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Commentary
The Trump Phenomenon: Why it Won’t Go

  Amit Gupta

What explains the ability of Trump, three years later, to remain a frontline contender who gets more media attention than anyone else from his party?  And what kind of policies is he likely to espouse in his new run for the presidency?

The Red-Blue divide in America is not just political or ideological
It is based on a sharp division of economic fortunes within the United States.  In the 2020 election, Joe Biden won 477 counties and 81 million odd votes while Trump won 2497 counties and 74 million votes.  What was more interesting, however, was that the Biden counties accounted for 70 per cent of GDP while the Trump counties accounted for only 29 per cent of GDP.  The Biden counties were economically prosperous, ethnically and racially diverse, had large immigrant communities, and were better educated. 

MAGA and Trump’s political base
Trump derives support from those to whom globalization passed by in America. His motto of Make America Great Again resonates best with people who are economically deprived.  He also appeals to the conservative white middle class who are uncomfortable with the demographic transition that will transform the country into a nation where minorities become a numerical majority. 

In 2016, the average Trump supporter had an income of $70,000 which is more than the national average for individual income.  It is similar to the Brexit supporters who, while being supported by a majority of the working class, also included a large number of upper-middle class supporters.

Others like Trump for being a disrupter who shook up the way American politics, particularly in the Republican party, was conducted.  In 2016, the Republican establishment supported Jeb Bush.  Trump crushed Bush in the primaries with his wit and earthy humor.  Bush could not counter the nickname, Low Energy Jeb, that Trump gave him.

All these constituencies remain favorable to Trump and can be mobilized in his support. 

Trump’s Policies:  Continuity and Change
If Trump is the Republican candidate, are his policies going to change to try and reach out to independent voters? The answer, with a few modifications, is no. 

Trump’s domestic policies were and will remain a combination of standard Republican formulations, like tax cuts, and populist themes like protectionism and the culture wars.  When Trump assumed office, both houses of Congress were controlled by the Republicans. This should have allowed the new Republican president to pass the most popular parts of his agenda, which included building a border wall, getting rid of Obama care, and coming up with an infrastructure plan.  The Republican-led Congress shot down each of these Trump initiatives thereby taking away the most popular parts of his election manifesto.   Trump’s message, therefore, will be to conclude unfinished business from the first term and to continue to appeal to the three bases - corporate and business interests, Christian fundamentalists, and populists. 

For the corporate and business interests, Trump will continue to espouse business friendly policies which include less regulation and the repeal of existing laws.  While another tax-cut would be difficult, it would not be out of the question; it would reinforce Trump’s reputation of being business friendly. 

The interesting question is how will Trump balance between his policies to gain the support of Christian fundamentalists with the general unease in America about the repeal of Roe vs. Wade?

Trump is the hero of the evangelical Christians since he put three conservative judges on the Supreme Court and they delivered a majority decision against abortion rights.  The problem for Trump and the Republicans is that the repeal of Roe v. Wade is not popular in the country with the majority wanting some sort of access to abortion. 

Worse, Justice Clarence Thomas has argued that repealing abortion rights was the first step in a broader conservative agenda which included repealing gay marriage and even contraception.  This challenge to individual liberty has roused middle-class Americans who have come out in large numbers to vote against Republican candidates and this led to the Democrats having an unexpectedly strong showing in the 2022 mid-term. 

The other policy that Trump will continue, that will appeal to all three of his constituencies, is the attack on wokeness, alternatively described as the culture war.  America is now divided between the conservatives and the progressive forces and not only is this a divide over economic issues but also over cultural ones.  The conservatives achieved a great victory with the repeal of abortion rights but their next great goal is a war on LGBTQ culture including gay marriage and not teaching LGBTQ issues in schools. 

Trump himself was against transgendered women participating in women’s sports; he is likely to use this attack as the basis for a broader campaign against the LGBTQ community.

What are the implications of such policies?
First, on social issues most of Americans are concerned about the path these regressive policies may lead the country down.  The repeal of abortion came as a shock and made white women, who generally had voted for the Republicans, to come out in large numbers to support pro-choice candidates.  An assault on gay marriage would lead to complications because according to the US census bureau there are now over 1.2 million same-sex households in the United States and taking away their legal rights would create a log-jam in the court system.    Further, the attack on books and movies will be met with fierce resistance in the liberal states which do not have a Taliban-like view of American society—one of sexual repression and anti-intellectualism. 

A second consequence is more damaging on the US international standing.  In the long run it can hurt American soft power around the world since US lawmakers will be seen as being out of step with the rest of the world. 

In conclusion, Trump may well get the candidacy but even without him the Republican party seems bent on pursuing the culture war.  Trump may just throw gasoline on this cultural fire. 


About the Author

Amit Gupta is a Senior Advisor to the Forum of Federations, Ottawa, Canada.  The views in this article are his and do not necessarily represent those of the Forum.  He can be contacted at agupta1856@gmail.com

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