America vs. America

Without a clear winner, it was an election that did not produce catharsis; the outcome could be determined in court.

The winner of the presidential election, whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden, will have to govern a country in which nearly half the electorate sees him as illegitimate. Trump may leave, but Trumpism will remain. Monumental internal divides will continue to determine the country’s politics.

“It just won’t be so exhausting. You might be able to have a Thanksgiving dinner without having an argument.” Barack Obama’s optimism during a campaign speech in support of former Vice President Biden looks like a broken promise. A Biden win after a surprisingly competitive election will do little to calm a divided country that is everything but at peace with itself.

It isn’t clear who won the Nov. 3 election. Several crucial swing states will complete their count in the coming hours or days. What is clear is that an electoral verdict is likely to be determined by the courts, and that America’s wounds will not heal. On the contrary, it is likely that the election will exacerbate those wounds. The winner, whoever he might be, will govern a country in which he is not seen as legitimate by half the population. Trump might leave but Trumpism will remain, and so will the deep, militant divisions affecting the country’s politics.

It Could Have Been Different

The polls were wrong again. The Biden wave never came, because Trump expanded his 2016 electorate by the millions. A record-breaking turnout did not produce a “blue wave” — not for the White House, not for the Senate, not for the House of Representatives. Congress will remain divided, and the new president will be unable to create meaningful change.

The worst election predictions are coming true. There is no winner yet, but Trump proclaimed himself the victor before results were received from key swing states. He alleged fraud in alarmist language and despite a lack of evidence.

Biden said, “We are going to win this race.” A decision by the Supreme Court could be the final word in this election. It looks more and more likely; the late counting of mail-in ballots is resulting in a challenge to earlier results.

Despite the unknowns, some trends are clear, regardless of the winner. There will be no large shifts in domestic policy. Democrats control the House and control of the Senate will remain in Republican hands. The Supreme Court has several Trump appointees. If Biden becomes the 46th president, then foreign policy will change, but in style rather than substance. Yes, America will rejoin its allies, but it will also continue to look inward and focus on China, while mostly ignoring Europe.

The reelection of Trump would have meant more of the same, quite literally “four more years,” one of Trump’s slogans. With the economy in a downward spiral, a second Trump term could mean cabinet changes as well as the replacement of Federal Reserve Chairman Jeremy Powell. However, Biden could also replace Powell.

Why Were the Polls Wrong?

After the massive sociological failure of 2016, the polling industry spent considerable time analyzing what went wrong and why it missed Trump’s surprising victory over Hillary Clinton. Four years later, Biden was even farther ahead. Many news outlets highlighted the difference between 2016 and 2020, and claimed that 2016 would not be repeated.

Well, it is 2016 all over again. Hours after the polls closed, it was clear that the “blue wall” might be in need of repair. Trump quickly won Florida; Texas failed to turn blue; while Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, North Carolina and Nevada — all states in which the polls showed Biden safely ahead — were within the margin of error. Could the polling industry ever be trusted to understand the electorate of an unconventional candidate like Trump?

Much like 2016, when the Democratic candidate won the popular vote by a comfortable margin but lost the Electoral College, the American system is likely to produce a winner based on a few thousand votes from a few key states. This could cause anger on either side: Whoever loses will have a reason to disavow his defeat. Trump and his base will refuse to concede. The president has already declared victory. Biden and the Democrats will not accept a second Trump term decision by the Supreme Court, with a winning margin of the popular vote for Biden in the millions.

Store owners have boarded up their windows, expecting civil unrest. They remember the summer, when George Floyd’s murder caused protests, arson, looting and a sense that the “united” in USA no longer has meaning.

Trump More Popular in 2020 than in 2016

The big polling error resides in Trump’s larger electorate; he has already received 66 million votes — 3 million more than in 2016. This margin may increase; votes are still being tallied.

This goes against conventional logic. The last four years brought investigations, criticisms, gaffes and scandals, absurd moments and a consistently scathing portrayal by the media. Yet those years also included legislative victories, a strong economy before COVID-19, the approval of hundreds of lower-court judges and three Supreme Court justices and a transformation of American foreign policy. Trump did deliver on a significant number of his promises. He also kept his biggest promise: to be an unconventional politician who would shake up Washington. Trump’s actions and his attitude made him dangerous to his opponents and adored by his supporters.

Trump’s margins among African Americans and Latinos increased in 2020. His vote totals among Cuban Americans grew substantially: The swing state of Florida was made to look as reliably Republican as Texas.

Pollsters’ latest mistake is the analysis of the campaign’s final weeks. Trump became ill with COVID-19 and spent several days in a hospital bed. Yet, immediately after his discharge, he resumed rallies around the country, including visiting different states on the same day. Loved or hated, the 74-year-old Trump remained an unrelenting politician whose visits to crucial battleground states have surely had an effect on his currently close chance of reelection and have staved off or delayed the predicted blue tsunami carrying Biden to victory.

Limits to Biden’s Governing

If Biden wins, he will be unable to bring about radical change. The polls were also wrong about the Senate. Instead of a Democratic majority, it is likely there will be no change, except for a few changed seats. A hostile Republican Senate will block the policy proposals of Biden and Kamala Harris and severely constrain their ability to appoint liberal judges. However, after the election, Team Biden could unveil a new COVID-19 strategy, as well as a national quarantine, which Trump opposed. Yet even this will be difficult: Many Americans are likely to refuse a vaccine and to see wearing a mask as a surrender of their freedom.

A Biden administration would look to change policy in energy, climate, health care, tax policy, social programs and more. But with a divided Congress and a lack of common ground between Republicans and Democrats, there is little room for bipartisanship.

A Biden presidency will be important to the country’s foreign policy. The relationships of United States with its allies has deteriorated since 2017 — from South Korea to Turkey to Germany. NATO’s future is uncertain; Trump continues to insist that NATO’s member-states significantly increase their defense spending to be on parity with that of the US. It is unclear how Biden will deal with China; Trump would surely continue his hostile approach to the world’s second largest economy.

Biden’s most achievable goal could be a return to political normalcy and conventional presidential behavior, both at home and abroad. Trump’s policies have never been as polarizing as his conduct. Biden is not an inspiring or a captivating politician (especially now as a 78-year old) but he has been a senator and vice-president and remembers the older days of greater civility in politics. Biden’s greatest strength is that he is not Trump. Hours after the end of election day, it is still unclear if that will be enough to propel him to the White House.

A Biden victory would not erase the realities of a country in which the root causes of Trumpism are here to stay: political polarization, blue collar anger, the hollowing out of the middle class, the cultural chasms between left and right, the spread of disinformation, and the threat of a resurgent China. Edward Luce of the Financial Times said it best: “A vaccine will not suddenly banish the pandemic. Nor would Trump’s defeat magically bring an end to Trumpism.”

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