In the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump, seven out of 50 Republican senators voted to convict the former president of inciting insurrection. This has raised more questions than it has answered about where the Republican Party is going.
It still looks like Trump’s party, but for how long? Bill Cassidy, one of the seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump, says Trump’s power over the party will “wane”. He will certainly hope so. The Republican Party of Louisiana has already censured Cassidy for his disloyalty to Trump.
On the other hand, Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s top allies, believes Trump and his supporters are so important to the future of the party that Republicans should nominate his daughter-in-law to replace retiring Senator Richard Burr (who voted to convict).
Some in the party see Trump as a major liability who will only get more toxic. He is the first president since 1932 to oversee the loss of the White House and both houses of Congress in a single term. Joe Biden got the highest vote share of any presidential challenger since 1932 in the highest-turnout election since 1900, earning 7 million more votes than Trump.
However much Trump energised his supporters, he energised more of his opponents.
Despite all this, Republicans came within 90,000 votes of winning both houses of Congress and the presidency in 2020. Many Republicans believe Trump is an electoral asset who helped them outperform expectations and narrow the Democrats’ margins nationwide.
Unlike in 2012, there won’t be a Republican Party autopsy of the election defeat. Large numbers of Republicans doubt the outcome of the election, and most of the party’s legislators are unwilling to tell them otherwise.
So what might the future hold?
For now, the two sides are stuck with each other.
These threats have quickly evaporated. The most a new conservative party could achieve is to damage the electoral prospects of Republicans (something Trump might have contemplated in the face of the impeachment threat).
The American electoral system, which is winner-takes-all from top to bottom, is notoriously unforgiving to would-be third parties. Even people who feel alienated from their own parties are better off staying and fighting for power rather than forming a new party, which would never get anywhere near power.
It has been more than 160 years since divisions over slavery destroyed major parties in the United States. The Republican and Democratic parties have survived since the Civil War despite numerous fractures and even violent conflicts.
Congressional outcasts occasionally defect to the other major party. But, more often, members at odds with their party eventually retire and are replaced by new members more closely aligned with its direction. This process is one of the factors leading to the current polarisation of Congress.
Newly elected representative Marjorie Taylor Greene has become the focus of concerns about right-wing extremism in the Republican Party. Greene has a long history of amplifying dangerous conspiracy theories on social media.
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell warned that “loony lies and conspiracy theories” are “a cancer for the Republican Party and our country”. Greene fired back: “The real cancer for the Republican Party is weak Republicans who only know how to lose gracefully. This is why we are losing our country.”
House Democrats moved to strip Greene of her membership of congressional committees after Republican leader Kevin McCarthy refused to discipline her.
But Greene’s central conspiratorial grievance – that Trump was robbed of a rightful victory in the 2020 election – is an article of faith and a politically energising force for much of the Republican base. Trump raised US$255 million dollars off it in the weeks after the election.
Many Republicans in Congress acquiesced to the “stolen election” fantasy, some with the excuse that they are faithfully representing their constituents. Even McConnell waited weeks before acknowledging Biden’s victory.
Republicans who openly acknowledged Biden’s victory and dismissed claims of widespread election fraud faced anger and censure from state party organisations, as well as from Trump himself. Republicans who backed impeachment saw immediate retribution, and will almost certainly have to defeat well-supported primary challengers in the future.
The historical willingness of American conservatives to police extremism has been overstated. It doesn’t matter that Trump and Greene are poison to the larger electorate. Neither election losses nor the stigma of “extremism” are enough to kill right-wing political movements in America.
Accepting the Republican nomination in 1964, Barry Goldwater declared that “extremism in defence of liberty is no vice”. Goldwater went on to one of the largest electoral defeats in history, but within 15 years his movement, led by Ronald Reagan, had thoroughly conquered the Republican Party, taken the White House and reshaped American political culture. Trump’s followers have similar ambitions.
No one knows yet what role Trump will play in future Republican politics. His recent attack on McConnell suggests he at least wants to continue to punish Republicans he sees as disloyal. The possibility Trump could run again will make politics awkward for Republicans eager to claim his mantle for their own presidential ambitions.
The prospect of “Trumpism without Trump” has enticed conservatives and worried liberals ever since the Trump phenomenon began. Republicans have learned to rail against “globalism” and the “deep state”. They are unlikely to return to comprehensive immigration reform any time soon.
Trump has breathed new life into old conservative staples such as law and order and the perils of socialism. But Trump’s relationship with his supporters goes far beyond his political positions, or even the grievances and emotions he harnessed.
Trump’s appeal was based on the perception that he had unique gifts that no politician ever had. He cultivated a media image that made him synonymous, however incorrectly, with business success. His tireless verbal output, whether through Twitter or at endless rallies, created an alternative reality for his followers. Many saw him as chosen by God.
That kind of charismatic magic will be extremely difficult for any career politician to recapture. Republicans may discover that Trumpism is not a political movement but a business model, a model only ever designed for one benefactor.
In a historic vote today, Donald Trump became the only US president to be impeached twice.
By a margin of 232–197, the Democrat-controlled US House of Representatives voted to charge Trump with “inciting violence against the government of the United States” for his role in encouraging the insurrectionists who stormed the US Capitol last week.
When Trump was impeached by the House last year for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, no Republicans joined the Democrats in the vote.
This time, however, ten members of Trump’s own party supported the effort to remove him from office.
Now that the House has voted to impeach Trump, a trial will be held in the Senate, though the timing of this is unclear at the moment.
For Trump to be convicted, 67 senators need to vote in favour. If all 50 Democrats and independents vote to convict Trump as expected, then at least 17 Republicans would need to join them.
So far, only three (Lisa Murkowski, Ben Sasse, and Pat Toomey) have indicated they would do so. Mitt Romney, a vocal Trump critic, will probably join them, and Susan Collins is a possibility.
Even though the most powerful Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell, is said to be privately supporting the impeachment effort (and publicly said he hasn’t decided how he will vote), the numbers required to convict Trump will likely still fall short.
Trump’s former national security advisor, John Bolton, has said the president “will be remembered as an aberration” when he leaves office after noon on January 20.
Nevertheless, the Republican Party will go on. And it will need to find its identify in the post-Trump era.
Do they continue with the arch-conservatism of the past decade that gave rise to the Tea Party and Trump, or do they return to the more traditional Republican politics associated with George W. Bush, John McCain and Romney?
While some Senate Republicans have loudly declared their allegiance to Trump, others appear to be suddenly on the fence.
Lindsey Graham, who went from being one of Trump’s most outspoken opponents to his staunchest backer in Congress, last week broke with Trump over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results. However, Graham is strongly opposed to impeachment.
If you’re McConnell, you want to be remembered for defending the Senate and the institution.
The most prominent Republican to join the impeachment effort in the House is Liz Cheney.
The daughter of former US Vice President Dick Cheney has only been in Congress since 2017. After just two years, however, she was elected chair of the House Republican Conference, the third-most senior Republican position in the House after minority leader (Kevin McCarthy) and minority whip (Steve Scalise).
A rising star in the party, Cheney surprised many when she said she wouldn’t run for the open Senate seat in Wyoming last year, opting to stay in the House.
With both McCarthy and Scalise voting against impeachment today, Cheney’s move suggests she is positioning herself as a leader of the anti-Trump faction in the party, with eyes on perhaps becoming the first female Republican House speaker.
It must be noted that a significant portion of the American electorate still supports Trump and his policies. According to FiveThirtyEight, about 42% of Americans do not support impeachment. And among Republicans, just 15% say they want him removed from office.
Whoever leads the Republican Party post-Trump will need to consider how they will maintain the rabid support of his “base”, while working to regain more moderate voters who defected from the party in the 2020 election.
The reason McConnell is reportedly said to be considering voting to convict Trump is that is would make it easier to purge him from the party.
But purging Trump will be difficult. Even without Twitter, the power Trump wields is immense. The fear among many Republicans is that he can encourage primary challenges to any incumbents he feels have wronged him.
He’s done this many times before. In 2018, Trump strongly endorsed Brian Kemp in his successful campaign for governor of Georgia, but when Kemp rejected his claims of election fraud in November, Trump announced he was ashamed of having supported him. Trump loyalists are already looking for a primary challenger to him.
Trump doesn’t appear to want to go away quietly, which is also a cause for concern from a security standpoint.
This week, a leaked internal FBI bulletin warned that armed protests are planned for all 50 states and Washington DC in the days before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20.
Some state capitol buildings have begun boarding up their doors and windows, while 15,000 National Guard troops have been mobilised for deployment to the nation’s capital ahead of expected violence and unrest.
This is an unfortunate sign of how many expect Trump’s supporters to respond to both his impeachment and Biden’s inauguration — even with Trump finally urging against further violence and unrest.
Most presidents aim to leave office with the nation better off than when they entered, but Trump’s legacy appears to be cementing a more divided country, where his brand of aggressive “conflict politics” may be the new norm.
This is a no-win situation for the country. And Republicans are still trying to figure out which side of history they want to be on.
The videos embedded below show the latest news at the top.
US President Donald Trump’s time in the White House is coming to an end. But, as has become obvious over the past few weeks, he is unlikely to deliver a gracious concession speech.
Instead, the president has spent much of his time since the November 3 election plotting ways to undo what has turned out to be a rather clear victory for President-elect Joe Biden — all credible media outlets have given Biden 306 electoral college votes to the outgoing president’s 232. The successful candidate needs to amass 270 electoral college votes to win the presidency.
Time is simply running out for Trump. By December 8, all states are required to certify their results, with the electors in each state to cast their votes by December 14. The inauguration of the next president takes place on January 20 2021.
None of this should obscure the anti-democratic coup d’état Trump is attempting as he refuses to concede defeat. However, it is unlikely to succeed.
His legal challenges alleging fraud and misconduct are close to running their course. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled against his claim that election “observers” were too far away in Philadelphia from workers counting ballots. In Georgia, a hand recount has finished with Biden confirmed the victor. And Michigan lawmakers appear ready to defy the president, who now seems intent on wreaking havoc on the certification process.
Trump’s efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the election are real. His attempt to influence Republican state legislators, in effect to persuade them to replace electors committed to voting for Biden with electors ready to vote for Trump, is profoundly undemocratic. Under a winner-takes-all system, Michigan’s 16 electoral college votes should be going to President-elect Biden, the clear winner of the state by almost three percentage points.
If Trump had succeeded in overturning the results, one could go as far as questioning America’s status as a liberal democracy. Not since Southern secessionists contested the legitimacy of Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 has a single actor been so nefarious in their attempts to undermine an incoming president.
Look no further than Trump’s actions on the transition. With over 250,000 Americans dead from COVID-19, and case numbers exploding around the country, one would think an orderly transition in which the incoming president is given access to experts knowledgeable about the country’s readiness for mass distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine would be an urgent and unquestioned priority.
But not in Trump’s White House. The General Services Administration, run by a political appointee of the president, must certify Biden as the winner before the incoming administration is given access to top public health officials.
Such certification will eventually take place, as the president simply runs out of options. We suspect he will grudgingly acknowledge he will not be president for the next four years, repeating a never-ending series of fabrications about the legitimacy of the 2020 election. His arguments will resonate with his “base” and will have consequences beyond this election cycle.
Analysis by the Pew Research Center finds:
While a 59% majority of all voters say elections in the United States were run and administered well, just 21% of Trump supporters have a positive view of how elections were administered nationally. Among Biden supporters, 94% say the elections were run and administered well.
The magnitude of these differences is stark and suggests Biden will have much work to do in bringing the country together — if indeed that is possible. Biden himself is attempting to restore moral leadership to a country torn apart by pandemic, racial division and illiberal tendencies in the executive branch of government.
Rhetorically, Biden has hit many of the right notes, emphasising themes of unity and national healing. How this will play out in a policy sense will be seen once he takes office.
Of course, Trump will continue to make life difficult for the incoming Biden administration. Some reports suggest he is already considering running for office in 2024.
So, it should not be surprising if the outgoing president leaves a number of surprises for President-elect Biden. Some press reports in the US are stating that on Middle East policy, trade with China, securing oil drilling leases in Alaska, and the Iran nuclear deal — which Biden may wish to rejoin — the Trump team is doing its best to reduce the incoming administration’s policy options.
Political theorist David Runciman argues that in democracies molehills are often made out of mountains. Vote counting, constantly updating vote tallies, failed legal challenges, recounts, the wearing effects of days of politics dominating life, Biden’s non-spectacular calmness, certification and the meeting of the Electoral College will turn this post-election mountain into a molehill as Trump’s attempted coup will eventually fail.
However, Trump has regularly shown us that, in the internet age, mountains can also be made out of molehills. The president’s lies and tweets have turned his presidency into a kind of reality TV show that has in turns transfixed, energised or horrified much of the world. Nevertheless, the show is in its final season and has not been renewed.
We are reminded of an article Rebecca Solnit wrote during the earliest days of the Trump presidency. In it, she presciently captures the predicament in which Trump now finds himself. Although his base and a large number of Republicans still support him, Trump has always surrounded himself with loyal followers reluctant to question their leader’s judgment and authority. This produces a form of isolation that is of Trump’s own making, a consequence of the man’s temperament and unwillingness to tolerate uncomfortable truths.
Reflecting on Trump-like leaders, Solnit explained:
In the end there is no one else in their world, because when you are not willing to hear how others feel, what others need, when you do not care, you are not willing to acknowledge others’ existence. That’s how it’s lonely at the top. It is as if these petty tyrants live in a world without honest mirrors, without others, without gravity, and they are buffered from the consequences of their failures.
Of course, sooner or later Trump will realise the presidency must be vacated. He will have to face the one thing in his life he has always tried to avoid: defeat.
With all states called by US media, Joe Biden won the Electoral College by 306 votes to 232 over Donald Trump, an exact reversal of Trump’s triumph in 2016, ignoring faithless electors. Biden gained the Trump 2016 states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia; he also gained Nebraska’s second district.
While Biden’s win appears decisive, he won three states – Wisconsin (ten Electoral Votes), Arizona (11) and Georgia (16) – by 0.6% or less. Had Trump won these three states, the Electoral College would have been tied at 269-269.
If nobody wins a majority (270) of the Electoral College, the presidency is decided by the House of Representatives, but with each state’s delegation casting one vote. Republicans hold a majority of state delegations, so Trump would have won a tied Electoral College vote.
Wisconsin (Biden by 0.6%) will be the “tipping-point” state. Had Trump won Wisconsin and states Biden won by less (Arizona and Georgia went to Biden by 0.3% margins), he would have won the Electoral College tiebreaker.
The national popular vote has Biden currently leading Trump by 50.9% to 47.3%, a 3.6% margin for Biden. This does not yet include mail ballots from New York that are expected to be very pro-Biden.
Biden is likely to win the popular vote by 4-5%, so the difference between Wisconsin and the overall popular vote will be 3.5% to 4.5%. That is greater than the 2.9% gap between the tipping-point state and the popular vote in 2016.
Prior to 2016, there had not been such a large gap, but in both 2016 and 2020 Trump exploited the relatively large population of non-University educated whites in presidential swing states compared to nationally.
This article, written after the US 2016 election, has had a massive surge in views recently.
Relative to expectations, Democrats performed badly in Congress. In the Senate, Republicans lead by 50-48 with two Georgian runoffs pending on January 5. In the House, Democrats hold a 218-203 lead with 14 races uncalled. Republicans have gained a net seven seats so far, and lead in ten of the uncalled races.
Before the election, Democrats were expected to win the Senate and extend their House majority. The House would be worse for Democrats if not for a judicial redistribution in North Carolina that gave Democrats two extra safe seats.
New York Times analyst Nate Cohn has an article on the polls. Biden was expected to greatly improve on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance with non-University educated whites and seniors, but the results indicate that Trump held up much better with these demographics than expected.
Trump also had large swings in his favour in heavily Latino counties such as Miami Dade, Florida; polls suggested a more modest improvement for Trump with Latinos.
After the 2016 election, most polls started weighting by educational attainment, but this did not fix the problem. Cohn has some theories of what went wrong. First, Republican turnout appears to have been stronger than expected. Second, Trump’s attacks on the mainstream media may have convinced some of his supporters to not respond to polls.
A third theory is that coronavirus biased the polls’ samples, because people who followed medical advice and stayed home were more likely to respond to pollsters and more likely to be Democrats. Polls had suggested Biden would win Wisconsin, a coronavirus hotspot, easily, but he only won by 0.6%.
While US polls understated Trump in both 2016 and 2020, it is not true that international polling tends to understate the right. At the October 17 New Zealand election, polls greatly understated Labour’s lead over National. Polls also understated UK Labour at the 2017 election.
In a privately conducted Victorian YouGov poll reported by The Herald Sun, Labor led by 55-45 from primary votes of 44% Labor, 40% Coalition and 11% Greens. Premier Daniel Andrews had a strong 65-32 approval rating, while Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien had a terrible 53-26 disapproval rating. The poll was conducted from late October to early November from a sample of 1,240. Figures from The Poll Bludger.
A Victorian Morgan SMS poll, conducted November 9-10 from a sample of 818, gave Labor a 58.5-41.5 lead, a seven-point gain for Labor since the mid-October Morgan poll. Primary votes were 45% Labor (up five), 34.5% Coalition (down 5.5) and 11% Greens (up two). In a forced choice, Andrews had a 71-29 approval rating, up from 59-41 in mid-October. Morgan’s SMS polls have been unreliable in the past.
At the October 31 Queensland election, Labor won 52 of the 93 seats (up four since 2017), the LNP 34 (down five), Katter’s Australian Party three (steady), the Greens two (up one), One Nation one (steady) and one independent (steady). Labor has an 11-seat majority.
Primary votes were 39.6% Labor (up 4.1%), 35.9% LNP (up 2.2%), 9.5% Greens (down 0.5%), 7.1% One Nation (down 6.6%) and 2.5% Katter’s Australian Party (up 0.2%). It is likely Labor won at least 53% of the two party preferred vote. The final Newspoll gave Labor a 51.5-48.5 lead – another example of understating the left.
Labor gained five seats from the LNP, but lost Jackie Trad’s seat of South Brisbane to the Greens. Two of Labor’s gains were very close and went to recounts, with Labor winning Bundaberg by nine votes and Nicklin by 85 votes.
In last week’s federal Newspoll, conducted November 4-7 from a sample of 1,510, the Coalition had a 51-49 lead, a one point gain for Labor since the mid-October Newspoll. Primary votes were 43% Coalition (down one), 35% Labor (up one), 11% Greens (steady) and 3% One Nation (steady). Figures from The Poll Bludger.
Scott Morrison is still very popular, with 64% satisfied with his performance (down one) and 32% dissatisfied (up one), for a net approval of +32. Anthony Albanese’s net approval jumped eight points to +4, but he continued to trail Morrison as better PM by 58-29 (57-28 previously).
A YouGov poll in former Labor frontbencher Joel Fitzgibbon’s seat of Hunter had a 50-50 tie; this would be a three-point swing to the Nationals from the 2019 election. Primary votes were 34% Labor, 26% National, 12% One Nation, 10% Shooters and 8% Greens.
The world may have expected the chaos and uncertainty of the US presidential election to end when Joe Biden was declared the winner last weekend. But these are not normal times and Donald Trump is not a conventional president.
Concessions that used to be a part of the political process have been replaced by baseless allegations of voter fraud and election stealing, loud, all-caps shouting on Twitter and plans for a “Million MAGA March” on Washington.
The courts are the proper venue for candidates to challenge the results of elections. But a legal process requires evidence of illegality — and as of yet, the Trump campaign has produced very little.
So, then, how long can Trump string things out — and, more importantly, what’s the end game?
Lawsuits can be filed for a number of reasons after an election: violations of state law by local election officials, discrimination against voters, political manipulation of the outcome or irregularities in the ballot counting process.
In one case filed in Pennsylvania, Republicans sought to stop the vote count in Philadelphia on the grounds Trump campaign officials were not allowed to be close enough to the ballot-counting process.
Under questioning from the judge, the Trump campaign lawyers were forced to admit a “non-zero number” of Republican observers were present. The judge, clearly exasperated, responded by asking, “I’m sorry, then what’s your problem?”
The most interesting – and perhaps most viable – case concerns whether a state court can extend the time limit for mail-in ballots to arrive.
In this case, the Trump campaign challenged a decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to allow mail-in votes received up to three days after election day to be counted.
A group of Republican attorneys-general filed a brief at the US Supreme Court this week urging it to take up the case.
Amy Coney Barrett, the newly appointed Supreme Court justice, did not participate in the earlier decisions, and it remains to be seen if her vote would change the outcome should the case reach the court.
Hoever, this may all be a moot point, as there are likely not enough late-arriving ballots for Trump to make up the sizeable gap to Biden in the state.
Attorney-General William Barr has also inserted the Department of Justice into the post-election drama, authorising investigations by US attorneys into alleged voter fraud across the country. The move outraged the top official in charge of voter fraud investigations, prompting him to resign.
The Department of Justice has historically stayed out of elections, a policy Barr criticised in his memo, saying
such a passive and delayed enforcement approach can result in situations in which election misconduct cannot realistically be rectified.
The department’s about-face is important for several reasons. It changes long-standing practice, as Barr himself admits. The general practice, he wrote, had been to counsel that
overt investigative steps ordinarily should not be taken until the election in question has been concluded, its results certified, and all recounts and election contests concluded.
Of course, Barr has ingratiated himself with Trump before, most notably in his 2018 memo to the Justice Department expressing concerns over the Mueller investigation.
Many had wondered why Barr had remained unusually quiet for so long on the election. It appears he is back, and willing to support Trump and the Republican cause.
Given Trump and Republicans have very little chance of overturning the result through these tactics, the question remains: what is the goal?
Yes, this all could be explained simply as Trump not liking to lose. But setting such indulgences aside, the reason for this obstruction appears to be two upcoming US Senate runoff elections scheduled for January 5.
Under Georgia law, a runoff is required between the two candidates that came out on top if neither wins 50% of the vote in the state election.
The Republicans currently hold a 50-to-48-seat edge in the Senate, meaning control of the chamber now comes down to who wins the two Georgia runoffs.
The positions taken by Republican senators in recent days are telling — they have stood firmly behind Trump’s challenges and gone out of their way not to congratulate Biden on his victory. Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota put it bluntly,
We need [Trump’s] voters […] we want him helping in Georgia.
The Senate plays a crucial role for the Biden presidency. If it remains in Republican hands, this could leave Biden with few avenues to implement his favoured policies on the economy, climate change or health care and would deny Democrats the ability to expand the Supreme Court.
Already, it’s clear the focus of the GOP is shifting toward Georgia. The two Republican Senate candidates this week called for the resignation of the secretary of state, a fellow Republican, repeating Trump’s baseless claims over voter fraud in Georgia.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, this was done to appease Trump
lest he tweet a negative word about them and risk divorcing them from his base ahead of the consequential runoff.
The long-term implications are momentous. The US is already bitterly divided, as demonstrated by the large voter turnout on both sides in the election. This division will only deepen the more Trump presses his claims and signals he won’t go away silently.
If half the country buys into his claims of a stolen election, the real danger is the erosion of democracy in the US as we know it.
In his acceptance speech at the weekend, US President-Elect Joe Biden signalled a return to science as a key policy shift for the United States.
“Americans have called on us to […] marshal the forces of science and the forces of hope in the great battles of our time,” he said, assuring the public the Biden-Harris COVID plan “will be built on the bedrock of science”.
His message, on its surface, is a response to the Trump administration’s disdain for scientific advice, most notably in the COVID response and withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement.
But Biden’s remarks are deeper and more interesting than a simple spruik for science-led policy.
Is Trump’s administration anti-scientific? Yes and no.
According to a report compiled by the journal Science, the Trump White House has indeed pursued an agenda of suppressing science by slashing funding. But this agenda has been largely unsuccessful.
During Trump’s term, funding for the National Institutes for Health rose by 39% and the budget for the National Science Foundation rose by 17%. This is explained, at least in part, by Congress resisting the White House’s efforts to defund science.
Setting aside direct attacks on funding, the Trump administration has also positioned itself as anti-science in other, more visible ways.
It has a track record of ignoring scientific advice on issues ranging from the deadliness of COVID, to the impact of human activity on the climate, to the bizarre “Sharpiegate” episode in which Trump apparently used a marker pen to alter the forecast track of Hurricane Dorian.
Yet it would be wrong to paint Trump as unequivocally anti-science.
He poured money into quantum computing and artificial intelligence, and invested heavily in space exploration, promising a return to the Moon this decade. And, at the risk of stretching this argument beyond breaking point, he called on civil engineering to deliver his Mexican border wall.
Trump also used science to win an election. Let’s not forget the pivotal role of Cambridge Analytica in his victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016. A mixture of data science and empirical psychology delivered voters to Trump in the millions.
While it is difficult to know exactly what methods Cambridge Analytica used, it is possible that a method known as psychographic targeting was part of their approach. This involves analysing users’ behaviour on social media sites such as Facebook — for example, by tracking the content that individuals “like” — as a basis for delivering targeted advertising that fits a person’s personality.
It is perhaps no accident, then, that quantum computing and artificial intelligence got the thumbs-up. In the world of voter manipulation, it is hard to think of a scientific investment that would yield a better return.
Painting Trump’s administration as entirely anti-intellectual overlooks one of the key factors that delivered him electoral success in the first place. His 2016 victory was in one sense a scientific achievement, delivered by technological algorithms designed to exploit publicly available data with unprecedented effectiveness.
Such a result is absolutely repeatable. As long as methods such as psychographic targeting go unregulated in the political sphere, future candidates could leverage data science in much the way Trump did to win the White House.
Biden’s approach is not just a pivot back to respecting expertise, but also a pledge to embrace science in the public interest. The Biden-Harris COVID plan, for example, will be founded on expert advice but will also, as Biden explained, “be constructed out of compassion, empathy and concern”.
Hopefully this heralds an end to the use of science to achieve narrow and selfish political ends, and a return to the appropriation of science for the common good.
While I applaud the kind of science Biden wants to embrace, I daresay he faces a difficult choice. If he refuses to use science to further any partisan political ends, his party runs the risk of getting rolled in the next election by a demagogue who does not suffer the same burden of decency.
Perhaps he can get ahead of this by asking us all to have a serious conversation, on a global scale, about the use of science in winning elections.
At the very least, we should reject the narrative that the Trump administration repudiates science in its entirety. That only makes it harder to see the danger the improper use of science poses to democracy.
We are, it is often said, living in a post-truth world. The Trump administration’s denial of evidence, and its capacity to lie about everything from coronavirus cures to election results, provide several classic examples. After four years of “alternative facts”, Biden’s vocal support for scientific expertise was a breath of fresh air.
But, perhaps unintentionally, Biden has also revealed a dangerous faultline of democracy. By positioning his administration as one that uses science only for the common good, he is tacitly acknowledging democracy’s vulnerability to science and technology.
Biden’s words remind us that technological advances threaten to propel us into a world where political differences become irreconcilable, and respect for democratic norms is not guaranteed.
Tackling the health, economic and social crises wrought by the coronavirus pandemic is the first order of business for US president-elect Joe Biden and his transition team.
Biden this week announced his bipartisan coronavirus taskforce to begin work immediately and continue after he is sworn in as president in January.
The taskforce inherits a range of challenges. Coronavirus is now rampant in the US, and the Trump administration has run down the public health infrastructure and largely abandoned attempts to control the pandemic, preferring to gamble on the imminent arrival of a vaccine.
The urgency of the problem is highlighted in forecasts released last week by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These predict that in the week ending November 28, there will be 450,000-960,000 new coronavirus cases and 4,600-11,000 deaths from COVID.
Even these stark warnings may be overly optimistic. On November 8, the US was averaging 116,448 new cases a day. So far, more than ten million Americans have been infected, and significant numbers remain disabled with prolonged side-effects. The situation will undoubtedly be much worse by the time Biden is sworn in on January 20.
Biden’s coronavirus taskforce is headed by three physicians: Vivek Murthy, the former US surgeon general; David Kessler, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration; and Marcella Nunez-Smith, who is recognised for her work on promoting health and health-care equity for marginalised populations. All are well known in public health, science and political circles.
Biden said in his acceptance speech these leading experts will:
…help take the Biden-Harris COVID plan and convert it into an action blueprint… That plan will be built on bedrock science… I’ll spare no effort, none, or any commitment, to turn around this pandemic.
The taskforce will build on several months of consultation and work under the auspices of the Biden campaign.
The Biden coronavirus plan, issued during the campaign, is a comprehensive document that recognises the responsibilities of the federal government in ensuring states, counties, local communities, health-care and incarceration facilities, educational systems and individuals have the protections, resources and information needed to address the pandemic. Special focus is placed on tackling the racial and ethnic disparities highlighted by the pandemic.
The taskforce must reach out to the states — both Democrat and Republican — as the Biden plan relies on their cooperation with new federal initiatives. These include possible mask mandates, supply chains for personal protective equipment, testing supplies, therapeutics, vaccines and needed additional health-care services.
The taskforce has already briefed Biden and vice president-elect Kamala Harris. Biden then issued a public statement on November 9, further detailing his plans for tackling the pandemic and rebuilding the economy.
His statement coincided with news from Pfizer about the promising test results for its coronavirus vaccine. Biden’s response was one of cautious optimism, in stark contrast to President Donald Trump, who hyped the stock market implications.
The taskforce’s work is unlikely to step on the toes of the White House coronavirus advisory group, which has largely ceased to function as Trump has lost interest.
The former chief spokesperson for the White House coronavirus advisory group Deborah Birx has issued an urgent memo pleading for “much more aggressive action” to curb the virus.
The Trump administration’s approach to the pandemic in recent months is succinctly summed up by White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows:
“We are not going to control the pandemic.”
This is ironic in light of Meadows’ own infection, joining Trump and many other members of the White House in having contracted the coronavirus.
In 2008, the outgoing Bush administration was willing to take advice and guidance from the Obama transition team on efforts to address the global financial crisis. Most notably, Bush agreed to Obama’s request to ask Congress to release more funds for the economic bailout.
Biden will now push to get the Senate to pass a coronavirus relief bill that is so urgently needed. This would include additional unemployment benefits and funding boosts for treatment, testing and tracing, and for education and health-care systems.
Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell have each recently indicated their interest in passing such a measure, but they are at odds on the scope of legislation.
Could Biden’s input help them find common ground, or will partisanship prevail?
The Biden-Harris team will need to work simultaneously on these issues and a raft of others. Biden must, in short order, announce his cabinet and get them working on their agendas; assess which of Trump’s actions need to be undone (including withdrawal from the World Health Organisation and the Paris climate agreement); develop legislation and executive orders if he can’t get the Senate to work cooperatively and pass bills that come forward from the House of Representatives; and have a contingency plan in case the US Supreme Court overturns Obamacare in 2021.
Biden’s transition team features many people who previously worked for the Obama administration. This bodes well for strengthening and rebuilding Obamacare into Bidencare. Ensuring people have affordable access to health care has never been more important.
Biden has also promised to reinstate the national and international public health and first responder systems that Trump dismantled. This includes bringing back the White House National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense and continued support for the work of the World Health Organisation.
None of this will be successful unless, and until, Biden can bring Congress together to act and simultaneously begin healing the divisions in the nation. He must restore trust in government and science, ensure transparency and accountability, and build a common purpose so people will act for the common good. That’s a big ask — but the coronavirus pandemic demands it.