Only 154 days until the US goes to the polls, and even by the standards of Donald Trump’s catastrophic presidency, last week was potentially incendiary, revealing a country, somewhere between dysfunctional and dystopian.
The President lives in a world filled with his own truths, alternative facts, conspiracy theories, anti-vaccination nuts, gun-toting patriots on the streets, and anti-lockdown fanatics. The stirring up of fear, rage, and hate are at the heart of Trump’s election strategy.
America now has more than 100,000 deaths from the coronavirus; 40 million Americans are unemployed; another unarmed black man, George Floyd, has been killed by a white police officer; and Trump is warned by Twitter “for glorifying violence”. He refuses to take any responsibility for the pandemic, saying “this is a transition to greatness for America”.
The right-leaning polling firm, Rasmussen, published a survey last week suggesting Trump’s job-approval rating had slumped to 42 per cent, the lowest for two years, but consistent with the average over his period in office. After receiving a boost at the outset of the pandemic, by people rallying to the flag and supporting the Commander in Chief in a national crisis, his ratings are once again heading south. Few presidents in this position have won a second term.
But Trump is unique. The unusual nature of presidential elections – the very low turnouts, the archaic electoral college, the inconsistent nature of the opposition, and the unreliability of getting the Democratic vote to the polls - suggest there is no guarantee that Trump will lose.
One crucially important fact backs this up. A remarkable one third of the electors in the US are unwilling to abandon Trump, no matter how he behaves or what he says or does. Only 56 per cent of eligible Americans voted in 2016 and 46 per cent of those voted for Trump, who won in the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote by three million.
Politics in the US are far from normal. Trump is not a politician, but a cult figure. He has never moved, from being a candidate to a President, from a celebrity to a politician or from a campaigner to a statesman. His “outsider” CV appeals to his base.
‘We will support you ever more’
The combination of a broken political system, the failure of the constitution to protect against such an insurgent, a Republican party that lacks a moral compass, a democracy which is ineffective and nurtures racism, and governance which has seen the White House turned into a permanent election and campaign machine, does the rest.
‘We will support you ever more’ resounds from his base. Every criticism of Trump becomes a criticism of his base. Every time he is ridiculed, they feel ridiculed. Every hurt he endures, they endure. His base has given up on the politics and promises of progressives, believing that they have never been included in the American dream and have now been left behind and abandoned.
Progressives throughout the western democracies, including the UK, are ignoring at their peril what is happening in the United States. By having a significant and immovable base, Trump has shown how angry electors, in a bitterly divided and hate-filled America, can be prised from the mainstream, won over and retained.
From Brazil to the Philippines, Turkey, Russia, China, India and Hungary, populism, authoritarianism, nationalism, racism, and xenophobia are well understood, and often the result of “democratic” elections. But it is still difficult to understand why, under Trump, America is moving at such pace towards authoritarianism and deepening the racial, social, cultural, and political divides in America.
This President will stop at nothing to win. There is method behind this apparent madness. The ties that bind Trump and his base are rich and varied and are being replenished daily.
To win a second term the President will pursue an ugly and brutal set of political ideas which will embrace a destructive form of populism, where identity, pride and dignity, anger, rage and fury, and fear and lack of respect fuel a hate agenda.
Rage, anger and ignorance
New books, like Trumpocalypse by David Frum and The Anger Gap by David Phoenix, attempt to explain the importance of emotion in politics, how this is shaping elections and to what extent the Democratic Party in America and progressives in western democracies need to understand these massive social and cultural transformations.
Their arguments suggest that Trump supporters are not looking for policy wins but are seeking cultural revenge. A huge swathe of America has put their faith in Trump “because they see the rest of the country building a future that doesn’t have a place for them”. Anger causes citizens “to lose trust in national government”, and weaken their “commitment to democratic norms and values”. For many white Americans, voter anger is loyalty to Trump, the dear leader.
Trump plays to those who find their current lives in contemporary America uncertain and under threat, who look ahead with some fear for their country’s future direction, and instead look to a real or imagined past, which, of course, Trump is fully tuned into and cultivates with care. ‘Making America great again’ has a powerful resonance for those who feel their country is slipping away from them.
Rage, anger, and ignorance make a large part of Trump’s base susceptible to conspiracy theorists, alternative facts, and ‘Trump truths’. The conclusion being that the angrier white people are, the more likely they are to vote, in contrast to Democrat electors of colour, who may be less angry, more motivated by hope and inclined to protest instead of voting.
Fear triumphs over hope in getting the vote out. This is “democratic” populism and it could help re-elect the President.
But is there a way out? David Frum said, “Before the US Presidential election in 2016, the global decline of democracy seemed a concern for other peoples in other lands. That complacent optimism has been shattered by the political rise of Donald Trump”. He concludes by saying, “we have to find a way, either to reconcile them to democracy or to protect democracy from them”.
In this new world of social and political psychology, is America a suitable case for treatment?
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