What Next?

The good news: As of this writing, Joe Biden is poised to win the presidency. The bad news: It was a squeaker.

The depressing truth is that nearly half of the electorate voted to reelect a lying, bullying, ignorant, unqualified, and authoritarian president. I can almost understand the 2016 outcome. Hillary Clinton was a disliked public figure around whom swirled the whiff of scandal. Much of it was manufactured or grossly magnified, but it was there, making it easy for millions to take a chance on the huckster from New York. But, Biden is a likable guy, perhaps the most likable serious presidential contender in recent memory, and Trump nearly won.

What does that say about us? It was possible to excuse Clinton’s loss four years ago on the grounds that she was a bad candidate and Trump was an unknown. Now Trump is a known, and Biden is, well, “nice guy” Joe from Scranton. And, Trump almost won. Plus, many of his sycophants in the Senate cruised to reelection.

Do not get me wrong. A Biden victory, no matter how narrow, is assuredly better than a Trump victory. A second Trump term likely would have meant the end of democracy in America. Trump may be lazy, ignorant, and incompetent, but if he had been granted four more years in the White House, he would have been unfettered by the U.S. Constitution and any annoying laws and institutions. There would have been no limits on his enriching himself, his family, and his cohorts at the expense of the public. His dictatorial tendencies would have been unchecked, and America would have slid into authoritarianism. 

The likely new president and vice president, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris

America bit the bullet, and, happily with Joe Biden at the helm, there will be a free and fair election in 2024. But, the intervening four years will not be pretty. Washington is likely set for a continuation of gridlock with Senator No, otherwise known as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in control of a narrow Republican majority in the Senate. Good luck passing any progressive legislation!

Worse yet, Trump maintains a loyal base of followers, and I will be greatly surprised if he slinks quietly away. No, expect a noisy and disruptive Trump carping on the sidelines, provoking his followers with baseless conspiratorial claims and frequent lies. Despite all the scandals, the impeachment, and a pandemic that has killed more than 230,000 Americans, the incumbent received five-million more votes in 2020 than four years ago and that statistic alone probably will embolden him. Trump often has spoken of starting his own television network to compete with Fox News, with which he has become disenchanted despite its slavish approval of nearly everything he says and does. With more than 80-million followers on Twitter, Trump has a huge audience. That kind public access could make Trump a potential kingmaker within the Republican Party in the future. 

Democracy has survived, but our constitutional system has taken some serious blows and likely will be under attack in coming years. Trump’s assaults on the security of mail-in voting and his legal actions to shut down the counting in states where the results are close has further eroded the trust of his millions of followers in the electoral system. Trump’s actions in the coming days and weeks will only further weaken belief in politics as usual.

Many of Trump’s followers — and those Republicans who hope to gain their support in the future — likely will draw damaging and erroneous conclusions from the closeness of the results. If a racist bully with authoritarian tendencies came within a whisker of winning reelection, might not some Republicans conclude that a bit more racism (perhaps less overt) and a more competent “strong man” would be the ticket to victory in the future? And, given Trump’s disdain for the workings of democracy, might not the next Trumpian politician show even more contempt for what millions of Republicans already believe is a rigged system?

Trump primed the pump for the next authoritarian to appeal to the racism that marks so much of American history and continues to influence its politics and policies. Racism combined with demographic change and a sense of cultural loss apparently trumps the economic interests of millions of voters. The tendency of Trump voters to vote against their own economic needs played out clearly in Miami, where Cuban-Americans sank Biden’s hopes in Florida. Cuban-Americans bought the rightwing’s argument that Biden is a socialist in disguise, so they voted for the candidate whose administration is in court trying to void the Affordable Care Act. The top five ZIP codes for enrollment in the Obamacare marketplace are all in Miami.

Scenarios like that play out throughout Trumpland, from the hollows of West Virginia to the impoverished rural South to the decaying mill towns of the Rust Belt. The volatile mix of cultural resentment, racism, and fear of loss (not to mention the experience of real loss) is ripe for exploitation by the next authoritarian leader. Trump showed the way; a more dedicated authoritarian, one with a coherent message, a bit of discipline, and a knack for organizing may follow in the coming years.

For now, America has survived. Joe Biden will have a tough time, caught between McConnell’s obstruction in the Senate and Trump’s appeals to his millions of supporters via tweet and perhaps his television network. Americans may tire of the gridlock and give Biden a Congress full of progressives in the 2022 midterm elections. Or, perhaps, Americans will grow weary of the endless political inaction and turn to a demagogue who promises to get things done.

After all, Mussolini made the trains run on time!

Posted November 6, 2020

3 Responses to “What Next?

  • Patricia Collins:

    Brilliantly written! We can’t take our democracy for granted which inspires me to continue to support the League of Women Voters, the ACLU, and to be actively engaged in fighting voter suppression.

  • Deborah Smith-Cohen:

    Brilliant, but so sad when I want to savor the fixes that are in reach for a President Biden.

  • Thank you both for your kind comments.