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With his inauguration this week, America’s 46th president has vowed to heal the US. But Joe Biden inherits a country more paranoid and polarised than ever. By Mike Seccombe.

The Biden era begins, but the shadow of Trump remains

US President Joe Biden this week.
Credit: Tom Brenner / Reuters

Joe Biden’s inauguration speech was an appeal replete with hopeful words: healing, renewal, resolve, opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honour, democracy and “yes, the truth”. And the one he came back to time and again: unity.

The scene behind him, though, emphasised the magnitude of the task ahead. Dignitaries wearing masks to guard against a plague that has killed 400,000 Americans were outnumbered by 25,000 National Guard personnel, each vetted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for fear of an insider attack on the event; the public kept outside the razor-wire perimeter of the “green zone”.

There was, thankfully, no violence. The extreme right-wing insurgents who invaded the Capitol two weeks ago in an attempt to prevent congressional certification of Biden’s election win were scared off by the display of military force.

But fortifying the government against the citizenry will not lead America out of what the new president called the “uncivil war” in the country. As Biden said in his address, leadership requires not merely the example of power, but the power of example.

Fortunately for the United States, its 46th president, by all accounts, exemplifies what the country most needs now – and has lacked for the past four years – which is not just experience in governing and a willingness to reach out to political opponents, important as those things are. It is simple decency.

And more important than competence or legislative ambition, this is the key ingredient for persuading Americans to trust government again.

For as things now stand, more than three in 10 Americans, and some three-quarters of Republicans, do not believe Biden legitimately won office, according to a Washington Post–ABC poll, conducted in the week after the mob of thousands of rioters stormed the Capitol.

They believe he was elected through massive voter fraud. They believe this despite the testimony of officials that the election was fairly conducted; despite the 50-plus losses in various courts including the Republican-stacked Supreme Court; despite the evidence Donald Trump himself solicited fraud by pressing state electoral authorities to change the vote tally; despite the electoral college, both houses of congress, the Republican senate leader, Mitch McConnell, and Trump’s vice-president, Mike Pence, all affirming Biden as the winner.

They continue to believe despite all evidence to the contrary, because, says Dr Debra Smith, a principal research fellow specialising in political extremism at Victoria University, for them it is not a matter of evidence, it’s a matter of faith – based, like religion, in “emotional belief”.

“Trying to create a sort of coherent, you know, logical argument back, it doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t resonate,” she says.

And this is exactly what makes Biden the best hope of restoring faith. No one in US politics does emotion like him; his empathy is not affected. Of all the potential Democratic Party candidates, his was the campaign that aimed most directly for hearts, not just heads.

Still, it will not be easy to foster belief in government. While the Washington Post–ABC poll established that 15 per cent of Republicans supported “the actions of people who stormed the US Capitol last week to protest Biden’s election as president”, this was not even the most disturbing finding.

It was that only 30 per cent of all respondents – not only Republicans – expressed optimism about the functioning of the US system of government. And while the storming of the Capitol made people less confident in the stability of American democracy, this decline in trust began long before Donald Trump. It is the result of a long-term project of the political right – both when they were in power and when they were not.

As the conservative humourist P. J. O’Rourke succinctly put it back in 1991: “Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work, and then they get elected and prove it.”

It was not always so, however. There was a time when Americans believed in government, as the eminent Boston College historian Professor Heather Cox Richardson recalled in a blog post this week. In the 1930s, after the Great Depression, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ushered in his “New Deal” policies, confidence in the capacities of government was high for decades.

“Government intervention proved so successful and so popular that the Republican Party, which had initially recoiled from what its leaders incorrectly insisted was communism, by 1952 had adopted the idea of an activist government,” Richardson wrote.

But so-called “movement conservatives” among Republicans resented the regulation of their business and the high taxes required to pay for public infrastructure and social programs.

They fought back by stirring racial hostility – not hard to do, given America’s history. Their message was that “active government was not defending equality but redistributing the tax dollars of hardworking white men to grasping minorities”, Richardson wrote.

Through the ’80s and ’90s, these movement conservatives increased their power in the Republican Party – pushing deregulation, smaller government and slashing social programs even as they poured more money into the military and exacerbated inequality by “moving money upward” through their tax policies.

The Trump presidency, wrote Richardson, was “the culmination of two generations of Republican attempts to dismantle the New Deal state”.

Republicans so effectively dismantled trust in institutions, and even in objective reality, that it has come back now to bite them.

“One of the remarkable features of what has happened during Trump is that scepticism towards institutions even extends to the president’s party, but not himself,” says Elliott Brennan, a research associate at the United States Studies Centre.

“Some of those who stormed the Capitol expressed an intention to kill the vice-president, yet they have enduring loyalty towards President Donald Trump.”

It’s no longer the Republican Party in an institutional sense, but “absolutely the party of Trump”, Brennan says.

The findings of last week’s Post–ABC poll support this analysis. Asked if they thought their party should continue to follow Trump’s leadership or head in a different direction, 57 per cent of Republicans thought the party should follow Trump.

Eight senators and 139 Republican members of the house of representatives apparently thought the same – for that’s how many lodged objections to the certification of the electoral college vote.

But now some of Trump’s former allies and enablers – most notably senate leader McConnell – have woken up to the threat this poses to American democracy, and to their own future election prospects.

In his strongest comments so far, McConnell on Tuesday pinned blame specifically on Trump for the January 6 storming of the Capitol.

“The mob was fed lies,” McConnell said. “They were provoked by the president and other powerful people, and they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government.”

The Kentucky senator was very late to speak his truth. For four years, McConnell and his colleagues tacitly condoned Trump’s lies and his stoking of fear and violence. Even before Trump, they dismissed numerous warnings about rising right-wing radicalisation, and assailed those who correctly identified the threat.

“The Obama administration was warned about the surge in right-wing extremism in 2009,” says Elliott Brennan, but it backed off investigating after encountering “blowback from conservatives who accused [Obama] of equating Republicans with terrorists”.

The Department of Homeland Security was particularly concerned about elements of the military radicalised by far-right ideology, he says.

“But again, there was pushback because the … serviceman enjoys a sacred image in the United States.”

Many reports from the FBI and extensive media reporting likewise pointed to infiltration of police forces by neo-Nazis, white supremacists and members of nativist militias. Yet little was done.

After the events of January 6, though, the reality could not be ignored. Among the rioters were a significant number of people with police or military backgrounds. Some of those charged belong to an organised far-right militia established by former police and military veterans named the Oath Keepers and appeared to be acting in concert.

Other long-ignored realities, too, have been highlighted by the Trump presidency, not least the shortcomings of US democracy.

In truth, the use of the word democracy to describe the system by which the US president is elected was always dubious. The founding fathers did not entirely trust the judgement of the masses, and hence came up with the electoral college system as a potential brake on populist passions. It could override the will of the people.

And it does. Republican presidential candidates have won the national popular vote only once since 1989: George W. Bush, in 2004.

Three million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than Trump in 2016. Joe Biden won by more than seven million votes.

On top of this structural impediment, Republicans have manipulated the electoral system by gerrymandering electoral boundaries, imposing onerous voter ID laws, eliminating polling places and using various other means to suppress the vote of their opponents.

Beyond that, the two US parties are structurally weak, and so prone to insurgencies, says Graeme Orr, a professor of law at the University of Queensland and a specialist in electoral law. “People like Trump that can come in with a lot of money or celebrity power and whip up a primary election.”

Compare this with Australia, he says, where, because of the more robust party system, politicians typically have to establish a track record of engagement in public life before they can move up the ladder of power.

“You’ve really got to serve your time,” says Orr. Our system of compulsory voting also encourages parties to cleave to the moderate centre.

In America, though, the important thing is “mobilising the base”, which encourages polarisation.

The divided state of American politics also reflects divisions in the country’s society. Economic inequality is higher in the US than in any other advanced economy. The nation has more billionaires than any other, and armies of working poor.

Thirteen US states have a federal minimum wage of $US7.25 an hour. In Wyoming and Georgia, it’s just $US5.15. Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee, South Carolina and Mississippi have no minimum wage at all.

Some 38 million Americans, nearly 12 per cent of the population, live in poverty, which is defined as a yearly income of less than $US12,880 for a single person or $US26,500 for a family of four. Of those, nearly one-third are children. One in three Black and First Nations kids live in poverty, as do one in four Hispanic children. For white kids, it’s one in 11.

Higher rates of poverty tend to be found in Republican states, particularly in the south and Appalachia.

America spends more on privatised healthcare than any other country, yet it has some of the poorest outcomes among developed nations. Life expectancy actually declined for three successive years to 2018, largely due to what have been called “deaths of despair” among middle-aged people from preventable, lifestyle-related disease, alcohol and drug abuse – particularly prescription opioids – and suicide.

Recent analysis by researchers at the University of Southern California and Princeton University found overall life expectancy in the US would fall by a further 1.13 years in 2020 as a result of Covid-19.

Again, there is a racial divide. The researchers found the life expectancy declines would be disproportionately felt within Black and Latino populations – 2.1 and 3.05 years, respectively – while the decline for Caucasians was calculated at 0.68 years.

The US has by far the highest rate of civilian gun ownership of any country, some 120 firearms for every 100 people. The rate of US deaths by firearms is almost 12 times that of Australia. The rate of gun homicide is almost 25 times higher. Police are themselves often the killers; on average they kill about 1000 citizens, disproportionately people of colour, every year.

These injustices help to explain America’s loss of faith, for they represent failings of government.

Yet the far right misattributes blame, invoking all manner of bogymen: Jews, Blacks, immigrants, florid QAnon conspiracies about the deep state, the Covid “plandemic”, Satanists, paedophiles, et cetera.

And they have been encouraged in this by the party of Trump and by some media.

“The way Americans are consuming and producing news – or what passes for it these days – is driving us mad,” Ben Sasse, one of the more moderate Republican senators, wrote in The Atlantic this week.

“On the supply side, media outlets have discovered that dialing up the rhetoric increases clicks, eyeballs, and revenue. On the demand side, readers and viewers like to see their opinions affirmed, rather than challenged. When everybody’s outraged, everybody wins – at least in the short term.

“This is not a problem only on the right or only on obscure blogs. The underlying economics that drive Fox News and upstarts such as One America News to cultivate and serve ideologically distinct audiences also drive MSNBC, CNN, and The New York Times,” Sasse wrote.

He could have noted the difference between the likes of the Times and Fox: the former deals in facts and the other peddles disinformation and lies. But he did not.

Sasse did, however, acknowledge the culpability of his side of politics.

“Until last week, many party leaders and consultants thought they could preach the Constitution while winking at QAnon. They can’t. The GOP must reject conspiracy theories or be consumed by them. Now is the time to decide what this party is about,” he said.

As a senator, Sasse is among those who will decide whether Trump is convicted at his looming impeachment trial and banned from any further role in public life. He did not declare which way he would vote, but the tone of his article gives a strong clue.

Other Republicans, most prominently Mitch McConnell, have hinted support for conviction but this will require a two-thirds majority of the senate. Assuming all 50 Democrat senators vote for it, they will still need 17 Republicans. Elliott Brennan thinks the votes are there, but it’s far from certain.

What is certain is that the Republican Party is riven by internecine warfare between those who would continue down the authoritarian-populist path and those who want to move on from Trumpism.

The former are concentrated in the house of representatives, where smaller constituencies and the two-year electoral cycle make them more responsive to “the base” and more focused on their short-term prospects. And the base, as already noted, is for now at least still heavily behind Trump.

Money is always a big consideration in US politics and is particularly so now.

Following the Capitol riot this month, many large corporates have said they will cease donating to members of congress who opposed the certification of Biden as president.

The list is long and growing: American Express, AT&T, Amazon, General Electric, Comcast, Marriott Hotels, Airbnb, Nike and dozens more.

One might think that would encourage Republicans away from the extremes. But maybe not. Graeme Orr points to new research from the University of Chicago that found that greater dependence on individual donors fosters greater political polarisation.

It could be that cutting candidates off from big corporate donors – who are motivated by a desire for access rather than by ideology – might have the unintended consequence of pushing at least some candidates to double down on the conspiracy theories in the hope of reaping more small donations.

Much remains uncertain about how things will play out in the Republican Party, post-Trump.

And the Democrats, too, have their internal tensions. The party’s constituency is very diverse: economically, racially and ideologically. So is its caucus, which encompasses big-city liberals, such as New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as rural conservatives, such as Joe Manchin in West Virginia.

So far, Biden seems to be going big in his policy positions, with a raft of day one executive orders undoing much of the Trump agenda: rejoining the Paris climate accord, recommitting to engagement with the World Health Organization, stopping construction of the “big beautiful wall” along the Mexican border, halting oil and gas drilling in the Arctic, lifting the bans on travel from Muslim-majority countries such as Iran, Syria and Libya, protecting the rights of people brought illegally to America as children, mandating the use of masks on flights and in all federal buildings, on federal lands and by federal employees and contractors, to mention just some.

The legislative agenda includes a $US1.9 trillion rescue package for increasing unemployment benefits, assistance to local governments, accelerating the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, providing more food for the poor, cutting child poverty, supporting childcare, and providing for a $US15 minimum wage. There is also a $US900 billion, 10-year plan to get the US to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

And much more besides. Some, including The New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof, have gone so far as to say Biden is looking “Rooseveltian”.

It’s certainly an ambitious agenda he has set. How he goes getting it through congress is another matter.

Inevitably he will disappoint some. Politicians always do.

But at least someone decent is again in charge.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 23, 2021 as "The Biden era begins, but the shadow of Trump remains".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.