Only Americans have a vote in their presidential election, but the whole world has a stake. Never more so has that been the case than in 2020. The planet has been mesmerised by the compelling theatre of American democracy and nowhere more so than the UK. Some here – all right, me – have become as transfixed as any American psephological nerd by voting patterns in Clayton County, Georgia.
Not only does the winner occupy one of the most potent seats on the planet, America’s choice of president can set, confirm or reverse global ideological trends. Because of a common language, historical ties and political classes that interact a lot, the cross-currents across the Atlantic can be highly influential.
America turned decisively to the right when it chose Ronald Reagan in 1980, doing so 18 months after Britain had executed a similar shift by electing Margaret Thatcher. Mrs Thatcher, so unpopular at the time that there was talk among Tories about removing her, was fortified and emboldened by the arrival of an ideological soulmate in the Oval Office. By taking the White House for the “New Democrats” in 1992, Bill Clinton provided ideas and inspiration for Tony Blair’s New Labour. During that decade, and to the consternation of rivals to both left and right, their “Third Way” style of politics swept through progressive parties from Brazil to Germany.
The Brexit vote here in June 2016, our stark break with postwar history, was a harbinger of another great rupture, Donald Trump’s victory that November. This, in turn, energised nationalist populists around the planet and encouraged them to think that the future belonged to them. It contributed to the febrile climate in which the Tory party decided that a punt on another reckless gambler with startling blond hair and a record of mendacity was not as outlandish as it had previously seemed.
There is already much rune-reading of the long-term reverberations of this US election. A clutch of conservative commentators and politicians gleefully notes that the Democrats failed to sweep all before them and conclude that leftwing “identity politics” has been quashed. Yet the larger failure is that of rightwing “culture war” politics whose ultra-bellicose and previously most successful champion has lost the US presidency by the thumping margin of more than 4m votes. A set of leftwing commentators and politicians has a converse explanation for why a “blue wave” did not materialise in sufficient strength to achieve control of both houses of Congress for the Democrats. On an account that glides over the fact that Joe Biden has actually won the presidency, they argue that the Democrats ought to have put up a more radically leftish candidate. Conveniently for proponents of this thesis, it compares an election that did happen with one that did not. What we do have experience of, and very recently, is what happened when a leftwing populist was pitted against a rightwing populist in another English-speaking democracy. You may recall that Labour was crushed by a landslide.
In a country that rarely denies a second term to the incumbent, Mr Trump’s defeat is a feat as extraordinary as it is welcome. Mr Biden’s victory contradicts the notion that we live in an era where it is fatal to be “the establishment” candidate, disabling to be a seasoned, thoughtful and temperate person and hopeless to be a consensus-seeking moderate. This was Mr Biden’s third run at the presidency, having been at the heart of Washington for decades. He will be 78 when he moves in to the White House. He vanquished Mr Trump not by offering himself as the leftwing mirror image of the incumbent, but by personifying a contrasting kind of political character. By both reputation and demeanour, he is a pragmatist and a unifier. “We always do better as one America,” was one of the signature lines of his campaign. No presidential candidate in American history has won with as many votes as the man his rival ridiculed as “Sleepy Joe”. He represents a revival of a kind of politics that many told us was deceased in the opening decades of the 21st century. It is a triumph for the centrist grandad.
The first and most important consequence of President Biden is that he means the eviction of President Trump. Theodore Roosevelt called the presidency “a bully pulpit”, a description that has taken on a much more sinister meaning over the four years when the presidency was occupied by a thug. The imperative to defeat him was underlined by the manner of his losing. His televised rants attempted to subvert American democracy itself by spraying baseless claims that the presidency was being “stolen”. Mr Trump will still be around after January, a bad loser raving conspiracy theories, but he will no longer have that White House pulpit to bully from. This matters to much more than America. The Trump presidency so despoiled the office and undermined his country’s claim to the world’s respect that smirking authoritarians pointed to its hideous dysfunctionality to justify their dictatorships while liberal democracies lost their faith in American leadership. Where Mr Trump stoked polarisation at home and division abroad, Mr Biden will seek to build bridges, not walls.
Barack Obama commended his vice-president to the American people on the grounds that they would no longer have to worry that their president would say or do something “crazy”. That is not a small point and it has relevance beyond America. The planet will no longer have to twitch over the US president’s Twitter feed.
Mr Biden will seek to restore his country’s reputation as a trustworthy and predictable ally and recommit to international agreements that have been shredded by his predecessor. Most importantly, the US will re-engage with tackling a climate crisis that Mr Trump dismissed as a “hoax”. This reversion to an internationalist presidency will be broadly in our country’s interests. As a liberal democracy and an upper-middling power, the UK is best served by a rules-based global order rather than living in a rogue world where smaller countries are trampled underfoot by competing authoritarians.
British officials predict that it will be much easier to work with Mr Biden, but the vanquishing of Mr Trump is unnerving for Boris Johnson. As I remarked a couple of weeks ago in anticipation of this result, it renders him more marginalised on the world stage. A president who yelled for Brexit will be replaced by a president who regards Mr Johnson’s defining policy as a feckless act of British self-harm that jeopardises the Good Friday agreement. The Tory leader, who has never met the next American president, has a lot of skilful diplomacy to perform if he is to convince the new administration that he is not a mini-Trump. Even if he can manage that, he will struggle to make the UK seem particularly relevant to a US administration that will prioritise reviving America’s relationships with the EU.
Another peril for Mr Johnson is that he looks like the vendor of an ideological style that has been rejected in its largest market. Mr Trump will no longer be the most famous example of what some took to be an irresistible global trend of nationalist populism. It will become more common to see him as a shaming aberration in America’s modern history. John Quincy Adams, the sixth man to hold the office, observed: “There is nothing more pathetic than a former president.” Except – Mr Johnson might take note – the imitator of a rejected president.
The Republican party is already beginning to debate how Trumpian its future should be and that argument will be reflected this side of the Atlantic. For more traditional Tories, the US election result demonstrates that entrusting their future to rightwing populism not only debases institutions and values that conservatives ought to hold precious, but also leads to an electoral dead end. Others on the right can be heard contending that, while Trump may have been defeated, Trumpism is far from exhausted as a force and a technique. While they start wrestling with what will be a long contention, some liberals are already fretting over whether Mr Biden will be able to achieve all that much when America is so deeply polarised and hyper-partisan.
There will be time enough for angst. Today doesn’t have to be over-complicated. A complex election has delivered an unequivocal cause for pure and simple celebration. On 20 January next year, the current resident will be evicted from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, under armed escort if he insists on that kind of exit, and we will no longer have to put Donald Trump in the same sentence as White House.
• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer