Spoiled ballot: everyone has moved on from the US election except Trump
He’s getting wearisome now, the ornery president.
Donald Trump lost the 2020 US presidential election: that fact should be as uncontroversial as the time on the Oval Office grandfather clock.
Instead, Americans and millions of observers around the globe in the days since the vote have watched the supposed leader of the free world rail against the result like a spoiled infant losing a party game.
Evidence of significant voter fraud has been conspicuously absent. Cases of election tampering are extremely rare in general and there has certainly been no sign of anything on the scale that would be necessary to invalidate the result of this poll. But the president has repeated the spurious allegations ad nauseam.
In the eyes of many progressives, it has been the ultimate act of self-degradation after four years in which Trump has shown himself repeatedly to lack the character to hold high office.
To underline the point, John McCain’s concession speech of 12 years ago has become one of the viral sensations of the month. Having lost the 2008 election to Barack Obama, the Republican McCain conceded at 11pm on election night, saying of Obama: “In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans, who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president, is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving.”
McCain in defeat showed statesmanship and inspirational leadership, a glimpse of what might have been, turning boos from the crowd at his mentions of Obama into cheers of agreement by the end.
By contrast, the president’s false claims, his bitterness and his inability to find the dignity to concede graciously to Joe Biden in a timely way, has set the course for a turbulent two months in American politics before inauguration and possibly a rocky four years afterwards.
There is talk of him running again in 2024, or his anointed one, daughter Ivanka, running as his proxy. That raises the spectre of Trump, unencumbered by political office, roaming the country holding rallies and designating himself the voice of the people, in the style of a certain British crony of his, Nigel Farage.
But whatever happens to Trump’s political career, one thing is certain: he will leave the White House on 20 January, even if his fingertips have to be prized off the door jamb
Some predict that his value will drop when he leaves office but many others predict the opposite, that he will continue to dominate Republican politics for years due to the enthusiastic support he commands among conservative voters.
But whatever happens to Trump’s political career, one thing is certain: he will leave the White House on 20 January, even if his fingertips have to be prized off the door jamb.
And in will come Joe Biden in his place.
For observers on this side of the Atlantic, that is now the focus of their concerns.
The election of Biden has reshaped the geopolitical landscape overnight and once again called into question the wisdom of the UK Government’s Brexit tactics. Boris Johnson has been described as “Britain Trump” by the current president, who sees in him a fellow populist. It’s not a brand that appeals to Joe Biden.
It’s wryly suggested by some that the transatlantic special relationship still exists but is between the US and Ireland, not the US and Britain. That may be particularly true for this president-elect. Hours after being proclaimed victor, Biden was asked for comment in a press scrum by a BBC reporter, Nick Bryant. Biden replied simply: “I’m Irish.”
The comment, delivered with a twinkling smile, will have caused a flutter of dismay in Whitehall. In January, the UK signed a withdrawal agreement with the EU containing the Northern Ireland protocol to maintain an open border in Ireland after Brexit, should there be no trade deal.
In September, the government shocked observers at home and abroad by pushing the Internal Market Bill through the Commons, empowering it unilaterally to ignore parts of the protocol – a move that ministers admitted broke international law. In response, Biden made clear where he stood, saying that the Good Friday Agreement must not become “a casualty of Brexit”. “Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”
A bilateral American trade deal being the symbolic first prize for Britain after it has gone to the trouble of leaving the EU, that left Downing Street in a difficult position.
To make matters worse, no sooner had Biden emerged victorious from the election, than the controversial bill was very publicly denounced by peers in the House of Lords. They voted 433 to 165 to delete the measures seeking to override the Northern Ireland protocol. For good measure, Lord Clarke, the former Tory chancellor and home secretary, said the provisions were a “Donald Trump-like gesture” and that the government was acting like a dictatorship.
The Lords’ defiant move meant Downing Street had to make a very public choice: would Boris Johnson be pragmatic and seize the opportunity to backtrack, closing down the possibility of creating a border in Ireland and winning approval in Washington? Or would the government press ahead with its bill back in the Commons, even though to do so could be tantamount to pressing the plunger on a US trade deal?
It insisted it would hold its course – though for a government that has become dizzy with U-turns over everything from exam results to COVID to free school meals, that cannot be taken as the last word.
Johnson has postponed a Commons vote on the bill until the end of the month, giving him time to try and reach a trade deal with the EU. Should a deal be agreed, it would give him the excuse he needs to drop the offending parts of the Internal Market Bill.
Brexit is the biggest headache for Johnson, but not his only challenge. He must also overcome the disdain towards him that has been emanating from the Biden camp.
While Biden’s advisers have in recent days stressed that the next president believes strongly in the special relationship, that America’s UK partners are “indispensable allies” to the US and that that view is “uniformly held among those close to the president-elect”, that enthusiasm does not apparently extend to their feelings about the current Prime Minister. Biden and other high-ranking Democrats are said to have been offended by Johnson’s description of President Obama during the Brexit referendum campaign in 2016 as having “an ancestral dislike of the British empire” born of his “part-Kenyan heritage”.
Biden has described Johnson as a “physical and emotional clone” of Trump.
Power has shifted. Americans have elected a new president who is already acting and being treated like the man in charge
Still, the incoming occupant of the Oval Office is a pragmatist, a bridge-builder and a man other leaders can do business with, which is likely, in the end, to prove more important than ideological differences or personal coolness. As if to underline the point, Biden called the Prime Minister last Tuesday ahead of other European leaders – a signal that the possibility exists of a close relationship and a trade deal, if Johnson pays heed to American priorities. Downing Street said the conversation was “warm” and the pair talked of working together on trade and security, and on shared goals such as climate change, promoting democracy and recovering from coronavirus.
The Americans added in their description of the call the subject of the Good Friday Agreement in the context of Brexit. It emerged that the president-elect raised the matter twice during the 25-minute call and went on to reiterate his support for it later during a call with Ireland’s Taoiseach Micheál Martin.
Johnson’s response? To assure Biden that the Good Friday Agreement would be respected (he could hardly do anything else).
Now he has to deliver on that.
Power has shifted. Americans have elected a new president who is already acting and being treated like the man in charge.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has plotted a course that has made him look increasingly desperate. He may still hold sway over the Republican party by dint of his fanbase, with many senior party figures staying tight-lipped about Biden’s victory, but Trump’s attempts to use lawsuits to pull apart the election result has only exposed the baselessness of the allegations.
Thank goodness for the light relief provided by the now internationally famous Four Seasons Total Landscaping business, situated between an ‘adult book shop’ appropriately called ‘Fantasy Island’, and a crematorium on a Philadelphia business park. Rudi Giuliani’s press conference in the car park there (after it was accidentally booked instead of its namesake hotel downtown), has become a metaphor for the increasing irrelevance of Trump’s hangers-on.
The sitting president isn’t done yet, as his firing of defence secretary Mark Esper shows. Given his history of capricious, unpredictable behaviour, that is unlikely to be his last disruptive act.
But change is in the air and both the White House and Downing Street have no choice but to adjust.