The first US election results contradicted most opinion polls, which predicted a far greater lead for the Democrats. The count so far lies at the lowest threshold of expectations. Yet another indication that America is becoming a society that traditional analytical tools struggle to explain, let alone predict.
At this time, the odds remain in favor of Joe Biden but with many uncertainties. It is clear that the final outcome will be decided by the courts – and ultimately, the Supreme Court. President Donald Trump’s unthinkable – by normal democratic standards – election night act of declaring himself the winner and calling for an end to the count, while the count was still in progress, is indicative of the new ethos that he has adopted as a rule of political conduct these past four years.
A Supreme Court ruling in favor of Trump is not a given, despite the large 6-3 conservative majority. But Trump’s statements are a prelude to widespread contestation of a Biden victory. Accordingly, Democrats will find it difficult to accept a Trump victory in the courts, given the Republican majority’s unprecedented schemes to discourage and undermine mail-in voting. Whatever the final result, American democracy emerges from these elections severely bruised. Especially if we also take into account the systematic spread of misinformation by the White House throughout the last four years, and the acute polarization (the worst of the last 50 years) of American society.
Whatever the outcome, Trumpism remains a powerful force in American politics, and a dominant factor among the Republicans, or what is left of Abraham Lincoln’s Grand Old Party. Republicans are likely to retain the Senate and increase their seats in the House of Representatives. In the event of Trump being declared the winner, this will make him even more unhinged compared to the first four years.
If Biden becomes president, a Republican Senate will block his major initiatives, blocking a stimulus to investment, social and environmental spending, and even the appointment of government officials who require Senate approval. As the de facto leader of the Republicans, Trump will do everything he can via the Senate to undermine a Biden presidency, with a view to a comeback. After all, in 2024 Trump will be just 78 years old – a standard age for presidential candidates by 2020 standards…
We are entering a four-year period of low or dystopian expectations. In the first scenario, Europe will be faced with a weak President Biden, constantly undermined and hostage to a Republican Congress. President Biden might not be able to meet the expectations of the European partners, which will reinforce the sense of a US withdrawal from the global system constituting a development of structural rather than conjunctural nature. In the second, dystopian scenario, Europe will be faced with President Trump II, even more hostile to the EU and the global multilateral system of institutions and treaties. In that event, Europe will be forced, albeit reluctantly, to develop its strategic autonomy in the face of a unilateralist “America First” leadership, for which even the very continuation of NATO should not be taken for granted.
The short-term outlook is even worse. The coming weeks, until the new president is sworn in on January 20, are a transitional period of high risk, especially since Biden appears to have emerged as the winner. It will be the most chaotic transition period the United States has ever experienced. Given his temperament, an outgoing President Trump will be extremely prone to actions that undermine his successor, “scorched earth” tactics, revenge initiatives, and the inevitable feeding of his fanatical followers with his favorite myth of the Democrats “having stolen” the election. Cyber-interventions from foreign countries (already aggressively under way) will soar, with the ultimate goal of exacerbating chaos. The possibility of international crises, in the South China Sea or in the Eastern Mediterranean with Turkey as the protagonist of destabilization, will run high for the next two-and-a-half months.
George Pagoulatos is a professor at the Athens University of Economics and Business, visiting professor at the College of Europe, and director general of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).