In a few months, USA voters will make a choice; extend President Donald Trump’s tenure at the White House or return Democrats after a four-year break.
We are not voters in this political contest, but we can be keen observers. The outcome is not just about the tenant across the Potomac River, we shall feel it.
Till March this year, we argued it was not whether Trump would be re-elected but by what percentage over Democrats who were yet to get a candidate to face him. Their choices seemed uncharismatic and, beyond Joe Biden - Barack Obama’s vice president - unknown.
Biden hesitated in entering the race, and his recent choice of a vice president of Asian and African heritage has not excited the public that much.
The booming economy, with record unemployment rate, was Trump’s secret weapon. Among other reasons for his election victory was the poor economic performance under Obama. Will the same economy undo him?
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The economy will contract this year, worse than during the 2008 economic crisis. Trump has stood up against China, Iran and North Korea. He escaped impeachment. His policy of “America first” seemed to have worked the magic. There was an air of optimism pervading the land that borders two oceans.
Two events now threaten to unravel his presidency. The death of an African American in police hands and Covid-19.
Trump has not taken that lying down - very Republican. One reason I am so focused on the US election is to see how a political party can fight back or fail to. A good lesson in communication or political spinning.
In a twist of events, a video clip of an African American, George Floyd, dying under the hands of police led to demonstrations across the US and beyond.
The demonstrations were low-key in Africa, a clear demonstration of the disconnect between African Americans and Africans.
I lived in the Deep South and witnessed the humiliation of African Americans numerous times. The most memorable was a Black man lying with his face down as some policemen and his girlfriend watched.
As an outsider I could sense that the relationship between the blacks and whites was antagonistic. African Americans felt that the emancipation and civil rights movement did not go far enough. Their plight, from the schools they attend to where they live, is testimony to the yawning socio-economic gap.
Anyone who has lived in America, particularly in the Deep South, should not have been surprised by the demonstrations but they were a blot on Trump and threatened to undo his four years of success. It seemed the lowest moment of his presidency.
African Americans make up about 13 per cent of the US population, a significant number in a closely contested election. To make matters worse, cases like Floyd’s keep emerging.
Trump has ingeniously turned the demonstrations to his advantage. He has portrayed himself as the ‘law and order’ president, out to restore order in the aftermath of demonstrations. He is portraying demonstrators as violent and a failure in law enforcement by Democrats.
He is blaming Democrats and siding with the police. His visit to Kenosha in Wisconsin, a city I once visited in deep winter, was a clever strategy to sympathise with the businessmen who lost their property in protests. Joe Biden followed him. Trump has made Democrats fight back.
His strategy could work, shifting the fulcrum of demonstrations from racial discrimination to violence and economic sabotage, which might resonate with Trump’s core supporters. Republicans are creating fear; “vote Democrats and lawlessness will follow” seems the coded message.
Trump is even boasting of sending federal law enforcement agents to cities torn by demonstrators, portraying the Democrat-led cities as ineffective. This is what spinning is all about. Be on the border between truth and lies.
The second threat to the Trump presidency is Covid-19. China is taking the blame for starting Covid-19. With a trade war ongoing even before Covid-19, it’s easy to shift blame to China. But explaining inaction as the virus spread has been Trump’s soft underbelly.
That is not hard to explain, though. Trump could not have hurried to close the economy when his key plank for re-election was the economy. He will probably explain that to voters and hope they can understand.
He has a secret weapon; vaccine before the polls. This could turn the tide against Democrats as Americans see the end of the pandemic through mass vaccination. Did you notice how the Western media muted the news of a vaccine in Russia?
Be sure that any successful vaccine in the West will be trumpeted. This could be portrayed as America’s triumph over China and Russia in the race to get a cure or vaccine, more like the trip to the moon. Noted the name given to the Russian vaccine, Sputnik? The name of the world’s first artificial satellite made by Russians. Remember Republicans love projecting power.
In addition, Trump could present his credentials in ensuring the continuity of America’s economy with a historical stimulus package, standing up against China and rising employment.
The increasing Covid-19 cases and deaths are a big blot on the Trump legacy but he can argue things could have been worse - very hard to prove. Conspiracy theories constitute another arrow in his political quiver.
A win for Trump means status quo. Who knows, he could now focus his attention on Africa to stop the Chinese entrenchment. For a Democratic win, we could see more engagement with Africa. Could the George Floyd effect become real with a deeper engagement between African Americans and Africans?
The winner will have to deal with a post-Covid world with a more assertive Russia and China, a depressed global economy and its instability.
- The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi