Is the American democracy itself at stake in the 2020 elections? Will foreign powers try to interfere with the elections again? What is the significance of these elections to climate change, NATO or the American relationship with Russia, China and Iran?
FIIA Podcast US Elections Untangled dives deep into the big questions surrounding the 2020 elections. Drawing on the expertise of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), the series looks mainly at the international relations implications of the elections.
US Elections Untangled – EP 17: The Aftermath (with Charly Salonius-Paternak and Ville Sinkkonen)
What does the tight presidential race mean to the future of the United States? What will president Trump do if Joe Biden emerges victorious after all the votes have been counted?
Read the text version of the episode
[Podcast intro 00:00:01]: Welcome to US Elections Untangled, a podcast series brought to you by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
[Playback of Trump 00:00:09]: ”From this day forward a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward it’s going to be only America first. America first.”
[Playback of Biden 00:00:27]: ”Donald Trump’s brand of America first has too often lead to America alone.”
Maria Annala: [00:00:35]: Hi everyone and welcome to US Elections Untangled. I’m Maria Annala from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs and I’m going to be your host throughout this podcast series. In today’s episode we’ll be discussing the aftermath of the election. Our guests today are Senior Research Fellow Charly Salonius-Pasternak and Research Fellow Ville Sinkkonen from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
Maria Annala: [00:01:05]: Alright so today’s episode is going to be a little different than the previous ones because, well, the election just happened, the vote counting is still going on and we’re not going to know. You guys are going to know a lot more by the time you listen to this than we do now, but I want to welcome my dear colleagues Charly and Ville, thanks so much for doing this with me now.
Charly Salonius-Pasternak: [00:01:31]: It’s fun to finally do this together, as it were.
Ville Sinkkonen: [00:01:34]: It’s a pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Maria Annala: [00:01:37]: So just so the listeners know the situation is right now as we’re recording, not all the crucial swing states have finished counting their votes. There are still several states left that are counting the votes and we did a little bit of math on just how likely a Biden victory or Trump victory is based on what we know now. So Charly was it that…?
Charly Salonius-Pasternak: [00:02:09]: Well basically Biden needs to just get appeared, it could be Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, or two of those to basically wrap it up. Trump needs to effectively get an inside straight as they call it, to get everything to go his way. That means in many of these states to change the momentum regarding the vote totals that we are seeing now. In some cases not just by hundreds or thousands but tens of thousands of votes. So sitting where I am right now, it’s by no means over but it looks much easier for Biden to be viewed as the President within the next few days than Trump. Then a separate issue, which I’m sure we’ll talk about, is when the candidates admit defeat or claim victory.
Maria Annala: [00:03:04]: Or whether they do so at all. So we’re going to be operating under the assumption that Biden has a much clearer path to victory but just make sure this stays relevant in the next 24 hours or so, we’re going to be mostly focusing on bigger questions. We are not going to be talking about the horse race so much. There’s so much to talk about, we can pick and choose topics that are a little less time sensitive than the actual state of the race. So Ville it’s been an exciting campaign and last few months but especially these couple of days, now that the votes have been counted, it’s been a nail-biter really. What are your thoughts having follow this closely all this time? What kind of race was this?
Ville Sinkkonen: [00:04:00]: There’s actually sort of three takeaways. First off, it was much closer than many people expected although if one read the tea leaves a certain way then, you know. There’s been a lot of criticism of the pollsters et cetera, but this was always a possibility and it’s clear that Trump is very adept at getting his own base to the polls. This much is clear. The turnout is massive but clearly Trump especially in the last few weeks did a good job in riling up his base and getting people to the polls. I think that much we can agree on.
Maria Annala: [00:04:50]: Yes.
Ville Sinkkonen: [00:04:52]: The other two takeaways are that someone will win this election at some stage, through some pathway, but I think the biggest loser here is American democracy in general because this is an extraordinary situation that we now find ourselves in. This is really a stress test for America’s institutions in general, and the next few days will also be crucial in terms of forging a path forward after we are through this mess of counting votes for various days, in different states, and then the potential court battles that will follow. The interregnum is going to be a very messy period, that much we can say at this stage.
Charly Salonius-Pasternak: [00:05:45]: Can I jump into the part about American democracy and so on? I was thinking about American elections in a way, that they are imperiled because we who follow this have known that the system is flawed, to put it mildly, and was ahead of its time when it was constructed but no longer. Whether or not this will serve as a wake up call to more states, a little bit like Florida, who frankly did a much better job now and was not a concern because it learned after the year 2000. Now in the details, Florida has also tried to restrict in some way but generally, if Florida learned, why can’t others? Really, I feel like the American election system has been endangered by President Trump’s words but we have seen the fragility of the election system in some way. On the other hand, it is nice to see these local election officials doing the best they can and basically ignoring, for instance, what the President said yesterday, saying we are going to continue counting votes. Seeing in Arizona, the local sheriff’s department is set on protecting the vote counters and the votes. That has been heartening and maybe it’s a good reminder that the federal level does not always get everything right but at the state level, there are a lot of good people who do actually want to get it right. At the same time, there are a lot of politicians who want to make voting extremely difficult at the local level for some people.
Maria Annala: [00:07:34]: Yes, that reminds me, there’s actually been research about how Americans feel about the integrity of their election system, compared and contrasted, how they feel about their local election officials or how they feel about the elections nationally. People tend to trust their local election officials, even though they are much more skeptical of whether the system functions as a whole.
Charly Salonius-Pasternak: [00:08:04]: Which is kind of funny because of course there is no federal voting system, so what is there to be skeptical about? This actually maybe speaks to the national politicians’ role in this, in undermining belief in election systems and while he’s not the only one or the first, quite clearly Trump has verbalized this for the world to see in a completely historical and exception way, and I’m not speaking of it in positive terms.
Maria Annala: [00:08:37]: The speech he gave on election night is going to go down in the history books and analyzed for a long time. The fact that he so blatantly started spreading this disinformation reminded me very much of how Breitbart and other right-wing disinformation websites do it. I’ve read some analysis about how it’s important for them to have some elements of truth, you need to mix some truth in it. You need to have these half truths that can be interpreted either way and then you can just throw some blatant lies or inventions in the mix, and then serve that as a compelling story, an emotional story that appeals to the right target group. That is exactly what Trump did in that speech. He talked about some states he actually has won, like Florida and Texas, where it can be considered a big victory for him because Biden could have won them but it was Trump who carried them. He threw them in the mix so that’s the truths and then took some half truths. He talked about some states that, at that moment, were still counting votes where it was clear to everybody, also him, that there was going to be a blue shift because we all knew that the votes still being counted were mail-in votes that would most likely go to Biden. He made it sound like he was in such a big lead in those states that even if Biden got all the remaining votes, Trump would still win. That was the half truth; it was true that he was in the lead at that moment in time but it was not true that that made it likely for him to carry those states. Then he just threw some totally random stuff in there that he clearly made up.
Charly Salonius-Pasternak: [00:10:38]: Like the greatest fraud perpetrated in American history, people, and all this stuff.
Maria Annala: [00:10:45]: Yes and we getting ready to celebrate. We were about to go out and celebrate our victory and then it all just stopped. I said what has stopped? Nothing has, they are still counting the votes, the system is working and nothing has actually stopped. This was very appealing I’m sure to the people who really want to see him and can’t stand the idea of Biden and the Democrats winning. It’s much nicer to believe that they are trying to commit election fraud than to think that they actually have a lot of support.
Charly Salonius-Pasternak: [00:11:20]: I want to go back to something Ville said about it being much closer than expected, and at least that there was no blue wave. What seems to have happened is people might have, and we’ll see this in opinion measurements later, actually voted less straight down the ticket than some polls suggested beforehand. Biden clearly got support but then we look at the Senate or House races where, in fact, the Republicans did quite well objectively speaking. Clearly there wasn’t this ”I hate Trump and want to kick out everyone” but ”I might vote against Trump but I do like my local congressperson” or even Senator. The coattails maybe were not that long and this, I think, will have really interesting implications for the what the Democrats choose as their strategy in the next few years and the mid-terms coming up.
Maria Annala: [00:12:28]: Also for the Republican party, if Trump losing in the end and the Republican party has an opportunity to remake itself, what is going to be the post-Trumpian Republican part? It’s going to be a different conversation for them if the end result is that people voted Trump out but wanted to keep Republicans in control of the Senate.
Charly Salonius-Pasternak: [00:12:55]: Ville, you’ve written about Trumpian-ism in many different aspects, what do you think?
Ville Sinkkonen: [00:13:02]: I think there’s a few things here. First off, just to pick up on earlier about Trump’s speech is that he did this in plain sight right? He laid this out, we were fully aware that if the election was tight, this is what he would do, essentially.
Maria Annala: [00:13:21]: Yes.
Ville Sinkkonen: [00:13:21]: He would come out and, there’s been a bit of debate about whether he declared victory or not, I think that is not important. What is important here is that he is implying the system is rigged and he’s been saying this all along. The court battles, the strategy that he has chosen, we have been aware of this for months – this is what he would do if the election was close. Even though people were fully aware of this, there is still a kind of collective shock that he actually went through with it, even if a lot of us had been analyzing him. We know he is not going to admit defeat, it’s not his M.O. to go out and admit that ”it was fair and legitimate election, I lost, congratulations Joe Biden, I’m going to walk off into the sunset and go play some golf.”
Charly Salonius-Pasternak: [00:14:25]: Yeah, not happening.
Ville Sinkkonen: [00:14:27]: It doesn’t work that way for him. It doesn’t compute that way for Trump. I think that is the key here and the thing is, you spoke about the role of the Republican party and now how far with they go? We have been having this debate for the whole duration of Trump’s tenure. All through the Russia investigation, Ukrainegate, we’ve been talking about this – how far will the Republican party go to back Trump? I think they’ll go quite far.
Charly Salonius-Pasternak: [00:14:54]: I was going to say, off the cliff, apparently.
Ville Sinkkonen: [00:14:56]: Apparently so, yeah. That is what makes this interregnum situation so interesting. Then what is the situation if Trump goes for this strategy and then at some stage down the line it doesn’t work? Biden is sworn in in January. I don’t know what kind of Republican party he will leave behind. That is a really interesting questions and I don’t know what the prospects for bipartisan cooperation are post Trump. There are certainly people in the Republican party who would be willing to work with Joe Biden on certain key issues but it is going to be really interesting, especially since it looks like, as you just said Charley, that the Republicans will retain the Senate.
Charly Salonius-Pasternak: [00:16:02]: Here also Biden will have to think about not just mid-terms and Republicans, but, I’ll use the phrase ’his own party’. Before I listened to a great interview with AOC where her point was her generation’s people and politicians have never seen bipartisanship work. She used the phrase ”this is a vintage fantasy” and then she said ”look, when there has been some progressive, good stuff happening in the US society, it is because Democrats fully empower and drive it.” Whether that is civil rights, healthcare and so on. Her point was there is a lot of talk among the older generation about bipartisanship and it is seen as a good thing, but she said why should we do it? There’s no apparent benefit and the other side isn’t interested. So if this view, if she represents, and she might very well represent a significant chunk of Nancy Pelosi’s house membership, what is Biden going to do about this? I’d like both of your views on where will Trump go? As you were suggesting Ville, Trump is not going to go into the sunset. Is he going to start a third part? No, I don’t think politics interests him, power does. What might he do? I just see him staying in and trying to stay in the limelight because he craves it. He cannot charge that Joe Biden is born in Kenya or is a Muslim, but what is he going to find so he can rile up things? Will the Republican party accept this because they think he gets people out, he’s good for fundraising? So will they accept, let’s say Netflix says ”President Trump, here’s 200 million dollars, do your own reality show and do whatever you want”. What do you think? What are the different things he could do because I don’t think he is going to go quietly.
Maria Annala: [00:18:14]: I think he wants to do something similar to the cable TV shows that he loves so much but he wants to be the one talking there and setting the agenda, inviting guests who admit him and make him look good. I really don’t know. It’s hard to imagine what he could do but that is the only thing I can sort of picture him doing. What do you think Ville?
Ville Sinkkonen: [00:18:41]: I tend to agree with Charly that he is not going to go away. Then it’s a question of whether the Republican party feels comfortable with somehow using him for getting support and getting the people out. He is not going to sit at Mar-a-Lago and spend his days playing golf, or he will but that’s not the only thing.
Charly Salonius-Pasternak: [00:19:12]: As he has been doing now.
Ville Sinkkonen: [00:19:13]: I’d say that, yes, as he has been during the presidency. The prospect of some show on wherever, if it’s Netflix, Fox, or he starts his own network, I guess that is another possibility. I think we can agree on the fact that he is not going to go quietly, he’s going to stir up noise as we just saw. He has broad support in the Unites States, it’s a polarized, divided country and he clearly appeals to his base.
Maria Annala: [00:19:56]: I want to go back to what you were saying earlier about how it was a collective shock to hear him give that speech and maybe talk a little bit about where he might go from here if Biden is going to emerge victorious when all the votes are counted. So, collective shock, and it’s funny, I’ve been writing and talking about this a lot since last Spring. I published something in June where I described the exact scenario that played out on election night, where first they count the Trump votes because they were given on election, then they start counting the mail-in votes. At first Trump seems victorious but then it starts looked better and better for Biden and at some point, Trump declares that it’s a big fraud and he is the real winner. Even though I’ve been talking about it for so long, seeing and hearing him give that speech was somehow really shocking, and really sad. To see a democratically elected leader give a speech where they basically to everything in their power to undermine their own democracy, it was just…
Charly Salonius-Pasternak: [00:21:28]: Ville said the interregnum will be messy and I’ve been wondering about this. I don’t believe or think what I have heard, seen, and read of this idea that there is going to be a civil war, unless you take it deeply metaphorically, which I guess you could considering the divisions and polarization. Will there be protests? Yes, irrespective of who wins. Will some of them turn violent? Extremely likely, unfortunately. Here I wonder how and who, especially Trump again, will work. This is the sad thing, we spend a lot of time talking about him because he is the exception. As we said at the top of the show, if everything turns Trump’s way and Trump legitimately wins, putting aside any discussion of the faults of the US voting system as a whole, I have no doubt Joe Biden would say ”congratulations Mr. President you’ve been elected again” and he would his utmost to tell his supports thank you for all their work, but do not go out and break stuff. Violence is not the answer and I’m sure Joe Biden would do this. I’m also almost equally sure Donald Trump has no such instinct. If he loses and he has to admit that he should be the president but it was fraud, or too many cowards in the federal government to not see this and he is going to have to step down, he might tell his supporters to what, stand back and stand by? Then people will draw their own conclusions from that. This is really unfortunate. No it won’t lead to a civil war but it is completely unnecessary and something certainly, I think, other world leaders, especially from democratic countries, should be sure to comment on, to make it clear that they also comment when things go wrong within other democratic countries. Not only when it happens in authoritarian or new democracies or somewhere else.
Ville Sinkkonen: [00:23:50]: I agree with you Charly here that we will see a gracious defeat from Joe Biden, if Trump ultimately is the winner. In the case of Trump, we will see the reaction we expect and that is do his utmost to undermine Biden’s presidency from the get-go before he even sworn in. I agree with that and it is actually interesting segue into something else, because of course the world is watching as you said. Let’s say in democratic states who are US allies but also they are also watching in states that US adversaries and I think if someone is happy about this, I guarantee you there are people in the Kremlin and Beijing who are smiling at the moment because this is really bad press for American democracy. I think this erosion of US soft power, if we want to use that term more now during Trump’s presidency, this is pinnacle. It is just so baffling that we get into a situation, like Maria said, where the elected President of the United States of America on election night, literally, comes out and de-legitimizes the electoral process. That is why it is so sad regardless of the fact that we have all been reading a lot of stuff playing this exact scenario out, and the fact that Trump himself has explicitly laid out this scenario for us in various speeches. I think that is something to ponder and think about.
Charly Salonius-Pasternak: [00:26:04]: Yes, we can all kind of laugh and smile when religious leaders from Iran or Chinese official media make fun of this, they would anyway in different ways but when they can do it in a really genuine way, pointing out flaws which we know exist, some of them by design. By design, there is not a federal election law that everyone has to follow and so on. It is something that has been generally accepted that it is an old system, we will live with it, because the political elite, including the President, has always previously only thought of it as expressing their support being legitimate. It will be very interesting to also see, we’ve talked about the Republican party and its leadership, how they respond. Somewhere you can see there has already been a little distancing already by some. Marco Rubio said now to count the votes but on the other hand, a few days ago, he was in Florida saying that it was great that Trump supporters had surrounded Biden’s campaign bus and so on. I smell some political opportunism and tweets that they can point to and say, look I was on the side of democracy here. It will be difficult if the Republican party as a whole, as we have just seen with the whole Supreme Court appointment thing, if they hold together, it might take a little while.
Maria Annala: [00:27:52]: I think we are going to run out of time soon but to finish this off, where do you guys see things going from here? What can we expect in the weeks and months to come?
Ville Sinkkonen: [00:28:07]: Like I said we are going to expect all sorts of mess and shenanigans I guess and all forms of norm shattering on the part of Trump, regardless of whether we get a clear Biden victory. In the sense that it maybe doesn’t come down to Pennsylvania or those mail-in votes that are received after election night, which of course is something that might be dealt with. It is the first case that I can think of being dealt with in the Supreme Court for example. By that norm shattering, I mean if Biden wins, Trump will do his utmost to make the transition as difficult as possible and he will do it on various different levels. The court battles are one thing but another is his use of the media space, Twitter, to spread half-truths and disinformation and also his team will make the transition extremely difficult. It is not just going to be certain letters taken out of keyboards at the White House, it is going to be something much more difficult for the Biden transition team to deal with. I hope not but there are things that have potentially gone on within the White House that people would not like to see the light of day, so there is always that risk that there might be attempts to conceal some of that record as well during the transition. Let’s put it that way, so there is a lot of things that will pan out, even after the actual election outcome is decided. That is kind of my take at the moment. These are of course still early days, because like you said at the beginning Maria, we are not even sure yet of who will occupy the White House and the votes are still being counted. These are just some scenarios that we can throw around.
Charly Salonius-Pasternak: [00:30:34]: I agree with everything you said. I can easily see Trump continuing, what is effectively, what he has done to his presidency, these campaign events. So trying through the campaign events to rile people up, knowing that the media is going to cover them, and continue to talk about how ”even if the fake news media has called it for sleepy Joe Biden, I am the real winner”. There is no reason for him, in a way, to stop this kind of behaviour because, again, it has clearly been quite successful in the last weeks and months. That was the only addition that I can see, Trump going on a post-election barnstorming tour which will also be norm shattering in some way. If he eventually does, I’m sure we will see all manner of paroles and commutations of things for his friends because it won’t matter anymore otherwise.
Maria Annala: [00:31:39]: It is going to be convenient for him to do some favours to some people so that then they owe him one if and when he eventually accepts that he is not the President anymore. I’ve been trying to picture the inauguration if Joe Biden and he is indeed inaugurated on January 20th, will Trump be there? I cannot picture him on that stage sitting there but it is also somehow going to be very huge if he does not attend.
Charly Salonius-Pasternak: [00:32:13]: Perhaps he will appeal to the inability to have social distancing at the inauguration and no arrive there or something like that, which would be a wonderful closing of the whole ironic event.
Maria Annala: [00:32:27]: I think that would require too much self irony for him to do that. I think more likely he would host a competing rally and then claim that they had a bigger crowd.
Charly Salonius-Pasternak: [00:32:40]: Yes I think you’re spot on.
Ville Sinkkonen: [00:32:43]: That sounds like something that could occur.
Maria Annala: [00:32:47]: I think we are going to have to finish this off now but thank you so much Charly and Ville for tossing all these ideas around.
Charly Salonius-Pasternak: [00:32:56]: This has been fun and I have a sneaky feeling that this will not be the last podcast on this topic that we do.
Maria Annala: [00:33:04]: Yes, I have the same feeling. So for all of you listeners, we are not going to be doing a weekly, regular podcast in the weeks to come because as you can see, our production schedules with what it takes to upload a podcast and everything is going to be a little difficult since things are happening so fast. We’re going to keep monitoring the situation and figure out what the next steps are going to be. I also have a feeling this was not the last you will hear of US Elections Untangled, so stay tuned and follow our social media and sites of your favourite podcast service. Thank you.
Charly Salonius-Pasternak: [00:33:50]: Bye.
Maria Annala: [00:33:50]: Bye.
Ville Sinkkonen: [00:33:51]: Thanks a lot, bye.
Maria Annala: [00:33:53]: Thanks for listening. Our next episode will come out once we have our final election results. Stay tuned and follow us on social media or your favourite podcast service.