Election chaos plays into Donald Trump's hands
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JAMES BALL gives his initial analysis on the US election as the results pour in.
In Hamilton – a musical many of us have watched and rewatched during our pandemic confinement – there is a moment shortly after America wins its war of independence when an aghast and outright baffled King George III has one simple refrain: what comes next?
This is the question facing every US citizen in the immediate aftermath of the election deciding whether Donald Trump deserves a second term or not, albeit for very different reasons.
Trump has surely been the single worst president in America’s history – William Henry Harrison, who died just 31 days into his term, ranks higher as while he may have accomplished nothing, he at least avoided the systemic harm done by the USA’s 45th president.
Yet despite that the hoped-for Joe Biden landslide has not materialised. For many, this will induce a sense of dread, but it does not mean the Democrat will not end up in the White House. At the time The New European went to press – on Wednesday – he remained the favourite, yet will need a few days of counting votes in key states for this to be clear.
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Biden is clearly aware of the risks of the next few days: there will be legal challenges against counting ballots. People may take to the streets. Twitter will be even more unbearable than usual. Shortly after midnight local time on election night, Biden took the stage at a campaign event and said he expected to win, making it clear election night 2020 was not a re-run of 2016. The Democrats are ready to fight.
What has seemed grimly inevitable for months, though, was that Donald Trump would reject the result of this election, as he did by tweet as Biden took the stage. After all, he made political history in 2016 by rejecting the result of an election he won – claiming widespread fraud because he’d lost the popular vote, a bizarre situation in which he suggests a huge conspiracy to rig cosmetic results, without swinging the actual outcome.
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Trump and a lot of the diehard machinery behind him will similarly reject this result, but this time with the trappings of the White House with them. Trump has repeatedly while in office tried to suggest the Department of Justice persecute his political opponents, or federal officers move in on states and cities against local officials’ will.
Thankfully, these instructions were not followed. Even his hand-picked officials have stopped him doing this and ignored these illegal orders. The worry in the days after an election is how much of the Republican operation across government will indulge efforts to overturn or interfere in the results.
The US knows such efforts are not beyond the scope of the party or the country. The 2000 election was decided by the governor of Florida – the brother of the Republican candidate, George W Bush – and the US Supreme Court, a political move that tested the legitimacy of several key US institutions to the limit. The 2020 election could make 2000’s look like normal, healthy, politics-as-usual – but only if Senate and House Republicans, and the political establishment, legitimise Trump’s efforts to get the result he wants. The question is whether the early results are decisive enough for Biden that everyone realises the game is up, and whether the remaining results come quickly enough to settle minds.
If they do, Trump will find himself lonely incredibly quickly – which will come as a total shock to a man entirely unable to tell the difference between opportunistic toadies and true acolytes. But if Republicans see an opportunity to keep the presidency, expect them to lend legitimacy to even the most desperate of efforts. This could be an extremely bumpy few weeks, with huge potential for protests, violence and even riots.
This means we will probably never have a result that will be accepted by the whole of the electorate. If the remaining states go as we expect in the next few days, who really expects Trump to accept them? We are well off the political map, and there is virtually no-one who can plan for what might come.
Even leaving aside the question of Trump trying to keep the presidency through fraud or bullying, the next month or two could remain all too grimly interesting. After a presidential election that leads to a change of government, what usually follows is an intensive transition period.
This involves a team of officials from the winning campaign – who have been preparing for months – going into each governmental department and getting briefed on all of the details of each ongoing operation and policy, making sure there are as few as possible accidental misses in turning over the daily running of the world’s largest superpower.
Obama’s government was shocked in 2016 to find that Trump’s team simply didn’t send anyone over to most departments, for weeks at a time. Government staffers waiting to brief their new counterparts found those counterparts simply didn’t exist – with the result that huge and important tasks were left entirely undone.
Trump, four years into the White House, can sow far more chaos. He will likely simply not engage with the transition process, and instead try to actively undermine his successor – passing as many executive orders or similar other actions to cement his agenda and wreak havoc. A transition away from Trump will not be smooth. It never could be.
The bigger question is what comes next for Trump: he will not go gently into the soft night. His fanatical core following – tens of millions of Americans – will still be on his side.
Just as he leant into and became the key cheerleader of the Obama Birther movement, he could lean further into QAnon, fuelling beliefs that his defeat was engineered by a sinister Deep State. His foreign backers will likely stay loyal, helping bankroll his way out of legal and financial troubles. Trump will not go away.
Working out how to reach this group, and how to defuse the threat they could pose, will be high on the list of Biden’s priorities if he successfully makes his way into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Getting there won’t be an easy journey. And if he makes it, there are few easy answers awaiting him.
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