Saturday 10 October 2020

Chaotic images and emotions surround the Biden-Trump contest ( Sunday Guardian)


Among the favourite movies of President Trump is “The Greatest Showman”, a story about P.T. Barnum, who transformed the circus into a staple of everyday entertainment. After his performance following the return to the White House from Walter Reed hospital, it is Trump who deserves that title. Leaving the safety of what is arguably the best hospital in the US for the White House, equipped though that residence may be for emergencies, was an act of reckless courage that may resonate with voters otherwise turned off by the 45th President of the US. By contrast, Joe Biden is staid almost to a fault, and is clearly an individual who believes in avoiding risk by hewing to the mainstream position, whatever this may be. While Senator J. William Fulbright was the originator of significant strands of US policy while heading the Foreign Relations Committee, Biden was the dependable facilitator of policies discussed and processed through the governance mechanism that has the White House at the apex. If he was opposed to any of the policies that were rubber stamped by the Foreign Relations Committee, evidence of that is missing. While Trump terrifies his staff and changes their policy suggestions on a whim, Biden relies on his team to give him the script to follow. For years, that tutorial was mildly hostile to India, a country once seen as too close to Moscow for the comfort of Atlanticists. In contrast, throughout his tenure in the US Senate, Biden was a backer of measures that helped China, several of which were carried out during the presidential terms of Bill Clinton. He also stayed close to the then State-Pentagon line of cosying up to the generals in Pakistan. Aware that he would be the Democratic frontrunner in the 2019 nomination process within that party, given the support he enjoys of both the Clintons as well as the Obamas, those around Donald Trump have sought to portray the Democratic challenger as a closet socialist, almost a communist. While this may be true of some of his staffers, it is an entirely fanciful description of Joe Biden, who is as much a part of the Washington establishment as Hillary and Bill Clinton. Had she wanted her party’s 2020 nomination, Hillary Clinton would have got it. The fact that Biden is the nominee indicates that the Clintons came to the conclusion that Trump would be likely to repeat his 2016 win over her, given the negativity (some of which is admittedly gender based) attached to her. Just as the Lyndon Johnson administration was studded with those who pined for a Kennedy in the White House, Biden’s team has more than a few in the upper rungs who would have preferred to see Hillary occupy the White House, but who accept Biden as a “safe” pair of hands. In the language of the bureaucracy, “safe” means a politician who will go by the advice he receives from staff rather than undertake the “unsound” politician who forms his own views about any consequential matter.

If elected, Kamala Harris would be the first woman to be the Vice-President of the US and a heartbeat away from herself being the occupant of the White House, as the saying goes. That such a prospect may scare away some voters seems to be behind the apparent decision of Biden’s staff about Harris. The Biden campaign seems to regard a nearly invisible Vice-Presidential nominee as being most advantageous to the chances of victory of the Biden-Harris ticket. In their view, now that the black and brown vote is in the bag, it is the white vote that needs to be courted, and in such a task, the calculation seems to be that the more of Joe Biden and the less of Kamala Harris there is on the campaign trail, the better. This perception may not be accurate, given that many white voters in the US are attuned to 21st century norms and values, and are far removed from the Weltanschauung of the 1950s of Trump advisor Stephen Miller, who has been working ferociously to ensure that the day when non-whites form the majority of the US population never comes. Fred Trump would have approved, but as for his son Donald Trump, it is difficult to judge what exactly the 45th President’s views are on such matters. Certainly Trump has adopted much of Miller’s policy, but this seems to be in the belief that by doing so, he would be assured of a second term in the White House, the objective that has consumed his mind and propelled his activities almost from the time he was sworn in on 20 January 2017. Trump would have been better served had he adopted more measures such as the belated effort to reform the hideous US penal system, a legacy of Richard Nixon and subsequently Bill Clinton. It is now too late to push the genie of a non-white majority back into the box, and the manner the Trump administration has sought to do so has caused dismay and disgust not just across the world but in the US as well, and not just among those not of European extraction. In suburbs across US cities that the Trump train believes reflects the 1950s, those whose ethnicity is Asian, Latino or African American share neighbourhoods cordially with those whose ancestors came from Europe, and inter-marriage has become so commonplace that it is no longer even noticed. Give credit to Joe Biden (or more probably to Jill Biden), he seems to have adjusted to the 21st century much better than President Trump. The attitudes drilled into the US President by his father Fred’s ideological twin Stephen Miller belong to the 1950s and are not only an anachronism but a handicap in the present. Theirs is a vision meant for those who blame their own lack of success on those of a different colour. Given their obsession with winning any which way, it is ironical that the Trump campaign believes that it can be propelled forward mainly by those who can only be described as losers.

Elections in the US have become less about policy and more about spectacle. A candidate retaining his feisty instincts despite being invaded and occupied by the virus that took shape in Wuhan in the final weeks of last year is a storyline that Hollywood as well as Bollywood will surely take advantage of in times ahead. Those shepherding Joe Biden believe that the more he shows himself to be bland and normal (in other words, the polar opposite of Trump), the more certain his chances of victory. While opinion polls indicate that they may be right, the colourful and chaotic interplay of emotions and images over the next few weeks is what President Trump hopes will turn things around. He is aiming for an upset similar to 1948, when Harry Truman prevailed over Thomas Dewey despite having been written off months before and indeed until the election was declared in his favour.

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