Trump’s march and the Sanders factor

The U.S. President’s tenure and its baggage have given a new meaning to the term ‘American exceptionalism’

For approximately half the U.S. electorate, a nightmare that began with the unlikely election of Donald Trump to the presidency, is beginning to look as if it may continue into a second term. The U.S. President’s current approval rating (at 49%, in one poll) is the highest it has been since the day he took office. Initial hopes that his evident venality and incompetence may lead to an early termination of his presidency have gradually given way to a shocked realisation that no matter what he does, says, or tweets, there is no diminution in his support among those who voted for him in the 2016 election or in the Republican party. Indeed, as the abortive attempt to impeach him underlined, his command over the party is stronger than ever today.

Nothing stuns

The eruption of each outrageous scandal followed by Mr. Trump’s brazen strategy of a scorched-earth counterattack has led the U.S. to a point where it is now impossible to conceive of any scenario that could lead his supporters to rethink their allegiance. A seemingly hyperbolic comment made by Mr. Trump way back in January 2016, when he was a complete outsider among the aspirants for the Republican nomination (“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”) is reality today.

This presidency and the scandals of the last three years, on both domestic and foreign policy fronts, have given new meaning to the term “American exceptionalism”. Where it once stood for the idea, at least among the patriotic faithful, that the United States was a beacon for democracy and human rights, a land of opportunity for all comers, and unvested in the social hierarchies of Europe, today it signifies a country that elected, and may re-elect, a bigoted, climate-change-denying carnival barker incapable of distinguishing public office from private pelf.

Sanders and the Democrats

If Mr. Trump and his supporters present a united bloc impervious to self-doubt, the opposite is true of the Democrats. A crowded field of contenders caught in a seemingly endless series of primaries and caucuses with arcane rules has meant no candidate has really pulled clear of the pack. More importantly, Democrats are deeply divided in terms of a strategy to defeat Mr. Trump. One of the front runners, Bernie Sanders, is running on an explicitly socialist platform that clearly energises racial minorities, youth, poorer sections of society, women, and liberals looking for an alternative to a two-party system bereft of ideas in the face of global warming, endless war, and unprecedented polarisation of wealth.

Yet, socialism or anything vaguely associated with the term has long been anathema for many in the U.S. Mr. Sanders’s ideas on socialised medical care, free college education for everyone, and a more progressive tax structure evoke incredulity. Similar incredulity, however, is never expressed about the irrationality of a trillion dollar defence budget year after year; nor is there much recognition that in other industrialised democracies, variants on “socialized” medicine vastly outperform the U.S., or that college education is highly subsidised and incomparably cheaper in such countries.

The mainstream media’s conviction that the candidacy of Mr. Sanders will ensure Mr. Trump’s victory — one evidently shared by many in the Democratic Party leadership — is perplexing. He is the one candidate who seems to genuinely energise those groups that were central to Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012: racial minorities, youth, and first-time voters. The self-confident pundits who prematurely dismiss Mr. Sanders prospects may do well to remember that even as late as the evening of November 9, 2016, as the first results were coming in, none of them gave Donald Trump any chance of defeating Hillary Clinton.

Carceral state

In a form of slow violence that has escaped the attention of many both domestically and abroad, the U.S., with just 5% of the world’s population is now home to about 25% of the world’s prison population (2015 data), the overwhelming majority of whom are black or brown minorities. A criminal justice system thoroughly vitiated by racism has interacted with a prison-industrial complex to produce a situation in which a young black man has a higher chance of ending up in prison than he does in college. In deindustrialising States across much of the U.S., one of the few growth industries is prisons staffed by poor whites guarding poorer blacks and Hispanics.

Recent scholarship and quality investigative journalism have established beyond doubt that the emergence of the carceral state in the alleged “land of the free” was a bipartisan effort. Since the early 1980s, first Republicans and then Democrats competed fiercely to be seen as the party of “law and order”, of being “tough on crime”, and backing the relentless pursuit of the “war on drugs” — all euphemisms for appealing to the worst instincts, fears, and racism of whites seen as key to winning elections. At least three important remaining Democratic aspirants are tainted by their role in the creation and maintenance of this carceral state: Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg.

Mr. Biden was a high-ranking Senator and Chair of the Senate Judiciary committee during the 1980s and 1990s, and instrumental in passing legislation that produced the carceral state. The billionaire Bloomberg is former Republican Mayor of New York City and architect of the city police’s notorious “stop-and-frisk program”, which racially profiled blacks and Latin Americans leading to disproportionate levels of arrests, often for trivial degrees of drug possession or petty crimes, if even that. Mr. Bloomberg has very recently, and unconvincingly, apologised for the disastrous results of “stop-and-frisk”. Mr. Buttigieg pursued similarly “tough” (read racialised) policies during his tenure as Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, from 2012-20, and has been unrepentant, even proud, of this aspect of his record.

It is hard to see any of these three candidates energising minorities or the young given this track record. Meanwhile conservative whites susceptible to such dog-whistle politics may well stay with Mr. Trump and his unapologetically white supremacist views: why opt for the ersatz when you already have the real thing? (Mr. Trump’s faithful often cite the fact that he “says it like it is” as their reason for supporting him.)

Besides Mr. Sanders, at this moment the other seemingly strong and viable candidate in terms of appealing to the constituencies that could help the Democrats defeat Mr. Trump is Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Her impressive track record as economic manager (she was part of the committee that oversaw the post-2008 financial crisis recovery programme, and pushed for greater regulations over banking and finance, and for consumer protection) and the calm competence she radiates on matters of public policy could be an ideal complement to Mr. Sanders.

Trump’s cards

Besides the advantages of incumbency, Mr. Trump has a huge re-election war chest, the largest in U.S. history as a matter of fact; Republicans (like right-wing parties all across the world) have a pronounced advantage over Democrats in manipulating social media in their favour and against opponents; and polls indicate that as much as 63% of the electorate approves of the way Mr. Trump is handling the economy.

Those are dispiriting facts. Yet, if the long and unpredictable primary season ends with Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren (or Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders) as the Democratic ticket, they are likely to bring energy, the newest voters, and alienated minorities into the Democratic fold in a way that none of the other candidates is likely to do. All that may not be enough to unseat the current occupant — but at this point in time, it would appear to be the Democrats’ best bet.

Sankaran Krishna teaches politics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu, U.S.

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2020 10:21:19 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/trumps-march-and-the-sanders-factor/article30803728.ece

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