Only once has a defeated President gone on to win re-election four years after his first term. Grover Cleveland, who won in 1884 and again in 1892 is generally ranked by historians in the middle rung of American Presidents. Beside Donald Trump he is a paragon of Presidential dignity.
We in Australia are used to a ceaseless election cycle, but that Trump announced his candidature two weeks after the mid-term elections is a record. The rest of Joe Biden’s first term will be overshadowed by the spectre of the 2024 elections, and Congress will act increasingly in light of this.
After the failure of the Republicans to capture control of the Senate and their very narrow victory in the House, Trump’s grip on the party looks far more tarnished than it did last month. As one person remarked, the red wave looked more like a pink splash. Democrats are quietly celebrating; Republicans are fighting each other; and Joe Biden is increasingly resolute about running again in 2024.
Significantly none of the candidates who backed the wilder fantasies of Trump were elected, but even with a very small majority in the House of Representatives—the final results are not yet available—they will be able to block most of Biden’s initiatives. In the Senate the run-off election in Georgia will determine whether the Democrats need depend upon the casting vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.
If I believed in prayer I would be praying for the resignation of the two most conservative longstanding Justices of the Supreme Court—Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito—while Biden has the numbers to replace them. Given the Senate seats that will fall vacant in 2024 it is highly likely that the Democrats will lose their Senate majority in two years time.
Some right-wing Republicans have vowed to impeach President Biden—though for what is unclear—but given their fragile majority this seems unlikely. But do not underestimate their ability to make life difficult for the Biden Administration.
The most significant results in the mid-term elections came in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Florida, all of which boded badly for Trump. In the first two of these states Democrats won races for both the Senate and state Governor against some of the craziest Republicans around, who were Trump favourites. Arizona and Pennsylvania are among the states that voted for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020 [the others are Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin].
In Florida the huge victory for Governor Ron DeSantis propelled him into the favoured candidate to beat Trump for the Republican nomination. Impossible to tell how he would stand up to a national campaign, but his record suggests he is at least as conservative, especially on matters of religion, gender and migration, and probably far more disciplined.
But a lot can happen in two years—at this point before the 2016 elections the hot favourite for the Republican nomination was another Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush. And while the United States is governed by a gerontocracy that reminds one of the old Soviet Politburos, it is possible that Biden or Trump might be forced to withdraw for health reasons.
Other Republicans will seek the nomination; De Santis is likely to be joined by former Vice President Mike Pence, maybe former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the ambitious former Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley. But Trump’s sheer audacity, and his willingness to jettison anyone he sees as standing in his way, makes him a rogue elephant in any contest.
On the Democratic side it will be difficult to oppose Joe Biden if he decides to run again. When previous Presidents have faced significant challenges from within their own parties they have generally held onto the nomination and lost the election, as was the case for Carter and Bush Sr. One wishes that Biden would study the career of John Howard to understand that true leadership sometimes means yielding to the next generation.
I wouldn’t put money on Trump being re-elected but lots of Americans will, Many of them will be true believers, who cling to the falsehood that Trump won the 2020 election, and was robbed by a combination of socialists, pederasts and the Washington Establishment.
Trump is both a symptom and a cause of the deep disillusionment of millions of Americans from mainstream politics. Theirs is a disillusionment often expressed in anger and attraction to conspiracy theories, but it goes far beyond the right-wing thugs and religious fundamentalists who stormed the Capitol.
It’s a disillusionment that is shared by many Democrats, who need take some responsibility for the general distrust of politics. Bill Clinton’s enthusiastic embrace of neoliberal economics and Barack Obama’s failure to pay sufficient attention to strengthening his party at a local level—odd, given his own background as a community organiser—has led to major divisions among the Democrats, symbolised by the strength of Bernie Sanders in two campaigns for the nomination.
After the mid-terms, my FaceBook feed was full of praise for young voters, who overwhelmingly rejected the Republicans. Victoria Cooper wrote an opinion piece entitled: “Youth optimism emerges as America’s great hope” [The Age November 16]. To find hope in the fact that 30% of eligible voters under 30 bothered to vote is extraordinary: that is a figure that would be laughed at in most much poorer democracies.
Put that figure alongside the growth of private militia and racist groups, and one sees a country in which democracy and the rule of law is at best fragile. Joe Biden campaigned on a promise to work across party lines, but two years in office have shown this is almost impossible. There used to be considerable ideological overlap between American political parties, a remnant of which is found in the career of Joe Manchin, the wily Democratic Senator from West Virginia whose state Trump carried by almost 40%. In the end party discipline is now approaching that of Australia, with so-called moderate Republicans—Senators Romney, Collins and Murkowski—only occasionally breaking rank.
Even where one might expect agreement, as in foreign policy, there are signs of cleavages developing, especially as Biden emphasises the centrality of climate change, anathema to many Republicans. Republican hawks fluctuate between belligerence and isolationism, neither of which endear then to the current Administration.
But even if Trump fails to win the nomination, or wins that and then loses the election itself, he remains a toxic element in the body politic, able to attract millions of Americans to his brand of xenophobic hatreds. Nor is Australia necessarily immune; Crikey has recently chronicled Gina Reinhart’s involvement with the Trump camp and Reinhart is a confidante of Peter Dutton. [She is apparently a member of the Trumpettes, which I assume is a group of slightly older marching girls].
For six years we have been mesmerised by Trump; no other politician has attracted so much attention. Most Australians watch him with a mixture of disbelief and horror, although I’m sure there are some would-be Trumpettes out there in One Nation land. It would be folly to assume he cannot return as President in 2024, and one hopes that DFAT are preparing contingency plans if this were to happen.