In the past four years, the Trump administration has indulged in so many excesses and bizarre incidents that nothing should come across as particularly surprising now. And yet, what has happened in the last three weeks demonstrates that the administration can outdo itself by constantly setting new ‘standards’ of extreme crassness, incompetence, and sheer disregard of any political norms.
In the last three weeks, Trump has openly declared that he won’t accept the results if he loses the elections, and by doing so he has severely undermined the basic criterion of any functioning electoral democracy because in democracies, when you lose the election, you leave the office. Senator Mitt Romney was right when he said:
“Fundamental to democracy is the peaceful transition of power; without that, there is Belarus. Any suggestion that a president might not respect this Constitutional guarantee is both unthinkable and unacceptable.”
Following that, there was a damaging report published by the New York Times which stated that Trump had paid literally no income taxes for much of the past two decades. The details revealed two things. First, Trump is not as rich as he has often claimed to be, with worse to come as hundreds of millions of dollars of debt is due in the next few years. Second, he is prepared to lie and show losses when it suits him and indulge in every kind of accounting manipulation.
And then there was that horrendous debate between him and Joe Biden. Being a student of politics, and someone who has always been deeply interested in US politics (currently my country of residence also), I have watched every presidential debate since 1992, but nothing in my memory comes even remotely close in terms of sheer crassness to the one which took place last week. Yes, there have been hostile debates before also, after all, politics is about power and therefore naturally confrontational – but the recent debate ascended to another level in terms of hostility, and, regrettably, even immaturity. Trump bullied, constantly interrupted, and obfuscated his way during the entire debate. He dodged questions about his response to the pandemic and refused to give any assurance about a peaceful transfer of power in the event of his loss. He even refused to condemn white supremacists when asked to do so.
Three days after the debate, Trump was diagnosed with Covid-19 and very reluctantly agreed to move to the hospital. Given his age and health (he is clinically obese), Trump falls in the high-risk bracket. Furthermore, the day he was admitted his oxygen levels had dropped drastically. Despite the fact that during his tenure Trump has alienated many who don’t share his ideology and political views, the majority of the country still prayed for his health, with Biden wishing him well and stating, “This cannot be a partisan moment. It must be an American moment”.
Over the past few months the pandemic has killed over 200,000 individuals in America and has ravaged the economy, putting millions out of work. Despite being the world’s most powerful country and possessing extraordinary resources, the governmental response has been extremely ineffective at every instance, but particularly at the presidential level. Trump has received a lot of flak for downplaying the severity of the virus and forcing schools to re-open despite the risks. The fact that he was now himself been diagnosed with Covid-19 has given Trump an opportunity to firstly realise that it is a serious ailment, and secondly to communicate that sentiment to the American population.
Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, he failed to rise to the occasion and in fact used it to further trivialise the nature of the threat. During his stay at the hospital he decided to come out to greet his supporters and then, against the advice of the doctors, decided to shift back to the White House. Worse, immediately after returning, he removed his mask and openly declared that Covid-19 was nothing to be afraid of. Of course, he completely forgot, or chose to ignore, the fact that he received the best possible medical treatment by virtue of being the president, something which an overwhelming majority of ordinary Americans don’t have access to. Even by his standards, this was highly irresponsible and led to severe backlash, forcing the former first lady Michelle Obama, who normally remains apolitical, to release a lengthy video message criticising Trump’s response to race related incidents and particularly the pandemic. She urged Americans to vote for Biden “like your lives depend on it.”
As I write these sentences, Trump continues to wreak havoc; the latest being his decision to cut off stimulus relief until after the elections. Furthermore, as America continues to reel under racial tensions, Trump, instead of uniting the nation, is actively playing the role of a divider in chief by adding fuel to the fire.
But why is he doing this, and why does he continue to have substantial support among the American populous? Although he is trailing Biden in the polls, more than 40% of the electorate is still behind him.
The answer to this question lies in two characteristics of contemporary American society. Firstly, in recent times American politics has become extremely polarised. When this happens then there is an erosion of the middle and the two sides of the political aisle refuse to compromise. Furthermore, in such a situation, excesses committed by a leader are overlooked by his/her supporters as they view the opposing leaders with much more suspicion. One reason as to why Trump is getting away with his actions is because his supporters view Democrats with so much suspicion that they are willing to put their trust in Trump despite his demeanour.
Secondly, American mainstream media (barring Fox News) is very politically correct, refusing to say anything which minority groups may find to be offensive. This in turn has helped Trump since he has little to no regard for any cultural or racial sensitivity. To a large number of conservative minded whites, he appears to be someone who is ‘candid’ and ‘forthright’, and someone who is ready to defend them whereas the liberal media keeps on trying to shame them due to their so called “white privileges”. This explains why Trump keeps on indulging in divisive rhetoric because it solidifies his support along racial lines.
He downplays Covid-19 and its risks because, before the pandemic hit, the American economy was doing well and there was a significantly high chance of him getting re-elected. However, the pandemic ended up damaging the economy on an unprecedented scale, and since America is quite decentralised, Trump could not do much when it came to the policies implemented in various states. The majority of Democrat states opted for stricter measures, which obviously led to economic contraction. Hence, by downplaying the pandemic, Trump is cleverly suggesting that the economic hardship has been brought about by the Democrats as they ‘over-hyped’ the dangers of the virus. Due to the polarised nature of American society, his narrative is selling well among his supporters.
So, can Trump win the upcoming elections? His chances are slim, not because his base has started to abandon him but because the other side is greater in number and quite charged up. Trump knows this, and hence his strategy is to sow the seeds of suspicion with regards to the postal ballots and call into question just how ‘free and fair’ the election will be. Whether this strategy pays dividends will become clear when voters head to the polls this November.