Since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the US has featured heavily in our news in a way it hasn’t before. Like many, Trump’s victory was a personal source of dismay. But I have not been able to take my eyes off the spectacle that is the Trump Administration. It has been clear from the beginning that this was not a normal Presidency.
And yet, the events of the last few months have shocked and surprised the globe. The year began with Iran’s top security intelligence commander Soleimani being killed in a US airstrike, risking the beginning of a war with the nation. In February, the Senate voted to acquit Trump of his impeachment charges, including abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Only one Republican – Mitt Romney (R-UT) voted to convict.
This was all before March began. In the three months since, 112,000 American citizens are recorded to have died due to COVID-19, the highest number for any country in the world. Trump’s response to the crisis has been highly criticised, with the high death toll being largely credited to his lack of action in various areas. Having abolished Obama’s National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense when he became president along with other pandemic preparedness systems, the US was wildly underprepared for a pandemic, particularly one which is as highly infectious as the Coronavirus. Rather than providing states with the federal aid required to tackle the crisis, Trump recommended Americans take untested combinations of medication for ailments such as malaria, drink bleach, and he criticised and withdrew funding from the WHO for supposedly mishandling the pandemic. Unemployment (although marginally improving in May), still remains at 13.3%. Armed protestors against the lockdown were praised by the President, called ‘great people’ and encouraged to ‘liberate’ their states, as Trump rushed the nation to reopen despite the rising death toll. His coronavirus task force has been redirected to look at reviving the economy, rather than preventing loss of life.
All of this precedes the events since George Floyd’s death. Trump has encouraged the use of military force against peaceful protestors, calling them ‘thugs’, and vowing that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. Protestors have been branded as ANTIFA or anarchists, with ANTIFA being branded as a terrorist group by the US – leading many to agree that Trump does not really understand what ANTIFA (anti-fascism) is. Beyond glorifying violence, Trump had a group of peaceful protestors tear gassed outside of a church near to the White House in Washington D.C, reportedly so that he could have a photoshoot outside of the church with a Bible. In stark contrast to his predecessor, he is yet to address the nation about the recent protests or police brutality and has not called for peace or change. Instead, in an economic address about the rebound in jobs in May, he claimed George Floyd would be “looking down and saying this is a great thing that’s happening in our country. (It’s) a great day for him.”
Any one of these things would be remarkable in any presidency. Any one of these events would be the defining event of a Presidential Administration, and not in a good way. In a normal presidency, the President in question would face such criticism that there would not be a question of whether they would win the next election.
Yet Trump stands.
While this is abnormal, what is even more abnormal is the Republican reaction. Partisanship has been on the rise in the US since the 1980s, and party loyalty is more important than ever. However, the lack of Republican action and admonishment of Trump’s actions is unusual. And it is unusual as it could cost them the election.
It is true that some Republicans and administration officials have come forward to criticise the President’s latest actions, the most notable in the past week being former Secretary of Defence James Mattis. He claimed that Trump is the first President in his lifetime who “does not try to unite the American people – does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us.” Senator Sasse (R-NE) and Senator Collins (R-ME) both made comments which indicated their lack of support for the President’s photo-op incident. Colin Powell, Mitt Romney, and President Bush have made statements outlining their intention to not vote for Trump in November.
All of this could be indicating Trump’s fall from grace within the Republican party. But it has not happened yet. The core of the Republican party is yet to speak out against the President’s actions. While the examples above are notable and their importance should not be diminished, there is a question of whether it is enough. Trump’s approval rating rests at 41%. Are statements, such as those above, a symbolic stance by the party against Trump given the mood of the nation at present? Or does it signal real change within the Republican party?
Many Republicans still defend the President – or at least many have not spoken out. While there are reports of Trump’s actions worrying Senate Republicans, very few have spoken publicly about this fear. In private, Senators are discussing their concerns, but concerns are not raised on the conference or party level. 55% of Americans disapprove of Trump’s actions in reference to the protests, potentially alienating the middle-of-the-road voters that are key for the Republicans to win in November. Therefore, how does it benefit the party to whisper amongst themselves? All sources stating that there is doubt amongst the Republican Senators are anonymous Republicans. There is a distinct sense that Republicans are fearful of speaking out against the President. This is further indicated by the Senate’s approach to economic aid during the pandemic. With nearly 39 million Americans becoming unemployed since the beginning of the pandemic, the economic measures put in place by Congress to aid citizens respond to the crisis have been widely criticised as not being enough. Many are still unable to pay rent. Yet, Republicans in the Senate have – given the recent slight uptake in jobs – indicated they are unwilling to work on another bipartisan deal with the Democrats to boost benefits to aid Americans struggling in the current crisis. Party politics, and defence of Trump’s decisions appears to be a more important factor for many deciding how to respond to the coronavirus crisis than the needs of the people.
Timur Kuran, a Professor of Economics and Political science, has pointed out that regimes persist in spite of their unpopularity. But when the regime crumbles, it will appear sudden. That could be what is occurring here. Extensive criticism of Trump could be fast approaching from all sides within the Republican party. But at present, this does not seem likely. The core of the Republican party and key decision-makers within Congress are yet to act.
This could be for a multitude of reasons; loyalty to the party leader or fear of repercussions from the administration. Personally, I believe it is due to the fact that many Republicans still believe Trump will win in November. Therefore, they stand to gain more from standing with Trump than in contrast to him. But the poll numbers are against him. Biden has a 7 point lead in national polls, with Trump only leading polls in 9 states. Even if Trump wins nationally – which is looking unlikely at present – support for the President can hurt Republicans in their home districts. The Republican party cannot put a Trump victory in the White House above winning the House and Senate. No individual is above the party, but the passive attitude within the party to Trump’s actions makes it appear as though Trump is. Defence of him, at present, could seemingly cost the Republicans the election.
I hope that Republicans will start to break rank. Distancing themselves from the President, while maybe alienating parts of their base, would at present make the party more competitive in the next election in my view. But there is a long way to go until November. The political mood may change, and support of Trump may be the most beneficial course of action for many representatives.
However, protestors across the country have indicated they will not stop until they see change. Coronavirus is still a very prevalent issue, and the potential for a second wave is a significant scientific concern. Trump’s dealing with these issues has been unsatisfactory for many up until now. There is little evidence that this will change.
In order for the GOP (Republican Party) to be successful in any way in November, I believe the Republicans need to seriously reconsider their lack of reaction to Trump’s activity. Otherwise, they risk protecting one man at the expense of the party.