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America and the World after January 6, 2021

February 8, 2021


Raffaella Baritono, Professor of US History, School of Political Science, University of Bologna

Justin O. Frosini, Adjunct Professor of Constitutional Law, SAIS Europe; Director of the Center for Constitutional Studies and Democratic Development

Michael Leigh, Academic Director, Master of Arts in European Public Policy; Senior Adjunct Professor of European and Eurasian Studies, SAIS Europe; Senior Adviser, German Marshall Fund of the United States, Belgium

Moderated by John L. Harper, Senior Adjunct Professor of American Foreign Policy and Professor Emeritus, SAIS Europe

Harper opened the seminar analyzing President Trump’s rise to power in 2016, identifying it as a revolt by the perceived victims of globalization and the role of the US as liberal hegemon and policeman. Harper also emphasized that a form of “white backlash” was also a factor, and that Trump was a symptom and beneficiary of rather than the cause of fear and resentment on the part of many rural, Christian nationalist, and working-class white Americans towards changes in American society. On the impact of the Trump Presidency, and the future in light of November 3 and January 6, Harper offered two alternative perspectives: the past four years may have laid the groundwork for future Republican successes as many of Trump's 74 million voters believe he has delivered on key promises. On the other hand, Democrats now have the opportunity to address some of the social and and economic issues that led to Trump's rise. The Republican Party faces in intractable dilemma because although Trump is still powerful and popular, he is morally compromised and as a leader will be a millstone dragging the party down.. 

Continuing the analysis of President Trump’s impact, Baritono argued that, while polarization and the delegitimization of political opponents have always been a part of the American political system, these practices have historically ended at the end of the campaign cycle. The degree to which President Trump has considered himself above US institutions, feeling only beholden to ‘his’ people, is unprecedented. She stressed that Biden will have to bring back respect and dignity to the procedures of American democracy. Vice President Kamala Harris may play an important role in this as a link between the White House and a deeply divided Congress. 

Frosini shed light on the constitutional angle of the 2020 elections and the events that followed, arguing that the transition period (imposed by the Constitution) had an adverse effect on the credibility of American institutions. Furthermore, he warned that with upcoming redistricting, Republicans might engage in further gerrymandering. Finally, he underscored that a significant obstacle to efforts to prevent this is Article V of the US, which sets a high bar to passing constitutional amendments. Indeed, while there have been efforts to circumvent such barriers through inter-state cooperation, such as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, Frosini highlighted that such initiatives are not likely to be successful. He also pointed out that one should not forget that abolishing the Electoral College would fundamentally alter the federal nature of the US. 

Leigh touched on transatlantic relations following President Biden’s election, highlighting a broadly shared sense of relief in European capitals. However, despite the like-mindedness of Biden and many European leaders, Leigh noted that key differences remain. How Europe situates itself between the US and China will be of great importance in coming years. Leigh drew attention to the fact that the German Presidency decided to push the EU to sign the investment treaty with China before the inauguration of the new administration, and without consultation with the US. This was perceived by some in the new US administration as a slap to the face.