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Remember, remember the third of November. Ballot fraud, treason and plot!

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I am an “early to bed, early to rise” merchant, so was asleep not long after 10 p.m. (Irish time) on the night of 3 November. I saw no point in staying up for the US election count because there would only be idle chatter and speculation until real figures began to flow in the early hours of the morning.

I woke up at about 3 a.m. and checked the computer to learn that the President had won Florida and seemed sure of winning Texas. Iowa and Ohio were also looking good for him. Overall, it was already likely that there would be no blue wave, that President Trump had outperformed against most predictions and that he might even win again.

I went back to bed in deep depression at the prospect of the next four years being like the last, only worse; the President’s whining, wheedling , whinging voice a permanent buzz saw in our ears, but now overlain with tones of triumphalism and vindication. Trump “unchained” from further direct electoral sanction did not bear thinking about.

Fortunately, the picture had improved by the time I switched on again after 5 a.m. It was clear that the President was not going to win any state he hadn’t won in 2016 and seemed likely, based on the early call, to lose Arizona. Also, the returns from Minnesota indicated a much healthier lead for Mr. Biden than Mrs. Clinton’s 1.5% victory margin in 2016, suggesting he might be well placed in the adjacent three rust belt states; Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, that she had lost to Mr. Trump.

Not long into Wednesday daytime in Ireland, Paddy Power already had Mr. Biden at 1/4. He was clearly ahead in four of the open counts: Nevada, Arizona, Wisconsin and Michigan — with a good chance of winning some of the other three: Pennsylvania, Georgia and North Carolina.

And though the mainstream media lived up to the President’s description of it as lame stream by continuing to call the contest “knife edge”, “razor thin”, “too close to call”, for another 24 hours and to witter on about litigation, Supreme Court, Bush v Gore, stirring the pot of anxiety and uncertainty for longer still, it was already all over bar the shouting. Paddy Power’s odds on a Biden victory shortened to 1/50 before being closed down altogether by the week-end. Instead, the bookie began taking odds on when Mr. Trump might concede. As I write, the bookie is offering 4/1 against this happening during November.

Of course, the “drama” of this count was unusually extended by the preponderance of in-person early and mailed votes and the legal mandate in some states (e.g., Pennsylvania) to count the latter after election day. With hindsight, rather than as it happened, this was not an unusually close election.

There are still votes to be totted in larger solidly Democrat states like New York and California so Mr. Biden’s popular vote margin has further to rise, but it is already close to the 3.9% Barack Obama secured over Mitt Romney in 2012 and long since passed George W Bush’s 2.4% margin over John Kerry in 2004.

Mr. Bush beat Mr. Kerry in the electoral college by only 286 to 251. Mr. Biden will match Mr. Trump’s delegate count of 306 in 2016, except Mr. Biden will have a popular national majority of over 5 million votes rather than a popular deficit of just under 3 million to go with it.

Opinion polls overestimated the likely margin of victory for Mr. Biden, nationally and in the individual key swing states. So, there was the usual early chorus about polls having got it wrong — again. The “elephant in the room” to which that conclusion was blind is that Mr. Biden was universally projected to win and actually did win, reasonably comfortably. More forensically, they got the outcome in individual states a lot more right than wrong. The 538 election forecast is based on a weighted aggregation of poll results. Mr. Trump won all of the states which the forecast projected him to win. Mr. Biden lost only two states which the forecast put in his camp; Florida and North Carolina. So, polls are not perfect, but not useless either and the only current certainty about the 2024 campaign is that polls will continue to be abundant in number and their findings reported as genuine “news” rather than entertainment.

Though the whole map of Europe had been changed by the Great War, Winston Churchill reflected ruefully in 1922: …as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.” The equivalent in this and the last presidential elections were the three rust belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In 2016, Mr. Trump stole these (metaphorically, not literally!) from the Democrats with an average margin of 25,000–30,000 votes from a combined pool of around 14 million votes.

This time, Mr. Biden yanked them back with a more comfortable average margin of just over 75,000 votes out of around 16 million votes. But he was flattered by a margin of around 150,000 in Michigan alone. The other two were tighter, if not as tight as 2016. It reminds me of the three witches’ conversation in Macbeth:

First Witch: “When shall we three meet again in thunder, lightning, or in rain?

Second Witch: When the hurly burly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won”

As long as the American electorate continues to resemble two tribes gone to war, we should expect more hurly burly in the mid-west in 2024.

One can adapt another quote from the Scottish play to represent Mr. Trump’s behaviour since the election. “A deep repentance. Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it” was how Malcolm described the demeanour of the Thane of Cawdor just before his head was chopped off.

President Trump’s leaving office has become him at least as badly as almost everything else during his term and is consistent with the brash boorishness that has characterised his whole public adult life.

Tip O’Neill gave this assessment of Ronald Reagan in his memoir, Man of the House.

He wasn’t without leadership ability, but he lacked most of the management skills that a president needs. But let me give him his due: He would have made a hell of a king.

President Trump’s record as Head of Government is at least defensible. I have described it previously as patchy but not awful. His performance as Head of State is totally indefensible. He has conducted himself at home and abroad without dignity, class or gravitas; a spoilt child in adult garb.

Mr. Biden is doing the right thing tactically for now, gently encouraging the rest of the pupils to get on with their study and leaving Mr. Trump to do his weird stuff and tantrum throwing alone in the corner.

Mr. Trump may never make a concession speech though his court challenges are running into the sand. In 2000, the long journey to the US Supreme Court was around the narrow issue of the validity of the Florida count on which the outcome of the whole election turned. Mr. Trump’s pot-pourri of petty fabrications runs across several states which he has prima facie lost, in some cases by tens of thousands of votes. Curiously, he has no issue with the count in any of the states he won.

The reaction of “mainstream” prominent Republicans is as disappointing as it is unsurprising, dividing into three strands.

The least ridiculous is that Mr. Trump is entitled to exercise his legal rights, although it is still somewhat ridiculous in the absence of any evidence beyond dubious anecdote.

Ridiculous but also insidious is the contention that, if the Democrats were honest, they would surely endorse these efforts to cast a more intense spotlight on the electoral process to verify its probity. That is like Lyndon Johnson’s instruction to an aide to spread the false word that an electoral opponent was having carnal knowledge of his barnyard sows. Mr. Johnson cheerfully confirmed he knew this was not true, adding: “I just want to hear him deny it.”

The worst is the contention that Mr. Trump is crusading bravely only to establish the already widely known truth that he really did win in the allegedly “disputed” states.

In George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith records in his diary:

Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.

For some supposedly serious Republicans, the freedom to insist that two plus two makes five is the freedom from which all else follows. “Alternative” facts can trump real ones.

However things unfold between now and 20 January, it will take more than a bible, garlic clove and stake through the heart to dislodge Mr. Trump from the centre of the political stage. In fact, with only a bit of planning and discipline, he is well placed to revive his fortunes. Shorn of the responsibilities and risks of the Presidency, he can hurl periodic pot shots at his successor from the safety and sanctity of the ditch in Mar a Lago. He will not lack for media outlets too willing to afford him the oxygen. And he will have even more time for golf.

The betting markets already have Mr. Trump as the leading Republican candidate for the presidency in 2024 at odds of around 7/1. The party’s congressional leaders and other aspirant candidates for 2024 will have to reflect carefully on how they handle the phenomenon of Trumpism unattached to Mr. Trump’s retention of the highest office in the land. Can they drive a wedge between its disciples and its founding father — subtle but effective enough to hold on to the former while exorcising the latter — or do they continue to pay homage to Mr. Trump as their effective leader, albeit in political exile?

Mr. Biden and Democrat congressional leaders will have to reflect on how they move forward with a reduced but solid majority in the House and only a minority in the Senate. Republican Senate Leader, Mitch McConnell could simply block everything Mr. Biden might wish to do by way of appointments and legislation. Mr. McConnell might not go that far, but the bias of congressional Republican activity over the past decade has been towards stopping things being done than getting them done and Mr. McConnell is a past master at exploiting the fabled “checks and balances” to do just that.

In similar but even more emphatic vein, there is no prospect of any constitutional “reform” on such things as the electoral college, the mode of appointment and tenure of Supreme Court judges, gun control or indeed the Constitution itself. There is something beyond weird about the fundamental governance of a country as strong and sophisticated as the US residing in a document written more than two centuries ago by a coterie of patrician white men. But there is zero prospect of serious reflection on its enduring legitimacy or of any significant proposed amendment securing two thirds majorities in both Houses of Congress and ratification by 38 of the 50 states.

President-elect Biden can only continue as he has already started, setting out his stall in a measured and non-confrontational manner and executing on those parts of his programme that are solely within his power to implement — in the hope that basic courtesy, competence, consistency and consideration (and the tail wind of a vaccine or two) can expand his leverage with Congress by broadening and deepening the well of his public approval. He has more experience than did President Obama and is less aloof and professorial. He is more at home in the previously smoke filled rooms where deals are cut with Congress and will work harder and longer at persuading and cajoling. At 78, this is his first and probably last term in the highest office. He must go for carefully chosen shots and hit some targets or he risks rapidly being labelled a transitional caretaker.

Uniting the country in some kind of enduring way seems a pipedream. The United States has become like Northern Ireland, a polarised place where every proposed public action is contested as a zero sum game between two large distinct communities. If Mr. Biden succeeds only in reducing the quotient of anger that was as prevalent among Mr. Trump’s opponents as his supporters and restores a moderate measure of civility, he will have done his state some service.



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Daire O'Criodain

Daire O'Criodain

Former diplomat and aviation finance executive, active now mainly in not-for-profit sector. Living in rural Clare. Weekly posts on Wednesdays.