In 2016, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton against the odds and landed in the White House.
Promising to bring back jobs to a ‘Rust Belt’ that felt as though they had lost out due to increasing globalisation, Trump won in large part due to his ‘America First’ rhetoric, garnering support from his base with his promises to implement a ‘total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States’ and vow to bring jobs back home.
It appears that Trump is reverting back to that strategy this year in his re-election fight year as he seeks to win a second term, though the political landscape has changed somewhat drastically in the last few months.
Trump has been heavily criticised for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic inside the US. A recent report conducted by the New York Times found that ‘‘the president was warned about the potential for a pandemic but that internal divisions, lack of planning and his faith in his own instincts led to a halting response”. It is not just the ‘fake news media’ criticising the President’s handling of the virus though. Trump’s close friend Piers Morgan speaking with CNN has said that the president has ‘been failing the American people’. This is a damning indictment, particularly considering Morgan had been Trump’s biggest cheerleader on television until recently.
The American electorate are watching closely too, and President’s Trump’s latest move has been to ban immigration from foreign nationals seeking to get permanent residence in the United States. Whilst some see this as the president taking decisive action, Ali Noorani, president of the National Immigration Forum, said: ‘President Trump’s call to suspend immigration to the US ignores the reality of our situation: the fact is that immigrants are standing shoulder to shoulder with US citizens on the frontlines helping us get through this pandemic. How many families would go without health care, food or otherwise if it wasn’t for immigrants working alongside native-born Americans yesterday, today and tomorrow?’. His rhetoric and statements in recent days make his intentions very clear: deflect responsibility and blame others wherever possible. From a president that until recently has been racializing the epidemic by calling the disease the ‘Chinese virus’, it seems Trump is looking for a scapegoat. By initially blaming China and then subsequently the WHO for allegedly covering up the outbreak, it is clear that Trump will not accept any of the blame himself and is desperately trying to pass the buck.
In political science, the term ‘othering’ refers to the act of viewing or treating a person or group as intrinsically different from and alien to your group: ‘us’ and ‘them’. Trump is the master of ‘othering’. He has done it with ‘us’ being the uncorrupted voter and the ‘them’ of the ‘swamp’ of Washington DC. Most dangerously though, Trump has played up the ‘other’ as the immigrant or the foreigner, particularly around election time. During the 2018 midterm election cycle, he deployed National Guard troops to the border to stop the ‘migrant caravan’ from South America crossing the border into the United States. Once the election was over, and the Republicans held onto the Senate, Trump stopped tweeting and speaking about the caravan, which he cared so deeply about just a few weeks earlier.
Trump’s strategy of depicting himself as the strong leader who puts ‘America First’ worked in 2016. Many of his supporters believed him when he said that Mexicans ‘bring drugs…bring crime…are rapists’. They would say he is just a man speaking plainly, without feeling the need to be politically correct. For many politicians, this type of incendiary language would have hurt their electoral chances. But Trump knows that his rhetoric, however polarising, is in touch with his base.
There is a problem for Trump though in the form of the coronavirus. Whichever way you look at it, the facts don’t lie. America has the highest coronavirus death toll in the world. Trump is in an election year and should be held to some degree accountable. Whether or not he is held accountable at the ballot box come November, or whether he manages to blame another marginalised group for America’s problems, ultimately remains to be seen.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr under licence (CC BY-SA 2.0)