America is no longer the shining city on the hill
The Trump presidency has removed America from its position as the shining city on the hill with the insurrection on 6th January 2021as a key factor in this change in status, when a marauding mob invaded the capitol to stop congress confirming Joe Biden as president. Other factors at play in this change in status include the erosion of democratic norms by Trump and his party and the fact that even with an appalling track record he is still supported by a significant minority of voters who believe in his lies about the election. Republicans in congress and the overwhelming (three quarter of them in a recent poll) majority of Republican voters still refuse to accept defeat in the presidential election even after the results have been verified and validated by officials in contested states, many controlled by Republicans and, failed lawsuits, many adjudicated by Trump appointed judges. But America’s move from this exalted position started decades ago through voter suppression activities mainly directed at Black and other minority voters by Republicans. In 2016 when questioned by the media before his election as president Trump would not categorically confirm that he would accept defeat, a similar tone adopted in an interview in 2020. Peeved by the fact that he lost the popular vote to Hilary Clinton in 2016 by almost three million, one of Trump’s first actions as president was to launch an investigation on voter fraud which found no significant evidence.
Although Trump was impeached in the House of Representative for the insurrection that he orchestrated only seven Republican senators voted along with the fifty Democrats to convict him, consequently the (total) Senate vote was less than the two thirds majority required in the Senate for conviction; it was still the most bi-partisan impeachment ever vote in both houses. While Republican leaders in congress initially blamed and castigated Trump for the insurrection immediately after the event, the blowback from Republican voters who gave the former president a pass has seen leading members of the party backtracking on their criticism, going to pay homage to him. In the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) he was crowned as the most powerful Republican and gave a speech in which he left no doubt that he was fully aware of his status and noted that intended to make full use of it and has attacked leaders in congress who had dared to vote for his impeachment, conviction or criticized him in any way. This attitude by Republicans is perverse given Trump’s track record as the two tables below show; he is being rewarded for failure and/or Republicans are ignoring the damage he has caused and instead believe the lies he and his enablers have been spreading. This is a serious issue for America and the world because Trump has been dangling the prospect of running again in 2024.
The table above is a snapshot of key metrics in December just as the presidency was about to change in 2016 and 2020. As the table above shows, Trump left office with a much higher level of unemployment, at 6.3% than what he inherited from Obama, at 4.7 who had presided over the longest period of economic and job growth. Trump came to office with the objective of abolishing America’s trade deficit, at the end of his term the balance of payment at $679 billion in deficit for his last year (December 2020) in office was over forty percent higher than the last year of Obama’s. All his bellicose trade talk and actions came to naught and indeed made things worse. Trump raised the government budget deficit significantly, for the year ending December 2020 it rose to $1.02 trillion sharply up from $585 billion in year ending December 2016. The cumulative government deficit accrued by the Trump administration, at $7.8 trillion raised the US debt very significantly, was rated the third biggest increase relative to the economy of any president according by Eugene Steurle of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy in a paper by Propublica, only surpassed by Lincoln and George W Bush, the former as a result of the civil war and the latter because of tax cuts and two wars. Trump’s deficit was caused by his 2017 tax cuts, no effective spending restraint and the covid19 pandemic which the administration handled very badly. With regards to the cumulative budget deficit the comparison between Trump and his nemesis Obama is stark. Kimberley Amadeo of The Balance used three methods to measure the Obama cumulative deficit which ranged between s2.8 and 9 trillion. In the table above I have used a crude (simple) average of the three levels which shows that Trump’s deficit in his four years was more than Obama’s in his eight years even though Obama inherited the great recession which was second only to the great depression while Trump inherited a growing economy from Obama.
Trump liked to boast about his strong economy which he credited with his huge tax cut early in his presidency, a policy that has been panned by many economists and even analysts that are traditionally Republican friendly observers. Indeed Forbes the bastion of conservative corporate America, noted that “it doesn’t look like Trump’s tax cuts will pay for themselves” and went on to point out that the administration’s deficit at 4.6% of GDP was an anomaly because since 1970 the only time the deficit had been above 4% of GDP was when the economy had been in recession, sharply at variance with the GDP growth rate of 2.1 – 2.2 in the previous three quarters prior to Trump’s tax give away policy. In addition to the healthy growth rate, the there was also record low unemployment rate. In short, Trump was pumping the economy when there was no need for it, rather it was merely a way to juice Trump’s rich pals and himself at the expense of the country, and getting into debt the country did not need.
And then of course the key metric that will forever cast a shadow on the Trump presidency is the 400,000 deaths that occurred under his watch from covid19, a figure that is unmatched by any other country in the world. China who Trump assigned all kinds of blame on, where the virus originated from, with a much larger population and much poorer in terms of its per capita income (and per capital health expenditure) had much lower number of infections and deaths from the virus. Other countries where the virus was detected at the same time or later than in America with similar levels of income and/or levels of health spending, namely, Japan, Germany and France, have fared much better in terms of infections and deaths. Finally it should be noted that the much deadlier Ebola epidemic and other flu diseases similar to covid19 were dealt with through prompt and decisive actions by Obama and the consortium of countries that Obama the team player, helped set up.
Trump’s boast that he presided over “greatest” economic growth before it was upended by what he referred to as the “China virus” was a fallacy because GDP growth in his first three years before the covid19 crisis was at 2.6% only marginally higher than the 2.5% growth rate in the last three years of Obama’s presidency and significantly below many other previous administrations. Furthermore as covid19 happened under his watch which he did very little to minimise the health and economic impacts (indeed his words and actions made things worse), he should take ownership of the pandemic and the economic consequences. The table below, which compares GDP growth rate since 1929 (almost hundred years) demolishes Trump’s big lie about presiding over the greatest economy ever.
Average GDP growth rates under various US presidents
|President||% change||President||% change|
|Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis/ The Balance.com|
GDP (economic) growth under Trump at .4% was the second worse level among the fifteen administrations covered and less than a third of that under Truman, the next worse president after Hoover the president with the worst record; Trump’s took over from Truman as the second from the bottom. Hoover presided over an economy at the onset of the great depression and Truman was president just before and at the end of the Second World War when the US economy had to wind down from that war.
Trump’s abysmal economic and health track records are not the only cause of the lights switching off; indeed his administration represents the intensification of the relative decline of the US, compared to other rising blocs like the European Union (EU) and countries like China, Germany and Japan. This is especially the case with the health and economic impacts of covid19 which have been relatively less severe in these countries than in the US which has badly managed the pandemic as levels of infections, deaths, economic outputs and unemployment show. China in particular, which Trump came to power promising to challenge, has fared much better in terms of the economic impact of covid19 – China was the only major economy to register significant economic growth in 2020. The EU, even bereft of the UK continues to increase its economic muscle despite Trump’s antagonistic moves. It should be noted that under Obama the US came out much faster and stronger from the great recession than the EU and other leading economies. Trump’s bombastic Make America Great Again (MAGA) mantra has definitely not increased the country’s economic and political footprints relative to these other actors rather his actions have reduced them relative to these other players, the reverse of MAGA.
While the health and economic damage noted above are devastating, in the long term it is Trump’s election and his assault on the integrity of the democratic process and America’s image and role in the world that are even direr. His emasculation of America’s democracy was brazen, done in broad daylight. Four years ago America elected a divisive, confrontational, bullying, lying and incompetent leader, willing to take praise for everything that went well while accepting no blame when things did not go well, even as his actual input into policies that he claimed credit for was minimal because he largely relied on members in his team to do the actual lifting with little direction other than the odd tweet and/or outsourced it to organisations allied to his administration. Americans knew from reports in the media and Trump’s words and actions that this was a very flawed candidate and still elected him. As president he spent very little time on the job, rarely read briefings, spent much of his time playing golf, watching his favourite TV channel, Fox News and lately other right wing media outlets and tweeting praise of himself or abuse of his opponents. Trump did not have experience of policy making in government or large corporate entities which typically have due processes. He joined his family business straight from university, an outfit where his father was boss with absolute power which Trump inherited; his experience was as the boss’s son and the boss. It is no surprise therefore that his policies were not clearly thought out, lacking the cohesive and logical vision and analytical process that should guide policy. Rather they were based on prejudice, grievance, conspiracies and outright falsehoods often gleaned from Trump’s favourite TV programmes. This was evident for the whole world in convid19 briefings as Trump mused on injecting covid19 patients with disinfectants. America the superpower became a joke.
This flaw in the president’s decision making was clearly evident in the Muslim ban and other policies subsequently; the several unsuccessful attempts to get rid of Obamacare, with nothing to replace it with; disarray in the western alliance after Trump had stated that European countries were freeloaders only to accept that NATO was an essential part of America’s defence fabric even with disgruntled members; then there was the frolicking with the North Korean dictator that came to naught largely because Trump had made no use of his experts; Trump’s escapades with Putin only to be screwed with the most extensive hacking of the US government and bounties on the heads of American soldiers in Afghanistan and; China trade tantrum which left the US with even larger trade deficit than what he inherited and got him really screwed by the “China virus” which he was incapable of resolving, costing him his job. The fact that a high proportion of US voters are willing to support such a man, that a significant player in the bastion of democracy, namely the Republican party, is willing to abandon the democratic process s -with its leaders adhering to baseless lies, conspiracy theories and autocratic tendencies must be frightening to other leading democratic states. This is particularly the case when the antithesis of liberal democracies, China, comes out as the stable, efficient and effective super power.
This Trump mania has permeated American politics, taking over the Republican party with 75% believing the election was stolen, a majority of Republicans losing trust in the judicial system because it has not accepted this false narrative of the election being “stolen” ;Trumpists have not provided proof to back the claim. A significant proportion of Republicans does not regard the January 6 insurrection as wrong. Trumpists have ignored mainstream media and instead congregate in social media networks and extreme right wing media feeds and conspiracy networks such as QAnon that reinforce the false narrative about the election and other lies spewed by Trump and his enablers. And it is getting worse because their leaders in congress realising this situation and the dominant hold that Trump has over the Republican party are succumbing to Trump’s lies about the election and paying homage to the dear leader. While the insurrection on 6th January was unbelievable for a mature democracy such as the US, in many ways it was predictable given the type of leader Americans chose four years ago. Trump had, before that first election in 2016 and in 2020, not bought into the democratic process. When asked on television four years ago whether he would accept a Hilary Clinton victory he failed to categorically accept such a hypothetical scenario, claiming victory in 2020 soon after the election before conclusive data from election officials, and then after the major networks and state officials called the election for Biden he refused to accept defeat.
The sad and ironic thing is that Republican leaders in congress and the vice president whose lives had been threatened when the insurgents invaded the capitol now seem to be marching to Trump’s tune. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the house who apparently during the storming of the capitol, had a tense conversation with the former president when Trump refused to call off the insurgents and in a speech immediately after the event blamed Trump for the insurrection is now kow towing to him as is Mitch McConnell, the leader of senate Republicans who had stated immediately after the insurrection that Trump had exhibited “a disgraceful dereliction of duty .. Practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day”. Subsequently he stated in a Fox news interview that he would support Trump “100%” if he won the nomination. In a recent Wall Street article Mike Pence, Trump’s vice president who the insurrectionist mob were threatening to lynch because he had refused to illegally divert electoral college votes to Trump, objected to efforts by Democrats to protect voting rights. Republicans who control the majority of state governments have been taking measures to supress votes because making it easy for Americans to vote tends to favour Democrats. Pence and legislatures in Republican controlled states are therefore effectively adhering to the views of people who wanted to lynch the former vice president, illegally convert votes from Biden to Trump and continue to lie that the Biden presidency is illegitimate. “The election was stolen” mantra by Trumpists is effectively a statement that Biden’s supporters, many of them non-White, are not legitimate (real American) voters, hence justifying efforts by Republican state legislatures to suppress their votes.
America in 2021 is in a turbulent state and much of it relates to two interlinked big issues that the country has had to grapple with since the USA’s birth, namely race and power. Since the USA was established with European settlers displacing the original inhabitants Native Americans and Africans brought in as slaves, power has been firmly in the hands of the dominant European settlers. Now immigration and demographic trends threaten to change the racial dynamics and the power of this dominant group it has raised anxiety as one would expect. Trump, a man who was brought up on racial superiority by a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) father latched on White anxiety which no doubt hit a high point with the election of America’s first Black President, Obama and these demographic changes which have highlighted the fact that a non-White majority is taking shape. He launched his campaign for the presidency with his lie that President Obama was not born in the US and therefore was not a legitimate president. Building the wall and other measures to stem immigration were the focus of his campaign, left unsaid but clearly understood was that these immigrants were not White and would therefore accelerate the demographic change in favour of non-Whites. His statements like the Democrats wanting to change America to something new, saving “beautiful “ monuments glorifying leaders who fought to maintain slavery, “fine people” on both sides (in reference to White supremacists march in Charlottesville) were all expressions of Trump’s anxiety about this perceived “threat to the America as we know it”. This was grievance politics and power play which also incorporated structural economic issues such as the loss of manufacturing jobs; Whites make up the overwhelming majority of manufacturing workers often because of restrictive practices even though ironically it was Republican White corporate leaders that sent those jobs offshore to maximise profits.
A recent survey by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) found out that 60% of White evangelical Republicans agreed that “the traditional way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it”. What is unsaid but which Trump understands and has stoked is that “traditional way of life” is White. The gist is that in the power play that is unfolding White power that Trump clearly embodies is the most important factor for the majority of Republican voters.
Trump’s authoritarian, falsehoods and anti-science tendencies may appear un-American but actually fit in with the power play of America. While America has always boasted of its democratic tradition for much of its existence this did not apply to women and ethnic minorities. Trump is the embodiment of the power Republicans have held and the fear of losing it has led Republicans in many states to take actions to suppress votes. While there are more voters who register as Democrats and/or in surveys align with that party, Republicans control a higher proportion of state legislatures and governorships. This allows them greater control over the lives of the average American as state legislation is far more dominant with regards to the everyday life of Americans. It allows Republicans to manage voter registration and demarcation of county, state and federal electoral boundaries which in turn determines the number of seats in the local, state and federal elections. This power results in voter suppression through arcane voting laws, district gerrymandering (created to ensure that a party’s candidate wins) and emasculation of governors in favour of Republicans. In Florida voters approved ex-convicts getting the vote but Republicans in control of the state legislature imposed restrictions that effectively revoked that mandate – all debts incurred by ex-convicts had to be paid, much of such debts were incurred in court charges. A very high proportion of convicts are Black or other ethnic minorities who tend to vote for the Democratic Party; studies have shown that Blacks and other ethnic minorities are far more likely to be jailed than Whites for the same crimes. There have also been instances where Republican legislatures have taken away the powers of governors when Democrats have won those positions. Since Trump’s defeat Republican state legislatures have taken measures to suppress votes, interestingly in states such as Georgia and Arizona that stood up to Trump’s assault on the democratic process.
Trump and developments noted above are not good news for America. The party elected and continues to support a man who is unqualified for the job and in his four years in power demonstrated this flaw clearly. That track record, the erosion in belief and support for logic, science and democracy among Republicans who because of in built advantages is likely to ensure a continuation of the slide in America’s power and reputation. As the table above shows, economic growth rates have been higher under Democrats for the last ninety years as have job growth rates. One only needs to look at the last four presidents. Clinton presided over record economic and job growth rates and bequeathed a budget surplus to Bush. Under Bush the great recession started as did two major wars. Obama rescued the country from the Bush recession and then came Trump with all the problems. Both Clinton and Obama had far more favourable views and respect by people and leaders around the world. And yet there may be Trump 2, God alone knows what he will bring if that happens.
J Boima Rogers is Principal Consultant at Media and Event Management Oxford (MEMO) www.oxfordmemo.co.uk