Viewpoint by Joseph Gerson (*) about the US elections and opportunities and challenges that lay ahead.
That was one roller coaster of a week! A nasty four years!
Celebrating Biden’s election with others in my hometown, there was joy as drivers’ faces lit up with smiles, women in hijabs and Central American landscapers gave us thumbs up, and hundreds of car horns rang out in support.
People’s joy was an expression of relief at the anticipated departure of a would-be dictator more than a love for Joe Biden. The African-American commentator Van Jones' tearful words spoke for so many:
"This is vindication for a lot of people who have really suffered…You know, 'I can't breathe?' that wasn't just George Floyd. That was how a lot of people have felt. They couldn't breathe." Hope has been restored to millions of Muslims, immigrants, asylum seekers, people facing pandemic-related evictions and those who understand the urgency of the climate emergency.
With Donald Trump’s misrule for the past four years and his narrow Electoral College defeat last week, the U.S. constitutional democracy suffered what New York Times columnist Timothy Eagan described as “a near-death experience.” Which is not to say that Donald Trump won’t flail with rage and wreak still more death and destruction in the weeks before he is escorted from the White House.
In the run-up to the U.S. election, Daniel Ellsberg, the courageous whistleblower who risked 115 years in prison in the early 1970s for revealing the Pentagon’s secret history of the Vietnam War in his effort to stop the killing, wrote that the country faced “an authoritarian threat to our democratic system of a kind we’ve never seen before.” Despite differing with Biden on many issues, he urged people to vote for Biden “to free the nation from Trump’s unhinged and destructive grip” – not least because four more years of Trump racism and maximizing the use of fossil fuels would be calamitous. “World civilization”, he wrote, “cannot afford another four years of Trump’s presidency”.
Despite the smiles and renewed hope, our flawed democracy remains on life support. Faced with probable continued right-wing extremist control of the Senate that could stonewall Joe Biden’s efforts to successfully appoint a cabinet and block legislation essential for economic and policy recovery the focus of the struggle turns to the two run off senate elections in Georgia. Democratic victories there would result in a 50=50 tie between the two parties, leaving Vice-President Harris votes to tilt the balance of power.
Yet, even if Democrats win control of the senate constitutional democracy will remain at risk. More than 70 million U.S. voters, almost half of the electorate, voted for a man who had lied more than 20,000 times while in office, refused to assume responsibility to contain a virus which has taken a quarter of a million U.S. lives, caged immigrant children, fueled racism, directed militarized violence against peaceful protesters, and packed the courts with right-wing ideologues. Unlike many European leaders, Trump and the Republican senate refused to provide the economic support to keep families in their homes, small businesses afloat, and state agencies that provide essential social services.
Trump’s Failed Coup
With the polls pointing to his imminent defeat, Trump pursued a doomed banana republic “red mirage” strategy designed to secure his autocracy. He prepared the way for a judicial coup with his pre-election claims that he could only lose if the election were rigged and stolen. His campaign urged Republicans to pour into the polls on election day and not to vote by mail. That way their “red” votes would be counted first, and sympathetic judges would halt the counting of predominantly Democratic mail in votes.
With no substantial evidence of voter fraud, Trump’s coup has failed when judges refused to intervene, revealing one more Trumpian fantasy. As states persisted in counting every vote, Biden’s razor thin electoral college victory margin grew to a mandate, reinforcing what may eventually become his six million popular vote margin. Trump is continuing to challenge the election results, but this may be no more than political theater designed to provide cover as he is forced to leave the White House and seeks to continue leading the extremist right-wing movement.
Biden won far more than the 270 Electoral College votes needed to take power, but in some states like Arizona and Nevada he won those votes by extremely narrow margins. This illustrates the nature of the challenge ahead. Had Jo Jorgensen’s Libertarian Party votes (1-2% in most states) swung to Trump, the would-be tyrant would have won four more years to consolidate and exercise his autocratic rule, destroying democratic institutions for decades to come.
A Victory but Not the Battle
A victory, but not the battle, has been won. Now we turn to the demanding work of rebuilding popular support for truth, science and human rights, resuscitating the economy, outlawing voter suppression, ensuring universal access to health care, eliminating Trump’s tax cuts for the 1%, and restoring sanity to the country’s national budget priorities. In addition to tax reform, much of this can be accomplished by reducing massive military spending and making the essential investments in education, social services and green technologies.
Trump, the extremist Republican senate, and their supreme court will do all they can to protect the power and privileges of the wealthiest among us. They will resist these initiatives every step of the way. The challenge for progressives will be to maintain the united front that defeated Trump while pressing appointments of officials not aligned with the Democratic Party’s corporate and military-industrial-complex foundations.
Out of the electoral campaign fog, a number of realities have become clear and need to be addressed:
First, the fascist infrastructure which Trump had urged to “stand by” was not as organized or mobilized as many of us feared. There were disturbing incidents and widespread voter suppression, but thus far threatened right-wing violence has been minimal. Trump’s 50,000 poll “monitors” – including militia members – failed to show up, and national guard troops called up by state governors remained in their barracks.
This is not to say that we can depend on domestic peace prevailing between now, inauguration day, and the months that follow as Trump and his right-wing fanatics rage over their defeat and the election of an African-American/Indian-American woman Vice-President.
Second, contrary to pre-election polling which anticipated an easy Biden victory, Trump performed better than anticipated. He won more votes that any Republican presidential candidate in U.S. history.
With Trump in or out of power, there is no denying that the U.S. has its 21st century Mussolini, and even if he departs the White House, he will not be leaving the political stage. Despite Trump’s murderous and nationally debilitating failures in dealing with Covid-19 and so much more, his base has remained loyal, Not only did a majority of white men vote for the white supremacist, contrary to expectations most white women voters apparently also cast their ballots for the misogynist-in-chief.
Trump once said that he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” This is apparently true, with his racist, authoritarian, and armed militia base serving as the U.S. 21st century reflection of Italian fascism. Biden’s economic policies will be essential to pulling a critical mass of these men and women back from the brink of fascism.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, this election brought us face to face with the undemocratic structural foundations of the U.S. government.
The novelist William Faulkner wrote that “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” More than two hundred years ago leading figures from the colonies that had recently won independence from Britain gathered to write the country’s constitution They were the white male representatives of the landed gentry, land speculators and northern merchants. Back then people identified more with their communities and individual state than with the nation. The constitution was thus written to protect the power and privileges of the southern slave states (slaves were counted as 3/5 of a human being for purposes of representation) and smaller states: Instead of majority rule – even among property owning white men who were deemed sufficiently worthy to vote – the president was to be elected by the unrepresentative Electoral College. Each state – regardless of vast differences in population – was allocated two Senate seats. This now leaves sparsely populated Wyoming with 579,000 residents having the same representation in the senate as California, with its 39,000,000 people.
Not quite a century later, faced with their waning economic and political power, the slave states created a “Confederacy”, attempted to secede from the Union, and lost in a devastating civil war.
The historian David Blight explains that the Confederacy has risen again. Democrats, he wrote, are a loose coalition held together by commitments to inclusion, active government, faith in humanistic and scientific expertise, and an abhorrence of the “monstrous presidency of Donald J. Trump.” With some exceptions, Republicans – the new Confederates – are a “coalition committed to tax reduction, corporate power, anti-abortion white nationalism and “the sheer will for power”.
Today, the political and moral compromises made in 1789, and the revitalized and expanded confederacy that now extends its influence across the south and predominantly rural midwestern states is contesting for power. Even with Biden’s victory, with the new confederacy as its base, the Republican controlled Senate and Supreme Court will severely limit Biden’s efforts to legislate essential economic, social, and climate emergency policies.
Finally, Biden’s election victory will impact U.S. foreign and military, as well as domestic policies. This opens both opportunities and challenges.
While we can cheer that Biden intends to join the Paris Climate Agreement, the military-industrial complex had few worries about a possible Biden victory. Defense News reported that “defense industry executives projected calm ahead of Tuesday’s election." Even as the pandemic and Trump’s gargantuan tax cuts for the wealthy place great pressure on the national budget, and it was anticipated that progressive Democrats in Congress would press for significant Pentagon spending cuts, Defense News reported that “industry is banking on Washington’s drive to prepare militarily for a rising China, a disruptive Russia and an unpredictable North Korea.”
Biden is committed to U.S. hegemony. Like Obama, Clinton, and Trump, he is wed to the “pivot to Asia”, the new military, economic, diplomatic and soft-power Cold War with China. Biden is committed to revitalizing U.S.-European relations and Washington’s military alliances around the world. With the United States building the “quad” – a mini NATO of Japan, Australia, India, and the U.S.– to contain China, like Trump, Biden will support the newly conceived Indo-Pacific alliance structure. That said, his approach to China will be less confrontational than Trump has been. This will include tariffs reductions and pursuing diplomatic openings to prevent future pandemics, to address climate change and proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Given the past four years, there’s no doubt that Biden will reinforce the confrontation with Putin’s Russia. And, despite the priority that will be given to domestically “building back better”, the names being bandied about as likely secretaries of defense (war) and secretary of state demonstrate that a peace dividend is not on our president-elect’s agenda.
That said, Biden will likely extend the New START Treaty with Russia (as Trump could still do) and work to resuscitate the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran. He has signaled an openness to cutting funding for the replacement of land-based ICBM’s and deployment of stand-off cruise missiles. And, like Obama before him, he may press for a no first use nuclear warfighting doctrine in his promised updating of the Nuclear Posture Review.
But Biden is no nuclear abolitionist. The $1.7 trillion upgrading of the nuclear arsenal to reinforce its omnicidal threats and potential throughout the 21st century will likely continue apace. Moreover, the planned and dangerous deployment of new B-61-12 nuclear weapons to Europe will not renew the bonds of the Atlantic Alliance. Spurred by Trump's disregard for Europe and his assaults on NATO, Europeans no long trust the alliance with the U.S., and their elites are in the process of creating an independent, nuclear armed, European superpower.
La Luta Continua
As the Italians say, La Lutta Continua the struggle continues. There is an unfortunate pattern in U.S. political life, whereby community-based Democrats, having made extraordinary efforts to elect a presidential candidate, tend to relax and resume their non-political lives upon his victory. It is not difficult to imagine that as they look forward to the 2022 and to the 2024 election when Biden will be 82 years-old, a Republican senate and supreme court will attempt to block every Biden legislative initiative. challenge many of his executive orders, and then blame Democrats for failing to build back better.
If significant and essential legislative victories are to be won in the coming months and years, liberals and the left need to do all that can be done to ensure that democratic forces prevail in Georgia’s January election.
While the left and liberals debate and contest with one another, the united front of liberals and progressives that won our most recent electoral battle for constitutional democracy must hold together and build on its victory. The forces of white supremacy, authoritarianism and greed will not simply evaporate. If justice is to be restored and the existential threats of the climate emergency and the dangers of nuclear war are to be eliminated, they can only be achieved by means of steadfast and concerted action.
*Dr. Joseph Gerson is President of the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security and Vice-President of the International Peace Bureau.