The eruption of public anger following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and President Donald Trump’s response to it, makes one believe that the White House incumbent will seek re-election in November on his own terms and familiar turf.
His appalling handling of the Covid-19 crisis was supposed to be a lead-weight around his neck. It has seen the US death toll mount from nearly nil to over 100,000 in just three months of the infection making a home in the United States before spreading like wildfire in a number of communities.
Trump’s Democrat challenger, the former vice president Joe Biden, though far from the ideal candidate for the top office given the question marks over his mental health and his conduct around women, was inching ahead in the opinion polls.
In fact, earlier this month pollsters were pointing out that at exactly the same point in May 2020 Biden is ahead of where Hilary Clinton was in May 2016. This slow tilting of the balance towards Biden was making Trump jumpy. His tweets provided a very telling window to the president’s mind. It seems that the next presidential election will not be about Covid-19 mishandling by the Trump administration.
Post-Minneapolis there have been no polls but Trump has tweeted calling the Minneapolis protesters ‘thugs’ and warning them, reportedly in the words of a Sheriff from the south in the 1950s, that when the ‘looting begins, the shooting’ begins.
Twitter may have found his tweet in violation of its rules and guidelines, having first blocked it and then carrying the same from the White House handle with a health warning, prompting howls of protest from Trump and his allies.
It is too early to calculate the exact impact of this stance on his constituency in this November’s election. Yes, he raised the issue of shuttered industrial units, unemployment and despair at being ‘abandoned’ in the so-called Rust Belt and gained momentum in the last election campaign.
But there can be no doubt he got maximum traction by using the race card. Regardless of how it was worded, there was no ambiguity that in talking of immigration and the need to take tough action against the illegals he was going to largely appeal to ‘white’ America.
His rally speeches, where the odd proponent of racial harmony appeared and tried to challenge him, were a significant indication of how his support base would respond to such dissenting views. Not only were they thrown out but also thrashed before that.
Traditionally, it has been difficult to rope in the entire black voting bloc as discrimination and oppression over such a long period of time, and even across generations, have left such a voter largely despondent about what the power of the vote can deliver.
As Dr Cornel West, professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard, himself an African-American, reminded the CNN audience in an interview that the ‘Black lives matter’ movement emerged under a black president, a black attorney general and a black homeland security chief.
Beyond the symbolic value, and admittedly some inspiration among coloured voters by the ‘Yes, we can’ slogan, Obama’s two White House terms did not seem to make a big difference to the reality confronting coloured people. Neither did it dent the long established status quo.
Dr West said thank God that Minneapolis protested over the (George Floyd) ‘lynching’ because a generation of young people of ‘different genders, different colours, different sexual orientations’ said this is enough, ‘we can’t take it anymore’. Tragically, the system has failed to reform itself.
The trigger of course were those images of a seemingly crazed officer forcing his knee on the neck of the handcuffed black man floored on a Minneapolis street. For over eight minutes the policeman, who was charged late Friday with third degree homicide, wouldn’t relent even as the victim said he could not breathe.
He only let go after the man went limp. And the degree of impunity policemen enjoy while dealing with blacks in the US was apparent from the fact that the policeman was unmoved, unconcerned that some citizens were videoing the whole unfolding tragedy.
Three other policemen formed a protective line in front of their murderous colleague while the passers-by pleaded with them to release the chokehold so George Floyd could breathe. Floyd was arrested on a non-violent charge: using a suspected counterfeit 10-dollar bill. At no point did CCTV images show him physically challenging the policemen.
In the words of Dr West, while a number of black people have been co-opted into the upper echelons to create the ‘black faces in high places’ image, the reality is different as a ‘neo-Fascist gangster is now in the White House’.
He expressed dismay that with ‘Brother Bernie’ out of the presidential race, the ‘neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party’ is no different than the incumbent apart from wanting to show more and more black faces on their side without any planned meaningful reform.
Who knows what other issues come to the fore over the next five months? For now, it seems that the next presidential election will not be about Covid-19 mishandling by the Trump administration but its central plank would be an appeal to the base instincts of the right-wing, largely white voters.
There will be chants of ‘Make America Great Again’ with the assumption that the discerning Republican voter of a certain type will understand that the word ‘white’ was not before ‘America’, out of a small concern for political correctness and mostly for not alienating the support there is among the affluent coloured voters.
Unless the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party, as Dr West called it, can somehow protect itself from its own demons and paint a picture of the US where black lives matter and draw out the coloured vote in large numbers, Trump may well be set for a second term.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, May 31st, 2020