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6 January 2021updated 28 Jul 2021 6:18am

Why the dawning of a new year and a new presidency may not herald a fresh start

Donald Trump may be on his way out, but unless he faces legal consequences for his attempts to abuse presidential power, the same practices will be tried again.

By Emily Tamkin

Recently, I have found myself thinking about Vice, the 2018 biopic of ­former US vice-president Dick Cheney starring Christian Bale. Not because I thought it was particularly good (I didn’t) or because I had a particularly notable time watching it – if memory serves I caught it on a plane – but because of ­something that happens in the middle of the movie: it “ends”.

In what turns out to be a fake epilogue, we are told that Cheney lives out his days in the private sector and the credits start to roll; the movie is over. But then, a telephone rings; the film continues. Cheney goes on to be George W Bush’s vice-president, where he expands executive power, curbs civil ­liberties and invades Iraq. The real story is, in fact, just beginning.

I found myself reflecting on this mid-movie credits gimmick as 2020 became 2021. With the turning of the calendar year, the multiple vaccines seeming to herald the beginning of the end of the ­pandemic, the imminent inauguration of president-elect Joe Biden and the credits soon to roll on Donald Trump’s presidency, it is tempting to believe that this movie, too, is over.

I fear, though, that these are, as with Vice, indicators of a false ending, and that we are only partway through. The winding down of one year and the start of another is made meaningful in our ritual celebration of it, but it is also fundamentally meaningless and rarely brings the renewal it promises. The fact that 2020 has ended does not mean any of its perils have gone away.

The clearest example is the vaccines. To its credit, the Trump administration enabled new vaccines to be manufactured at scale, through Operation Warp Speed. Decidedly not to its credit has been the management of vaccine distribution, which, like so much else about America’s handling of the pandemic, has been unco-ordinated and inefficient.

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On 4 January, an adviser to Operation Warp Speed publicly confirmed that there has been a “lag” in administering the vaccine compared to original projections. The Trump administration said that 20 million people would be vaccinated by the end of 2020; in the end, roughly four million were.

In some parts of the US, clinics ran out of their supply of the vaccine mere hours after opening. In others, supplies have been left to expire before they can be administered, as distribution has become mired in the efforts of state and local officials to ensure certain groups get the vaccine first. At Stanford University in California, an algorithm for prioritising vaccine distribution largely left out front-line workers. In other states, healthcare workers are refusing to be inoculated: Ohio’s governor Mike DeWine has said that 60 per cent of nursing home staff are turning the vaccine down.

While the United States bungles its vaccine rollout, coronavirus cases are surging. More infections were reported in December than in any other month since the onset of the pandemic, and record-breaking numbers of hospitalisations due to Covid-related complications were reported at the end of the year.

America’s democratic crisis is also far from over. President Trump’s attempts to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election have been unsuccessful insofar as he was unable to undermine confidence in the democratic process sufficiently to overturn the result. It hasn’t been for lack of trying – on Saturday 2 January, Trump called Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state for Georgia, to pressure him to swing the state’s electoral outcome in his favour.

In an audio recording of the hour-long phone call initially obtained by the Washington Post, Trump asked Raffensperger to “find” 11,780 votes and threatened that he would have committed an unspecified “criminal offence” if he failed to cooperate. But if Trump’s goal was to stay in the White House for four more years, it didn’t work. Raffensperger rejected Trump’s request – while his tens of legal challenges contesting state results have been thrown out of court.

On the other hand, if the aim was to set a dangerous precedent for US democracy, it may prove to have worked nicely. Unless Trump faces legal consequences for his brazen attempts to abuse the power of the nation’s top public office for private gain, there is every reason to assume that the same practices will be tried again in future – and perhaps with greater success, if executed with more subtlety and political savvy.

[see also: How a culture of mistrust is fuelling vaccine hesitancy in the US]

Roughly a quarter of Republican senators have promised to vote against Congress’s certification of the electoral college results, thus converting what is supposed to be an ordinary part of democratic procedure into a cynical political stunt, used by figures such as senators Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas to advance their careers.

Meanwhile, the Republican drive to cement power through gerrymandering and tactics of voter suppression continues apace – efforts which disproportionately affect ethnic minorities and the less well-off. If and when Republicans control both the House and the Senate in the future, the flouting of democratic norms and disenfranchisement of more Americans may appear less outrageous. After all, it’s being done now, and the people doing it will likely not face any consequences, or resistance.

I wish I could believe that the worst was behind us; that the vaccine distribution will proceed swiftly and smoothly; that Republican senators will decide, as if awaking from a slumber cast by a Trumpian spell, to work with Biden; and that the vicious partisanship of the past four years will give way to a politics animated by an ethos of public service.

But Vice doesn’t end with Dick Cheney in the private sector. The credits are rolling but the movie’s not over; only by admitting that can we hope to shape the ending. 

This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control