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A Biden win would be no miracle cure

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The difference between a Donald Trump or Joe Biden victory in November could be the future of the US republic. But it does not follow that a Biden second term would bring an end to America’s political malaise.

His victory would likely be narrow, declared stolen by Trump, and involve a loss of Democratic control of the US Senate. It would be a leap of faith to think that an ageing second-term Biden grappling with still more gridlock could break the Republican fever. The chances are reasonable that in the countdown to 2028, America would re-experience today’s sense of dread. 

That is the choice facing US voters in ten months. It is still open and shut. Trump leaves no doubt that he would use the full gamut of presidential powers and find new ones to punish his enemies and reward friends. It would be foolish to think he is joking when he promises to be a dictator for one day and put US troops on the streets.

The lesson of Trump’s first term is to take him seriously. A lot of legal planning has gone into what he would do in his second. It would thus be negligent to assume the US constitutional order would survive a retributionist Trump. 

That is the predicate. A Biden win would mean America lives to fight another day; there is no guarantee that it would win that day. Given the Manichean nature of America’s choice, it is understandable that people find it hard to see beyond the blinding catharsis of a Trump defeat.

For what it is worth, I think the odds of that are better than what the bookies are offering. Trump is entering a world of judicial hell. Last week he was fined $83.3mn in damages for libelling a sexual assault victim. This week he could be banned from doing business in New York and fined at least another $350mn for misstating his financial assets. Then come the criminal trials. There are probably convictions on the way. 

The political impact of Trump’s courtroom dramas is double-edged. Each finding against him by an allegedly biased judiciary binds the Maga base closer. Yet they also instil further doubt about him in the minds of independents.

This is good news for Biden in the short term because it improves his chances of winning in November. Beyond that, however, it could make governing even harder since the Republican party is now too deeply invested in Trumpism to back away.

The nature of cults is that each setback deepens the sense of betrayal that fuels them. Trumpism is not a programme for government. It is an anger against the world. Defeat merely confirms that dark forces are rigging the game. 

The obvious question is what it would take to defeat Trumpism for good. The simplest route would be a landslide defeat on the scale of Barry Goldwater’s loss in the 1964 election, or George McGovern in 1972. That is also the least plausible. The polls may be understating Biden’s chances in November, particularly since the US economy looks to be headed for a soft landing. But America’s bitter polarisation has been remarkably even for many years. A Biden victory would likely be slim and contested.

A second potential fix would be Trump’s imprisonment for his attempt at overthrowing the 2020 election. It is hard to know whether his incarceration would deepen the cult or puncture it. The risk is that it would amplify his claim to be the persecuted symbol of the forgotten American. His followers routinely depict Jesus sitting next to him in the courtroom. 

A third would be for Biden to govern with reformist zeal in his second term and restore faith in US institutions. It is no disrespect to the legislative wins of Biden’s first two years, which were considerable, to say that it would be harder to do anything next time.

The odds are that the US Senate will change hands in November. Even if the House goes Democratic, Capitol Hill would remain an obstacle. At any age, that would be a climb, let alone when approaching your mid-eighties.

The final option is that we are in fact misreading Trump. A second term would be less ominous than supposed. Once Trump has pardoned himself for his alleged crimes, he will settle into habitual incompetence. It is increasingly common to hear business leaders say that Trump is not as bad as he sounds. They are profoundly mistaken. Where the anti-Trump forces err is in thinking his defeat would be a sufficient as well as a necessary condition to restore American stability. It will probably take more than that. 

edward.luce@ft.com

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