Biden’s victory has sent people into an idolatrous frenzy, signalling for many the end of the aberration of Trump and a turning point against all forms of nascent national populism. Where the media returns as the unchallenged arbiter of the national discourse. This pathetic liberal imagination will last well into the first months of the Biden presidency as anti-Trump activists and legacy institutions hope to herald the removal of not just Trump but his supporters, apparatchiks and ideology. How long it lasts beyond that is questionable, as the rigours of having nearly the half country view you as an existential threat to their way of life combined with the asymmetric coalition of voters and activists undergirding Biden’s victory spell a turbulent governance as his supporters (in the media, protests, donor groups, etc.) bay for blood and his opponents in the Congress gridlock and delay.
The first thing to say is Trumpism will not go away. 47% of the American public voted for Trump and will not simply be re-enfolded into the political coalition of the Biden presidency. Nor will Trump’s memetic power regarding “fake news”, “corrupt media” and MAGA go away quietly. The coalition Biden represents of BLM agitators, coastal elites and the tech and finance sectors are anathema to the small business populism and law-and-order conservatism that supported Trump. This will further politicise supposedly neutral organs of the prevailing political apparatus, the media, the federal bureaucracy and academia as elements of these react vehemently against engagements with or evolutions of Trumpism.
Republican victories in the Congress show this potential direction in American politics – a further series of gridlocks and conflicts that will find their way into state administrations and the courts. The overlaying conflict of cultural vs logistical sovereignty will remain, as a Biden presidency emphasises its globalising credentials and world leadership (American imperialism with a BLM logo). As with previous instantiations of this wider conflict, the Tea Party populism of the early 2010s clashed with the internationalism of the Obama presidency, before moving into the Trump coalition. The anti-globalism of this perspective will now clash with the coastal cosmopolitanism of the Biden presidency.
A gridlock politics will thus continue to be the norm as it was under Obama and Trump. The decentralised Schmittianism of federalised coronavirus policies or the different governing reactions to the George Floyd protests/riots shows the direction for a future gridlock politics, with Republican governors refusing to lock down their states and protest movements fragmenting across borders as different jurisdictions act permissively. With policies already being announced around Biden’s energy strategy and plans to tackle systemic racism, these dynamics will only increase as it pits ethnic and distributional conflicts within the wider dichotomy of sovereign culture wars. This will be a presidency of contradictions: Biden’s rickety coalition of cultural activists, Democratic Party insiders, Silicon Valley monopolists and working-class voters. “This chasm with working people could be made worse if, as Biden has suggested, lockdowns are extended and even toughened until even the hint of danger has passed. Some progressives, like California’s Gavin Newsom, see in the pandemic—which has turned the state’s metropolitan areas as among the worst-performing in terms of jobs in the nation—not as an economic emergency but ‘an opportunity for reimagining a progressive era as it pertains to capitalism.’ Some environmentalists hail the lockdowns as a potential model for addressing climate change. Although kinder to the upper classes, the lockdowns have been most devastating to small businesses, minorities and the poor. These supposed Democratic constituencies might resent a policy agenda imposed from above that threatens to undermine their livelihoods, turning them from aspiring members of the middle class into permanent serfs”.
Biden will preside over the beginning of an economic transition toward green jobs and greater technological complexity which strains (if not outright negates) his message of unity. The idiocy of Rahm Emmanuel’s “learn to code” schtick already indicates a nascent trend in this direction, as does Biden’s indeterminacy over energy policy (i.e. whether he wants to end fracking immediately or transitionally) and his support for further lockdowns. As economies transition out of the network paradigm into an emerging multipolar geopolitical order and a greater emphasis upon national action (furthered by the coronavirus pandemic and the legacy of Trumpism), a message of unity is little more than an attempt for Biden to calm his base and set in motion economic and energy policies that are likely to antagonise those working classes reliant on the remaining industry in their regions.
A furtherance of the anarcho-tyrannical system of American patchwork governance that has emerged over the last decade is on the cards: a fragmentation of government between state, federal and urban administrations as acutely seen in the coronavirus pandemic. “As a subject you inhabit a zone of selective rule / law enforcement — an asymmetric system of unformalized irregular governance protocols”. These governance protocols instantiate passive tolerance of riots, breakaway autonomous zones and gridlocking political action across all scales. They enforce the ramping up of rhetoric and violence so long as it is directed at small businesses and retailers rather than polling stations and counting halls. And this isn’t just a matter of federal or state governments, but of nominally independent organs such as the media and corporations. “HR departments have unnecessarily politicised business functions, introducing empowerment narratives that favour group-based politics at the expense of R&D and innovation (as with the Google walkouts a couple of years ago or the equity-and-diversity agendas increasingly prevalent in universities). Regulatory agencies have removed policy-making from political oversight, making it obscure, legalistic and unresponsive to dispersed public pressures. The everyman nature of the median voter theory in political parties has produced a politics of consensus that does very little (happily pushing policy onto those regulatory agencies) while the friend-enemy distinction of politics has fragmented into political breakages and conjunctures that entail further fragmentation (such as the divisions inherent in the Euro crisis, Brexit and US politics). The competitive media environment has further contributed to this political fragmentation, as media narratives serve constituencies at the expense of attaining objectivity”.
Some may say the media will have lost its raison d’être with Trump losing but they will salivate at the opportunity to exorcise any populist instincts in political discourse. Just look at the coverage of supposed electoral fraud. While media outlets were happy to ramp up bullshit about Russia winning Trump the presidency, similar questions regarding tactics against Trump are dismissed blithely. Even if there is no basis to fraud allegations, the media’s conduct in portraying any questions as illegitimate and beyond the pale of democratic discourse just embeds an elite vs commoner lens. Klaas’s call for a “reformed” Republican Party fits this neatly. If that meant affective disenfranchisement for those in flyover states or rural districts then all the better, as the juggernaut of progressivism isn’t meant to be slowed down.
Biden’s election may be celebrated as a return to the norm, but its outcome is a simulacrum of the underlying institutional conflicts that increasingly inflict their legacy on US governability. The crumbling edifice of American governance is giving way to winner-take-all attitudes that preach the ghosts of reconciliation and unity but tread upon a cracked ground. What Trump and this election have really revealed is the myth of liberal exceptionalism. The liberal polity does not escape the dynamics of the Hobbesian jungle, but instead paints it with a thin veneer of credibility and peace. The dichotomy of friend and enemy has always remained but has fragmented into a series of interlinked tensions, variously called culture wars or “the most important election of our lifetime”. It also shows the ineffectuality of both sides in the face of chaos. Trump supporters see an end to normality, and Biden supporters see a return. Just wait until they see what’s round the corner. Of course, there will be no civil war. Americans of nearly all living generations are too coddled and cocooned to stomach long-term internecine conflict. However, a continuation of the historic trend updated for the 21st century suggests a greater number of fractured conflicts, both in the media platforms and through militias, riots and governmental gridlock.