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Larry Donnelly: Let's face it, if it weren't for Covid-19, Trump would be planning his inauguration

Larry Donnelly looks back over the 2020 race for the White House and says the pandemic utterly changed the direction of the election.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

CAST YOUR MIND’S eye back to a world and an era long, long ago. Well, it’s actually not that far away. It just seems like it because it predates the wretched pandemic that has, through the toll it has exacted in terms of human suffering, economic calamity and detrimental alterations to our way of being, seized control of everyone’s life. I am talking about January of 2020.

With it being a presidential election year and with the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary looming, watchers of American politics had only two, inextricably intertwined questions in their heads. Who would become the Democratic nominee? And could that standard-bearer deny Donald Trump a second term in the White House?

Trump, the one-term president

Things were looking good for the most controversial President of the United States in living memory, regardless of his having earned the scorn of a sizable chunk of the population in the land of my birth and the overwhelming majority of people in Ireland.

One commentator summed up the reason for buoyancy within the Trump administration:

“While a large body of US and international publics, including this author, have long been critical of Trump, the fact remains that several key economic and political fundamentals are currently acting like ‘tailwinds’ for his re-election.This includes the generally robust economy which continues to hum along in what became in July the longest ever period of expansion in US history dating back over 120 months and counting.”

A group of decidedly unenthused investment experts and financial advisers brought together by Barron’s magazine reluctantly concurred that Trump’s getting four more years was likely.

Additionally, in its series of predictions for 2020, the avowedly left of centre Vox.com justified its forecast of a Trump triumph as follows:

“Trump is the incumbent, the economy is growing while unemployment stays very low, and despite some close calls, Trump hasn’t started new wars or expanded existing ones in ways that kill a lot of US service members. Combine that with Trump’s geographic advantage over the Democratic nominee in the Electoral College, and I think he has a better than even chance of winning.”

Those who weren’t so sure or were hedging their bets – yours truly among them – thought that a lot would depend on who the Democrats chose to take on the incumbent.

Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg & Warren

By January, it had begun to look like former vice-president Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and the theretofore unknown Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, were the top four hopefuls.

All the attention, as usual, was focused on the fast approaching, “first in the nation” votes in Iowa and New Hampshire.

They all had major weaknesses. Sanders was too far left for many people and yesterday’s man with a 1980s video espousing the merits of the Soviet Union to prove it. Warren had arguably obtained lucrative professorships on the basis of an extremely dubious claim of distant Native American heritage.

Buttigieg was a wholly undefined commodity and, societal advances notwithstanding, a gay man who might not garner buy-in from some of the key constituencies Democrats require in order to win.

And Joe Biden was an elderly man who had run for president twice before and, although he had an exemplary track record of public service, didn’t really have a compelling rationale beyond electability to excite Democrats.

Indeed, the proud Scranton, Pennsylvania native was crushed in both Iowa and New Hampshire – as an aside, their relevance in future is appropriately under a microscope – and appeared to be finished.

Then, South Carolina and African Americans had their say. They opted for Joe Biden, big league. He quite possibly took the nomination because James Clyburn, the powerhouse black congressman from the Palmetto State, backed him. Biden ran the table from there.

Performance in a pandemic

And Covid-19 struck. Trump panicked. A campaign predicated upon a booming economy and an associated “you might not like me, but you have to vote for me” mantra was all of a sudden jeopardised.

The administration sought to deny what was unfolding and played a petty brand of politics that cost lives. Crucially, polls showed that older people who were responsible for Trump’s shock victory were breaking away from him as a result.

His shrewder advisers no doubt urged the president to change course. He should admit that his people hadn’t managed the unprecedented crisis totally right and had erred in some ways, but assert that the Democrats were too liberal – in particular, too captive to the dangerous underbelly of the Black Lives Matter movement – to contemplate. Instead, the New Yorker doubled down, to the delight of elements of his base and probably no one else.

That Trumpian posture – push back harder and punch below the belt nastier – was on display in the first debate. His predecessors, like George HW Bush, have been properly described as being detached from such encounters. President Trump went the other way.

Even his fervent admirers must acknowledge that the personal attacks and fact-free accusations he hurled were a disgrace to his office. Severe damage was self-inflicted on the night. Trump’s performance unquestionably hurt him with the white women in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin who put him over the top in 2016.

Trump was immeasurably better in the final clash when he successfully pivoted to the theme that is still political gold dust: America First. Nonetheless, Joe Biden did just fine in those two duels. His team’s fears that he would have “a moment” did not come to pass. Consequently, he won them and the November 3rd result was a foregone conclusion.

In its wake, jubilation was widespread. Trump, whether he would recognise it or not, was done. The devil was in the details, however. Democrats did not retake the Senate.

They lost seats in the House of Representatives. They were absolutely destroyed at the local level. And the truth is that, were it not for coronavirus, Donald Trump would be preparing for another inauguration. I am convinced of it.

Joe Biden and the Democrats should prioritise and govern accordingly. Leftist Democrats refuse to accept the foregoing political realities and will fight to disabuse the quintessential institutionalist who beat Trump of his centrist instincts.

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The other side will highlight President Biden’s every nod in their “socialist” and “anti-American” direction. The next presidency may lack the trashy drama the world has been glued to with a mixture of disbelief and horror for the last four years, but it will have its pressure points.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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