‘T’was the night before Christmas’

The election was clearly a popular referendum on Trump and not necessarily on Trumpism, writes William Milam

‘T’was the night before Christmas’
"When all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse; the stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicolas soon would be there; the children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads...”

South Asians may not be as familiar with those immortal lines as Americans are; I find I can recite many of the lines without reference to Google because they are so embedded in my memory from my own childhood. This poem, by an author I do not remember without the aid of Google, Clement Clark Moore, will probably stick with me until I am no longer functional, one of only a few other poems that I remember from my childhood when my mother read poetry to me and my brothers. I was an innocent then, who still wondered if Santa Claus really existed, an agnosticism I could not shake until about the age of five or six when I started school. But when my mind wandered to those halcyon days and the poem about Santa this morning, its metaphor of our present politics struck me. To readers who may have thought that this essay would be some nostalgic rambling evocation of the good old days of childhood, stay tuned; it is really an introduction to another essay on the very grim current politics of our present and our possible future.

The metaphor is easily worked out: here we are—America and its many friends in the world—waiting for our political Santa to bring the sugar plums we have dreamed about for four years, the virtues of normalcy, empathy, efficiency, and perhaps most importantly, truth, back to our politics and our life, on January 20 when he is inaugurated as President of the United States. In fact, we hope that Joe Biden, from the moment he becomes President, will restore those virtues and more, after four years of self-indulgent, narcissistic, self-aggrandizing, inept, corrupt, and untruthful leadership that has left the America’s reputation badly tarnished abroad, its polity seriously and almost evenly split, and its security compromised. But, in fact, while I am sure Biden will try to bring back all of these virtues, which he, himself, embodies, our future is fraught with difficulties, and it is not certain that he can, like Santa, deliver those sugar plums we all dream about.

The election was not as close as some Republicans like to make out; Biden won by about 7 million popular votes, 81 million to Trump’s 74 million, a 51-47 gap, about four percentage points. But it was not as definitive as the anti-Trump movement had hoped; while Trump lost by a larger margin that has been usual in recent years, the Republicans down ballot, Senators, House members, state legislators, did very well against their Democratic opponents. The Democrats lost seats in the House, although they retained their majority, and now have a much slimmer margin; and they picked up only two seats in the Senate, many fewer than most prognosticators predicted, and need to win the two runoff elections in Georgia to control it. It is a remarkable contradiction that the candidate who won the Presidency had shorter coattails, and that the one who lost by four percentage points pulled many of his Republican colleagues into the victory column. The election was clearly a popular referendum on Trump, and not necessarily on Trumpism, and an indication that straight party-line voting is no longer inevitable.

The questions then about Biden’s ability to bring back these virtues, really about whether he will succeed in restoring much, if not all, of US influence in the world, but also in pushing an ambitious agenda of domestic reform and rebuilding, on which that increasing that influence will depend, revolve around several interwoven issues. First, will the Democrats manage to win those two Georgia runoff elections mentioned above? Second, if they don’t win both Senate seats in Georgia, will he able to establish some rapport with the few remaining non-Trumpian Republican Senators to push through enough of his economic agenda to give the Democrats a chance to take the Senate in the 2022 off-year election? Third, an even more important issue is whether the Republican Party retains its hard shell authoritarian nature that Trump imbued it with or softens to a more pliable opposition as Trump fades from the scene? Fourth is the related question of whether Trump will fade from the scene because of his age, his coming legal difficulties, and the potential weakening of the passion that much of the Republican base has for him; and fifth, whether Biden’s own party will remain solidly behind him or, because of the divide between the moderate and the progressive factions, begin to form a circular firing squad as Democrats are historically wont to do.

It will be quite a feat if Democrats can win both Senate seats in Georgia, but stranger things have happened. The Democrats are blessed by the fact that both the Republican candidates are severely flawed. But flawed candidates have never been a problem for Republicans in Georgia before. Georgia is one of the states in which Republicans have always relied on voter suppression, and Georgia Republicans are very practiced at it. But a very dynamic African-American woman named Stacey Abrams has led a movement in Georgia for the last decade to overcome that roadblock, and has added hundreds of thousands of voters to the rolls. It is due to her efforts that there are runoffs for these Senate seats. The races will be decided by turnout, and Democratic voters must turn out as they did on November 3 if they are to win. It is possible that Trumps rants against mail-in votes and his insistence on voter fraud will depress the Republican turnout. The races must be close as I am receiving about three emails a day from the Democratic candidates requesting money.

The other issues that will affect Biden’s ability to succeed are basically intertwined with how the two major parties evolve in the next two years. On the Republican side, what role, if any, Trump plays in the Republican Party is the key factor. It seems that he still has political ambitions, and that he may be aiming at a comeback in 2024. Several things stand in his way—his age, the likelihood that he will face some heavy legal problems once he is out of office, the fact that ambitious Republican leaders are lining up already for a try at their party’s nomination in 1924, and they will go to great lengths to get Trump out of the picture, and a factor I only suspect, that his continuation of his crusade to overturn Biden’s election when all hope should have ended, and his continuation to the bitter end, is making him look clownish. Slowly he is turning, in the eyes of his devoted base, from a heroic Don Quixote to a misguided kamikaze.

If Trump does retain a major role in the Republican Party, it will be because his base has remained unbroken and loyal. In that case, he will continue to control the party through fear. This is how Trump has kept the party in line for the past four years. It is clear that his main focus would be on undermining Biden at every turn using, for the most part Republican Senators and House members. This will mean that Biden will have to spend much energy and time keeping his own party together and finding policies that could attract a few Republican Senators so he can try to retake the Senate and increase the party’s margin in the house. He needs control of both houses of Congress to enact the Roosevelt-like reform and rebuilding agenda that he hopes to leave as his legacy.

If Trump is in charge of the Republican Party, the issue of the nature of the party, is not worth discussing. We know what Trump’s aims will be and we will also know that politics in the US has failed and authoritarianism is dangerously close. If Trump is out of the picture, then the nature of both the Republican and the Democratic Parties are the major issue. I wrote in my most recent piece that a Trumpless Republican Party would probably remain authoritarian, and that it would be dangerous if it were elected again. But there is also the possibility that it might resemble the Know Nothing party the 1850s and break up. That would leave space for the non-Trumpian Republicans who left the party to form a new moderate Center right party, which could draw from the few remaining Republican moderates and, ironically, from the moderate side of the Democratic Party.  In the end, whether Joe Biden can deliver the sugar plums we dream of may determine the direction of politics in America for a long time.

The writer is a diplomat, and is Senior Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.