Trump's route to yet another victory

Could Trump win again? Well, it's a strange thing. He is one of the least popular presidents in US history. And yet, his approval ratings have actually shown a tendency to improve over his two and a half years in office. 

His lowest ratings (35%) occurred in 2017. His highest (46%) in 2019. Among registered Republicans, he's more popular than ever. His lowest rating (77%) occurred in 2017. His highest (90%) has occurred four times in 2018, and another four times in the last six months. Among Independents and Democrats, his support appears to have remained relatively flat. Given this, he isn't going to face a primary challenge. There is only one challenger in this race, who will either withdraw or be squashed. Trump is going to be the Republican candidate, and he's going to mobilise the Republican vote. Whether that's enough to win largely depends on the Democrats. You'd have to be an ostrich to find that thought encouraging.

It would be pedantic to ask what Trump has done to deserve this. In a certain light, he has achieved little. Most of his foreign policy gestures have been failures. Venezuela fell flat. The sabre-rattling over Iran isn't over, but it looked very weak. North Korea isn't going anywhere. Even the policies he might consider a success are simply undoing previous foreign policy successes, such as the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris Accords, and the Trans Pacific Partnership. His trade war with China, while it is having some effects, isn't going to fundamentally erode the fabric of global liberalism. Domestically, he has achieved even less. The 'wall' is an hallucination and Mexico isn't paying. The massive infrastructural investment programme is long forgotten.

But this is to miss the point. First of all, what his base admires is aggression and cruelty. Torturing migrants, threatening Iran, sticking it to Venezuela, green-lighting Israeli colonialism, ripping up laws that might curb the rights of polluters. The point is that the right people visibly suffer. Second, much of what the Trump administration exists to do -- insofar as it has any coherence -- is to shift the Overton window on a wide range of issues. Insofar as Trump has consistently pushed the boundaries of acceptability on such various issues as Nazis, mocking rape victims, and gleefully coalescing with the Israeli far-right, he is doing what his supporters want him to do. He's coarsening the culture, mainstreaming barbaric mores, and they appreciate him for it. He's sending them the signals they want to hear, proving he has the right instincts. That's why his support has never dropped below 35 per cent.

Perhaps most importantly, the opposition to Trump has been catastrophically ineffectual. Trump has polarised and rallied his base. Meanwhile, with some episodic exceptions of serious civil disobedience and protest, #theresistance has been led by conservative institutions, averse to mass politics and wary of the fight: the Democratic Party, the CIA, the FBI, the Washington Post. Ideologically, it has been visibly dominated by pitiful revamped Cold War countersubversion: 'Trump the commie'. Or, worse, a cheap form of antifascism founded on 'warnings from history' that take very little account of actual history. Culturally, it has been too easily satisfied with cheap catharsis, false consolations and that curio of recent politics, centrist conspiracism. Tactically, it has invested its hopes repeatedly in processes that don't deliver. 

Think of the years, resources, air time, column inches and pale comedy routines spent on building up the Mueller report. All for what? Bupkis. It wasn't enough for such a process to convince liberals that Trump was crooked. It had to indict him. It had to prove to his base that he was crooked. Instead, Trump came out looking to his voters like he had been stitched up by the liberal establishment, not wholly without reason. Think of the hopelessly ineffectual, half-hearted fight to thwart Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court. Here was all out war. With declining electoral currency, Republicans are building for unelected power. The Supreme Court, the closest thing to a dictatorship in America, ruled by cadres from the Federalist Society. Trump, Kavanaugh and congressional Republicans were mobilised for battle. The Democrats relied once again on the FBI, asking for a pathetic, go-nowhere, do-nothing week-long investigation, while their Senate stars gave sententious speeches. They demoralised and demobilised their supporters, while Trump got his excited. And they lost. Of course they did.

Trump has taken several defeats over the last couple of years, but none of them have mortally wounded him as a politician. He has survived the major showdowns, including the Mueller inquiry - the single biggest weapon that traditional Washington could throw at him - and, to his base, that is the same thing as winning. Moreover, even with the relative weakness and incoherence of his administration, he has won a degree of trust from business. He is more of a known quantity. He has delivered them the tax cuts they want, and there's been a period of growth. The economy isn't in a mess, despite some policies that business might regret. As a result, it is quite likely that he will get more cartel funding in 2020 than he did in 2016. As for working class voters, their role in Trump's victory was always exaggerated, and they're less important this time round. But wages are growing, more or less at about the same rate as under Obama, and unemployment continues to fall. This is going to be a close race, and one in which a lot will hinge on a handful of states: Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. It's true that some of the early polling looks bad for Trump, but then he's not even campaigning yet.

As I say, much depends on the Democrats. Unlike their opponents, they are having a primary. And it's not a pretty sight. Joe Biden is the clear pick of the donors, of the Democratic establishment, of MSNBC, of CNN, etc. This despite his massive baggage, his gaffes, his record of racism, and his unpopularity among women who have been sexually harrassed or assaulted. You can forget about attacking Trump as a sexist and an ally of rape culture with handsy Joe Biden at the helm. You can forget about landing any serious blows against Trump's racism, when his opponent is a man who allied with segregationists. Biden is supposed to be the man who will win over the "white working class", on the stupid assumption that it was largely white workers who backed Trump. But what part of Biden's politics actually appeals to the "working class" part of that equation? What, concretely, can Biden offer in Michigan and Pennsylvania, that Clinton didn't?

Yes, Trump, with disapproval ratings consistently above fifty per cent, an embarrassment, globally despised, could win the next presidential election. The prospect isn't, as it should be, a joke. 

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