by Garry Kasparov
The election is over at last, called decisively for Joe Biden after four days of extreme care and caution in the democratic process. Unsurprisingly, the sitting president’s response is to attack that process with baseless accusations. For someone who talks so much about law and order, Donald Trump never wants it to apply to him. He cares little for what is legal and not at all about what is right.
I have spent much of my life at the chessboard taking the measure of people under tremendous stress while trying to manage my own. When we’re under pressure, we show our true colors. Sometimes we rise to the challenge to find character and resources we didn’t know we had. Or we collapse, unable to deal with the rush of emotions as the clock ticks down.
With time ticking away on his presidency on Thursday night, Trump cracked under the pressure. He’d managed to keep quiet for two days as the returns slowly came in, but as the results in key states tipped toward a Biden victory, he could control himself no longer and took to the podium.
What followed was Trump reduced to his purest self, a lying, self-centered bully who has finally been punched in the nose. The result was called “the most dishonest speech of his presidency” by CNN expert Daniel Dale, no small achievement.
Trump accused his unnamed opponents of stealing the election, claimed he’d won states he hadn’t, and attacked the legitimacy of the entire election process, saying with no evidence at all that he was only losing because of “illegal votes.”
Some observers referred to it as the sort of rant a dictator would give, but here I have some expertise and I must disagree. Trump’s rhetoric is often that of a strongman, full of boasting and self-reverence. On Thursday, he was just pathetic, a hot-air balloon punctured by the sharp point of reality. It was the speech not of a dictator or a president, but of a weak man trying to pull himself out of self-pity by seeing how much damage he can do so that he doesn’t suffer alone.
It was, however, the sort of speech that any real dictator would love. The president of the United States, attacking the foundation of the greatest democracy in the world from behind the presidential seal. Vladimir Putin couldn’t have scripted it better.
Leaders like Putin whose power depends on depriving their citizens of a voice are always keen to portray democracy as little more than chaos — something their subjects don’t have to worry about. They go to bed every night knowing exactly who is going to be in charge in the morning, and every morning, no matter how they feel about it.
Fair and unpredictable elections are a blessing, even if they cause you to lose sleep sometimes. That uncertainty is democracy working, the power of the people to choose their leaders. It’s only a dream for many, like the people of Belarus, who have been protesting in the streets every day for over five months after the dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s latest sham of an election.
Treasure your doubt and fears, America, safe in the knowledge that even if things don’t go your way in this election, you know exactly when the next one will be, and that it will matter.
Putin supported Trump in 2016 not because he thought he would win, but because Trump was the ideal agent of chaos. He was like an icebreaker ship, cutting deeply into the layers of trust in the American government. After all, Trump still hasn’t accepted the results of the 2016 election that he won, insisting that he only lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton because of millions of fictitious illegal votes.
His latest conspiracy-mongering is as foolish as it is damaging. Are we supposed to believe that insidious forces capable of the greatest voter fraud imaginable against Trump, somehow coordinating across states, couldn’t manage to also tip a few key Senate races? Republican Congressional and state candidates consistently outperformed the incumbent president across the country; was that part of the fix?
The wait for the official results has been long, and we’ll have to wait even longer for a Trump concession speech, since I’m not sure Hell freezes over any more thanks to climate change. Whatever the projections, whatever the recount results, he’ll use his two months to myth-make about vote-rigging and a slew of other conspiracy theories. We can only hope none of it inspires violence, something Trump clearly has no qualms about.
The rats aren’t all deserting the sinking ship. Once-respected elected officials and presidential pretenders like Ted Cruz and Nikki Haley continue to genuflect to Trump — or at least to the Trump voters they hope to collect in the future.
If their cynical calculations are correct, it’s a bad sign for the health of the republic. Trump’s fans liked him personally, and it’s not clear if they will rally as a bloc to anyone else waving the same America First flag. It’s hard to believe anyone looking at Trump or his record in the White House would want to emulate any aspect of it, but there is no denying that he received over 70 million votes.
Part of the secret Trump’s imitators will surely copy is that Trumpism isn’t really for anything, only against. It’s a creed based on fear and resentment, on the litany of grievances Trump is so fond of reciting at his super-spreader rallies. Attacks on the media, on immigrants, on the dreaded “liberal elites,” whose crime is feeling superior to people who wear red hats and worship a morally and financially bankrupt reality-TV host.
Trump and his acolytes also rant against something that does exist, if not how they imagine it, socialism. Unable to find a clear line of attack on Joe Biden, the Republicans went with the classics, despite the fact that the actual socialist, Bernie Sanders, lost to Biden in the Democratic primary.
That result was a sign of the ineffable wisdom of the electorate. Biden may not have been the favorite candidate of many, but he was acceptable to nearly all. Biden failed in his previous runs partly because he was just too normal, too boring to stand out in a crowd. This time, he won for exactly the same reasons. In a time of crisis, and against a president who demands constant attention, Biden — steady, predictable Biden — saw his political vulnerabilities turned into strengths.
Biden was the only Democratic candidate who could have resisted both Trump’s trolling and the attempts by his own party’s far left wing to use the election to promote a radical agenda. Trump has derailed American politics and Biden, a man known for his love of Amtrak, is the right person at the right time to put it back on the tracks instead of veering wildly off in the other direction.
He was also the only one who could significantly attract disaffected Republicans, the infamous never-Trumpers who either stayed home this time or switched to Biden.
Still, a second term of Trump was far closer to reality than it ever should have been. The country is facing economic collapse due to an unchecked pandemic that has been mishandled to the point of criminal negligence by the Trump administration. How could the election still be close, Biden’s huge popular-vote advantage notwithstanding? Many progressives insisted on pushing controversial local and social issues onto the national stage, where Republicans were delighted to have a distraction from COVID-19 and record unemployment.
Party discipline is impossible to maintain in the age of social media. Savvy newcomers like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can sit in the safety of their bluer-than-blue districts and call for defunding the police, banning fracking and packing the Supreme Court, while their colleagues in the purple states bear the brunt of the blowback.
This dynamic isn’t a drawback in the eyes of the far left, of course. They don’t mind when moderate Democrats lose, even if they lose to Republicans, because their fight is for control of the Democratic Party, not Congress. Extremism on one side usually begets extremism on the other, and they are allied in spirit against the moderates who could relegate them all to the fringes.
If the political system does not become more responsive, social media will continue to dominate debate and power the radicalization engine.
But for now, America has pulled through once again. Control of the Senate is still in doubt, perhaps another sign of the electorate’s subtle prudence, not merely its polarization. I’m on record hoping for the ouster of every Republican who aided Trump’s assault on American laws and values, but maybe a divided government is part of the cooling-off process the country needs.
This was not going to be a period of great transformation regardless. Biden’s narrow mandate isn’t ideological, it’s curative. The bipartisan task ahead, much like that after Watergate, is to restore the rule of law and the people’s faith in the government that applies that law. Americans are badly divided, but they seem to agree that the unchecked and unbalanced powers of the executive must be brought to heel.
The foundations of American democracy have been shaken, its honor system shredded by a president with no honor. An unfit man who wishes he could be a dictator is being replaced by a decent man who has always wanted to be a president. Joe Biden believes in government and believes in America’s capacity to be better — not perfect, but better. His mission is to unite the country around that humble principle. Before America can chart a new course, it must get back on the map.
Kasparov is the chairman of the Renew Democracy Initiative.