For many of us, it feels like the impossible has happened: Joe Biden has won the election. Kicking Donald J Trump out the Oval Office after just one term, the American people have spoken, and they sound exhausted.
The divisive rhetoric, the fired-up chants at rallies and the promises of endlessly lower taxes that convinced some people to go to the ballot box for Trump in 2016 have been replaced by a singular desire to “return to normalcy”. Biden, the “empathy candidate”, campaigned hard on the idea of “healing the nation” — and it seems that paid off. So the question is: What now?
First of all, Donald Trump has made it clear he isn’t going down without a fight. When he appeared in the early hours of Wednesday morning to baselessly claim he had won the election, he looked like he believed it. But by Wednesday afternoon, that had all changed.
Fox News pundits were muttering darkly about “the Democrats deliberately causing chaos” and claiming that “windows were taped up” to prevent the public from watching the vote count in Detroit (they weren’t.) Kayleigh McEnany tweeted that the president had won Pennsylvania, despite the fact that nowhere near enough votes had been counted.
Read more: Follow live updates on the 2020 election
The Trump team then said they were suing to stop further ballots from being counted in the state. Eric Trump and Rudy Giuliani announced, cancelled, un-cancelled, then appeared at an event in Philadelphia where they repeated that line, saying “dead people” had voted even suggesting that Biden himself might have voted 5,000 times.
At the same time, they were demanding that more votes be counted — and quicker — in states the president appeared behind in. The Philadelphia mayor responded on Friday morning by telling the president to “put his big boy pants on” and admit defeat.
Put simply, the Trump team were in panicking freefall from Tuesday night onwards. And in their panic, they were putting into action an emergency plan — badly. This was going to go all the way to the Supreme Court. The lawsuits can now rumble on. But it’s unlikely anything will come of them; many have been dismissed already.
When Trump himself appeared on Thursday night to rant again about stolen ballots and illegal elections, he looked defeated and small. That “win” in Pennsylvania wasn’t going well. Rudy Giuliani started putting out bizarre YouTube videos about election conspiracy theories around the same time on Friday afternoon that Trump began turning on his former cheerleaders at Fox News for honestly reporting state figures. A few hours later, Biden pulled ahead — and then, on Saturday, a victory in Philadelphia handed him the election. Trump was golfing at the time.
It seems clear that Donald Trump will be claiming he won the 2020 election forever. But it is the Republican Party who should be really worried now. Their kowtowing to the right’s worst excesses has been damaging enough that many lifelong Republicans ended up casting their ballots for the other party. The Mitch McConnells of this world need to think about what they stand for, as they contemplate how to continue their own careers out of the shadow of their increasingly unstable-seeming former leader.
The simple fact is that these GOP stalwarts allowed their party’s reputation as the “steady hand” to do a complete 180. No doubt there will be many meetings about damage control this week, and that “Tucker Carlson 2024” idea being bandied around by Trump enthusiasts as recently as a few days ago will most likely be quietly neutered. Expect a well-known establishment figure like Mitt Romney to stand for the party in the future instead.
It’s worth bearing in mind that it’s much more unusual for a president to be voted out after a single term than it is for him to win a second term. In living memory, only Jimmy Carter (in 1981) and George H W Bush (in 1993) have run for re-election and lost; both were presiding over a struggling economy at the time. “It’s the economy, stupid,” that zombie political phrase, can be traced back to a strategist working on the Bill Clinton campaign that deposed Bush Sr.
Little wonder, then, that even with an economy in recession because of coronavirus, Trump kept banging the drum of “the greatest economy of all time”. He’s always been excellent at getting his most ardent supporters to believe that black is white and up is down simply by shouting it loud enough — but this time, it seems his version of reality was a little too much of a stretch.
So what went wrong for the president who could still pack out rallies during a pandemic? Well, the fact that coronavirus rates were soaring in rural areas as people went to the polls will have undoubtedly disadvantaged Trump, who openly opposed lockdown orders and dabbled in Covid-19 conspiracies.
Pundits talked recently about the “K-shaped” graphs in the US which showed two separate, opposite-trending lines from the improving urban areas and the rural districts where cases have begun to explode. Hospitals filling up in their districts probably made Trump’s bungled handling of the pandemic all the more obvious to those coveted swing voters unsure about whether to back him again.
It’s fair to say that the President’s loss won’t be a huge surprise to everyone working for his campaign. One campaign insider reportedly told the Washington Post reporter Ashley Parker, “If you put a gun to my head, I’d say, ‘Shoot’” five days out from election day. The fact that the President was surrounded by “yes-men” and unwilling to look at unpalatable data may mean that he’s the only one truly stunned by this result.
Of course, it will also have contributed to his demise: If he’d paid attention when there was time to do anything about it, he might have been able to turn an ailing campaign around. No doubt he’ll be raging about how the election was “stolen” from him for decades, nevertheless. And no doubt he’ll make the next three months — the so-called lame duck session before Biden takes the presidential oath on January 20th — particularly difficult for his successor, as well as for the public who voted him in.
Not every Democrat will be celebrating today. There was an appetite among many blue-voting progressives to bring in a “burn it all down” candidate like Bernie Sanders to challenge Trump, someone who might have been a little more inspirational and energetic and a little less like a kindly grandfather who means well but doesn’t always get it right. Anecdotal evidence suggests there is significant overlap between those who got fired up for Bernie and those who turned to Trump in 2016: the white working class men who felt “left behind”, for instance, and who liked the Vermont senator’s cut-through-the-bullcrap delivery and unapologetically bold policies.
Biden will have to deal with the increasingly vocal wing of his party who still think the system desperately needs to change — the AOCs, the Ilhan Omars, the Elizabeth Warrens, the Julian Castros — while balancing their needs with the needs of the “shy Trump voters” who turned to him after being put off the Republican candidate’s unpresidential behavior. Those populating the Lincoln Project are a far cry from those who want Medicare-for-All, and keeping both of those important demographics happy will be a delicate balancing act for President Biden over the next four years.
However, even those of us who would have sold our souls for a selfie with Warren still ended up dancing round our home offices to the “Biden and Kamala 2020” Spotify playlist as the election loomed (no? Just me?) The simple fact that Trump could be rejected by the people feels revolutionary today. Over the preceding four years, it sometimes felt like far-right divisiveness and Fox News-sponsored sensationalism was an inevitability.
Trump avoided any tangible consequences from his own impeachment; he trampled over precedent established by his own party when he rushed through the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett just one week before election day; he won the backing, whether reluctantly or not, of the Republicans in the Senate again and again.
Today, however, he lost the faith of everyday Americans. And there’s no coming back from that.
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