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Democracy on the Brink: A Rogue President Exploits Racial Divisions and Redefines Executive Power

by Hamilton Fish

Oct 25, 2020 | Election 2020, Politics

PHOTO CREDIT: Gage Skidmore

People on both sides of this deeply divided country view this election as a fight for the soul of the nation, but any similarity between the opposing camps ends there. President Trump has openly adopted the trappings and the reality of the authoritarian leaders whose respect he covets. He has embraced white supremacists and sided with law enforcement in the debate over recurrent police violence against Black people, while the Democrats have called for inclusivity and racial justice and have nominated the first woman of color to serve on the national ticket of a major party.

Where president Trump has withdrawn from the Paris accord, rolled back regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, and lifted restrictions on polluters across the corporate spectrum, the Democrats have signaled that climate change will be a priority in their agenda and have committed to develop alternative energy options and to reengage with the international community.

You can continue down the list of challenges we face in the United States, challenges that in most instances are also faced by other nations, and on issue after issue, Trump and the status quo business lobby in Congress stake out positions that favor the wealthy over the poor, white over Black, men over women, and profits over nature.

Democrats, in general, present a vision of a country undergoing profound change, driven by demographic shifts, technological innovation, the emergence of women in the workforce, the demands for economic justice and racial equity, and the need to be both better stewards of the environment and better global citizens.

Their positions on the issues resonate with as many as 65 to 70 percent of the electorate, yet for the third time in the 21st century, the Democrats are struggling to avoid losing a national election in which they win the popular vote but lose to the confounding math of the Electoral College.

Most recently in 2016, Hillary Clinton, with overwhelming support from the coastal states and their urban voters, earned nearly three million more votes than her Republican opponent, Donald Trump. Yet she lost in a lopsided tally of 304–227 in the Electoral College, a system held over from the slaveholding days of the 18th century that disproportionately rewards winner-take-all state vote tallies and gives swing states more of a say in the outcome.

It should be noted that many of the current alignments in American politics predate Donald Trump. With the exception of Virginia, the slavery states and the states that permitted slavery in the 1850s are the same states that voted Republican in 2012, more than a century and a half later. From voter suppression and the shredding of the safety net to the tolerance and even encouragement of bias throughout American life, the current Republican Party largely updates the Confederacy.

Democrats no longer count on New Deal coalition

And while most Democrats will be reluctant to acknowledge it, the party that delivered the New Deal began to stray from its support of the working-class base as early as the 1970s, when several new cultural and generational trends emerged. It was a time when labor unions were still a major force in American political and economic life and largely reflected the anti-Communist politics of the Cold War years. Their members, many from patriotic immigrant families, were torn over the Vietnam conflict and were reluctant to accept that the United States could be so wrong.

Many rank-and-file Democrats came from traditional households and did not easily adapt to the call for women’s equality. And they bristled when activists in the emerging environmental movement argued that their employment in industry was harmful to the planet.
At the end of the decade, inflation surged into double digits and 52 Americans were held hostage by Iran in a highly public and humiliating affront to American power. In 1980, when a genial, B-list Hollywood actor ran for president on the Republican ticket with vague but seductive promises of a foreign policy based on “peace through strength,” many voters who had historically supported the Democrats—and indeed had reached the middle class largely on the strength of Democratic programs—switched over to vote for Reagan.
The Democratic coalition, with its roots in the Roosevelt era, was broken, and the Reagan Democrat was born.

The jovial new president signaled to the business community that making money was cool again, that taxes on the rich would be lowered and regulations on business would be lifted. Cronyism and corruption proliferated. The 1980s was the decade of indulgence, and for many, the guilt over the prosecution of an unjust war was set aside. Reagan built his 1984 reelection campaign around the slogan “It’s morning again in America,” a theme that the 2016 Trump campaign reprised with its derivative “Make America Great Again.”

Race and religion shape our politics

Republicans may not govern as well as Democrats, but they play the political game better (or more ruthlessly), and they certainly do capitalism better. During the Reagan years, the unsustainable gap between rich and poor in America accelerated, and antagonism toward the aspirations of women and Blacks and gays was tacitly encouraged. Most of the labor movement had remained with the Democrats, and the business community and the Reagan administration worked together with notable success to diminish the power and size of the unions. And the Republican courtship of the Religious Right had begun to pay dividends, foreshadowing a time, decades later, when conservative evangelicals would find themselves trying to explain their alignment with a reality-TV host and conflict-saturated real estate mogul who was more at home in Sodom and Gomorrah than the olive gardens of Gethsemane.

Although triumphalist Republicans would try to tell a different story, it was also the beginning of the decline of the Republic, a downward slide that has led us, in the words of the journalist Lou Dubose, to “the squalid, systemic partisan corruption that metastasized into what today is the party of Donald Trump.”

Toward the latter part of the 20th century, facing divided legislatures, increasing deficits, and slowing growth, Democrats found it increasingly difficult to replicate the sweeping social reforms of the New Deal and the Great Society (programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) and relied largely on incrementalism—income supplements, help for single mothers, college debt relief—to address social problems.

The Clinton administration, in the 1990s, did try for universal health care with its ambitious “Health Security” plan, an attempt at forging a middle path between market forces and regulatory reforms. But despite strong public sentiment for affordable health care, the plan—and its principal spokesperson, Hillary Clinton—were attacked by Republicans and the business community for ushering “too much bureaucracy” and being a “big government” solution. Divided over concerns that the plan did not go far enough, the left provided only lackluster support, and the proposal went down to defeat.

In the postwar years, when the economy was booming, it was possible to ask the middle class to absorb new taxes to pay for benefits for those who needed them most. But later in the century, the global economy cut into the American share, and other factors—above all, the damaging tax cuts Republicans delivered to corporations and the wealthy—helped to derail the American dream.

Republicans have overtly appealed to the racial grievances of white voters since the passage of the Civil Rights Act. In the conventional narrative, their focus has been on the Southern states, provoking a historic realignment premised on white supremacy and producing conservative majorities that voted seamlessly Republican until the Obama campaign in 2008. But in reality, Republicans have long been stoking fears about integration and incipient “urban problems” in comfortable white suburbs throughout the country.

Democrats, for the most part, have advanced the goals of the civil rights agenda—of the 53 African Americans currently in the U.S. Congress (including two delegates), 52 are Democrats and one is a Republican. Though the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act would not have passed without the support of Republicans in the Senate, today the party in both practice and policy is more polarizing on issues of race that at any time in the modern era.

Trump is by far the most unfettered, unapologetic racist since Andrew Johnson to have occupied the White House. Yet his approval ratings have remained consistent, reflecting the profound racial divisions that persist, and Republicans in office refrain from holding him accountable. Conservatives in the Trump era know they are staring into the face of history. The Republican Party understands that changing demographics will overwhelm its efforts to fend off progress, and it has resorted to extraordinary antidemocratic measures to delay this reckoning.

Republicans in the Trump era have launched an attack on immigrants (many of whom were American citizens or were here legally), accusing them of taking American jobs and obscuring the private sector’s role in transferring jobs to low-wage markets overseas. Few recall that it was the policies of the Reagan and Bush Senior years that led to the financial meltdown of the Savings and Loan era, and the utter lack of enforcement during Bush W. that chiefly paved the way for the massive economic dislocations of 2007–08.

Republicans attack the right to vote

The right has also built a massive voter-suppression apparatus, based on false claims of voter fraud. These initiatives are aimed at poor people, minorities, students, and ethnic populations who might be expected to vote Democratic.

Officials in Republican-controlled states have re-drawn the boundaries of political districts in ways that violate fundamental constitutional prohibitions against discrimination. They have instituted burdensome voter ID requirements; they’ve reduced the number of polling places in minority and other high-turnout Democratic districts; they’ve reduced the number of days during which voters may cast their ballots, making it harder for working people to vote. And they were abetted by a disastrous Supreme Court decision, Shelby County v. Holder, in which the conservative majority cut the heart out of the Voting Rights Act and signaled to local Republican jurisdictions that they could suppress the vote with impunity.

Even against this backdrop, Trump has shamelessly used the bully pulpit to sow doubt about the integrity of our election system, laying the foundation for a challenge to the legitimacy of the outcome should he lose.

One of the most notable through lines during the Trump years has been the continued success of the right in making its victims its most ardent supporters. Not for the first time, Republicans advanced a tax bill that hugely favors their rich and connected patrons and disingenuously promoted it as a middle-class tax-relief act.

The economist Steven Pressman, writing in The Washington Spectator, has observed that as the 2017 tax bill made its way through Congress, President Trump claimed “his tax giveaway to corporations and the wealthy would trickle down. Everyone would gain. Firms would invest in efficient equipment and in their workers. Household income would rise $4,000, to $9,000. None of this happened. The standard trickle-down Republican hokum, peddled since the 1980s, had the same effect as in the past—the rich gained enormously.”
Trump attacked existing trade deals and wildly exaggerated his negotiating talents. With great fanfare, he replaced Nafta (our trade regime with Mexico and Canada) with the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a warmed-over, rebranded version of its predecessor that was long on rhetoric and short on substance. His only apparent tactic on trade and foreign policy negotiations is to alternate between lavish expressions of admiration and eviscerating ridicule on Twitter, a strategy that may work on reality TV and even in New York real estate but has failed to produce progress in crucial talks with China and has led, unsurprisingly, to further deterioration in relations with North Korea.

“People voted for Donald Trump feeling they had nothing to lose after decades of income stagnation,” Pressman points out. “But lose we did. America lost respect around the world. Many lives have been lost to Covid-19, due to a deadly combination of incompetence and self-serving behavior. And even before the coronavirus hit, income gains during the Trump administration headed toward Wall Street: U.S. workers saw few benefits. Significantly, the president’s two signature economic policies, protectionism and tax reform, abetted this demoralizing outcome.”

Yet still, the base clamors for more. Trump partisans are a mix of white working- and middle-class voters who are estranged from costal elites and resentful at the perception of preferential treatment afforded minorities (try explaining that nuance of American political life to the Black parents of a child hurt or killed by police violence or a random shooting incident). They include the hugely influential religious fundamentalists and values-based coalitions, who have settled on “imperfect vessel” as the explanation for their hypocritical embrace of the most morally compromised president in U.S. history. And they include the political agnostic who simply wants to pay fewer taxes and make more money.

Widespread concern over response to Covid-19

But very few people anticipated the virus, and it’s the virus—more than any convincing argument, more than any solid evidence, more than direct experience with the impact of the damaging lies this president and his unapologetic allies in Congress and right-wing media have repeatedly told—that will decide the outcome of this election.

Millions of Americans are sick, and tens of thousands are dying, significantly because of Trump’s incompetence and single-minded focus on his own political and financial self-interest. Somehow, the same people who dismiss the rape charges against Trump, who know he underpaid his taxes and broke the law in his business dealings but have been willing to overlook it, who understand he is the furthest distance from being a good Christian a person can be but still make excuses for him; these same people sense that he mishandled the virus and lied about it—is still lying about it—and it bothers them.

The charge of collusion with Russia during the 2016 election and Trump’s repeated denials further underscore the chasm between the president’s lies and political truth. Even after an independent investigation authorized by his own Justice Department reaffirmed the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia, resulting in jail terms for key campaign operatives, Trump and his visibly compromised attorney general continued to distort and contest the evidence.

Now a Republican-led Senate committee has released a bombshell report concluding, in the words of The New York Times, “the Russian government disrupted an American election (in 2016) to help Mr. Trump become president, Russian intelligence services viewed members of the Trump campaign as easily manipulated, and some of Mr. Trump’s advisers were eager for the help from an American adversary.” While the fallout from these bipartisan findings has yet to filter into the campaign debate, the case against Trump’s reelection was bolstered.

Trump campaign operatives, however, seem undeterred. The fine investigative journalist Anne Nelson revealed in The Washington Spectator that in May, when Covid-related deaths were nearing 74,000, members of the president’s reelection campaign team recruited a few compliant doctors with questionable credentials to argue publicly against the use of masks and lockdowns and to offer spirited claims that, contrary to numerous studies, the extremely dangerous hydroxychloroquine was an effective remedy.

They staged a press conference on the steps of the Supreme Court, attended largely by a few straggling tourists, but the video was aired on Breitbart News, where it reached 185,000 viewers. Over its six hours on Facebook, the video was the second-most-engaged post on the platform, with 14 million views. A few hours after the presentation, President Trump tweeted to his 84.5 million followers, and Donald Trump Jr. told his 5.3 million followers to watch the video.

Social media, however, is growing wise to the prevaricator in chief. Nelson reports that Facebook took the group’s video down a few hours after it was posted, and Twitter and YouTube followed suit, “all three on the grounds that the video violated their Covid-19 misinformation policies.”

There is still a long road to travel before the election in November. Given the administration’s fatal mismanagement of its response to the virus, and an economy in shambles, with no particular policy achievements to point to and without a discernible agenda for Trump’s second term, Republicans are fanning racial fears and counting on conservative media to distract voters from the overwhelming documentation of the president’s moral deficiencies and political failures.

The 2020 elections will turn, in part, on whether local precincts can offset Republican efforts to disrupt the vote and whether Democrats can inspire Black voters and women and wavering independents to go to the polls based on more than just their disgust with Trump. Will Democrats succeed in offering voters a promising path out of the mess Trump has created? And will very narrow slices of the electorate, who live and vote in bellwether districts that disproportionately affect the national race, look beyond Trump’s self-serving lies and conclude, after nearly four years of this unscrupulous peacock, that our country cannot survive four more?

Hamilton Fish is the editor and publisher of The Washington Spectator.

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