By Paul Mutter
On 14 December, Democratic Party electors pledged to President-elect Joe Biden met in their state capitols to affirm his win in the 3 November election over incumbent Republican President Donald Trump. Record turnout – over 81 million ballots cast for Biden and 74 million for Trump, the largest totals for any candidates ever to date – demonstrated the high stakes both camps felt going into the contest. Fears of political violence, foreign meddling and pandemic-related disruptions to the process did not materialize thanks to preparations by state and local officials. The election, according to the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, was secure from the spectre of “fraud” raised ahead of it by concerned parties on all sides.
However, what happened next has severely shaken voters’ confidence in the system. President Trump has refused to concede; few observers expect him to ever formally do so, though whether or not he does is irrelevant to the legal outcome. The refusal, evidenced by dozens of (failed) lawsuits, rallies of his most vocal supporters calling for the results to be overturned and intra-Republican infighting where election officials have defended the results against conspiratorial claims and personal attacks, to concede has become more normalised in American politics. Given the popularity President Trump retains among Republican voters, support for his contestation of the results will be a litmus test for years going forward.
While the presidential contest was not close – Mr Biden won by the same number of electoral votes Trump did in 2016, which was hailed as a decisive result at the time despite the closeness of the final tallies in some swing states – other races were. President Trump’s place on the ballot surged turnout for his party, which took a drubbing in the 2018 Congressional midterms when he was not on it. Polling proved to be illusory at the House and Senate levels, where Democratic Party gains fell far short of expectations. There remains an appetite for Mr Trump and “Trumpism” at all levels, and his grip on the party remains as strong in defeat as in victory, if not stronger, since naysayers and critics have departed for other coalitions.
Even as the lawsuits, protests and concerted pressure campaign led by the president himself on state officials to “change” the results, the pandemic that has dominated the final year of President’s Trump term has only worsened. Public health officials maintain that the winter of 2020-2021 will be one of the darkest on record, but the end of the beginning is at hand with the approval and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines underway. The fusion of anti-lockdown, anti-government and anti-science sentiments among a very vocal minority of voters and public officials who blame the pandemic, and the response to it by state officials, for President Trump’s loss will pose a significant challenge to Mr Biden as he inherits Operation: Ward Speed to mass produce and distribute COVID-19 vaccines.
Continuing protests over the election and COVID-19 will not go away when President-elect Biden is administered the oath of office in Washington, D.C. on 20 January 2021. Winter will not be over then and the economy will remain weak absent expanded government spending, which Mr Biden may be hamstrung in achieving depending on the final division of the Senate’s 100 seats between the two parties. And Mr Trump, whether he runs again in 2024 or not, will remain on the sidelines, hectoring the incumbent even as he faces legal and financial woes upon return to private life. Though, for the former president, public and private is a distinction long since collapsed in his politics.
Paul Mutter is a US-based political and security risk analyst.