Search for a report, a publication, an expert...
Institut Montaigne features a platform of Expressions dedicated to debate and current affairs. The platform provides a space for decryption and dialogue to encourage discussion and the emergence of new voices.

US Presidential Election: Only Politics Will Do

US Presidential Election: Only Politics Will Do
 Soli Özel
Senior Fellow - International Relations and Turkey

For those who could not believe that Donald Trump was elected as President of the United States, or thought of him as a usurper and had a hard time taking him and his Presidency seriously, the last two and a half years have been quite a ride. One after the other, illusions concerning the durability of this Presidency went by the wayside. Hopes were invested in the so-called "adults in the room" of the original cabinet to straighten out the President. In the end, the President won the tug of war. One by one, every single "adult" resigned or was dismissed, frequently in humiliating circumstances. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who once called Trump a "moron", was in the bathroom when the President dismissed him with a tweet.
Other big names who were supposed to bring logic, strategic thinking, predictability, civility and administrative discipline to the governing of the United States gradually disappeared from the scene. Secretary of Defense Mattis’ resignation letter expressed, with barely contained contempt, the establishment’s irritation with the style, approach and content of the President’s foreign policy. This grievance could extend to his domestic political preferences as well, as Trump filled his cabinet posts with personalities who do not believe in the mission of their agencies or departments, may it be the Department of Education or the Environmental Protection Agency.
Rather than being constrained and contained by the establishment, President Trump increased his power considerably by fiercely using the executive branch, with scant regard for custom or even the law. He holds a submissive Republican Party, which, under his thumb, has long shed any pretense to be a responsible mainstream party respectful of the norms, traditions and balances of American democracy. Trump has already appointed two conservative judges to the US Supreme Court and filled nearly one fifth of the federal judiciary posts with names carefully vetted and selected by ultraconservative organizations.
His base remains loyal, agitated, mobilized and responds to his provocative, some would say vile, rhetoric on immigrants, and most recently on race, with great enthusiasm. The person no one took seriously four years ago when he announced his candidacy may turn out to be -if he is not already- a very disruptive President for American democracy, for world order and for the future of liberal principles.
From the onset, given the intricate and suspicious relations between the Trump campaign and Russian officials and businesspersons, many in the United States and abroad invested great hopes in the process of impeachment. That dream was kept alive by the investigation of the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller III, whose report was expected to provide grounds for an indictment, or the legal case for Congress to assume its constitutional responsibility and go after Trump. Despite the fact that the chances for the Senate to go ahead with impeachment after a democratic House of Representatives had voted against it were nil, the argument was that it was the Congress’ constitutional duty to bring about impeachment proceedings.

A correct analysis of the mechanisms that lead ordinary Americans to support someone like Trump starts with the dysfunctionality of the political system and the general public’s growing distrust towards public institutions as well as traditional elites.

After all, as Mueller most emphatically reiterated during his hearing at the House of Representatives, there was and there continues to be Russian interference in American elections. Remedial legislative efforts to change this situation or reduce the system’s vulnerabilities are blocked by the Republican leadership in the Senate. The Russian operatives, as was clarified in Mueller’s report, hacked the Democratic Party and put the materials they stole on the Internet with the help of Wikileaks. The Trump campaign was happily aware of these activities and Trump himself encouraged the Russians and Wikileaks to come up with more material on his rival. There was also enough evidence in the report’s second volume that the President did indeed try to obstruct justice when the matter of Russian interferences in his campaign was being investigated. In fact, in Mueller’s own words, "the finding indicates that the President was not exculpated for the acts he allegedly committed".

In the end the Mueller hearing delivered very little that could be politically useful for the Democrats. The former Special Prosecutor and FBI chief was a reluctant witness and his reticence was in full display throughout the hearing. Mueller did not, or did not want to, rise to the occasion and make a statement about the implications of what he and his team had uncovered. As a result, notwithstanding some bits of information and parts of his answers that could justify impeachment, the matter is politically dead. At best, the Democrats could hang impeachment proceedings as a sword of Damocles over Trump’s head. But there is also no doubt that Trump would use this very threat to attack the Democrats with full force, while possibly gaining ground since support for impeachment among the general public reaches roughly 21 percent. The dilemma for the Democrats is that, on the one hand, it is their constitutional duty to go ahead and proceed with impeachment, but on the other hand, the political cost of such a move, as precedent proves, may be too high. This dilemma strongly divides the Democrats.

In short, impeachment is not the way to get rid of Mr. Trump, who has no use for the normal standards of ethical and responsible government. As Noah Bookbinder notes, "since Democrats took control of Congress in January, he and his administration have asserted baseless privileges and immunities to undermine ordinary forms of legislative oversight of the executive branch, attacked all attempts at review or accountability, and ignored recommendations to discipline top officials for repeatedly violating the law." Therefore, the only option for the Democrats, and the opposition in general, is to win the Presidential elections in 2020.

In order to attain that goal, reasons for defeat in 2016 must be properly analyzed. Hillary Clinton got 3 million more votes than Trump in those elections. It is highly likely that the next Democratic candidate will receive more votes nationally since the biggest coastal states, New York and California, are squarely Democratic. However, the American electoral system is what it is and the trick is to win the necessary number of delegates in the Electoral College. A correct analysis of the mechanisms that lead ordinary Americans to support someone like Trump starts with the dysfunctionality of the political system and the general public’s growing distrust towards public institutions as well as traditional elites.

Significantly enough, with a growing economy and the lowest rate of unemployment in decades, Trump is still nowhere near the level of popularity of previous successful Presidents.

To overcome this handicap, the Democrats will have to do what they did in 2018 mid-term elections and downplay, if not drop, "identity" issues dear to their most articulate and militant, mainly upper middle class, white urban constituents. They will have to focus, as they did during the midterms, on the daily concerns (economic, environment, quality of life, crumbling infrastructure) of their natural electoral base and expose the utter hypocrisy of Trumpian rhetoric. Significantly enough, with a growing economy and the lowest rate of unemployment in decades, Trump is still nowhere near the level of popularity of previous successful Presidents. His singular legislative achievement, the tax bill that served mainly the rich, is highly unpopular. His disdain for norms, his racist rhetoric irritate mainstream Americans. However, they will not necessarily sway to the Democrats only out of discontent with the President.

Under those circumstances, the Democrats will have to learn to fight right wing institutions, an aggressive right-wing media, and efforts by the Republicans to block voter participation in elections far more effectively than they have done so far. As Theda Skocpol, who has studied both the Tea Party movement and the anti-Trump social mobilization after 2016, observes, "in the United States, the road to national power does NOT run primarily through California, Massachusetts, or the TV studios of MSNBC in New York City. It runs through middle-American suburbs, cities and rural counties. To win in 2020 and beyond, Democrats have to organize everywhere and project a national message that resonates widely." This is the only way to win the Presidential election at a time when Trump has decided to double down on racism and racial polarization to keep his base agitated and the general public scared.

Then, and only then, will the findings of the Mueller report serve the purpose for which they were gathered and presented to Congress and be used as an indictment.


Copyright : SAUL LOEB / AFP

Receive Institut Montaigne’s monthly newsletter in English