As the dust settles on the US president’s second chaotic and controversial state visit to the UK, the numerous protestors and opposing politicians, as well as some select members of the royal family, will have been glad to see the tail pipes of Airforce One slipping over the Atlantic’s horizon. Many among this group will likely be taking solace in the belief that a combination of Trump’s historically low poll ratings, the impending 2020 elections and the horde of democratic candidates lining up to drag him by the hair from the White House, will mean that the orange usurper’s days are numbered. However, the West’s liberals should heed the warnings emanating from the worried sceptics, political analysts and from the pages of presidential history; that Trump’s departure in the next election cycle is anything but a foregone conclusion. The following reasons support the prediction that 2020 will mark a continuation of Trump’s reign, and with it the need to keep calm and maintain a healthy stock of balloons and helium gas for the years to come.
Reason 1: The Incumbency advantage.
Historically, incumbent presidents have a knack for hanging on to power, even if they become deeply unpopular during their first term. In fact, since World War Two, only two incumbents who sought re-election have failed to win it. This list of successful incumbents included Trump’s immediate predecessor, Barack Obama. Like Trump, Obama also suffered a landslide defeat in the midterm elections of his first term and, adding fuel to the similarities, less than half of the nation approved of the respective jobs they were doing at this point of their premierships (48% approved of Obama in May 2011 and 42% approved of Trump in May 2019, according to a Gallup poll). Nonetheless, Obama was able to still able to cobble together a convincing majority to win re-election in 2012.
Along with the almost unanimous Republican support and the obvious name recognition that is associated with being the President of the world’s most powerful country, one of the most important and relevant factors which contributes to an incumbent’s ‘advantage’ is their ability to use their presidential ‘bully pulpit’ to get their message across to voters – and doesn’t Trump know it. As awful, terrifying and nonsensical as the words coming out of his mouth are, Trump’s ability to dominate the national and international public conversation is unrivalled by any individual in American politics (and probably anyone alive in the world right now). His bizarre, brash and bellicose statements play like a broken record on US cable news stations, sucking all the air from the room of public debate and exhausting all those seeking to apply a modicum of critique or scrutiny. Yet that record, no matter how broken and racist, spun to the tune of $5 billion in free advertising for Trump in 2016 (according to The Atlantic). And that was before he became President. All of this is to say that any candidate who wishes to launch a significant challenge to the incumbent will have to find a way to break his iron grip on the media landscape, or at least be able to mould it to their advantage.
Reason 2: The economy, stupid.
The incumbency advantage gifted to Trump by history is made ever more potent by a strong economy. Though the jury is still out among economists and political scientists as to whether an individual President’s policies have any real impact on the overall health of the economy, presidents will nevertheless tout their policies if things are going well, and voters will tend to punish them if things are going wrong. Both Jimmy Carter and George Bush Senior were blamed for presiding over poor and stagnant economies and were consequently booted from the White House when they made a bid for second terms. “It’s the economy, stupid” became the democrats battle cry as Bill Clinton dislodged the latter from the throne in 1992. Moreover, despite constant corruption scandals and several highly publicised sexual harassment allegations (remind you of anyone?), voters rewarded Clinton’s impressive economic numbers with a second term.
So, in spite of the tariff threats, the turbulence and the presidential twitter temper tantrums, the American economic juggernaut continues to sustain a job growth not seen since before the 2008 crisis. More importantly, it is the American public who appear to be feeling better about the state of the economy, with consumer confidence at its highest since 2000 and 7 out of 10 Americans feeling positive about the job market (according to a Gallup poll for May 2019). Even CNN, who Trump regularly labels as the “enemy of the people”, reported in May 2019 that 56% of Americans approve of the President’s handling of the economy, and that his economic performance is one of his “prime selling points” in the 2020 race ahead.
Of course, these numbers are only a snapshot in time and there is no guarantee that they will hold, especially if this turns out to be the calm before the storm of another recession. A quick Google search of this question serves up a mixed bag of articles whose forecasts swing like a pendulum every few months and range from imminent danger of an economic apocalypse to ‘everything is hunky-dory, stop worrying’. One major determining factor in this appears to be the outcome of Trump’s trade dispute with China. Those sounding the alarm bells argue that, if the negotiations go south, it could potentially pull the rug out from underneath the stock market’s feet while also deterring business and consumer spending.
On the other hand, a potential US-China trade agreement has given economists at Goldman Sachs enough cautious optimism to cut in half the likelihood of another recession occurring. Predicating the twists and turns of the US economy in the Trump era then, for a non-economist, appears to be as reliable as the emergence of the sun in British summertime. The one prediction that can be safely made is that Trump will be basking in the warmth of whatever economic glory comes his way, no matter how responsible he is for it. If you have been living with your head in the sand the past few months, look no further than the ‘JOBS JOBS JOBS’ mantra being spat out daily from the president’s erratic Twitter account. The question is, will Americans remain convinced?
Reason 3: To Impeach or not to Impeach?
One way in which the significant electoral advantages of an incumbent president can be severely diminished is by removing them from office before they get a chance to run. This road becomes more attractive when said President has been accused of colluding with an adversarial foreign power to get elected in the first place, and then appears to block and viciously attack the investigation into it.
The ‘Russia witch hunt’ touched many nerves and occupied many of the President’s 140 characters during his first two years in office. But when Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report finally landed in Congress, its thud was not as loud or clear as many of the President’s detractors had been hoping for. Investigators did not find enough evidence to conclude that there was a coordinated effort between Russia and the Trump campaign to influence the 2016 election. However, they did not determine whether or not the President obstructed the investigation in the first place (which, in itself, is a crime). Mueller’s team uncovered ten instances where potential ‘obstructions’ occurred, but exclaimed that they could not indict the President due to long standing Justice Department guidelines (which carry legal weight). These guidelines clearly state that a President cannot be formally accused of a crime while serving in office.
To 59 congressional democrats (currently), the majority of the democratic support base and one republican, the thud of the Mueller report sounded distinctly like ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’ or, in plain English, the evidence needed to remove a President via impeachment. However, to almost every other elected official and the majority of the US public (at this point), it did not. Thus, without the support of two thirds of the Republican controlled Senate (who ultimately vote and decide the president’s fate), and irregardless of the public polls or even the full democratic caucus, impeachment has become a dangerous path for democrats to venture down.
Here again, similarities can be found from the not too distant past. House Republicans decided to impeach Bill Clinton after Special Counsel Kenneth Starr (their Mueller) found that the president had lied under oath about an affair he had had with a White House intern and tried to obstruct justice by covering it up. However, neither the public nor the Democratic led Senate came round to the view that Clinton’s crimes amounted to impeachable offenses, and thus spared him the embarrassment of becoming the first President in history to be successfully removed from office via impeachment. The President’s approval ratings actually increased as a result of the trial, with members of the public feeling that he was being unfairly targeted by the Republicans in Congress. Here in lies the fear that many Democrats have: that a failed impeachment process will bring Trump sympathy among voters and thus potentially deliver him a second term.
This view remains a controversial one, with many supporters of impeachment asserting that the Clinton and Trump sagas differ greatly in their context, scale and magnitude. Nonetheless, the Democrats’ hesitation on the impeachment question can be seen as a knock to its viability as a tool to hold the President accountable for his actions. Those still unsure require either more evidence of wrong doing (through further investigation) or the political winds to drastically change. In sum, though the President’s vulnerability to impeachment should make his re-election more precarious, history has shown in the past that a politically unfeasible impeachment can be a poison apple, rather than a silver bullet.
Reason 4: Damn Brexit.
So far, I’ve outlined a number of reasons, which have been somewhat embedded within the American system, that could give Trump the edge when it comes to 2020. I could have outlined many more: the Republican efforts at voter suppression; Trump’s remaking of the electoral map; signs that his right-wing, race baiting populist wave has yet to crest; the propaganda network to whom he gives loyalty ratings to each of its anchors (according to the New Yorker) and the potential for the crowded Democratic primary to produce a weak opponent, bitter and bruised by an extended period of party infighting, etc. etc.
There are also many counter arguments, including some which paint a much more optimistic view of Trump being dislodged – a signal that this uncomfortable and uneasy period in history may be beginning to subside. A period that I am sure that Corbyn, Sadiq Khan, the 67% of the British public who disapprove of Trump (according to YouGov) and the thousands who turned out to protest against his state visit, will want to put behind them. The fundamental problem is that, unless you are in possession of an American passport, it is very hard to make any meaningful impact on whether or not Trump will get a second term. Yet, at the same time, it seems that Brexit has implicitly tied the fate of the British economy to the wills and whims of whoever resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Talk of a post Brexit bilateral trade deal with the United States echoed from the palace to parliament during the state visit, with Tory leaders desperately trying to drown out the worried whispers suggesting that our free range non-chlorinated chickens and the NHS could be pawns in the negotiations. Regardless of how convincing their staunch denials were, it is still true that the UK imported 70.4 billion pounds and exported 112.2 billion pounds’ worth of goods and services to the United States in 2017 (according to the BBC), so any new agreement that would affect these numbers is not to be taken lightly.
With the Tory party leadership race hotting up, the possibility of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit edges ever closer. The Times has reported, for example, that front runner Boris Johnson refuses to rule out suspending Parliament in order to force a no deal Brexit through a move that the attorney general insists is “not illegal.” There have been many disastrous predictions about the impact of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit on the UK, but one thing that it will almost certainly do is exacerbate the need for further trade deals with our closest friends. Thus, the prospect of Trump surviving post 2020, along with the pulverisation of the British economy by the Tory’s high stakes game of Brexit chicken, sets the stage for more big baby balloons and an even more ‘special relationship’.
Featured Image: Matt Dunham/AP/Washington Post