President-elect Joe Biden will likely find himself in a bind.
Let me explain.
An important difference with Donald Trump is that he was not ONLY a President. He also leads a social movement.
Trump’s support base is a coalition of different forces- not very well educated white working-class folk, some white supremacist extremists (some of whom are armed), fundamentalist Christians who vote largely on one issue (abortion), deluded Cuban and Venezuelan exiles who imagine the Democratic Party is somehow a pale imitation of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and those in business who liked the corporate tax cuts and/or support fossil fuels.
Not all of Trump’s base is activist. Far from it. But Trump has a block of core supporters who are devoted followers. It is more than just a political connection. It is an emotional one. Trump clearly seems able to fulfill some kind of psychological needs in them. It remains to be seen how strongly the activist part of his base will stick to Trumpism following his electoral defeat. But I doubt that Trumpism, and the economic and socio-psychological factors that inspire his movement, are going away too fast. In fact, being in opposition might even deepen or further radicalize Trump’s movement, especially if the economy tanks further.
We have seen Trump before. And we shall see him again. The leader with an authoritarian personality who arises during periods of economic insecurity. Who develops a personality cult by appealing to fear and nationalist symbols. Who seems ridiculous to those outside the cult but who unifies those within it by reassuring them that their prejudices are well-founded, that political opponents are dangerous enemies, and that evidence does not really matter much, as long as you are a patriot.
Joe Biden on the other hand does not really lead a social movement. There is the union movement. But it lacks much political clout or capacity for political activism. If anybody can mobilize an ‘on the streets’ social movement from within the Democratic Party it is Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Following Sanders’s defeat in the primaries, the Sanders/Ocasip Cortez base was activated to support Biden. In the process, they moved the Party to the left as Biden adopted progressive policies on climate change (Green New Deal), “Medicare for all”, tuition-free public college, the minimum wage, police brutality, and systemic racism.
But much of the social movement on the left of US politics exists quite independent of the Democratic Party. Or if there are links at all they likely come heavily conditioned with expectations- expectations that the progressive platform will be delivered. They are expectations not likely to be much tempered by a long term sense of realpolitik.
The realpolitik is that for the time being the Democrats do not control the Senate. Whether they get to or not depends on the run-off election for two Senate seats to be held in Georgia on 5 January. If Democrats win both seats, they would take control of the Senate starting on Jan. 20, as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would have the power to break ties in the chamber.
While winning the Georgia runoff election would make governing easier, win, or lose, Biden may well likely be tempted to try to divide the Republican Party so as to isolate Trump. He would try and do so by working with more anti-Trumpite Republicans. But what can he give them while still trying to stick to his platform and meeting expectations on the left?
It is a difficult political game to play and win. He might just stick left. But Biden, the wheeler and dealer, everybody in Washington’s old friend, may well be likely to try this game. It seems probable that, when it comes to politics, that’s who he is. And he will likely need all those political skills.