Almost the oddest feature of the US election result—which as I write is a Joe Biden victory with a very small question mark attached—is the complacency with which centrist opinion, the media, Wall Street, moderate Democrats and establishment Republicans have greeted it. One might have expected that the election of an undistinguished seventy-seven-year-old hack politician of the Left, whose vice-president is a leftist of a more radical temper, would have made the possessing classes at least a little apprehensive, especially in conditions of civil disorder, pandemic and economic anxiety.
Instead, when the media jumped the gun by certifying Biden’s election as president-elect while the votes of five states were still being counted, there were street carnivals of rejoicing in New York and other hubs of urban America but also quiet satisfaction in the suites of America too. Wall Streeters joined Republican consultants in congratulating America on achieving an almost perfect political compromise: a radical Democrat president restrained from doing anything by a Senate in safe Republican hands. And an almost mystically united coalition of the media, corporate America, Big Tech, journals of opinion and independent commentators welcomed the result, called for all sides but especially Republicans to set aside things said in anger, and prayed for the new president.
God must have been pleased, if only because he was hearing from some of those in the congregation for the first time ever.
But this “era of good feelings” proved to be very short as eras go. That wasn’t because President Trump refused to concede until the courts had pronounced on the disputed vote counts in key swing states. Trump was denounced on this score (essentially for not being a good sport), but he was perfectly entitled to defend his legal right to a fair election. Vice-President Gore had done the same thing twenty years before at strong urging from Democrats. And though there were numerous signs of dirty work at the electoral crossroads, some new (computer fraud), some classic (votes more numerous than voters—and not only in the cemeteries), it looks at the time of writing as if there won’t be proof of voter fraud on a scale likely to have changed the election result. (You, gentle reader, will know what the courts decided.)
So assuming Biden is now president-elect, why is the mood of optimism fading, especially on the Right? The answer is that the foundations of bipartisan harmony started crumbling even as the courts were hearing the recount cases.
Yes, on the side of political harmony, the US is still a narrowly divided and politically competitive nation. In this presidential election the voters divided nationally into 50.7 per cent Democrat and 47.6 per cent Republican. And this narrow division goes all the way down the ticket. As Michael Barone, the doyen of US electoral historians, points out in the Washington Examiner, US elections have shown this near-equality of parties throughout this century: “Democrats had big margins in the popular vote for the House in 2006, 2008, and 2018, but not in the other eight congressional elections in this century. Very much including this year, when the House popular vote is running 50 per cent Democratic, 49 per cent Republican.” He concludes that neither party owns the future. Which means that either party can rent the future at every election.
But that very narrowness of the margin of victory or defeat ensures that political conflict between them remains highly partisan.
Within days of the election, moreover, the early congressional results began to look misleading. Republicans have now won five seats net and look like ending up only ten seats behind Democrats in the House. The Senate, on the other hand, no longer looks certain to remain under Republican control (which was the main reason for the establishment’s relief on election night). Control of it will now depend on which party wins the two Georgia seats to be decided in run-off elections in January.
If the Democrats win both seats, they will control the White House and the two Houses of Congress and thus be able to push through the radical parts of the Biden–Harris program—but only for the next two years. Republicans are generally then expected to make big advances in the 2022 mid-term elections and end up controlling both House and Senate.
So there will be three intense political battles in the next two years: first, for the two Georgia seats in the next few weeks; two, to push through (and, of course, to block) the Democrats’ reform program in Biden’s first two years; and third, to secure control of the Senate and the House in 2022. These will be more intense than usual because the Democrats are fired up by the idea of reversing Trump’s policies, and the Republicans fear that their opponents will change both the rules and the electorate (by legalising the 10 to 20 million illegal immigrants) to ensure Republicans can never win power again.
If there were moderates in either party who voted for a quiet life and so against Trump because as Churchill said of John Foster Dulles, he was like a bull who carried his own china shop around with him, they have been disappointed. Even before the election, there was little chance that Americans could look forward to the political stability a quiet life needs. The country was already rent by a three-sided near civil war that uneasily united a rising new cultural and corporate establishment imbued by college with socially progressive “woke” values with revolutionary street fighters of a harder and more extreme radicalism, against a traditional middle class and small business owners who had only recently grasped that the riots in urban America were a war against them and begun to rally themselves against it.
In various ways the election and its narrow, disputed and inconclusive result made these conflicts worse—sometimes massively so. Both of the allies on the side of “woke” radicalism were hugely disappointed that the election was not the overwhelming repudiation of Trump and Trumpian “racism” that they had both expected and been led to expect by the polls. The open abandonment of impartiality and fairness by the media, corporate America and Big Tech only made any kind of sense if you expected that repudiation. They might then tell themselves that they were anticipating the popular will. As things turned out, Trump gained modest but significant increases in Black and Hispanic votes for a party that “looked like America”, as the cant phrase has it, and one leftist reflected candidly that the Left must accept that its definition of racism was not shared by half of the country.
But that self-criticism is not shared by those left-wingers in either the streets or the suites. Again, even before the election, the Transition Integrity Project (which had “gamed” the different possible election outcomes with a view to ensuring a Biden victory) had argued that a post-Trump government would have to take a strong line with the Right. I quote: “More broadly, there needs to be a robust, intentional, and specific strategy to challenge the white supremacist and extremist networks that enabled Trump’s rise to power and were in turn enabled by Trump’s administration. This base will not automatically demobilize if and when Trump leaves office, and it is inimical to the kind of pluralist democracy the founders intended.” The hint is just about audible that the Trump movement will have to be demobilised by others if it won’t demobilise itself. Since the election, however, the message is clearer and less subtle.
Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post went on MSNBC to argue, with no dissent from other panellists: “We have to burn down the Republican Party, we have to level them, because if there are survivors, they will do this again.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Left’s star congresswoman, went on Twitter to add: “Is anyone archiving these Trump sycophants for when they try to downplay or deny their complicity in the future?” And a website, the Trump Accountability Project, has been founded to ensure they have no hiding place: “Those who took a paycheck from the Trump Administration should not profit from their efforts to tear our democracy apart. The world should never forget those who, when faced with a decision, chose to put their money, their time, and their reputations behind separating children from their families, encouraging racism and anti-Semitism, and negligently causing the unnecessary loss of life and economic devastation from our country’s failed response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“Are you or have you ever been a member of the Trump administration?” That’s what we used to call McCarthyism, and like the late Senator from Wisconsin, the website just can’t get its details right. The first example of Trump perfidy that it selects—putting children in cages—has already been exposed on Twitter (with the evidence of photographs) as a program launched and implemented by the Obama administration.
To be sure, the woke Left is not the entire Democratic Party, and it’s meeting opposition from those colleagues who almost lost their seats because voters (especially immigrants from Venezuela) responded badly to its praise of socialism. But the Left is in the driving seat—House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused the moderates’ requests to disavow socialism—and Biden’s entire career has been rooted in never being far from where the centre of the party was moving. And the centre of the party is moving leftwards fast.
So the new president is vulnerable to pressure from the woke corporate and cultural Left to push through a radical reform program. If the Republicans have the power to block legislation in Congress, he might then come under stronger pressure from street riots by the Antifa and BLM street Left to go around Congress and push through the reforms by executive orders. In the atmosphere of heightened partisanship of such a constitutional crisis, he would face the temptation to crack down on the wider Trump movement on the internet and on free speech, and in short doing all the things that he’s been accusing Trump of doing for the last four years but which Trump never actually got around to doing.
Would the media, corporate America, the pollsters and Big Tech play along with that? It’s possible. They would guess it was the winning side. On the other hand, they are uneasily aware that before and during the elections their predictions were wrong, their influence on voters was exaggerated, and that they took part in manufacturing a caricature of America as a racist society run on white supremacy. And they would be nervous of the reactions of their electoral victims—the Trump voters who believe he and they were slandered.
Imagine how people on the losing side of the election would feel if they came to believe that Trump was robbed of an electoral victory by a political campaign which had the collaboration of the media, the pollsters and Big Tech; which broke all the rules of electoral fairness and media impartiality; which suppressed legitimate news stories if they seemed likely to help Trump; and which—when their campaign looked as if might fail on the night—embarked on a series of voting abuses to ensure it succeeded by any means necessary. If they did all those, or even that they did all those things except stealing votes, how would people feel?
Michael Anton of the Claremont Institute has pointed out exactly how people will feel: “They will believe, or be confirmed in a belief that’s been brewing for a long time, that the system is rigged, the process is fake, the ruling class are liars, the government is illegitimate, and that they themselves are subjects and not citizens—anything but a free people with a say over its own destiny. If the ruling class can get away with this, they will be able to get away with anything. And they will know it.”
A divided government, a crisis of gridlock, a vengeful McCarthyite Left, street fascists on welfare, a despised bourgeois proletariat that feels despised and cheated—that’s a heady constitutional cocktail. But it lacks a certain something, a dash of tabasco, “that slam-bang tang reminiscent of gin and vermouth”, a New York state of mind.
Enter Donald Trump, tanned, rested and ready. Compared to President Biden anyway.