Arvanitakis on American politics: Less than 90 days to the election

| August 8, 2020

We are now less than 90 days away from the USA Presidential elections. Given the pandemic and associated economic downturn, the deep partisanship and continuation of civil unrest associated with Black Lives Matter, a cyclone and bushfire season that is again raising debates about climate change, the next three months are likely to get even more interesting and torrid.

With the President significantly trailing in most national polls, Donald Trump has been floating various ideas that have even caught his staunchest political allies by surprise. The first was the statement to postpone the election due to COVID19 which was quickly rebuked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other leading Republicans.

While the New York Times quickly responded by stating that Trump’s plan would undercut democracy, everyone seemed to have forgotten that they had thrown support behind number of states that had delayed their primaries – particularly progressive states. While it should be noted that the USA has never postponed an election, Trump’s position may have been worth considering if he had taken COVID19 seriously – something he has rarely done.

The second position taken by Trump that surprised many was his statement that he would accept the Republican nomination from the White House. Though we should not be surprised the Democrats were outraged by the suggestion, even some Republicans have been left wondering if it is even legal.

Given this climate, here are three important developments that will help shape the next three months.

Undermining the election process

While Donald Trump does not have the authority to delay the election, he can undermine public confidence in the process and attempt to delegitimise the result if it goes against him. As David Smith discussed in The Conversation, the President has “long made baseless complaints about voter fraud to cast doubt on election results”, claiming that millions of people voted illegally for Hilary Clinton in 2016.

Trump’s claim that mail-in ballots are particularly susceptible to fraud – again with no evidence – are particularly damaging as an increasing number of states are moving in this direction.

One of the strange things about the American system is that activists put as much energy into dissuading voters from casting their ballot as they do in encouraging their supporters to vote. While the Centre for American Progress has long pushed for a ‘pro voter’ environment, Republicans have often worked to suppress certain parts of the public that tend to vote against them.

As Smith noted, Trump’s claims about widespread voter fraud have “significant traction” with many on the right. As such, exaggerated claims about voter fraud have been used to justify measures that suppress minority turnout.

Combined with concerns about Russian interference that have been embraced by Democrats, whoever wins the election will face questions of legitimacy – and again will raise the challenge of governing a divided society.

Biden’s VP pick?

Democratic presumptive candidate, Joe Biden, promised to choose a woman as his running mate. While Biden stated that the announcement would be made this week, he has postponed this. Rumoured frontrunners include Kamala Harris, Karen Bass, Tammy Duckworth and Susan Rice.

If Biden wins, he will be 78 years old at inauguration in January 2021 – making him the oldest president elected. To put this into perspective, Bill Clinton is about to celebrate his 74th birthday.

While Biden has indicated that he will only run one term, his age means that some have raised questions whether he may step down even sooner. This makes his running mate particularly significance.

The Republicans are already lining up a campaign against Biden’s potential choices. As Politico reported, “Donald Trump’s team knows exactly whom it wants: Susan Rice…” because “Trump’s aides and allies accuse Rice… of helping cover up crimes for two of the president’s favourite foils, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, making her just the kind of “deep state” villain who could fire up his MAGA base.”

Unlike previous hopefuls that have nominated female running mates, there is a real possibility of Biden winning. The choice will frame Biden’s campaign as well as Trump’s response. The possible outcome is contemporary politics at its worst.

Protests and ‘law and order’

There is no doubt that following the killing of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) reform movement gained traction across America.

President Trump has not had a successful record on responding to the vexed question of race relations in America and responded poorly. This poor response was aggravated by his attempt to replicate Nixon’s law and order position some 50 years ago.

While Vanity Fair declared this misstep could well cost Trump the election, The Guardian’s Nesrine Malik noted that, everyone “…applauds a movement for social justice until it ‘goes too far’ – when it starts making ‘unreasonable demands’ in the service of its ‘political agenda’.”

Polls confirm broad support for BLM remains strong. Despite this, most oppose the redirecting of police funding (55 percent), the removal of statues of Confederate Generals (52 percent) as well as past presidents who owned slaves (68 percent).

If a week is a long time in politics, three months is an eternity. Given the tone of 2020 so far, anything could happen. For Biden supporters, November cannot come soon enough. For Trump, everyday offers an opportunity to make November seem even further away.