Analysis US elections

What is at stake for Europe in “the most important election. Ever”

What will be the outcome of the most important election of the year – and perhaps of the decade? From Georgia, where he teaches Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde discusses possible and probable scenarios and their consequences for Europe.

Published on 2 November 2020 at 10:00

While the US seems fundamentally divided on virtually every issue, most Americans agree that their “great” country is threatened by “fascism” and that “democracy” is at stake in the next election. While the omnipresence of “fascism” in the political debate is relatively new, the idea that the next elections will determine the fate of US democracy is not. Since the “stolen election” of 2000, every president has been seen as illegitimate by a (growing) part of the other camp, from George W. Bush, through Barack Obama, to Donald Trump. Even if Joe Biden wins in a landslide, as most polls now indicate, he will be no different.

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the upcoming US presidential election is “The Most Important Election. Ever” – in hindsight, the November 1932 election in Weimar Germany seemed quite important too. There is a lot at stake on November 3, and not just for the US. As the single, albeit declining, superpower, the American electorate does not only decide on national politics but also significantly influence global politics, including European politics. It is therefore important that Europeans understand what is at stake, in terms of US domestic and foreign policies. But, first, let’s look at what the numbers say.

The Election

While it is always tricky to write a piece a few weeks before it is published, this is even more the case when you write about polls and the volatile US political mood. Still, there is little doubt that Democratic candidate Joe Biden will win the popular vote. In fact, it is almost certain that he will win it with an even bigger margin than Hillary Clinton did in 2016 – it is increasingly forgotten that Clinton defeated Trump by 2 percent, gaining almost three million more votes! Still, because of the undemocratic political system, the Electoral College, which provides disproportionate weight to rural America, elected Trump with a clear majority.

Some pollsters argue that Biden will need to win the popular vote by more than 5,000,000 to have a shot at winning the Electoral College. According to almost all polls, in mid-October, this will not be a problem. In many polls, Biden is leading Trump by double digits nationally, and this includes the Rasmussen Poll, which tends to be more favorable towards Republicans, and is therefore often touted by Fox News and President Trump. Consequently, prediction models have Biden as a certain winner; for instance, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight website gives the former vice-president a 88 percent chance of becoming president in January 2021. Still, the same models gave Clinton a similar chance, and we know how that story ended.

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There are some reasons why this time they might be right after all. First, the so-called “fundamentals” of prediction models – which include state of the economy and party of incumbent – favor the Democrats, while in 2016 they favored the Republicans. Perhaps even more importantly, Biden leads Trump handsomely in many swing states, including key states unexpectedly lost in 2016 (e.g. Michigan and Wisconsin). In fact, several states are now in play for the Democrats, which until recently were believed to be solidly Republican (e.g. Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina).

US elections are, first and foremost, about turnout. And not just who will turn out, but who can turn out!

As COVID-19 has disrupted the election campaigns of both candidates, it is doubtful this will affect the election results in any meaningful way. Almost all Americans (94%!) have already made up their minds and know who (not) to vote for. In fact, opinions about Trump have been remarkably stable, particularly given his instable presidency. Even the pandemic has not led to massive defections, despite some 225,000 deaths (and counting) and, at one time, double digit unemployment. But there have been important smaller changes that could decide the election, particularly among (highly educated) white women (switch to Biden) and non-whites (switch to voting) – note that the latter have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Still, US elections are, first and foremost, about turnout. And not just who will turn out, but who can turn out! Since the country’s foundation, election results have been tainted by voter suppression, from overt and legal exclusion of African (and Native) Americans at the beginning to covert and, at times illegal, discouragement and obstruction today. Hence, the current Republican campaign of voter suppression is not new, but it has definitely reached new highs (or lows, if you will). From single ballot drop-off points in Texas, including in counties with millions of people, to fake ballot drop-off boxes in California, Republicans are doing their utmost to limit turnout, particularly in non-white districts, which lean heavily Democrat. Not to speak of the long lines at voting booths in these areas – on the first day of early voting in Georgia, a friend spent 4 hours in line in my (liberal) college town, while others reported up to 12 (!) hours of waiting!

Even if everything points to a Biden victory, if not landslide, I am too jaded by 2016, and too surrounded by Republicans and voter suppression, to completely rule out an Electoral College victory for Trump. Sure, some voters have turned their back on Trump since 2016, but they are not as numerous as their visibility in the media suggests. Moreover, those that have stayed, have gone all in for Trump. They will come out to support him and, the vast majority, will not be hindered by any voter suppression measures. Hence, I try to prepare myself for both a continuation of the current situation – with Trump in the White House, the Republicans having the Senate, and the Democrats the House – and a total wipe-out, with the Democrats taking the White House and Senate (the two most likely scenarios for me) as well as everything in between.

What’s Next for the US?

Irrespective of the outcome, the elections will be contested by the losing camp— in the media, in the streets, and, undoubtedly, in the courts. Both camps claim that the other side will not accept defeat, while polls show that Americans increasingly believe violence is justified if the other side wins. It is therefore not surprising that the media is rife with speculation about “post-election violence” and even a “second civil war”. Many liberals are convinced Trump will not just reject the election result, he will refuse to leave office, effectively constituting an “auto-golpe” (self-coup). While everything is possible, which should tell you everything you need to know about the current state of US democracy, let me discuss the three most likely election scenarios and their outcome for the US.

The first scenario is that Trump loses the election but refuses to concede and leave the White House. While this is also the least likely scenario, it is a possibility, if only because Trump himself has suggested it (repeatedly). Based on its behavior over the past four years, we can expect the Republican Party to stand with Trump, or at least not, actively or openly, oppose him. Much will depend on the public response, in the media and the streets, to incentivize a seemingly reluctant law enforcement and military to take the side of the president-elect over the president-in-office. However, given Biden’s long public service, including eight years as vice-president, his connections to national security sectors are at least as good, if not better, than those of Trump. For instance, a recent poll by the Military Times showed that while Trump had majority support among military personnel in 2016, Biden holds a clear majority over him in 2020 – undoubtedly in part also related to sexism against Clinton.

But even if Biden will occupy the White House, his presidency will be an Obama 3.0, mostly frustrated by an insurgent GOP-dominated Senate and opposed by a majority of Republican-controlled states. Like Obama, Biden will try to appease the “moderate” Republicans, giving a lot but receiving little in return. At the same time, the Democrat-controlled House will grow increasingly frustrated and impatient, strengthening the ongoing left-wing revolt within the party, particularly within the deep-blue [Democrat] states like California and New York. On the upside, President Biden will stop the attacks on US liberal democracy, both practical and verbal, that have characterized Trump’s presidency, and will reinstate funding, support, and trust in major federal agencies, from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). His vice-president, Kamala Harris, will focus on democratic and justice reform, where even small policy changes can have big and long-term political consequences.

Even if Biden will occupy the White House, his presidency will be an Obama 3.0.

The second scenario is that Trump again loses the popular vote but wins the Electoral College. Although reluctantly, and perhaps after a few court cases, Biden and the Democratic Party will concede, being heavily criticized by the left-wing of their party, who will also argue that this was a defeat of “Wall Street Democrats” and that Bernie Sanders would have won. While there will be large protests in major cities, which will undoubtedly include mass vandalism and some violence, armed resistance is unlikely. Trump will see his re-election as vindication for his authoritarian and racist campaign and use the protests to launch a four-year long attack on political dissent and protest – strongly supported by most Republicans, who will, enthusiastically or reluctantly, accept Trump’s hegemony for the next years. In essence, Trump will largely rule like before, but even more unhinged and even less opposed. 

Most importantly, a Trump second term could fundamentally reshape both the Republican Party and the US democracy and state. Having won the election by himself, as the party by and large decided to make him the platform, Trump will not feel any need to compromise with the Republican establishment. At the same time, more and more Trumpian Republicans will fill the federal and state legislatures, putting personal loyalty to Trump over party loyalty to the Republican establishment – let alone democratic loyalty to the US or US democracy.

And pro-Trump youngsters, from organizations like Students for Trump and Turning Point USA, will enter both the Republican Party and the state bureaucracy, filling positions of experienced, democratic bureaucrats, who have held out for four years, but will not work any longer under a president who distrusts or ignores their work. And while Trump may not be able to destroy the institutional structure of US democracy, he can hollow it out by defunding, deregulation, and the replacement of key personnel (from low-level bureaucrats to Supreme Court judges). It is particularly through these means that his destructive legacy could outlive his actual administration by decades.

The third scenario is that Biden wins the elections in a landslide, as the polls have been predicting for several weeks now. The Economist even gives Biden a 99 percent of winning and estimates he could win up to 415 of the 538 votes in the Electoral College. A Biden landslide will almost certainly mean a Democratic landslide, with massive success down-ballot, including in state legislatures and the Senate. This will give the Democrats the presidency, the Senate, and the House, just like in 2008. However, this time, the incoming president won’t be a DC rookie, but a Beltway veteran, who won’t waste his first two years on figuring out the system and winning over unwilling Republicans.

Biden is ready to go and will make significant changes in the first months. The bigger the Republican defeat, the less inhibitions he will have and the less time he will waste on getting “bipartisan support.” Much of it will be undoing some of the damage that Trump caused, such as ending his “Muslim ban”, and implementing short-term policies aimed at getting COVID-19 under control and starting a US economic recovery. But he is also considering some policies with important long-term effects, like supporting statehood for Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia – which will have to be decided by Congress – that could provide the Democrats with four extra Senate seats for decades to come. Biden’s main constraints will be the Supreme Court, which after Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment consists of two-thirds conservatives, and the various Republican-dominated states, although many will have experienced a “blue wave” in November too.

A Democratic landslide will throw the Grand Old Party into turmoil. Given that Trump has not really built a “Trumpian” infrastructure yet, either inside the Republican Party or outside of it, its influence will decrease rapidly. Many recently-elected pro-Trump Republicans were opportunists rather than believers and will denounce him and his policies as quick as they embraced them – think Marco Rubio and the Tea Party. A vicious internal struggle will break out between “national conservatives” like Josh Hawley (R-MO), who stand for a more mainstream far right course (i.e. dog-whistle over vulgar overt racism), and “unifiers” like Ben Sasse (R-NE), who want a more inclusive Republican Party, rejuvenating the optimism and positivism of Ronald Reagan. While the latter camp has the future, particularly if they reach out to socially-conservative Hispanic and Asian American voters, the former might have the base, at least in the short-term, particularly in primaries in the Midwest and Southeast.

Biden will inherit an aggressive and highly mobilized far right, in the form of heavily-armed gangs, including self-styled “militias” like the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, which after a few years of supporting Trump, will return to an “anti-government” position. In addition, old-style Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and neo-Nazi groups and newer “alt-right gangs” like the Proud Boys will continue to instigate violence, particularly in cities like Portland, Oregon. While these raise serious public order concerns, and constitute localized threats to marginalized communities, they don’t constitute a serious threat to US democracy. It is true that they enjoy significant support within law enforcement agencies across the country, both the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) acknowledged that “white supremacists” constitute (one of) the biggest domestic terrorism threat. Now that their agents and leaders will have political support from the president again, they will act much more swiftly and toughly to suppress potential violence from far-right gangs. And, as we have seen in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, this will lead to the quick decline of the movement – even if incidental violence will continue to occur.

What’s Next for Europe?

As the one remaining superpower, albeit decreasing and increasingly reluctantly, the US election also has significance consequences for the rest of the world, including Europe. Despite silly pieces about “Trump’s growing European base”, Trump is extremely unpopular in Europe, at both the elite and mass levels. One of the few open Trump supporters is Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán, who already supported him in 2016. This is mainly out of self-interest, rather than an ideological connection. Whereas Trump protects authoritarian leaders against critique and sanctions, from US Congress and State Department, Biden has made it clear that he will resume the US’s policy of actively defending and promoting democracy and human rights across the globe – as imperfectly and opportunistically as US policy has always been, the last four years have made it clear that it is still preferable over Trump’s tacit support for authoritarian leaders.

A Biden win will also be a set-back for far-right parties that are currently not in power, from Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) to Matteo Salvini’s League. While Trump never really invested in relationships with these parties, he only has a personal connection to Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, he has more or less openly normalized and supported them. And several of the US ambassadors he appointed have been suspiciously close to far-right parties in the countries they served in, from ex-ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell to current ambassador to the Netherlands, Pete Hoekstra. Obviously, Europeans didn’t need Trump to support far right politics, they had been doing it well before he even came in the political picture. But his defeat will likely change the political mood, as international media will unleash a tsunami of articles on the “end of populism.”

A Biden win will also be a set-back for far-right parties that are currently not in power, from Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) to Matteo Salvini’s League.

In a more essential sense, the EU-US relations will not change as fundamentally as many seem to think. True, Biden will not undermine the EU or NATO, although Trump so far did this mainly in word rather than deed, but he will not do much more than restate US support. In a rather bland Foreign Affairs article, Biden laid out the foreign policy for his presidency, and Europe was mentioned only twice. The first mention was of the European Union as, together with Canada, one of “the United States’ closest allies”. The second was also in passing, but more telling, namely that the US should go “beyond North America and Europe” and reinvest in Australasia. In this, as in many other things, the Biden presidency will be a continuation of the Obama presidency, in which the US already refocused its attention away from Europe and towards Australasia.

This refocus of the US will not only diminish the importance of Europe to the US, it could put the EU increasingly squeezed between political pressures from China, on the one hand, and the US, on the other. While China was long only the “red menace” of the Republicans, Biden has more than matched Trump’s anti-Chinese position. In fact, while Trump might sound fiercer, and more racist, Biden has a much more hostile policy position on China, rooted in the widespread belief that China is the major economic and security threat to the US. As the US hopes to contain China’s influence in the Pacific, it will increasingly pressure the EU, and its member states, to forego economic opportunities to satisfy the US’ strategic objectives – as it is currently doing with regard to collaboration with Huawei.

Conclusion

On November 3 a record number of Americans will vote for a (new) president. The outcome of the race will have important national and global consequences, even more so than usual. As it looks now, Trump will be defeated, in a landslide, not because of his authoritarian and nativist policies, but because his COVID-19 (non-)policies endangered the lives of (white) old Americans, the most-solid voting block, which has traditionally helped elect Republican presidents. The size of the victory will be important for a variety of reasons: (1) the resilience of Trump’s opposition; (2) the extent and speed of the transformation of the Republican Party; and (3) the boldness of the first years of the Biden presidency. While large-scale violence and an attempt at an auto-golpe (self-coup) are unlikely, they are possible, and that says a lot of the state of US democracy after four years of Trump.

Far right policies did not start with Trump, and they will not die with him either. The far right remains a significant presence within the broader “conservative” movement as well as the Republican Party, particularly in the Southeast, and an important violent threat – although no match for the massive law enforcement (and military) forces of the US state. Violent provocations will be much less tolerated and increased repressive measures will significantly decrease the mobilization and support for far right gangs like the Proud Boys and Three Percenters, as happened in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Ahead of various European elections in 2021, including in the Netherlands and Germany, a Biden victory could shift the political mood, as media will (prematurely) proclaim the “end of populism.” Mainstream parties could further marginalize the far right by prioritizing socio-economic issues like economic recovery and downplay socio-cultural issues like immigration. But even if European mainstream will again have a sympathetic president in the White House, his eye will be on the Pacific rather than the Atlantic. 

The main European lesson is therefore that, Trump or Biden, Europe should finally start to move more seriously beyond US-reliance, politically and militarily. Not only have the last two Republican presidents ignored European countries and interests, particularly when they conflicted with US interests, Democratic presidents also no longer prioritize US-EU ties over others, most notably Australasian ones. As the US becomes a majority minority country, the proportion of Americans with family and personal ties to other countries and regions further increase. It is time for European politicians to come to terms with this structural development and plan for a more independent and diverse foreign policy too.

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