Has America had enough of Trump’s banana republic?
2020 will enter the annals of American history as one of the most memorable in presidential elections. It has been a high point in Trump’s four year attempt to turn the country into a banana republic, a move rejected by the electorate with the democratic infrastructure (election officials and courts) proving to be robust enough to repel assaults by Trump and his minions. Trump’s antics should not have been a surprise because in 2016 when asked whether he would concede defeat if he lost the election, he demurred, a clear sign that he was not a fan of the democratic process. He tried to supress early voting and voting by mail, in the middle of a pandemic that he has exacerbated, saying that they encouraged fraudulent voting without any proof, a position that numerous studies, including one his administration commissioned, show to be untrue. He encouraged his thugs to be stationed at election sites to challenge (intimidate) voters, primarily ethnic minority citizens. After the election he dismissed the (Homeland Security Department) official responsible for safeguarding the election because that official, who he appointed, had the gall to say that it was the safest election ever; a key member of Trump’s legal team stated that the official should be shot.
After the election was called for Joe Biden by major broadcast networks, rather than concede and start the transition process Trump held on for nearly three weeks before giving the nod to the administrator responsible for providing funds for Biden’s transition team and, Whitehouse officials to start the transition process. He has still not conceded, claiming on Tuesday 8th December in a press conference that he won the election. He has mounted a plethora of false claims, unsuccessful lawsuits and devious activities to overturn the will of the people. He has dragged his Republican party into action, including US senators, house of representative members and state officials to cast doubt on the process and outcomes; state officials have been pressured to conduct recounts. He invited Michigan state officials to the Whitehouse, no doubt to pressure them to reject the will of the people. In Georgia his actions and statements have led Republican state officials to publicly call on him to desist because they are putting the lives of innocent election officials at risk, echoing a similar incident in Michigan when Trump supporters were arrested for plotting violent action against the (Democrat) Governor for her policies to deal with covid19 which Trump opposed. Hanging on to power is not the only shenanigan, his petulance has extended to lame-duck (last minute) foreign and domestic policies, regulations and appointments that are destabilising the country and would make things more difficult for Biden. The latest case is the budget for the military that he is threatening to veto, because he wants the bill to include a rider that removes protection for the tech sector and because it renames military bases that are currently named after confederate generals who fought to keep African Americans in slavery.
Has America finally banished Trump and Trumpism? The answer is no, because while the Trump anomaly may have receded, the country is still in a troubled state and it will take some time for it to reassert its role as the beacon of democracy, science, truth and as leader of democratic states – Trump is more comfortable and has courted authoritarian regimes. It is amazing that so many Americans could support the man who has caused so much devastation. As we go to press 285,000 people have died from Covid19 and 15 million infected with the disease largely through his inaction, incompetence, statements and policies. Observers are baffled because even as the economy has cratered, the country’s debt has ballooned, its national security imperilled, allies antagonized, enemies emboldened and democratic institutions impaled, Trump has still garnered very high (74 million) level of voter support and protection from Republican politicians.
The fact that Trump, a novice in the political landscape, was able to become president demonstrates the flaws in the US electoral system which the country and world have and continue to pay a very heavy price for. There were early warning signs even before he launched what many analysts viewed as a quixotic aspiration and campaign that he was not up to the job, notably, with regard to his statements about the judiciary, political opponents and the media. He made abusive statements about judges, President Obama and members of congress (as distinct from professional disagreements on policy). He called for the assistance of a hostile foreign (Russia) power in his campaign. As his impeachment showed, he used the powers of his office to pressure a foreign (Ukraine) government to undermine his political opponent, Biden. He has routinely lied on private and official issues and has had a fractious relationship with the media with the exception of the right wing media who fawn over him and effectively act as his propaganda outlets. When asked by Leslie Stahl of CBS News why he kept attacking the press Trump said “I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so that when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you”.
This assault on the pillars of American democracy has played a major role in Trump’s current stance and the views of his base. Crucial metrics which demonstrates the damage Trump has caused to the democratic fabric include the fact that half of Republican voters believe that the election was rigged and in a recent poll by the Washington Post only 10% of Republican members of congress accepted the fact that Biden has won the election, over a month after the election had been called for him. A majority of Republicans are supportive or give him a pass on his assault on the democratic process. A very high proportion of them do not read, watch, are dismissive or do not believe the mainstream media.
The root of this fiasco can be traced to three factors, namely, the founding fathers efforts at ensuring regional representation and the major demographic and media landscape changes. In the case of regional representation, while the electoral college system and the senate ensure representation by all states, it gives disproportionate weight to small (population wise) states at the expense of large states in the distribution of electoral college votes and the number of senate seats; the electoral college (voters) elects the president and the senate is the powerful upper chamber of congress. The distribution of Electoral College votes is not fully aligned to the population of states and each state has two senators irrespective of its population – the powerful body that makes laws and exerts a wide range of control over the executive (president). Over the years as the US population has shifted to a few, primarily coastal, more ethnically and racially diverse, higher educated, more technologically and economically advanced and liberal states, in short modern America accounting for 70% of America’s economy, (according to a report by The Brookings Institute of counties won by Biden which are mainly in those states) the system has given states with low population densities, less ethnically and racially diverse, conservative and Whiter states a disproportionately high level of political leverage with regard to electoral college votes and senate seats. The increasing racial diversity of America as a whole has seen a significant increase in the non-White population and the relative decline in the White population even though the latter has and continues to be the main drivers of America’s political, economic and cultural power.
A third factor is the dramatic change in the media landscape, notably the huge impact of right wing dogmatic media at the expense of traditional mainstream media and, the internet, in particular, the pivotal role of social media. Americans up to the end of the last century had common set of facts from mainstream media, which despite significant flaws reported the news in a relatively objective way. The internet and social media had yet to take off. There were partisan outlets on the left and right but they were in the minority in terms of total audience and these fringe outlets and their audiences were aware of that status. And then Fox News entered the scene, aided by Murdoch’s billions and Republican politicians, it claimed a mainstream status but with a very strong right wing twist.
The internet, notably social media, together with Fox news and other right wing media even further to the right of Fox News have created a universe like never before where lies, distorted news and conspiracies have become the norm, giving prominence to the likes of Sarah Palin (former vice presidential candidate against Obama in his first term election) and then Trump. While politicians and the general public –left and right- had always had issues with the media, the assault by the right on mainstream media exploded with Sarah Palin who labelled it as ”lamestream media”. For a very high proportion of Republicans and particularly Trump supporters, their reliance on highly toxic right wing channels and social media has cut them off from mainstream media which generally have a rigorously objective and analytical focus; hence the fact that half of Republicans believing that the election was rigged despite assurances from state authorities, many of them Republican politicians and Trump appointed officials, including the (Trump appointed) US attorney general, entrusted with managing and securing the election. The “facts” about the election for Trump supporters are statements by Trump, Fox News and other right wing media and social media (I e gossips and conspiracies from deluded friends), all of whom have rejected the result and/or that it was rigged.
Trump initiated his political campaign with his focus on conspiracies – the deep state, the global cabal and Obama was not born in the US and so not a legitimate president – and the (White) tribe, leading to what Obama recently noted, the Republicans portrayal of “White males as victims” a depiction that is at variance with “history and data and economics”. The Trump rise came about because he leveraged this false narrative, the fear of the “other”, White fear of the changing demographics. In 2016 he won the presidency largely through the support of predominantly “White” states that have a disproportionate number of electoral college votes (hence in 2016 even as Trump won the presidency, he lost the national vote by three million) and the fact that the media universe of his energised supporters were fed a diet of lies, distortions and hate of the other and the liberal/global cabal. Republican control of the senate through these overwhelmingly White states, primarily focus their messaging and policies on their White tribe who they frighten with threats of the potential rampage of people who are not quite like them, the real Americans. –Trump’s campaign statements and first policies were draconian immigration controls and the wall. Among his supporters, the Trump chaos and eventually a devastating pandemic and economic meltdown are not real and anyway the few issues are caused by Democrats, globalists, people who are not quite American and foreigners, hence Trump’s designation of Covid19 as the “China virus”. And anyway the cohesion and protection of the tribe trumps everything else by a huge margin.
A sad irony is the fact that Trump’s petulance is because he cannot accept that he lost to somebody he considers such a weak candidate, Joe Biden. This is really rich coming from a man who was the weakest among candidates of both parties in 2016 and 2020 in terms of intellect, experience, track record and character. His niece has revealed that he had somebody take his SAT exam which got him into university. He had no experience in government before his election. His business “success” was based on a huge inheritance from his father, multiple bankruptcies and allegations of business malpractices. He has a history of racist statements and actions and multiple cases currently in court on allegations of sexual assault against women which was partly validated in statements boasting about how his celebrity status allowed him to get away with such action that were broadcast just before the 2016 election. His legacy is abysmal as demonstrated by the current covid19 pandemic (the worst country in the world in terms of mortality and infections), economic meltdown and unemployment, with his signature” achievement” being the huge tax cuts that benefited rich people like himself with only paltry crumbs for most other Americans, sharply increasing the national debt and exacerbating one of the most damaging issues in the country, namely, the huge income disparity and stagnation and relative decline in incomes of middle and low income Americans. The flaw in American politics is that voters support such a flawed man and might even return him to power in 2024. That such a man would have so strong a hold on his base to frighten Republicans in congress from standing up for democracy by acknowledging Biden as winner of the election. The contrast with the incoming president is stark. Joe Biden, unlike Trump rose from humble working class roots and has decades of political experience in congress. He was vice president to Obama, an administration that rescued the nation from a severe recession that it inherited from another Republican president, George W Bush.
In a way, the election of Trump is not so much a flaw in America’s body politique, as the fact that the Republicans have been smarter at playing politics and Trump has been a super salesman as the two scenarios below demonstrate. Republicans and Trump have successfully convinced the electorate that they are better for the economy despite the fact that Democrats have been better stewards of the economy as demonstrated in a study which showed that Democratic administrations since 1957 created more than double the number of jobs as Republican administrations. Trump is leaving office with more than double the level of unemployment and a fraction of the (annualised) economic growth rate compared to what he inherited from Obama. At a recent rally in Georgia, many, possibly the majority of attendees without masks and not social distanced chanted “election stolen” and “four more years” for Trump. That sane adults would put themselves at risk of a pandemic that has killed over 285,000 people, infected over 15 million people, shout (shouting increases the transmission of the disease) lies about an election process and result that has been refuted by authorities mandated to manage elections, including Republican officials in Georgia and, call for the return of a president that has caused so much devastation to the country in terms of covid19, the economy etc. demonstrates Trump’s superb sales skills.
Republican success with voters, including the latest congressional elections is based on the fact that they reject the notion of a rational voter and rather go for the emotional jugular. This is why Obama’s recent statements, which have been criticised by some progressives, is so relevant, namely, the fact that Democrats can only succeed in their policy objectives if the get the messaging right. Obama noted correctly, that statements like “defund the police” may actually achieve the opposite effect. It drives away independents and moderates which results in losses for Democrats. While these moderate and independent voters support police reforms, they are alarmed by a situation in which police forces are completely disbanded which is how they view the slogan. Democrats have to win the messaging war, to win elections and then implement police reforms. Biden beat Trump by a resounding margin, seven million plus. Now he has to destroy Trumpism, which rather than making America great was on the road to turning the country into a banana republic and to do this he has to satisfy his supporters, welcome independents and make Trump voters regain their sanity. Finally, taking a leaf from the American Revolution, blue states who account for 70% of the American economy should find a way to leverage their population and economic muscle to gain increased representation through more senate seats, Electoral College votes and a reversal of Trump’s tax policies that penalised them.
J Boima Rogers is Principal Consultant at Media and Event Management Oxford (MEMO) www.oxfordmemo.co.uk