The next time people start talking about Donald Trump, I want you to conduct a little social experiment. As soon as you hear the name of the current US president, try to observe the change in the face of the person you are talking to. You will inevitably notice how they roll their eyes, how a condescending smirk scurries over their lips or how they give an amused shake of their head. Maybe someone will point out Trump’s latest ridiculous statement or how particularly orange he looked the other day.
What started out as an absurd event as Trump won the 2016 election and moved into the White House, underwent a rough, yet somehow subtle adaptation period in which the world more or less came to terms with the former reality show star stepping into the role of the “leader of the free world”. Nonetheless, even after almost four years in the most powerful position that one can hold, Donald Trump remains nothing but a joke to many. So do the people who marked a cross next to Trump’s name in 2016. This is largely due to non-US media coverage in which the president is often depicted as a kid that happens to have its playground on the premises of the White House, and which correspondingly presents his supporters as irresponsible parents who, first of all, brought this child upon us and second, now fail to be strict and hold it accountable for its misbehaviour. Moreover, they even seem to be proud parents and actively encourage all of his actions.
A person consuming regular news outside of the United States is thus very likely to succumb to this image of Trump. Given the fact that US politics are seemingly far away from the average daily life of non-Americans, this person will probably be amused rather than concerned. This exact point is where it gets dangerous. When Donald Trump is seen as something to only laugh or sigh about, rather than as the most powerful man in the world, a critical space opens up between a perilous delusion and reality.
The Two Sides of the Medal
Within the medical field, delusions are a pathological state of mind, characterized by “fixed beliefs that are not amenable to change in light of conflicting evidence”. Unfortunately, politics are not as clear as psychological definitions when it comes to “evidence”. We tend to obey the fixed belief that Trump has failed as a president. This belief is fuelled by current news, which show the United States as a nation more polarized than ever; this became even more visible in the outbreaks of the “Black Lives Matter” protests and in Trump’s response of sending national troops to fight against their fellow citizens. Additionally, the coronavirus continues to rage across the country, having left more than 200 000 people dead. Yet there has still not been a clear strategy implemented on how to best fight COVID-19 under the Trump administration. All of this does not look too well on the president’s record, further reinforcing his image of
ineptitude for the office he holds.
Nonetheless, this is only one side of the coin. Its backside is characterized by a significant block of loyal Trump supporters who have the power to heave him into the Oval Office for yet another four years. It is not that they are uneducated or blind to the events which are tearing their country apart. They simply see other aspects as well. Even though political measurements like the “Trump-O-Meter,” which track the actual implementation of Trump’s election promises, show a fairly different image (49% of promises broken, 24% kept), in the eyes of the president’s supporters, Trump has delivered, nonetheless. His most famous promise, to build a wall at the border to Mexico (and make Mexico pay for it), actually never exceeded the construction of 170 km out of the 800 km promised, as Mexico did not pay a penny and Congress did not agree to its funding.
Most of the immigrants who try to enter the US illegally come from the very poor countries of Central America. Trump hence declared states like Honduras “safe countries of origin” and made Mexico oblige to secure its borders more strictly. Within a year, the number of illegally picked up immigrants saw a decline of more than 80%. A big success for Trump, and not the only one.
His campaign motto “America First,” was underpinned by various actions, for example the withdrawal of American troops from Germany or Syria. Likewise, Trump pressured NATO member states to “pay their bills” and insisted on a fairer distribution of the alliance’s costs. Before Trump’s presidency in 2016, the US share of NATO budget amounted to 72%. Yet, while NATO’s total budget grew over the last few years, the US share declined to 70%. With these actions, Trump reacted to a popular feeling which the majority of US citizens share, namely being taken advantage of by the rest of the world.
Another crucial topic under Trump’s presidency is the economy. Under Trump, the country’s economy was thriving. He cut taxes and requirements and, in the end, even Democrats had to admit that they were profiting from Trump’s economic policies. Moreover, unemployment rate dropped to 3.5%, the lowest value in 51 years.
An unexpected Twist – The Corona Virus
Many analysts claim that, if the Corona virus had not occurred, i.e. forcing the global economy to shut down and accounting for a decline of a stunning 4.8% of the US economy, then Donald Trump would certainly be re-elected. COVID-19 has added an unpredictable twist to that assertion, because all of a sudden, Trump has to prove himself as a determined leader in times of crisis. This worked out semi-optimally with Trump refusing to acknowledge the danger of the disease in the beginning, downplaying the pandemic, and doubting the effectiveness of wearing masks to help contain the spread of the virus. The situation got devastatingly worse, with Trump suffering from Corona himself. The realization of the Trump campaign that this pandemic could hinder the re-election of the incumbent led to a series of disturbing and, if actually implemented, dangerous threats to democracy.
To mitigate the spread of COVID-19, many Americans consider postal voting. Regarding Trump’s currently low approval ratings (42,6%) and the related expectation that many voters will thus vote for his opponent Joe Biden, Trump continuously insisted on how postal ballots will lead to voting fraud and even suggested a delay of the election. On top of that, he has not yet confirmed a peaceful transfer of power in case he loses. Since Trump has so far kept his word on his most important promises, chances are he will keep this one too.
All of these are worrying developments. The Democracy Report 2020, published by the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg, actually measures global democracy based on hundreds of variables and has found the United States to be undergoing “substantial autocratization” in the Trump era.
Next time people start talking about Donald Trump, keep in mind that this man has the substantial support of loyal followers who embrace everything he says and does. Even when these words and actions are slowly turning one of the oldest democracies of the world into an autocratic regime. Do not succumb to the delusion that he is nothing but an angry orange joke which does not have to be taken seriously, but rather accept that he is a powerful president that tends to keep his word.
Tightening the Grip: Is Experience Necessary for a Successful Autocrat?
Trump, by IoSonoUnaFotoCamera, CC BY-SA 2.0
Donald Trump with supporters, by Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0