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Will Trump Win a Second Term?

Three Questions to Meghan Milloy

INTERVIEW - 26 July 2019

As the kick-off of the American primaries has been launched, all eyes are turned towards the Democratic party and the potential candidates who may be able to beat the current President. However, despite all the allegations against him and his language that is more sulphurous than ever, President Trump appears to stand a good chance of winning a second term in  the White House. How much has the political landscape changed compared to the 2016 campaign? What can we expect from the 2020 primaries? 

To what extent are the arguments of President Trump for the 2020 elections different from the ones that were put forward by the candidate Trump in 2016?

After the primaries, much of Trump’s 2016 campaign was centered around being "anti-Hillary" or, more generally, "anti-establishment." His calls for "draining the swamp" and "locking her up" were common themes at rallies and campaign stops – themes that were not necessarily new to national politics in the U.S. Despite continued victories for the old guard, polls continuously show an anti-Washington or anti-political elite sentiment among voters across the country, and Trump was playing directly into this. Unfortunately, he also chose to turn this sentiment into an entire suite of populist rhetoric that included building the wall, cutting important foreign ties, and initiating trade wars that would end up harming Americans. 

Looking back at the campaign promises almost three years after the election, very few of them have come true: the swamp has not been drained (if anything it’s more swampy than ever), Hillary has not been locked up, the wall has not been built and we are still a part of the global economy (although the tariffs levied on various countries certainly have come to fruition and are indeed hurting American producers and consumers more than they’re hurting others). As a result, it looks like Trump’s 2020 campaign messaging is largely the same as his 2016 campaign messaging, urging voters to keep him in office so he can make all of this come true after all, though it may be more crass. The only shift may be that instead of focusing on things he’s going to do as president (wall, trade, etc.), he, at least right now, is more focused on what everyone else, namely the Democrats, are doing.

Looking back at the campaign promises almost three years after the election, very few of them have come true: the swamp has not been drained, Hillary has not been locked up, the wall has not been built and we are still a part of the global economy.

For example, just this past weekend Trump went on a racist tweetstorm telling four Democrat Congresswomen to go back to the countries they came from after their criticisms of him and his policies. He’s continued to tweet about how they are "anti-Israel, anti-USA, and pro-terrorism" etc. Obviously none of this is true, but his focus on these women seems to be playing directly into his base that sees no problem with comments like this, cheers on Trump for "not being politically correct," wants a president that isn’t afraid to speak his mind, etc etc. Trump’s populist message will certainly remain in 2020, the most noticeable difference may be that it will be more aggressive, more xenophobic, and more divisive now that he knows he can get away with it and still maintain a large base of core supporters no matter what he says and does.

The biggest substantive difference between 2020 and 2016 will be that Trump now has a record to talk about, and he has a strong economy to back it up. If he were smart he would focus solely on the economy as a reason to keep him in office to keep things going as well as they are. Granted, there’s a life time between now and the election so things may change, but we can expect Trump to run on a platform of how he has made American great again, and now the voters must vote to keep America great.

How did Donald Trump change the Republican Party? 

President Trump has changed the Republican party almost beyond recognition, but mainly in three specific ways:

  1. he has pushed the Republican Party base to the extreme right;
  2. he has scared elected Republicans away from ever stepping out of line with him or the party;
  3. he has focused on identity politics and moved away from a traditional Republican platform, despite what he may say,

On the first point, this is probably obvious that it has happened, with his talk of the second amendment, abortion laws, appointing conservative judges, etc. But what may be less obvious is how it happened. It wasn’t just an immediate shift in the ideologies of Republicans, but more so the result of a fleeing of the party by moderate Republicans and independent voters who typically sided with the Republican party. Although a majority of the country remains in the center of the political spectrum, Trump (and Republican leadership) has pulled the party itself to the extreme right, simultaneously shedding any members who were remotely to the left of them. It’s not a good move for a healthy two-party system.

Secondly, Trump has made sure, whether through his Tweets about them or otherwise, that elected Republicans are too afraid to stand up to him or speak out against him. He has turned men like Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio, previously two of his loudest critics, into puppets who will echo whatever he says and defend even his most vile statements and actions. He’s somehow silenced moderate Republicans like Jeff Flake who were once frequently outspoken against Trump’s dangerous rhetoric and even more dangerous policies. Without this dissent, especially from within the party, the party will continue to concede to Trump’s every whim all while defending themselves by arguing that "oh, well, it’s ok because he’s appointing conservative judges."

Trump has made sure, whether through his Tweets about them or otherwise, that elected Republicans are too afraid to stand up to him or speak out against him.

Lastly, Trump has focused the party on identity politics, but not the traditional identity politics like those of pro-women or pro-LGBT politics, for example. Rather, he has conned his base into believing that Republicans are the only people that are pro-Israel, anti-terrorism, and pro-USA. He has pandered to ultra-conservative groups attempting to identify himself as a Christian leader and the party as the only party for Christian people. And he has done all of this with very little attention paid to actual policy, but quite a bit of attention paid to rhetoric and catchphrases that are easily tweeted, put on bumper stickers, and chanted at rallies.

What consequences do those changes have in the run up to the Presidential elections?

The biggest consequence of the changes is that the Republican party base and platform have moved so far to the right that there is a huge contingent of moderate voters who maybe held their noses and voted for Trump in 2016 or didn’t vote for him at all that have found the Republican Party completely out of line with their politics. These voters will need a home, and, in a two party system, it is up to the Democrats to be able to provide that home for them.
The Democrats have a number of impressive candidates in the primaries. Many of them have exhaustive, well-thought out, well-reasoned platforms that only further their qualification to be president. But the biggest concern is that too many in Democratic leadership and too many of the Democratic candidates are more focused on their idealistic policies and are not sufficiently focused on nominating a candidate that can beat Trump. 
Unfortunately, the Democrats are having the same issue as the Republicans, with the progressive wing pulling the party further and further to the left, leaving lots of open space right in the middle. And the nature of political primaries is such that they tend to pull folks to the extremes only to have them move back towards the middle in the general. So far, the Democratic primaries have focused on the candidates’ policy proposals and records during their time in office far more than they have focused on how they plan on beating Trump, and we expect it to stay that way until we get closer to the general election. But then, if Democrats are to be successful, they must turn their attention to coming together, healing any divides from the primaries, and creating a comprehensive strategy for winning those moderate voters who have lost their political home and, ultimately, beating Trump.
If the election were today, Trump would certainly win a second term, regardless of who his opponent would be. The economy is doing well, his polling is surprisingly high, and the Republican Party has been putting up record-breaking fundraising numbers. But again, there is a political eternity between now and next November. If the Democrats can stop fighting amongst themselves, focus on the battle against Trump, and move to the center just enough to sweep up moderate voters from both sides, they do have a shot. And if the Democrats do win in 2020, we should not expect Trump to leave the White House without a fight. Even if he does not challenge the results of the election, he will likely use those three months between the election and the inauguration to make sure his "legacy" remains, and he will do so by executive order and any means possible. 

Copyright : Nicholas Kamm / AFP


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