The rise of Donald Trump was not the cause of US political dysfunction, but a mere symptom of it. When Joe Biden gets a clear majority of the vote and the electoral college on Tuesday, a side question will be whether Donald Trump goes willingly or has to be militarily crowbarred out of the White House before inauguration day. Either way, he will go.
The real issue is whether Biden and his vice-president, Kamala Harris, can reverse not only the excesses of Trump but replace the whole rotten dysfunction of the American polity that set in with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The Trump presidency was just the ugly narcissistic boil of a more fundamental pathology that began with Reagan and worsened under George W. Bush. Biden has the monumental task of removing 40 years of the erosion of American decency.
Reagan put delusion and fabrication in place of truth 36 years before Trump invented "fake news". Bush II and his vice-president, Dick Cheney, put personalised profit via endless war ahead of the public good a decade or more before Trump made it an art form. There is a lot to unwind here. If Biden is to succeed, he will have to unpick it bit by bit.
Reagan pursued the folly of tax cuts for the rich; massive military spending; and privatisation that lined the pockets of lobbyist mates. Bush took it to another height. It was all showmanship over substance, whether it was Reagan invoking any number of movie lines as reality (the seeds of Trump's "fake news") or Bush standing on an aircraft carrier saying "Mission Accomplished", when decades of war and death were still to follow.
Biden has the legacy of three presidents to overcome and reverse. In some ways, the Trump legacy is less destructive than that of the other two.
There's 40 years of Republican jingoistic populism to overcome. And part of that is an undercurrent of racism. The Democrats used to win the southern states hands down for a century after Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, freed the slaves. But they were segregationist Democrats. Then from 1964 Democrat Lyndon Johnson (who absent the Vietnam War would have been one of America's greatest presidents) courageously pushed though the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. The white supremacist Republicans seized the day. With southern Democrats no longer segregationist, the Republicans dog whistled until they began to capture southern states in presidential elections and then legislatures and governors' mansions which enabled them to rig the electoral system. They redrew boundaries and made voting more difficult for minorities and the poor, with identification requirements and fewer polling places.
Federally, Republicans won the southern states comprehensively after the 1970s. In 1980 Reagan tapped the racist and white evangelical mood to sweep the south and remove Democrat Jimmy Carter from the White House. It mattered not that Carter was a committed born-again Christian and Reagan was a divorced non-churchgoer, just as Bush was a draft-dodger and Bush's opponent John Kerry a Vietnam War hero.
Trump did not invent lying, shaping and controlling the agenda, and successfully duping middle and working-class voters into believing that he was on their side, when all along he was helping his rich friends with tax cuts and laxer environmental and employment regulations. The pussy-grabbing Trump did not invent the hypocritical pandering to the Christian right; the divorced, non-churchgoing Reagan beat him to it. Reagan hallelujahed with Billy Graham to dupe voters. This Christianity is not one of turn-the-other-cheek, vows of poverty or social justice. It is the white evangelical proclamation of individual salvation and prosperity Christianity.
To restore this societal pathology to good health will be Herculean. A Biden administration will have to unwind Bush's War on Terror. Bush contrived the invasion of Iraq to immobilise the weapons of mass destruction that were never there. It spawned an insidious growth of anti-US terrorist groups, notably ISIS - precisely the opposite of what the War on Terror was supposed to end. In its wake lies hundreds of thousands of dead civilians and thousands of dead, injured, PTSD-ravaged veterans who will cost the American taxpayers for generations.
Reagan's philosophy (if you could call it that) of pushing small government, tax cuts for the rich, "trickle-down" economics and high military spending blew out the federal budget - exactly the opposite of what he was spruiking.
Biden has the legacy of three presidents to overcome and reverse. In some ways, the Trump legacy is less destructive than that of the other two. There has only been one term of it, and it was so incompetent and haphazard it did not have the same pervasive effect as those that went before. Well, on Tuesday the demographics and democratic decency will have caught up in the form of "We want Trump out". But the schoolboy brat may cling to power and launch Supreme Court challenges no matter how big the Biden margin. The eight weeks until Biden's inauguration will be an eggshell-walking experience of wondering what the erratic egotist will do next.
When Biden takes the presidency and the Democrats take both houses of Congress, Biden should, as he would, offer bipartisanship on the big issues, notably climate change. But if the Republicans revert to form defending the privileges of the rich and white supremacy by whatever open or underhanded weapons available, Democrats should, in the interests of returning the US to functioning democracy, give as good as they took. Expanding the Supreme Court to 13 would be a start. But failing that, whenever the Supreme Court overturns some key reform like Obamacare or voting rights, they should redraft the legislation and pass it through the Congress again. Remember, it takes at least two years to get a case to the Supreme Court to overturn it again.
The Australian experience shows voters ultimately realise universal health insurance is a pretty good idea and any party that opposes it does so at their political peril. But these are practical suggestions. How a new president goes about restoring decency, ethical conduct and respect for the truth after the Trump, Reagan and Bush presidencies will be an extraordinary test of character. Old as he is, if the recently recycled video of his spontaneous reaction to the grief of the boy who lost his dad in a mass shooting is any guide, maybe Joe Biden is the one to do it.
- Crispin Hull is a former editor of The Canberra Times and a regular columnist. crispinhull.com.au