In just a few days, the results of the US presidential and congressional elections will be revealed. The gap between Trump and Biden in opinion polls is not as big as it was when Trump was running against Hillary Clinton. Opinion polls in 2016 predicted that Clinton would win, and today they predict Biden will win. It would be a surprise if opinion polls were not mistaken. Biden’s victory would be a surprise all by itself. But if Trump comes out on top this would deal a blow to the industry of polling in the future. No one would be surprised with this result because it has happened in the past.
Biden made mistakes in recent days during this critical time that could cost him the race if voters focus on his statements about his plan for protecting the environment, redistributing taxes, anti-oil industry statements and promises to heavily invest in renewable energy. These statements threaten the oil mining and trade industry, which makes the oil barons and workers oppose Biden and campaign against him.
In her book What Happened, Clinton acknowledged that she made a mistake when she said during her campaign that she intends to shut down many coal mines across the US to protect the environment, and ignored the fact that many US towns rely on this industry. Thus, placating environmentalists at the expense of coal mine owners and workers did not work out in her favour.
It appears that Biden did not learn from Clinton’s mistakes, which she admitted to herself. Meanwhile, there is concern among many circles in the US that redistributing taxes could impact both citizens as well as business and financial entrepreneurs. Biden looked bored or tense, or both, during the second debate with Trump, and glanced at his watch. Some remembered this also happened during the 1992 elections between George Bush Sr and Bill Clinton when the former did the same thing as Biden. It is said that this gesture impacted Bush’s chances because he appeared impatient and unable to engage in debate.
Will voters feel the same way this time around, especially as Biden’s old age and health condition could be the cause? Or will it play out differently? In all circumstances, no one can deny that Biden’s health and inability to concentrate for long periods of time remains a factor against Biden, demonstrated during the second debate.
Two issues remain that could make the result a surprise. First, predictions that voters will choose the same party for both the presidency and Congress. This is rare in US politics, since power is usually divided between the two major parties to prevent a concentration in the hands of one party. What would be the impact of sole Republican or Democratic control of power in all branches?
In general, there are real concerns that this could happen due to sharp divisions in US society, which have deepened and widened during Trump’s tenure. Excluding Republicans or Democrats from sharing power could intersect with Trump’s threat that he cannot guarantee that his supporters will remain calm if he loses. This will put US democracy on the line.
Strangely, Biden has seriously discussed what would happen if Trump refuses to leave the White House if he loses, and even the possibility of a coup by Trump. Newsweek reported that Biden said: “He’s the only president that I know that six of his generals who worked directly for him said he’s unfit to be president and commander-in-chief,” said Biden.
“So, I’m not worried about any coup here.”
Biden’s statements are similar to those of leaders in despotic or fragile states when there is a power struggle: Who will the army support? The answer to that question decides who will come to power. Biden tried to walk back on his statement, saying: “You know, I’m not really saying there’s going to be a coup, but let’s think about everything that’s been said.”
Biden’s denial of a possible coup does not erase his unfortunate reference to six “generals” who served under Trump. Biden insulted the US political system because he inferred that military leaders, not democracy, would prevent a military coup. It is as if he is saying that the US army and military institution will not allow Trump to carry out a coup, even if he wanted.
What remains of the US’s bright image of democracy if a nominee such as Biden participates in a seemingly serious conversation about what if the US reaches a point when the transfer of power is not peaceful? And that the army, not the democratic system itself, is the guarantor of the democratic process.
The question to Biden is whether he is confident matters will proceed on course if Trump loses and refuses to accept defeat, even if he leaves the White House but continues to tell his supporters the electronic voting conspiracy and overreaction to the Covid-19 outbreak caused his downfall.
Trump’s loss of the election will not end divisions that have spread in US society, and perhaps could deepen them further. Just as Trump’s supporters will be angry at his loss, Democratic supporters did not accept Trump’s victory in 2016 and battled to prevent him from taking the oath. They also encouraged protests to continue across the US, objecting to his victory.
While action against Trump among Democratic supporters remained within the law, it signalled a fracture in the credibility of the political and electoral system because supporters of the defeated candidate refused to accept the results of the elections.
The fissure is growing bigger every day and threatens the peaceful transfer of power, a key criteria for democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly