Arvanitakis on American politics: What will happen next?

| November 14, 2020

As the results of the US election came rolling in and President Trump hit an early lead, messages started flooding into my inbox and phone.

Almost each message was a version of: ‘Oh my God, Trump is going to win again!’ My response was always the same: ‘I do not think so. It will be close, but Biden is likely to be the 46th President.’

My confidence was based on the fact that COVID19 had already defeated by flattening the economy – and it was the booming economy that Trump was relying on to get re-elected. While Trump spoke of ‘the wall’ and ‘crime in America’s cities’, it really was the economy that was behind his political positioning.

On the opposing side, Biden and Harris ran a disciplined campaign that essentially made the election a referendum on Trump. Without COVID19, this would have played into Trump’s hands. A significant section of the millions of voters that supported Trump, it is exactly the President’s brashness, his rallying against political correctness and the elites and his refusal to yield to the science of climate change that millions feel threatens America’s industrialisation. In other words, they do not vote for him despite this, but because of this.

COVID19 changed all this and highlighted the fundamental flaw with the ‘Trump model’: when you make everything about you, eventually everything will be about you, even a crisis you did not create.

While a clever politician, Trump could not find a response to COVID19 that was responsible without yielding to the ‘out of touch scientists’ his base so deeply distrusts. In the end, the virus took the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans – and many of who lost faith in Trump’s ability to protect them.

What will happen next?

The question is what will happen next. Here are four issues that will shape the next phase of American politics.

Firstly, Trump will remain a political player. Despite the fears of many, Trump will eventually concede. While there are many flaws in the American political system, a peaceful transition will occur because it suits all the powerbrokers: Republicans and Democrats alike.

Trump’s refusal to concede has not been openly criticised by the Republicans is because the Party needs his base to rally for the Senate run-off in Georgia on 5 January 2021. This run-off election will determine the fate of the Senate Republican’s majority. The last thing Mitch McConnell and the Republicans need is to be at odds with the President and his core supporters amid the must-win elections.

Further, Trump is raising funds to both pay off debts and prepare for 2024. Yes, Trump 2024 is already a thing! Whether he runs or not, even discussing 2024 means Trump will remain at the centre of all discussions and a key Republican power broker.

Trumpism is here to stay

This takes us to the next key issue: even if Trump goes, Trumpism is here to stay.

While I outlined the appeal of Trump the person, more important is the type of populism that he represents. A significant section of the American population has become vulnerable and have lost trust in ‘politics as usual’.

Just how vulnerable Americans feel is best encapsulated by a single figure: nearly 70 percent of Americans have less than $1,000 saved according to a GOBankingRates’ survey in 2019. Additionally, life expectancy rates have declined for three consecutive years.

In this environment, populists certainly gain traction when they claim that climate change and social justice may be the priorities for the ‘elites’ but second order issues for ‘real people’.

The third issue to watch for is what vision the Democrats will build. While Biden was elected because of the disciplined campaign, the Democrats have spent the last four years trying to bring down Trump rather than defining who they are.

While Biden supporters may have promised to make politics boring again, the American public has an appetite for change and the Democrats have no real vision to share. As such, this is likely to be a very short honeymoon period unless real action is taken – something that will be difficult as Biden is likely to face a gridlocked political system as he will fail to control the Senate.

The final point is to watch for Biden forgiving Trump for any crimes and misdemeanours. While most of Biden’s supporters want revenge, Biden will need to ensure Trump gets a free ride to keep the Republicans on side – and to make sure there is no quid pro quo when he steps down as America’s 46th President.