8th November 2020
The undignified scramble for power by representatives of a rich elite, squeezing as much finance as possible from their corporate backers while posing as tribunes of the people, has long been the defining characteristic of presidential politics in the United States. The 2020 presidential race fitted this template no less than many others but it also contained special features which heightened its significance and had people across the world hanging on the outcome.
The incumbent, Donald Trump, had gained ascendency in the Republican Party in 2016 backed by a right wing neo-con clique, determined to shift the political centre of gravity in the United States even further to the right. Trump’s phoney man of the people persona, his visibility as a TV personality from the US version of The Apprentice and the easy target the Democrats provided in fielding a dyed in the wool establishment figure such as Hillary Clinton, meant Trump was able to squeeze an electoral college victory, in spite of being 3 million votes behind Clinton in the popular vote.
To suggest that Trump failed to imbue the office with any gravitas would be an understatement. The constant and often bizarre communication by Twitter; the regular abusing of journalists who posed difficult questions; and his routine embracing of leaders of dubious character, from Kim Jong-un to Jair Bolsonaro, from Benjamin Netanyahu to Boris Johnson, combined to make Trump a constant target for the centre and Left.
The ‘Make America Great Again’ mantra of Trump’s 2016 campaign resonated with many Americans who saw the US as having lost status in the world and lost economic ground to an increasingly strong Chinese economy. Withdrawal from the Iran anti-nuclear deal, negotiated by Barack Obama in 2015, made it easy to rail against the Iranian regime and its failings. Withdrawal from the World Health Organisation (WHO) provided a scapegoat for failing to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, where almost a quarter of a million people have now died.
As ever, the tried and tested tactic of demagogues has always been to set up some easy targets then knock them down. This was a feature of the Trump presidency. Blame Iran for uncertainty in the Middle East; Mexico for illegal immigration into the US; China for unfair trade practices hitting US jobs; Cuba, for simply daring to exist in spite of the 60 year long illegal trade embargo, the terms of which Trump tightened further.
Against this background it is easy to see Trump as a divisive force in US politics and society. There can be little doubt that Trump polarised opinion in the country. Those divisions did not appear with the presidency of Donald Trump however. Certainly, Trump did nothing to address them and often, on questions of racism especially did much to exacerbate them, but he cannot be accused of creating them. Trump did not divide America; a divided America produced Trump.
Much has been made of the fact that in 2020 Joe Biden has received more votes than any other presidential candidate in US history. Less is being made of the fact that Donald Trump’s vote in 2020 is the second highest for any candidate in US presidential history. Those who support Trump remain a significant and vociferous bloc.
As a narcissist and a bad loser Trump will drag out the legal challenges to the electoral process as far as he can. It is widely expected that these will not gain traction. If so Trump will no doubt continue to shout from the sidelines once Biden’s presidency gets underway. He will be a vocal but marginal figure.
For those behind Trump however, the struggle to maintain US global hegemony and to turn back the clock in terms of social policy, will continue. The trade wars with China, the undermining of international organisations of co-operation, the interference in the Middle East which has undermined support for the Palestinian cause, the tightening of restrictions on Cuba, are all policy shifts which Joe Biden will not be in a position to reverse in a four year period.
More significantly still, the conservative 6-3 majority on the US Supreme Court, the key arbiter in crucial policy judgements such as abortion rights, is a legacy which will outlast several presidential terms. The United States is a society with deep racial divisions and inequalities. Even the much heralded presidency of Barack Obama did little to change that. The recent upsurge of the Black Lives Matter movement illustrates the distance left to travel.
The Communist Party USA puts the position succinctly,
“Even with the acceptance of the votes and certification of the election for Biden/Harris, the fight will not be over. Take Trump at his word. What will compel his administration to hand over power? Here the mixed election results, the narrowness of the contests, amplify the degree of the danger. We are confronting two mass movements, of unequal strength—one fascist-tinged and in power, the other democratic and ascending. This is no ordinary election, and the situation remains far from clear. It’s time to stay awake, vigilant, and mobilized.”
President-elect, Joe Biden, has promised “a new day for America” and there is no doubt that the removal of Trump is a significant and symbolic step forward. The reduction of politics to the personalities of the main protagonists however is always a danger. The shadowy forces behind Trump may have failed in their attempt to secure him a second term but their sights will already be set firmly on 2024 and extending the ‘gains’ they have made under Trump.
For all of the immediate significance of his victory, Joe Biden is little more than a caretaker president. The work to really turn the tide in the United States must continue with working class, black and Latino organisations combining to provide a people’s force with a progressive agenda for change. The next four years will be crucial in building an effective base for resistance and ultimately for progress.