Photo: Illustration/FPI BH
By Emina Kuhinja
Triple pandemic attack, police brutality and racial division, numerous global enemies, lost political partners, disrupted reputation, taken together with a president who is announcing his intention to preserve his status by all means, stand for the current situation in what is perceived to be a model of democracy – the United States of America (USA). More like a scenario for a dystopian movie than a political setting in a democratic country, this context serves President Donald Trump very well, as he does not fail in entertaining the wider masses with his typical performance of Trumpism. Certainly, to never underestimate Trump should have been a lesson learned after the 2016 Presidential elections.
With the 2020 presidential elections coming up in the US and having in mind the state of affairs in the US and globally, one has to question the notion of making America great again during Donald Trump’s four-year term. Not only have new problems emerged, but the old ones persisted and even amplified. Understanding the current issues and ways in which the ongoing situation is (not) handled by the current president is key to exploring the U.S. context in the run up to November elections.
Although Trump’s public appearances sometimes seemed entertaining to the rest of the world, the truth is that American administration managed to achieve some accomplishments. The most lasting impact of Trump’s administration may be seen in the federal judiciary, through a series of appointments. Specifically, Donald Trump appointed 53 judges for the U.S. courts of appeals (more often referred to as circuit courts) during his first mandate, compared to 55 appointments over the course of two mandates, made by the former U.S. president Barack Obama. Considering the fact that these courts are regarded as the most powerful and influential in the United States, consisted of federal judges with life tenure, this essentially means that the impact of those appointments under Trump’s administration will be a lasting one. To grasp the magnitude of this impact, it is important to understand the role of those courts in the U.S. politics. Namely, because of their ability to set legal precedents in US states and the fact that their appeals are taken to the Supreme Court of the United States, they have a strong policy influence on many aspects of the United States’ law. Thus, the final decision delivery will be influenced by conservatives appointed in those courts, whether Trump stays after elections or not.
Furthermore, what will count as Trump’s most memorable, and yet one of the most controversial ones, legislative achievement is the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, signed into law in December 2017. Some of the changes brought by the law include reduced tax rates for businesses and individuals, increased standard deduction and family tax credits, as well as an increase in stock prices. The main expected outcomes of this law include increase in deficits to stimulate the economy, increase in GDP and percentage of employment. Despite Republicans’ enthusiasm about the tax overhaul, the British Guardian reported that the law has still been perceived with a certain level of controversy by a group of tax law professors from the U.S., who argued it to be a ”rushed and secretive process that resulted in a deeply flawed legislation”. Mainly democrats opposed the legislation, while perceiving it as contributing only to corporations and high earners at the expense of middle-class communities.
When it comes to the question of national security, in March 2019, Trump’s administration succeeded in leading the operation against the so-called Islamic state, who lost its forcibly occupied territory, as well as their terrorist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi later in that same year. It is the results like these that contributed to an increase in popularity of Trump’s rhetoric on making America great (again) prior to the pandemic.
On the other hand, his leadership has been questioned and contested throughout his term, primarily due to his populistic narrative, controversial statements and neglection of science in policy-making. The most recent example of this lies in Trump’s (mis)handling of the ongoing pandemic situation caused by the outbreak of COVID-19 virus. By not introducing adequate measures, the US became the country worst hit by the virus in the world. Irrespective of that, the decision for the United States to withdraw their membership in the World Health Organization (WHO) stands as yet another hasty and irrational move, predicted to result in a disastrous scenario for the public health.
Another key feature of Trump’s term have been public protests against police brutality, sparked by the death of George Floyd, which further intensified the existing racial tensions. Still, Trump continued to downplay this issue, often avoiding comments unless they entailed criticism of the protestors. Participants of the protests have been referred to as criminals and thugs, criticized for practicing their democratic right to protest and raise their voices to protect minority rights. This portrays the ambiguity of Trump’s politics: the freedom of choice on the one hand entailing the choice to (dis)respect the restrictive measures and the use of masks, but neglecting this choice when it comes to organizing protests against the systemic threat towards Afro-Americans, Hispanics and immigrants. Finally, Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacist groups caused a huge public outrage.
Trump’s disruptive policies have continued throughout the election campaign. His efforts to secure a second term include blocking of the revenue for the U.S. Postal Service, to ensure a more difficult ballot processing, which he believes could deliver votes that go in favor of his opponent. For Democrats, these disruptive attempts clearly underline that the president is trying to limit voting rights, while further exposing the voting population to the dangers of the virus if they go to the polls.
On top of all that, the death of justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was yet another hit for all those who respect democratic principles in the USA. Her death has caused a serious debate between Democrats and Republicans, as well as among wider public. Democrats have strongly argued for judge replacement to take place after the elections, whereas Trump opposed this, starting the nomination process way before the very elections scheduled for November 3rd.
Trump’s election campaign was briefly disrupted when the President, the First Lady and some members of the Republican Party got infected by COVID-19. However, Trump’s controversial return to the White House after less than a week since contagion, meant to represent his strength and to support a perception among his voters that the virus is not as strong as claimed by scientists. Furthermore, Trump claimed that his infection was a “blessing from God”, as he got to learn more about the treatment, which he falsely identifies as the cure. In his public address, Trump claimed to be able to provide the same treatment to Americans.
All in all, global reputation of USA has been damaged by Trump’s leadership, marked by divisive politics, fear and spreading hatred. The image of US democracy prior to 2016 is now significantly distorted by internal conflicts and division, which are threatening to damage the legacy of American democratic heritage. Trump is attempting to convince the public and voters that Democrats want anarchy, protests, looting and free movement of migrants. On the other hand, he aims to create a perception that Republicans are the only true patriots and heroes, who are there to protect the rule of law, and the rights provided by the US Constitution.
Trump’s leadership style centers on rhetoric that upholds populist rhetoric. Trump’s most recent statement that the elections should be treated as unjust if he is not re-elected raises new concerns and uncertainties in regards to the upcoming US elections.
The end of Trump’s first mandate brings along more questions than answers. Is America ‘great again’? Maybe for some, but many in the US and globally, the U.S. democracy has suffered greatly throughout Trump’s term in office. The consequences of his mandate will remain visible for a long time, whether Trump gets re-elected or not. The final decision is on the American people, and if re-elected, Trump will certainly shape the U.S. democracy for the foreseeable future.