Donald Trump's approval ratings are low, but can that be converted into an election defeat? Kate O'Neil looks in more detail
Donald Trump’s popularity has taken a dive over the past two months, and we now have visual proof of it. At his campaign rally in Tulsa on Saturday--an event he had bragged for weeks would attract over a million fans, quash any protesters and provoke an overall ‘wild night’ -he addressed a half-empty 19,000-capacity stadium while grounds crews dismantled excess capacity tents outside. His attempt to dispel the myth of polling numbers falling from the sky with evidence of concrete support on the ground has only served to highlight the precarious position he is now in, heading into the November elections.
Since early April, more Americans have disapproved than approved of the way the president has handled the pandemic, and that gap has steadily widened. A solid majority, 54%, now disapprove. Over 40 million people filing for unemployment benefits since March and a death toll of 117,000 is not a good look in an election year, and things are not set to improve. Last week ten states experienced record-high rates of daily infection, including states like Florida, Arizona, Alabama, and Texas, where Republican governors insisted on loosening lockdowns early. While Senate Republicans block the passage of a new economic relief bill in the Senate, the Federal Reserve anticipates ‘significant uncertainty’ in the economy in the months ahead, especially for low-income and minority workers.
At the same time, only around a third of Americans have approved of Trump’s crackdown on Black Lives Matter protests. And this is not just an expression of aversion to violence and disorder. The movement is shifting the country’s consciousness of racial oppression. 62% of likely voters now have a favourable view of the Black Lives Matter movement, up from 37% in 2016. Solidarity with the movement has even begun to penetrate some cultural spheres important for Trump supporters. The National Football League has apologised for its previous blackballing of players who have protested police brutality on the field, and NASCAR racing has banned the use of the Confederate flag at its events. Former MAGA supporters have even formed a Facebook group called I regret voting for Donald Trump in 2016.
While Republican Party politicians have maintained their fealty thus far, further slides in Trump’s appeal could push more to break rank. According to a former Congressional aide:
'Members of Congress are not afraid of Trump; they are afraid of their voters and constituents. As long as he has a stranglehold on them and is able to communicate directly with them, this is not going to change.'
A multitude of right-wing establishment figures have paved the way for this over the past weeks, which could be a harbinger of things to come. In early June, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis publicly accused Trump of making a ‘mockery of the Constitution’ when he used teargas to disperse protesters for a photo op across the street from the White House. Mark Milley, the highest-ranking officer in the US Armed Forces, wrote a written apology in the press for appearing with Trump in this photo-op, as it created ‘a perception of the military involved in domestic politics’.
In the run-up to the Tulsa rally, Trump received nothing short of a pummelling in the courts by conservative judges. Last Monday, the Supreme Court, which is majority conservative, ruled that members of the LGBTQ community were entitled to protection against job discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a position the Trump administration had argued against. On Friday, the high court blocked Trump’s legal challenge to DACA, an Obama-era programme to grant legal status to immigrants who had arrived in the US as undocumented minors. And on Saturday, former national security advisor John Bolton was given the green light from a Republican-appointed federal district court judge to publish a memoir filled with damning indictments of the president.
Trump’s chances of winning in the November election now look worse than they did at this time in 2016. Biden currently leads Trump by nine percentage points in the polls, and he has regularly polled above the 50% mark. This puts Biden in a better position than Hilary Clinton in 2016, who never polled higher than in the low forties. Likewise, a number of states that Trump won handily in 2016, like Georgia and Ohio, are now real contests. Biden’s campaign has also received an influx of new donations since the start of Black Lives Matter protests, including a convincing nod from the ruling elite. Thirty-two billionaires gave money to the Biden campaign in March, compared with fifteen who shelled out for Trump.
But Humpty Dumpty still has a few tricks up his sleeve. It is important to remember that Trump won the presidency in 2016, not by winning the popular vote but by winning a majority of votes on the Electoral College. Because the Electoral College gives added advantage to some less populous—and often more conservative—states, Biden needs to win the popular vote by a large margin to carry the day. As a recent piece in New York Magazine argued, the election could come down to a few battlegrounds: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin. While Biden currently leads the polls in all but two of them, his lead in all of them is smaller than his national lead, exposing him to the possibility of popular majorities that do not translate to Electoral College majorities in some states.
Voter disenfranchisement could give Trump another edge. Over the past decade, Republicans have heaped voting restrictions on state after state, so that in half of all states voters now have more hoops to jump through than they did ten years ago. These include requiring a state ID or additional paperwork to register and limitations on who can vote early or absentee. In fact, as 2016 was the first presidential election in which 14 states had implemented some of these restrictions, it could be argued that they helped Trump win last time around. This year, the impact of the restrictions will likely be worse due to the Coronavirus. As Mother Jones has pointed out,
'Voter ID laws are far more discriminatory when the Department of Motor Vehicle offices are shuttered. Purges are more harmful when removed voters cannot easily reregister. Limited polling places and five-hour waits are especially pernicious under the threat of viral infection. And voter registration and traditional get-out-the-vote efforts have stalled.'
Such obstacles to voting will most affect low-income and minority constituencies that are more likely to vote for Democrats, and Trump is banking on this to win the race. His campaign has invested millions of dollars in lawsuits to prevent the expansion of mail-in balloting, claiming that if he does not win them ‘it puts the election at risk.’
But the main factor keeping the Trump campaign alive maybe how uninspiring his rival is. Instead of an articulate, visionary contrast to Trump in this time of great political awakening, Biden embodies a low-energy, pandering, and bumbling return to the status quo. As Jeremy Scahill wryly described it in The Intercept,
'we are not actually being asked to vote for Biden as the candidate, because the Biden we see is a shell of his former self. We are being asked to vote for a spin-off of the Obama show, a cast of familiar characters, and a few exciting new additions who would take charge of the executive branch, without the popular star of the original show among the visible cast.'
While voting against Trump will be reason enough for many to cast a ballot for Biden, it will not be enough—and rightly so--for the millions of people who are thirsting for the kind of transformative change proposed by the Bernie Sanders campaign, the Black Lives Matter uprising and the renascent trade union movement. On issue after issue, his record and platform show he has much more to do with the problems activists are fighting against than the solutions they are looking to. Keeanga Yahmatta-Taylor put this succinctly in The New Yorker:
'When Republicans insist on tying work requirements to food stamps in the midst of a pandemic, with unemployment at more than thirteen percent, they are conjuring the punitive spirit of the policies shaped by Clinton, Biden, and other leading Democrats throughout the nineteen-nineties.'
Biden’s stance on policing is a prime example of this. As a senator of Delaware, he worked closely with police to draft the largest crime bill in the history of the country. Enacted in 1994, the Omnibus Crime Act put 100, 000 more police on the street, pumped $9.7 billion into prisons and expanded the use of the federal death penalty. He has paid lip service to Black Lives Matter but has already stated that he does not support the movement’s central demand to defund the police. Instead, he has put forward a plan for police reform that simply rehashes the very Obama-era measures the last ten years have proven to be ineffective: more diversity in the police force, police-community engagement, and use of body cameras.
It also remains to be seen who he chooses as his vice-presidential running mate. To appeal more to a broad electorate he is currently fielding a number of women candidates for the role, which would undoubtedly help his campaign. But activists are already sounding alarms about three of the candidates who have made their careers enforcing law and order: Kamala Harris, a former state prosecutor; Val Demings, a former police chief; and Amy Klobuchar, who as a county prosecutor in 2006 failed to bring charges against George Floyd’s murderer Derek Chauvin in an assault case.
Biden looks equally culpable—and incapable—when it comes to addressing the healthcare and unemployment crises. Throughout the primaries, he has refused to yield to progressive demands that he put single-payer healthcare on his platform, insisting he would veto it if a bill passed through Congress because of its high cost. Instead, he proposes a continuation of Obamacare, which has left 40 million Americans uninsured and allows private health insurance companies to continue to cream off the system. He has always been friendly with the pharmaceutical industry and, unlike other Democratic primary candidates, has not pledged to use government authority to force them to lower the cost of a coronavirus vaccine.
On job creation, a winning campaign issue for Trump in 2016, he looks especially weak. As a senator, he voted for the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a deal which moved unionised industrial jobs overseas since the 1990s, and is widely seen as a contributing factor to the precarity many American workers feel today. Perhaps this is the reason that, even while Biden has fared better overall at the polls for months, a survey in early May found 11% more voters thought Trump was ‘better suited to create jobs’ than Biden.
He cannot be trusted to erect a social safety net for those in long-term unemployment either. Bernie Sanders made this point repeatedly in the primaries, drawing attention to a statement Biden made in 1995 about cutting funds to Social Security, the state pension and sacred cow of the American welfare state:
'When I argued that we should freeze federal spending, I meant Social Security as well. I meant every single solitary thing in the government. And I not only tried it once, I tried it twice, I tried it a third time, and I tried it a fourth time.'
Social Security was far too popular to trash and burn as Wall Street might have wished, and Biden eventually had to U-turn on Social Security cuts. But one pillar of the welfare state that he did succeed in dismantling—and has not openly regretted-- is the cash benefit for low-income families. In 1996 he followed Clinton’s ‘welfare to work’ agenda and voted to put such restrictions on the programme that the number of poor families receiving assistance shrank from 68% in 1996 to 22% in 2018. Black families were not only used as scapegoats to carry out these cuts, they have disproportionately suffered as a result.
From these issues to his support for the Iraq war, to his conservative records on abortion, immigration, and LGBTQ rights, to his watered-down version of Green New Deal, Biden stands out as an establishment politician who may say the right things to get elected but who bases his decisions in government on what pleases the billionaire donors who back him. This impression is just as clear to the disaffected white working-class voters who are rethinking their vote for Trump in 2016 as it is to the progressive, multiracial constituencies that are criticising the Democrats from the left. Biden is beating Trump at the polls despite his weaknesses, not because of his appeal.
What is driving Trump’s current predicament is the conjuncture of two phenomena: his failure to handle the current health and economic crises on the one hand and, on the other, the growth of social protests. Biden may not provide much contrast to Trump, but the mass anti-racist marches and strikes in cities across the country for Juneteenth Day this weekend certainly provided contrast with Trump’s pathetic event the next day. The movements of today—from the Sanders campaign to Black Live Matter, to walkouts in workplaces over COVID-19—represent the rise of a left-wing populism that is providing an alternative to Trump’s dead-end right-wing populism. This is why these movements must continue to raise their demands, organise independently, and resist pressure to fold up shop and get out the vote for Biden. Biden may be seen as a lesser evil to Trump, but he does not provide the route out of the crisis that working-class people need.
Furthermore, campaigns for ‘lesser evil’ Democrats helped to create the context for Trump’s ascent. For decades, the Democratic Party has taken Black and working-class votes for granted, tailoring its campaigns to moderate middle-class suburbanites, and co-opting and subduing Black and working-class demands in the process. This phenomenon has lowered voter turnouts in recent years among Black and working-class voters in presidential elections (Obama’s being an exception) and sent a significant section of disgruntled white workers fleeing into the arms of politicians like Trump.
It is impossible to say exactly what twists and turns election 2020 will take in the weeks and months ahead. There are so many variables: what trajectory the health and economic crises will take, how Trump and Biden will respond, how the Black Lives Matter movement will develop, whether more trade union struggles will emerge. But Trump’s downfall is not a done deal, so watching from the sidelines is not an option. Those who want to see Trump and his corrupt clownery relegated to the annals of history must help to strengthen independent grassroots movements that call for single-payer healthcare, defunding the police, a robust Green New Deal, and solidarity of the 99%. This will help to tip the balance away from Trump in November and ensure that the 99% is ready to resist whether the greater or the lesser evil wins.
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