TODAY’S SOURCE features Donald Trump, who, according to rumours, plans to escape Joe Biden’s inauguration in our own wee corner of the world, where he owns the Turnberry Golf Course. It highlights a distinguishing trait of 2021: we must adapt to a world where Trump is no longer President. Not that he plans to go gentle into that good night. Just by virtue of his Twitter account, he will continue to stir up trouble. But his power will slowly diminish, if not in the Republican Party, then certainly in the American psyche.
Strangely enough, the waning of the Trump era poses real problems for America’s centrist establishment, who find themselves thrust back in power. In his book Hate Inc, journalist Matt Taibbi notes that anti-Trumpism almost certainly saved the New York Times, the Washington Post, MSNBC and CNN from bankruptcy or failure. Likewise, opposing Trump gave a layer of clapped-out career politicians the appearance of a real moral agenda. Joe Biden was a fortunate recipient. But eventually the world must turn its attentions to the agendas lurking behind the #resistance.
Biden doesn’t exactly have a hard act to follow. By many estimations, Trump was the worst American President in history. He undoubtedly ranks among the most vulgar and ignorant, although Biden showed his own ignorance (or gaffe-proneness) when he spoke of Trump as the “first racist” American President.
Trump’s mishandling of Black Lives Matter and the coronavirus will also go down as major moments in American hegemonic decline. For these reasons, Biden can expect a relatively easy ride (if not a blank cheque) from the media establishment, despite almost conspiring to lose the election to a man who is a byword for incompetence.
But what of Biden himself? There is no doubting he belongs to the pro-War, deregulating, right-leaning Democrat establishment. This, indeed, was the function he served for Obama: political cover to a Black, anti-War candidate, just as Kamala Harris gives Biden the opposite cover. Equally, there is no doubting that American liberalism has been on a journey, adapting to #MeToo and BLM. Biden has his own chequered history on both gender and race – but surely the Democrats have moved to the left?
The evidence so far is, at best, inconclusive. If anything, there are signs that some things could go downhill. As observed by Stephen Walt, a Harvard Professor of International Affairs, while Biden’s appointees so far are thoroughly “intersectional”, ticking the representational boxes, they are also, for the most part, supporters of the 2003 Iraq invasion. All Biden’s noises so far hint at a return to the Bush-Clinton era of “interventions”, for which much of the establishment have been clamouring.
If that appears far-fetched, consider the ominous words of Biden himself. By his account, his appointees demonstrate “the fact that America is back, ready to lead the world, not retreat from it, once again sit at the head of the table, ready to confront our adversaries and not reject our allies, ready to stand up for our values.” Walt is not alone in seeing this as return of “the blob” in American foreign affairs. As one critic noted, when “Biden says America is back, which likely means as sanctimonious nanny wielding a metaphorical AK-47 to enforce its wishes.”
Trump and Obama may have seemed like opposites. But, in foreign policy terms, they represented a distinct, combined era. Both were elected on anti-War tickets, promising a break with America’s post-Cold War militarism, an agenda hitherto supported by both parties. Even if they did their share of meddling, menacing and drone-bombing (and let’s not forget the disaster of Libya), they represented a mild epoch by post-WWII standards.
Biden artfully used the cover of Obama to disguise his own history. But he belongs squarely on the sanctimoniously chauvinist wing of American politics.
This does not necessarily mean a return to the disastrous post-millennium invasions that scarred the Middle East. But it would be remiss not to mention the prospect that the Obama-Trump interregnum turns out to be temporary. Biden represents a dangerous streak of the liberal establishment, who suspect that, if you cover the bases of race and gender, the left will give ground on other areas, including imperial policy.
At the risk of further speculation, the return of Bush/Clinton-era interventionism would exert new strains on UK politics. The Brexiteer Conservatives have staked a lot on good terms with America. Far from being isolationists, many have their own agenda of reasserting “global Britain”, with its strategic arms industry. For the first time in a long time, new Anglo-American adventures are not out of the question. While nobody mourns the passing of the Trump era, there can be no room for complacency. Biden-Harris could stand for an equally dystopian future.