Political professionals are so focused on the microdetails of the 2020 elections that they miss the macro trends favouring US President Donald Trump as he kicks off his reelection campaign. They are looking at national and state polls when the “America First” president ought to be viewed in a global context.
The lobbyists, consultants and pundits inside the Beltway are obsessed with recent data that show Trump losing to several Democratic challengers. But surveys taken more than a year before election day are meaningless. More important, Trump benefits from incumbency and continued economic recovery, and he’s riding a wave of national populism that has yet to crest.
Only two of the nine presidents up for reelection since the Second World War have lost. In the past century the public has booted a party from the White House after a single term just once. And Jimmy Carter’s presidency was plagued by foreign policy setbacks and stagflation. Neither condition pertains today.
The United States is not engaged in a major war. And the economic recovery that began in mid-2009 has continued under Trump, with unemployment at half-century lows. Manufacturing employment has increased. Economic growth approached three per cent last year. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has increased by about a third since Inauguration Day 2017.
Circumstances might change, of course. The flare-up with Iran and mixed signals from the bond market remind us that the US political future isn’t a straight-line projection of the present. But Trump is wary of foreign entanglements, and a slowdown is not the same as a recession. Sustained peace and prosperity improve Trump’s chances of a second term.
Revolt against elites
So does the continuing revolt against global elites. One of the many oddities of this presidency is that a uniquely American figure such as Trump is part of a worldwide phenomenon. But there really can be no doubt that Trump was among the first heralds of an anti-elitist turn that has disrupted politics from London to Melbourne. The issues animating this upheaval have not disappeared. Nor is Trump likely to.
Brexit, Election Day 2016, the collapse of the centre-left in France, Germany and Italy, the so-called yellow vest protests, the losses by centrist parties in the recent European elections and a political upset in Australia have been categorised as examples of “populism” or “nationalism.” They are labelled a reaction against “globalisation.” But these grand terms mask as much as they reveal. And they sometimes are used to play down or dismiss political activity that an analyst finds uncouth, retrograde or offensive.
It helps to be more specific.
Behind the rise of outsider politicians such as Trump are the interrelated issues of unchecked immigration, terrorism and the imposition of carbon taxes and other measures to mitigate climate change. Elites’ inability or lack of interest in tackling these problems — or even seeing them as problems — generates a crisis of representation in which large numbers of voters look for alternatives they cannot find within traditional political structures. The results have been unexpected.
The furore surrounding the arrival of unaccompanied children on America’s southern border in 2014 was a harbinger. President Barack Obama’s expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme following his party’s shellacking in the midterm elections that November further polarised a disenchanted Republican electorate. The next summer Trump opened his presidential candidacy with inflammatory remarks about illegal immigration. And Angela Merkel announced, “We can do this” during a visit to a migrant camp in Dresden, Germany. The willingness and capacity of electorates to absorb large numbers of newcomers would be on the ballot. The answer was not what leaders had in mind.
The attacks at the Bataclan theatre in Paris in November 2015, at an office party in San Bernardino, California, two weeks later and at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in June 2016 heightened fears of terrorism. After San Bernardino, Trump welded the issues of terrorism and immigration. His Democratic and Republican opponents rejected the policy. But Republican voters supported it by a wide margin.
Efforts to fight climate change through regulation, international treaties and carbon pricing provoked a similar anti-elitist response. Whereas Obama sought to limit the coal industry, candidate Trump promised to “put the miners back to work” during a boisterous rally in West Virginia in May 2016. The yellow vests appeared in the streets of Paris in the fall of 2018 after the government of Emmanuel Macron proposed a fuel tax. The provincial government of Alberta changed hands last April shortly after a carbon tax went into effect. Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia, whose government was reelected in an upset last month, famously held up a piece of coal before Parliament in 2017 and said, “Don’t be scared.”
What unites these issues is the idea that elites insulate themselves from the costs of the policies they impose on others. It is the idea on which Trump and his anti-elitist supporters base their campaigns. And it shows no sign of abating.
—New York Times News Service
Matthew Joseph Continetti is an American journalist and columnist.