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America enters a new chapter without Donald Trump – but with similar plot twists

The "Field of Flags" on Washington DC's National Mall for the presidential inauguration ceremony - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

The US has entered the post-Trump era. But don’t expect things to get much smoother, says JAMES BALL

If the last few years had been a movie, then Wednesday of this week would surely be the last, triumphant scene. Yes, the bad guys had been winning for most of the running time – and the pandemic gave us a chilling change of genre – but the insurrection failed, the democratic process won out, and a new very different president has been inaugurated on a promise to clear things up. Roll the credits.

The difficulty for all of us across the world is that we actually have to live through the post-credits scenes, and reality rarely wraps up anything as neatly as we might like.

Assuming the inauguration and the evening that followed it have passed without the spectre of serious violence – not a necessary caveat in normal times, but an essential one against this backdrop – we shouldn’t forget there are real and substantial victories for Democrats among the gloom.

They have won the presidency by millions of votes and a comfortable electoral college margin, held on to the House and thanks to a series of shock victories in Georgia, taken the Senate – against almost all expectations.

On top of that, they have managed a historic second impeachment of a man who if he is remembered by history will be remembered as America’s worst president. Given that run of victories, it could be easy to slip into complacency, a comforting sense that the Republicans are divided, because Trump finally went too far, and that now they have all three branches of government, things can return to normal.

To do so would be a terrible and costly mistake: Joe Biden and the Democrats face a nightmarish first two years of this presidential term, and the odds are against them: despite how it may feel today, the Republicans stand a huge chance of sweeping both the House and Senate in just two years – and Biden faces being blocked and cornered in every way imaginable until then.

A particular headache for the Democrats is that they don’t face a single huge problem upon which they can focus their efforts, as they did in the Donald Trump era. Instead they face multiple big but often boring problems which will grind much of their policy agenda to a halt if they don’t play smart.

The first of those is the maths of the House of Representatives. Nancy Pelosi may have been returned as speaker, meaning the Democrats retain the lower house, but she has done so with the lowest margin of anyone in her position in the post-war era.

Anyone who lived through the Theresa May era of UK politics has a good sense of what can go wrong with that – especially if your party coalition is fractious, and the Democratic Party is certainly that.

In order to pass bills through to the Senate, Pelosi will need to corral congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her squad on the left with the remaining ‘blue-dog Democrats’ on the right – a task roughly akin to trying to get Labour’s Socialist Campaign Group to agree on taxation with the Conservative ERG.

The Senate itself is even trickier: here, the votes are split exactly 50/50, with vice president Kamala Harris able to decide ties in the Democrats’ favour – provided they don’t lose a single vote. This bodes relatively well for Biden being able to be able to confirm his first choice of cabinet candidates and appointees to judicial benches, but less well for substantive reforms, which under Senate procedures need 60 votes to be sure of passing.

The Democrats could, in theory, change the rules to allow such measures to pass on 50 votes – allowing them to consider introducing a public option for healthcare (sometimes referred to as “Medicare for all who want it” or even universal healthcare.

Traditionally, parties have hesitated before changing these rules as they would still hold once they were back in opposition – but even if Biden were tempted to think times have changed, he would lack the support of enough Democrats to actually change the filibuster rules. Senators such as Joe Manchin – essentially an old-school Republican elected as a Democrat – now have the deciding vote on everything Biden can accomplish in his presidency.

So: Biden will struggle to pass any major new laws. But he can expect to face numerous challenges on the few things he can do, through executive orders and the bills he can pass. Thanks to Mitch McConnell’s skulduggery in the Senate, Trump managed to place three new ultra-right wing justices on the Supreme Court – and hundreds more on the federal bench. Expect legal challenge after legal challenge from Republicans and their backers – and to hear far fewer complaints about “judicial activism” from them.

This is a toxic mix to feed into an election cycle. Democrats rely on enthusiastic voter turnout to hold their seats, especially in midterm elections. All of the odds are stacked against Biden in this: he is an older, moderate candidate – well-liked, but rarely adored.

The Trump fear factor will have dissipated. And there is a chance the justifiably inpatient left flank of the Democratic voter base will see Biden’s blockaded position as deliberate inaction. The 2022 midterms are structurally against the Democrats: it will take a miracle for them to hold both houses.

That’s before we price in what the media looks like post-Trump. Major outlets have been occasionally guilty of giving themselves too much credit in tackling Trump while actually spreading his lies and his divisiveness to huge, gripped audiences.

In an often terrible way, the last few years have been a thrill for reporters – a chaotic presidency generating as much news in a week as a normal administration would generate in a year. That mania is if anything more pronounced in their commercial and corporate entities: Trump’s presidency has meant big audiences, and so big revenues.

On at least some level, neither journalists nor media companies want the Trump era to end. The danger is that means they perpetuate it – amping up each scandal, picking the biggest characters, relying on the reflexes and reporting muscles they’ve used over the last few years, hampering any chances of starting to curb its excesses.

That is certainly set to be the case at Fox News itself, which is doubling down with more opinion shows (as opposed to its nominally more balanced and accurate news) than ever before in its running order – part of its efforts to see off even more extreme right-wing challengers such as OANN.

All of this is before we remember that in some way, shape or form Donald Trump and his brood will still be trying to insert themselves into the narrative – whether through court case drama, new business ventures, or more political interference and rallies. Given the overtly racist and violent tendencies of many of his most devout supporters, this is a clear and present danger.

There are, of course, ways through for Biden – treaties he can restore, departments he can rebuild, people he can appoint. But the expectations game, coupled with the existential challenges from all sides, mean the USA’s oldest president is inheriting one of the weakest hands of any incoming administration.

The result of all of this is that this week’s inauguration, and Trump’s accompanying eviction from the White House, feel less like a storm that’s passed and more like one in which the eye is passing over. Things might feel calm for now – but don’t expect that to last.

If the USA’s ongoing political drama is indeed a movie, it feels more like a trilogy than a one shot – one in which it feels like we’re entering the second act. And as anyone who’s watched the original Star Wars knows, things tend to end badly in the sequel.

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