H I G H L I G H T S
• TRUMP CFO INDICTED
• DISUNITED STATES OF AMERICA
• WHY BIDEN WON
TRUMP CFO INDICTED
The chief financial officer of the Trump Organisation, Allen Weisselberg, was indicted on July 1st for grand larceny and scheme to defraud. It was alleged he had received $ 1.7 million in off the book compensation in a 15-year-long tax fraud that included other executives of the Trump family firm. He pleaded not guilty to the charges and is unlikely to agree to cooperate with the authorities. The investigation was denounced by former president Donald Trump at a rally in Florida two days later as “prosecutorial misconduct.” The indictment is the opening chapter in an expected series of legal moves designed to undermine Trump. The former president is reported to have told confidantes he will run again for the White House if his health holds up. Some legal observers find the charges “underwhelming”.
Despite some early attempts by the traditional Republican Party leadership to assert control of the party, Trump remains firmly in charge. Republican activists increasingly define their conservative ideology as support for the ex-president and use the same yardstick when rating other rightwing politicians show surveys. This is a key reason why Republican congressmen rejected a negotiated bipartisan bill to set up a commission to study the January 6th storming of the Capitol Building by Trump supporters. Though the bill received 54 out of 100 Senate votes, it failed to breach the 60 vote supermajority needed under the filibuster rule. Polling says two-thirds of Republican voters consider President Joe Biden an illegitimate winner of the 2020 election. Half of Republican voters also support changes to voting rules that would ensure Republican victories, evidence the rank and file have internalised voter suppression tactics.
The expectation is that Biden, after an initial run of legislative success, will find the going tougher in coming months. His multi-billion dollar infrastructure-building America Jobs Plan and the welfare-oriented America Families Plan are gridlocked in Congress. He is working to find a version of the bills that would attract bipartisan support or get the two most conservative Democratic senators to support his version. Without the latter Biden lacks even the simple majority needed if he declares the bills as budget reconciliation bills exempt from the filibuster rule. One of the major sources of friction over the infrastructure bill is the inclusion of green energy and climate related spends. Another is Biden’s desire to increase corporate taxes to help pay for it all. Biden is starting to see his approval rating sag, largely because of frustrated Democrats who fear he will end up accepting watered down versions of both bills. They are also frustrated Biden is unlikely to get a new voting rights bill through, an act designed to counter state-level Republican efforts to make it more difficult for marginal voters to cast ballots.
A flurry of reports have been highly critical of Vice-President Kamala Harris’s office environment. Her chief of staff, Tina Flournoy, is described as having cut-off Harris from all but a small circle of staffers and been unwilling to listen to differing opinions from others on the team. She has even snubbed major donors. A number of staffers have left. “Harris’s team is experiencing low morale, porous lines of communication and diminished trust among aides and senior officials,” said a report in Politico. The vice-president has been assigned the difficult policy issue of immigration which has made her a target of extreme Republican criticism. She has been accused of poor administrative skills in the past as well, including when she ran as a Democratic presidential candidate against Biden, a campaign that was described as “managed chaos.” But her office is notable for its prominent South Asian staffers, some of whom have been profiled.
One development that will come as a relief to Biden is that though six of the nine members of the bench were nominated by Republican presidents, the Supreme Court has shown itself to be quite independent minded. In June, it gave a 7-2 vote in favour of Obamacare, the health care law passed by President Barack Obama after the third right-wing legal challenge against the policy. The Supreme Court also gave a mixed response to some Republican attempts to make it more difficult for voters to cast ballots. Of the past 50 cases heard by the bench as of June 23rd, only four decisions have been along strictly ideological positions. Nearly half have seen unanimous rulings which would make the present judicial term the most consensual in five years. The six conservative judges seem to be internally divided with the two Trump appointees inclined to a middle of the road path.
DISUNITED STATES OF AMERICA
De facto segregation. Studies show the US has become racially segregated to the point that black and white Americans have independent social networks. About three-quarters of white Americans do not have a non-white friend. When asked to estimate the black versus white wealth gap, most Americans put it at 40 to 80% smaller than the reality. Individual or corporate interventions to overcome racial divisions are often superficial or reflect these biases. A survey of the tech industry found companies that made statements of solidarity after George Floyd’s murder, a death that sparked race riots in many US cities, had one-fifth less black employees than those that kept quiet. At the individual level, raising such racial issues may elicit empathy but the effect generally fades within 24 hours. “The nature of segregation in the US means that we only end up seeing and learning about what our own groups experience, making it hard to understand the lives of people outside of our own group,” writes one analysis of the present de facto segregation.
Social media empowers. Blacks are the most likely group of Americans to use social platforms like Twitter to advocate a cause and say social media changed their views. A Pew survey showed that 48% of all black social media users says they posted to promote a social or political issue whether on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or some other site. Only 33% of white users and 37% of Hispanics said the same. Democrats were twice as likely as Republicans to post a hashtag related to a social or political issues.
Republicans, who increasingly feel mainstream media and such platforms are hostile to their point of view, are turning to more partisan TV, print and audio outlets. Social media mobs attacking rightwing commentaries and technology firms censoring extreme rightwing views are feeding this tendency. Mexican Americans and Native Americans, on the other hand, were more likely to turn to Instagram and TikTok for information because they don’t feel their ethnic-cum-class group is represented on network or cable television. Even the Hispanics who make it on television are not seen as being of the right class or background.
New culture wars. The culture wars in the US today are less about secularisation and more about a fear of cultural extinction, says James Davison Hunter, the author of the 1991 book Culture Wars that popularised the expression. In the 1990s the battles were over abortion, gay rights and school prayer. Today “you rarely see people on the right rooting their positions within a biblical theology,” nowadays “it is a position that is mainly rooted in a fear of extinction,” a perceived existential threat to a way of life.
In addition, instead of just being a cultural clash within the confines of the white middle class as was the case in the past, today is more a class-culture conflict. The 2008-09 recession was a turning point as it accentuated a growing division between white working class and white middle class, defined largely on the basis of education. Class division was laid on top of a cultural division and the result has been the polarisation of America today. The American left has come to speak of the working class in terms of race, gender and ethnicity rather than just income which is one reason poor whites do not necessarily align themselves with them.
Culture war are also more dangerous. “The very idea of treating your opponents with civility is a betrayal. How can you be civil to people who threaten your very existence?...You can compromise with politics and policy, but if politics and policy are a proxy for culture, there’s just no way.” The problem the US faces, Hunter argues, is that “culture wars always precede shooting wars. They don’t necessarily lead to a shooting war, but you never have a shooting war without a culture war prior to it, because culture provides the justifications for violence.”
Ideology gap. Over the past five years, says a survey, the gap between US conservatives and US liberals over what constitutes national identity has widened sharply and much more than similar divides in other Western countries like Britain, France or Germany. US liberals have shifted much more to the left, sometimes even more than their European counterparts, but US conservatives have not moved at all, unlike mainstream European right-wingers.
The gap between US conservatives and liberals on whether speaking the dominant language, for example, is part of being “truly American” has become much greater than among Europeans. US conservatives stand out in the belief that being native born is an important part of belonging. Asked which is worse - people not recognizing discrimination or people seeing discrimination where it does not exist, the ideological gap in the US is twice that of the three European countries. A similar difference exists over the issue of preserving “traditions and ways of life” as opposed to being open to changing them. One reason the US is so different is its greater religiosity. White US Christians, in particular, identify strongly with rightwing positions to a greater degree than those in Europe. US conservatives take positions which are more in line with far-right European groups like Alternative for Germany or France’s National Front.
The changing nature of Christianity in the US has accelerated this politicisation of the faith. The traditional denominations have been declining in strength, to be replaced with a more heterodox set of beliefs. A third of self-declared Christians in the US, for example, believe in reincarnation. The Economist argues that political beliefs in the US are becoming increasingly like a religion. White evangelicals who backed Donald Trump did so because of cultural reasons like his anti-immigration stance or law and order language rather than any faith-based issues. White Americans who self-identify as Christians, even while not attending church, do so as a proxy for ethno-nationalism. A similar pseudo-religious development is taking place among European Christian nationalists, many of whom are atheists. The emphasis on “purity and atonement” is also a growing attribute of the US liberal middle-class, often more dominant than an actual interest in measurably reducing discrimination.
WHY BIDEN WON
Joe Biden won the US presidential elections not because he was able to mobilise the Democratic base but because he won over traditionally moderate or conservative constituencies, most notably married men and military veterans. Detailed studies by Pew and Democratic data firms like Catalist show that the original belief that Biden was able to get out the vote better than Donald Trump or win over more women were incorrect or exaggerated.
Trump won married men by 54 to 44%, a sharp drop from his earlier 62 to 32% victory in 2016. He saw his margin of victory with military veteran households slide 14 percentage points. Both of these are traditionally conservative leaning demographies. Biden also made double digit gains among white Catholics.
Belief among Democratic analysts that Trump had reached the limits of his support were also incorrect. The former US president ensured Biden failed to improve the margins enjoyed by Hillary Clinton, the 2014 Democratic candidate, among youth, women, blacks and urban voters. Trump positively surged among Latinos. The Democratic candidate was saved by support among white moderate and conservatives that he wrested back from Trump. Trump was able to defeat Biden when it came to turnout as well. About 73% of Trump supporters went to the booths, while 68% of Biden supporters voted. The gap had been only two per cent when Clinton ran against Trump.
(The views expressed are personal)