After riding to power on the back of promises to an electorate that felt abandoned by the ‘Washington elite’, some may feel that Donald Trump has struggled to articulate a compelling vision for America this time around.
His campaign’s ‘Keep America Great’ slogan may ring hollow in the context of a country ravaged by COVID-19, which has caused the worst unemployment crisis in recent years. So, in last week’s final presidential debate before the polls open, we saw America’s 45th president take a different tack.
He sought to paint Joe Biden as indecisive, corrupt, and naive. He criticised Biden’s stance on COVID-19, his record on tackling systemic racism and the Obama administration’s record on immigration.
From this side of the Pond, moments like these often have an air of projection about them. Judging by Trump’s opinion poll ratings, the American public may be reaching the same conclusion.
Trump’s Record Speaks for Itself
To this day, Trump’s ability to galvanise his base remains his greatest strength. But the focus of his rhetoric has shifted since 2016. Promises to rebuild America’s infrastructure, fix its inner cities, and help the country’s “forgotten men and women” are narratives that seem like a thing of the past. His re-election campaign has been characterised by what some might feel is a strange relationship with scientific facts, attacks on organisations including Black Lives Matter and refusals to condemn online conspiracy theories. There is a simple reason for this. A string of political U-turns has forced him to abandon many of his historic talking points.
He promised to “drain the swamp” and purge Washington of Wall Street lobbyists. Instead, his team has appointed a raft of Goldman Sachs alumni to senior Washington posts. He promised to be ‘tough on China’ and bring back American manufacturing jobs. Instead, he appointed a personal friend of Xi Jinping as his ambassador to China. Then, he intervened to quell sanctions against telecom equipment giant ZTE to save Chinese jobs.
He promised to ensure every American had the opportunity to achieve their potential. But with COVID-19 ravaging the economy, he has given vast bailouts to corporations while dragging his heels on providing support for ordinary Americans in the form of a second round of stimulus cheques.
Ultimately, it looks like Trump’s handling of the pandemic may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Polls taken following his diagnosis with COVID-19 showed that 59% of Americans disapproved of his handling of the crisis. Just 37% approved.
This net approval rating of -22 points is the clearest sign yet that the US public is starting to suspect that putting a man with no political experience in charge may have been a mistake. (The questionable accuracy of polls like these is a topic for another day!)
Democrats are Also Hungry for the Status Quo
Of course, electoral defeat for Trump wouldn’t represent a return to the status quo if the Democrats had selected a candidate from the party’s progressive wing for this year’s ticket.
In Biden, they have chosen a candidate that’s perceived as a safe pair of hands. Like Hilary Clinton before him, he’s a veteran of the Obama administration and exactly the kind of ‘Washington insider’ the populace rejected when Trump first came to power.
Interestingly, Biden’s voting record reveals a politician who shares many views with his Republican colleagues. He has repeatedly called for cuts to the US government’s social welfare programme. He voted for the Hyde amendment, which sought to ban federal funding for abortions. In 2005, he even championed GOP-backed Senate legislation that sought to make it harder for families to discharge their credit card debts in bankruptcy.
Biden’s platform stands in stark contrast to those of his former rivals Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. His nomination signals an intention to work with the Republicans as the US rebuilds from COVID-19. This move seems to be paying off. The offer of a chance to ‘go back to how things were’ has earned him a lead in the polls. But it does little to address the underlying conditions that first brought Trump to power. America’s looming rejection of Trump may be a welcome return to the status quo in the short-term for some. But it’s possible that going back to ‘the way things were’ will lead to history repeating itself in the future.