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The U.S. vote is about building back better

The 2020 U.S. presidential election has been one of many firsts. It witnessed the highest ever voter turnout numbers for the winner, Democrat and former Vice-President Joe Biden, whose tally has soared past 74 million, compared to 71 million for his rival, Republican and incumbent President Donald Trump. The victory of Mr. Biden and California Senator Kamala Harris, whose pick by Mr. Biden as running mate likely galvanised a phalanx of minority voters to their side, marked the first time in U.S. history that a woman and a woman of colour has been elected Vice-President. After he turns 78 years of age later this month, Mr. Biden will also be the oldest person sworn in as President.

On the Republican side, Mr. Trump will be the first U.S. President since 1992, the third elected President since World War II, and only the 11th President in U.S. history to lose a re-election bid. He is also only the second U.S. President in history, and the first since Benjamin Harrison in 1889, to lose the popular vote yet successfully nominate at least three Supreme Court justices.

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The fact that the 2020 election enters the history books for all of these reasons says something profound about the democratic exercise itself: it was one of the most fiercely fought presidential contests in recent memory, mirrored in intensity perhaps only by the 2008 election that saw the U.S. elect its first ever African-American President, Barack Obama. While the 2020 election came after nearly four turbulent years under one of the most unconventional, controversial and divisive Presidents that the country has ever seen, in many ways it was unexpectedly close, both in terms of the margins in the swing States and the popular vote.

The Trump years

This begs the question: if indeed Mr. Trump was seen as the President who shredded not only every norm and tradition of the Oval Office, but also the very fabric of the Republican Party itself, why did north of 71 million voters put their faith in him, many possibly for the second time? To answer that question, it is first worth recalling the highlights of the Trump presidency, particularly the events that were seen as breaking with history in terms of the conduct of the Commander-in-Chief.

Mr. Trump set the tenor for his time in office early on, flagging even before he became a formal nominee in the 2016 presidential race the ideas that would resonate through his term and shape his policy paradigm. At the heart of his ethos, if it could be described as such, was an apparent compulsion to veer toward unhinged nativism. He was an early proponent of the ‘birther’ movement and his shrill calls for Mr. Obama to produce his birth certificate and prove he was not a Muslim from Kenya revealed the colour of his political reasoning.

The lines that Mr. Trump sought to draw to define his core constituency came into clearer focus during the campaign months, when he vowed to ban Muslims from certain countries entering the U.S., build a wall along the southern border that Mexico would pay for, reshape the judiciary, repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA), cut corporate taxes, repudiate the Paris climate accord, take on China for currency manipulation, reject trade deals that were not in U.S. national interest, bomb the Islamic State, raise military spending and bring the troops home, reshape the judiciary and deport all illegal immigrants.

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In parallel, his campaign against Democrat and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was scathingly acerbic, and his views on minorities of different kinds and women could only be described as bigoted and misogynist. Yet, and this is where troubling questions arise that impinge upon the very character of America’s democratic soul, there was no full-throated admonishment of this maverick candidate and no collapse in his overall performance in opinion polls; quite the opposite.

Indeed, each of the agenda items that he voiced during that campaign signalled something about those whom he claimed to fight for — whether it was blue collar workers feeling disenfranchised by their jobs being shipped offshore, the upper classes vying for tax breaks, or just your garden-variety white supremacist who nurtured a deep hatred of minorities. While many or all of those policies might have appeared objectionable to some voters, it would be hard to deny that sufficient numbers of Americans were persuaded by specific aspects of his worldview that Mr. Trump was able to win the presidency via the electoral college in November 2016.

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He went on to deliver on some of his goals, a few with a high degree of success, notably nominating three justices to the Supreme Court who were confirmed mostly along partisan lines. The devastating consequences for liberals of that court being overwhelmingly packed with conservative justices will be felt for decades to come, possibly in terms of threats to fundamental freedoms such as women’s reproductive rights. Through a series of executive actions that bypassed the need for Congressional ratification, Mr. Trump tightened the screws on the immigration system, which included everything from condemnable family separations at the border to halting green card and skilled visa issuance in the wake of spiralling job losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the foreign policy realm, his rejection of the multilateralism in favour of bilateralism or isolationism has already reshaped global forces toward the vision that Mr. Trump, Brexiteers, and a melange of proto-nativists across Europe and not-so-soft authoritarians in Asia have gleefully veered toward. The Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear freeze agreement, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) treaty, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization and a host of UN organisations including the World Health Organization have been hobbled by the Trump administration’s actions in this regard.

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Where Trump stumbled

However, he failed to live up to his campaign promises in significant measure, including thwarted attempts to hollow out the ACA, blowback from China and other nations in response to his tariff manoeuvres, a lack of funding for the border wall with Mexico. The lowest points of his term in office came, arguably, when he was impeached in the House of Representatives for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, and over his silence on the deaths of unarmed African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement that periodically ripped apart what social harmony remained.

Ultimately, his administration’s failure to respond effectively to the pandemic was his undoing. With the U.S. performing worse than any nation, having nearly 10 million cases and 234,000 fatalities, Mr. Trump paid the ultimate price for this at the hustings.

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For the new team

Looking back at this aggressively nativism-driven agenda, and the fact that more than 71 million Americans voted to put him back in office and carry it forward for another term, there is only one governance lesson for Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris to consider: to not underestimate or ignore the other side. The ‘other side’ in this case goes well beyond the likes of Mitch McConnell and obstructionism of his Senate colleagues, who will no doubt seek to whittle away the Democrats’ hopes of undoing the damage done by Mr. Trump to the economy and American society.

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Given the diversity of the personal and collective ethos of diverse subcultures across the U.S., there will always be fringe elements and those fundamentally opposed to the liberal, pluralistic vision that Team Biden-Harris have so eloquently persuaded voters on. They can be safely ignored. Yet between them and committed progressives is a vast sea of disgruntled middle America, mostly white, and seething with anger and helplessness at the socioeconomic changes happening across their country.

Just as Mr. Biden gradually shifted to a harder line on China as a sense of American outrage took over the campaign through the summer months of the pandemic, he may find that the views that he held fast to as a committed mainstream Democrat for 48 years in politics may have to be transmogrified into something else, something new and more accommodative of the millions of Americans that chose a darkly antagonistic demagogue over business as usual.

narayan@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2021 7:52:28 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-us-vote-is-about-building-back-better/article33053735.ece

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