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Trump vs. Biden: The Election of a Lifetime

Trump vs. Biden: The Election of a Lifetime
 Soli Özel
Senior Fellow - International Relations and Turkey

The United States will elect its next President in November. The elections will also determine which party will control Congress, and particularly the Senate, which currently has a Republican majority. If ever there was a fateful election both for the future of the American Republic and the existing World order and its institutions, these elections are it. Politically, philosophically and certainly temperamentally there is a wider distance between the candidates this time than in any other such contest in living memory. The outcome of the elections is therefore likely to be consequential. It might lead to a restoration of institutional order domestically and internationally, or give way to further disruptions and polarization domestically and to a more assertive American unilateralism internationally, with the possible weakening of the Atlantic Alliance.
We asked our Visiting Fellow, Soli Özel to answer the following questions:

Why are these elections so important and not just for the USA but, as some claim, also for the World? 

The current President of the United States defined the upcoming elections thus: "We are in a fight for the survival of our nation and civilization itself." When his rival Joe Biden defined the contest, he said "History will be able to say that the end of this chapter of American darkness began here tonight… When love and hope and light joined in the battle for the soul of our nation." This is an extra-political language more in tune with an episode of Star Wars than a political contest for the mandate to govern the most powerful country in the world. 

The Trump Presidency, which was itself a function of the intense and deep social, religious and political polarization of American society where "the richest 0.1 percent of Americans now have roughly as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent combined" exacerbated these cleavages. As President, Trump thrived on this polarization and fostered it. Having claimed that even in the elections that he actually won in 2016, there had been electoral fraud whereby illegal immigrants allegedly voted in multitudes, and having denied Russian meddling which even a Republican-majority Senate committee acknowledged, Trump refuses to commit himself to conceding to the election results if he turns out to be the loser. Therefore, a political cum constitutional crisis, the likes of which were last recorded in 1876, looms large.

Both the constitutional order of the American Republic as a functioning democracy, and the kind of role the United States is likely to play in the international system are on the ballot.

The choice between Trump and Biden in this context is a choice between two directions: a more unilateralist America vs. one that is more faithful to multilateral institutions and to the Transatlantic Alliance; a more egalitarian and racially more inclusive society vs. one where white supremacy and plutocratic rule cannot be challenged and will be protected by brute force; a governance style more respective of the separation of power and which empowers the agencies of the federal government vs. a style that follows the logic of the doctrine of "unilateral presidency", which accords to the President quasi unlimited powers. So, both the constitutional order of the American Republic as a functioning democracy, and the kind of role the United States is likely to play in the international system are on the ballot.

In what ways did the conventions have an impact on the electorate if at all?

Most contemporary conventions for the two mainstream parties of the United States have turned into demonstrations of unity amidst much fanfare. Rare was the occasion when party division was displayed either openly, or as in the Democratic Convention in 2016, by the barely disguised disdain Bernie Sanders had for the nominee, Hillary Clinton. That division arguably cost the Party the elections, as some Sanders supporters voted for Trump or just did not bother to go to the polls. This year, as part of the unusual circumstances due to the pandemic, the conventions were held virtually. The candidate of a seemingly united Democratic Party, Joe Biden, appears to have gotten a small boost to his favorable ratings after the Convention. President Trump’s approval rating after the Republican Convention barely budged. The public highly disapproves of his handling of the pandemic but it likes his handling of the economy, despite the fact that unemployment remains high and the rescue package for working Americans was not renewed by the Republicans in the Senate.

In the Democrats’ case Biden represents a safe and widely accepted middle range political personality, whose agenda moved farther to the left, particularly on issues of economic inequality and race relations in the course of the primaries. He is on good terms with his former rivals in the primaries, most notably Bernie Sanders, whose energetic supporters Biden needs, and he even selected one of his primary rivals, Kamala Harris, as his running mate. The Democratic Party platform, therefore, is now closer to a social democratic agenda in European terms and looks favorably to a "green" agenda. It also prioritizes better and more cooperative relations with allies in Europe and Asia, just as it identifies China as the main strategic rival of the United States.

For the Republicans, the convention took place as a four-day ceremony of crowning Trump who appeared on the screen every night as party leader and his family as a new dynasty. For the first time in living memory they did not prepare a party platform, and accepted Trump’s preferences as the party’s. The convention was also marked by the complete absence of the pandemic from the speeches unless an alleged success was mentioned. Therefore, many commentators spoke of the complete ownership of the GOP by Trump. In the wake of the convention, as he did prior to it, Trump continued to ignore the pandemic and concentrated on law and order issues as the rage over police actions and racism generated mass movements and violence in some cities. Whether or not what worked for Richard Nixon in 1968 (another year notorious for urban violence) will work again, remains to be seen, given the fact that Trump has no intention of quelling the violence. As his departing aide Kellyanne Conway said "The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order."

What do the polls say?

Most pollsters are weary of making definitive statements given their failure to predict the Trump victory in 2016. A leading site such as FiveThirtyEight calculates on average that as of the beginning of September, Joe Biden is still ahead. But the law and order issue that is beginning to eat into the original popularity of the Black Lives Matter movement, may turn the tide against Biden and in favor of Trump. Most pundits agree that white, educated, suburban women hold the key to this election. Alienated by Trump, they are currently inclined to vote for Biden, but the mounting violence and its presentation by the administration and the media may change that stance.

There is also the matter of the American electoral system, in that Biden may win the popular vote but lose in the electoral college, which decides the outcome of the elections. This is the reason why everyone’s attention is turned toward the so-called swing states, where turnout will be crucial to determine the winner. And that is also where the Democrats’ problems are compounded. 

As President, Trump thrived on this polarization and fostered it.

The Trump administration and the Republican governors and other operatives have been consistently advancing measures for almost decades now, to obstruct the participation of minorities or communities that would be more inclined to go Democrat through legislation, reduced number of polls, shortened voting hours and gerrymandering. 

This year, the Post Office may also become an accomplice in such extra-political efforts to tilt the elections towards the Republicans. It is estimated that nearly three quarters of the electorate will send in their votes by mail. President Trump, in spite of the fact that he himself votes by mail, declared mail-in voting fraudulent and will probably use this, if he loses the elections, as an excuse to challenge the results and go to court. He will not concede, particularly if the results on election night show that he is ahead because his supporters, unwilling to wear masks and defiant of the pandemic at the cost of their lives, are more likely to go to the polls physically than the Democratic voters, and may produce a first count that shows him a winner. Counting postal votes will take a long time and will ready the political arena for a constitutional crisis. Finally, there is very little faith in the current Postmaster General of the United States, a major donor to the Trump campaign, that he will do everything possible to make sure that the Post Office has the resources, manpower and the organization to ensure the ballots are received on time and delivered on time for counting.




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