America in 2020: Populist Candidates, Partisanship, and the new Watergate?

America in 2020 Populist Candidates, Partisanship, and the new Watergate
2020 is a critical year in defining the national identity of the future United States.
This follows a century of generally agreed bi-partisan politics between the Democratic Party and Republican Party on questions of capitalist values, foreign policy and the destiny of the country. It has not been called the “American Century” for nothing. However, since 2016, the critical issues of America’s vision and self-image that have been lingering in the backdrop of American politics since the 1970s have come to the fore. 2020 is, therefore, a referendum on which type of America will emerge out of the American Century and play a role in the multipolar world of the 21st Century.

The 1970s were a moment of great self-reflection for the United States’ publics and politics. Like a middle-aged hard rocker who begins to come to terms with the hard-living lifestyle of his 20s, the United States was beginning to feel the creaks, the twitches, the tired joints in its manufacturing economy, political struggles, foreign policy engagements and financial situation. On the one hand, the 1960s’ activism that had led to the Civil Rights Act had unleashed multiple political movements. Feminism, minorities, marginalized groups, ideological cells such as the Weather Underground, and socialists all contributed to the ongoing social change, critique of foreign policy and legal rights’ activism. These social movements were, in many instances, organic coalescences of marginalized groups that sought to combat what they saw as a false consciousness (as promoted in Marxism) among the American public, United States imperialism in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and were encouraging fellow citizens to stay informed.

Yet simultaneously, the 1970s were an era of great disappointment and corruption. First, the American manufacturing base and its middle-class employees experienced the beginnings of a decades-long offshoring process. Among the youth, the wave of 1960s optimism reached a crest in 1968 with the deaths of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy and the riots at the Democratic National Convention. The left-wing movements described earlier, often termed the New Left, began a process of faction fighting, disintegration, and emphasis on the issue of identity for individuals. The 1960s coalitions to fight oppression gave way to identity group politics: a panoply of sub-movements, individualist interests and sects encouraged a political discourse emphasising personal identity as a social construct. These new ideas sought to deconstruct identities, power, and the use of words themselves; meaning that political correctness, as well as intersectionality between multiple personal and political identities, became increasingly prevalent.

At the same time, funding and lobbying among conservative interest group organizers were preparing a decades-long movement that would lead to the growth of the Christian Right in the Bible Belt States, culminating in the elections of George Bush Junior and Donald Trump. Political corruption, first truly put in the limelight with Richard Nixon’s impeachment by the House of Representatives’ judiciary committee for “high crimes and misdemeanours” in the wake of the Watergate Hotel scandal would only grow as the occult politics of the 1980s under Ronald Reagan took over.

If we fast forward past multiple presidential elections, skipping over two Bushes, Clinton and Obama, the 2016 election was a culmination of this crisis in national identity. The populism that Trump tapped into while running for president attracted a smorgasbord of political groups who were alienated from the Democrat and Republican party platform. Left-wing progressives, socialists and minorities failed to support the Democratic Party since they felt betrayed by the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. They believed that the Democratic primaries in 2016 had been rigged against their candidate, the Marxist-influenced Bernie Sanders whose approach seems to be a mix of socialism and liberalism. What particularly rankled the Bernie believers was the perceived cheating of the Democratic National Committee, Party Chairman Debbie Wasserman-Shulz in particular. Yet the centrist and conservative Democrats who backed Hillary Clinton would later themselves feel cheated in November 2016 after winning the popular vote yet losing the electoral college vote top Donald Trump and the Republicans.

Trump, having won the election by locking down the Christian Right and winning over Independents in the mid-western “Rust-Belt” (de-industrialized) states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan with an ideology of economic protectionism and foreign policy isolationism, has proceeded to reverse many of his promises to the independents while managing to hand the pro-life and Christian conservative electorate significant victories through judiciary appointments, mid-term successes and right-wing governors being elected with his support. Many commentators now say the Republican Party has become the party of Trump and expect a Trump victory in 2020. Indeed, the right-wing upsurge of the 1970s, which included many figures who played a part in Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign such as lobbyist Roger Stone, Fox News manager Roger Ailes and Christian leader Jerry Fulwell Jr., has managed to further spread policies and laws impacting voter rights and turnout at the polls – the inappropriately called “Right To Vote” laws.

Yet despite Trump’s apparent successes, including a booming economy spurred by government intervention in fiscal (tax and share-buyback) policies and some success in the trade war with China and with the “tough-guy” approach that Trump has taken in foreign policy, the risk of failures become increasingly great. As the saying goes, “the higher you climb, the harder you fall”. Unlike Barack Obama’s attempt at pluralism-focussed politics, Trump’s aggressive posture has made him significant Democrat, Liberal, Centrist and even conservative enemies. If the majority of Republicans and even independents disapprove of the impeachment, the decision will still be in the hands of 100 Senators now.

Russiagate new Watergate

Just as 2020 should have seen the end of his struggles relating to the so-called “Russiagate” controversy and his focus on re-election, the decision by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to officially begin the process to impeach Trump has reignited his issues. Many commentators say that Trump’s position is safe since the Republican-controlled Senate will promptly dismiss the charges. Yet among the Republican Senators, there are some vocal opponents of Trump and several mild supporters. Florida’s Marco Rubio was publicly shamed by Trump in a career-ending set of infamous moments mocking his “little hands”. Another man who could have his “Et Tu Brute” moment is the similarly mocked 2016 candidate Ted Cruz of Texas. Another name to watch for is Mitt Romney, whose opposition to Trump is not personal but ideological.

Among the more mildly critical Republicans who could turn on Trump due to moral considerations, or because of their distaste for Trump’s style and the impact could be Lamar Alexander, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. While impeachment remains unlikely, the truth is that Trump’s fate is now in the hands of these senators… which must be quite upsetting for someone used to micro-manage their own situation. In any case, the impact of the impeachment itself, regardless of outcome, and the upcoming Democratic primaries and presidential elections, means that 2020 will show the world whether the United States continues hurtling down the path of domestic and international alienation, or whether the political discourse and policies will change toward a more unitary and balanced approach.

By Idir Ouahes

America in 2020: Populist Candidates, Partisanship, and the new Watergate? was last modified: May 4th, 2020 by MIUC
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