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US Election 2020: Competence is Not the Perfect Antidote to Authoritarian Populism

Mike Buckley argues that those concerned about the Boris Johnson regime in Britain should take note of Donald Trump’s enduring popularity in the United States

Joe Biden. Photo: PA Images

US Election 2020Competence is Not the Perfect Antidote to Authoritarian Populism

Mike Buckley argues that those concerned about the Boris Johnson regime in Britain should take note of Donald Trump’s enduring popularity in the United States

A defeat for Donald Trump was never going to be a resounding defeat for autocracy. There was an expectation that competence would resoundingly beat incompetence and that this would override other concerns whether economic, social or cultural. In the event, just as progressive policy is no silver bullet against populists with easy answers and minorities to blame, nor is competence against incompetence, even in a plague year.

The enduring propensity of voters to think first with their wallets is part of the picture. Exit polls showed that voters’ number one concern when entering the polling booth was the economy, not the handling of the Coronavirus. Even if this was influenced by the preference for Republicans to vote in person against Democrats’ bias towards mail-in ballots, it still shows the ability of that part of the electorate to put aside competence and health concerns to focus on the bottom line.

Even with a Biden win, the world’s populist leaders will sleep a little more soundly, but the US did not reject Trump en masse. They did not find his populist authoritarianism repellent. He won more votes than in 2016 and increased his vote among all demographics other than white men. 

This leaves those of us who hope for an end to populist authoritarianism back at the drawing board.

Joe Biden’s pitch to voters was supposed to circumvent the culture war. He ran as a capable leader against an incapable one, not as a liberal corrective to Trump’s conservatism. Biden’s policy platform, while quietly radical, was not intended to fire up the liberal base but to promise a better life for all Americans.

Europeans are guilty of reading too much into their own politics from what happens in America, but there are lessons we can learn from this election. One of the most important being that competence is not the perfect antidote to authoritarian populism, even when that populism is incapable of dealing with a health emergency.

Britain Alone in the World

The same dynamic is playing out in the UK. Like Trump, Boris Johnson is failing to keep the pandemic under control. And like Trump, Johnson is a populist in his attitude to human freedom, keen to pursue a more invasive state in some sectors (trade, immigration, crime) but not in others including health, tax and the environment. His reluctance to lockdown and take timely action at the start of the COVID-19 crisis has likely led to the needless loss of life – but every lockdown measure is taken against the backdrop of increasingly angry backbench MPs.

England and Wales had the most excess deaths in Europe’s first Coronavirus wave. A similar story is playing out in the second. Yet, the story of the UK polls is their stability. After Keir Starmer’s arrival, the Labour Party’s ratings swiftly climbed to around 40%, where they have been level pegging with the Conservatives ever since. Starmer continues to evidence competence in the face of Johnson’s failure, but the polls are static. Something more will be required to shift them further.

Europe must sort out its own populists, but also prioritise its own security. Biden’s win promises a return to some kind of normality – he will be interested in foreign affairs and will renew and deepen alliances – but one message of this election is that America could vote in a second Trump. If it does, Europe will need to be able to take care of its own security needs, at least in partnership with the US, and be prepared to go it alone should a future president pull out of NATO in practice or in fact.

As for the UK, Brexit leaves the country dangerously exposed. As the EU increases its security integration and the US remains an uncertain ally, at least in the medium-term, Britain is in danger of being left out in the cold. Even with the internationalist Biden in the White House, his priority will not be the UK. He is no fan of Johnson, having called him Trump’s “clone”. He believes Brexit to be a dangerous act of folly and is watchful over its impact on the island of Ireland. Closer engagement with internationalist allies in Europe will be his priority above a tarnished ‘special relationship’.

The US Presidential Election therefore contains important lessons for those of us who believe in cooperation, facts and evidence-based politics, and a politics of the common good, rather than unending division.

Biden’s win should not be underestimated – few first term presidents lose. Biden and his campaign team deserve praise, but the populist liar remained popular. To be confident of restoring competent government here and beyond we need to learn more lessons, develop better strategies, and make the case for our stewardship of the future.

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