America’s founding fathers didn’t anticipate a situation where a president refuses to accept the election results — the US Constitution has no directives for what must be done in such a circumstance.
President-elect Joe Biden has promised “healing” and a vision that goes beyond “blue states and red states” to one encompassing the United States. Presiding over what is arguably the most polarized western democracy today, the words seem both wishful and wistful.
Biden may well be governing the “blue” half of America for the most part, encumbered as he will likely be by a Republican-controlled Senate. Red America will be snapping at his heels, seeped in theories and fears about where the country is headed. The new president is likely to govern more via executive orders than getting legislation through Capitol Hill.
Divisions at home weaken America’s hand abroad. Friends and foes have had a ringside view as the country went through a summer of discontent and the two halves grew angrier at each other. It might seem odd for Biden to convene a conclave of democracies as one of his first foreign policy initiatives when Americans at home are bitter and more divided than ever.
American democracy is picking at its own seams as is India for that matter. There is no overwhelming outside threat — China is not quite like the Soviet Union and the Cold War as yet — to force unity at home and discipline abroad.
The 2020 presidential election has only cemented the divide. Outgoing president Donald Trump’s performance once again exceeded expectations of pollsters and pundits and sternly pointed to the extreme political bifurcation. It should force a reckoning with the two distinct mental worlds Americans inhabit whose “facts” and problems are different and solutions even more so.
Trump, running on a four-year record declared dismal by judges, managed to get 10 million more votes (73 million) in 2020 than in 2016 while Biden got 78.5 million votes. Both set records. In the simplest terms, it means that almost half of America thought four more years of Trump was a fine idea.
It also proved that Trump’s victory in 2016 wasn’t a historical accident. That it is perfectly plausible to dislike Trump the man but still appreciate his policies.
Trump has now definitively tapped into the country’s veins twice and drawn blood and advantage. Despite the media painting him as a xenophobe, a racist and the most anti-woman president in history, he improved his vote share with Latinos, African Americans and even Indian Americans.
His campaign understood a host of cultural and political issues that motivate minority voters better than Democrats did. Immigration and religion play differently for different people. Latinos are deeply Christian, for example, and don’t buy the Democratic Party positions wholesale. Not all Blacks support generous immigration policies irrespective of the soaring rhetoric around America being a nation of immigrants.
Trump did not win the presidency but carried enough sway for Republicans riding on his coattails to win more seats in the House of Representatives and possibly retain control of the Senate.
As Democrats do another round of deep soul searching, a mini civil war is already underway between the progressive and moderate wings over who’s to blame for the less than sterling performance in the House and Senate races.
Was it the Left’s slogan of “Defund the Police” or was it Trump’s label of “socialism” that stuck, or was it the summer of violence in the big cities that Trump relentlessly blamed on the “radical left” which cost them dear? Thus far, humility is not an ingredient in the postmortem exercises.
If there is hyper-polarisation at the national level, there is an increasing distance between younger Democrats who speak the language of “social justice” and the more centrist kind whose voters don’t live on Twitter but in distant, drab communities. Dialogue among Democrats themselves seems increasingly difficult, leave alone finding common cause with Republicans for the healing to start.
It’s not as if the Republicans are in a mood to extend the hand of friendship either. The party of Lincoln has slow marched to becoming the party of Trump, old-school bipartisanship is absent and humiliating a Democratic president is a contact sport. And calling Trump out on even the most egregious actions is a vote-losing proposition.
Republicans haven’t forgiven Democrats for doubting Trump won in 2016 by largely fair means — the so-called Russian collusion or Facebook posts turned a few hundred votes at best. “Not my president” was a common chant at anti-Trump rallies in 2017. Now Trump is determined to sow enough doubt in the minds of his supporters about the legitimacy of Biden’s election.
The divide is real and deep but the reasons are old and many — decades of cultural, racial, economic and geographic divisions have solidified enough to determine party allegiance even if it means going against your own economic interests. Trump supporters believe Obamacare robs them of choice of doctors even if it gives them access to healthcare.
And mainstream media looks suspiciously at Trump as he tries drive down prescription drug prices. The narrative is not how great it might be for the average person but how terrible that he is doing it in the last weeks of his presidency.
Traditional and social media platforms multiply these divisions whether driven by a false sense of “objective” journalism or by the bottom line of corporate profit.
It would be innocent to assume a Biden Administration can break the cycle of toxicity. He is, however, trying to set a calmer tone and bring down the temperature but Trump is equally determined in his quest to prove the election was “stolen” from him and muddy the waters.
America’s founding fathers didn’t anticipate a situation where a president refuses to accept the election results — the US Constitution has no directives for what must be done in such a circumstance. While the Constitution doesn’t require a sitting president to make a concession speech, his term is deemed over once the results are officially certified.
The courts have thrown out Trump’s many lawsuits, finding no evidence of widespread voter fraud or intimidation as his lawyers half-heartedly claimed. The lawyers haven’t given up — Trump wants to keep the pot boiling and his base excited. Emails are landing by the dozens on a daily basis asking for donations.
The efforts are a waste of time and money both of which could be better deployed to burnish Trump’s legacy. Instead, the world is a forced eyewitness to the ultimate American horror show.
Polite smiles and gritted teeth may not be enough as the slow crawl to the mid-day hour on 20 January continues — the date when Biden would be sworn in and Trump would simply stop being president at noon.
Biden will then embark on the long list of tasks — curbing the pandemic, restoring economic health, talking to Trump supporters, building bridges, fashioning an acceptable immigration policy, re-entering the Paris climate agreement, assuaging the Europeans, crafting a credible China policy, engaging Iran, fencing off Al-Qaeda/ISIS/terrorists, putting a leash on big tech and on and on.
And he will be the oldest president to take office — Biden turned 78 this past week.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.
Seema Sirohi is a columnist based in Washington DC. She writes on US foreign policy in relation to South Asia. Seema has worked with several ...Read More +