The Post-Trump American Political Landscape

The three months from elections in the USA at the start of November through the first couple of weeks of the Biden presidency in February have been very turbulent, with dramatic changes in the balance of political forces virtually from week to week. Some of these contests have taken place in the courts or in Congress, others in the streets of Washington and in state capitals.

Even in the days just preceding the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President, the storming of the Capitol building by Trump sympathizers left uncertainty over the country’s stability and over the primacy of law. Although the pending impeachment proceedings against Trump mean that the country has yet to turn the page and move on, a return to normality may be approaching, as much as normality is possible in any respect during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

I propose in this brief essay to consider first the most important issue which Donald Trump raised before, during and after the elections, the issue which gave rise to the insurgency in the capital, the issue which he by design does not want to go away:  the legitimacy of the November 4th elections and thus the legitimacy of Biden’s holding power today. There are tactical and strategic sides to this issue.

The tactical dimension is very straightforward:  from even before Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, the Democrats did everything possible, both legal and illegal, both reasonable and insane, to wreck his coming presidency by calling into question his legitimacy. This line of attack was initiated by the Hillary Clinton campaign team, who had already in the summer of 2016 put out the message that Trump was a puppet of Putin. Immediately after the November election, the message of the Democrats changed to alleging an unholy collusion with the Kremlin leader to steal the election in November by hacking into the Democratic National Committee’s computers and feeding to the press dirt on Hillary and her allies. The whole “Russiagate” conspiracy theory, illogical and unproven as it may have been, was launched and expanded upon in January 2017 by release of the equally insane and unproven “Steele Report” that was intended not only to titillate the public by exposing Trump’s alleged sexual adventures in Moscow on earlier business visits but to insinuate that the incoming president would be subject to manipulation by the Kremlin, that he was subject to blackmail as a result of his past misconduct in their back yard.

This campaign to destroy the Trump presidency reached its culmination in the impeachment hearings in Congress of 2019. Trump was impeached but not removed by decision of the Senate. However, he remained under a cloud of suspicion to the end of his stay in office.

What Trump has been doing by his campaign to discredit the 4 November 2020 elections over allegations of voter fraud has been nothing more than paying back the Democrats for their past injuries to himself and his cause.

The strategic dimension, which will be put in play only if Trump passes the currently pending Senate vote on his impeachment and retains his political viability, will be to re-capture Congress in midterm elections of 2022 and possibly to recapture the presidency in 2024 using the argument that Biden and the Democrats are an illegitimate “regime” that came to power on the basis of fraudulent elections.

Is there any truth to Trump’s allegations that the Democrats “stole” the November 2020 elections?

Let me be perfectly clear:  Trump is correct in general but dead wrong on specifics.  He was never a towering intellect and certainly is not such today. His thinking is cloudy, not precise, just as his command of the English language has always been weak.

Trump has insisted that there were procedural violations relating to the mail-in ballots that handed the elections to his opponents. He cited ballots being given out to long dead citizens, the trashing of ballot boxes and other wrong-doing that cost him victory in a number of key states.  These charges were presented to the respective state and federal courts and were all rejected as unfounded.

However, in general, Trump is right that the election was handed to the Democrats when mail-in voting was made universal in the 2020 balloting on the basis of the Covid-19 pandemic entailing confinement and social distancing that would hamper operations at polling stations.  Given that registered Democrats nationally far exceed in numbers registered Republicans, the procedure of automatic dispatch of mail-in ballots to all registered voters meant necessarily a bias in favor of a Democratic victory.

Mail-in voting is a long tradition in the United States, but state by state, it has always been restricted to those who request it and justify their request by specific reasons such as being on out of state travel during election day or having some disability.  The 2020 mail-in ballots were issued without the voter having to raise a finger, meaning that voting was made easier, required less civic engagement than ever before.  This could only favor the majority party, namely the Democrats.  In this sense, yes, victory in the 2020 elections was virtually handed to the Democrats on a silver platter. If such voting procedures are used in 2022 and later, then the United States runs the risk of becoming a one-party state, akin to countries in Central Africa.

The Democrats have from 2016 tried to characterize Donald Trump as a psychologically unbalanced person, as an ugly, self-centered and infantile personality. They have willfully dismissed the merits of the political causes Trump championed as the populist candidate rebelling against the rule of elites in both parties who have during the past 40 years superintended over the sharp concentration of wealth in the hands of the very few and the generalized decline and fall of the American middle class and of unionized labor. Trump argued that the deindustrialization accompanying globalization, the credo of the elites, has brought about national disaster. In his own chaotic way, he earnestly addressed all of these issues in his four years in office. He created great destruction in the federal government and in foreign policy. In fact, this real estate tycoon from Manhattan acted as a revolutionary in power.

It is no wonder then that the Biden presidency represents a Restoration of traditional rule and values. The new president has made every effort to stress that “America is back” both in foreign and domestic policies to where it was before Trump.  But that is no longer possible and the continuing attempts of the Democrats to destroy Trump through impeachment make any return to the pre-2016 bipartisanship impossible. In his favor, thanks to bi-elections for Senate seats in the state of Georgia in early January, Biden enjoys Democratic control of both houses of Congress. But the majority is very slim in both houses and the more contentious Left-leaning legislative initiatives that Biden has in mind will likely not become law due to the failure of Democrats to maintain perfect unity.

We may expect that the new Administration will have greater success in setting a New-Old course in foreign policy, that is taking foreign policy back from “America First” to close collaboration with traditional allies in Europe and Asia.  Europeans have been mildly responsive to the new outreach from Washington. But the genie is out of the bottle: Europeans are turning away from total reliance on the United States for their military security and that trend will not change.

Otherwise, there is full consensus in Congress over the two main competitors/adversaries to the United States in global management, Russia and China. This means that the new Administration will only be changing the conduct of foreign policy towards both at the margins, mostly in terms of atmospherics, with a return to Cold War ideological and “values-led” actions.  

With respect to Russia, the United States under Biden is once again standing on the soap box and speaking in the name of the “Free World” against the supposedly autocratic and expansionist Kremlin. 

What lies ahead with respect to US policy on Russia?

A return to personal vilification of the Russian leader. A return to regime change operations of which the Navalny case is the foremost example as it is now being pressed by US and friendly European diplomacy in a manner reminiscent of the Maidan appearances of Nuland and others to encourage demonstrators to come out onto the streets and to disrupt the daily work of the Russian state. Engines of “orange revolutions” like Freedom House will surely see their budgets and authority in public raised by Biden.

We already see the beginning of a propaganda barrage with the highlighting of the old iconic personalities who are sworn enemies of the Russian state. For the first time in many years Gary Kasparov is being given the microphone for long rants on television against President Putin, against corruption and supposed theft of national wealth.  There will be a lot of such poisoning of the atmosphere.  Sanctions will be focused on individuals said to be supporting the Putin regime, from his trusted collaborators in major domestic projects like Rothenberg to simply successful and very wealthy Russians who have interests abroad.

Meanwhile, we may expect some very constructive and much-needed steps to restore mutual confidence between Russia and the West in the domain of strategic and particularly nuclear weapons. The decision to unconditionally extend for five years the expiring New START treaty is indicative in this regard.  For that small step forward to sanity in global relations we may be thankful.

Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book is Does Russia Have a Future? Reprinted with permission from his blog.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2021