Brief Interview with Mark Weisbrot on the US Election, the Trump Presidency, and the Impact of Protests 

August 28, 2020

The Instituto para Reforma das Relações entre Estado e Empresa (IREE), based in Brazil, interviewed CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot about the upcoming US elections. The Portuguese version is on the IREE’s website here.

IREE: The protests in the United States motivated by the death of George Floyd arrived in Washington with the demonstrations calling for racial justice. Should the “Black Lives Matter” movement influence the American elections? Could you say how?

MW: The mass mobilization of the Movement for Black Lives since the police killing of George Floyd may have been, according to a New York Times review of the survey data, the largest protest movement in US history, with between 15 and 25 million participants. This produced a change in consciousness for millions of people here, and one that is almost certain to produce significant political changes over the coming years. Some of the impact is already reflected in most major media outlets and public opinion polls, as well as some police reforms at the local, state, and federal levels; and it will undoubtedly influence the November elections as well.

The Occupy movement that began in 2011 was just a fraction of the size of this protest movement, yet nonetheless spurred a change in the US political debate that has been quite significant. For the first time in decades, and perhaps more than at any time since the 1930s, income inequality became a major issue in US politics. 

It is too early to tell how much change will come from the protest movement of the past three months, and how much this change will influence the November elections, which come just over five months since the start of the protests. But there is good reason to believe that the impact will be significant, especially since trends in voter registration and participation of young people and other demographic groups that tend to vote Democratic are on the upswing. This gave the Democrats a substantial advantage in 2018 ― an election that set records for at least 40 years in terms of voter participation. 

IREE: The Democratic candidate for the presidential election of the United States, Joe Biden, announced the California senator, Kamala Harris, as his vice-presidential candidate. What does this choice represent and what impact can it have on elections?

MW: For Biden, it was a safe choice; they were able to make history, as Harris will be the first African-American and South Asian woman to be a vice presidential candidate of a major US political party. She gives the base of the Democratic Party a symbol of the diversity that they would like to bring to their party and the leadership of the country. She is centrist, like Biden, which the leadership of the party ― including Biden ― prefers. On the other hand, the base of the party has been moving leftward in recent years, forcing the Democratic Party to adopt much of Senator Bernie Sanders’ program ― a $15-an-hour minimum wage, free college tuition, “health care as a human right,” student debt relief, the fight against plutocracy and inequality ― as its own, even though Sanders was not able to win the presidential nomination. But the data indicate that, almost all of the people who supported Bernie in the primary will support Biden and Harris against Trump. It’s not clear how much the choice of Harris will affect the outcome of the election; most likely it will help the Democratic ticket.

IREE: Democratic Joe Biden appears as a favorite in the polls. Is it possible to say that the result of the election already is defined? What are your predictions for the election?

MW: Biden will very likely defeat Trump, and possibly inspire the largest street celebrations in the United States since the end of World War II. Trump is hated by the majority of the country, for obvious reasons, and also the majority of the major media. To be fair, even a normal president would have a tough time being reelected in the face of the worst economy since the Great Depression, and a pandemic that is killing more than 1,000 people a day and has no clear end in sight ― although Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic also puts a lot of responsibility on him.

The Trump phenomenon is widely misunderstood across the political spectrum here. Unlike the rise of presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, which encompassed a sizable backlash against the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Trump came to power at a time when the right-wing backlash was long past its peak and was weakening, and the country was moving in a leftward direction ― with the Democrats taking the House of Representatives in 2006 and the presidency in 2008. Obama’s presidential campaign was actually a mass movement; and Bernie Sanders’ campaigns, even more.

Once in power, Trump was able to use the presidency ― and racist appeals that went beyond the Republican norms of the past 50 years ― to consolidate a political base, but not to expand it. Indeed, unlike almost any head of state in any country ― even actual dictators ― Trump did not even try to appeal to voters outside of his hard-core base.

His best chance of reelection lies in disrupting the process of voting by mail; according to polling data, some 62 percent of Democrats but only 24 percent of Republicans plan to vote by mail ― a vast increase because of the pandemic, but with a huge partisan divide. Attacks on the Post Office by the Republican donor who runs the organization, supported by Trump, have begun; but Democrats in Congress and much of the public are resisting. Trump’s other possibility would be starting a war at the right time in October; the president typically gets a temporary but sizable boost in opinion polls in the US with the beginning of a war. It’s not clear that he would get the normal level of media support, or even whether the military or “national security state” would go along with it. But it is one possible path to reelection. 

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