Trump presidency has so despoiled the office and undermined his country’s claim to the world’s respect that smirking authoritarians are pointing to its hideous dysfunctionality to justify their dictatorships.
London: President Vladimir Putin is delighted! Not, of course, because of the result, which will have been a blow to him. After all, he spent much time and money getting his preferred candidate into the White House. During the 2016 election, Putin’s disinformation Internet Research Agency, based at 55 Savushkina Street in St Petersburg, Russia, spent months cyber-promoting candidate Donald Trump, while savaging candidate Hillary Clinton.
What’s pleasing Putin so much is the terrible image of America that soon-to-be Ex-President Trump is portraying to the world. The overjoyed state-controlled media in Russia is pumping out the image of a corrupt American electoral system, a country that preaches righteousness to the planet. “Look at the fraud in the US”, the Russian newspapers and TV stations crow; “look at how the crooked and dishonest American political establishment is treating that kind, generous and honest Donald, stealing the election from him”. All this from Russia, a country where ballot stuffing and fraud have been the norm for decades. Vladimir Putin has won only a single honest, fraud-free election in his political career; his first in the year 2000.
The truth is, of course, that the Trump presidency has so despoiled the office and undermined his country’s claim to the world’s respect that smirking authoritarians are pointing to its hideous dysfunctionality to justify their dictatorships, while liberal democracies have lost their faith in American leadership. This is one of President-elect Joe Biden’s main tasks to remedy. In addition to bringing the country back together, which many believe will be almost impossible, it’s essential for the future of the free world that he reconstructs America’s battered image. In many respects, Joe Biden is the ideal man for the job. He represents a revival of a kind of politics that many believe had become deceased in the opening decades of the 21st century. The election result was a triumph for the centrist granddad.
After a brutal year of trying to save the sick and burying the dead, news of the Biden victory came to many Americans as a glimmer of hope that the new regime won’t continue to fabricate fairy tales about when the pandemic will be over, and that the nation will start listening to the science. Biden will also inherit a dispirited US economy, one which has never fully healed from the coronavirus lockdown and could suffer again as new infections are climbing. But he’s been here before. When he became Vice President, America was in the depths of the 2008-09 financial crisis, but now he has possibly fewer tools and less political leverage to press an agenda to both corral the virus and stoke economic growth. He might, however, be the lucky President with this week’s news of the drugmaker Pfizer’s announcement of a 90% successful vaccine.
One major takeaway from the election is that while Trump lost, Trumpism did not. His legacy won’t be easily reversed, particularly as he entrenched a solid conservative majority on the Supreme Court and reshaped the federal judiciary. Many voters offered a consistent narrative about Trump. They liked his policies but could not abide his anger-fuelled personality, his constant use of Twitter as a weapon (more than 22,000 tweets over four years in office), and the way he ridiculed anyone who dared to disagree with him. Trump’s former Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, tweeted that Trump “disrespected every single American who figured out a way to safely vote amid a pandemic that has taken 235,000 lives. Absolutely shameful—yet so predictable.”
Trump’s reaction to the result of the election comes as no surprise. He lives in a bipolar world where he believes anyone who is not for him must be against him. He must be a winner; losing is simply not a possibility. Trump is convinced that the only way he could have lost the election must be through fraud, hence the election was stolen. Legal action against those who have dared to declare his opponent the winner is the only option. Never concede. What Trump appears to be lacking, however, is proof. But then, overwhelming evidence of fraud isn’t really the point. The strategy to battle against the votes tallied for Biden through litigation in Pennsylvania and other places, is more to provide Trump with a rationale for a loss he can’t quite grasp and less about changing the outcome. It’s also a platform to plot his future, while keeping his base loyal to his cause.
The chances of finding enough voter irregularities to change the outcome of the election are rock-bottom low. But the chances of finding enough examples, real or imaginary, of fraud to feed conspiracy theories and give some Republicans an excuse for never accepting the results of the election are 100%.
But spare a though for Donald. The 2020 election was really a referendum on Trump and he officially hit the highest turnout in more than 50 years. While he has clearly been defeated, he has not been vanquished. After receiving the second highest popular vote total in history and enjoying a core of supporters numbering tens of millions strong, he is positioned to wield outsized power in determining the future direction of the Republican Party. Anyone who wants to run in 2024 will have a hard time winning the nomination against this opposition.
In the meantime, he has to live the next 65 days packing his bags in between endless games of golf. There are even rumours that Melania Trump is counting the minutes to the time the couple leave the White House until her divorce, after their 15-year “transactional marriage”. Everything in Donald Trump’s world is transactional. Former aide, Omarosa Newman, said, “If Melania were to try to pull the ultimate humiliation and leave the White House while he’s in office, he would find a way to punish her as that’s not in the contract.” A senior Republican who regularly talks to Trump told Fox News that the President is “angry, volatile, and disconsolate”.
Losing is hard. Losing as an incumbent is harder still. But one-term Presidents Jimmy Carter, who lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980, and George H.W. Bush, who lost to Bill Clinton in 1993, understood the importance of the peaceful transition of power. There’s no law which says Trump has to concede, but if he doesn’t, he will be the first presidential candidate to ignore a tradition that has marked peaceful transitions throughout American history.
But what if Donald Trump refuses to leave the White House? The US Constitution makes no mention of how a President should be removed if they lose an election and refuse to hand over power to their opponent. So it’s hard to say if anyone would have the appetite to send the FBI, or Navy Seals, or whatever law enforcement agency storming into the West Wing to arrest a recently defeated Donald Trump. Pete Buttigieg, who ultimately lost the Democratic nomination to Joe Biden, has another solution: “If he won’t leave, I guess if he’s willing to do chores, we can work something out.”
For the winner of the election, the moment of victory brings unbridled joy and acclamation, applause, laughter, hugs and champagne to celebrate the biggest prize in politics. This isn’t so for the loser, who must shoulder the responsibility for the defeat. After losing the 2008 presidential election, the late John McCain said he slept like a baby: “Sleep two hours, wake up and cry, then sleep two hours, wake up and cry.” Donald Trump might also like to be reminded of the story of Thomas Dewey, the Republican presidential candidate in 1948, who was heavily favoured to win the election against his opponent Harry S. Truman. On election night Dewey, confident of victory, asked his wife, “How will it feel to sleep with the next President of the United States?” “A high honour”, his wife replied, “and quite frankly, darling, I’m looking forward to it”. Confounding all expectations, it was Truman who won the election. The next day at breakfast, as the story goes, Dewey’s wife said. “Tell me, Tom, am I going to the White House or is Harry coming here tonight?”
John Dobson is a former British diplomat and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.