For the last two weeks, the American president, Donald Trump, has been making one remark after another that are considered racist, lashing out in particular at congresswomen of color. This rhetoric suggests that Trump will once again center his campaign on the country’s racial divisions as 2020 approaches. Could the Democratic Party turn the situation to its advantage? Le Devoir sat down with Philippe Fournier, a researcher at the Center for International Studies and Research at the University of Montreal to take stock of the situation. Interview by Annabelle Caillou.
Annabelle Caillou: By feeding racial tensions, the American president seems prepared to use the same rhetoric he used to fire up his base in 2016. Is that really a winning strategy?
Philippe Fournier: For starters, it is hard to say if it is a clear strategy on Donald Trump’s part. His instincts tell him that this message goes over well with his base, which is particularly worried about immigration. For example, after his verbal attacks on the four congresswomen [telling them to “go back” to where they came from], we saw a slight gain in Trump’s favor in polls of Republican voters.
Furthermore, is he really thinking about the reach and the consequences of what he says? That is not clear. It is also not yet clear that this strategy will work a second time. Even within the Republican Party, some have already indicated that they are uncomfortable with this language. By operating this way, Trump risks alienating a fringe segment of the moderate electorate – those independent voters who can vote one way one time and the other way the next. Experts often point this out. American elections are decided by centrist voters. The winner must go find these swing voters.
Caillou: The Democratic Party’s first reaction was to launch impeachment proceedings against Trump, which nonetheless did not pass the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. Is that a sign of division within the party?
Fournier: To launch an impeachment proceeding is to set in motion a process that starts with a congressional inquiry to determine the extent of the crimes. Then it must go to the House of Representatives. If that were to happen, there are at most 100 Democrats or so in favor of impeachment, and that is not enough.
For some, such as Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, the necessary pieces did not all fall into place, because the American people have not shown support for impeachment.
And, above all, they know that it would ultimately be blocked in the Senate. Is it any use to embark on that path when we already know what will happen? What could have changed the game would have been more explosive and juicier testimony from Robert Mueller. But that was not the case; nothing major came from it.
For the moment, it seems that Democrats are wanting to concentrate on the 2020 election in order to defeat Trump.
Caillou: And on that point, what strategy should the Democratic Party adopt in order to win over more voters in 2020?
Fournier: What the Democrats need to do is react to each of Trump’s racist remarks, which is what they have been doing. It is important not to let this type of rhetoric become the norm and to call it out.
But, in getting into this game, there is some risk of messing up, and it must be done with dexterity. On the Democratic side, they will present the image of a more unified United States than on the Republican side, which plays on divisiveness. That is the central message.
To the Democrats’ advantage is the fact that they have succeeded in associating their party with the defense of minorities of all kinds.
Then, and this is tricky, there is the fact that there are two schools of thought within the party. Some will focus on identity politics. Others, like Bernie Sanders, will focus on socioeconomic inequalities before banking on ethnicity.
Caillou: With more than a year to go before the election, we are already deep into this identity debate. Will it be the main focus of the entire campaign, as in 2016, in your opinion?
Fournier: The question of race will certainly be one of the issues that will occupy people’s attention, especially the Democratic candidate who will have to distinguish himself or herself from Trump. There will also be talk about immigration, since it goes hand in hand with the question of race in the United States. It in fact remains one of the best cards that Donald Trump can play, since, on other issues, he does not have much to offer. For example, as far as the economy is concerned, its apparent strength is deceptive. If one goes to the regions that voted for Donald Trump, people's living conditions have not necessarily improved in four years.
This leaves an opening for Democrats to talk about the subject, to talk about the economy’s real health and about Americans’ buying power. It is a topic that affects everyone.