/ 18 March 2024

US elections: Deja-vu as Biden and Trump square up

Final U.s. Presidential Debate Between President Trump And Democratic Candidate Joe Biden
Two of the most unpopular presidential candidates ever are trying to remedy that by bashing each other. (Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

It is official. Joe Biden, 81, with 2 099 Democratic delegates, and Donald Trump, 77, with 1 247 Republican delegates, have become the presumptive presidential nominees of their parties for the November elections in the US. 

Unable to give its populace, and the world, credible alternatives, the ossified American political system has given us a 2020 rematch.

Since the start of the Republican primary season it has been unclear what the other candidates for nominee stood for. None of them came out clearly against Trump and distinguished themselves from the bile he peddles.

Ron DeSantis, an early favourite among Republican pundits, never seemed to find his footing. His attempts at out-Trumping Trump, by being more extreme and further right than him, failed. 

Moderate Republicans were turned off by his hard stance on abortion and the banning of books in schools. The fight he picked with Disney, and the ramifications that could have, rankled with business. 

For most Republicans, it was unclear why they should go with the wannabe, DeSantis, instead of sticking with the original, Trump. 

Nikki Haley was the only Republican candidate who seemed to tap into a demographic that has proved difficult for the Trump machinery to get a footing in — suburban women. 

Haley was never going to win the nomination — she is too much of an old-school Republican and the support base today no longer talks to those values. Republicanism used to mean being conservative on cultural, economic and political issues. Republicans these days, however, are hard-right populists, disinhibited, inciting base prejudices, given to conspiracy theories and tending to kowtow to dictatorial ideals. They adopt the sort of aggressive posture where compromise — central to the art of governance — is seen as a weakness. 

The Republican Party used to support larger budgets for the military and push for greater military and intelligence involvement in global affairs. Trump’s party is protectionist and isolationist. He has been pushing back at the suggestion of more funding for Ukraine. 

The Republican support base is moulded in Trump’s image. It likes populist posturing and it needs and wants Trump to finish what he started. It has little taste for the staid conservatism of old.

There is only one way to break the spell Trump has cast over the Republican base — that is to vote him back in and allow him to use his wrecking ball as he wants. But the price that will be paid for this in terms of damage to American society and institutions is huge.

Trump is such a polarising figure that he provokes animosity as intense as the excitement that he incites in the reconfigured Republican base. If he wanted to smooth off some of his rough edges and appeal to a wider constituency, he should choose Haley as his running mate. 

The fact that Haley is a woman and a person of colour, being the daughter of Indian immigrants, would give Trump some credibility with minorities, and whites turned off by American racism, and help to tamper his racist stance and views on immigrants “poisoning American blood”, a phrase he appears to have lifted straight from his copy of Mein Kampf

However, it is not clear that this is important to Trump and his base. He is willing to place all his bets on supercharging the energies of the extremists who support him.

No incumbent has ever lost its party’s nomination, so once Biden declared that he would run for a second term, he was all but assured of the Democratic Party’s nomination. Biden is still claiming that he is America’s only solution and the only person who can stop Trump from winning again. In 2020, those claims might have sounded credible but, after almost four years of Biden in the White House, it is not certain that the American people will once again be persuaded to vote for him. 

His strong backing for the genocide being carried out in Gaza has alienated many Democrats, especially on the party’s left and among younger people. Many of the voters who supported Biden in 2020 are angry at the continued unconditional support that Israel enjoys through American tax dollars, arms and diplomatic cover. 

The army of over-educated and under-employed, media-savvy young radicals who supported Bernie Sanders have decisively turned against Biden. His standing among African-American and younger Jewish people is also in significant decline. 

Biden and Trump are two of the most unpopular candidates who have ever run for president in the US. They are both trying to deal with this by directing the focus of their base to their rivals, rather than their own records in office. 

Trump continues to brand himself as anti-establishment and Biden as part of that establishment. This is a potentially viable strategy to animate his base, given that people around the world are very sceptical of governments and the entire political establishment. 

Anti-establishment and right-wing parties are taking over governments across the West, from Italy to the Netherlands. Of course, we see similar impulses manifesting in our own electoral landscape in South Africa, although none of the right-wing populists will be able to take state power in May.

Biden needs to do more than constantly bash Trump and the threat that he poses to America. He needs to be focusing on the reasons for his unpopularity and address the real lack of enthusiasm among many of the Americans who loathe Trump but have no confidence in him. 

The people who are going to vote for Trump will not be persuaded otherwise. Biden has the charisma of a dank dishcloth and so can only motivate his own base by addressing their concerns with a positive programme.

He also needs to convince the people who voted for him in 2020 that he is still mentally and physically sound enough to lead the country for another four years. In the last few years, the people around Biden appear to have kept him away from the press, thereby increasing the speculation around his health and capacity to take on a second term at his age. 

His regular gaffes and memory lapses go viral on social media but the American people need to see him in full command of his power if they are to have trust in his candidacy.

In the months leading up to the November elections, the old grievances that Trump has been pushing since he entered the political scene will be rehashed — with added vitriol. His hostility to immigrants, the press, left-leaning academics, judges and prosecutors will escalate. 

As crude as all this is, we should not forget that this kind of rhetoric can be seen among other populist right-wing leaders around the world, even here at home, where grotesque forms of xenophobia, homophobia and sexism are running riot in the mouths of opportunistic politicians. 

This kind of right-wing populism does serious damage to the social fabric everywhere. It’s going to be a long few months till November. As we brace ourselves for a rerun of Biden v Trump — all that America’s much-lauded democracy has been able to offer — get ready for Groundhog Day.

Nontobeko Hlela is a research fellow with the Institute for Pan African Thought & Conversation and a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg.