How will the world remember Donald Trump’s election night speech? Ever the showman, it caught the international audience perfectly. Most of America was still awake, in Europe, many were watching the news over breakfast, and in Asia, they were already deep into the afternoon.
The world was watching the President of the United States following the practice of its greatest democratic exercise. In the county home to the ideal of liberal democracy, and a place that had advocated for its global expansion, this should have been a routine statement. Hundreds of such have been done before. Accept the result, admit defeat, or hold out in the hope for better scores by the morning.
Yet before the whole world, Donald Trump undermined all notions of democracy by calling for votes not to be counted. He said ‘we don’t want them to find any more ballots at 4 in the morning and add them to the list’. This was naked politics, he knew how greatly Republicans outnumbered Democrats in on the day voting, that was being counted first in multiple states. On a deeper level though, this was an attack on the heart of democratic processes. This was the leader of America, wanting certain votes not to be counted. The simplicity of this statement reveals its incredulity. The precedent this sets will be echoed in decades to come. Already the leader of Slovenia has congratulated Donald Trump on his election victory.
Although long past 4 am, by tonight more mail-in and early voting ballots have been counted, and indeed as Trump feared, they are pointing heavily towards Biden. At this stage, it looks likely Biden will have enough votes from Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Arizona, not to have to worry about Pennsylvania or Georgia.
If Biden does indeed win, he will be forced to respond to those remarks made by the President. It is likely Republicans may even try to force such confrontation onto the court floor. But how should Joe Biden attack back?
For the position of democracy in the world, Biden needs to ensure that the international politicians, and citizens, remember Trump’s speech as the last cry of a man being swallowed up by, an inefficient, but nevertheless largely functioning, democratic system. Despite the foils of the first presidential debate, efforts throughout to undermine mail-in voting, the institution of democracy fought on. It continued to count the votes, despite the President’s command to the contrary, and thus eventually the practice of democracy overthrew the man attempting to undermine it. This will be the best way to send a message out to increasingly authoritarian Eastern European countries and importantly China, that America and the ideal of democracy are not becoming untied.
But for domestic consumption, a more conciliatory and careful message will be needed. There has been no landslide election victory for the Democrats. Republicans are still likely to hold the Senate and have performed well in defending some Congressional seats. No repudiation of ‘Trumpism’ has occurred.
As a result, to fervently attack Trump’s claims of voter fraud, and to go after his remarks about mail-in voting may be unwise. Despite the worsening pandemic, the loyalty of Trump voters has once again been underestimated. Biden needs ensure that he can bring these people back on side. Another divisive political attack will not succeed. How he interacts with Trump and Republican charges of voter fraud, will be instrumental to his future and that of the county – a nation as polarised as ever from the results.
This tension goes to the heart of the problem Biden faces as President. He will not be inaugurated in January at the head of a blue wave. He will face significant resistance from the Supreme Court and Republicans in the Senate against many of his policies. Whilst needing to placate the left of the party, who will feel emboldened by the fact moderate Biden and traditional politics has proven no magic bullet to Trump’s populism.
And thus how Biden responds to Trump’s 2am speech will be the first test of many as he embarks on what has the risk of becoming a Presidency caught on a tightrope. When the European world and the ideal of democracy needs strength in the face of authoritarian resistance, domestic politics in America may force such proclamations to be tampered down.