The 2020 US elections go beyond party politics
There are only a few days to the US presidential elections. For some, the elections are going to end the nightmare that Donald Trump thrust the country into for nearly four years. For others, this is a teeth-gritting attempt to save a presidency that other people loathe but they love. But is this all about Trump versus Biden, or is there something more than what meets the eye?
A vitriolic messiah
From the day he began his vitriolic presidential campaign in 2015 to the day he won the presidency in 2016, in a blitzkrieg even, Donald Trump was not sure he would win. He had whipped up a storm with his most unconventional campaign and demagoguery.
He spared neither words nor gestures to ridicule his opponents, starting with his other Republican contenders in the pre-nomination stage, and later with the Democratic nominee Hilary Clinton.
He called people names, insulted his opponents, threatened to oust people who protested in his rallies with physical force, and declared a war against immigrants and minorities -- asking that Muslims be banned from entry into the US.
His rallying cry for the wall with Mexico to stop asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants, with the boisterous claim that the wall would be funded by Mexico, resonated with the crowd that attended his rallies.
He shed tears for the workers in the coal industry that had long shut down, and he boastfully declared that he would bring back manufacturing jobs that had fled to China; he also wowed the wealthy with his promise of slashing taxes.
The more rhetorical he became, the more full of false promises he was, the more popular he became with a core group that mainly came from the economically hurt and immigration-fearful regions. To them, he was their voice, he was their messiah.
But what this messiah has, over the last three years and 10 months, continued to delude people with his mendacious rhetoric, never delivering on his campaign promises. Two of his big accomplishments after he became president were banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries (a compromise on his earlier boast to stop “Muslim migration”), and tax cuts.
Campaign promises left unfulfilled
His other actions were not so much as fulfilment of campaign promises, but rather turning away from traditional allies with the annulment of the North American Free Trade Agreement between the US, Canada, and Mexico; peeling away from the Paris Climate Agreement, and walking out from the Iran Nuclear Deal -- an agreement that took several years to arrive at, which would have contained Iran’s nuclear projects. He proudly listed these among his major successes.
He never was able to build that wall with Mexico (except finish a partially built wall), and of course, Mexico never paid for it. Trump circumvented Congress by paying for it through diverting funds that were appropriated for defense, invoking emergency powers.
His promise to present the country with a new health care system to replace the Affordable Health Care insurance system that President Obama had introduced never saw the light of day because his government could not present one that met all of the requirements.
His promise to bring back jobs from overseas, particularly from China by imposing tariffs on Chinese imports, met with a retaliatory taxation from China and consequent loss to American farmers who depended on trade with China for their agricultural and farm products. The trade deficit soared under his watch instead of declining, as he had promised.
But the irony is that, despite his record of not living up to his campaign rhetoric, despite his constant lies to the people (over 20,000 lies or misinformation in nine months according to the Washington Post), and his felonious management of the coronavirus which has led to over 228,000 deaths and rising, his approval rate never fell below 40%. This is the real puzzle.
Why would more than two-thirds of the US population give their nod to a deceitful leader who has failed in every way to meet his promises? The answer lies elsewhere.
A fait accompli and the conservative agenda
The two-party system has dominated US politics for the last 200 years -- Republican and Democratic. Although both parties have changed significantly in ideology and policy since the time they were formed, each has a core group of supporters who traditionally vote for the candidate chosen by their parties.
This choice is not foisted upon them; the members or supporters vote for their nominee in an arduous and long process called primaries that begins nearly two years before the actual election. In this process, dozens of hopefuls vie for the nomination for president.
Donald Trump went through the same process, but initially a great number of the Republican Party establishment did not take his candidacy seriously. They thought he would be a flash in the pan who would disappear in the rigorous selection process.
But Trump surprised all when he started to draw huge crowds to his rallies, and enchanted them with his anti-immigration, anti-global trade, and blame-China rhetoric.
His promise of returning jobs to the unemployed in the poverty stricken Midwest and South resonated with people, many of whom had turned away from the Republican Party.
His ability to dupe people with his impolitic, coarse, and sometimes foul language appealed to millions of undereducated, underprivileged people who thronged his ranks.
And they voted enormously, first to make him the Republican nominee, and second to make him the most unlikely president of the US.
The Republican establishment had no choice. Donald Trump became the president, and therefore, the head of the Republican Party.
With this fait accompli, the Republican Party sought the best way to use this president to implement the conservative agenda.
The party may not have liked Trump’s other actions such as walking out on its allies, but it very much liked to slash taxes, reduce regulations, and pack the courts with conservative judges. Trump may be a mendacious president, but he was also the pathway to implement the Republican agenda.
For the true Republican Party supporter, it may be a moral dilemma whether to support a deceitful president or dump him for his dishonesty and failure to keep his promises. But in doing either, the consequences would be grave either for the country or the party.
A deceitful president, if reelected, would take the country far out into a swamp that he once proudly claimed he would get rid of, but not re-electing him would stop advancing the Republican agenda.
That is why, apart from the Trump base, there are these Republicans who continue to support him despite their lack of love for this man who essentially hijacked the party.
Will this core base supplemented by loyal Republicans take the Trump boat ashore? It is true the final outcome of the US presidential elections will not be known until it is really over. But speculations and expectations apart, the reality is that there has been a corrosion in the Trump base as well as among those who had voted for Trump in 2016.
His consistent deceitful performance and lying about the coronavirus pandemic has already cost him heavily among voters. His support from voters with no college degree has shrunk by over 10%, while his opponent Biden has gained more than that percentage among undecided voters.
So, it may not be so much a Republican vs Democratic party election for president this year. This year, it is Trump vs Biden. I am sure the US will choose its leader right this time.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.