The 2016 and 2020 US presidential elections could not be more different. In 2016, both leading parties (Democrat and Republican) offered the electorate new candidates for the consideration. President Obama was leaving office after eight years in which the economy had been stable, foreign wars had been managed cautiously and healthcare revolutionised. The Democrat star was in the ascendant but, as so often, the urge for change proved the catalyst for the events that followed. Republican Party hustings at first, failed to identify an obvious president amongst the hopefuls. But gradually, as the summer wore on a ground swell of support began to identify Donald Trump as the preferred candidate.
Trump was different. With no governmental or political baggage, he was seen as a breath of fresh air, very much his own man. Indeed so much his own man that Republican grandees frequently questioned his allegiance to the ideology of the grand old party, some pointing to his Democrat sympathies when younger. But the party began to recognise him as the only person, of those on offer, with a realistic chance of at least bloodying the Democrats. A surprisingly strong orator with the common touch and an undoubted ability to work a crowd, he increasingly emerged as a credible candidate. Indeed his lack of political experience, far from being a disadvantage, was a significant asset. He could criticise the failings of previous presidents and candidates with impunity. He had no political blunders to his name. Against all odds this multimillionaire somehow persuaded legions of blue-collar workers that he, and only he, knew what it was like to be in their shoes. Obama, with all his fancy words and elaborate oratory, spoke as though for posterity. Although for many years happy to vote for him, the working classes never really related to his wordy academic tones.
If Obama spoke like Cicero, Trump was a Pennsylvanian sheet metal worker. He spoke the language of the Rust Belt states and, whether true or not, was believable. Trump was a street fighter.
But the fact remained that the Democrats were substantially ahead in the polls and even Trump was struggling to make inroads. It would take a particularly awful Democrat candidate to lose the presidential election to this political neophyte. But the Democrats had exactly such a candidate. Hillary Clinton had two insuperable handicaps to her candidacy. Widely seen as corrupt, dishonest and untrustworthy, Hillary Clinton was also a woman. In the southern states of America, with their pivotal electoral colleges, this was an electoral train wreck waiting to happen. Trump preyed on her assumed or alleged dishonesties and gradually the mud began to stick.
Trump talked less about his own policy plans and more about his interpretation of Clinton’s motivation to be president. Steering clear of his own policy plans was wise. After all there were none to speak of beyond a threaten to roll back Obama care. And a nebulous promise to “drain the swamp” which had an undeniable ring about it. Throw in support from the gun-toting religious right and a campaign focus on the swing states swept Trump to the presidency. Nobody could quite believe it.
2020 is an entirely different situation. We have learned many things about Trump as a president.
Firstly, he believes the job to be essentially part-time and that he can share time between the White House and the golf course – at taxpayers expense.
Secondly, he does not understand that the role of the presidency is nonpartisan. A president serves the entire country, not just the Republican bits. Presidents should always seek to unify. That’s understood.
Thirdly, he does not grasp the need for messages to be consistent, frequently undermining his briefing staff by ad-libbing policy thoughts.
Fourthly, he has no grasp of practicalities. Just saying that there will be a wall between the US and Mexico does not mean it will happen.
Fifthly, blaming all his own troubles on the previous administration simply won’t wash. It might have been usable as an excuse in 2017 but when facing the electorate in 2020, it’s not believable.
The last six months have seen the unravelling of this president and his vanities. Flashing hot and cold on key issues, he stands behind the presidential podium like some demented Belisha beacon. A gift to cartoonists with his ridiculous coiffure and disastrous orange tan, he is a cartoon president. Spitting image mercilessly lampooned president Reagan for his limited grasp of policy and preponderance of gaffes. Trump is almost beyond caricature. He is Mussolini, one minute all bluster and bombast, the next minute rambling, unfocused and incoherent.
If he were just an idiot, his failings would be almost endearing, like that bumbling uncle at the family Christmas get-together who gets names and places mixed up. He would be tolerated but largely ignored. But Trump is not an idiot. Or perhaps I should say Trump is not only an idiot. He has raised nepotism and cronyism to the level of art. No president previously has dared put so many family members into key positions. So brazen are his actions that commentators find their sense of outrage blunted. Any one alone would have been sufficient grounds for investigation. Most journalists have to suspend disbelief when reporting a Trump story. Far from draining it, Trump is the swamp.
In 2016, Trump offered vague sentiments along the lines of “let’s make America great again”, meaningless but somehow persuasive. In 2020, those slogans seem hollow. He has had four years to do so. If America is not yet great again, it’s his fault. Simply needling the previous administration isn’t persuasive.
The role of president is about one thing and one thing alone – leadership. When the threat to the country presents itself, the president is expected to have a plan and to act decisively. In March and since, the US and other countries have experienced a viral pandemic. Each country has acted in its own way, some more convincingly than others, but none has acted by doing nothing. Except America. Trump’s lamentable failure of understanding this has surely made the death count far worse than it needed to be. His ambivalence about masks and pronouncements that it would all miraculously disappear were comical if not for the fact that lives were lost as a direct result. Far from admiring a beacon of global leadership one is left with the feeling that a village somewhere is missing its idiot.
Trump’s presence on the international stage is even more absurd. His refusal to sign the Kyoto and Paris agreements was, on its own, an act of absurdity. Climate change is global. Surely nobody can fail to grasp that. And even more comically absurd was his withdrawal from the World Health Organisation at the outset of a pandemic. Petty, vindictive and stupid. But then that sums up the man. Protectionist economics rarely makes a country great. Great economies trade and trade widely. Imposing tit for tat trade tariffs is not a meaningful means of exerting foreign policy. In 2016 America commanded respect on the world stage. Confidence and a courageous economy led by a benign regime ensured respect from other countries. Pride even. In 2020, foreigners feel pity for America and Americans and that’s something I never thought I would see in my lifetime.
America is a great country, make no mistake. America has been the home to some of the greatest thinkers and the greatest technologies in the world. That strength has been built on a workforce as broad and deep as any in the world. Immigration has built that economy. Immigration has fathered tolerance and understanding. Immigration is America at its best.
At present, the country is on its knees, brought down by a divisive, vindictive and incompetent leader. America needs to unite and to heal its wounds. That can never happen under Trump. His regime needs to be expunged, his period in office a brutal, bloody stain in the country’s history. It’s time for America to brush him and his odious administration away.
Americans, it’s time to do your duty. To your fellow Americans, to the citizens of the world. America we love you. Make us proud of you again.