The long and the short of Trump versus the rest

Krishnan Srinivasan  

The American Congress predictably acquitted U.S. President Donald Trump from charges of obstruction of Congress and abuse of power. This has left the Democrats, their supportive bureaucrats and the media detesting him while the Republicans and their followers embrace him, or back him sufficiently, to want him to continue in office.

The liberal media never accepted Mr. Trump as legitimate, depicting him as racist, chauvinist and a liar; they are unable objectively to assess the President’s policies. Democrat-supporting liberals in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency and the bureaucracy showed their discontent in a quasi-rebellion against the President, and when the Russia collusion probe led nowhere, they turned to the impeachment route. Citing the sixth U.S. President, John Quincy Adams (1825-1829), “America… goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all,” the liberal guardians of the presumed benevolent empire consider Mr. Trump a reckless isolationist — although he injected billions of dollars into the military — for questioning the financial burdens of alliances with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Japan and South Korea.

A shift in Republican stance

Republican establishment figures and ultra-conservatives, originally resentful of Mr. Trump, now coalesce behind him because he favours economic protectionism, chauvinism and foreign policy isolationism, has reduced corporate and wealth taxes, imposed limits on immigration and refugees, appointed conservatives to Supreme and Federal courts, de-regulated the economy and supported evangelical agendas including support for Israel’s settlements and recognition of Jerusalem as its capital. If President Barack Obama’s tenure saw the elimination of Osama bin Laden and stimulated the economy, Mr. Trump has killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Iran’s General Qasem Soleimani, slashed unemployment and grown the economy while opposing government programmes such as Obamacare and the Green New Deal. His approval among Republicans is around 90% despite his hostile takeover of the Party while branding himself as a warrior against élites, fake news and a corrupt establishment.

Driven by the urge for publicity, Mr. Trump uses provocation, confrontation and bombast to dominate the news agenda and exploit the vulnerabilities of his adversaries. His boasts of successes, which bend facts to breaking point, infuriate his opponents and distort their judgement. Populism is distasteful to the educated, but has certain merits in encouraging neglected constituencies to participate in the democratic process, though it is illiberal in nature and assaults institutions tasked with oversight over majority rule. Mr. Trump’s opponents attack his boorishness but neglect the reasons why many voters supported him, namely because working and middle-class Americans, losing faith in state institutions and political parties, are responsive to right-wing extremists.

A resonating slogan

After the Gulf War fiasco and the financial crisis, Mr. Trump understood that the U.S.-led liberal order, free trade and globalisation no longer had popular traction; that is why his slogan “Make America Great Again” resonates. Americans know Mr. Trump held no public office, was a shady real-estate operator, draft dodger, evader of taxes, denigrator of Muslims, Latin Americans and women, but they elected him nevertheless, and he has continued along the same path, focusing on power irrespective of principle. With the weight of the Republican Party now behind him, he has, in effect, been campaigning from the day of his inauguration, while building a sophisticated data-gathering and voter mobilisation operation with an eye to winning the November 2020 election. Basic to this approach is bilateral leverage or quid pro quo . Mr. Trump saw nothing wrong in asking the Ukrainian President to advance his political interests, or in acting against a Congress instruction. He claims the Democrats in Congress are obstructing him, and that only those who elected him could hold him accountable. It will be the American people who will finally express judgement on the Trump presidency, next November.

Then and now

In the previous presidential election of 2016, Republicans and independents who voted for Mr. Trump were driven mainly by dislike of Hillary Clinton and the élites who backed her. This time the Democrats and many independents will be motivated by hatred for Mr. Trump and his record. Independents, who will determine the outcome, will vote with consideration to their conscience and bank balances. Those who benefit from Mr. Trump’s economic policies will vote for him, short of an economic recession or financial crisis, which although widely predicted, have yet to materialise. Those worried about democracy, liberal values and civic rights will vote against him for fear of authoritarianism, racism and inequality.

How could one of the most divisive Presidents in American history, impeached for high crimes and misdemeanours, reeling from one self-inflicted crisis to another, win high office again? The election debate will focus largely on Mr. Trump, which is what he wants. Republicans will emphasise his accomplishments and Democrats his transgressions, though the election ought to be about the economy, American traditional values and democracy. To win, the Democrats must appeal to the working and middle class, the automaker and steel worker. Mr. Trump will claim that millions of unworthy immigrants entered the U.S while jobs went to China and Mexico and the establishment stood idly by. His 2016 strategy was to win key States such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and that will be his objective again. Mr. Trump could, therefore, suffer a heavy defeat in the popular vote while winning the handful of States that decide the electoral college. Accordingly, while the impeachment process against Mr. Trump failed, its effect on voters in a few crucial States will prove critical.

Much will also depend on the Democrats’ choice of nominee. Mr. Joe Biden would be portrayed by Mr. Trump as a corrupt re-run of the Obama regime. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren will be painted as radical leftists who endanger American prosperity. No sitting President incumbent has lost since George H.W. Bush’s defeat to Bill Clinton in 1992 during tax increases and a recession. The 2020 presidential election will represent a decision between liberal and illiberal democracy. Whatever the outcome, the Trump presidency has laid down new yardsticks to preoccupy his successors and political leaders in all other countries for many decades to come.

Krishnan Srinivasan is a former Foreign Secretary