Friday, October 30, 2020
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The stark scenarios for a divided America

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THE unwritten first law of US presidential elections states that the very survival of the republic hangs on the outcome each time. Whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump wins this year, the republic will stagger on as usual, but the stakes are undeniably higher. 

Significantly higher – because of fears of worse street violence if Trump wins than that which has already disfigured 2020; the unpredictability of electoral lawfare if the Supreme Court has to pick a winner; and the worry that some public officials may compromise between their constitutional duty and their personal politics.

More brazenly than in the past, both Republicans and Democrats are refusing to say in advance that they will accept as fair the result of a vote distorted by Covid. More people are voting than ever by mail, which is easy to manipulate.

Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 gave immediate rise to the Resistance, consciously modelled on the way the French opposed German occupation during the Second World War by any means possible. Liberal Americans weren’t joking when they compared Trump to Hitler and his government as fascist. Polarisation between the parties has worsened since.

The pre-inaugural 3,000,000-strong Women’s March against Trump in Washington and other big cities was supposed to be the biggest single demo the United States had ever seen, a coalition representing every liberal interest from abortion to sexual rights which he was said to jeopardise (wrongly as it turns out).

Officials of the outgoing Obama administration left what became known as ‘a trail of breadcrumbs’ allegedly leading to evidence of collusion between Trump and Putin that resulted in the Russiagate scandal. Democrats in Congress blocked or slow-walked government and judicial nominations. The media trained their heaviest artillery on Trump’s person and his agenda.

There followed four years of unprecedented antagonism between the executive and legislative branches that has divided the country and envenomed politics even by extremist US standards. That’s history now. Another presidential election has arrived and attention is focused on the post-November 3 scenarios which will shape the next four years.

The first uncertainty hinges on whether Biden or Trump gets a clear, election day majority that cannot be overturned by postal votes. The result may not be known for weeks while these are counted and their validity contested in court. Trump will be president until January 21 even if he loses. But with the result open for so long, Biden will exploit the confusion to behave like the genuine president in waiting.

What are the obvious scenarios? All assume the Democrats keep the House of Representatives.

Trump wins and Republicans keep the Senate: The status quo continues, but is worse. At least two more years of ruthless combat with the House of Representatives that would make life in the front row of an England v Wales rugby scrum seem like a day out at Butlin’s. (There are Congressional elections again in 2022).

But some freedom of manoeuvre for the president including confirmation of any further Supreme Court nominees and control of foreign policy, which he’s good at.

He’ll probably be impeached again, though, with no greater chance of success unless he does decide to shoot someone on Fifth Avenue. The media will double down on permanent trial by anonymous source to discredit him further, if that is possible.

Trump wins, but Republicans lose the Senate: Four years of legislative deadlock because Trump won’t sign Democratic bills. No budgets are passed; government shutdowns proliferate, judicial vacancies are gridlocked. Most importantly, the odds on his being impeached successfully rise to 100 per cent.

Democrats then try to complete Trump’s disgrace by prosecuting him for the crime of having been elected. They turn on President Pence with the same fury and could conceivably try to impeach him too.

Biden wins, but Democrats fall short in the Senate: The president and the Democratic house are forced to compromise with the Republican senate on drastically scaled-down versions of their agenda, such as universal health care, the Green New Deal, free college tuition and forgiveness of student debt.

In fact, they can say goodbye to a lot of it. But Joe can rejoin the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal and mend relations with China to China’s advantage. He gets no judges. Democrats are free to prosecute Trump, an ordinary citizen again, for any reason they can find.

Biden wins and Democrats capture the Senate: Democrats now control the whole government as well as the permanent bureaucracy or deep state, of which they are the permanent proprietors whichever party holds political power.

There is now much more scope for the agenda cited above,  although it will still be more limited by the fact that it would take five US economies to pay for it all. The southern border, however, can be opened to more immigration (= more future Democratic voters) for free.

The president will concentrate on enacting whatever change he can that the Republicans can never roll back. This would include ending the Senate filibuster; packing the Supreme Court to ensure a permanent progressive majority which can legislate from the bench in Congress’s stead; granting statehood to Puerto Rico and Washington DC, which would guarantee four more Democratic senators.

Without the filibuster, simple majorities in the House and Senate can pass whatever they like, subject to the president’s signature. 

These acts alone will render Republicans virtually powerless at federal level in 2021 and probably later and is what people mean when they say this election really could have an irrevocable historic impact.

Those who think the Democrats will not go for broke forget the way Obama and Pelosi rammed healthcare through in their first two unfettered years at the sacrifice of their House majority. 

These are all consequences of this election that can be easily and realistically identified.

The idea that Trump might lose and have to be forcibly removed from the White House by the military belongs to the realm of scriptwriters kicking possible jokes around for a talk show host.

But the threat of a violent reaction from the base to a Biden loss is more plausible after recent months of rioting and looting in the cities. The shock troops are trained, ready and waiting.

Biden himself remains a big question mark. He’s 78 and frail. Can he last four years? Will he be a sock puppet president – and whose?

Democrats have used Covid adroitly to derail Trump’s expected cruise to re-election. If Biden wins the presidency, the biggest challenge to the nation – because it concerns how many Americans will die and how many jobs will be lost – will be his to solve.

Does he look like he has that drive and stature? Can even a Democrat in the White House contain the clamour for a Utopian social justice that substitutes black for white supremacy?

Interesting times ahead.

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Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes is a retired Anglo-Scottish journalist now living in France who during a 40-year career worked in eastern Europe before and after communism.

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