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The Big Read

Why Trump will be such a hard act for Biden to follow

Democrats may despise him, writes Andrew Buncombe, but as the election proved – his supporters very clearly do not

Trump received the second highest number of votes in history during this election

Karen Thode barely paused before responding to the question. How would she score Donald Trump’s presidency? Ten out of 10, she said with more than a hint of disbelief that anyone might think differently. She liked that he was pro-life and pro-Israel, and she had little time for accusations levelled during what was only the third ever impeachment of a US president. “It’s a sham,” she declared.

The Independent’s encounter with Thode took place on an icy night in late January in Des Moines, Iowa. But you could have posed the question in Miami or Mississippi, or in Minneapolis or Las Vegas, or any of the 190-odd rallies the president held after being elected, and the answer would be the same.

The people turning up with their bright red Maga hats and banners, waving the American flag and fizzing with excitement, all scored Trump equally high. It was 10 out of 10, (or 11), or else an A or A+ depending how they were asked to judge his performance.

Even speaking to people individually, away from the friends or relatives they had come with, and any sort of peer pressure that may have weighed on them, it was always the same. They never gave a 4 or 5. Nobody ever shrugged their shoulders as it to say they were not sure.

Despite Trump’s defeat, Republicans had a pretty good election (AFP/Getty)

“He is not bought and sold,” declared Jason Sist, who attended Trump’s final rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the night before election day, on another frigid night in the American heartland.

The specific topic may have differed – for some it was immigration, for others lowering taxes or appointing conservative – but all agreed on one thing: Trump had delivered on his promises to them.

“I’m the only candidate that gave you more than I promised in the campaign,” the president said at a rally this summer in Arizona. “It’s true. I’m the only one ever, maybe ever.”

Trump is not quite yet gone. But he is on his way out of the door. Almost three weeks after election day, and with his legal efforts to overturn Biden’s defeat apparently exhausted, he signalled to the General Services Administration to formally recognise Biden as president-elect and set in motion the steps to a formal transition.

“Our case STRONGLY continues, we will keep up the good ... fight, and I believe we will prevail,” he tweeted.

“Nevertheless, in the best interest of our country, I am recommending that Emily and her team do what needs to be done with regard to initial protocols, and have told my team to do the same.”

Biden has already made a lot of promises: to tackle the pandemic, to confront the climate crisis, and address systemic racism. In many regards, his broad aims are more ambitious than those of Trump, even if many progressives in the party believe his specific plans do not go far.

Biden wants to ‘fully adopt a clean energy future, not just for all of us today, but for our children and grandchildren’ (Getty)

He does want to simply rejoin the Paris Accord, for instance, something that can be done by executive order, but actually wants to combat the climate crisis and “fully adopt a clean energy future, not just for all of us today, but for our children and grandchildren”.

He can try to reengage with Iran, but that will not be as straight forward as it was for Trump to pull out of the deal brokered by Barack Obama. Biden has vowed to “re-enter the agreement, using hard-nosed diplomacy and support from our allies to strengthen and extend it, while more effectively pushing back against Iran’s other destabilising activities”.

Biden may say he wants to seek to address systemic racism, but in the eyes of XXXXX he has been part of the racist system. Now, he is promising to put an end to the “entrenched disparities which are allowed to quietly chip away at opportunity”.

In short, in four years’ time, will the Democrats be as thrilled with what Biden and vice-president-elect Kamala Harris have achieved as Trump’s followers so clearly are with his time in office?

Trump’s 2016 campaign was as much an emotional exercise as it was one built on specific policy platforms, the two parts perhaps bound by his difficult-to-fact-check pledge to Make America Great Again. Others viewed it –as evinced in the memorable words of George W Bush adviser Karl Rove – as evidence that most Americans wanted to “throw a brick through a plate glass window”.

Yet a handful of threads stood out: Trump wanted to stand with American workers, to lower taxes, especially for large companies, and position himself as an ally of religious conservatives, whether that meant appointing right-wing judges, or supporting efforts to undermine Roe v Wade.

Trump’s tax cuts were bigger even than those passed by Ronald Reagan in his first term (AP)

One thing Trump and the Republicans were able to deliver on was a large tax cut. Critics say the tax cut was regressive, and that it benefited wealthier people and corporations far more than it did ordinary Americans. Nevertheless, the tax cuts of December 2017 were, in some categories, the largest in recent history, bigger even that those passed by Ronald Reagan in his first term. Corporation tax was reduced from 35 per cent to 21 per cent, and an estimated 80 per cent of Americans saw a reduction.

“His legacy on taxes is very strong, and stronger than many other Republicans,” Grover Norquist, a veteran anti-taxation activist and president of Americans for Tax Reform, says from Washington DC. He says that while Reagan is remembered for bringing down the top rate for higher earners, Trump managed to lower corporation tax, which he said was the highest in the world.

Norquist says he does not agree with Trump’s policy of tariffs against China as they hurt Americans. However on pure taxes alone, he scores Trump “A”.

Another boast Trump often makes is that he is delivered for religious conservatives.

In 2016, the thrice-married failed casino magnate positioned himself as someone who would stand up for “Christian values”. He received 80 per cent of the votes of white evangelicals. This is another area where Trump is seen to have delivered on what he said: appointing Mike Pence, a staunch conservative Christian as his vice-president; recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and moving the US embassy to that city in a breach of decades of international consensus; arguing that the issue of abortion ought to be left to the states, (where it is most under threat); and associating with the likes of Jerry Falwell Jr and Florida-based preacher Paula White.

Brad Jurkovich, senior pastor of the First Bossier in Bossier City, Louisiana, says four years ago there was scepticism as to whether he would deliver on his promises. Yet, he says, he has done so.

Another right-wing appointment: Justice Amy Coney Barrett takes her oath of office to serve on the US Supreme Court (Reuters)

“When I talked to pastor friends of mine and Christian people, at least in my congregation, and in denominational life, they're very, very appreciative of President Trump's actions,” he says. “Because he really has done what he said he would do. And that means a lot.”

Another important area where Trump has delivered is the appointment, with the help of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, of conservative judges across the country. None of those has been more important than the three justices added to the Supreme Court: Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and, most recently, and most controversially Amy Coney Barrett. Their presence will likely give the highest court a conservative majority for years to come.

That Trump got to select three justices in four years was huge, as often reflected. “Apart from matters of war and peace, the nomination of a Supreme Court justice is the most important decision an American president can make,” he said earlier this when he released a list of potential picks.

In other areas Trump was less able to deliver on his promises. A pledge to ban travel to the US from eight Muslim-majority countries was partially watered down by the courts, and his project to build a wall on the southern border with Mexico has not passed 500 miles, though he has overseen a tough anti-immigration policy that saw children separated from their families. (Mexico insists it has not paid for the wall and there is no evidence that it has.)

The newly fortified border wall, along the beach in Tijuana, Mexico, has not exceeded 500 miles (AP)

He did order a bombing campaign against Isis that resulted in the recapturing of the so-called “caliphate”, and the death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He spent more on the military, and brought some troops home. Hey failed to lock up Hillary Clinton or pass a healthcare bill that would replace Obamacare.

He did cut huge numbers of Obama-era regulations, especially those intended to protect the environment. Trump could also boast about maintaining a strong economy, which he inherited from Obama, and presiding over the lowest levels of unemployment, including among communities of colour. He also stood up to China.

Despite occasional success stories, which he ensured received massive media attention, there was little progress made in redeveloping American manufacturing, or even provide new life to long-declining industries such as coal mining.

Polls show that in terms of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, a majority of Americans would have preferred him to prioritise combatting the virus, then protecting the economy. The death toll currently stands at almost 260,000, with 12.5m infected, and the situation is worsening every day.

Polls showed that Americans would prioritise health over the economy, an area where Trump failed his voters (Reuters)

“I also think a lot of his supporters are willingly overlooking areas where he has not done a good job,” says Dewey Clayton, professor of political science at the University of Louisville. “Job number one is keeping your citizens safe, and Covid-19 is practically out of control around the country, in rural and in urban areas.”

At the age of 78, by some years the oldest man to be president-elect, Biden has set himself some pretty ambitious targets: on the environment, a more equitable economy, a serious attempt to address systemic racism. He says he wants to return America to being a nation that works with its allies, rather than in isolation, or one that emphasises America must come first.

Equally challenging is his intention to try to pause or eliminate political hostility.

“I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide, but to unify; who doesn't see red states and blue states, only sees the United States,” he said, speaking earlier this month alongside Harris, as they delivered victory speeches in Wilmington, Delaware.

“It's time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again. And to make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as enemies.”

Kamala Harris was a smart pick, like many of the new appointments to Biden’s administration (Reuters)

So far, his hands somewhat hampered by Trump’s refusal to acknowledge his defeat, Biden has done pretty well. He has reacted with remarkable grace to the president’s refusal to concede, to grant him or his top staff access to classified briefings on national security, or the most up-to-date information about the pandemic.

He has also been smart in the picks for his administration that have so far been announced: Anthony Blinken for secretary of state; Alejandro Mayorkas, the first Latino nominated to serve as secretary of homeland security; and Linda Thomas-Greenfield for US ambassador to the UN. He also tapped his old friend John Kerry to lead the administration's effort to combat climate change, and nominated former deputy CIA director Avril Haines, as the first female director of national intelligence.

Between them they represented some diversity, some historic firsts, and a lot of experience, much of its earned during the Obama administration.

“It’s a team that reflects the fact that America is back,” Biden said, introducing his selection. “Ready to lead the world, not retreat from it. Ready to confront our adversaries, not reject our allies. And ready to stand up for our values.”

But Biden is not going to have it easy. When he finally takes office, who knows how bad the pandemic will be, and what progress will have been made in delivering the vaccine to those most in need. How will the economy be faring after what Biden has said will be a “dark winter”.

Avril Haines will become the first female director of national intelligence (Reuters)

Of crucial importance to Biden’s ability to act quickly and comprehensively, as Obama was able to do when he entered office amid the global recession, will be whether Democrats also control the Senate.

If not, any bills generated by Biden or else Democrats in the House of Representatives, will have to get passed the block of McConnell, who has long shown himself to be a spoiler.

That decision will depend on the outcome of two senate run-off races in Georgia, being held on January 5. Democrats need to win both of them to ensure they control the upper chamber of Congress. If they do do not, Biden will be the first incoming president in 100 years forced to work with a divided legislature.

And then there is the matter of Trump. Democrats may be celebrating that their man secured a record-breaking 80m votes. But Trump’s total of around 74m is the second-highest number ever.

Democrats need to win both senate run-off races in Georgia. If they don’t Biden could be the first incoming president in 100 years forced to work with a divided legislature

Contrary to what Democrats had hoped, the election did not represent a repudiation of Trump or his views, far from it. In the House, Democrats lost seats they expected to win, and also lost around half-a-dozen battles for state legislatures. Other than for Trump’s defeat, Republicans had a pretty good election.

And Trump is not going away. With what he will consider a massive mandate from his supporters, he will be in a position to either run again in 2024 – probably unlikely – or wield great influence over who becomes the frontrunner.

Having already persuaded more than 50 per cent of Republicans that the election was fraudulent, even though there is no evidence to support this, he will likely be a thorn in Biden’s side, spreading disinformation and anger. If he adds his own television channel to his massive Twitter platform, he will only add to that voice.

Na'ilah Amaru, an activist and organiser in Georgia, which could determine so much of what happens, says Biden will face challenges over the pandemic, the economy and the presence of Trump. He also has to contend with infighting in the Democratic Party between its moderate and progressive wings.

She says Biden has plenty of things in his favour: his ability to work with political rivals, his willingness to seek a deal, the importance he attaches to experts. At the same time, some of the structural changes Biden and his supporters are looking to make could take decades or generations.

“The power of American government, if it's done right, is to have diversity of expertise in the same room,” she says. “And that's how you can think about innovative solutions to solve problems that Americans are just trying to get through.”

Biden may believe he has always been working towards this moment. On 20 January 2021, when he takes office, we will see if he can truly deliver.