Everything Biden has done since becoming president has been carefully crafted to negate every personal and political characteristic of his predecessor. This is not just clever optics – Biden is the antithesis of Trump in every way.
He cherishes the institutions that Trump is accused of incited an insurrection against, he condemns violent far-right groups as a national security threat, whilst Trump tells them to “stand back and stand by”. Biden is changing the tone and tenor of politics, but is this enough to nurse American democracy back to health?
A common misconception is that the rabid populism which terrorises American democracy is Trump’s baby. Indeed, the term ‘Trumpism’ implies that, just because he is the most vocal and electorally successful proponent of this style of ‘politics’, he must have created it. This could not be further from the truth.
Back in 2008, there were already Republicans refusing to believe that Obama had won, with one in four believing he “may be the antichrist”. John McCain’s conciliary concession speech, something we have still yet to see from Trump, masked a growing vitriolic hatred amongst the Republican base. This was a hatred not just against Democrats, but against American democratic institutions.
Trump did not create the conspiratorial institutional distrust and repugnant racism which has infected politics – it created him. These beliefs were already growing through cult groups like QAnon, which portrays the Clintons, amongst others, as “baby-eating paedophiles”.
Trump capitalised on this undercurrent of hate with his unique personal brand of repugnant populism, and in his shock 2016 win, immediately legitimised all these views which until then had been relegated to the gutters of fringe extremists. He took the visceral, racist bile out of the obscurity of online forums, and put it in the Oval Office.
Consider for a moment just one element of Trump’s assault on democracy in isolation, the refusal to accept Biden’s rightful and wholly legitimate election victory. The ‘peaceful transfer of power’ is a key cornerstone of the American constitution, something which has, until Trump, been an unquestioned principle.
Contrast Trump’s behaviour with that of Al Gore in 2000. Unlike Trump, who’s record breaking loss has been confirmed in 86 court cases, Gore arguably had a legitimate case to make about having the election ‘stolen’ from him. Yet, in the name of the peaceful transition of power and preserving American democracy, after the Florida re-count ruled against him, Gore accepted George Bush as president.
That seems a world away from the politics of today, where over 3 months after election day, Trump has yet to formally concede. The damage this does to long-held democratic principles risks being permanent.
Biden’s election on the promise of a “return to normalcy” at least shows that the majority of Americans want to consign the dystopia of the Trump years firmly to the ‘things you won’t believe happened’ section of the history books, but it will take more than unifying rhetoric to ensure this.
The 74 million Americans who looked at the carnage unleashed by 4 years of Trump and thought “yes, I want more of that!” will not easily be persuaded that everything Trump espoused and stood for was built on baseless and dangerous lies. Biden has a colossal mountain to climb to convince them to trust in American institutions as the source of their elevation rather than as the perpetrators of their economic suppression.
The majority must once again learn to believe in basic facts, like the fact that somebody with 306 electoral college votes beats somebody with 232, and to trust in established media rather than unchallenged conspiracy-theory echo chambers which only serve to further their radicalism. Whether Biden can do this is unknown, but the future of democracy depends on it.
Biden’s legacy will ultimately be determined by what comes after him. The question of his success will be answered by whose presidency seems unusual in the future, his or Trump’s?
The sigh of relief which was tangibly breathed on Biden’s inauguration was predicated on Trump’s type of politics ending, but it is possible that Biden, not Trump, is the last gasp of a dying ideology. Is Trump the dying embers of an angry, discontented white America, or is Biden, the epitome of the twentieth century politician, the last of a dying breed of ‘normal’ and ‘sane’ presidents?
This goes to the heart of the problem facing American democracy, the problem which Biden has made it his “mission” to solve. He has defeated Trump electorally, but Biden must now defeat the rabid populist undercurrents which propelled Trump’s campaign.
So the question Biden must answer is this: is a “return to normalcy”, a normal which enabled this fundamental mistrust and vitriolic anger to ferment long before the shock of 2016, really enough to fix America’s broken politics?