On the evening of 26 September, around 150 paying customers gathered at the glamorous Le Cirque restaurant in Manhattan to raise money for Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign. Tickets for the fundraiser reportedly went for as much as $250,000 a pair.
It was the second major 2020 fundraising event of the summer, following the first big bash in June. The proceeds from both events have contributed to the $86.5 million the Republican National Committee has raised since the beginning of the calendar year – more than double what the Democratic National Committee has procured.
So it’s clear that Trump is serious about an eight-year stint in Washington. Indeed, it’s worth remembering that within hours of his inauguration, the US president filed federal papers launching his campaign for re-election. But could an eight-year tenure become a reality? It’s more plausible than it first appears.
The Democrats’ disarray
Trump is the bookies’ favourite by some margin. Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Michelle Obama (who has repeatedly ruled out running) might to many seem credible enough to defeat Trump, but the Democrats are wary of reaching back to the past. They are desperate for someone fresh, captivating and young – and free of baggage.
More crucial is their lack of an overarching theme, a narrative to capture the hearts and minds of the electorate. Technocratic tinkering – as Hillary Clinton found to her cost – simply will not do anymore.
Iwan Morgan, Professor of US Politics at University College, London, told Jericho: “No-one of real note has yet emerged. That could change, of course. In 2005, who would have backed Barack Obama to emerge so strongly in 2008? But it is a problem of what the Democrats stand for. They have not really synthesised their message.”
But it’s not for want of trying. Democratic lawmakers have recently published an economic blueprint aimed at attracting the working-middle class voters that abandoned the party in droves last November. “A Better Deal” calls for raising the minimum wage, taking on big business and, “cracking down on foreign countries that manipulate our trade laws”.
When the plan was unveiled, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters: “The focus starts on economic issues. That’s where the American people are hurting. That’s what we most felt was missing in the past in the last several elections.”
But this could represent a colossal misdiagnosis. Schumer, Nancy Pelosi et al. seem convinced that the way to win back power is to eschew identity politics in favour of a bread-and-butter economic message. But the election was about far more than just pay cheques. In some ways, this illuminates the central cleavage at the heart of the Democratic party.
It is one divided between the progressives – who actively engage with and weaponise issues like abortion, LGBT rights and Black Lives Matter – and the moderates, hedging that burying these cultural causes is the party’s only hope of winning back the blue collar vote.
In an article in Vanity Fair on next year’s mid-term elections, Jamil Smith alluded to “a vexing debate on the left over whether race and gender politics are an obstacle, rather than the cornerstone, of the coalition-building they must do to retake Congress.”
Trump’s aides are reportedly predicting a large number of candidates will run, but no matter how congested the field, the Democrats have so far failed to unify around a single message to take to the country. An internal battle for the heart of the party rages on – and must be resolved fast.
The outsider card
That’s not to say that things are rosy in the Republican camp. Arch-conservative Roy Moore’s recent win in the Alabama Senate primary came after a contest which Steve Bannon and others helped turn into something of a referendum on establishment Republicans. His anti-establishment success leaves their party also in disarray. It’s split by an evangelically pro-Trump insurgent movement and the moderate, traditional GOP politicians.
This doesn’t liberate the Democrats. In some sense, the more dysfunction on both sides of the aisle, the better for Trump – he continues to present himself as the outsider, even now he’s inside.
Trump’s presidency has been punctuated with decisions made – ostensibly – to ignite a series of “culture wars.” Take the unilateral ban on transgender people serving in the military because of the “tremendous cost”. For all his myriad flaws, Trump has mastered the art of activating his core constituency: white, nativist, conservative voters, terrified at the prospect of the culturally caustic, “politically correct” left.
The transgender ban helps obscure the lack of any substantive economic progress – and helps to unite his base around a set of conservative principles thought to be at risk from the liberal left. And so the tradition that only heterosexuals should serve in the military becomes imbued with potent political capital. As Trump well knows, underneath the electoral appeal of his hubris in all things economic (“I will be the greatest jobs President God ever created”) lay a whole range of cultural anxieties.
Positioning himself as the protector of a way of life deemed “under threat” from supporters of abortion, immigration and Black Lives Matter was key to his victory last November. As Alex Shephard writes in New Republic: “To a large extent “Make America Great Again” was a cultural message disguised as an economic one—an air raid siren, rather than a dog whistle, to voters who feared an increasingly diverse country.”
As America’s ideological divisions deepen, the whole gamut of conservative media – from Fox News, to Drudge and Rush Limbaugh – will continue to rally around the Trump campaign 2.0. Neither will Steve Bannon’s departure from the White House stem the influence of white nationalism and Breitbart News.
In a sense, Bannon has already finetuned a means of keeping Trump loyal to his base. For instance, when the President hinted that there might be a discussion to be had on gun control in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre, Mr Bannon reportedly said that if the President goes near the subject “it’s the end of everything.” Lo and behold, no debate has been had.
This media support will help ensure that – come 2020 – Republican-leaning voters are reminded to fear and loathe the Democrats’ leftist, liberal candidate – on cultural grounds above all else. The threat of “Antifa” protests, the menace of young liberals determined to remove historical statues commemorating the confederacy, will be useful to Trump.
It will help to neutralise any toxicity emanating from Trump’s tolerance of Neo-Nazis, say, or the likely lack of legislative progress come election day. For the media, demonising his opponent will likely represent the strategy once again. But this time, the battle will be waged on a political battleground that is – impossibly – even more polarised than last time.
The Electoral College
Imagine it’s election night, the Democrats have failed to coalesce around a winning narrative and culture wars are in full swing, but it’s still hard to believe that a President with such desperately low approval ratings could squeak through once again.
However, as Professor Morgan told Jericho: “Trump’s base is still pretty stable. The Democrats have their work cut out in key states. It is no good winning a popular vote majority and losing the Electoral College, as in 2016.”
Of the more than 120 million votes cast in the 2016 election, 107,000 votes in three states effectively decided the election. At this point, it’s not clear that he’s lost much support among those who helped catapult him to power. Either way, the Trump campaign is already up and running. Republican Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel said: “We’re already engaging voters and volunteers in key battleground states to defend our majorities in 2018 and to ensure we keep the White House in 2020.”
The lack of a credible opposition on the Democrats’ side and an election again contested on cultural grounds (however overtly) mean that a Trump win in 2020 should not be written off, as it was so fatefully almost a year ago.