"Not capable of winning a majority at the moment"
Riots, coronavirus, downturn: The incumbent US president is anything but a master in overcoming the triple crisis. Michael Hochgeschwender, specialist in American studies, on the prospects for a change of government
"When the looting begins, the shooting begins" - is a Donald Trump with such threats, tweeted at the beginning of the riots in Minneapolis, still capable of gaining a majority in the US today?
Hochgeschwender: Not at the moment, and basically he was never really capable of winning a majority. Already four years ago he did not have a majority, at least not in the popular vote at the ballot boxes. And in the opinion polls that are regularly conducted in the US, there has always been a majority of Americans who disagree with him. In the course of the last weeks he also very clearly lost approval with central groups of voters who always stood by his side, for instance white Evangelicals and white Catholics. And the quote he tweeted there is quite problematic, it stems from a racist context. No, at least for now, he's not capable of winning a majority.
What's Trump hinting at in that sentence?
Hochgeschwender: It stems from one of the Hot Summers, the years of race riots in the big American cities. Back then, in 1967, the Miami police chief made it, so to speak, a program to have police or national guard shoot at looters. This was quite common in the context of the time. But the announcement has further escalated the situation.
There is talk today of a divided country, of the "Un-United States of America." It is said that racism has always covered up the class line. Where do the deepest rifts run through American society?
Hochgeschwender: American society has always been deeply divided. It is no coincidence that in this country in the 19th century a bloody civil war took place between the Northern and Southern states that was based on slavery. This rupture continues to have an effect to this day. There have always been the racial lines, the systemic oppression of the black population by the white majority. But there have also been class conflicts within the white population, if one thinks back to the violent strikes especially at the turn of the 20th century. There have always been ethno-cultural conflicts, such as the oppression of the Irish, but also of the Jews in the 19th century, which were largely excluded from the societal center. There has been discrimination against immigrants, there has been anti-Catholicism, there has been anti-Mormon violence. Some of these conflicts are now considered to have been overcome. But they have been replaced, as it were, by discrimination against immigrant Latinos and immigrant blacks from the West Indies, as well as by the heated debate on illegal migration to the US.
Commentators across the board are currently speaking of a triple crisis in the US: Coronavirus, riots, downturn and impoverishment. In all three cases the Trump administration has thoroughly messed up any crisis management. Out of pure inability or in parts even by calculation?
Hochgeschwender: When dealing with the protesters of the "Black Lives Matter" movement, one can certainly see some calculation. Trump serves the expectations of its dominant white electorate in the South and Midwest. His main thrust is actually the Latinos, that has shifted a little bit with the riots. Above all, he is trying to establish himself as a law-and-order president in the wake of Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan. But here, too, he lacks a positive vision, which both Nixon and Reagan have always conveyed. Nixon was quite capable of discussing with protesting students; I can't imagine Trump doing that.
And when it comes to managing the coronavirus crisis?
Hochgeschwender: There it was, I would say, simply inability, as if Trump could not think in terms of categories of exponential growth. The economic crisis is a result of the coronavirus. Before the pandemic broke out, the US economy was in extremely good shape, but this does not mean that the poorer sections of the population were really better off than before. When most of the poorer people in the US need three jobs to support their families, this shows a massive social imbalance in society. But we must also mention a fourth crisis: a generational conflict. Among the protesters are many relatively young white academics. This also has to do with the fact that under Trump there was not even an attempt to cushion the sometimes difficult situation of university graduates. If you graduate from a very good American university today, you have debt that you may be paying off for the rest of your life. So various crises come together here, a one-sided reduction to the anti-racism label describes the situation in a too undifferentiated manner.
At the latest with his threat to use the military against protesters, he has also turned the grandees of the Republicans against him: George W. Bush, Colin Powell, James Mattis. Would the party establishment like to get rid of him now after all?
Hochgeschwender: The party establishment has never loved him. For three years, it has been looking for a way to distance itself from him. The question is always, who has the freedom to distance himself? The members of the House of Representatives are very dependent on Trump, only if he campaigns for them do they have a chance of being re-elected. Someone like George W. Bush, who is no longer in the political business and who has a score to settle with Trump because of his brother Jeb Bush from the last election campaign, doesn't have to be considerate.
Where else does Trump keep his battalions? Also the white middle class and especially the female voters are turning away from Trump, it is said.
Hochgeschwender: Suburbia’s white women have always been comparatively skeptical when it comes to Trump. There are several reasons for this - in particular, they pay a lot of attention to morale and character, not exactly Trump's strengths. His core voters are indeed embittered members of the white lower middle classes in the suburbs, in part skilled workers in the run-down industrial regions of the North and Midwest, such as coal workers in West Virginia, steel workers in Pennsylvania and Ohio, or workers in the automotive industry in Michigan. In addition, there are white Evangelical men between 50 and 70, white conservative Catholics, who have reasons to vote for him, not because they love him particularly, but because the Democrats are ineligible for them, for example because of their attitude towards late-term abortions.
He recently tried to woo his religious voters with a controversial appearance in the media: In Washington, he had a demonstration forcefully removed for himself and his entourage, only to stand in front of a church for the media and hold up a bible. Did it produce the desired results?
Hochgeschwender: This appearance not so much, it was embarrassing, and many conservatives, especially from Catholic circles, agree. The second performance, which he gave the day after, at the shrine for St. John Paul II, was much more carefully prepared and orchestrated. Most in the Catholic and Evangelical camp do not believe him anyway that he personally is really religious. Interestingly, most conservative Catholics consider the opponent Joe Biden to be more personally religious, but he is still out of the question for them.
In the polls, Biden has had a stable lead over Trump for half a year. To what extent should these figures be treated with caution, if only because of the particularities of the US electoral system?
Hochgeschwender: As always, these should be enjoyed with caution. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton also had a lead over Trump for a long time. It's interesting to see where Biden stands in the states that matter. There are only a handful of states that have large numbers of swing voters; for the rest you know the result in advance, and voting wouldn’t be necessary there. In Oklahoma, the Democrats will not win, and in Massachusetts the Republicans have no chance. But what about Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania or North Carolina, maybe even Florida? Biden leads in all these states except in North Carolina. The problem is that his lead in the polls is between 0.2 and 3.5 percentage points - and thus within the error margin of plus/minus five percentage points. So everything is still very fluid and can change until the fall - in both directions.
After all, Joe Biden is not exactly seen as the bearer of hope, as a man of the future. How did this duel ever come about? Does this not reveal a general structural imbalance in the choice of candidates?
Hochgeschwender: There is in fact a structural problem. In the primary elections, both parties fall apart, if you like, and sort themselves out again. And until then, the party activists are the ones who count the most: The candidate who is most convenient for the party activists is elected. Now their opinion is not identical with that of the majority of the American people. In the case of the Democrats, the party is also ethnically, religiously, ideologically, culturally and economically more heterogeneous than that of the Republicans. And within this heterogeneous party there are at least two major opinions about how to change the situation: One wing, the classic Liberals, wants to bring back the core voters who have migrated to the Republicans.
And the other one?
Hochgeschwender: That one is committed to progressive-emancipatory politics and the coalition with ethnic minorities and LGPDQI activists, with a shot of socialism, such as the Bernie Sanders wing. In this constellation, Joe Biden has established himself as the one who best represents the party establishment. He has the best-functioning political machine and has the Clintons behind him who can at least bring him the core of the black electorate. This is the paradox of the activist wing: Although it claims to speak for the blacks, the blacks do not vote for it because it is mainly made up of white academics. Sanders was able to hold out the longest of Biden's opponents, probably because he was in a relatively good financial position with many small donations. The moment the primaries went south and black voters became important, Sanders dropped out of the race.
What role do the vice presidents play? Will he be able to make up for his shortcoming as an old white man by making the appropriate choice?
Hochgeschwender: He has already said that he will definitely choose a woman. And a lot of things point to just that: for a black woman. There are a number of female candidates, such as Senator Kamala Harris, who herself ran for the primary elections. Also Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta, has already been mentioned. The role of the vice president in the US is particularly interesting in election campaigns because it is intended to introduce the candidate to groups of voters he does not address personally. After that the vice president is often meaningless.
Meaningless? Then what role does Acting Vice President Mike Pence play?
Hochgeschwender: He is Trump's liaison to the evangelical milieu. It is known that he is very ambitious and desperately wants to be president. And it is also known that he has a decidedly evangelical political orientation, even if he is Catholic at first.
Do you think it is possible that Trump - offended - will throw in the towel before the election if things become even worse for him in the coming weeks and months?
Hochgeschwender: Oh no, he loves power far too much for that. But I found the recent statements very interesting where he said that he would accept an election defeat. This already speaks for the fact that he knows that the mood isn’t the best for him at the moment. How he reacts to this remains to be seen. He had a similar situation in the election campaign four years ago, when Stephen Bannon took over the whole business and turned his campaign even more radically towards the alt-right, towards the far right. That gave new impetus back then.
After his election four years ago, many have reassured themselves that a misguided president cannot do so much harm because he is embedded in institutions. Wasn't Trump at least in this respect "more successful" than all critics had predicted?
Hochgeschwender: Many people in the US are supposedly longing for George W. Bush today. After all, he was responsible for a war in which several hundred thousand people lost their lives. Trump has no such responsibility, and I think it's important to say that with such clarity. As a national populist he apparently has no interest in morally charged wars. And: The American institutions, partly the Senate, now also the House of Representatives under democratic control, show in fact an ability to put barriers in its way. Even the courts. Even the fact that the Supreme Court has moved significantly to the right does not change that it has a great interest in demonstrating its independence from the government, which is now reflected in the "Dreamers" ruling, for example. Trump failed before the court with a bill that would make it easier to deport young migrants. Also the judges he appointed, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh - if they take themselves seriously as judges - will not want to be compliant followers of Donald Trump. So from this point of view, the system works. Where Trump wreaks havoc is not at the structural level, but at the social level. But in a society that is divided in many ways anyway, he does absolutely nothing to reverse these divisions.
Interview: Martin Thurau
Prof. Dr. Michael Hochgeschwender is Professor of North American Cultural History, with special emphasis on Empirical Cultural Studies and Cultural Anthropology at LMU.