The election result makes some sense, but pleases no one
Artillery Row

Letter from Washington: No one’s a winner

There won’t be a single moment. For years, Americans repulsed and radicalised by Donald Trump’s presence in the White House have imagined the champagne-popping instant when it became clear that it was all over. Rather than ending with a bang, however, the Trump presidency is dying a slow but inevitable death.

Joe Biden has not yet delivered a victory speech. He, like the rest of us, awaits results from Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia and Nevada. “We’re on our way to a clear win,” is the most he could say in a speech late on Friday night.

Donald Trump has delivered two speeches since election day, one angry, one dejected, both peddling deranged and unsubstantiated claims of a stolen election. Holed up in the White House, he appears to have no well-formulated plan to cling on to power, only retweets and tantrums. His lawyers are having no luck. His chief of staff, Mark Meadows, has tested positive for Covid-19. His team is split between those fighting to the bitter end and those looking for new jobs.

Taken as a whole, Tuesday’s results please almost no one completely. Donald Trump exits a loser, but America did not quite deliver the broader repudiation that his opponents had hoped for. Joe Biden, almost certainly the next President of the United States, has not had the thumping endorsement that the polls predicted. Democrats, who lost seats in the House of Representatives and whose only hope of taking the Senate is an unlikely double win in Georgia runoff elections in January, cannot claim a mandate for their substantive policy platform. (Not that that has stopped them from trying: Nancy Pelosi claims Biden has a bigger mandate than JFK.) 

Those who predicted that the GOP would live or die with Trump have been proven wrong, but none of the party’s various factions can claim vindication from the result. Trumpists who argue that the party is nothing without their larger-than-life hero will have to face up to the awkward fact that he was outperformed by less colourful down-ballot Republicans. The party elite must accept the potency of populist messaging and policies. No one has won the argument; instead all sides must find a way to get along.

If you are puzzled by the mixed message sent by the American people, it’s mostly because of expectations set by pollsters who we now know failed miserably. Take a step back and the logic of the result is not especially difficult to understand.

From the first day of his presidential bid, Joe Biden set out a limited case for his candidacy: to defeat Donald Trump and “restore the soul of the nation”. It worked in the Democratic primary because it chimed with the country’s mood more than the transformational plans laid out by his opponents.

After the coronavirus struck, Biden focussed first and foremost on the competency of the Trump administration’s response. When a series of police killings of black Americans sparked a national conversation about race, again Biden kept the question narrow, framing things in terms of the ways in which Trump deepens rather than bridges divides. Another candidate might have used these crises as opportunities to talk about wholesale changes to US healthcare or announce contentious policies designed to address racial inequality. But that was never the point of the Biden candidacy, which has only ever been about one thing: Trump’s unfitness for office.

Trump, hardly a self-effacing guy or an especially disciplined campaigner, was happy to make it about himself. Are you with me or are you against me, he asked.

That was the binary choice he and Biden both offered America, and on that particular question, they gave their answer. Once the votes are finally counted the answer will be clear enough.

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