Divided America is set to be embroiled in even more acrimony

  • 15 October, 2023
  • Politics
  • Polling

Published in The Mail on Sunday on 15 October 2023.

The genius of the American political system is that the parties spend a year seeking the most accomplished, energetic, thoughtful, trustworthy, competent and generally impressive individuals they can find, before pitting them against each other ahead of an election for the highest office in the land.

At least, that is the theory.

So how is it that, as things stand, the US is heading for a rematch between a stumbling, rambling octogenarian and a man facing 91 criminal charges?

Believe it or not, the campaign for the presidential election in November next year is not really about Donald Trump or Joe Biden, or anyone else – apart from the voters.

The fact is that whatever the candidates’ own motives for ploughing on, the choice of the next US president will be about policies and issues and how they affect the American people.

For many of these voters, times are hard. In my polling, few say they are better off than they were three years ago. Even those who voted for Biden in 2020 are more likely to say they are worse off than the reverse. While rising prices top their list of worries, crime, border control, housing, healthcare, drug addiction, mental health and the country’s spiralling debt are not far behind.

People, too, fear America’s increasing dependence on China and long for more economic independence, especially when it comes to manufacturing and energy.

Nearly three years after Trump left office, the US is not a happy country.

One thing all sides agree on, ironically enough, is that his successor has not been able to make good on hopes that he would end the division and rancour of American political life.

The polarisation is not confined to Washington but is increasingly felt in everyday life.

In my research, Republicans told us that they dislike the aggressively liberal agenda they see creeping into institutions and even schools, especially on race and transgender issues, but that they often keep quiet about their opinions for fear of being lectured or ostracised.

For their part, Democrats tend to complain about their opponents’ apparent readiness to believe misinformation. Everyone complains that social media entrenches these positions.

It’s not surprising, then, that nearly two thirds of Americans say their country is on the wrong track and that more Biden voters think it is heading in the wrong direction rather than the right one. Nor is it a shock that most say they disapprove of President Biden’s performance in the White House.

They also worry about his physical condition. His on-stage wobbles and confused public appearances leave many on both sides doubting his ability to do the job now, let alone handle a second term which would end when he would be aged 86.

This is hardly an auspicious backdrop for a leader seeking re-election, and Republicans feel the contest is theirs to win.

So why do they seem ready to nominate the one man most likely to bring their opponents out in droves?

The conventional wisdom is that Trump supporters are a kind of personality cult, for whom their hero can do no wrong.

He certainly has his devoted followers, but for most of his potential voters there is a lot more to it than that.

The indictments have played a part. Most Republicans think the charges are politically motivated, meaning that even if there may be a case to answer, they doubt such action would have been taken against a defendant not called Donald J. Trump.

Likely voters in the round of primary elections say the charges make them more, rather than less, likely to support him and will help rather than hinder his chances of victory. More than half say Trump should still run even if he is sent to jail – though having listened to them talk about the prospect, I think that for Trump to be convicted by a jury would prompt considerable soul-searching.

But the fact that Trump sits above 50% in polls of likely primary voters is not just down to personal loyalty and fury at what they see as Democrats playing politics with the law. They see someone who will act on the things they care about and defend their values, even if he doesn’t exactly embody them.

Other candidates have caught their attention: notably entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, Florida governor Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley, the former US ambassador to the UN. (Their supporters largely backed Trump last time but want – and think the nation wants – to move on from the circus).

But when it comes to choosing an effective advocate for their interests – as one likely primary voter put it to us – ‘nobody does Trump as well as Trump does.’

Those willing to vote for Trump again can see his flaws as clearly as anyone else, but for them, their support is a transaction. They will put up with the things they don’t like in return for the things they want – whether that’s a stronger economy, healthier investment returns, a realistic energy policy, an end to left-wing identity politics or, dare I say it, the chance to make America great again.

Democrats often condemn people for making this calculation, but their own continued support for the frail president shows that their vote is a transaction, too, just as it was in 2020. For them, Biden was, and is, the means to an end: that of stopping Donald Trump.

Few actively want Biden, but even fewer see vice president Kamala Harris as a winner and many fear that replacing the pair would unleash an ugly battle within the Democratic party that would cost it the White House. They like to say that their vote is a chess piece, not a Valentine.

In other words, we have another one of those irregular verbs you find so often in politics. When it comes to voting, he is selfish, you are transactional, but I am strategic.

The upshot is a likely repeat of the last election that plunged America into (further) acrimony. And there is plenty more of that to come.

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