Leader: After Trump

Joe Biden’s victory was rightly celebrated but the Democrats must avoid nostalgia for the age of liberal triumphalism.

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For years, as he was derided by foreign leaders, Donald Trump consoled himself with the belief that he retained the support of the American people. But on 3 November a majority of them turned against him. Joe Biden’s election victory was not emphatic but it was decisive: he won five million more votes than Mr Trump and is projected to win 306 electoral college votes (the same number as the incumbent president in 2016).

Mr Trump’s defeat was deservedly celebrated across the world. During his time in office, he defended white supremacists, indulged despots, empowered conspiracists and celebrated police brutality. His refusal to concede defeat – and his demand that democratic votes should not be counted – was another mark of why he is unfit to hold the presidency.

Mr Biden has vowed to restore civility to US political culture and to lead “not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example”. The world should welcome a leader who puts his faith in multilateral institutions, rather than haphazard unilateralism. Under Mr Biden, the US will rejoin the Paris agreement on climate change, end its planned withdrawal from the World Health Organisation and seek to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal, which is supported by the UK and the EU.

The Democratic candidate’s victory has been widely described as disastrous for Boris Johnson. Mr Biden and his team were convinced opponents of Brexit and were appalled by Mr Johnson’s reference to the “part-Kenyan” Barack Obama’s “ancestral dislike of the British empire”. But such disagreements mask the reality that on most geopolitical issues, Mr Biden is far more aligned with the British government than Mr Trump was. The president-elect is unlikely to make a US-UK trade deal a priority but he may prove more amenable than his protectionist predecessor.

[see also: Why Joe Biden’s victory in the US election is good news for Boris Johnson]

Mr Biden inherits a country with profound problems: an uncontrolled pandemic, economic and racial inequalities and dilapidated infrastructure. But should the Democrats fail to win control of the Senate – which hinges on run-off contests in Georgia on 5 January – his scope for legislative action will be limited. Faced with a revanchist Republican Party, Mr Biden’s customary bipartisanship may prove futile.

As John Gray writes in his essay in this week's issue, “there is no pre-Trump normalcy to which the Democrats can revert”. Though the president was dismissed as an unelectable extremist, he won over 71 million votes, the second-highest number in US history. He retained most of the white non-college-educated voters he won in 2016 – a group the Republicans had long struggled among – and attracted increased support from Hispanic and black voters. It would be complacent for Democrats to assume that a more diverse electorate has created a permanent “progressive majority”.

Though Mr Trump’s administration was one of the most inept and chaotic in American history, the president understood why so many rejected the US political establishment: ruinous foreign wars, dogmatic neoliberalism and contempt for ordinary voters (a “basket of deplorables” in Hillary Clinton’s words).

Among liberals in the UK and the US, there is a palpable yearning to return to the pre-2016 era: before Brexit and before Mr Trump. But this is neither possible nor desirable. The age of liberal triumphalism was one of avoidable catastrophes.

The US invaded Iraq in 2003 (a war supported by Mr Biden) in the belief that liberal democracy could be imposed through military intervention. The global financial system nearly collapsed in 2008 after policymakers were bedazzled by visions of perpetual growth. This was followed in the US and UK by one of the slowest economic recoveries in history and stagnant living standards for many.

That liberals still feel nostalgia for this era is proof that they have yet to understand their defeats. Mr Trump’s departure alone will not erase the conditions that enabled his ascent. Should liberals forget this, they will be forced to contend with yet greater horrors. 

This article appears in the 13 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, America after Trump

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