The American Primaries: Trump’s bad? Is that really the point?

 In Elections, Features, News

History is littered with disagreeable people who won elections on the back of election pledges that promised to resolve national insecurities, with Churchill and Kennedy just two examples.

This was one of the conclusions of a debate into the US primaries organised by the American Club of Lisbon that took place at the Luso-American Foundation for Development (FLAD) in Lisbon on Tuesday evening, and featured a distinguished lineup of panelists — two former Democrat ambassadors to Portugal: Robert Sherman and Allan Katz, and the political analyst and researcher, Vasco Rato (Lusófona University). The event was moderated by ACL president, Patrick Siegler-Lathrop.

It was agreed that this year’s elections would be “different” and “nasty” in the way it was fought, with the electorate not really wanting a fight between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, but would almost certainly get it anyway unless there is a major health incident with either candidate forcing them to withdraw, according to Allan Katz.

And any suggestion that Joe Biden, notorious for age-related memory problems, might bow out were discarded since as Robert Sherman joked: “He had wanted to be president since he was in diapers” and an “incumbent president nearly always gets the vote”.

The election of Donald Trump was a symptom of an America in crisis rather than a cause; a crisis of modernity and liberalism that had failed to address the problems of a vast swathe of the US electorate in the Mid-West and Rust Belt states.

Both the Midwest and Interior West have states that Joe Biden carried by less than his popular vote margin in 2020.

In the Midwest, Michigan and Wisconsin will likely be prime battlegrounds states this year, although Michigan, because of its black American voters, may be a harder battle ground for Republicans.

In the Interior West, Arizona’s Republican lean has been eroding in elections since 2008 — this allowed Biden to carry it in 2020, but Democrats will also have to work to keep neighbouring Nevada in their column.

An unfair system?

And then there is the question of whether Iowa and New Hampshire will predict primary success. It’s completely unfair to the other 48 states, but Iowa and New Hampshire always get to pick first in the presidential primary process, particularly when these two states are not representative of the US at all.

They both have small populations that are 90+% white and according to the New Hampshire exit poll the majority of Republican or GOP (Grand Old Party as the Republican Party is fondly known by supporters) voters do not fall for Donald Trump’s MAGA rhetoric. (Make America Great Again)

In fact, the voters who turned out for New Hampshire’s GOP presidential primary were less staunchly conservative and less closely tied to the Republican Party than the electorate in the recent Iowa caucuses, according to the early results of CNN’s exit poll.

But even in a state less naturally inclined to serve as a stronghold for former President Donald Trump, Republican primary voters proved largely willing to embrace him over his remaining rival, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley who stands no chance at all.

The problem with Haley is that she comes across as stupid and ill-informed if not uneducated in general knowledge.

According to Slate, “She failed to say that the Civil War was about slavery, and although she “has been busy cleaning up after her unforced error” – “I had Black friends” she later said, which only made things worse – by her own admission, her political life has been guided by a lesson she learned as a child: “embrace your similarities with other people and ignore your differences”. The result is that, until now, she has “avoided excavating her own relationship with racism”. For all her energy, ambition, and talent, this is central to why she remains an “empty candidate”, and a “potentially rudderless leader”.

A very democratic process

Patrick Siegler-Lathrop, author of ‘Rendez-Vous with America’ a political insight into the US electoral system, and a regular opinion writer for the Lisbon-based newspaper Diário de Notícias, pointed out that that the US system is a “very democratic process” compared to the way candidates are chosen in the majority of European states.

“This is a long process over a period of many months that ends in the summer, and is a series of more than 50 elections, whereas in Europe the parties choose their candidates” regardless of whether the electorate like them or not.

This means that normally the process is uncertain for a relatively long period of time, but this year seems “quite different”. However, Democrats and Republicans “agree on very little” but 70% do agree on “not wanting another election between Trump and Biden, but “that’s what they are going to get”, he said.

“It is pretty typical that an incumbent president who has had a first term will want to run again and will get the nomination of his party,” said Siegler-Lathrop.

Robert Sherman revealed that traditionally the first two primary events – the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire Primary – are both criticised because, in the case of Iowa “many workers couldn’t get to vote, which was disenfranchising, while New Hampshire, being very white, is not fairly representative of diversity in the United States.”

This means that the Democrats tend to start participating in the third primary which involves South Carolina at the end of February and which is a more diverse state, and was crucial for Joe Biden winning four years ago.

In fact, Joe Biden was not even on the ballot in New Hampshire, and a Democratic congressman decided to run (Dean Philips) but Biden got 70% of the vote! “Unless there’s a health issue, whatever people might think about an 86-year-old candidate’s capacity to run the US for a second term, he (Joe Biden) will invariably be the candidate.

Poor poll and approval numbers

Interestingly, as Patrick Siegler-Lathrop pointed out, Joe Biden’s polls and approval ratings are among the lowest of any presidential candidate up for reelection at this primary stage, and there was talk that if the polls continued to be very negative for him, it would be in the interest of the Democratic Party and country that he step down.

In the words of Robert Sherman “forget it” and this was a view shared by Allan Katz. “Our history has shown that people who become president do not voluntarily step down from that role. Richard Nixon resigned (Watergate) and Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s (Declined to run). Joe Biden has wanted to be president since he was in diapers and will not want to give up that position”, said Sherman.

“He believes he is the best candidate to beat Donald Trump and he will stay in the race for that reason”, he added.

Trump again? — how is it possible?

Patrick Siegler-Lathrop recalled that in January 2020, following the January 6 ‘uprising’ (‘rebellion’ ‘attempted coup d’etat, or ‘insurrection’ depending on your point of view and that of lawyers) with the storming of Capitol Hill, the whole Republican Party turned against Trump. “He was down and out and most commentators thought he was finished”.

But four years later and he is back in “an incredible way to the surprise of many”, “totally dominates the Republican Party”, with poll after poll indicating that he will have no difficulty winning the nomination, with 70% of Republican primary voters saying they will vote for him. So is there any chance of another viable candidate?

Vasco Rato thinks not and that perhaps he could win because of a “lack of political imagination” from the Democrats.

“Like in Portugal with Chega, (a far-right populist party), since when was this not predictable” he said referring to Portugal’s forthcoming elections on March 10.

“When Trump came along it was quite evident that some kind of ‘Trumpism’ (i.e populist protest voters against the liberalist and self-interested status quo) would appear. Trump is not, in my view, (Vasco is the author of ‘Tsunami – Trump, Trumpism and Europe’ — in Portuguese) the cause of the crisis but a consequence, and that crisis is profound.

According to the Hudson Institute: “Public confidence in institutions ranging from the federal government to the media to religious institutions has rapidly—and justifiably—declined. The price of essential services like education and health care has escalated beyond all reason. Voter discontent with the status quo, and disdain rising to hatred against what many perceived as an entitled and incompetent establishment boiled over among Democrats and leftists as social movements ranging from Occupy Wall Street to the Bernie Sanders candidacy sought to redefine the Democratic Party. On the right, such sentiments powered Donald Trump’s rise to the White House in 2016 and they continued to curdle during the COVID pandemic and the Biden years”.

“The United States” says Rato is facing a crisis that is not unique to the United Sates, but has to do with modernity and the failure of liberalism”.

“People have ceased to be tolerant with each other and their political views. We no longer speak of adversaries but enemies, we no longer discuss politics, we discuss people, personalities, and the discussion about Trump is really a discussion about whether or not he’s a criminal and badly behaved, and I am sure he is a very disagreeable person, but I don’t see that is particularly relevant in politics,” he said.

And added: “If you went back in history, I think you would find only about 10% of leaders who were agreeable, and even Churchill was not a particularly agreeable person, nor John F. Kennedy. The problem is not Trump ‘good guy/bad guy’. The problem is the sickness in American society that produced Trump”.

Rato emphasises the problem is not exclusively on the right either; it has a correspondence on the left too.

“Increasingly the Democratic Party is a party of people who don’t really represent Americans. There is an elite in politics, the institutions, and the media, all with their narratives, values, and policy priorities, but most people are really quite sick of it.”

Allan Katz agreed pointing out that Trump was merely an “accelerant” for inherent problems already there. It was a case of “populism versus the establishment”

“We consistently underestimate this man, he is so unusual, but he has a ferrel instinct for people’s weaknesses and prejudices,” he said.

Text: Chris Graeme

Photo: ACL – Joaquim Morgado