Event ReportsPublished on Aug 01, 2019
Why Democrats are on a weak wicket against Trump

“The US 2020 presidential elections are going to be an important one, not just for the US but for the rest of the world too. It will ultimately define what America is all about, what its core values are,” remarked Dr Sridhar Krishnaswami, veteran America-watcher, and Deputy Dean, Department of Journalism & Mass Communication, S R M University, Chennai.

Initiating a discussion titled “Trump 2020” at Observer Research Foundation Chennai on 27 July 2019, Dr Krishnaswami said it was important to not stop with simply assessing whether or not President Trump will win re-election, but to go beyond that and understand why he is such a popular candidate.

Love it or leave it

Referring to President Trump’s most recent attacks on a group of Congresswomen by referring to the countries of their origin, tweeting, “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came”, Dr Krishnaswami noted, “The Trump Presidency has whipped up racism and bigotry by taking things to an extreme.” As the speaker explained, “Love it or Leave it” has a long history of being a racist trope.

However, one must not fail to understand that those who support Trump, particularly his core constituency, far from being offended at these statements, are rallying around him now more than in 2016. “Trump supporters in fact enjoy the ranting and the tweeting… These rants must be understood as a strategy to shore up his base,” Dr Krishnaswami argued.

Immigration, core issue

According to Dr. Krishnaswami, until now immigration has never been a core election issue in the US. Though there are 13 million illegal immigrants in the US, Trump’s three predecessors, namely, Presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George Bush, Jr, avoided making it a talking point in their election campaigns. President Trump on the other hand has used the ‘Us vs. Them’ rhetoric often.

“Trump has also successfully branded illegal immigrants as potential terrorists and drug-peddlers, especially among his core electorate, when in reality 98 percent of them are economic refugees. They are there to do the jobs that Americans don’t want to do. Further, focusing on immigration has earned Trump the right-wing vote. The extreme right as a whole are solidly behind him now,” Dr. Krishnaswami observed. “They are perhaps more consolidated and better organised than in 2016,” he added.

Democratic confusion

“President Trump’s biggest advantage is his Democratic Opposition itself,” argued Dr. Krishnaswami. The Democratic candidates and the Democratic Party face several challenges that need to be urgently addressed before they can be considered a formidable opponent to President Trump in 2020. “There are not only too many Democrats running for presidential nomination, there is too wide a gap between them in terms of ideology,” Dr Krishnaswami averred. Among them, Joe Biden represents Moderate Democrats on the one hand and Bernie Sanders, Democratic Socialists on the other extreme.

This leaves the question, “What does the Democratic Party ultimately stand for?”, unanswered and unclear. Worse still, Dr. Krishnaswami explained, it leaves open the space for President Trump to successfully brand all Democrats as radical, disruptive for the economy and as having a communist agenda. President Trump has said, “A vote for any Democrat in 2020 is a vote for the rise of radical socialism and the destruction of the American dream.”

President Trump is always addressing his core constituency, whether through his speeches, campaign rallies, tweets or press statements, said Dr. Krishnaswami. “His base is happy with his explanations on several issues which tend to be very simple, reductive, often inaccurate…but they always fit into a well strategised template.

For example, President Trump’s explanation for a trade imbalance with China is that the American tax-payer has been unfairly subsidising Chinese surplus and that he is the one to solve this by putting ‘America First’. He is not interested in talking about the real structural problems that have created a trade imbalance, said Dr Krishnaswami. More importantly though, the underlining point is that Trump’s support-base is happy with these explanations, which means he is successfully communicating with them.

Unreflective media

“The media has unfortunately not learnt their lesson from 2016” Dr Krishnaswami said. “In many ways, the media propelled Trump to victory, and their negative portrayal of Trump boomeranged!”  The print media, particularly the Washington Post and The New York Times, though they are highly critical of Trump in their coverage, are no longer in the scheme of things and therefore will have little impact on the election results.

“The most effective media for the 2020 election is going to be the social media and President Trump is best placed to use it,” Dr. Krishnaswami said.  In this context, he referred to President Trump’s personal habits, like his being a teetotaller and early raiser, which means his tweets are already doing the rounds when other politicians wake up... They can only react, and not be pro-active on the social media, most often than not.”

India relations

As for India, Dr. Krishnaswami felt, it was not in our interests to take sides or support any one candidate. “We in India shouldn’t be under any illusions that Kamala Harris or Tulsi Gabbard, though both enjoy strong support among the India-American community because of their Indian origins, will be more beneficial to India than any other candidate.”

Further, though historically Republicans are said to be more in line with India’s interests than Democrats, here again, Dr Krishnaswami said we shouldn’t pay attention to these arguments and divisions. He felt these distinctions did not reflect the nuances of US-India relations, which have been on an upward trajectory for some years now.

In this context, Dr Krishnaswami said that due credit ought to be given to both President Bush Jr, a Republican, and President Clinton, a Democrat. He also believed that bilateral relations would continue in this upward direction irrespective of which party or candidate wins the 2020 election.

Looking ahead, Dr. Krishnaswami said, we can expect more strident, inflamed and racially charged rhetoric from President Trump and a possibly fractured Democratic Party in the months to come. “The Democrats need to do some serious soul-searching if they wish to beat Trump in 2020. Trump has an extremely good chance of winning. In addition, incumbents have a big head-start in terms of fund-raising and constant media attention,” he concluded.

This report is prepared by Dr Vinitha Revi, Research Associate,  Observer Research Foundation, Chennai

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