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America Divided Against Itself

There may be trouble ahead, warns Richard Price, Leyton and Wanstead CLP

That Donald Trump will spend the next two months trying to subvert the verdict of voters is not in doubt. While his legal challenges look increasingly desperate and several have already run aground, he will be busy trying to sabotage the incoming administration, shield himself and his family from prosecution, and, in his own word, “explode” the Affordable Care Act. Don’t be surprised if he attempts some final foreign policy provocation.

But if this is a conspiracy against democracy, what’s remarkable is how much of it has been in plain sight for weeks and months. On 13th September, Trump made it clear – as he did in 2016 – that he would accept any result so long as he won: “The Democrats are trying to rig this election because that’s the only way they’re going to win.” Numerous articles accurately predicted in advance that, on the basis of an early lead among in-person voters, Trump would declare victory and refuse to accept the result as mail-in ballots piled up for Biden.

Hundreds of millions around the world, including those with only the faintest progressive pulse, have breathed a collective sigh of relief, if only with the hope that Biden will restore something resembling normality to US politics. Yet this was far from a Democrat triumph, and another disaster for pollsters who underestimated Trump’s popular vote by 4-5%.

Biden flipped five states, producing a mirror image of the 2016 result, but despite a lead of more than 5 million in the popular vote nationally, his winning margin in four of them was less than 1%. In the House of Representatives, the Democrats went backwards, and a gain of only one in the Senate race leaves control of the upper house hanging on the outcome of the run-off ballot in two seats in Georgia in January. Failure to win both seats will lead to legislative gridlock.

In spite of the public health disaster rolling across the country – not so much a second wave as a continuous wave spiking in different states – and the on-display dysfunctionality of the administration, Trump succeeded in energising and expanding his base. With turnout up by 6.3%, Trump put on 9.75 million votes compared to 2016. The long-term demographic fear of Republican strategists was summed up by one senator in 2012: “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” On the evidence of this election there was no shortfall in this department.

Trump’s rallies and tweets were full of dog whistle encouragement to the alt right coalition of gun enthusiasts, white supremacists, anti-vaxxers, QAnon devotees, anti-choice hardliners and militia men, empowered by POTUS’s notorious comments on Charlottesville, his menacing call to the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by”, and his denunciation of anti-fascists as domestic terrorists.

To a greater extent than at any election since Barry Goldwater stood in 1964 the Republican Party stood for white nationalism. And yet, until we have more conclusive data, it appears that Trump – incredibly in the year of the police executions of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor – succeeded in picking up a percentage point or two among (mainly male) African Americans. His support among Latino/Hispanic voters rose from 28% to 32%, despite his denunciation of Mexicans as drug dealers, criminals and rapists.

Trump is one of the most prolific liars in global history, with at least 20,000 documented. It’s not so much that many of Trump’s lies are plausible. Many are clearly implausible, but make his supporters feel they are privileged participants in an interactive game. Add to this the huge growth of multiple, overlapping conspiracy theories that have added to the sense of hyperreality among his millions of devotees for whom fact is fiction and vice versa.

The Trump campaign strove to separate the economy and the pandemic as if they were two unrelated issues. Exit polls gave the main issues for voters as the economy (35%), racial inequality (20%), pandemic (17%), crime (11%), healthcare (11%). These figures need to be treated with caution since those prioritising the economy would include Trump supporters fearful of another lockdown and Biden voters who saw Trump’s criminal mismanagement of the pandemic leading to further job losses.

Biden in contrast played it low key, down the centre, and relied heavily on out-spending the Republicans.

Many workers, both in the rust belt states in the north-east and in the south, hold the North American Free Trade Agreement, pushed by Clinton in the 90s, responsible for the loss of manufacturing jobs across the border, lower wages and outsourcing. If Biden managed to win back support among enough workers in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, it was partly because Trump’s 2016 promise of bringing back manufacturing jobs didn’t materialise in many communities. But the disastrous handling of the pandemic in these three states may well have been the factor that took Biden over the line.

Trump clearly won among only two of the main demographics – white voters as a whole and the over-65s. While Trump had a wafer-thin 1% lead among men, Biden had a 13% advantage among women. Wherever they were able, Republicans attempted to suppress the votes of those likely to vote against Trump. In Florida, they succeeded in preventing the vast majority of 1.4 million ex-felons from voting, leaving 27% of the state’s African American population disenfranchised. In Georgia over 300,000 people were removed from the state’s voter rolls in late 2019, around two thirds of these incorrectly. In Texas, Republicans failed in an attempt to rule out 127,000 votes cast quite legally at drive-through voting booths.

For all the optimistic talk of healing the nation and improbable plans to “reach across the aisle, don’t hold your breath. As Obama as realistically forecast, one election won’t stop “truth decay”. Over 50 million Republican supporters believe to some extent or another that the election was fraudulent. Expect four more years of ramped up and increasingly menacing culture wars.

Faced by a deep economic crisis, with public debt having rocketed by $4 trillion in the last 12 months, and surrounded by neo-liberal advisors, Biden will pursue a centrist agenda. For sure, it would be impossible to have manage the pandemic worse than Trump, and Biden has indicated that suppressing the virus is essential. Biden has committed to a version of the Green New Deal, but whether he will take a radical approach is open to question. In foreign policy, Biden will be less confrontational to China, less supportive to the Tories, and less erratic in threatening, then cosying up to dictators, but the changes, including Palestine/Israel, may be more cosmetic than substantial.

Already, a vigorous debate has opened up within the Democrat Party on the direction it should take. Those on the right of the party and some senior African American figures have sought to blame BLM and calls to defund the police for losses in Congressional contests, while figures on the left including ‘The Squad’ have rebutted the charges with interest.

The jewel in the crown of Biden’s victory was Georgia, won for the first time since 1992. African American community organisers led by Stacy Adams played a crucial role, conducting a huge voter registration drive. If the Democrats win the Senate, they must proceed to passing a new Voting Rights Act and reforming the Electoral College and the Supreme Court. These are the keys to 2024.

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