Calmer heads may yet talk Donald Trump down from caps-locked denial to lower-case concession, but the longer the defeated president flirts with a coup, the more the oil and gas industry must take a share of the blame.
Fossil-fuel firms are among the biggest donors to the defeated US president and the Republican party leaders who have endorsed his legal challenge to overturn the election result.
They also have the most to lose if Joe Biden carries out his campaign promise to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and enact a $2tn Green New Deal that would make wind, solar and other clean technologies far cheaper than petroleum.
Trump’s refusal to concede can be dismissed as the tantrum of a sore loser. But his support from prominent Republicans resembles a more serious attempt to hold back history: in particular, the two intertwined trends – climate and race – that drove Biden to victory.
The world is in the midst of an epochal shift as great as the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, which led to wider enfranchisement and condemned many feudal monarchies to the dustbin of history. Today the ancien regime is big carbon, predominantly run by white, male elites, which has dominated global politics ever since – largely through their funding of political parties, particularly but by no means exclusively the US Republicans.
For decades, they were able to do this within a democratic system by offering improved standards of living to supporters while marginalising opponents. This was never purely a matter of universal, inalienable rights and values. Promises of freedom were selectively delivered, and mainly intended to maintain the pioneer’s illusion of an endlessly exploitable landscape. Democracy was fine as long as it served that purpose.
In recent years, that constrained form of democracy has been hard to maintain. Millions of livelihoods have been threatened or ruined by the climate crisis. Demographic shifts have changed the electoral map. Minorities have become a powerful force. Not coincidentally they tend to be among the worst affected by air pollution and extreme weather.
Climate campaigns are increasingly intertwined with social justice movements. The tighter they bind, the more powerful they become. This is the alliance that pushed Biden to victory. In the future it is likely to strengthen as demographic trends advance and fossil fuel dependency retreats. This may be why some Republicans are so spooked that they are toying with rejecting democracy outright.
Lindsey Graham, the Senate Judiciary Committee chair who was re-elected as senator for South Carolina, has made little secret of why he believes Trump’s challenge is an existential political issue for his party.
“If Republicans don’t challenge and change the US election system, there will never be another Republican president elected again,” he told Fox News. In a subsequent interview, he clarified this. “If we don’t do something about voting by mail, we are going to lose the ability to elect a Republican in this country.”
Of course, it is not the postal votes he fears, but who is making them and why. The massive Covid-driven increase in mail-in votes is likely to have helped to enfranchise many black and indigenous people who were previously excluded by voter-suppression tactics. This, and the dynamism of black women activists such as Stacey Abrams, appears to have been decisive in the democratic victory in Georgia and could yet end the Republicans long control of the Senate, depending on the result of a run-off vote in January.
Trump’s presidency was made possible by the rise of a far-right wing in the Republican party characterised by white supremacist messaging and fossil-fuel funding. Oil and gas companies, led by Energy Transfer Equity, Koch Industries and Chevron, give about 80% of their political donations to Republican and conservative candidates. The biggest beneficiary by far is Donald Trump, who directly received more than $2m from this sector in the past year, not including money funnelled through secretive political action committees. High on the list are other supporters of his attempt to overturn the ballot box in the courtroom, such as Mitch McConnell, with $490,000, and Graham, with $143,000.
The picture is by no means clear-cut. Some Republicans see the writing on the wall and want to modernise their party by embracing the energy transition and appealing more to black and Latino voters. Many Democrats are cautious about abandoning coal and oil, which powered the US economy to global dominance in the 20th century. Biden’s campaign received $1m from oil and gas firms: less than half the donation to Trump, but still a clear indication that the industry thinks it can work with him as it worked with Obama.
Climate is a more urgent issue today, however, particularly among young Democrats. During the campaign, Joe Biden said his long-term goal was to “transition from the oil industry”. Whether he gets the chance to do that will depend on who controls the Senate and how disruptive the supreme court proves.
First, though, is the little matter of the sulking president. Trump’s reluctance to accept that he will leave the White House in January is surely the cry of a fragile ego in fear of what might follow – ignominy, debt and perhaps prosecution. But it is not just a matter of mood. As someone who evidently sees the world in purely transactional terms, Trump may believe the stakes are higher than the value of the system itself. Among his oil-funded allies, he is not alone in this. To assume US democracy will prevail regardless would be an act of hubris and reckless complacency. It needs to be defended, and to do that it is necessary to consider how the climate crisis is distorting, amplifying and reinventing politics.
o Jonathan Watts is the Guardian’s global environment editor