In a year like no other, we’ve seen a US presidential election like no other.
When he first announced his plan to run for the presidency, few took the businessman-cum-reality TV star seriously. But Donald Trump has since had a seismic effect on American politics – and this year’s presidential election was as bombastic and unpredictable as his time in office.
Yet in the end, after four years of scandals, faux-pas and an almost total disregard for political norms, it seems what America craved was normality. They elected a man who is many things Donald Trump isn’t: a career politician, a moderate with a history of reaching across the aisle.
Having said that, the election aftermath has made one thing certain: this is not the end for Trump, or Trumpism.
In my 2019 end of year review for Backbench, I wrote about Donald Trump’s impeachment. It was widely predicted that the political row would define the upcoming presidential election. Little did we know about what 2020 had in store.
As the Senate debated whether to remove Trump from office (they didn’t), COVID-19 reached the United States. The first case was detected on 20th January; by March positive tests were skyrocketing. Initially concentrated in hotspots on the east coast, particularly New York City, COVID-19 eventually spread across the country, ravaging communities and killing over 300,000 Americans.
There’s no doubt that coronavirus reshaped the presidential election. As cases spiralled out of control in the spring, the scientific community were consistently ignored by Trump, who used daily press briefings to perpetuate mistruths. The president cast doubt on the efficacy of mask-wearing; touted the benefits of the drug hydroxychloroquine to treat the coronavirus, despite a lack of scientific evidence; and even suggested injecting disinfectant to kill the virus. Public trust in Trump tanked.
Even when the president himself caught COVID, he continued to flout scientific advice. In his first public appearance after being discharged from hospital, Trump removed his mask to make a speech from the White House balcony.
In May, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, triggering massive anti-racism protests across the country which became another defining feature of the presidential race. Some politicians threw their support behind the Black Lives Matter movement. Meanwhile, the president called for ‘law and order’, denouncing the minority of protesters who took to rioting and looting, and praised law enforcement. It seemed to be an appeal to the suburban white voters who secured Trump’s 2016 win, who he was desperate to keep on side in 2020.
Meanwhile, the president was busy undermining the legitimacy of mail-in ballots, which many more Americans relied on this year to avoid polling stations during the pandemic. Electoral fraud is vanishingly rare, even in states where mail-in voting is widely used. That didn’t stop Trump from repeatedly making unfounded claims about postal ballot fraud. It was not the last we would hear of such claims.
One major success story of the election, regardless of your partisan leaning, was the record-breaking voter turnout. Millions of Americans voted early or by mail; there were clearly strong feelings on both sides of the political divide.
Some predicted a landslide for Biden, based largely on his solid and steady lead in the polls. There was even talk of Texas, traditionally a Republican stronghold, going blue, as turnout surged in the state well before election day.
It wasn’t long before hopes of a ‘blue wave’ were dashed. Florida, usually a crucial swing state, seemed to have re-elected Trump. It later became clear that the Republican drive to brand Democrats as ‘radical socialists’ resonated with many Cuban and Venezuelan communities. North Carolina, another swing state, also went red. On election night, things were not looking good for the Democrats.
But in 2020, it wasn’t so much election night as election week. Results were being counted for days and nights after polling closed, due to record-high turnout and millions of mail-in ballots. Before election day, many political analysts had predicted a ‘red mirage’, whereby the first ballots to be counted – usually those cast in-person on 3rd November – would skew Republican.
Eventually, the red mirage began to lift – but not before Trump falsely claimed victory, calling the ongoing count of legitimate votes ‘a fraud on the American public’.
It was clear the tides had turned for the incumbent president when CNN announced Biden had taken the lead in Pennsylvania, all but securing the presidency for the Democratic challenger.
While Biden secured the presidency largely in the rust-belt states – Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – there were shock wins elsewhere. Firstly, Georgia went blue for the first time since 1992. The swing was due in large part to the tireless campaigning of Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the gubernatorial race in 2018.
Arizona was another unexpected win for Biden. And in a move perhaps more shocking than the result, Fox News – who had been reliably loyal to Trump throughout his presidency – were the first to project a Democratic win in the state, attracting ire from the White House. Trump reportedly had the network contacted directly to complain, but to no avail. It represented a subtle but significant shift in the Fox newsroom.
In spite of all that, much of Trump’s voter base remained loyal. Democrats had hoped for a resounding denunciation of Trump and everything he represented. Instead, the incumbent secured the second-most votes for a presidential candidate in American history. The Democratic majority in the House of Representatives shrunk, and the Senate majority hangs in the balance. It seems the United States is more divided than ever.
Trump refused to concede defeat on election night, even as his routes to a second term were shut off. He still hasn’t. Instead, his legal team embarked on a campaign of contesting the election result in the courts, calling on unfounded accusations of widespread voter fraud and refusing to present any evidence.
On 7th November, Rudy Giuliani – Trump’s personal lawyer – held a press conference to discuss the status of the president’s legal challenges to the election result. In an extraordinary scene which would fit comfortably into any satire, it was held outside the Four Seasons Total Landscaping, a garden centre located between a crematorium and a sex shop. The circumstances of the press conference, rather than Giuliani’s unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud, stole the show.
Trump may have been hoping for a remake of the now infamous legal battle between Bush and Gore after the 2000 election which made it to the Supreme Court. But most of his legal challenges have fallen at the first hurdle, with a Pennsylvania judge accusing the campaign of trying to ‘disenfranchise almost seven million voters’. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court rejected an attempt by the state of Texas to overturn the election result.
And yet in Congress, Republicans seem wary of speaking out against Trump. The president is known for valuing loyalty, a fact evidenced by the wave of pardons he recently handed out to his closest allies. Perhaps fearing the wrath of the president, most Republicans took their time congratulating Joe Biden on his win, waiting until his electoral college confirmation to do so.
It’s clear Trump and Trumpism still have a grip on American politics. As the GOP pick over this year’s loss, there will surely be fierce debate over how best to address his legacy.
Meanwhile, the cogs of democracy have been turning as usual. The electoral college met in mid-December to confirm Biden’s win. The veteran Democrat will be inaugurated on 20th January.
We now know for sure Biden will be president come January – but much of America’s political future remains uncertain. The Democrats’ majority in the House of Representatives was diminished, and they failed to secure the Senate majority they had hoped for.
The first few days of 2021 will bring more clarity. All eyes will be on Georgia, where a state runoff will be held for its two senator positions, after no candidate secured the 50% majority needed to win in November. The results of this election will determine which party will hold a Senate majority. Either way, there’s a good chance Biden’s presidency will be fraught will partisan tensions.
What else can we predict about a Biden presidency? He is certainly on the centre of the party, with a track record of working with Republicans to get bills passed. Many Democrats and liberals had hoped for a more progressive nominee. But he has also appointed possibly the most diverse cabinet in American history (subject to confirmation by the Senate) and committed to re-joining the WHO and the Paris climate agreement. Maybe the next four years will look like ‘everything in moderation’.
But we certainly haven’t seen the last of Trump. Rather than denouncing the president, much of the electorate threw their support behind him once again. There are even reports Trump that will announce a run for the presidency in 2024 – on Biden’s inauguration day. Needless to say, Donald Trump has left an indelible mark on American politics.