Donald Trump is picking the wrong fights in his re-election campaign

(Originally published here on July 20 in the South China Morning Post.)

When Fox News’ Neil Cavuto cut away from a campaign-style speech by Donald Trump from the White House last week to fact-check the United States president’s claims that financial regulations established by the previous administration were a “disaster”, the interruption didn’t spark the kind of attention that such commentary by a Trump-friendly network would have months ago.

“It was not a disaster under Barack Obama,” Cavuto said, explaining that the regulations halted practices by American banks that had led to the financial meltdown of 2008.

It was a small moment that underscored a significant shift at America’s ideological centre of gravity as a result of a relentless pandemic and racial strife.

Amid the ongoing national trauma, the politics of Trump and many of his supporters – who have made divisiveness their tactic, strategy and ultimate objective – is alienating more Americans outside the hardcore base.

On all fronts, Trump is ensconcing himself in causes that counter the broad ideological shift caused by the pandemic and the enduring image of a black man, George Floyd, dying under the knee of a white police officer.

As the country begins reckoning with a past full of similar deaths, Trump is spending huge amounts of political capital defending the Confederate flag, which many Americans see as a symbol of slavery.

A CBS poll last month, conducted a few weeks after Floyd’s death, found that a majority of Americans, including more than half of whites, expressed agreement with the Black Lives Matter movement. That’s significant for a country that, according to the Southern Poverty Law Centre, hosts 940 hate groups.

Generally conservative, or at least apolitical, institutions including the US Department of Defence and Nascar, a racing institution particularly popular in the American south, have all taken measures that effectively ban the divisive banner.

Lawmakers in the Deep South state of Mississippi even voted for a new state flag to dispense with the Confederate battle emblem on the old flag.

Things are even worse for Trump in terms of public opinion on his handling of the pandemic.

Faced with surging Covid-19 cases, the governors of Texas and Florida, formerly among Trump’s allies in the fight against scientists trying to bring the pandemic under control, have reversed course by closing bars in their states and urging their populations to wear face masks in public.

Like in the myth about the guns of Singapore in the second world war, Trump’s defences are facing the wrong direction. This leaves him vulnerable to enemies and opposing forces, from individuals like his opponent in the upcoming election, Joe Biden, to a long-overdue embrace of racial justice and the recommendations of epidemiologists.

As the depth of the economic devastation caused by the pandemic becomes clearer, Americans are more concerned about their survival than they are dazzled by the stock market gains that Trump touts constantly: gains that may not survive the failure of the US federal government to control the coronavirus.

In their attempt to undercut Biden’s rising popularity, Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence portray him as a socialist, a worn-out charge that carries less of a sting now that tens of million Americans are jobless, will need to rely on savings (if they have any) as their unemployment benefits run out, and therefore have nothing to invest.

Thus Trump is left with few options but to demonise China, an easy target for a number of reasons, including the new national security law that Beijing passed for Hong Kong, which could criminalise anyone anywhere in the world who might have the temerity to wave a black flag calling for the city’s independence.

This is where Trump’s people probably see his best chance to pull ahead of Biden and keep the White House. But they would be wrong.

Americans shocked by the draconian and extraterritorial nature of Hong Kong’s national security law value free speech and human rights. They see the law as a knee on the neck of anyone who supports freedom of expression. But they are not part of Trump’s base.

They also see Trump’s irrepressible admiration for leaders like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping and understand that the only anguish he feels at the legislation stems from his inability to enact anything similar in the US.

Meanwhile, the rest of the American public might be more aware of the Chinese government’s autocratic nature, but they’re in no mood for the disruption and economic costs that a complete severing of bilateral relations would cause.

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