by Jonathan Lee
First, the good news: Donald Trump has been kicked out of the Oval Office.
The proto-fascist, far-right enabling, climate change denying, racist, misogynist is out. The man who held up a mirror to the worst of America, and gave old fashioned racists all the encouragement they needed to express themselves publicly, has been finally removed through the United State’s idiosyncratic, pseudo-democratic electoral process. Barring civil unrest and armed militias causing problems in the transition period, he will be gone in a matter of months.
His departure leaves a nation more divided than possibly any other time in living memory, with Trump receiving only marginally fewer votes than Biden, and the second highest number of popular votes in American history. Liberals crying “how could this happen?”, “how could so many people still vote for him?” demonstrate that the Trump presidency apparently did nothing to shatter the American illusion among its citizens, and that many have just not been paying attention to anything which has happened since 2016 (or even before then).
The USA was always racist
The United States, a country built by slaves and founded on White Supremacy, has always had the kind of racism which Trump made visible running through its heart. This was revealed in 2016, to the horror of many a well-meaning, if oblivious, liberal American. The America they knew and loved was gone and had been replaced with something they were horrified to learn had always been there under the surface. All this has seemingly been forgotten in 2020. Despite the Black Lives Matter movement drawing public attention to police brutality and institutional racism, despite the public rise of far-right street movements, liberal anguish at the turnout in favour of Trump shows us once again that the American mainstream centre (such as it is) has failed to learn anything from the past four years.
Trump was the devil we know. For all his faults he was nothing if not predictably selfish, and his brand of divisive, populist politics was obvious and in your face. Joe Biden represents a different side of America, one the rest of the world are more used to but nonetheless have reason to be apprehensive about. For Donald and Joe are different sides of the same quarter. Where Trump basically looks after his own interests at the expense of everyone else, Biden will look after the interests of neoliberal America. It’s true Joe Biden will not embolden racists in the same way that Trump has, and he will at least make a cursory gesture towards addressing the looming climate disaster by rejoining the Paris Agreement. But that’s pretty much where the cause for celebration ends.
Biden, as a continuity candidate, continues a pretty lousy tradition
‘More of the same’ is virtually Biden’s only card, and he has built his entire electoral platform on ‘more of the same’, or rather ‘back to the same’ politics. The seemingly unreformable Democratic Party have shunned the growing progressive movement within the party ranks in favour of an old neo-liberal. He may use some of the language of the progressive left, but he is just as beholden to the billionaire class as any of his predecessors. Arguably Biden was a last resort candidate, the final line of defence which could hastily be thrown up by those in the party who were uneasy about a growing number of social democrats coming through the party ranks and threatening its accepted liberal creed.
While they have narrowly succeeded in turning the 2020 election into a referendum on Donald Trump (rather than provide a credible alternative to Trump’s brand of politics), the Democrats have refused to acknowledge the root causes which led to Trump’s populist movement. Joe Biden is every bit the type of politician who Trump so successfully railed against for many years.
they have narrowly succeeded in turning the 2020 election into a referendum on Donald Trump (rather than provide a credible alternative to Trump’s brand of politics)
Commentators who describe him as a unity figure who will bring progressives in the party together with the traditional so-called centrists are either thoroughly disingenuous, or blind to the lurch to the right that Trump has initiated in US politics. Biden’s return to the liberalism of Obama, or even Bill Clinton, only seems a progressive shift to liberals who were always positioned on the global economic right anyway. In fact, Biden represents the perfect antidote for anxious big business investors. He promises continued neoliberalism and a return to the natural order of things, while at the same time paying lip service to a New Deal of reforms and public spending, drawn straight from FDR’s playbook. But his ambitious reform programme is incongruous with his billionaire backing and his promises made to the capitalist class. The clearest of these promises came last June, when he told a room full of his wealthiest donors “I need you very badly”, promising that if elected President “no one’s standard of living will change, nothing fundamentally would change.” Biden doubled down on this, undermining his own reform package promises, when he told his Wall Street donors that he will introduce no new legislation to rein in or change corporate power in America. Biden may not run the country like his private empire, as Trump has done, but he has taken many favours from corporate America to get where he is, favours which must surely be returned during his presidency.
Kamala to the rescue?
If Biden is the capitalist shill who offers nothing more than a return to austerity and neoliberal misery, then surely his running mate Kamala Harris is the “pragmatic progressive” who will shore up his presidency? Probably not.
Kamala Harris, who is often somewhat racistly referred to as the ‘female Obama’, has a chequered record during her time as District Attorney of San Francisco and Attorney General of California. Like Obama, there is something of a discrepancy between her political rhetoric and actual actions. A somewhat forgiving analysis of her political career would paint her as at best a political opportunist, who sometimes aligns with progressive issues but refuses to take a stand on big issues like criminal justice reform, drug decriminalisation, and the death penalty. Frequently she has campaigned to the right of Republicans on these issues, while taking a contradictorily opposite position on individual cases when they arise. After coming relatively unexpectedly to the position of running-mate for the Biden campaign, she has been heralded by many as a progressive representative to accompany the ‘party man’ Joe Biden. However her credentials as the first woman, and first woman of colour, holding the post of Vice President are by no means indicative of any intention to make seismic changes in the way politics are run in America.
a political opportunist, who sometimes aligns with progressive issues but refuses to take a stand on big issues like criminal justice reform, drug decriminalisation, and the death penalty.
Harris, like Biden, closely aligns with the Democratic foreign policy begun under the Obama administration which brought military interventions in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, as well as a continuation of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither Harris nor Biden have committed to any meaningful de-escalation of US military commitments.
A return to neo-colonial militarism
For all of Donald Trump’s many faults, he did not start any new conflicts abroad.
He has, on balance, over the length of his presidency, reduced the numbers of US troops abroad and has largely held true to his promise: “the world must know that we do not go abroad in search of enemies.” But by and large, America does not need to send US soldiers abroad anymore. Trump has built on Obama’s drone programme, which extrajudicially kills suspected members of terrorist organisations, and has increased its capacity a hundred fold. More people were killed by drone strike in the first two years of the Trump presidency than all eight years of Obama’s. It is unlikely this will be curtailed under a Biden presidency.
President Biden’s promise to represent a continuation of the old regime will not be a comfort therefore for those in regions which remember all too well America’s particular brand of aggressive freedom, one which most frequently came in the form of bombs falling from the sky. It is a political falsehood that the Democrats are not also ‘the party of war’, and America’s neo-colonial interests compel it to continue military conflicts small and large across the globe in tandem with trade and soft power flexings of the world’s last remaining empire. This is the tradition which Joe Biden represents, though not often expressed in these terms.
Where next, as lessons go unlearned?
Few would envy the new president’s job (well, with one obvious exception). Biden’s presidency will not be an easy ride, and will be made even more difficult if the Democrats fail to take control of the Senate in January. Joe Biden now faces the daunting task of rebuilding confidence in the United States on a world stage, which has been sorely tested by four years of President Trump and more recently by an embarrassing display of how-not-to-do-democracy at the elections. Notwithstanding the healing of diplomatic relationships abroad, the politico-cultural chasm which has split the American electorate in half will be waiting for him back home.
sorely tested by four years of President Trump and more recently by an embarrassing display of how-not-to-do-democracy at the elections.
His time in office will also be spent contending with the global economic recession, brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic; while at the same time he will also have to find a way of dealing with the alarming public health situation in the US which Trump has largely played down, to the glee of his Q-Anon supporting, ‘plan-demic’ believing base.
What is perhaps most concerning is the feeling that, in Biden, the Democrats are sleepwalking towards another spectacular electoral failure further down the line. The political rupture which occurred in 2016 is still unhealed to this day, and all bets are off on what will happen in the next four years under President Biden. However, a return to the good-old days of runaway free-market capitalism, austerity, inequality, and warmongering seems like a bad strategy; one which only sets the stage for the next populist strong-man to sweep the polls. And if the next far-right populist is even slightly more competent than Trump was, we may find them far more difficult to remove than their predecessor.
Featured image CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Geoff Livingston
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