In 2008, Americans voted for change. A bright, charismatic young senator from Illinois ignited the imagination of the American voting public. Disillusioned with the political class, and opposed to the direction the country was headed, they lined up for hours to cast their vote, not just for America’s first black president, but for the man they believed could change the system and represent their interests rather than those of corporate donors and the billionaire-class. After eight years in office, and little change in Washington D.C., President Obama, by his own rhetoric as a yard stick, failed to change Washington, which by the end of his administration had already started to sink back into the, so called, swamp.
In fairness, as soon as Obama swore his oath, Republicans in Congress were already laying out their strategy to oppose, slow and, if possible, derail his agenda. That is, as they say, politics. The Republicans may have lost the election, but they still had a constituency to represent. That constituency made itself heard during the 2010 re-birth of the modern Tea Party which, yes, was comprised mostly of Republicans, but also disillusioned Obama voters who viewed his bailout of the banks and Wall Street, during the Global Financial Crisis, as a betrayal, leaving them – the middle and working class – to pick up the pieces.
The Tea Party movement, while ironically commandeered by billionaires and Wall Street, planted the seed for the reactionary movement that was to come. While in its early iteration the movement propelled rising stars like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, it also captured the attention of property developer and reality TV star, Donald Trump. The messaging coming from the Tea Party echoed much of what Trump had been saying for the past thirty years. However, as time went on, and once elected, the Tea Party’s rising stars drank the swamp water and, before long, began singing from the establishment song sheet of tax cuts and smaller government as the core “solutions” to America’s problems. In 2012, the Republican establishment did what they usually do and ran an old-style economic liberal and social conservative candidate, Mitt Romney, who campaigned on the same tired and unimaginative policies of tax cuts and smaller government. In a choice between the establishment Romney and the incumbent president who was again offering hope that he could still change the system, voters clung to the latter and re-elected Obama.
Cut to 2015, the lead up to an open seat presidential election (so named because the incumbent president isn’t running) and the field is flooded with Republican candidates chasing the Party’s nomination. It was a mix of legacy establishment candidates like Jeb Bush and John Kasich, and the new generation GOP candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz – again, all humming the same tune. On the Democrats’ side the Clinton machine had all but won the battle before it was fought – spending the preceding three years taking over the DNC and skewing the nomination process in Hillary Clinton’s favour. Only a handful of unknowns put up their hands to compete for the nomination, only to be brushed aside by Democrat voters as uninspiring, with one exception: former democratic socialist Senator Bernie Sanders. Despite his early momentum with young voters, the Clinton machine wrote off Sanders as an eccentric nobody – an almost fatal move.
Enter (or should I say ascend down a golden escalator) Donald Trump. In a choreographed for TV event, Trump announced he was running for president. But, gold and marble lobby surrounds aside, this was no ordinary announcement. Trump, speaking mostly off the cuff, used this highly televised speech to blast the establishment of both parties, blaming them for the state of decay he believed America had fallen into. The content of the speech was confronting, striking a tone eerily similar to the Netflix show House of Cards which had aired an episode earlier that year depicting fictional president Frank Underwood declaring to the nation, “The American Dream has failed you. Work hard? Play by the rules? You aren’t guaranteed success. Your children will not have a better life than you did.” In his announcement speech, Trump took it further: “Sadly, the American Dream is dead” he proclaimed. For many Americans, hearing those words said aloud by an actual presidential candidate echoed their own long held feelings about America in 2016. They had worked hard and played by the rules, but what did they have to show for it? Nothing, many concluded. If the hope they had placed in Obama changing the system hadn’t worked, Americans had now decided they were prepared light the fuse by sending in Trump to blow the system up.
One by one, the establishment GOP candidates fell to Trump as he crisscrossed the country in his private Boeing 757 jet, appropriately referred to by his supporters as ‘Trump Force One’. In the end only two serious contenders remained: the former Tea Party stars Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, having only won three and 11 states, respectively. Both withdrew from the race and eventually endorsed Trump as the Republican nominee. The hostile takeover of the Republican Party by Trump had not only shaken up the GOP, it would completely re-orientate the American political paradigm, replacing the economic libertarianism of tax cuts and smaller government with a bold and audacious economic nationalism that made the interests of the American working and middle-classes paramount, and ushered in the new parlance of ‘fair trade’ over just free trade.
Clinton struggled to capture the excitement of the Democrats’ base in the way Bernie Sanders had managed to do. Nevertheless, the Clinton machine had clenched the Democrats’ Super Delegates (comprised of party apparatchiks and former political office holders) and turned their sites to Trump. Again, voters were being offered a choice between an economic neo-liberal establishment figure defending the record of the previous administration and the status quo, or an outsiders’ economic nationalist message of America First. FBI investigations and Wikileaks aside, Trump’s campaign resonated with those Americans who felt they had been left behind by the economic policies of previous administrations and so, as they did for Obama, millions of those forgotten Americans cast their vote for Trump.
In 2020, history is repeating itself. Trump, now the incumbent, has spent the past three years implementing his American First policies that had not only yielded, arguably, the strongest American peacetime economy in the nation’s history, with record unemployment numbers for almost all demographics, but also saw the reset of the global order, reorienting American foreign policy away from acting as the Free World’s Atlas, and towards a multinational effort of free nations – now rebuilt and highly advanced since the end of the Second World War – to share the burden militarily, if not then financially, of defending the Free World in the 21st century.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, now the Democrats’ nominee for president, finds himself curiously in a similar situation to Clinton in 2016. After a bruising early Democrat primary packed with prominent candidates, including the resurgent Sanders, Biden has come out the other end in an unenviable position of having to both defend the Obama administration’s liberal record and attempt to reconcile the more radical policies and causes being championed by an ascendant New Left, comprised of Sanders aligned democratic socialists. The only thing holding those two competing factions together seems to be their shared hatred of Trump. One may rightly anticipate that, if they were successful in defeating Trump, the two factions would descend into open conflict for control of the Democrat Party. It’s hard to see a President Biden being able to maintain party unity beyond the election.
An example of this tricky situation are the protests for police reform, which began following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The protests briefly began as peaceful, but were quickly highjacked by anarchists and militant communist agitators calling themselves ‘ANTIFA’ – a name previously used by German communist groups in the 1930s. ANTIFA and its supporters have used the cover of the protests to attack police, bystanders and anyone they determine to be opposed to their political ideology. They’ve been widely supported by New Left Democrats who have joined their calls to defund the police.
In the beginning, Biden and his new running mate, Kamala Harris, both backed the protests, with Harris declaring that the agitators “are not going to stop. Everyone beware, because they’re not going to stop before Election Day in November, and they’re not going to stop after Election Day”. As the protests continued to grow increasingly violent the Trump campaign capitalised on Biden’s hesitation to condemn the rioting, by pivoting their campaign narrative to one of law and order. Biden has since been forced to publicly condemn the rioters and agitators. However, Biden’s team know he is walking a thin line trying to draw a distinction between supporting the peaceful protestors and the brave police officers who are trying maintain the peace, and the radical rioters, supported by the New Left, and the police officers and policing practices that led to Floyd’s death. When discussing the protests and the police, Biden may ironically need to make his case by pointing out that there are “some very fine people on both sides”.
Biden’s work to maintain a unified party and present an acceptable vision for America to voters has been made even more difficult thanks to Congressional Democrats’ insistence on using parliamentary tactics to attack, delegitimise and ultimately remove Trump from office through impeachment. Since Trump’s election, Democrats have transformed themselves from a party of government – having maintained their majority in the House of Representatives for much of the post-Second World War period – and into something that harkens back to the short-lived Anti-Jacksonian Party of the 1820s, whose primary organizing principles was defeating President Andrew Jackson.
Distracted with conspiracy theories and dodgy dossiers, Democrats have failed to regroup and reassess what went wrong in their 2016 campaign, and why Americans in a majority of states, including traditionally ‘blue states’ turned their backs on them. Parliamentary tactics and personal smears aren’t going to be enough to win an election. Americans aren’t schmucks, they know, as Obama put it in 2008 that “when you don’t have a record to run on, you paint your opponent as someone people should run from”. In order to bring back those disillusioned voters that put both Obama and Trump into the White House, Biden and Harris will need to clearly articulate a new vision that will propel the country forward, and not backwards to the old status quo.
One Trump policy a Biden administration would be expected to continue is America’s new hawkish China policy. It may have taken Trump to finally act on China, but establishment Democrats in Congress are now well aware of the challenges the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) poses to the world order and to America’s interests. They will push Biden to continue to counter the CCP’s global debt-trap diplomacy through its Belt and Road Initiative – more aptly named Bait and Switch Initiative. However, Biden will need to avoid the pit fall of readopting the post-Cold War defense arrangements America’s allies had come to exploit. A war fatigued American public will not accept America returning to the role of the world’s sole police man (at least not for the foreseeable future). Trump’s policy of America leading a multinational collaboration of free nations all contributing militarily and financially to the defense of the Free World is the key to being able to sustain a long geopolitical struggle with China.
At the time of writing, there is less than 60 days to go until Election Day, and the polls look to be extremely close. Again, an eerily similar situation to 2016. Trump is still seen by voters as the best candidate to manage America’s economic recovery from the CCP’s Coronavirus, and his campaign’s law and order messaging is resonating in key battleground states where videos of burning cities are still flooding their newsfeeds.
The debates (assuming there will be more than one), will be the deciding factor of the election, October surprises or not. Unless an extremely rehearsed Biden can show up to the debates, stick to his lines and not lose his train of thought, Trump will depict him as not only unable to control the radical elements now infiltrating the Democrat Party, but also show Biden is in cognitive decline and that, if elected, Americans can’t trust that it will be Biden actually running the country.
Regardless of who wins, one thing is certain: the very notion of what it means to be a Republican or a Democrat will be reshaped, ushering in a long lasting new political paradigm for America in the 21st century, with the ripple effects felt all over the world.
Matt Versi is a public policy advocate and strategic communications specialist, advising multi-national companies and government leaders, including serving on the staff of the Hon Scott Morrison MP, Prime Minister of Australia. Find out more my visiting MattVersi.com.