United States

How Trumpism will continue after Trump

Print edition : December 18, 2020

Supporters of Donald Trump rally outside the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on November 21. Photo: Ben Gray/AP

By the end of the first year of Joe Biden’s presidency, what will be evident is the continuation of much of the Trump agenda and an increase in civil rancour in the U.S.

On January 20, the new President of the United States will be inaugurated. All indications are that it will be Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate who won a majority of the votes and who won a majority in the Electoral College. President Donald Trump refuses to acknowledge the result, arguing that it is mired in voter fraud in various States. Challenges in courts continue, although the likelihood of being able to change the outcome seems impossible. Senior Republican Senators such as Mitt Romney (Utah) and Lamar Alexander (Tennessee) have asked Trump to withdraw and to allow the transition to the next President to continue as normal. But Trump refuses, and he has refused to allow Biden access to crucial government resources (so that Biden has had to fundraise for money to pay for his transition team). Slowly, the U.S. elite is gathering around Biden and will urge Trump to concede the presidency. But only slowly.

Civil War

Trump won almost 74 million votes in this election, only five million fewer than Biden. That is a substantial number of people. Many of these people are loyal Republican voters and not necessarily loyal to Trump himself. However, among the 74 million are a large number of people who are “Trump Republicans” and not Republicans per se, having delivered their loyalty to him personally. These are the large numbers of people who flocked to his rallies despite the pandemic and those who continued to fill his campaign coffers with their funds.

Amongst an embittered middle class, which has seen its “American Dream” overshadowed by globalisation and austerity, there was always a constituency for Trump’s toxicity; this was a constituency that was summoned to be part of the Tea Party in 2009, and was enlivened by Trump’s attacks on Barack Obama during the eight years of that presidency and by Trump’s emergence in the Republican primary in 2015. It was to these voters that Trump spoke on his inauguration in 2017 of an “American carnage” and “rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation”.
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There was the edge of class war in Trump’s message, but—as is common with neo-fascism—the blame for the “carnage” was not to be placed upwards at the propertied, but downwards at the migrants and the social minorities and across the seas to foreign countries. Trump’s harsh tone at Mexico and China defined his views, with nothing said of the immense profits being made by U.S. corporations to the detriment of the U.S. public. It was racism that was the solution to the “carnage”.

Trump’s racist message reached deep into the core of U.S. society, where there lingers an unfinished dispute that has its roots in the genocide of the Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, and the conquest of large parts of Mexico; it has its roots in the expansion of the U.S. state across its own territory, but also down into the Caribbean and Latin America, and across the waters into Asia. The Civil War of 1861-65 went into half-time with the defeat of the Confederacy, whose followers then erected statues of their defeated generals across the U.S. South. That war remains vital to the consciousness of many people, who do not see it as settled. It is out of this deep wound that Trump constructed his base, and it is this base that will refuse to acknowledge his defeat. Dangers of violence have set the alert on high, with a highly armed and politically polarised population unwilling to settle on the fairly clear result of an election. That Trump refuses to concede only stokes the flames higher and suggests a greater possibility of violence from January onwards.

What do ex-Presidents do?

Most of the ex-Presidents go into the shadows, trying to make few political interventions, making considerable amounts of money, playing golf, starting foundations and writing books. During this period, Obama released the latest of his memoirs, A Promised Land, which drips with his typical high-minded evasions. It is easy to fulminate about Trump, who has a nasty demeanour, but this comes at the cost of not acknowledging that during the Obama years (when Biden was his Vice President), the U.S. deepened and started wars (including the destruction of Libya and pioneering drone warfare), developed a harsh immigration policy (including large-scale deportations), and delivered greater economic power to Wall Street and U.S. corporations. There is a moment in the book when Obama reflects on the “kill list”, when his team developed lists of people who could be assassinated by U.S. forces without any due process; of this list, Obama writes that his Chief of Staff knew that “his new, liberal president couldn’t afford to look soft on terrorism”. So, the man who said he was opposed to the death penalty would sit in the Situation Room each month and condemn people to death based on Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and U.S. military intelligence. This was merely for appearances.
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Biden barely appears in Obama’s book. That is interesting given that Biden was his Vice President for all the eight years of the Obama presidency. But this book is not about Biden or even about Obama. It is about trying to make the case for “American exceptionalism” after Trump. The title of the book, A Promised Land, suggests as much, but so does the soaring rhetoric of the book, which digs deep into the clichés of U.S. history to suggest that in the time after Trump the U.S. will resume its exceptional role in the world. This is a long version of Obama’s many famous speeches, where he would dazzle his audience with his charm and his rhetoric, his flourishes about unity and progress. The sound of the drones above Afghanistan and the cries of children at the U.S.-Mexico border were drowned out by those speeches; and this book has that purpose as well.

Trump will likely write his own book (or at least have it ghost-written for him, as his previous books were). His book would likely be less devoted to the protection of the U.S. image of itself and will dip its fingers into the sewers of U.S. power. Trump’s nastiness means that he will want to settle scores, as he does already on Twitter; he will tell tales, including name names of people and their various deeds. He feels like he has been betrayed by the elite in the U.S., which will provoke him to say things that they would not like him to say.

It is likely, as many in the Republican Party indicate, that Trump is holding out from the concession in order to ensure that there will be no investigation of his time in office and of his own financial misdeeds. When these are sorted out with a backroom deal, Trump will head off. He has indicated that he will like to go to television, taking his 74 million voters with him so that he can continue a campaign against Biden during the next four years. There is a debate over whether Trump would host a show on Fox News, with which he has clashed in the last few weeks, or host a show at smaller right-wing channels such as OANN and Newsmax, or whether he will start Trump TV. Most people suggest that Trump will likely go with the show on Fox News, which has the largest audience size (13.7 million viewers on election night) and would allow Trump to be the right-wing of the right-wing Republican Party. He will need to convert his voters into viewers; many of them—devoted to him—will follow him anywhere.
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President Biden will not have an easy time in office. He will have Trump’s armies—a word that should not be used lightly—at his heels and he will have a Republican Senate, led by Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, obstructing his entire agenda (including the ratification of any international treaty, such as on the climate catastrophe). By the end of the first year of Biden’s presidency, it will be evident that much of the Trump agenda will continue and that the civil rancour in the U.S. will only amplify. A weakened domestic scenario will pose challenges for Biden when he tries to rebuild the U.S. alliance with Europe, and when he tries to confront China. Biden will sleepwalk the U.S. government through the next period, as social tensions escalate and deepen. This is not the best time to be the President of the U.S.

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