‘That’s the job, that’s the job, it’s called the ‘duty of care’ for all Americans.’
Authority and power in the speeches of Biden and Trump
By Alexander Simoen*
Last Tuesday, November 3rd, during the elections in the United States, the citizens of the United States of America have voted on who will govern their democracy over the course of the next four years. Not only people in the US, but people all over the world have followed the news with great interest as the results were being revealed little by little over the course of the last days. The US held its breath attentively, awaiting the results of the election. Both President Trump, the Republican candidate, and former Vice President Biden, candidate for the Democrats addressed the American citizens. It is interesting to note the differences in both the message and tone of what they say. There is much to discover when we read between the lines; in this writing we want to zoom in on the difference between ‘authority’ and ‘power’ in politics, basing ourselves on how both protagonists expressed themselves. But first let’s have a look at the concrete events this last week.
In the days following upon the closing of the electoral rooms, we’ve had to wait for the official call on who will be the new president elect. There are various reasons for this. Firstly, there is the unique and always evolving electoral system, with elections organized and regulated in different ways in each of the 50 states, varying in the way people have to register as voters and in the ways and moments in which they can bring out their vote. Secondly, the global Covid19-pandemic, which has hit the US hard, has brought an extra-ordinarily high number of voters to make use of the so called absentee voting or mail-in voting. This has caused a more complex and by consequence delayed counting of the votes in many states. The final and most impactful reason, given the two others, is that there is a divided electorate, resulting in close races in many states where both presidential candidates are within close range of each other.
In practice we have seen that in many of these so-called ‘battleground states’, an initial lead by Donald Trump slowly narrowed down and in many cases was flipped over in a lead for Joe Biden. This scenario had been anticipated for months by politicians from both sides, by many political commentators in the media and also by the Trump campaign. The main reasons are the fact that there are many more in-mail votes (predominantly democratic) and that the counting process in the urban areas, which usually are more democratic, takes up more time. It is within this given context of Biden winning electoral ground and a narrowing ‘path to victory’ for President Trump that the discourses have to be read.
At the centre of the attention, after Trump stated an unfounded suggestion that there is to be made a difference between ‘legal votes’ and ‘illegal votes’, was of course the count of every vote cast. The distinction between authority and power allows us to open up ways that allow us a more in-depth understanding of the nature of the two competitors’ political vision.
The president elect, Joe Biden, used the occasions where he addressed a nation that was waiting for the results, to recall the origins of American politics and other moments that make up the collective memory of the nation. On November 6, he recalled the more than two centuries of democratic history of the country, “We are proving again what we’ve proved for 244 years in this country, democracy works, your vote will be counted!”. The day before he stressed how “In America, the vote is sacred!”. And he quoted Abraham Lincoln referring to “a government of, by and for the people”.  These words carry a profound meaning in the American history and political culture, they were spoken at the end of a divisive and bloody civil war that brought devastation upon the country. Biden’s words echo a strong sense of authority, which is to be distinguished from the power of the majority – or the person holding a temporary government office.
Authority resides in the founding principles of a political culture and political system, which is often recognised and accepted over a longer period of time. It finds its origin in those extraordinary moments in the history of a nation, moments that have been foundational and form the basis of any political system. That is exactly what Biden means when on November 6 he asks for patience, whilst explaining why “Now, every vote must be counted, no one is going to take our democracy away from us. Not now, not ever. America has come too far, America has fought too many battles, America has endured too much to ever let that happen.” 
But these words are not the only ones that recall important historic events. In the same speech Biden makes an implicit reference to the ‘Declaration of Independence’ when saying that “here [in the U.S.] the people rule, power can’t be taken or asserted, it flows from the people. It’s their will that determines who’ll be the president of the US and their will alone”. The Declaration was a formal explanation of why Congress had voted to declare independence from Great Britain, and particularly King George III, after the outbreak of the ’American Revolutionary war’. It was a reaction of the colonists recognizing themselves as one people, in spite of the great diversities amongst them, in a desire to make up their own faith as a political community by taking the right to govern into their own hands. Little more than a year later this resulted in the constitution in which the preamble states “We the people of the United States, […], do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Further on Biden refers three times to the Constitution when affirming: “we the people will not be silenced, we the people will not be bullied, we the people will not surrender.” The president elect refers here to the counting of the votes, calling for trust in the process, and how “it’s how the people of this nation express their will, and it is the will of the voters, no one, not anything else that chooses the President of the USA.”
One could ask himself, why does Biden need to recall the ‘foundational authority’, in a country where the democratic process has been the pride of the nation for over two centuries?
The night after the elections, when the first results had come in but many counts were still to be counted, President Trump gave a speech out of which another vision on politics emerged. “We were winning everything, and all of a sudden it was just called off. […] There’s never been anything like it to support our incredible movement. We won states that we weren’t expected to win. […] Florida, we won it by a lot. We won, the great state of Ohio, we won Texas. […] we’re now just getting into what they call Trump territory. These were friendly Trump voters. […] This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election, frankly we did win this election. We did win this election. So our goal now is to ensure the integrity for the good of this nation, this is a very big moment. This is a major fraud on our nation. We want the law to be used in the proper manner. So we will be going to the U.S. Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop. We don’t want them to find any ballots at 4 o’clock in the morning and add them to the list. OK? It’s a very sad, it’s a very sad moment. To me, this is a very sad moment, and we will win this, and as far as I’m concerned, we already have won it.” 
Despite the fact that this speech reflects the vision on politics that the president had been embodying over the past four years, somehow it still came as a shock for many. Trump’s disdain for both the truth and the democratic process is evident. This vision is based on the will to maintain personal power, detached from the principles of authority. The truth of the common American heritage, as established by the authority of the founding fathers and safeguarded over the centuries by political actors from all sides, of which a fair election process and respect for the various institutions of democracy are core principles, is cancelled. What matters is that the Trump team is winning, at any cost. And it seems as if Trump is suggesting here that a potential loss could only be attributed to a fraud, which cannot be proved, but already just creating the perception might be enough. The one time he mentions ‘integrity and the good of the nation’ is strictly tied to his winning of the election.
The understanding of politics by Donald Trump is that it suffices to use the instruments at hand to “win the game”. The electoral system, the (social) media, even the voters and the U.S. Surpreme Court serve but one goal in this conception. But these instruments, in Trump’s vision, are disconnected from their original, true meaning. Joe Biden seemed to point this out when he said the next day that “I know watching the vote tallies on tv moves very slow, and as slow as it can be, it seems numbing. But never forget, the tallies aren’t just numbers, they represent votes and voters. Men and women who exercised their fundamental right to have their voice heard.”  It shows us how an important characteristic of a wrong conception of power, disconnected from authority, is that it cancels all limits to its proper execution and ‘seizes’ truth as if it were its own. Over the past four years, Trump has become used to believing that he could manage government offices and agencies or institutional mechanisms as it served him or bend ‘facts’ for whatever purpose that would prove instrumental for his use, without considering their value as such. The abandoning of “factual truths” in politics, however, goes hand in hand with the loss of authority. This was clearly illustrated by the fact that some prominent TV-stations decided to interrupt the speech of the president before it was finished.
When power is deprived of its original roots, and thereby loses its authority, it becomes mere procedure with no content. As we saw before, the main pursuit of Joe Biden’s speeches last week was to restore the sense of some core principles in American politics, or as Biden phrased it in his ‘victory speech’: “I sought this office to restore the soul of America.” Principles that deteriorated heavily over the course of the past four years. Here, we want to address two more themes which stand out: the function of politics as such within the context of an American democracy and the institution of the presidency.
The president elect says that disagreements and debates are a healthy sign of a good working democracy but he recalls that “We have to remember that the purpose of our politics isn’t total unrelenting, unending warfare. But to solve problems, to guarantee justice, to give everybody a fair shot, to improve the lives of our people. We may be opponents, but we’re not enemies, we’re Americans. […] at least we can agree to be civil with each other.”  Joe Biden is somehow educating the public here, recalling images that are part of the ‘collective memory’ of America. This is exactly what having authority is about: being the guardian of an original design, preserving the principles and foundational values of the life of a community. By doing this the common goal, or destiny, and orientation is maintained. “[…] The people will be heard, our journey is towards a more perfect union, and it keeps moving on.”  The contrast with the words of Trump in this sense becomes very clear in the following passage. “My friends, I’m confident we’ll emerge victorious, this will not be my victory alone or our victory alone. It will be a victory for the American people, for our democracy, for America. There will be no blue states or red states when we win, just the united states of America.” In a democracy, what matters at the end of an election is that the people win as a whole, and they win only if and when the very principles of democracy itself are being respected.
It is in this very sense that the next president of the USA speaks about the office he will be holding, when it finally became clear that he won the election. “My responsibility as president will be to represent the whole nation. And I want you to know that I will work as hard for those that didn’t vote for me as for those who did vote for me. That’s the job, that’s the job, it’s called the ‘duty of care’ for all Americans.” Biden addresses a whole nation, and he reaches out specifically to those who didn’t vote for him. “And to those who voted for President Trump, I understand your disappointment tonight. I’ve lost a couple of elections myself. But now, let’s give each other a chance. It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric. To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again. To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans.”
President Donald Trump on ‘election night’, November 4 2020:
Vice-President Joe Biden on ‘election night’, November 4 2020:
Vice-President Joe Biden, November 5 2020:
Vice-President Joe Biden, November 6 2020:
President ‘elect’ Joe Biden in his ‘victory speech’, November 7 2020:
On how a ‘transfer of power’ could take place … and the value(s) of democracy
George H.W. Bush & Bill Clinton
John McCain’s defense of Barack Obama during 2008 campaign
George W. Bush the day after the election of Barack Obama
*Alexander Simoen (Belgium), is MA in Comparative and international politics (KU Leuven) and student MA Trinitarian Ontology-Philosophy (IU Sophia)
 Biden, Joe. November 6, 2020. Wilmington, Delaware. Retrieved on https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/joe-biden-november-6-speech-transcript-were-going-to-win-this-race
 Biden, Joe. November 5, 2020. Retrieved on https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/joe-biden-covid-19-remarks-transcript-november-5
 Abraham Lincoln, Gettysbury Address (1863) “… that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” was the last line of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
 Baggio, Antonio M. “Truth and Politics: The Loss of Authoritativeness in Contemporary Politics”. Claritas: Journal of Dialogue and Culture: Vol. 1: No. 1, Article 6, 2011: 45-59.
 Biden, Joe. November 6, 2020. Wilmington, Delaware. https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/joe-biden-speech-as-presidential-vote-count-continues-transcript-november-4
 ‘Declaration of Independence’. Retrieved on https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript
 Biden. November 4.
 Biden. November 5.
 Donald Trump, Election night speech. November 4, 2020. Retrieved on https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/donald-trump-2020-election-night-speech-transcript
 Biden. November 6.
 Baggio, Truth and Politics, 53-54.
 Ivi, 56.
 Biden, Joe. November 7, 2020. Retrieved on https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2020/nov/7/transcript-of-president-elect-joe-bidens-victory-s/
 Biden. November 6.
 Ivi, 51.
 ‘A more perfect union’ refers to the preamble of the U.S. constitution.
 Biden. November 4.