5 notes of caution on the US elections

I have read many takes on the US election and I share a sense of joy for what is without doubt an enormously good piece of news for the world. 4 years of Trump legitimized and bolstered many of the worst impulses of humans worldwide. It was about time to put an end to that season.

Now that a few days have passed I wanted to share 5 quick notes of caution that I posted on facebook over the past few days. But let me start from a preliminary point that I hope we all agree with.

Trump has lost clearly and fully. Karma exists!

Ironically, Biden’s victory completely mirrors Trump’s victory in 2016. He will most likely win with the same number of electoral college votes as Trump did in 2016: 306-232! Biden won all three rust belt states that surprisingly went to Trump in 2016. In two cases he won by almost identical margins than Trump had (Wisconsin and Pennsylvania) and in Michigan by a much larger one. On top, Biden flipped two traditional Republican strongholds. Arizona, the state of former Republican senator and stark anti-Trump voice John McCain. Secondly Georgia, partly thanks to the incredible work of the first African-American female major-party gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams who narrowly lost in the gubernatorial election in 2018. The white working class of rust belt states, some (few) moderate republicans (in Arizona it was mostly down to Latinos) and the black communities enraged by systemic racism symbolically united to send Trump packing, the third incumbent President getting fired after the first mandate since WWII. Biden has also ~5 million popular votes more than Trump and won even more votes than Obama in 2008 and indeed of any other presidential candidate in US history. When the count will finish in all states, he and Kamala Harris will likely reach almost 80 million votes. A terrific number of voters for a victory with a high degree of legitimacy, given the highest turnout rate in 120 years. The high turnout combined with a clear electoral college win with clear margins in most states leaves very little room for Trump to seriously rediscuss it. Of course Trump isn’t serious and will try anyway with postal ballots as he is already doing. But luckily karma exists and this time round Trump is the real loser.

Yet, Trumpism is alive and kicking

Yet, polls once again underestimated Trump support, which beggars belief given the >240K deaths from the pandemic, the assault on democratic conventions, the neverending cultural war, the increasing inequalities and the increasingly visible consequences of climate change. Yet Trump got more votes than any other candidate before him and Biden, including Obama both in 2008 and 2012. Indeed if we exclude California from the count, Trump and Biden got pretty much the same number of votes (67 million). Significantly, Trump has increased his vote tally compared to his election in 2016, which is not uncommon for most US presidents but Obama failed to do so in 2012. It’s really mind blowing to think that 9 million people (probably more like 10 million when all votes will be counted) that did not vote for Trump in 2016, were convinced to do so after 4 shambolic years in the White House! More than one every 10 Trump voters has probably never voted Republicans before. There are more new Trump voters than residents in Ireland. Who are these people? Why were they convinced by Trump in these absurd 4 years? Any analysis that doesn’t try to answer these questions will miss a big element of this election. The bottom line however is clear. Trump might have lost the election, but Trumpism is alive and kicking.

Defeated by COVID and Black Lives Matter?

In fact, it seems fair to say that without COVID Trump would have won. The economy was going well and the enthusiasm for the opponents was hardly encouraging. But then the pandemic arrived and all over the world since the pandemic started populist politicians struggled electorally while science and experts gained the upper hand to those who supported them. It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to restore trust in scientists but it’s also fair to say that the pandemic exposed the frailty of the populist moment of world politics and its champions all over the world. It might come back with a vengeance but as long as experts will keep predicting the future, the future might not be that bleak politically. Trump suffered enormously by his mismanagement and denial of the pandemic as revealed by the different attitudes of democrat (82% of whom consider the pandemic “very important” in their vote) and republican (24% of whom voted based on COVID) voters. But he also suffered the mobilization of million of citizens by the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, in May. The call to end systemic racism resonated with and mobilized to vote many million citizens that failed to do so in previous elections, particularly in cities with big black communities (a staggering 94% of votes in Detroit were for Biden). Yet, it is possible that some people were equally mobilized by COVID and by BLM to vote for… Trump. Anti lock-down and law-and-order and racist narratives work well with some citizens who are not very politicised and Trump polarisation of these pivotal questions might be the reason why he also dramatically increased its share of votes, winning the majority of white male voters in virtually all states. It might also explain why the polls missed part of this: it was a new cohort of people usually inclined to abstain. It is a fact though, that inducing an economic crisis COVID prevented Trump to champion a narrative around his economic success. It also physically prevented him to campaign, reducing the number and sizes of rallies he could do. If there is one single thing we should thank the virus for, it might be that helped Americans get rid of a sociopath and proto-fascist president. But it should worry us if indeed we had to rely on a natural calamity to get rid of one of the worst human being ever elected to a position of significant power (and if he didn’t start any new war, he bombed more than his predecessors and civilian deaths skyrocketed under his presidency).

The rocky road ahead for democrats

Indeed democrats have a long way to go to build their long term future. All things considered, a democratic coalition propelled by hatred towards Trump, in which the Left played a significant role and in the absence of any progressive electoral competitor (there was no green candidate, while there was a libertarian candidate that possibly damaged Trump) just about made it in the contests that mattered. Most of the work was indeed done by Trump who would motivate any sensible person to vote against him. In fact, few things give more satisfaction than making sure that someone who hates losing actually loses. Yet Biden’s campaign deserves some credit. The strategy to keep Biden almost invisible was not necessarily ineffective if indeed his role was to catalyze the votes of a very diverse coalition united mostly by the motivation to get rid of Trump. His pick of a black woman as vice president was also symbolically effective and it helped to boost support among women and minorities. Furthermore, Biden was way more likable than Clinton and however bad his past positions, he still looks less of a hawk than her and he doesn’t seem to have stolen the primary as much as she did. Indeed he’s no socialist but he is down to earth, humble, compassionate and emphatic, with a vintage touch. He really is the anti-Trump in this sense. The Afro-American community that propelled him to win the primary saw this through. He looks so old and loud, he has a distinct touch of the ’80s. He literally is a politician from the past century catapulted to the present to save America from Trump. A better form of nostalgia. Indeed there is little evidence that Sanders would have done better than Biden (while there is an abundance that he was a better candidate than Clinton). Yet nostalgia won’t be enough in four years time. Without the motivation to get rid of Trump, Democrats will need an agenda of change that generates some hope in the future. Radical and socialist ideas and ideals will be the fuel of that hope. As Alexandra Ocasio-Cortex promptly pointed out, it’s all but sure that they will be.

A dysfunctional democracy in need of urgent reform

Despite the highest turnout in 120 years, at 67% it was still pretty low in European terms. Both candidates got more votes than anyone before them also because the stakes were high and in many states the race was perceived as close. The mere fact that Texas was in play for the first time in decades increased votes there by more than 2,5 million votes (~+30% of votes cast in Texas and Florida and in other swing states vs ~+15% in West Virginia, Vermont and other places where the outcome was obvious). Americans (as everyone) vote more when the vote matters more but in too many cases it just doesn’t, with the outcome already certain before even the first vote cast is even looked at. First-past-the-post electoral systems keep people away from voting. Democracy is only full when all votes matter, which is basically the principle Trump is fighting against as we speak. On top the electoral college system is systematically biased in favor of the Republicans, as explained by Nate Silver. A shift to a nationwide vote system will make imperative for the Republicans to moderate their stances to convince Californians and New Yorkers. Sure, American democracy is almost three centuries old and rules and conventions that survived until 2020 should not be mocked by the rest of the world, as democratic institutions are precious everywhere. Yet they take so much to count votes compared to most countries where the electoral outcome is rock solid few hours after the election. There are astonishing methods of voters suppression. Even more astonishing is the lack of any centralised federal election system giving official results before months after the election. “Decision desks” of media organisations make extremely important political calls about which states have been won. Sure, their decision is based on objective data, but their timing is extremely political and can influence events in significant ways, something that has very little justification in democratic terms. The whole system is not fit for purpose but the battle to reform it might consume many years of American politics, as the Republicans have all the incentive to oppose change and a toxic polarization will continue. Most states have voted in the same way since 1992, 28 years ago (16 voted always democratic, 13 always republican). The United States of America will most likely remain a deeply divided nation with an old and dysfunctional democratic system, chaotically run and systematically biased. We can’t but hope they will fix it before Trump finish to undermine it and/or a more competent authoritarian will take his place, as it’s likely to happen.

A manifactured conspiracy

Two days after the election it became clear that Georgia and Pennsylvania were about to go for Biden. Trump knew it and chose to speak first from the White House declaring he had won and a fraud was ongoing. If it had happened in an African country the international community would have started talking about an attempted coup. This was nowhere random. The entire narrative of the last few months was in effect a manifactured conspiracy. Conspiracy theory emerge to explain real events in terms of a conspiracy by a sinister group of people. They usually are independent to the event they seek to explain. 9/11 happened, media told us what happened and then alternative theories to the “official version” arose. In the case of the alleged electoral fraud in the 2020 American election, things didn’t quite go this way. No conspiracy was created to explain the facts. Facts were planned in order to fit the conspiracy. As Bernie Sanders clearly foresaw, Trump worked hard to make sure that the electoral night would make it look like he had won and that Biden’s victory would only become apparent days later. He did so by deliberately underfunding the postal service, undermining postal votes among his electorate who would then vote in person, and making sure that as many swing states as possible would only count postal ballots day after the election. In Pennsylvania and in other Republican controlled states, early processing of mail-in ballots was deliberately prevented. A “red mirage” on election night was the fact which was meant to fit the conspiracy. It worked: 70% of republican voters think the election has been fraudulent. What was the conspiracy for? Retain control of the Republican party in case of defeat? It doesn’t really matter. But the fact that this maneuver appears to be working should concern us all. From the era of fake news we are entering the even more dangerous era of manifactured conspiracies. There is no limit to the fake narratives that can be built based on facts that can be manipulated.

The big question now is for how long will Trump refuse to concede and what he will do until then. His behavior in the next two months will determine the future of American democracy and that of the Republican party and will have a profound and lasting influence over the right wing parties in the West. If the immensely popular leader of the Republican party refuses to accept the outcome of the election, the legitimacy of democratic institutions in the US is in peril. If right wing populist around the world start contesting the legitimacy of the elections they lose, this might undermine the legitimacy democratic systems worldwide. We have seen what has happened for short periods in Italy with Berlusconi and in the UK with Brexit. Trump could bring the erosion of trust in democratic institutions to the next level. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the future of democracy in Western countries is at stake.  

Democrats still have a chance to gain control of the Senate if they win the two runoffs in Georgia in January. If they won’t, the President will be very weak and Trump’s narrative of a stolen election might consume the legitimacy of his successor. This is precisely what happened in Italy in 2006 when Berlusconi lost the election but kept speaking about electoral fraud for the following two years. The government fell and Berlusconi won the 2008 election by a landslide. Americans can still plan for a better future. Winning the senate runoffs in Georgia is a big part of this plan.

Finally, my three unlikely heroes of the US elections

Pennsylvania postmen and vote counting workers who kept counting votes even when they started receiving death threats.

Fox News decision desk chairman who called Arizona for Biden undermining Trump’s narrative on Tuesday night.

Bernie Sanders who fought as a lion to make Joe Biden president!

Thank you to all of them and to all those who helped end this dark season of American politics. Thanks to them, the world is indeed a better place. Let’s keep fighting for it.


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