Consequences of a Hard Transition of Power in the United States

With the end of this hectic US election, the world witnesses Biden coming to the helms of the presidency as the symbol of ‘normalcy’ and ‘stability’ to the American people, he tried his best to create an affectionate narrative by holding off a little late till announcing his candidacy, trying to become an altruistic symbol of purity and being the one who would restore the soul of the country. As a consequence, all that had happened was due to Biden tabling his imperfect past up for national discussion. From embracing segregationists to harassment claims, everything seemed tarnished for Biden from the get-go. Still, he succeeded in securing the democratic candidacy and also edging the current President Donald Trump to become the next one. However, it’s not going to be an easy road for the President-Elect as the sitting President hasn’t shown any signs of committing to a peaceful transition of power. Moreover, Trump’s behavioural tendencies strongly suggest against anything even remotely resembling peacefulness or stability. During the VP debate, Mike Pence refused to answer whether Mr Trump will commit to a peaceful transfer of power by dodging the question (Hjelmgaard 2020) nobody seemingly picked up on it quite the way I hoped and now after the elections his explicit ignorance tweets claiming he won this election are somehow not that big of a deal because it’s just ‘Trump being Trump’. It may have been comical initially, but the sheer ignorance of his delusional persona is becoming increasingly alarming for the US. Although signs are appearing of Trump coming to terms with reality as his legal battles fell one-by-one in each state, it still is a highly volatile period where his actions may keep swinging from one place to another as he makes this a personal vendetta for what he claims the democrats did since 2016 and slowed down his administrative abilities as a President. So now, this has become more of ‘getting back at the democrats rather than him believing that he won this election’.

A hard transition of power can be two-faceted, it can either be as Trump just simply refusing to leave the Presidency and not accepting the election results, or it can be through actions taken by the Trump administration, that may have harmful implications for Joe Biden’s term. I like to call them Direct and Indirect implications. It’s imperative to have a look into both perspectives separately.

Direct Implications- America’s Image at stake

Imagine a scenario where the Toddler-In-Chief just simply refuses to leave the White House. That’s the context we may be dealing with here. He has basically created a deadlock where irrespective of the outcome of the election, he will create chaos, which is testament to the fact that he’s ready to go to any lengths to get what he wants, even if that means compromising democratic procedure, which he ironically claims to stand up for. In the 2000 election, Al Gore and George W. Bush went head to head through a thin election with a series of legal battles that saw Bush win by a margin of 537 votes from Florida. Even at that point, instead of giving in to the obvious temptation of being a sore loser, Al Gore delivered a concession speech and settled for an honourable loss. This election, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked what would happen if Trump refuses to commit to a peaceful transition of power and she summed it up perfectly that he’d either leave on his own, or ‘with a little bit of help’.

Headaches for Biden- From Polarized Narratives to Disappointing Covid Response

He inherits a country that used to label itself as ‘the flag bearer of democracy and liberal values’, but now has two consecutive elections under fire for being unfair. Free and Fair elections are the bedrock of democracy, and every single act of defiance by Trump hampers that democratic structure. These actions by the Trump administration are less for any legal value and more towards creating a vindictive public narrative. Even though Trump may have lost, it's important to keep in mind that he still got higher votes than what he got in 2016. He, in fact, got the second-highest popular vote count for any US presidential candidate (7,35,23,942 votes), unfortunate for him that Biden managed to top that list. This means that he still has a large amount of following that listens to and abides by what he says, and consequently, is going to act up after the invisible controversy that he has created out of this election. So even if Biden manages to get Trump out of the Presidential seat that he currently seems glued to, normalcy is still far away, considering the fact that the nature of votes that Biden got were largely ‘Anti-Trump’ rather than ‘Pro Biden’. So the public mandate consists of two factions: one that accepts Trump as their leader and the other that saw Biden as a getaway ticket rather than someone that they’d normally vote for, but they were cognizant that this was no normal election.

Another broad challenge that Biden faces is the highly polarized public opinion fueled by Democratic and Republican narratives. The partisan propagandas have gone massively out of proportion, claiming each other to be a threat to the very existence of the country. This attitude doesn’t just put the two parties at loggerheads in Congress, but it consciously puts the population in a futile conflict with each other. The narrative is to be surely blamed, but what follows after the narrative is gravely undermined. An act like Trump refusing to confidently condemn a Neo-Nazist rally may seem trivial to some, but it may legitimize disgusting racial claims of the other who see the leader of their country putting their racist guilty pleasures into a comfort zone. As a consequence, we saw brutal open acts of racial oppression and police brutality that reached a tipping point and significantly contributed to the inception of the BLM movement, because the President pushed a narrative (maybe unknowingly to his blissful ignorance) which ultimately led to a situation like this.

Moreover, Biden inherits a Congress divided than ever. Republicans in the House of Representatives exceeded a lot of expectations and narrowed down the Democrat majority to just 219 seats, basically crawling over the 218 majority mark. The Senate race is on a 50:48 ratio in favour of the Republicans (As of November 11). It again brings forward a starkly divided government and given how both the parties have been, consensus-building and reconciliation are totally out of the picture. A study shows that the majority of the partisans in Congress consider each other as close-minded, unintelligent, immoral, lazy and unpatriotic (Pew Research Centre 2019). It’s representative of how deeply entrenched and water locked these perceptions are. Many Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell are supporting this election fraud facade. This revolting attitude is going to be carried to the Congress for the next 4 years to indiscriminately discredit everything that the Biden administration would do. On top of that, the worldview of American Politics led by Trump in these last 4 years has been concerning, and the current facade of refusing to concede and cooperate adds to it even more. Countries like Germany, France, and China seem to have a pessimistic opinion of Trump’s behaviours (Pew Research Organization 2020). They expect little from Trump’s America and have been shaping policy decisions devoid of the western superpower. Something that’s structurally bad for the US, especially with a rapidly rising competitor in China.

Engagement of incoming and outgoing administrations is the pace-setter for the working of the country. It’s a tradition that every outgoing administration has abided by, putting the country before their vested interests. Trump himself started to receive crucial security briefs from Obama’s administration two months before his inauguration. It’s a forefront determinant of smooth transitions of power, failure of which throws executive governance down the drain. Trump’s administration has till now ignored all of these commitments and that too, during a pandemic, another hurdle of Joe. The Covid Response of the incumbent POTUS was the biggest turning point in this election, and continues to be indiscriminately a significant roadblock in every situation; being the most non-partisan actor currently existing over there. The handling of the pandemic was a complete embarrassing disaster, with Trump at the face of it. US has 4% of the world’s population but 1/4th of its COVID cases and deaths. The ratio speaks volumes of the cluelessness of the administration, who kept downplaying the virus and adding to the problem. With this backdrop, Biden comes in and hopes to aggressively respond to the Pandemic and ‘save as many lives as he can’. But due to election antics, the outgoing administration has refused to share sensitive and crucial information of the pandemic with the incoming tenants of the White House, which is again frustrating for Joe, as it holds information from the Covid task Force he has promised by Jan 20th.

Structural Implications- A multi-faceted challenge

The relationship between the outgoing and the incoming President matters a lot as difference of opinion that seeps into administrative actions, dampened with implicit meaning and cynical intentions can cause deep-rooted and long-lasting damage to the political structure of the country.

An illustration that comes the closest

An appropriate example of structural implications would be the transition of power between Eisenhower and Kennedy. It was allegedly a desperate attempt by the Eisenhower administration to leave a mark on Kennedy’s presidency. Approaching the conclusion of his term, Eisenhower ordered programmes in Cuba, Dominican Republic and The Democratic Republic of Congo, which were left unfinished and at the same intensity by the time Kennedy took charge. He had also decided to increase military involvement in South East Asia to supposedly balance the Soviets. This gave Kennedy little time to breath, settle in and start work from the get-go to de-escalate these situations, which were completely incompatible with the approach he had envisaged for his administration.

However, it would be unfair and frankly illogical to compare what happened between Eisenhower and Kennedy to what’s happening with Trump and Biden because this is a whole different ball-game. While one can make a case that actions by Eisenhower may have been just strategic points to balance power structures during a tough time with the Soviets rather than election vendetta, they largely don’t compare to the headaches and hurdles Trump has left behind for Joe Biden. Moreover, unlike alleged with Eisenhower, Trump doesn’t have to actively and consciously try to make decisions that can be problematic for an elected-Biden, he does it anyway because of how polar opposite their policies are.

Broken Diplomacy- Repairing Global Outlook

Foreign Policy was something Trump never had a clear stance on but it's where he had the most free hand and scope to do whatever he wanted. He never clarified a plan during his 2016 campaign other than constantly shouting ‘It’s time for everyone to pay back America’. He has a transactional attitude about how he deals with other states, which is why American Foriegn Policy took an illiberal turn accompanied with exceptional unrealism. While a Pre-Trump US followed the pragmatic rule as stated by Theodore Roosevelt: “ To speak softly and carry a big stick”; Trump “spoke loudly and carried a twig”(Resnick 2020).

The case for Joe Biden’s Foreign Policy is completely a flip of Trump’s. His core beliefs are of morals of incentivising engagement around the globe whether bilateral or multilateral. He wants to revive Obama’s diplomatic approach and attempt to maintain continuity of it. Biden’s campaign has time and time again reiterated how he wants to retain America to it’s previous glory and reputation in the international sphere (“American Leadership: Joe Biden” 2020). While the outlook of America and its legitimacy may be comfortably repairable within one or two years for Biden considering his experience that he certainly doesn’t fail to remind us of, what’s more concerning is maintaining a sustainable balance between domestic and foreign governance. It’s a task that well and truly goes beyond this upcoming Presidential term. Previous US Presidents have been perceived as either domestic policy-heavy like Clinton or Foreign engagement-heavy like George W. Bush, but Joe Biden can’t compromise leaning towards any as they are both fragile right now. Red flags of Trump’s Foreign Behaviour during Elections A President campaigning and governing with no limitations at the same time is not a desirable combination. It's during times like these that voter appeasement heavily kicks in, which in reality is merely tokenistic. It’s often alleged that during times like these actions by leaders are rather impulsive in nature. Rational thinking goes out of the window and it may lead to actions that aren’t for the country, rather for your own vested interests. However in this election, the two candidates are so polar opposites in everything that they do that Trump’s normal course of executive actions and governance would be against the behavioural pattern of a Biden administration. Therefore, everything that Trump does is a roadblock for Biden. Still, it is rather important to analyse how Trump’s major foreign policy activities during campaigning will be hindrances for the President-Elect.

Trump’s problematic affair with China has continued with the same intensity this year as well. By making no efforts to de-escalate Trade war tensions, throwing shade and hostility towards China for the pandemic and then sending his Secretary of State on an overtly Anti-China South Asian tour; Trump has antagonised China at every step of his Presidency and 2020 was no different. In a comical turn of events, China suddenly remembered to congratulate Biden and Harris on their win the same day Trump decided to ban investment in Chinese firms contributing to military advancement in the country. However, a hostility narrative towards the Chinese can never be completely removed but can surely be dialed down by Biden. With that being said, it’s actually one of the most important standpoints that will dictate US Foreign Policy for possibly decades to come, but somehow Biden while campaigning has never given a solidified stance as to what his approach is going to be towards China. As the VP under Obama, Biden led the Foreign Policy approach of improved and enhanced engagement with China, whereas now he has expressed displeasure towards Xi Jinping’s government, calling him a ‘thug’. What’s worrying is that at the same time he has ridiculed Trump for his hostility towards China, which makes everyone perplexed as to where he actually stands. There has never been a clear answer from Biden during his campaign on lots of things like expanding the court, a viable alternative to police defunding; but China by far tops that list. China is the biggest and the most explicit threat that the US has faced since the Cold War days and similarly, they cannot afford to be complacent about it. This is the legacy that Trump leaves for Biden and there has not been much to showcase by Biden to make the citizens believe he is up for the challenge. The First Red Flag for Biden.

The reconciliation talks with Taliban is another incomplete task for Biden to re-assess. Ever since the election results were out in the open, the Afghan leaders were quick to make it clear that they hope the Biden administration will stay on course for a smoother phase in the diplomatic talks. While these talks may have been a milestone on face value, they quite frankly were unnecessarily rushed by the Trump administration and now it shows due to the deadlock that they are currently facing. Biden’s approach towards peace in Afghanistan would’ve been to smoothly and slowly move towards military withdrawal but still, have a small troop presence to cancel out any future instabilities in the region. However, the context now is that the Taliban is hoping that the new US administration will reconsider the February Agreement which calls for complete US withdrawal from the country. On the flip side, the Afghan government is hoping for something other than blatantly just ‘handing over the country’ to Taliban. This presents another headache for Biden and there’s no doubt that he would’ve preferred doing this in a different manner. Another situation for Biden where he’d have to step out of his comfort zone. Second Red Flag.

The Third and the last red flag for Biden is the damaged relations with Iran. Trump has been recklessly going all-guns-blazing towards Iran ever since he stepped foot in the White House. He has been critical of Iran during his campaign as well, but he definitely materialized and manifested that same hate and anger through his in-office behaviour. Biden had been the VP during the time the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Treaty was signed, a treaty that Trump ruthlessly ripped apart. The situation reached a tipping point after the killing of Qassem Solemani, which saw an already annoyed Iran on the brink of acting up. With this backdrop, no matter how cozy Biden may sound, he has to act cautiously. The distrust with Iran that has been built in these past 4 years will take time to be repaired and they will not cooperate with the US just based on the fact that it's not Trump anymore. The US will need to vow to honour its international obligations and build an environment where there is again some scope for deliberation.

Trump recently added WHO to his multilateral pull-out collection, that too in the middle of the pandemic. From the Paris climate to the UNHRC, UNESCO and now WHO; the whole 4 years have witnessed a similar pattern. Trump has treated multilateral diplomacy like business deals in which he simply withdraws if negotiations don’t go his way, or do not present any incentive for the US to stay there. He doesn’t ever structurally think about US long term interests. He has a simple 2+2=4 attitude about dealing with international institutions and treaty obligations. He violated the core incentive for the continued existence of NATO by blatantly deciding (to the absolute horror and disbelief of NATO members) that the US has ‘no obligation to defend’ its NATO counterparts. While the US has always been covertly exploiting International obligations ever since it was clear to them that they are simply above the law, Trump has taken that attitude to the next level. This critique has significantly dominated Biden’s campaign, where he has clearly claimed that he’d reverse the whole status quo situation and bring back the US to the standards of multilateral cooperation without a profit-oriented approach. He’s ready to honour treaty obligations that have come under threat due to actions by the Trump administration. This has been one of the key stand-out strong points of Biden’s campaign which I’m sure would have influenced the voting patterns of a lot of fence-sitters. Nevertheless, it’s still a challenge for Biden to gain back the trust of the others and make it seem that a complete U-turn from Trump’s impulsive policies is realistic. I wouldn’t make this out to be a blatant red flag because in relative to his response to other aforementioned contexts, Biden has not shown signs of policy paralysis as far as multilateral diplomacy is concerned.

Key Takeaways

While this election may have spiralled out of control, what may follow it is clearly even more alarming. It’s symbolic in its core essence as to what a chaotic mess the US politics has become. The knees of the system are weak, the structure has reached its tipping point, and partisan politics has well and truly contaminated the core values. De-Trumpification of the US and the world will be a mammoth task, and every democrat voter hopes Biden acknowledges it. Alliances have been broken, legacies have been tarnished, ignorance has been rewarded and diplomacy has been neglected. The country that claims to be the light bearer of the International structure is now on the stage with its dignity at stake; hoping it can save some embarrassment by getting its act together. If the US cannot secure something as basic as a fair election and a smooth democratic transition; it will lose a chunk of its legitimacy and will incentivise mainstreaming multilateral diplomacy without the US, marking the dawn of a new chapter in international politics. Second, both problems at home and abroad like polarised public opinion on one side and scattered international relations on the other, are extremely volatile and need proper attention and thus, Biden needs to juggle important policy issues simultaneously. Third, values and traditions of deliberation and consensus-building have been heavily contaminated in the US Congress, and it restricts Biden’s executive functioning; an ugly transition would add more fuel to Republican vendetta, de-incentivising them even more to work with the Democrats. Fourthly, the election has been leaning more towards Trump’s antagonised personality than towards Biden’s charisma; while he has to prove himself to the country, he also has to balance power struggles in his own party where progressives and conservative democrats like himself are at loggerheads. A failure in any of these will tip the scales against Biden to a seemingly unrepairable level, and in turn, legitimize Trump to a scaringly huge standard. That’s why it's important to remember that a hard transition doesn’t just mean a spat between Trump refusing to concede and leave physically, it’s more about how much of Biden’s presence will be successful in eliminating Trump’s mentality from the country. It was always meant to be a hard transition.


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