US election: What the outcome will mean for us in Ireland

In this article, Liam Boyle, Head of Politics at St Columb's College in Derry, examines the battle for the White House

Tipperary lectures to put focus on the presidency of Donald Trump

US president Donald Trump.

The forthcoming election between the Republican President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, the former Vice-President in the Obama administration, Joe Biden, is possibly one of the most important elections in our generation.

It has implications not only in internal US politics but also on a wider global scale. In this article, I will analyse its US and international consequences, with a focus on the key issues and challenges for Trump or Biden.

The outcome of the election will also have a bearing on Ireland, North and South, particularly in the economic implications of the Good Friday Agreement and Brexit.

The incumbent and holder of the 45th presidency of the United States is Donald Trump.

A businessman from Queens in New York, Trump was very much the outsider in the nominating primaries for the Republican party in 2016.

Nevertheless, using a mixture of being the challenger to the elites of Washington and as a fixer of the US economic woes, Trump scored an unexpected victory on November 8, 2016.

Of course, his tenure in office has been a mixture of some economic success (up to March 2020) and social, cultural, and international problems. US economic experts highlighted Trump's successes in several ways, including the unemployment rate falling from 4.7% shortly after Trump’s election to 3.5% by the end of 2019.

The Wall Street Journal also reported that: “During Trump’s first three years in office, median household incomes grew, inequality diminished, and the poverty rate among black people fell below 20% for the first time in post-World War II records.”

However, his tenure in office is not without its many controversies.

In dealing with race relations, some commentators have argued that he has shown an inability to respond to a cultural crisis with anything but a culture war.

President Trump’s response to the protests in the United States has been quite divisive.

Over the course of the past three years he has demonstrated somewhat of a one-dimensional viewpoint of race and cultural issues in the US.

For example, an article posted by the conservative magazine and website National Review in July 2020, stated that Trump ‘defended Confederate monuments and went after a federal housing rule meant to combat racial segregation'.

Earlier this year, he also called Black Lives Matter a 'symbol of hate', while refusing to use the same words for Confederate emblems. As for his fiery Mount Rushmore address, where the president took ample time to condemn 'angry mobs', at no point did he discuss the entrenched mark that racism has left on American history.

Trump has refused to support the Black Lives Matter movement, an organization whose co-founders he alleged were 'Marxists'.

On foreign policy, inconsistent and contradictory messaging on a range of issues from NATO, to Russia, and not forgetting North Korea, have left President Trump open to consistent criticism from not only the Democrats in Congress but also some members of his Republican party.

This is before the global impact of Covid-19.

The reaction to the global pandemic is now arguably the defining element of the Trump presidency.

Indecision, poor messaging and communication and bizarre statements have resulted in an electoral race which appeared to be Trump’s to lose at the beginning of 2020 to now a race in which he is losing by 10% in an average of polls in the middle of October 2020.

Trump has also been charged with undermining the democratic processes of the United States and, for some, has shown a willingness to use forms of power which show some similarity to authoritarian rule.

He has indicated this in public comments about the illegitimacy of the use of postal ballots, comments about ‘locking up’ his opponents, his refusal to call out right-wing extremists and his foreign policy inclinations to the leaders of Russia, Turkey and North Korea.

As the National Review has argued: “With his embrace of unidimensional messaging, President Trump failed to showcase the nuanced statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln and others whose statues he is trying to protect.”

The Democratic challenger to Trump is the former Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden.

A former Senator from Delaware, who was born into an Irish American family initially from Scranton Pennsylvania, Biden is a moderate who was very much the underdog in the initial stages of the Democratic primary elections this year.

His breakthrough came with the support of the influential African-American Congressman from South Carolina, Jim Clyburn, and after this the party coalesced around Biden in the hope that this centrist candidate would have the best chance of defeating Trump in the November election.

Biden is not without his critics either.

He is renowned for his many high-profile gaffes and is currently being less than publicly straightforward about any future dealings with the US Supreme Court.

For many progressives within the US Democratic party, he is deemed to be too conservative and possibly too close an ally of Wall Street.

His support for the 1994 Crime Bill has also got some negative reaction.

As recently as last week regarding his latest Town Hall interview, the New York Times has noted “Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. defended the 1994 Crime Bill, his signature piece of legislation, but said elements of it were not carried out properly by the states.”

Asked if it was a mistake to support the bill, Mr Biden replied: “Yes, it was. But here is where the mistake came. The mistake came in terms of what the states did locally.”

And, according to an article in 2018, ‘although Biden often found himself working to check Hillary Clinton’s hawkish impulses during the Obama years, erring on the side of caution, he too voted for the Iraq War. In the past, Biden has indeed shown willingness to support military intervention.’

Currently, Biden is leading in by about 10% in the opinion polls.

However, due to the electoral college system of election, Biden is not a sure thing.

Four years ago, this week, the then Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, was leading by almost 7% in the polling averages.

She did win the popular vote by almost 3% but lost the election since she was defeated in three former Democratic stronghold states namely Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

A combined vote of approximately 70,000 in these states led to her defeat in the Electoral College.

In the end, Trump's margin of victory looked quite substantial in this Electoral College. However, it is far from this.

The Electoral College determines the election of the US President.

This college is made up of officials whose task is to choose the President in December/January following election day.

The Electoral College awards votes to states based on its population and is equal to its total representation in the US Congress.

So, for example, a state with a small population, eg Wyoming has 3 electoral votes and the most populous state in the US, California has 55 Electoral votes.

The total number of electoral votes is 538, which accounts for the 50 states plus Washington DC.

A result is that there are several states which almost certainly will be voting for Trump and likewise other states that will certainly be voting for Biden.

The result is that there are only about a dozen states such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Arizona that will ultimately determine the election.

Usually the state awards its electoral votes to the winning candidate from the state - although there have been instances of ‘faithless electors’ – and the candidate who wins 270 Electoral votes will be President of the United States.

With the USA dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and economic recession, it is not surprising that these issues are amongst the most important factors in voting.

According to Pew Research undertaken in the late summer of 2020, supporters are split on the significance of key issues.

Trump supporters arguing that the economy and violent crime are the two most important topics, while Biden supporters believe that healthcare and the coronavirus are very important.

Also, it must not be forgotten about the impact of race relations in this election.

The death of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter demonstrations highlight the ever-present issue of civil and racial issues that are never far from the surface in US political, cultural, and economic life.

The climate crisis continues to be an important topic for the supporters of Biden and this issue has been raised even further by wildfires in California, Washington and Oregon.

The recent death of the liberal Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has also added a new dimension into the election, namely the appointment of her successor.

Republicans are keen that her chosen replacement, Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative judge, will be appointed to the Supreme Court before the election.

Democrats are concerned that her appointment will tilt the Supreme Court to one of a more right wing persuasion and this will have a huge influence on the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, which the court will determine on during the month of November this year.

It is interesting that foreign policy does not rate as highly amongst many American voters.

However, international policy, whether it has been dealing with missiles in North Korea, economic expansionism of China or the impact of the power of Putin in Russia has an important impact on US Politics.

Currently over 60 million people have voted in the US.

Many states allow early voting in person and/or by mail. Trump has challenged repeatedly the legitimacy of voting by mail although the impact of coronavirus has resulted in a sharp increase of early voting compared to the equivalent time in 2016.

It is believed that early voting is currently favouring Biden, as registered Democrats have turned out in large numbers in the crucial states of Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina so far.

Unless either candidate wins a substantial victory on the night of November 3rd, it is argued that the US and the international community may have to wait a number of days before the election is called due to the large amount of people who are voting by mail and the fact that many key states do not count the votes until the close of polls on election night.

What challenges will face the new President?

The first is to deal with the human and economic cost of Covid-19.

The US continues to regularly report more than 700 new coronavirus deaths a day, which is one of the highest daily death rates per capita in the world. Either of the competing ideologies driving Trump and Biden will become a policy priority after November 3rd, 2020.

For many, the key to recovery will be in the federal government not only yielding its resources and expertise but also improving on its convening, co-ordination, and communication.

The distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine will be one of the most complex campaigns ever.

Trump or Biden will also have to deal with the issue of zero-sum politics -a them and us situation which is currently defining and causing social and economic unrest in the US.

A new President may have to examine strategies to reunite Americans rather than exacerbate social and racial divisions.

In foreign policy, the new US President will also need to focus on the variety of concerns in the Middle East, a powerful leader in Russia and the economic and military power of China.

Finally, what will be the new President's position in Ireland?

Even though the relationship between both the US and NI/ROI has been strong over the course of the past two decades, for some, Trump’s position on Ireland has been one of indifference.

According to reports, Trump admitted to the then British Prime Minister, Theresa May, that he did not understand Northern Ireland.

Interestingly, The Trump administration left open the position of Special Envoy to Northern Ireland until March 2020 even though the US is viewed by many to have played a leading role in the securing of the Northern Ireland peace process in the late nineties and early noughties.

However, the new US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, Mick Mulvaney, said that the entire federal government is agreed that if there is a return to a hard border on the island of Ireland then any potential trade deal with the UK will not go ahead.

Trump met Leo Varadkar, the former Irish Taoiseach, at the beginning of the summer of 2019.

Their positions regarding Brexit of course are quite different and led to amusing comments from Trump on a border wall in Ireland.

For Biden, RTE reported that ‘according to a statement released by his campaign, the former US vice president will work to advance the Northern Ireland peace process and ensure that there will be no US-UK trade deal if Brexit threatens the Good Friday Agreement.

It also stated that ‘he will prioritise creating a roadmap to citizenship for undocumented migrants and work closely with Ireland on the UN Security Council on challenges such as climate change, the coronavirus pandemic and non-proliferation.’

In conclusion, the election which is currently taking place in the United States has implications for wide-ranging issues such as responses to the coronavirus pandemic and economic recovery as well as reuniting the divisions inherent in the US at the moment and also improving foreign policy relations with the EU, Russia and North Korea.

A new President may also find his time working increasingly with a post-Brexit United Kingdom and Ireland and with the myriad of potential problems that this may entail.

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