The US election did not disappoint after all. It threatened to be ugly, dirty and frantic with minimum civility, and with truth being at best an option, and it lived up to these promises.
Donald Trump lost, leaving Joe Biden, who kept his calm throughout the campaign, to pick up the pieces of what the US has become. It is his task now to start the long process of bringing the nation together, and in his first speech after he was projected to win, unity and healing were his focus. It is probably the hardest task any peacetime leader has faced for a very long time.
As Biden is likely to serve only one term, his three acute and urgent tasks are: To restore some modicum of sanity to the political process in Washington and across the country, to strategize the country’s response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and its impacts, and to heal the divisions and wounds in American society.
President Biden and Vice President Harris will have to address the toxic legacy of the last four years with great sensitivity as well as a sense of urgency.
It is also for the Democrats to draw the right lessons from the election results. If they consoled themselves four years ago that Trump’s victory was a political accident, last week’s results proved that he is a symptom of deeper, longer-term trends in American society that its liberal-progressives can’t, and maybe don’t even want to, understand or engage with.
One can only speculate, albeit with a high degree of certainty, that had it not been for COVID-19 and its devastating impact on the nation’s health and economy, Trump would have won a second term.
Despite his administration’s appalling performance in handling COVID-19, which has already claimed the lives of more than 235,000 Americans, and despite the number of daily infections reaching last week’s record high of more than 121,000, an out-of-touch Trump continued to claim falsely the US was defeating the virus and he still gained the support of more than 70 million voters who wanted him to lead them for another four years.
It begs the question: Lead them to what and to where? In the same vein, the Democrats’ performance in the congressional elections was far from a resounding endorsement by the electorate. Trump might soon be history; nevertheless, the magnitude of his support is extremely troubling, and requires a national dialogue.
For instance, racial tensions are older than the US itself but despite all the progress that has been made, especially since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, racism is embedded in many sections of American society, and fears, particularly among white working-class men, of African-Americans becoming truly equal in society are only increasing.
In Trump they found someone who understood them and championed their cause.
It does not take more than a brief glance at the electoral college map to realize the entrenched political divide between the coastal-urban blue of the Democrats, and the huge swathe of Republican red occupying rural America in the middle. Yes, in the end Biden won comfortably, but the Democrats should not forget who they were running against, and what unusual circumstances these elections were conducted under.
That is what sparked the highest turnout since William McKinley won the election of 1900. The strategists need to ask themselves why, under these favorable conditions, a “blue wave” never materialized and a Democratic majority in the Senate remains elusive. The Biden administration faces an uphill struggle to patch up much of the damage caused by the domestic and foreign policies of the current administration.
It is a worry not only for the Democrats, but also for the Republicans that the latter could not produce a candidate that did not thrive on disrupting the system instead of fixing and improving it. The US, like so many other parts of the world, is entering a very taxing and uncertain period in its history and has huge challenges ahead.
Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.