Riots, coronavirus, downturn: The incumbent US president is anything but a master in overcoming the triple crisis. Michael Hochgeschwender, specialist in American studies, on the prospects for a change of government
“When the looting begins, the shooting begins” – is a Donald Trump with such threats, tweeted at the beginning of the riots in Minneapolis, still capable of gaining a majority in the US today?
Hochgeschwender: Not at the moment, and basically he was never really capable of winning a majority. Already four years ago he did not have a majority, at least not in the popular vote at the ballot boxes. And in the opinion polls that are regularly conducted in the US, there has always been a majority of Americans who disagree with him. In the course of the last weeks he also very clearly lost approval with central groups of voters who always stood by his side, for instance white Evangelicals and white Catholics. And the quote he tweeted there is quite problematic, it stems from a racist context. No, at least for now, he’s not capable of winning a majority.
What’s Trump hinting at in that sentence?
Hochgeschwender: It stems from one of the Hot Summers, the years of race riots in the big American cities. Back then, in 1967, the Miami police chief made it, so to speak, a program to have police or national guard shoot at looters. This was quite common in the context of the time. But the announcement has further escalated the situation.
There is talk today of a divided country, of the “Un-United States of America.” It is said that racism has always covered up the class line. Where do the deepest rifts run through American society?
Hochgeschwender: American society has always been deeply divided. It is no coincidence that in this country in the 19th century a bloody civil war took place between the Northern and Southern states that was based on slavery. This rupture continues to have an effect to this day. There have always been the racial lines, the systemic oppression of the black population by the white majority. But there have also been class conflicts within the white population, if one thinks back to the violent strikes especially at the turn of the 20th century. There have always been ethno-cultural conflicts, such as the oppression of the Irish, but also of the Jews in the 19th century, which were largely excluded from the societal center. There has been discrimination against immigrants, there has been anti-Catholicism, there has been anti-Mormon violence. Some of these conflicts are now considered to have been overcome. But they have been replaced, as it were, by discrimination against immigrant Latinos and immigrant blacks from the West Indies, as well as by the heated debate on illegal migration to the US.
Commentators across the board are currently speaking of a triple crisis in the US: Coronavirus, riots, downturn and impoverishment. In all three cases the Trump administration has thoroughly messed up any crisis management. Out of pure inability or in parts even by calculation?
Hochgeschwender: When dealing with the protesters of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, one can certainly see some calculation. Trump serves the expectations of its dominant white electorate in the South and Midwest. His main thrust is actually the Latinos, that has shifted a little bit with the riots. Above all, he is trying to establish himself as a law-and-order president in the wake of Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan. But here, too, he lacks a positive vision, which both Nixon and Reagan have always conveyed. Nixon was quite capable of discussing with protesting students; I can’t imagine Trump doing that.
And when it comes to managing the coronavirus crisis?
Hochgeschwender: There it was, I would say, simply inability, as if Trump could not think in terms of categories of exponential growth. The economic crisis is a result of the coronavirus. Before the pandemic broke out, the US economy was in extremely good shape, but this does not mean that the poorer sections of the population were really better off than before. When most of the poorer people in the US need three jobs to support their families, this shows a massive social imbalance in society. But we must also mention a fourth crisis: a generational conflict. Among the protesters are many relatively young white academics. This also has to do with the fact that under Trump there was not even an attempt to cushion the sometimes difficult situation of university graduates. If you graduate from a very good American university today, you have debt that you may be paying off for the rest of your life. So various crises come together here, a one-sided reduction to the anti-racism label describes the situation in a too undifferentiated manner.
At the latest with his threat to use the military against protesters, he has also turned the grandees of the Republicans against him: George W. Bush, Colin Powell, James Mattis. Would the party establishment like to get rid of him now after all?
Hochgeschwender: The party establishment has never loved him. For three years, it has been looking for a way to distance itself from him. The question is always, who has the freedom to distance himself? The members of the House of Representatives are very dependent on Trump, only if he campaigns for them do they have a chance of being re-elected. Someone like George W. Bush, who is no longer in the political business and who has a score to settle with Trump because of his brother Jeb Bush from the last election campaign, doesn’t have to be considerate.
Where else does Trump keep his battalions? Also the white middle class and especially the female voters are turning away from Trump, it is said.
Hochgeschwender: Suburbia’s white women have always been comparatively skeptical when it comes to Trump. There are several reasons for this – in particular, they pay a lot of attention to morale and character, not exactly Trump’s strengths. His core voters are indeed embittered members of the white lower middle classes in the suburbs, in part skilled workers in the run-down industrial regions of the North and Midwest, such as coal workers in West Virginia, steel workers in Pennsylvania and Ohio, or workers in the automotive industry in Michigan. In addition, there are white Evangelical men between 50 and 70, white conservative Catholics, who have reasons to vote for him, not because they love him particularly, but because the Democrats are ineligible for them, for example because of their attitude towards late-term abortions.