OPINION

Fear and loathing in the land of the free

Activists in Commack, New York calling for an end to the lockdown in the State, in a rally held earlier this month.AFPAL BELLO

Activists in Commack, New York calling for an end to the lockdown in the State, in a rally held earlier this month.AFPAL BELLO  

The presidential poll could be marked by amplified chaos and hamper U.S.’s recovery from COVID-19

If U.S. President Donald Trump looked unassailable early this year as the prospective incumbent in November’s presidential election, the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, with its severe toll on human life and damage to the U.S. economy, has dented his re-election prospects considerably.

Presumptive Democratic nominee and former Vice-President Joe Biden has for several months now launched scathing attacks on Mr. Trump, specifically targeting the President’s bumbling mismanagement of the pandemic, including his disregarding of intelligence calls to act fast and early, given the alarming signs of a biosecurity disaster emanating from China; his deliberate antagonism of Democrat-governed States in the context of their need for medical equipment; and his reckless comments on untested treatments for the infection.

The challenge before Biden

However, similar to former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, Mr. Biden cannot hope to win the electoral college — an institution that renders an absolute majority of votes insufficient to secure victory — without paying heed to undecided and independent voters, including in swing States. Going by the evidence of the previous election, these voters care as much about job security and the impact on this of globalisation, as much as they do about mainstream Democratic Party issues such as expanding the social security net for the middle class.

This cohort of the population — including factory workers, teachers, service sector employees, miners, truckers and farmers — may have thrown their lot in with Mr. Trump in 2016 in the belief that this rambunctious candidate would disrupt business-as-usual politics in the elite circles of Washington and bring real economic succour to where it was most needed. But do these voters continue to back Mr. Trump for the same reasons they did in the previous election? In part, this depends on how harshly they judge their President for his handling of the COVID-19 crisis — for the pandemic has now got inextricably enmeshed with one of the steepest economic declines witnessed in recent history.

On the one hand, in terms of pandemic politics, the impact of the virus has been more severe in Democratic-controlled States, mostly along the East and West coasts, than in the less-populated, Republican-dominated States – bearing in mind the caveat that testing levels across the country are not at their optimal level. Simultaneously, evidence, including that emerging from political rallies held across several States, suggests that the President still enjoys a considerable vector of support. These rallies saw gun-toting protestors raise slogans supporting early reopening of the U.S. economy and reject social distancing norms as a Democrat-perpetrated “hoax” leading to anti-economy lockdowns.

A second term for Trump?

Thus, it is unsurprising that Mr. Trump’s ratings appear to be holding steady. Gallup’s survey of 1,016 adults, taken in the last two weeks of April 2020, showed that Mr. Trump enjoyed a 49% overall approval rating — the highest of his presidency so far — and, unsurprisingly, a whopping 96% rating among Republican respondents. If this continues — and there is no reason at this point to assume it will not, given that the COVID-19 pandemic might subside to a relatively manageable level and the economy may begin limping back toward normalcy before the election in November — the U.S. and the world may be staring at the prospect of a second Trump presidency.

That said, if the recent State-level polls in Wisconsin are a barometer for how the U.S. will cope with the presidential election, it is almost certain that there will be amplified chaos, contested outcomes and a heightened risk of a setback to the country’s recovery from the pandemic — for several reasons.

First, the U.S. government at multiple levels has struggled to cope with the sheer bureaucratic requirements of tackling the pandemic. The administration’s efforts to slow the spread of the virus has been hobbled by a lack of personal protective equipment, ventilators and more. In this context, it is an open question as to whether and how a mega-exercise in democratic practice can be carried out while remaining faithful to the notion of social distancing. Even if technological advances permit a massive transition to online campaigning and voting, uncomfortable questions about fake news, propaganda and foreign powers seeking to influence the outcome will remain.

Second, Mr. Trump’s staccato, inconsistent response, sometimes bordering on the bizarre — such as his espousal of UV rays and injected disinfectant as potential antidotes to the coronavirus — is likely to produce an increasingly acerbic campaign. The President’s impatience to get the U.S. economy opened for business, combined with his anxiety over avoiding blame for failure to effectively contain the pandemic, will likely lead to a vindictive rather than a substantive race to the Oval Office.

A divided landscape

If indeed this is the scenario that the U.S. faces in the months ahead, it could be inferred that the very same worldview that propelled Mr. Trump to power in 2016 has remained dominant and has deepened its footprint on the landscape of U.S. policy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In such a scenario, we might expect that the pandemic will only become one more excuse for the White House to shore up protectionism in international trade, harden national borders against undocumented workers and asylum seekers, degrade multilateral organisations and regional cooperation frameworks, shut down U.S. government institutions associated with reducing fossil fuel dependence, and shrink the economic space for government to provide public goods such as affordable healthcare.

Then, there is the denouement of the pandemic itself — will the Trump administration de facto put its faith in the notion of “herd immunity,” and continue to prioritise economic activity over social distancing? Will the soaring death toll — which Mr. Trump predicted could exceed 1,00,000 — lead to further vitriol targeting China, even tectonic shifts in the foreign policy landscape? One thing is clear: with or without a vaccine, the coronavirus is here to stay, and will reshape social behaviour regardless of White House’s policies.

Through this climate of fear and loathing, there is one hope for a less unhinged American future: that, Mr. Biden will have the perspicacity to run a nuanced campaign, balancing policies promoting mainstream values of his party with bipartisan outreach that brings a large swathe of economically insecure, working Americans under the Democratic tent. American society, which is currently polarised over everything from the role of the government in the economy to immigration, gun control, and reproductive choice, is desperately in need of such a unifying force.

narayan@thehindu.co.in

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