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A harbinger of the new hard-right normal: on Trump's style of politics

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Trump is the logical end product of an old GOP strategy of appealing to the white community’s worst instincts

In the weeks after Barack Obama’s stunning victory in the presidential elections in November 2008, the Republican leadership was conducting its own post-mortem on John McCain’s defeat. Things did not look good at all. Around 60% of Hispanics; 62% of Asians; 95% of African-Americans; and, most significantly, two out of three voters below the age of 30 had voted for Mr. Obama. While he got only 43% of the white votes, Mr. Obama outpolled McCain by a full 10% (54% to 44%) among young white voters. Other than elderly whites and evangelical Christians, the Grand Old Party (GOP) could not count on any constituency as a stronghold. Given the demographic changes under way (the proportion of non-Hispanic whites is projected to drop to below 50% of the U.S. population by the year 2045), the white vote as a share of the overall electorate has dropped in every election since 1992. Quite simply, it was hard to see where the GOP could turn for renewal. Defeat followed again in 2012 as Mr. Obama handily beat Mitt Romney, and pundits were predicting a prolonged presidential drought for the GOP. Sen. Lindsey Graham remarked in 2012, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”

Angry white voters

Seven years later, Sen. Graham need have no worries about the supply of angry white guys in the U.S. And in Donald Trump, they have ‘one of their very own’ ensconced in the White House. The unabashed appeal to the idea of a white America, alongside the impediments to minority voting; the gerrymandering of districts; and a politics of constant spectacle centring on issues such as race, abortion, ‘Christian values’, immigration, crime, gun control, and anti-elitism, has kept the GOP from the obsolescence it feared. While Mr. Trump is the latest manifestation of this trend within the Republicans, there is abundant evidence that at least since Richard Nixon’s “war on crime” (read “on minorities”) in the name of a “silent majority” (read “whites”), the politics of race-baiting, minority voter suppression, and pandering to the fears of whites has long been a core strategy.

So much of the focus on the 45th President of the U.S. is trained on him being an ‘exception’. It is fair to say that no previous President has ever combined mendacity, ignorance, arrogance, bigotry, and vulgarity in the way that he has. And yet, in contrast to this narrative of Mr. Trump being an ‘egregious exception’, it is time to regard him as the harbinger of the new normal. For all his distastefulness, Mr. Trump is the logical end product of a 50-year-long Republican strategy of winning elections through appeal to the worst fears and instincts of the whites, especially those at the lower end of the educational ladder, whose greatest fear is losing their status vis-à-vis blacks and other coloured minorities. White supremacism has always been barely concealed throughout the history of the U.S., and events on the ground are making it increasingly likely that the open bigotry espoused by Mr. Trump may not just disappear when he is done being President.

Consider this: about 41% of Americans approve of the job Mr. Trump is doing as President (almost the same as Mr. Obama’s approval rating three years into his first term). However, not one Senator or Congressman from one of the world’s oldest political parties has broken ranks with him; and his approval rating among Republican voters runs around 90%, as it does amongst all those who voted for him in 2016. In early November, a New York Times/Siena College poll and analysis found that only Joe Biden bested Mr. Trump in a head-to-head contest (but by a margin of less than 2%) in six key States (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin, Arizona and North Carolina). Mr. Trump was even with Bernie Sanders and clearly bested Elizabeth Warren in these States. The piece concluded that if present trends continued, there is a good possibility that Mr. Trump may lose the popular vote by a larger margin than the three million by which Hillary Clinton beat him in 2016 — but that he might win the Electoral College by an even wider margin than he did last time.

These facts are the background against which the Democratic move to impeach the President is unfolding. That Mr. Trump’s conduct clearly exceeds the bar set for bringing charges of impeachment (“The President... shall be removed from Office... for treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” as per the Constitution) is beyond doubt to anyone except the wilfully blind. Yet, the chances of impeachment resulting in Mr. Trump’s ouster or resignation are practically zero. Even if the House votes to impeach him (quite likely given the evidence and the Democratic majority in that chamber), the next step is for the Senate (where the Republicans have 53 of the 100 seats) to agree to first hold a trial, and then, by a two-third majority, vote to convict the President. The GOP’s unanimity that Mr. Trump has done nothing impeachable rivals that of the Politburo under Joseph Stalin, so that possibility can be ruled out.

Impeachment hearings

The first week of televised impeachment hearings before the House committee has confirmed that Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s initial hesitation in embarking on impeachment was well-founded. Despite testimony that unequivocally indicates that President Trump personally vetted a policy of withholding already approved foreign aid to Ukraine until it agreed to dig up some dirt on the Bidens; that he had the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine fired because she would not play along with such extortion; and that he has since lied about all of this, Mr. Trump’s popularity within his own base is unaffected. If anything, the longer the impeachment hearings play out, the more credible his claim — this is all a diversionary witch-hunt — will seem to the faithful. Despite the endless deployment of phrases such as “smoking guns,” and “this time he’s gone too far,” the truth is that most Americans, but especially those predisposed to like the President, now live in discrete media silos: they hear and see only what they already agree with. The idea that these impeachment hearings could uncover something that would result in a significant number of people changing their minds about him seems unlikely.

At the same time, the sheer outrageousness of what the whistleblower revealed about the quid pro quo sought to be exacted from Ukraine left Ms. Pelosi with no choice but to proceed with impeachment. Though it might play into Mr. Trump’s hands, it was still the right thing to do. In the meantime, the already unwieldy list of Democratic contenders for the nomination just increased, bringing the scrum up to 19. With none of them able to establish a clear frontrunner status, Mr. Trump can focus on what he does best: be the ringmaster of a media circus that energises his core constituencies and mocks the rest.

Whether or not Mr. Trump wins re-election, it is clear that one of the two parties in the U.S. has decided to throw away dog whistles and openly champion the politics of racial majoritarianism. How the Democrats respond to that challenge could well be the question of the next decade. Mr. Trump’s reign will end, but the GOP’s swing to the hard right may be hard to reverse. In this, the U.S. is in line with developments in Britain and all across Europe, and when one considers Turkey, Brazil, the Philippines, India, and Sri Lanka, in sync with the world. Much as one might like to think Mr. Trump is an aberration or a one-off, I fear it’s more probable that the content and style of his politics is here to stay, in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Sankaran Krishna teaches politics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and can be reached at krishna@hawaii.edu

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 7:17:42 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/a-harbinger-of-the-new-hard-right-normal-on-trumps-style-of-politics/article30019823.ece

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