It is both uniquely national, even intensely parochial on any given day, and yet it really matters hugely to the world, even here, beset though we are with our own problems.
I refer to the current spectacle of the US presidential election, which still has nearly eight months to go until voting day on November 3.
Just think for a moment about the three-year impact of the Trump presidency – a rolling trade dispute with China, the upending of international agreements, from Iran to climate change, and his impatience and unhappiness with unilateral concessions such as the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), on which our automotive industry exports depend. His determined bid to assist Benjamin Netenyahu, by moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and offering a peace deal skewed entirely in favour of Israel, doubtless helped the embattled Israeli prime minister “win” (the full results are not yet known) the election there on Monday.
And that is simply a headline read of the 45th US president’s impact on the world to date, before even assessing his recasting of the role and dignity of America’s commander in chief at home. Hallowed institutions there have been hollowed out, domestic politics has become in large measure a rolling reality show. In it Trump’s need for attention and his genius-like manner of both dominating the news cycle and deflecting attention from his gaping flaws and missteps have allowed him to upend every single convention attaching to his office in just 38 months. His re-election would, if it happens, be the first win for an impeached president.
Trump at the age of 70 in 2017, when he was inaugurated, also became the oldest person yet sworn into office for a first term.
Populists always find a useful set of villains to blame for the disappointments and defeats of their supporters. Trump identified “the establishment”, “the deep state”, “the socialists”, “the Mexicans” for the ails and ills of his fervid supporters and managed to enthuse them to vote last time in record numbers.
He was hugely helped by the unpopularity of his uber-establishment opponent last time out: the Democrat Hillary Clinton. Her unguarded remark in September 2016, toward the end of the campaign, that many of the supporters of Trump were a “basket of deplorables” both enraged them and enthused them to vote against her.
But 2020 could be different as we absorb the results, on the Democrat side, of yesterday’s results in the so-called Super Tuesday primary election day. More than 1,300 delegates, just on one-third of the total, required to nominate Trump’s opponent were chosen for the convention to be held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
But the process has, even as the votes are being finalised, winnowed the once 20-plus person field down to four people left standing for the chance to challenge the Republican, the loathing for whom has energised their contest.
The strangest aspect of the contest to date is that whatever the final outcome in November, one record will be smashed: Trump will be the youngest candidate in the field.
Discounting Senator Elizabeth Warren (who to date has the smallest delegate share) and who is 71 years old, the other lead candidates – former vice-president Joe Biden (77), Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (78), and ex-mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg (78) offer a septuagenarian slant to country whose median age is 38.2.
The second oddity about the contest is that Trump’s greatest strength until a few weeks ago could be, in a few months, his biggest liability. On the occasions when he is not teasing his opponents, tearing up the rule book and goading the media, “The Donald” could point to the stellar facts on the US economy: highest employment rate in 40 years, record stock market surges (in a country where most workers have their pension pots invested in stocks and shares) and the enduring strength of the US retail sector.
Yet just last week two indices of the stock market dropped. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 12.4% and the S&P 500 shed 11.5%, the largest drops since the global financial crisis in 2008 which ended the presidential hopes of Republican John McCain.
This week there was a storming return on the markets, with record gains in the expectation that the US Federal Reserve will cushion the blow of the Covid-19 outbreak. But it all points to wild volatility and an uncertain bet on whether the stock exchange can win it for Trump.
And if, of course, the coronavirus becomes a pandemic, the political costs could be enormous, beyond the human suffering involved.
Trump’s populist rival on the other side, “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders, offers universal healthcare. Billionaire Bloomberg who, in the words of one analyst has spent “an ungodly amount of money on the election before the first vote for him was cast”, offers a proven record of competence and a belief in data and science. Then there is the politically recovering (after a massive win in South Carolina on Saturday and the endorsement of three of his former rivals on Monday) Joe Biden. He offers “compassion and decency”. None of these perceived advantages are on offer from the incumbent president.
In 1972, American mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz popularised “the butterfly effect” or chaos theory: the idea that small causes have outsize, even global, consequences. A butterfly’s wings might delay or accelerate the cause and course of a tornado.
And for the re-election chances of Donald Trump? Best estimate is that at a “wet market” on New Year’s Eve a stall holder in Wuhan, China was infected with a disease that spreads from animals to humans, “patient zero” for a now global virus. He could have a massive impact on Washington DC and the entire world.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
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