Letters From an American

Two Visions Are in a Fight to Control Our Government

Two Visions Are in a Fight to Control Our Government

TOPSHOT - (COMBO) This combination of pictures created on September 29, 2020 shows US President Donald Trump (L) and Democratic Presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden squaring off during the first presidential debate at the Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio on September 29, 2020. (Photos by JIM WATSON and SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON,SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

November 28, 2020

It seems as if Trump and President-Elect Joe Biden are in a contest to see who can will their vision of the future into life.

Trump continues to maintain that he won the 2020 election. Wedded to this alternative reality, his supporters are circulating articles wondering how Biden–who was ahead by significant numbers in all pre-election polls– could possibly have won the election… against a president who, for the first time since modern polling began, never cracked a 50% approval rating.

In their fury, they are turning against election officials, including committed right-wing Republicans like Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, whom Trump has called “an enemy of the people” for defending the actual results of the election and refusing to make up reasons to throw out Democratic ballots. Raffensperger and his wife have been getting death threats, while Republican leaders refuse to stand up for him.

Many of Trump’s supporters believe him when he downplays coronavirus, which just passed the landmark of causing at least 200,000 cases in a single day. Today NBC reporter Dasha Burns echoed the words of South Dakota nurse Jodi Doering two weeks ago, saying that three days in Appalachian hospitals had revealed a world in which “hard-hit communities still don’t believe COVID is real. Misinformation is rampant.” Burns told of patients who, according to nurses, “don’t believe they have COVID until they’re in critical condition.”

Burns goes on to say: “Ultimately, politicization and misinformation around COVID are having tragic real-world consequences.” Health care workers “are watching neighbors die because they were told by leaders they trust that this virus is a hoax.”

Trump’s vision is destroying faith in our electoral system and spreading death. It is destabilizing our democracy, an outcome that helps those who are eager to see America’s influence in the world decline.

In contrast, Biden is trying to will into existence a country in which we can accomplish anything, saving ourselves from the ravages of coronavirus, rebuilding the economy, and joining those countries eager to defend equality before the law.

To that end, his nominations for key positions are experts who believe in making the government work for ordinary Americans. Rather than tweeting frequently about conspiracy theories, he tweets sparingly words of encouragement: “I’ve always believed we can define America in one word: Possibilities. We’re going to build an America where everyone has the opportunity to go as far as their dreams and God-given ability will take them” and “We have to come together as a nation and unite around our shared goal: defeating this virus.”

These two visions are in a fight to control our government.

The reality is that Biden was elected president in 2020. He has won more votes than any president in American history, over 6 million votes more than Trump and 306 Electoral College votes to Trump’s 232. This is not close. Trump has challenged this election in a number of court cases; he has lost all but one of them, giving him a record of 1-39.

Yesterday, a federal appeals court made up of Republican-appointed judges rejected Trump’s attempt to overturn Pennsylvania’s certification of its election results. Judge Stephanos Bibas, a Trump appointee, wrote the opinion, which said the campaign’s challenge had “no merit.” “Charges of unfairness are serious. But calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here,” the opinion said. “Voters, not lawyers, choose the President. Ballots, not briefs, decide elections.”

But Trump continues to tell his supporters that he has been cheated.

At some level, it is clear he cannot handle the reality that he has lost the election. On Thanksgiving, Trump finally spoke to reporters for the first time since the election, sitting at a comically small desk that has become fodder for comedians. He was not in a good mood. When a reporter asked if he would concede the election if the Electoral College votes for Biden, he exploded: “Don’t talk to me that way. I’m the president of the United States, don’t ever talk to the president that way.”

But Trump is also fundraising off his insistence that the election was stolen. The small print of fundraising emails reveals that donated money goes either to Trump’s political organizations or to the Republican National Committee. Today, rumors surfaced that Trump is considering holding a 2024 election rally on Biden’s Inauguration Day, a move that would help Trump feel important while it also would bring in money.

To rebuild the government, Biden is choosing officials who are institutionalists and experts. Today, for example, he announced more members of the Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board, adding a mental health nurse, the Executive Director at Navajo Nation Department of Health, and an epidemiologist who worked as Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA).

But Trump is trying to rush through regulations and pack positions with loyalists before he leaves office.

Biden has been clear that he would like to return the nation to its cooperative multilateral approach to foreign affairs. He hopes to elevate diplomacy and reduce the influence of the military in our foreign policy.

His national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, centers his understanding of foreign policy on a belief that echoes that of Republican Dwight Eisenhower a half-century ago: that American strength lies in the health of its middle class, which transnational threats are undermining. His initial focus will be health policy and China. He wants to send a “very clear message to China that the United States and the rest of the world will not accept a circumstance in which we do not have an effective public health surveillance system, with an international dimension, in China and across the world going forward.”

Sullivan believes the US can rally other nations to fight corruption and authoritarianism, and to set up a “rules-based system.” But observers note that the Biden team will be working against the “shattered glass” of the Trump administration, which dumped treaties and tried to take on the world alone.

In the last days of his term, Trump seems eager to limit Biden’s ability to recover multilateral agreements, especially the 2015 Iran agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which limited the amount of enriched uranium Iran could hold. Trump withdrew from that treaty in 2018, and inspectors recently reported that Iran now has many times the amount of uranium it could have held had the deal remained in force. Trump responded by asking his advisers if he could strike against Iran’s nuclear center. They talked him out of a military strike, saying that such a strike could lead to an escalating crisis.

Yesterday, gunmen likely associated with Israel assassinated the leader of Iran’s nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, in an ambush outside Tehran. Experts note that the assassination might spark retaliation, and thus might well have destroyed Biden’s ability to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, as he has pledged to do. It seems more likely to undermine diplomacy than Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Finally, while Biden has pledged science-based policies and protection of civil rights, Trump’s Supreme Court appointees on Wednesday indicated they will defend religion. Trump-appointed Justice Amy Barrett cast the deciding vote to strike down restrictions on religious services to combat the spread of Covid-19. In two similar cases in the past, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s vote had swung the court the other way. The decision claimed that secular businesses had received preference over religious gatherings; the dissenters pointed out that the distinction was not the nature of the gathering, but rather its chances of spreading a deadly disease.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan said the majority was being reckless. “Justices of this court play a deadly game,” they said, “in second-guessing the expert judgment of health officials about the environments in which a contagious virus, now infecting a million Americans each week, spreads most easily.”

While the majority on the court claimed to be speaking for religious interests, on Thursday, Pope Francis published an op-ed in the New York Times that seemed to side with Biden. He noted that most governments have tried to protect their people from the coronavirus, but “some governments… shrugged off the painful evidence of mounting deaths, with inevitable, grievous consequences.” He scoffed at those who refused to accept public health restrictions, “as if measures that governments must impose for the good of their people constitute some kind of political assault on autonomy or personal freedom!”

He called for a fairer economic system, a political system that gives voice to marginalized people, and protection for the environment.

According to Pope Francis, “This is a moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities — what we value, what we want, what we seek — and to commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of.”

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.