With Trump’s departure the latest chapter of Republican tenure at the White House has finally ended. A new one begins as the Democratic President Joe Biden sets up house there. But the transition lacked the usual, smooth splendour. In fact, it was marked by tragedy.
In the storming of the Capitol on 6 January, a gruelling ordeal for US democracy, five people were killed. But it is the loss to the US’s reputation that is materially and morally incalculable. Then, before the inaugural ceremonies commenced on 20 January under heavy security, it came to light that 12 of the 25,000 soldiers who were screened for the process were found to have extremist and criminal tendencies.
The silence was almost deafening after participants and a sparse audience gathered in front of the Capitol building in the absence of both the ex-president and the crowds that usually accompany him. A pall hung over Arlington Cemetery. After President Biden was sworn in, he gave a short address that might be summed up in two words: healing and unity. In this case at least, the two words are synonymous. They acknowledge the truth and offer a hope that is somewhat stronger than idle wishes, but still requires a way ahead and much hard work.
“At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed,” Biden said. To a nation that had given him 82 million votes while 75 million voted for his opponent, he pledged, “I will be a president for all Americans.” At this moment of crisis and challenge, he continued, “unity is the path forward...[united] we will not fail... We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature. For without unity, there is no peace – only bitterness and fury. No progress – only exhausting outrage. No nation – only a state of chaos.” With a touch of humility he stressed, “The American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us… in the work ahead we’re going to need each other.”
The start of this new chapter has had a calming effect. The Democrats’ victory after four difficult years ended weeks of anxiety and rumours that the outgoing president would declare martial law or that the hordes of Trump fanatics would invade Washington DC. As it turned out, democracy has fangs it has never had to bare before, because up to now this essentially rational process has convinced a “majority” to protect the system by itself.
As calming as the beginning was, there is no doubt that Biden’s aims are in some ways contradictory. He wants a unity that will revive dialogue between Democrats and Republicans, and there have been signs that this might be possible indeed. A minority of Republican senators have signalled their willingness to vote with the Democrats in favour of trying and convicting the former president for insurrection.
More immediately, former vice-president Mike Pence’s presence at the inaugural ceremony testified to a Republican-Democrat bridge. This bridge emerged out of the crucible of the turmoil that erupted just as Congress convened to confirm the Electoral College votes. However, Biden also indicated that unity had to pass through the policies he and his Democratic colleagues plan to pursue.
Some of these policies mean reversing actions taken by his Republican predecessor. Biden’s first steps will be to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organisation, lift Trump’s immigration and visa bans on countries with Muslim majorities, and halt federal funds for the construction of the consummately Trumpist border wall between the US and Mexico.
But Trump’s policies were less about his own views and attitudes than about those of large portions of Republicans and, above all, white evangelical conservatives. That said, many Republicans might go along with Biden’s actions, especially given they were adopted through executive orders and, therefore, could be reversed again at some future point with other executive orders.
Still, the American path to unity is strewn with thorns. Some of these are familiar, such as the traditional Republican-Democratic spats over public spending. In mid January, Biden unveiled a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package and he is laying the groundwork for a $2.7 trillion economic stimulus programme. Yet, as public spending grows resources are likely to decline with student loan relief and the expansions in infrastructural reform pledged by both Obama and Trump. For Biden, today, that reform is an instrument to promote unity. He also plans to clear the way to citizenship for about 11 million people without legal status, which means increased social insurance and healthcare costs.
Democrats and Republicans have always been at loggerheads over high levels of public spending and government intervention versus high government deficit and its inflationary impacts. This time their disputes will play out amid the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic. They will also take place in the wake of a severe political crisis that could resurge when Trump is brought before a Senate for an impeachment trial that may well prod his supporters into action again.
Most Republicans in the Senate will be looking to see how much Trump still controls their bases before deciding whether to vote for or against him in the impeachment trial. As the situation stands, it is unlikely that the Democrats will be able to receive at least 17 Republicans to vote with them in order to obtain the two thirds majority needed to convict Trump and prevent him from running for public office and sowing political havoc again.
However, the core issue that divides Americans is globalisation and its repercussions: the immigration of large numbers of people from different cultures, their competition in the market for low paying jobs, the migration of US industries to other countries, the flooding of American markets with cheap imports from countries with ineffective labour syndicates and underpaid labour. It was such factors that created the Trump base, which will serve him again if he returns to politics.
The multi-coloured society that Biden referred to in his address is the very antithesis of what that base believes: the perceived “theft” of American wealth. Though the US billionaire Warren Buffett would respond to him, Trump once remarked that China has been taking $500 billion a year from the US since 2003.
It appears that this outlook was generalised to the extent that it was projected onto all US foreign relations under Trump, in matters of trade as well as diplomacy and security. If Biden’s foremost strategic objective is to steer the US back to the global helm, the cost of this aim will deepen the gap across the American divide, making the realisation of unity harder.
The US’s healing and unification process will need far more than compassion and the necessary resources. The US laid the technological foundations for the means of production that made globalisation real and that simultaneously made the US’s share in gross global production fall from 50 per cent after World War II to less than 15 per cent today.
That decline has set limits on American world leadership and created a larger space for China and other countries in global affairs. Simply put, convicting Trump while ignoring the phenomena that created his base will not bring about heeling and unity. What is needed are fresh ideas and an innovative project that transcends everything the US has ever known.
* The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 January , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly