The question is whether Trump’s performance suggests that he has constructed a coalition that he could use in 2024 to win back power or propel another Republican to the White House. Politicians always need a coalition of many interests to win power; what they like calling a broad church of believers…writes Mihir Bose
I have always been fascinated by American elections, going back to the 1960 Presidential battle between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon which I followed as a teenager in Bombay, as the city was then called. This love deepened when not long after I read The Making of the President 1960 by Theodore White, a brilliant study of the 1960 election. Since then the whole American electoral system has made me want to know more. The terms Americans used opened up a democratic process that appeared so wonderfully enticing. Terms like ‘Registered Democrats’; ‘Registered Republican’; ‘Primaries’ to select a candidate for a party; ‘Conventions’ where something called the ‘platform’ was voted on; choosing a President and Vice President and calling it a ‘ticket’.
The conventions itself made politics seem like a real-life Bollywood movie. The roll call of states, all of which had fanciful names like Georgia the ‘Peach’ state, whose delegates would stand up and talk of their ‘favourite son’ before casting their vote for the candidate they wanted. The colour, the noise, the razmataz, the sheer exuberance made me want to be there to savour the occasion.
And during the 2000 election I was in Washington at a Republican party in Washington where, as Florida was called for Al Gore, the party went quiet as if a wet blanket had been put on all the guests. But then, as we were in the foyer ready to leave, it burst out into a frenzy of euphoria with the networks reversing their earlier judgment and calling the state for George Bush. Next morning we got up to realise the election was not over and it remained in suspense for several weeks before the Supreme Court, overruling a Gore plea for a recount, finally gave it to Bush.
Of course, American elections were never as magical as I imagined. Even that first Kennedy-Nixon election had allegations of fraud with Nixon believing that thanks to Mayor Daley of Chicago, Cook County had been swung for Kennedy through fraud giving Kennedy victory in Illinois. In fact, even without the help of Daley’s alleged fraud, Kennedy would have won Illinois and the Presidency. And fraud has long been part of the American political system.
Lyndon Johnson’s Senate victory in 1948 led to an investigation by the federal Special Masters. It was never concluded but the only Master to talk about it, said, “I think Lyndon was put in the United States Senate with a stolen election.”
Robert Caro in his magisterial biography of Johnson, has described how voting traditionally took place in the Valley border counties of Texas, where Mexican Americans reside. The voting:
…had little to do with the preferences of the Mexican Americans. The overwhelming majority of their votes had been cast at the orders of the Anglo-Saxon board of dictators called patrones or jefes, orders often enforced by armed pistoleros who herded Mexican-Americans, told them how to vote, and then accompanied them into the voting cubbyholes to make sure the instructions were followed – if indeed the votes had been actually “cast” at all; in some of the Mexican-American areas, the local border dictators, in Texas political parlance, didn’t “vote ‘em” but rather just “counted ‘em”. In those areas most of the voters didn’t even go to the polls…
It could also be argued that for nearly two hundred years after the founding of the republic white Americans in the south perpetrated the biggest ever electoral fraud in US history by denying blacks the vote through brute power which included lynching blacks, and it required an epic civil rights campaign to win them the vote. But what this election has done has made American elections look sordid and America emerges as a third world country where the loser claims, even as the vote count is going on, that he has been robbed and it was not a fair election. To watch President Trump on election night from the White House call the election of his own country a fraud and describe it as embarrassing, a country which boasts of being a democracy for 244 years, was shocking.
None of us should have been surprised Trump would make such a claim. Even in 2016, long before Americans went to vote, Trump was making claims of fraud. When asked in a Presidential debate, whether he would accept the result he refused to say he would and replied that he would not give an answer now but keep the American public in suspense. He did, of course, accept the result when he won the electoral college. Then there was no question of fraud but he kept insisting there was fraud in the fact that Hilary Clinton beat him by more than two and a half million in the popular vote. So now that he has lost both in the electoral college and in the popular vote by over five million he was bound to say he was cheated. As Trump has put it on one of his tweets, “He [Biden] won because the election was rigged” followed by recycling a melange of the baseless claims of voter fraud.
The question is whether Trump’s performance suggests that he has constructed a coalition that he could use in 2024 to win back power or propel another Republican to the White House. Politicians always need a coalition of many interests to win power; what they like calling a broad church of believers. And this group of followers can hold very different, often diametrically opposed, beliefs. In the 20th century there have been two very successful coalitions in American politics. The first was the one Franklin Delano Roosevelt constructed. A coalition of southern racist democrats, who denied the blacks in the south the vote, and northern liberals, some of whom were on the left and wanted the blacks to vote. Despite the contradictory nature of this coalition it held together, and Roosevelt won four Presidential elections between 1932 and 1944.
In the ‘80s Ronald Regan constructed a Republican coalition attracting voters who had traditionally been Democrats, the Regan Democrats, and welded them to southern whites, who after the blacks got the vote, defected to the Republicans.
Trump certainly has the ingredients of a winning coalition. Millions of Americans clearly buy his sales pitch, 70 million of them. Despite being defeated, he increased his vote compared to 2016 with more white women and white men voting for him. His vote among Latinos and even African Americans also went up. Then there are the traditional groups that have for many years supported the Republicans, the evangelical Christians, those whites in the south who have not yet come to terms with the civil war and want to keep the flame of white rule alive. Not all of them are racist, although many are but do not have the honesty to admit it. They are what may be called “shy” or closet racists. Not that this makes them “deplorables” as Hilary Clinton, infamously called them. Many of them have genuine grievances, certainly in the rust belt which has seen the old industries disappear, and cannot come to terms with the rise of new technological alternatives, nor can they understand why the threat from China cannot be dealt with. But what they all have is a distrust of the way the world is changing and their vote for Trump is a cry against the dying of the light. They feel they have lost their country and Trump will regain it for them. That they can believe that a billionaire property man from New York, who has very little in common with them, can do so says much about the very successful way Trump has projected himself as their saviour.
And this is where his appeal lies and why he will remain part of the American scene.
For me what this means is that the wonderful magic of American elections that first seduced me has gone.