Some thoughts on the election and the future of US power

The final results are still a while away, but it looks increasingly likely that Biden will squeak through to a victory sometime later this week. There are still plenty of things that could go wrong though: the Democratic lead in Arizona is precarious, and Pennsylvania still looks like a coin toss. Trump is lawyering up and attempting to squirt clouds of squid ink over *checks notes* vote counting. I’ve seen videos of Trump supporters in one state demanding that the count be stopped, while supporters in another state demand it be continued. Leaving that aside, here are a few things to think about over the next days and months:

  • The future of the Republican party: After enabling Trump for four years, senior Republicans may have finally found a red line. Republicans like Marco Rubio and Chris Christie have challenged Trump’s unfounded claims about voter fraud. Court stacker extraordinaire Mitch McConnell tentatively backed the President saying: “In a close election you can anticipate in some of these states you are going to end up in court, (it’s) the American way.”

    I suspect Republicans will humor Trump for as long as it is vaguely legal, but will drop him at the first sign of real trouble. They got a conservative court, hundreds of federal judge appointments, and maybe even the Senate out of his Presidency. Biden taking over is not all bed. They can pin the recession and out-of-control pandemic on him, and set themselves up for 2024.

    Looking ahead, Trump has shown that socially conservative working class populism is the GoP’s way forward. When combined with gerrymandering, the electoral college, and judicial appointments, appealing to a radicalized minority is an effective strategy. (There is a certain irony that the electoral college, which in theory forces candidates to have broad appeal across the country, actually concentrates power among rural minorities and a few battleground states.) I expect the party to continue shedding its overt racism to pick up socially conservative minorities; Latin voters turned to Trump in large numbers this election. I expect the party will try and find a more stable, less fickle, version of Trump for 2024
  • Gridlock in Washington: Right now it looks possible that Republicans will maintain control of the Senate, while Democrats hold the House and Presidency. Add to that a conservative leaning court, and there is a recipe for a whole lot of nothing. The NYT reports that business groups are already looking forward to an administration where the rhetoric is toned down, but no serious progressive legislation can pass the Senate.

An America tied up in domestic battles is unlikely to take any meaningful progressive leadership on the global stage. This is bad news for global climate change (although Biden has announced the US will rejoin Paris) and domestic progressive reform. This might encourage the EU and China to step up further, we shall see.

  • Trump: All I can say here is that I expect his claims about voter fraud to become this cycle’s equivalent of the Birther conspiracy, turbo-charged by an ex-President mouthing off about it every day.
  • Splintered inside and out: A recurring preoccupation of mine is the contrast between US military and financial hegemony and its declining economic and soft power. The US military still has no serious military competitors (except perhaps in cyber), the Federal Reserve is the world’s central bank, and the US dollar is still firmly the reserve currency. Shale has turned the US from an oil importer to an oil exporter. On the other hand, the US share of the world economy has been shrinking for decades, its under pressure technologically, and soft power has taken a hit since Trump. Trump’s tariffs sanctions are an example of how military or financial power can be used to correct for an economic gap.

    How does a power react to a decline in some areas but not others? What changes when we add schizophrenic domestic politics? I’m not sure yet, but I promise to keep thinking about it.

It could be (much) worse

I remember exactly where I was four years ago. My manager was American, but insisted I at least pretend to work. A New Yorker, I suspect she thought the election was a foregone conclusion. By lunch (Australian time), she was watching the live feed with me as a horrified silence crept across the office. I went to a bar later with some friends and we watched Trump’s acceptance speech while two men in MAGA hats danced nearby. The hats had not yet lost their circus performer quality and we watched them a little confused.

The absurd has long given way to the sinister. Trump has already promised to tie up the results in court. His supporters surrounded a Biden campaign bus as it drove through Texas. The fact that they were armed, as they tried to force an opponent’s campaign bus off the road, barely merits a click in today’s climate.

As an antidote to a world that sometimes feels on the verge of disintegration, here are some accounts from times when the civilized world really did collapse. The Silk Roads (which I’ve discussed here and here) recounts how contemporaries reacted to the sack of Rome in 410 A.D.:

In Jerusalem, the news was met with disbelief. ‘The speaker’s voice failed, and sobs interrupted his speech,’ wrote St. Jerome, ‘the city that had conquered the whole world had itself been conquered… who could believe it?’ Who could believe that Rome, built up through the ages by the conquest of the world, had fallen, that the mother of nations had become their tomb?’

Nearly 800 years later, the then centre of world civilization – Baghdad – was also dealt a fatal blow. This is how a contemporary described the bloody swathe cut by the Mongols through the Muslim world:

I wish I had never been born, wrote another, so I would not have had to live through such traumas. At least the Muslim Antichrist will only destroy his enemies, he went on; the Mongols, on the other hand, ‘spared none. They killed women, men, children, ripped open the bodies of the pregnant and slaughtered the unborn.’

Petrarch on The Black Plague:

Our hopes for the future have been buried alongside our friends

Happy Election Day. Please vote if you can.

Biden holds the fort

Moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News speaks as President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speak during the first presidential debate Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) Source

Last night Biden and Trump faced off in the first debate of the 2020 Presidential Campaign. Biden was the clear winner in my eyes. Other commentators have written the debate off as a disappointment, “America lost tonight” is the emerging consensus. They point to the moderator’s inability to control the debate from descending into insults and attacks. This misunderstands what was at stake.

The debate was Biden’s to lose. He is in the lead – 538’s aggregate poll gives him a 78% chance of winning. Debate’s tend not to have much effect on polls, so Trump needed to provoke a massive mistake from Biden. There were grounds for Biden supporters to be worried. He has been trailed by accusations of senility, and a series of embarrassing verbal gaffes have done little to assuage concerns he may not be up to the job. The danger was Trump might bamboozle Biden, leaving him looking frail and confused.

Trump’s tactic was what we’ve come to expect: inject 50cc of pure chaos and hope your opponent has a seizure. It was less effective than in 2016, precisely because we have come to expect it; his braggadocio, lies, and narcissistic self-confidence are tired memes, not shocking news. His opponents have also learnt playing nice or trying to be above it does not pay off, Trump must be fought.

Biden did not look senile, he did not look shaky, he did not collapse into a stuttering mess, and that was all he had to do. He got a little flustered initially, but also carried the fight to Trump – in one memorable line he told him to shut up. He addressed his messages to the camera, trying to speak to the American people. Trump spent most of the 90 minutes looking over at Biden sniping.

I doubt the debate changed the minds of any supporters, but again, that’s not the point really. Biden’s risk was that the doubts swirling around him would crystallise on stage in some horrific misstep. He avoided that, and will hopefully continue his march to the White House.

As a postscript, the most disappointing parts of the debate for me were when Biden disowned the Green New Deal or Medicare For All to fend off Trump’s accusation he was in the pocket of the “radical left” (imagine somewhere the vision for radical politics is so impoverished). It was a transparent attempt to drive a wedge between Bernie and Biden, but apart from some recalcitrant holdovers, I hope no one on the left is still holding out for the Gotterdammerung of 4 more years of Trump.