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Larry Donnelly: 'Trumpism' is alive and well no matter who wins the US presidency

While evaluating why Trump remains so popular, one must examine what is on offer from his foes, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

JEEZ, WHAT A night. 

That was my heartfelt and somewhat breathless reaction as I exited the RTÉ television studio early on Wednesday morning after hours of analysing the results long awaited by political watchers and anyone with an interest in or affinity for the United States. 

Crunching the raw numbers as vote totals emerged, it swiftly became apparent that there would be no early “blue wave” carrying Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats to resounding victories around the country. The contest between the former vice president and President Donald Trump would be a dogfight.

Notwithstanding the denials of some partisans on the left and others who disputed the methodologies utilised by certain pollsters, things were tightening. That Joe Biden, a native of Pennsylvania, spent most waking hours in the last days there, was indicative that his campaign was aware of a Trump surge.

To the president’s credit, following a disastrous performance in the first debate, his messaging improved.

He sought to make the election about anything except for his administration’s mishandling of the pandemic.

Opinion surveys showed that his cavalier and rambling dismissals of Covid-19’s severity, coupled with more than one ludicrous and offensive statement about how it should be dealt with, damaged his standing, especially with older voters.

In the final weeks, the central theme was that Biden might be the candidate, but that hard left-wingers in his party, like Bernie Sanders and AOC, would actually call the shots. 

His lines of critique were foreboding and deliberately designed to exploit fears and prejudices.

To his intended audience, though, their meaning was crystal clear.

A Biden triumph would lead to outrageously high taxes and related socialist initiatives, a government takeover of private health insurance plans, legalised abortion until the moment of birth, the eroding of the right to own guns and the unleashing of inner-city violence in the suburbs. They featured at rallies and on Twitter.

This tactic helped convince “soft Trump” and persuadable voters to return to the fold and back the president’s quest for a second term.

 

Simultaneously, his focusing of hearts and minds elsewhere fostered the growth of sentiment to the effect that the president hadn’t done that bad a job in combatting the coronavirus, a global plague that he repeatedly and advantageously blamed on the Chinese government.

On the flip side, and by comparison to Trump, Team Biden executed a rather low-octane operation, with physically distanced gatherings to depict the 77-year-old as the responsible adult in the room. 

The lack of energy and enthusiasm, however, and what they portrayed not alone to attendees, but most importantly to those who saw and heard them broadcast, was underwhelming as against the pageantry and fervour manifest at every Trump rally.

The word unprecedented has been employed excessively about this race, yet it also applies to the outcome. 

At the time of writing, it seems extremely likely that Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the next President of the United States in January. He has a very good chance of reaching the required 270 Electoral College votes without Pennsylvania. If so, Trump and the GOP’s legal avenues are limited to recounts and other dubious claims.

In this event, countless Americans and concerned observers around the world will breathe a sigh of relief and rejoice that what they would call a nightmare is finally over.  But the probable conclusion of this fraught chapter in history sits beside two other truisms: “Trumpism” is alive and well and the Democratic Party must do some serious soul searching.

What should encourage us all, and rebuts overwrought critics of democratic processes in the US, is the record turnout of voters – in particular the young and people of colour.  Ample opportunities to vote early increased participation; these should be available long after the scourge of coronavirus is banished. 

Indeed, much of the rest of the world could learn something from the country of my birth on that score.

Conventional wisdom has always been that the more Americans who cast ballots, the better it is for the Democratic Party. Not on this occasion. Donald Trump garnered millions more votes than he received in 2016.

His tallies among women, millennials, blacks and Latinos were all better. His brand of politics and his persona still resonates. November 3rd did not deliver the repudiation hoped for by so many. Far from it.

While evaluating why Trump remains so popular, one must examine what is on offer from his foes. Ahead of this week, Democrats and their allies in the media were buoyant and quietly preparing to celebrate. 

Trump would be defeated; they would regain control of the US Senate; and they would have a bigger majority in the US House of Representatives. The party look to have narrowly won the White House, but look to have fallen short on the other two.

Two realities account for this failure. 

First, the Democrats have lost touch with the regular working men and women who used to constitute their base. Prioritising the cultural agenda of wealthy donors on the coasts may fill the coffers, but it has engendered a perception that they are indifferent to the plight of those who have suffered most from the furious march of globalisation and technology and consequent displacement and extraordinary income inequality.

Democrats can retort that they are unambiguously on the side of these Americans, but their endorsement of so-called free trade deals, advocacy for abandoning fossil fuels without adequately addressing the worries of those whose livelihoods are dependent upon associated industries and widespread intolerance of social conservatives tell a contrary tale. 

Perhaps even more detrimental has been the sneering, condescending, preachy manner in which some prominent figures have frequently articulated this change in emphasis and direction.

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Second, they have taken the Latino community’s support for granted and spectacularly misread what animates them. The assumption had been that they would be just like African Americans: virtually homogenous in their preference for the Democratic Party. 

When Joe Biden recently let down his guard and said, “if you don’t vote for me, you ain’t black”, it revealed a prevalent mind-set in the hierarchy. 

Engagement with Latinos is an imperative.

That a proponent of building a wall across the border with Mexico to keep people from South and Central America out has obtained more than one-third of the Latino vote is illustrative of the depth of the problem.

They are the fastest growing bloc in the US. 

Many abhor socialism, own small businesses and prefer the Republican low-tax, light-touch regulation model and are people of strong religious faith and conviction. A political pivot may be in order to attract their hearts and minds.

Above all, the complicated result is a natural by-product of a divided America. 

When and if Joe Biden is deemed the winner, the immense, thankless and all but impossible task of reconciling profound differences will immediately confront him. At the very least, he must strive to re-introduce civil discourse in a wounded polity.

There have been many low points in the tenure of Donald Trump. 

His appalling post-election speech – in which he made a series of bizarre and incoherent allegations of fraud before declaring falsely that he had prevailed and would seek ultimate vindication from a Supreme Court he implied is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Trump, Inc. – was the nadir.

For me, the enduring image of this wretched year is a crowd of ostensibly patriotic Americans hooting and applauding wildly in response to the president’s verbal defecation on our grandest ideals, traditions and institutions.  Truth is stranger than fiction.  

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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