Even when he is finally turfed out of the White House, the US president will likely remain a toxic figure in US politics and society, says JAMES BALL
In the weeks immediately following a US election, coverage typically turns to the future. Who might the incoming president look to for his – it’s always been his, so far – key cabinet picks? Who’s likely to move into the West Wing from the campaign team, and in what roles? What will be the new administration’s big policy changes in its first 100 days?
That’s not where we are with this US election. For once, it’s only somewhat hyperbolic to wonder whether there’ll still be an intact United States of America for Joe Biden to take control of by the time of his inauguration in January.
Donald Trump has, within days of the media calling the race for his opponent, already attempted many of the moves of a would-be dictator. The only reassurance for the US public – and the world – is he seems as inept at tyranny as he has been at every other aspect of his presidency, save golfing.
Trump has rejected the ballot result, said without the slightest of evidence that votes for his opponents are “illegal”, refused to concede, and said he will be launching large legal actions, with virtually no information on what possible grounds these could have.
His efforts to bring in a big-name lawyer – David Bossie, who led the Citizens’ United Supreme Court case, allowing almost unlimited big money into US politics – to lead these lawsuits was, however, hampered when Bossie caught coronavirus after meeting infected White House officials. But Trump has not stopped there.
He has fired his secretary of defense, who earlier in the year refused to deploy troops – at Trump’s request – against protestors in US cities which had not asked for federal help – itself a violation of states’ rights. He has then ignored US laws requiring the deputy secretary of defense to act up in the role and attempted to unlawfully appoint his own hand-picked person into the job.
Elsewhere, Trump’s attorney general, Bill Barr – who pledged during his confirmation hearings not to interfere in the electoral process – has announced a Department of Justice investigation into mass electoral fraud, perhaps the most blatant and serious breach of executive power in at least a century. There was, at least, an attempt to cover up Watergate. This is wide-open. The DoJ’s top election fraud official promptly resigned in protest.
These developments are well beyond even the bizarre antics we have come to expect of Donald Trump. They are things that simply should not happen in any kind of established democracy. And even if they fail to keep the White House in Trump’s hands – as they almost certainly will – they will do huge damage with which Joe Biden will now have to contend.
For one, 70% of Republican voters now say the 2020 election was not fair. Trump has successfully destroyed his opponent’s legitimacy in the eyes of tens of millions of Americans.
One American in particular could cause particular problems for Biden. Mitch McConnell is the Republican senate leader who helped deliver Trump three supreme court justices – not least by blocking a seat which was, by rights, Obama’s to fill – and hundreds of more junior judicial appointments.
McConnell has not just sat by and watched Trump’s effort to delegitimise the election, let alone condemned them – instead he has wilfully joined in with the destruction.
This is a particular nightmare for Biden as McConnell could keep control of the senate – meaning that he would have the power not just to block laws Biden would hope to pass, but potentially cabinet nominees, and certainly judicial appointments. How can you compromise with someone who’d rather burn down the building than hand you the keys to it?
All of this means that two run-off elections in the state of Georgia could not be more important to Biden, and to the next four years of the USA’s political life. This once solidly-red seat turned blue for the presidential race, thanks in huge parts to organisational efforts from Stacey Abrams, a recent candidate for governor, who would almost certainly have won her race were it not for Republican voter suppression efforts.
Abrams fought back, and her efforts were enough to swing the state for Biden – and they could still swing its senate seats for him too. The rules in Georgia require a candidate for senate to get more than 50% of the vote, and thanks to third-party candidates, neither Republican senate candidate cleared that bar in November’s election.
That means both senate elections are being re-run in early January. Democrats are behind in both, and would need to win both to take the senate. The Republican candidates have gone all-in with Trump’s scorched-earth tactics, alleging voter fraud and even accusing the state’s Republican election overseer of being in on the plot.
Both parties will throw everything they have at Georgia. And for once, this will be a pair of run-off elections the world should watch.
But even if Biden can rid himself of Mitch McConnell, he probably won’t rid himself of Trump. Already, there is talk of the president establishing a presidential run for 2024. For Trump, there is virtually no downside – it lets him fundraise from his supporters, gives him an excuse for rallies and for airtime, and keeps him in the news.
It could even keep him out of jail: were he to announce his candidacy for 2024 tomorrow – even if he had no real intention to run – he could frame any attempts to investigate or prosecute him as Democratic persecution of a future political opponent. Cynical Republicans would surely lap it up.
Biden faces an immediate struggle to rid himself of Trump’s lieutenants. He will almost certainly not rid himself – or any of us – of Trump himself. What we can hope for amid the mire is that he can rid us quickly of some of Trump’s toxic legacies.
Biden has said he will reunite families divided by Trump at the border. He will end the racist ‘Muslim ban’ on travel. He will actually tackle coronavirus. He will rejoin the Paris accords and attempt to tackle climate change.
These are all real and substantive changes. It will be an ugly, brutal and dark few months – but we should not let that make us lose sight of real hope.