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William Michael Schmidli: ‘Regardless of the vote count, Trump will not leave the White House easily’

With only a month until the 2020 United States elections, William Michael Schmidli, University Lecturer of American history, reflects on the latest developments. President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis seems apt for the nation too, he argues.

‘The symbolism of Trump’s infection is impossible to ignore’

‘The news that US President Donald J. Trump tested positive for the novel coronavirus trickled across the Atlantic to Europe on 2 October while most Americans were still sleeping. Even in such a year of relentless crises and blistering political partisanship, the infection of the Commander in Chief came as a wrenching shock. Over the course of the day, as Americans across the nation awoke and checked their news feeds, Twitter lit up with missives of fear, concern, excitement, vindication. With mail-in ballots already accumulating for the presidential election on 3 November, Trump’s illness injected deep uncertainty into what is widely perceived to be the most important election in American history.’

‘The symbolism of Trump’s infection is impossible to ignore. The coronavirus has taken a terrible toll on the United States. More than seven million people have been infected with the coronavirus and deaths have passed 200,000; every day 1,000 Americans die of the virus. Yet from the outset, Trump downplayed the threat and used the metastasizing public health crisis as political theater. He castigated the efforts of Democrats in Congress and in state governments to mandate lockdowns and enforce face masks as evidence that the Democratic Party is marching lockstep toward a dystopian socialist future. In the meantime, in a horrific snapshot of the hardship caused by the economic shutdown combined with insufficient government relief programs, 10,000 cars lined up at a San Antonio foodbank on a single day in April.’  

William Michael Schmidli

‘Trump-infused conservative victories have come at a cost to American democracy’

‘As the pandemic continues unabated, Trump’s infection adds uncertainty to a presidential election of enormous significance for America’s future. Over the past four years, Trump’s narcissism, admiration for authoritarians, and disregard for the institutions of democracy have been a boon to Republican strategists. Led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, conservatives have successfully operated in the slipstream of the president’s populist bluster to rack up a string of achievements including slashing corporate tax rates, restricting immigration, and deepening America’s dependence on fossil fuels. A second Trump administration would almost certainly worsen income inequality, fray the social welfare net, and accelerate climate change. The likely confirmation of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, following the death last month of liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, portends a solid conservative majority on America’s highest court for years to come.’ 

‘Trump-infused conservative victories, however, have come at a cost to American democracy.  Regardless of the vote count, Trump will not leave the White House easily. Trailing in the polls to Joe Biden, the president has embraced a strategy of delegitimizing the upcoming election and mobilizing his base. He has repeatedly asserted that there will be widespread voter fraud due to the pandemic-related increase in mail-in ballots. Such assertions are baseless, but an imbalance between the popular vote and the electoral college is again a possibility, and, combined with the time-consuming process of counting the ballots, creates vulnerabilities that Trump could exploit to claim the will of the American people was denied. It is not an idle threat. The president has falsely stoked fear that the Black Lives Matter movement, leftist activists, and Democrats in Congress seek to destroy American capitalism and uproot the civil liberties at the core of the American experience. Trump’s assertion in the recent presidential debate that a right-wing extremist group should “stand back and stand by” was widely interpreted as encouraging the far right to mobilize in the event of national upheaval arising from Election Day chaos.’ 

‘Now, with the election less than a month away, Trump is recovering from COVID-19. At 74-years old and obese, he is considered at high-risk. It is a diagnosis that seems apt for the nation, too.’  

William Michael Schmidli is a U.S. foreign relations historian. His research focuses on the evolving significance of human rights, democracy promotion, and transnational advocacy networks from the Cold War to the present. He teaches at the BA history, BA International Studies and the MA North American Studies.

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