to mobilize with an eye on their ultimate prize. Trump is surely ideologically interchangeable for Ted Cruz or some other figure who can hit the right emotional notes. I think the problem is we’re in the Mitch McConnell era and that definitely hasn’t changed this week.

  2. There’s no left of centre on either side, and given that, better the pronouns of some sort of solidarity Biden employs (we, we, we, we) than the pronouns of egotistical power (I, I, I, I) employed by Trump.

  3. One thing to say about Trump, as a leftist, is that at least his reign has seen far less foreigners killed by the US abroad in his term than other Presidents over the last 50 years.

    Which is significant.

  4. By the standard of popular votes won, agree that Trumpism is likely to outlive the 2020 election defeat of the incumbent.Trump has won 69 million votes compared to 73 million for Biden. That’s plenty of votes for a loser to win, but his electoral college loss will not be close. If Biden holds Arizona, it’s likely to be north of 300 and amounts to a healthy mandate. True, a Democrat Senate majority is unlikely though Majority Leader McConnell will have a thinner majority and his obsessions will be more susceptible to revolts by the likes of Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins. In addition, Biden brings experience in working across the aisle and a will to do it. Whether the Trump train has the stamina and financial backing to transform itself into a movement remains to be seen. It lacks a coherent manifesto and relies instead on the flames of resentment and victimhood remaining alive without the trappings of office and taxpayer dollars being used to throw gasoline on them.

  5. Agree with Jeff Sparrow that by the standard of winning popular votes, the 69 million people who voted for the incumbent amount to an impressive number for a loser to win. However, if Biden holds Arizona, his electoral college count will be north of 300, a mandate in line with that claimed by Trump in 2016. True, the majority leader in the Senate will still be the Republican Mitch McConnell, but his majority will be thinner and leave him open to rebellion by the likes of Republican Senators Mitt Romney, Susan Collins and Liza Murkowski. Biden will have the House and his own mandate, plus many years of experience in crossing the aisle, and a will to do it. Whether Trump can transform his substantial support base into a movement remains to be seen. Trumpism exists to be sure, but it has no coherent manifesto other than belief in a capricious leader and unresolved feelings of resentment and victimhood, mostly reliant on acceptance of batty conspiracy theories. Without the trappings of office and the financial backing that taxpayer dollars have given him, it’s doubtful that Trump will have the stamina or the heart to persist in a relatively unresourced movement by feeding off the election loss to Joe Biden, whose win is largely see as legitimate. It is likely also that his energy will be drained by fighting off personal legal battles without the protection of the presidency and reliance on his personal fortune, to the extent that his wealth is what he claims it to be.

  6. ‘by the standard of winning popular votes, the 69 million people who voted for the incumbent amount to an impressive number for a loser to win’

    not really, more people turned out this time due to an extraordinary build up to an election that was more circus than serious, due mostly to the incumbent

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