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Trump way down but not yet quite out

By Salim Lone | October 30th 2020

US President Donald Trump holds a campaign rally at Pensacola International Airport in Pensacola, Florida, US, October 23, 2020. [Reuters]

No US presidential election in the last 60 years has evoked the extreme uncertainty and anxiety about its outcome as the one already underway and which concludes on Tuesday.

These might seem irrational fears as virtually every major poll shows Joe Biden winning the presidency by a lopsided margin in the Electoral College, where winning states rather than the popular vote is what counts. And in the popular vote, Biden is even further ahead, with an average lead that is almost in the double digits.  

This lead in polls is hardly surprising, given the damage that the virulently divisive and xenophobic President Donald Trump has wrought on America. He has also been undermining democracy and voting rights, and then there was his utterly irresponsible handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed nearly a quarter of a million Americans and broken the economy. For this, he has taken a huge beating from the major media, which has been shining a relentless spotlight for the last four years on his every misdeed. 

On the other hand, Biden showed again in last week’s presidential debate that he is a caring leader who will govern through consensus and adopt policies only after rigorous consultation. In that debate, Trump surprised everyone by delivering a relatively disciplined 90-minute performance – but he still could not help saying something truly vile, casting some undocumented Latin immigrants who voluntarily show up for court hearings as “having low IQs”.

Despite all this, many politically savvy Trump critics fear that Trump will win. I do not share that fear, even though I am not blind to the potent vulnerabilities of both the Biden campaign and the Democratic Party, as I describe below.

Trump, for example, was going to be allowed to essentially self-destruct through his vast negatives, as was the plan during the 2016 failed Hillary Clinton campaign. It is hard to imagine that the Democratic leadership chose in January 2017 to repeat a strategy that had just delivered a disastrous failure and a Trump presidency in November.

In both 2015 and 2017, a carefully modulated Democratic strategy that took on Trump politically and convinced working Americans that their concerns were the party’s fundamental priority was needed if he was to be defeated. The current strategy was grievously short from the word go, and Trump only became vulnerable because of his disastrous mishandling of the coronavirus. What a steep price we have paid. Both the lengthy Mueller probe and the impeachment were desperate resorts to quasi-legal remedies and they failed, and as such were seen as witch hunts by his supporters, and hence strengthened their support for him.    

The fear about Biden losing stems from the pollsters and the media getting it totally wrong in 2016. The pollsters say they have worked diligently to correct the system’s hidden biases, but some worry they have still not captured the strength of the hidden support that still exists for the president.

Hushed-up fear

As long as there is serious disaffection in the population, there will be no stable peace in America and demagogues will keep emerging and threatening. Too many are suffering. The killing of innocent African Americans continues as if there have not been convulsing protests against these crimes. There is a tough road ahead for the Biden administration. We must begin building on Day One.

The other widely held but largely hushed-up fear of a Trump win revolves around Joe Biden, who at 78 looks visibly past his prime. That is probably the main reason he does not campaign across the country as Trump does. And while Biden does not hold public rallies à la Trump, as these would be unsafe, his lengthy absences from the campaign trail for other events has never been explained. It has been suggested that the strategy here is to avoid Biden’s dangerous ‘gaffes’, while at the same time letting Trump alienate people with his bombastic, self-loving,  divisive and medically unsafe pronouncements and actions. This shows how politically ill-attuned the Democratic leadership is. 

But this is not the time to quibble. The struggle for better should begin once Biden is president. Be that as it may, Biden’s staying home most days as Trump storms the country with passionate crowds in tow is causing anxiety, but frankly, we have to support what we have got right now. I imagine Biden does not have the wherewithal to do more than he is doing, and we should accept that.

Trump’s rallies are feeding a perception that he is developing an electoral momentum, à la 2016, and we must do what we can to stifle it politically – by bringing out the voters. Biden is an unquestionably better person than Trump, and it is our duty to get him to the White House, even if we are totally horrified by his talking about a coalition which will include Republicans in the cabinet.

The NY Times’ Patricia Cohen wrote in a front-page article this week in a rare acknowledgement of his economic successes, Trump was responsible for “record-low unemployment rates, supercharged confidence levels and broad-based gains in personal income” before the coronavirus. It is vital we always know our rightist opponents’ strength so we can tackle it.

In politics we know that being a decent person is never enough for victory: one needs much more. That is why it’s important to learn from the Biden gaffe at the last debate when he announced that he would “transition” the country away from fossil fuels.

(Trump pounced and told oil workers in closely contested states of Pennsylvania, Texas and Kansas to prepare to lose tens of thousands of their jobs. On leaving the debate hall, Biden told reporters that he had meant he would transition away from subsidies on the fuels, not the fuels themselves. But the damage was done.)

The point is not that we should stick to fossil fuels to win votes. We must move away. But such policies drive terror in the hearts of millions as thousands will lose their jobs without a real government effort to help to train and place them. That is what happened when President Bill Clinton, with Republican support but Democratic opposition, passed the Nafta trade agreement in the 1990s, allowing large corporations to export hundreds of thousands of industrial jobs to lowly paid workers in Mexico and then elsewhere. This must change if we are to avoid demagogues ruling a disaffected world. 

Ironically, it was this shift in Democratic policy and the loss of industrial jobs led by Clinton that was the principal cause of Trump’s triumph over Hillary Clinton. And until the coronavirus pandemic devastated it all, Trump looked set for re-election – despite the relentless attacks on every dimension of his presidency and person, all of which I am convinced ended up strengthening his base, whom he has let down now. 

Trump’s victory was a symptom of political and economic rot, and there will be even more venomous Trumps if Democrats stay tied to Wall Street and big donors. Bernie Sanders ignited a fire five years ago, which has continued growing, that should combine with the new levels of forceful African American engagement and all the other committed change advocates in Congress and civil society. The unions and professions can bring further pressure for progressive leadership to challenge ossified party structures. This system is broken and neither of the main parties’ establishments is trusted by vast numbers of ordinary Americans. There is a real opportunity here.

The Democratic record of having traded their workers’ base for Wall Street backing and the much older Republican championing of big business and free trade left most Americans without a clear place in the political system, which allowed the rise of Trump on the extreme right, and the even more unimaginable emergence of the socialist Sanders. Unless our vast inequalities are tackled quickly, the future promises turbulence for our children and grandchildren.   

The writer is a former spokesman for ODM leader Raila Odinga and director of communications at the United Nations

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