What the Hell Just Happened?

Joe Biden is now President-Elect of the United States, and Donald Trump’s time in office is soon to end, with these next few months being the final note in four years of chaos and horror in the White House. Biden’s path to the presidency has been a long and winding journey. Since first declaring his candidacy for President in 1987, Biden has been a powerful senior figure in the senate, been second-in-command to one of the most popular presidents in living memory, had scandals surrounding his views of women and minorities, and endured public humiliation and great personal tragedy. So why has his time come now?

The expectation going into November was of a Biden victory, and perhaps a landslide. Much of the overriding fear for many in the build-up had been that even a Biden victory in the Electoral College may not be enough to actually remove Donald Trump from office, especially if the margins of said victory were slim. Early in the night there were major warning signs in Florida, particularly coming from counties with higher populations of Latino voters – dashing hopes of a historic landslide where states like Texas were in play. Miami-Dade, one of the most urban and diverse counties in the state, gave Trump a massive boost – going from 33% of the vote four years ago to 46% in 2020. 

Democratic leads remain incredibly close in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Realignment occurred but not in the way Democrats expected: Trump won a bigger share of the African American vote than any Republican running for President in decades, and boosted his support among Latinos, ensuring victories in Texas and Florida, and making Nevada a nail-biting finish. Given the circumstances of this election, this is a hugely underwhelming victory.

Unsurprisingly, the use of the same electoral strategies as Hillary Clinton was the weakest link of the Biden campaign. The prominent placement of Republicans against Donald Trump at the DNC and whose endorsements of Biden were meant to create a bipartisan appeal against Trump was straight out of the 2016 playbook – and it once again failed, with more registered Republicans voting for Trump this time round.

Even in the case of a landslide, a Biden presidency was never going to be transformative. It is at best damage limitation, and damage limitation that is hampered by an obstructionist Republican senate and activist conservative judiciary. The left in the US and globally has to mourn the squandered opportunity of such an essentially winnable election that was not used to bring a vessel of transformation and major structural change to a very broken nation. His rather limited material promises basically added up to getting COVID ‘under control’ and expanding the ACA to include a ‘public option’ as it was originally intended to in 2009 (‘Biden-Care’ was publicly christened in the final debate).

But these proposals were on the backburner. The heart of this campaign was made clear from the very start, with the former VP’s launch: that this election is a battle for the soul of the nation, that Trump was an aberration and somehow unamerican. Nothing material, and fundamentally different to the tactics deployed by Sanders and Warren in the primary. On this point it is hard to tell whether Biden truly won the argument in this election: While true that Americans rejected President Trump, he still has an immense base of unwavering support, and even so-called moderates and independents turned out to show support for him and not for Biden. This was far from the landslide that would confirm the hypothesis that 2016 was truly an aberration – Trump is clearly fundamentally American, and much of America is clearly fundamentally Trumpian.

So how did Biden come out on top? What really won this election was narrative. Despite the major failings of this campaign, Biden managed to align himself and his story to this precise moment in American history. The impact of policy in this campaign is hard to understate – both candidates played into the idea of culture war and narrative battles, with neither preferring to go into any policy detail when they could simply say that their opponent is unamerican and an existential threat to the nation. But the narrative Joe Biden has presented to America is fundamentally stronger than that told by Hillary Clinton four years ago and, vitally, that which President Trump attempted to tell this year – an outsider cannot blame the establishment if he has been president for a full term. After upheaval and chaos, a grandfatherly figure appealed to a swathe of voters that is greater in number than any electoral coalition in American history. Moderation won against radicalism, no matter if that radicalism is violent white supremacy or the simple appeal of universal healthcare. And on a personal level, a man who in his private life has been bereaved in the worst way a father and husband could be, appealed to a nation mourning upwards of 220,000 deaths. Despite every aspect of himself still clearly living in 1988, Joe Biden is amazingly aligned to the narrative of 2020.

Lewis Quinn

18 Nov 2020

POLSIS in Colour /

What the Hell Just Happened?

Image by Gerald Herbert/Associated Press