Like many Britons who follow politics, I follow US politics enthusiastically. But I don’t like to comment so much on it here. I have no special connection to the US zeitgeist,and it seems to be a bit rude to comment on somebody else’s politics. But we can’t help but be affected by the US, so I feel I must comment from time to time. The big question is whether Donald Trump will be reelected as President this November.
At the start of the year Mr Trump’s position looked strong. The economy was doing well, he was delivering to his base, and all of his potential Democratic opponents had limitations and weaknesses. He easily saw off impeachment, successfully portraying it as a manifestation of partisan politics. Mr Trump’s divisive style never made him a shoo-in in this year’s election, but he was the betting favourite. But then things started to go wrong. The Democrats resolved their selection race with unexpected speed, in favour of Joe Biden, the candidate, apparently, that Mr Trump most feared. And then came the Coronavirus epidemic, which saw Mr Trump conspicuously flailing. This was followed by the Black Lives Matter explosion after the murder of George Floyd, and more presidential flailing. Mr Biden has a steady and growing poll lead both nationally and in the battleground states, a lead that is bigger and steadier than Hillary Clinton achieved at this stage in 2016. But we have over four months to go, and a lot can happen.
To win, what Mr Trump needs to do is to motivate his base, demotivate the Democrats’ base and win over independent voters. The first part of this is going well enough for him. Mr Trump’s base has two main components: his fanbase and anti-liberals. The fanbase consists of less well-educated white people, who have felt excluded by political elites for decades. Mr Trump speaks their language and expresses what they feel. They experience a sort of euphoria when Mr Trump expresses their values from the top of the political system; they are happy to disregard incompetence for the sheer joy of seeing one their own in charge. And with Mr Trump, unlike many other populists, what you see is what you get; there is no guile about him. This increases the bond of trust. The anti-liberals, on the other hand, are not admirers of Mr Trump personally, but they love him because because he is a bastion against the advance of liberal values. They are passionate about such things as stopping abortion and maintaining complete freedom over the ownership of firearms. They don’t believe in a strong Federal state, apart from having strong armed forces, so they aren’t bothered by Mr Trump’s evident incompetence. This group is diverse, but religious groups are prominent. They also include many business owners who dislike government regulation and taxes, and seek opportunities for cosy deals. For this group Mr Trump has delivered on his promises, most notably in the appointment of Supreme Court (and other) justices, but also with tax cuts for companies and the neutering of federal regulation; he has also held the line against gun law reform, in spite of a spate of mass shootings. For the anti-liberals the Democrats pose as great a threat as ever, and there is no sign that their enthusiasm for reelecting Donald Trump is fading. Doubtless Mr Trump’s partisan approach to the Covid crisis and the BLM uprising helps motivate this group too. They are on fire.
How about the Democrats’ base? Their main weakness is their candidate. He’s been around for a long time, and there is lot of grey in his record, not least around claims of sexual harassment. Before the BLM explosion there were signs that younger voters were becoming demotivated by all the questions being raised by his record. But Mr Trump clearly doesn’t get why people are so angry about the Floyd murder. To him this is just an isolated crime, and not evidence of a systemic failure. He doesn’t feel the pain of decades of being fobbed off with talk of progress. In fact his behaviour has given succour to the forces of darkness. He has thus become a channel for anger across the Democrats’ base, and has managed to fire them up.
And how about independents? This is a harder group for people on this side of the Atlantic to read. Mr Trump picked up many independents in 2016, because his campaign to undermine Mrs Clinton’s credibility was so successful, and her campaign to reassure them was so weak. Mr Trump fitted the American model of a successful and admirable businessman much better than the European one, so people there were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, while most Europeans had written him off as a nutcase. It is probably this group that is gradually coming over to Mr Biden as Mr Trump showcases his incompetence. But they are doubtless wary of the Democrats too.
So what next? The campaign hasn’t really got started yet. We know that Mr Trump will try to make it about Mr Biden and not himself, by hammering on his weaknesses. He already refers to him as “Sleepy Joe”. But this is surely not as effective as “Crooked Hillary”‘; voters are tired of hyperactive and hyper partisan politics; “sleepy” doesn’t sound so bad. But there are plenty of cracks in Mr Biden’s candidacy, so the attack could work. A further issue is whether the need to keep his base fired up moves Mr Biden into tricky policy territory. The demand to “defund” the police may not be as bad as it sounds, but it sounds like an invitation to criminals.
A big question hangs over the future course of the epidemic. Mr Trump is playing on the idea that the threat was exaggerated and lockdown measures were overdone (by Democrat governors and mayors), and he is supporting the lifting of the lockdown, even though many think this is premature. This builds on the different experiences of the epidemic across America. It has been devastating in big, crowded cities, such as New York and New Orleans, but much less so in less densely populated places. By and large Republican voters’ experience has been much less severe than that of Democrats. So if the disease retreats even as the lockdown is removed, and the economy bounces back, the Republicans will claim vindication while the pain of many cities will be forgotten as they will vote Democrat anyway. And the administration’s financial management of the crisis has been perfectly competent, largely because Mr Trump has been happy to leave that to others, and not disrupt it.
On the other hand, the disease could boomerang, hitting Republican areas hard, and disrupting the economic recovery. This is particularly likely as Autumn approaches and the weather cools: i.e. just as America approaches the vote. This could create a perfect storm for the Republicans. Mr Trump’s plan to hold mass election rallies in defiance of social distancing and mask-wearing looks especially risky.
And that points to something that I think will be the deciding issue against Mr Trump. He has become very dependent on his own judgement. When he was first elected, it was expected by many that he would surround himself with competent people, and let them do most of the work. And that seemed to be what was happening, with the recruitment of many generals to his administration, and with Steve Bannon advising on political strategy. But Mr Trump hates to be managed and he has replaced almost everybody with more compliant people who will go along with his madnesses, with the interesting exceptions of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve. This has made Mr Trump much more likely to make mistakes. Mr Biden, on the other hand, while gaffe-prone, surely knows how to ask for and accept advice.
But four months is an eternity in this crazy year.