On the Outcome of the U.S. Presidential Election 2020
Joe Biden has most likely won the election for the 46th President of the United States of America. He won Michigan and Wisconsin, may as well win and flip the state of Georgia and the state of Pennsylvania, which Trump must win to still compete, and the probability that Nevada and Arizona will also go to Biden is high.
Donald Trump declared himself the winner on Tuesday, election night, when by no means had all the votes been counted and the results were far from certain. He called to end counting of votes. He justified this disregard for the will of millions of voters by claiming that “a sad group of people is trying to disenfranchise millions of American people” who voted for him. Trump did this in the knowledge that a large portion of the uncounted votes came from early and mail-in voters. These votes he knew strongly favored Biden and the Democrats. He was aware that these votes could tighten and in some cases even overturn the previously existing Biden deficits in some states. Even before the election, precisely this scenario had been predicted and discussed many times.
It was predicted that Trump would challenge the election results and, if necessary, not recognize defeat. In unprecedented statements, branches of the Pentagon felt compelled to declare that even if the president sought to prevent a peaceful transition by dragging the military into the matter, they would not intervene on Donald Trump’s behalf. Trump, on the other hand, who communicates directly with his supporters via his nearly 85 million Twitter followers had during the penultimate debate called on extreme white nationalist militias like the “Proud Boys” to “stand back and stand by.“ Some of these militias have already demonstrated their determination to the cause by getting caught planning the kidnapping of Gretchen Whitmer, the Governor of Michigan. Others urged by Trump felt necessary to try to occupy the Minneapolis Parliament through armed force. Others, the day after the U.S. election in Detroit, Michigan, a strongly African-American and Democratic party-dominated city, attempted to storm an election center, violently protesting the counting of votes.
Since legal action is now pending in several states against the election results, and the difference between Biden and Trump remains less than one percentage point in a number of states like Pennsylvania and Georgia, which may lead to vote recounts (like the one requested by the Trump campaign in Wisconsin), the election may still be prolonged as it was the case in 2000 with the election of George W. Bush versus Al Gore.
The probability that conflicts will escalate under these conditions of power vacuum is high, even if Biden’s surge in the vote count continues. In the very worst case, the feared escalation of these conflicts in a direction similar to civil war cannot be completely ruled out. Under certain circumstances of violent clashes between far Right militias and Black Live Matter self-defense organizations at street protests caused by the unclear situation or by Trump’s failure to acknowledge his defeat, they could even mean that Trump, as president still in office, is tempted to declare a state of emergency and suspend liberal principles of the rule of law. At the same time, one must also acknowledge that similar fears of an impending civil war scenario expressed in 2008 and 2009, when the first Black president came to power amidst a global financial crisis, were ultimately unfounded or at least did not come true.
Biden’s election campaign strategy was to rebuild the “blue wall” i.e., to win back the populous and therefore election-decisive rust belt states on the Great Lakes in the Midwest. They were won by Trump in 2016, but against the background of former industrial prowess and lingering relatively high union density, they had previously been democratic territory for decades. Against the backdrop of deindustrialization, job losses, social crisis (including rampant drug addictions) and domestic emigration, Trump succeeded in winning these states over with his criticism of the allegedly “unfair” foreign – especially Chinese and German – competition. He flourished this with rhetorical opposition to free trade and his pledge to re-channel financial resources from the costly “war on terror” into domestic investment programs.
Biden’s strategy is likely to have paid off in the end as he is unlikely to have lost any state won by Clinton in 2016. Even if in some places shifting loyalties, including by Cuban men in Florida, have led to worse defeats compared to Clinton, Biden still played with the same map. Trump’s hopes that he might perhaps topple Minnesota have been dashed. With Michigan and Wisconsin, Biden won two important Midwest states by a very narrow margin. Georgia and Pennsylvania seem similar. Nonetheless, Trump was awarded not only the Republican-leaning Indiana, but also Ohio for a second time.
The U.S. elections in 2020 took place under special conditions. The COVID-19 pandemic did not cause the new great recession, but it has dramatically accelerated it. In 2016, Donald Trump had led his populist election campaign on behalf of a supposed U.S. working class. After his election victory over Hillary Clinton, however, he radically reduced taxes, especially for corporations and the rich. The corporate tax rate fell from 35 to 21 percent, the income tax rate for the highest incomes from 39.6 to 37 percent. Trump executed these measures in the name of the U.S. working class too, even though the share of income taxes remained at the same high level. At the same time, Trump massively cut or completely discontinued federal welfare programs on which the U.S. working class depends upon. Trump argued that the tax cuts would bring about historic economic growth, full employment and a corresponding competition of capital for labor, which, totally without unions, organizing drives and labor disputes, would lead wages to dizzying heights. He therefore called his law the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Even before the pandemic, none of these things happened, and Trump kept none of his promises. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the official unemployment rate was 4.7 percent in January 2017, when Trump took office, and fell to 3.6 percent by January 2020, largely due to the concurrent international boom during this time. US real wages stagnated and continue to stagnate despite (moderate) increases in productivity. According to official figures from the US Federal Reserve, 40 percent of Americans live “from paycheck to paycheck.” In other words, they have no savings and are basically only one serious illness or job loss away from homelessness or bankruptcy. Precarity is the new American condition. Corona assistance for workers was a drop in the ocean. At the same time, wealth inequality and the share of the top 1 percent and 0.1 percent of total national wealth, which had already reached its highest level since 1929 under Obama, continued to rise under Trump. Even in the midst of the Corona crisis, the assets of the US multi-billionaire class have once again grown rapidly: According to calculations by “Business Insider,” they increased their accumulated wealth during the pandemic by an average of 42 billion U.S. dollars per week! Trump had famously predicted that these tax cuts for the rich would finance themselves. But the U.S. national debt exploded under Trump. When Obama left office, according to official figures from the Congressional Budget Office, the U.S. national debt ratio was 76 percent, and in four years it had risen to 98 percent. When Obama ruled, the Republicans had twice forced a government shutdown under the guise of caring about an increase in national debt as a result of the global financial crisis. Under Trump, however, the budget deficit almost doubled continuously from $585 billion to $1.1 trillion in 2020.
The pandemic has once again dramatically worsened the economic situation in the US. Even before the corona crisis, illness was the main cause of household bankruptcies in the US. With the crisis, the situation of the US working class has deteriorated even more. In April, official mass unemployment jumped to 14.7 percent, remaining above 10 percent over the summer, and remained at 7.9 percent in September 2020. The real unemployment rate is higher because many workers have exceeded the maximum duration of unemployment benefits or have withdrawn from the labor market out of frustration. The Trump administration played down the pandemic, and instead of taking planned action to contain it, the president consistently spoke of the “China virus,” while Republican governors planned to “sue” China while placing governments on devastating laissez-faire nonexistent pandemic policies. With 9.8 million US citizens infected with Corona and about 234,000 dead, the US is one of the most severely affected countries in the world, along with India and Brazil, which are also headed by right-wing authoritarian nationalist leaders. The number of newly infected people each week reached the 100,000 mark again in the last weeks before election day. The “völkisch” idea and rhetoric of “Make America Great American“ and “America First,“ which claim to care for every citizen – at least as long as they are Americans and deserving (which is code for “white“ and “patriotic“) – does not fit well with the social Darwinist “everyone for himself/herself“ realpolitik of Trump’s COVID-19 management. Due to disillusionment with Trump, Trump’s approval ratings had fallen. He hit below the significant 40 percent mark in 2017, and never really recovered from this, even though he maintained a loyal base up until the end that also stuck with him during his Coronavirus crisis management. Still, the high point of Trump’s approval ratings was in April 2020, under the special conditions of the general government popularity at the beginning of the corona crisis, at 45.8 percent. By the end of July 2020, when the election campaign entered its hottest phase, the figure was back at the critical 40 percent mark. 56 percent of Americans disapproved of the president and his policies. In the end, he was one of the most unpopular presidents in recent US history.
However, the outcome of Joe Biden is also a slap in the face for the Democratic party elites. In a concerted action, they had used all their power to end the rise of the all-party popular US Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. In a night and fog action, a lot of pressure was used to persuade other centrist candidates to drop out of the race in order to prevent the Democratic Socialist and install the uncharismatic Biden as the party’s presidential candidate in an “everything against Bernie” mobilization. They did this despite the fact that the polls predicted that Sanders would probably be the more promising rival candidate to Trump. The Democratic party elite bet everything on repeating and overcoming the mistakes made in 2016, namely to put a candidate of the “Stay the course/America is already great“ messaging. That time it was Hillary Clinton, this time Joe Biden. This race showed the dramatic dissatisfaction Americans have with the status quo, as Clinton’s “Stay the course” message (and now Biden‘s “Let us return to the good old Obama years“) remain exactly the problem and was, in Clinton’s case, the reason why Trump could even become president in 2016. Back then, Trump had not won the election – he hardly received any more absolute votes at that time than the Republican presidential candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney, who had previously lost to Obama. In 2016, Clinton and the Democratic party elite had lost the election.
In 2020 it looks like Biden will become president of the United States, but he did not win the election. A precise political-sociological analysis of the election – who voted for whom and for what reasons – is still difficult to do at this time or likely to be flawed in view of the difficult data situation, which still needs to be addressed. Nevertheless, in view of the general economic, political and social situation in the United States in the Corona Pandemic, and because Trump has not fulfilled his social and foreign policy promises, such as ending the unpopular US wars, policy for which he was elected in 2016, Biden’s narrow lead is an indictment of poverty. Similarly, the record-level voter turnout is not an expression of enthusiasm and special legitimacy, because the numbers obscure the ways in which the election of both candidates was predominantly motivated not by a pro-sentiment for Trump or Biden but by a rejection, even hatred, for the opponent. The Democratic party establishment believes they may return to the “good Obama years” in 2020 and simply refuses to acknowledge that it was also Obama’s technocratic-neoliberal policies that made the rise of Donald Trump’s right-wing authoritarian nationalism possible in the first place. This inability to be self-critical is best embodied by Hillary Clinton, who in her book “What Happened” on the causes of her electoral defeat at the hands of Trump could only helplessly blame Sanders, who provided Trump with the arguments, and Putin, who influenced the US elections.
A Biden presidency will be under a bad star right from the start. This has partly to do with the narrow result and Trump’s actions, which have damaged Biden’s legitimacy in parts of the population from the beginning. We should remind ourselves that Trump led the Birthers in 2008/2009 who tried to undermine Obama’s legitimacy by claiming that he was actually born in Kenya and therefore could not be president. Obama, who had led a Democratic landslide victory after eight Bush years, came under pressure from the radical right-wing Tea Party movement in February 2009, just one month after taking office! He pursued a centrist and technocratic policy designed to work “across the aisle” with the delegitimized Republicans and demobilized all the momentum – unlike Biden he at least did have momentum and an enthused base behind him – behind his election. On the back of the Tea Party, the Republicans returned to (congressional) power in the 2010 midterm elections. Since then Obama was driven by the Republican Party, which – with numerous Tea Party governors and congressmen – had been pushed hard to the right. Obama was already a failed president in 2010 and muddled through under constant attacks from the Right. His vice-president Joe Biden will be chased by right-wing opposition from day one and will perhaps fail from day one. While Obama not only brought a high degree of legitimacy and a mood of change into office, he also had a great deal of power in Congress at the start, whereas Biden starts with what may not be a defeat but what is also hardly a victory. The Democrats must bury their hopes of using the anti-Trump vote for a majority in the Senate. Even before the election it seemed certain that the Republicans would retain a filibuster minority of more than 40 senators, which can block any bold domestic agenda (even if there was one); now it is the case that Biden will have to rule against a Republican majority in the Senate as a whole. In the House of Representatives, the Democrats have not achieved a shift in the balance of power either, even though they will probably be able to defend their majority.
Remarkably, the left-wing members of Congress, who see themselves as Sanders Democrats and Democratic Socialists, including the popular Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, have almost all clearly defended their mandates, even against Republican opponents operating with a great deal of capital, while a number of prominent centrist Democrats lost their elections, in some cases unexpectedly. “In danger and greatest need,” the title of a German film by Alexander Kluge, “the course through the middle brings death.“ The Supreme Court, on the other hand, was moved massively to the right under Trump, because in his four years the president was able to appoint three judges for life, who are hard right-wingers: Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. This institutional shift to the right in this politically important body will shape the United States for years, even decades. As president, Biden cannot, even if he wanted to, remedy the social causes of Trumpism. But his attacks on the left and his program show that he does not want to anyway. During the election campaign, Biden stood up hard against the left-wing Social Democratic demands of the Sanders Democrats such as a public health system for all (“Medicare for All”) and a socio-ecological Green New Deal. Biden’s election campaign targeted a traditionally conservative suburban middle class, which, however, felt repelled by Trump’s racket rhetoric, his corona management and his generally seemingly erratic policies. His message, however, addressed an ultimately very small but powerful social elite that wants nothing more than a return to a sensible management of the status quo. But this is untenable. Biden 2020 will lay the foundations for Trumpism in 2024, no matter what the candidate of right-wing authoritarian nationalism will then be called.
For the 2020 elections also show this: four years of Trump have certainly consolidated a mass basis for this kind of politics. Although Trump presided over a disastrous bio-economic pandemic and broke his key election promises, he has succeeded in getting at least five million more people to vote for him. Currently, nearly 70 million Americans voted for him, compared to only 62.984 million in 2016. Trump may be “dead” but Trumpism is not – unless and until its social root causes are not dealt with. To do that, it would take at least a program as bold as the socialist Green New Deal for social-ecological transformation.
Systematic election analyses are complicated by the fact that the usual instruments of post-election polling are difficult to use and should be used with caution due to the large number of early and mail-in voters in these elections. In general, opinion polls are yet another loser in these elections. In 2016, some polling institutes had predicted with a probability bordering on absolute certainty that Hillary Clinton would win. Michael Moore stood alone in the wide open with his thesis that Trump would win the election. Then came the great Mea Culpa on the part of the institutes. They affirmed that the survey methodology had been extensively revised. Nonetheless, 2020 essentially repeated 2016. The landslide victory and “blue wave” predicted for the Democrats never materialized.
In the coming days and weeks, it will be necessary to clarify very carefully how this election outcome came about and which social groups, classes, races and ethnicities have continued to support Trump, or are supporting Trump for new reasons. At this time, little can be said with certainty. For now, one should be on one’s guard against rash theses such as “Racism did it” or “Racism did not do it” etc. For the empirical data that enable a systematic analysis do not yet exist in part and may never be available in reliable quality given the difficulties polling institutions face while trying to adapt their methodologies to accounting for the new phenomenon of the biased mail-in and early voting in combination with the equally biased exit polls.
This article was first published in the magazine “Luxemburg”. Ingar Solty is Senior Advisor for Peace and Security Policy with the Institute for Critical Social Analysis of Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, and Editor of this magazine.
Gustavo Sanchez and Charlotte Swasey