Joe Biden will bring back a degree of internationalism to the U.S. foreign policy, but the Democratic Party has shifted to a more Trumpian view of the world, says Roberta Haar, professor of Foreign Policy Analysis and Transatlantic Relations at UCM, in this opinion piece.
Stop the Count!
If he lost, we all expected Trump to accuse the Democrats of trying to steal the election. He did not disappoint us, commencing the false narrative only a few hours after Election Day drew to a close. But the basis for Trump’s 3 am version of events was not getting any traction, perhaps because he did not bother to provide any evidence of the voting irregularities that he alleged were committed against him.
Even in some corners of the Republican Party his hyperbolic accusation machine wore thin — those same votes that Trump said were fraudulent were also key for many down-ballot Republicans in securing their seats in federal and state offices. Moreover, the legal complaints that Trump’s campaign showered the courts with also struggled to find any footing. For example, lawsuits were thrown out in the key states of Georgia and Michigan.
Count the Votes!
It does appear that attempts at electoral fraud did take place but were perpetrated by Trump megadonor Louis DeJoy, who is the current Postmaster General in charge of the U.S. Postal Service. Two days after Election Day, the USPS revealed that it failed to deliver at least 150,000 absentee ballots that remained inside its facilities, including more than 12,000 in five of the states where races were close and had yet to be called. Add to this the split-screen shots that showed Trump supporters in Michigan and Pennsylvania shout, “Stop the count!” because Trump was ahead, while in Arizona they shouted, “Count the votes,” because Trump was behind, and we get a confused message of why Trump should remain president.
But, if Trump’s narrative did not serve him well, the Democratic party also did not realize the “Blue Wave” it had hoped would sweep Biden to a decisive victory, flip the Senate to a Democrat Party majority and boost the number of Democrats in the House of Representatives. Yes, three states that voted for Trump in 2016 switched to Biden in 2020, with additional projected wins in Arizona and Georgia for the former Vice President, but for all that the vote was a tight one.
What does this mean for the world after 3 November?
Four years ago, I gave a presentation on election night at both UCM and SBE in which I said that no matter who won the 2016 American presidential election, it would be defined by its rejection of establishment candidates and the electorate’s embrace of insurgents, who openly waged war on their own parties. Certainly, Trump secured the Republican nomination by disagreeing with his party’s mainstream members on many core issues.
We also know that the Democratic Party had its own insurgent, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who did not win the primary competition but whose popularity, like Trump’s, emerged from disagreeing with the traditional Democratic Party on key policy stances.
I echoed these points in my inaugural lecture, in which I said Trump will change Washington more than Washington changes Trump. Whether the world likes it or not, some aspects of Trumpism are here to stay. So, it is with a mix of sadness and smugness that I read that several political pundits and respected media outlets agree with me that today “it is still Trump’s America.”
The Future of the Republican Party
Moreover, Trump himself will likely remain in the political spotlight and continue to affect U.S. politics in a way that is perilous for it and the future of the Republican Party. More than 70 million Americans voted for Trump, an unprecedented number. Republicans will want to find a balance between keeping these voters motivated to support the party in the future but, at the same time, reel in Trump's incendiary rhetoric and race baiting.
This dilemma is certainly reflected in the fact that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and most Republican leaders are unwilling to strongly dispute Trump over his falsehoods concerning absentee ballots, state election officials and vote counting procedures. Some Republican leaders, such as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senator Ted Cruz, voiced support for Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of election wrongdoing.
Additionally, we do not know how far Trump and his supporters are willing to go to fight the outcome of the elections. If the Senate remains a Republican majority (which we will only know after two January 2021 run-off elections in Georgia), Biden might encounter gridlock and legislative paralysis for the next two years (when there is a midterm election) or even four years.
Paralysis at home, paralysis abroad?
Biden will certainly bring back a degree of internationalism to U.S. foreign policy, but we should keep in mind that the U.S. began retreating from its global leadership role when he was vice president. Although, at the Munich Security conference in February 2019, Biden articulated the idea that his presidency would return to internationalism, the truth is that the U.S. had already grown weary and inward looking as it tired of fighting endless wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Add to this that the Democratic Party itself is shifting towards a more Trumpian view of the world. The other two Democratic candidates that voiced views on foreign policy, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, both see Trump not as a historical aberration but as the outcome of a long historical decline in the U.S.’ role on the world stage. Moreover, the Democratic Party’s new strategic thinkers also argue that Trump is right to advocate restraint, something that a President Hillary Clinton was sure to find deplorable.
Across the Atlantic
Longstanding allies around the world exhaled on Saturday the 7th of November after Pennsylvania boosted Biden’s electoral College votes over the 270 mark, but they have not yet relaxed. A Biden presidency will attempt a reset of Trump’s transactional foreign policy, but Biden will nevertheless face domestic pressure for a harder stance on trade and a pullback from costly overseas commitments.
I recently read in the Financial Times that public opinion in Europe about America since Covid-19 is in rapid decline. According to Pew research, respect for the U.S. drained from the continent. Pundits resurrected Robert Kagan’s thesis that the Americans are from Mars and the Europeans are from Venus, which dates to differences in 2003 at the start of the Iraq War during the George W. Bush Administration.
What does all this mean? I can feel a perceptible loss of U.S. soft-power—that Europeans find America less attractive today based on how Trump handled the pandemic (both at home and abroad). At the same, I was also aware that Europeans were avidly watching this election, willing the American democratic system to correct itself. Joe Biden’s narrow victory may not be what many hoped for and may all too soon produce disappointment and constrained policy. Still, the fact that we have a 46th President of the United States is a very good outcome for the 2020 elections.
Roberta Haar, professor of Foreign Policy Analysis and Transatlantic Relations at UCM