Imagine for a moment that Hillary Clinton had won the presidential election in 2016.
Imagine, in other words, that the "blue wall" of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania had held firm four years ago. Claiming election fraud, Donald Trump would have insisted on a recount and Election Day would then, too, have stretched into election week and election month. Eventually, Trump would have given up, though not without insisting that the "deep state" had stolen his victory.
Once in office, Clinton would have set to work building on the Obama legacy. The United States would have remained in the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear agreement would still be in force, and perhaps a more robust health-care plan might even be in place. Competent civil servants would have taken charge of federal agencies, a tax cut for the wealthy wouldn’t have gone into effect, and the Democrats would have been well positioned in 2020 to reelect the first woman president and build a stronger congressional majority.
America wouldn’t have gone down the rabbit hole of Trumpism. Civic discourse wouldn’t have been coarsened. The country wouldn’t now be in such complete and utter...
Hey, wake up!
If Hillary had somehow managed to eke out a victory in 2016, she would soon enough have faced a Republican Party as hostile to compromise as the one that hamstrung Barack Obama. Opposition from Congress and Republican-controlled states, combined with her own centrist instincts, would have kept the country mired in a failing status quo: an increasingly unequal economy, crumbling infrastructure, a growing carbon footprint, a morbidly obese Pentagon, and other signs of a declining superpower that we’ve come to know so well.
Now, imagine what would have happened when the pandemic struck in 2020. Clinton would have responded more competently than The Donald because virtually anyone over the age of 12 would have been better suited to handle the emergency than he was. Indeed, if the United States had managed Covid-19 with anything faintly approaching the competency of, say, Germany under Angela Merkel, the country would have had, by my calculations, 2.6 million infections and about 45,000 deaths on the eve of the 2020 elections.
That obviously would be better than the 10 million infections and more than 245,000 deaths the United States is currently experiencing.
Keep in mind, however, that Americans wouldn’t have known just how bad the situation could have been. Quite the opposite: having set up a bully pulpit in an alt-right Fox News-style media conglomerate after his loss in 2016, Donald Trump would have led the charge on Clinton’s "mismanagement" of the pandemic and her direct responsibility for all those deaths. He would have assured us that the resulting economic downturn, with striking numbers of Americans left unemployed, could have been avoided, and that he as president would have prevented both those deaths and business cutbacks by immediately closing all borders and deporting any suspicious foreigners. He would have labeled the president "Killer Clinton" and, given the misogyny of significant parts of the American electorate, the name would have stuck.
In 2020, Donald Trump would have run on a platform of making America great again and won in a landslide.
Don’t, however, think of this as just some passing exercise in alternative history. Substitute "Joe Biden" for "Hillary Clinton" in the passages you’ve just read and you’ll have a grim but plausible prediction of what could happen over the next four years.
On the Road to 2024
Hillary Clinton would have faced challenges of every sort if she’d won the presidency in 2016. They nonetheless pale in comparison to what now awaits Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
The Republicans are already gunning for the new president. They’re blocking the transition process to handicap the incoming administration. President Trump has forbidden federal agencies from even cooperating with the Biden-Harris team. The 2020 presidential election forms part of the Republican Party’s denialism trifecta: the pandemic, climate change, and now Biden’s victory are all simply liberal "myths."
The Republican Party will either control the Senate—pending the outcome of two run-off races in Georgia—or, at least, be able to disrupt any major pieces of legislation. The Biden administration will be hard-pressed to roll back the tax cuts the Republicans handed out to the wealthy in 2017, pass a major green infrastructure bill, or expand affordable health care.
When Biden tries to implement a nationally cohesive program to combat Covid-19 through more testing, tracing, and investment in medical equipment, he’s guaranteed to face resistance from a number of Republican governors who have refused even to mandate the wearing of masks. And then there are all those Republican-appointed judges just itching to rule on any legal challenges to Biden’s executive orders, not to speak of a Supreme Court now located in the bleachers beyond right field that will serve as an even greater constraint on an activist agenda.
And those are just the political obstacles. The pandemic is clearly spiraling out of control. The economy has yet to crawl out of its hole. And Donald Trump has a couple of more months to scorch the earth before his army of incompetents are driven out of Washington, D.C.
Then there are the 71 million Americans who just voted for him despite his criminal conduct, gross mismanagement, and near-psychotic view of the world. Short of a nationwide deprogramming campaign, the adherents of the Trump cult will continue to cling to their religion (and their guns). In the Biden years, they’re sure to form an industrial-strength Tea Party opposed to any move the federal government makes. And let’s be clear: their resistance will not be exactly Gandhian in nature.
At the same time, it’s essential to separate their illegitimate complaints laced with racism and misogyny from their all-too-legitimate grievances concerning the American economy. Much of Trump’s base sees that economy, quite correctly, as unfair and the elite as not sharing the wealth. Unless the Democrats succeed in proving themselves to be the party of the 99% and successfully show how the Republicans are the 1% club—by, for instance, publicizing the true impact of Trump’s tax cuts for the rich—the Biden administration will fall victim to charges of elitism, which is a political death sentence these days.
Everything that Hillary Clinton faced during her hypothetical first term in office will apply to Joe Biden in his very real first term. Trump will never give up on the fantasy that the 2020 election was stolen from him. He’ll continue to rally his followers through social media as well as Breitbart and the One America News Network. Even if he doesn’t have the fire in his 78-year-old belly to run in 2024, other true believers will eagerly pick up his torch, whether from his own family or a pool of loyalists that includes Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, and Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton.
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No matter how well President Biden does in dealing with Covid-19 and how quickly a vaccine comes on line, he’ll be saddled with the responsibility for everyone who dies in the pandemic from January 20th on. Ditto with future economic problems, no matter that they were quite literally dropped in his lap as he entered the Oval Office. All the faults that Trump’s followers refused to see in their own candidate will suddenly be magnified in their vision of Biden.
Trump, in their eyes, was a man who could do no wrong. Biden will be the man who can do no right. A significant percentage of those 71 million Americans will want to make sure that Biden, too, is a one-term president.
Unfortunately, several international examples can serve as models.
The Liberal Interregnum
Beware the right-wing revolutionary movement thwarted.
Donald Trump promised to turn the world upside down: to throw out the Washington elite, radically shrink government, close off borders, bolster white privilege, and restore American unilateralism. As a platform, it wasn’t much more than the photo negative of Barack Obama’s agenda, but it was a clarion call to shake things up that thrilled his followers.
Thanks to a mixture of bureaucratic inertia, liberal resistance, and his own managerial ineptitude, Trump failed to carry out his revolution—and now the elite has struck back. The newspapers are full of columnists, Democrats and former Republicans alike, delirious with anti-Trump triumphalism: "Loser!," "You’re Fired!," "Our Long National Nightmare Is Over." The Dow Jones is celebrating and Hollywood has popped the bubbly, while the foreign-policy mandarins are looking forward to the return of predictability and their version of stability. Even the Pentagon, particularly after the shocking post-election dismissal of Defense Secretary Mark Esper, will be relieved to see the end of the Disrupter-in-Chief.
But the celebrations may prove premature. Just consider recent examples of right-wing populist revolutions elsewhere that were stopped in their tracks by elections.
The Trumpian Viktor Orban was the prime minister of Hungary from 1998 to 2002. His time in office was marked by corruption scandals, tax cuts, and efforts to concentrate power in the hands of the executive. In the 2002 elections, a coalition of the Socialist and Liberal parties ousted him and, governing for eight years, seemed to have put Orban’s brand of authoritarian politics in an early grave.
In the 2010 elections, however, he returned from the political dead and has since transformed his country from a bastion of liberalism into an autocratic, intolerant, uber-Christian friend of Vladimir Putin. In the process, the Socialists became synonymous with a corrupt, economically unjust status quo and the Liberals simply disappeared as a party.
Nor is the Hungarian experience unique. In Poland, the Law and Justice Party has moved the country’s politics steadily rightward since achieving a parliamentary majority in 2015. But it, too, had an earlier experience (from 2005 to 2007) as part of a governing coalition. In between, the more liberal Civic Platform Party took charge, but did little to improve the livelihoods of the bulk of working Poles, ultimately driving ever more voters into the arms of the right-wing Law and Justice Party. In its second crack at power, those right-wing nationalists did indeed push through a number of economic reforms that began to redistribute wealth in a way that fulfilled their populist promise.
In Japan, right-wing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had a brief opportunity to govern in 2006-2007, only to return in 2012 after a failed effort by the opposition Democratic Party to reform Japanese politics. As the country’s longest-serving prime minister—Abe stepped down for health reasons in August—he succeeded in making Japan "great" again as an inward-looking, jingoistic power.
Right-wing nationalists certainly learned something about wielding power from their first experiences of leadership, while their liberal successors, by failing to offer fully transformational politics, prepared the ground for the return of the right. After a period of tumultuous rule, most people don’t want to jump from a bucking bronco onto another wild horse. So the prospect of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris appointing a competent cabinet and returning to the status quo ante by, among other things, rejoining the World Health Organization, signing onto the Paris climate accords, and welcoming back the Dreamers seems reassuring to many Americans. It won’t, however, be faintly enough to drive a stake through the heart of Trumpism.
In "The View from 2016," an essay I wrote for TomDispatch in 2007, I predicted that Barack Obama would win the 2008 election and serve two terms, but also that his administration would make only half-hearted gestures at reform—abiding by the Kyoto protocol on climate change, but not committing to deeper cuts in carbon emissions; canceling a few weapons systems, but not transforming the military-industrial complex; tweaking the global war on terror, but not ending it; and so on.
Apocalypse, I concluded,
"comes in many different forms. There are the dramatic effects of sword and fire and famine. And then there's the apocalypse of muddling through. That's what happens when you just carry on with the same old, same old and before you know it, poof, end of the world. It's an apocalypse that's neither too cold nor too hot, neither too hard nor too soft. It's the apocalypse of the middle, the Goldilocks apocalypse."
In 2016, a hungry bear named Donald Trump emerged from the woods and took out Goldilocks. (Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
After four years of bracing for a more conventional apocalypse precipitated perhaps by Trump’s itchy nuclear trigger finger, we’re back in Goldilocks territory. More than half the country craves a return to normalcy by dumping Donald Trump and then defeating Covid-19. Under the circumstances, it’s easy enough to forget that the pre-Trump normal wasn’t actually very good. The world was already in the midst of a climate crisis. The global economy was providing anything but a fair shake to everyone and so generating a politics of resentment that propelled Trump and his cohort to power. Countries continued to spend almost $2 trillion a year collectively on war and preparations for it, leaving societies ill-equipped to handle an onrushing pandemic’s war on the health of humanity.
Joe Biden should learn this key takeaway from the Obama years: muddling through not only speeds us toward a Goldilocks apocalypse but makes it so much more likely that another bear will come out of the woods to "reclaim" its house.
Let’s face it: Biden and Harris are card-carrying members of an elite that’s enamored of the Goldilocks middle ground. The only way they could pivot from that position would be by implementing a full-blown green economic renewal that benefitted America’s blue-collar workers while satisfying environmentalists as well. The blue bloods of the Republican Party will inevitably call such a jobs approach "socialism." The next administration has to push forward nevertheless, appealing over the heads of the Republican leadership to a base that desperately wants prosperity for all.
Remember: other bears are lurking out there and they seem to have acquired a certain taste for cautious politicians. Sure, a few disgruntled ursine types will go into hibernation after the 2020 election. But when the hoopla dies down, others will venture out, angry, resentful, and looking for their next big meal.