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Expert comment: The US election race

usa election 150x150 Tuesday 25 October 2016

Senior Lecturer in History Dr Bryce Evans is currently in the US on a research fellowship funded by the University of Delaware. Each Wednesday lunchtime until US Election Day, he’ll be providing updates on the Presidential campaign for Liverpool’s Radio City Talk 105.9 FM and an expert comment for the website.   

Trump’s Gettysburg Address

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania is a fairly bleak place; next to the tiny town are flat fields dotted with the occasional memorial and ambling tourist group stretching as far as the eye can see. But there are few places more emotionally moving for Americans than Gettysburg. It was here that the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War took place, in 1863; here where President Abraham Lincoln sought to heal a divided nation with his famous ‘Gettysburg Address’.

And it was here, at the weekend, that Donald Trump delivered the landmark speech of his campaign. Trump previously praised ‘Honest Abe’, contrasting the great Lincoln with his opponent in the presidential race, ‘Crooked Hilary’. The choice of Gettysburg was therefore telling. Trump is trying to present himself as the Lincoln of today, a fighter who will unite a nation at odds with itself, an outspoken champion of the many Americans who feel cheated by the political establishment and its commitment to pluralism.

Trump’s is a populist message in-keeping with the resurgence of right-wing populism worldwide. He pits himself against the elite and his campaign calendar reflects this. A glance at the schedule of Trump and running mate Mike Pence reveals a very different agenda to that of Hilary Clinton, whose rallies are peppered with celebrity advocates like Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Bon Jovi and Jennifer Lopez.

Trump’s theme of The People vs The Corrupt Elite was underscored most powerfully in his address to the charity Al Smith dinner last week. A traditionally jocular formal dinner where leading politicians indulge in self-deprecating humour, The Donald just about managed some self-deprecation (not his forte) before launching into gags at Clinton’s expense. His insistence that Hilary Clinton is corrupt drew boos and jeers from the tuxedoed notables in attendance, but praise from his supporters, who relished this ‘roasting’ of the establishment. 

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was only two minutes and 272 words long. Trump’s was much longer because it finally detailed policy: something which the Republican nominee has been previously criticised for not doing. For example, we learned that a Trump Presidency would see Mexican illegal immigrants given one chance after first being detained at the border; a second attempt to enter would result in mandatory two-year prison sentence, and those caught three times would get five years.

Emotion versus Policy 

But, when they vote, do people care about such details? Do we vote with our heads or our hearts?

While some were outraged at the choice of venue, Trump’s Gettysburg speech drew quite a few plaudits for its combination of the emotive promise of fixing a broken country with concrete policies.

And yet, still, Trump is hamstrung by voters’ emotional responses to him. While some see him as a saviour, key demographic groups are revolted by him.

By way of illustration, American politics can be dirty. Television here is full of adverts commissioned by local candidates, both republican and democrat, seeking to dish dirt on their rivals. Most take the form of the exposé, with grave music and dark tones informing viewers that Congressman So-and-So is corrupt.

But among these muck-raking efforts, one stands out. It’s commissioned by the Hilary Clinton campaign and starts with a voiceover stating ‘autistic kids often flap their hands a lot’. It then switches to a mother talking about her autistic son. Subtitles tell us she is a republican, yet in a heartfelt message she explains why she can’t vote for Donald Trump. Then we’re back to that infamous Trump rally in November 2015, at which the republican candidate mocked a New York Times reporter with a disability by flapping his hands wildly and slurring his speech. It finishes with the mother explaining that she’s voting democrat for the first time because ‘I can’t let my child grow up in Trumpworld’. It’s an advert that tugs the heartstrings, and it works.

The latest polls put Clinton comfortably ahead of her rival. Women voters, especially, are resolutely anti-Trump. This speaks to the fact that mere mention of ‘Trumpworld’, for many, conjures up images as horrific as Hieronymus Bosch’s depictions of Hell. Trump has been damaged more than his campaign expected by allegations of sexual assault against him. He responded at Gettysburg by saying he will sue every woman who has come forward to accuse him of molestation (eleven so far and counting): hardly a pledge befitting the place or the occasion itself.

Nobody likes a bully

These are testing times in Trumpworld. Chiefly because the ruler of Trumpworld, Donald J. Trump, can’t stop acting like a child himself. This was made clear yet again at the third and final presidential debate last week. After a rather dignified start, Trump began snapping at his opponent like the proverbial petulant school kid, taunting back ‘you’re the puppet’ at Clinton after she accused him of cosying up to Vladimir Putin. He repeatedly rolled his eyes, interrupted and - most damagingly - muttered into the microphone that Hilary Clinton was ‘such a nasty woman’.

He also resorted to emotional language of his own, claiming federal laws on abortion allow doctors to ‘rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month’. But while Trump’s bid for Catholic votes seeks to represent Clinton as pro-abortion, many Catholics support Hilary because of her social justice agenda. In a further example of colourful language, Trump pledged that ‘bad hombres’ would be deported under him: language which will please his core constituency but endear him little to Hispanic voters. While Trump scored some successes on foreign policy, Clinton came out of the debate appearing more knowledgeable and substantial on policy, hence Trump’s elaboration on policy days later at Gettysburg.

Prior to the debate, many people were saying that Trump needed something of a miracle performance if he was to reverse Clinton’s poll lead. Instead, the headline was Trump’s continued refusal to say he’ll respect the outcome of the election on Tuesday 8th November. Once again, he came across as something of a petulant, bullying school kid.

It’s a shame that Trump can’t help playing the school bully, because for all his faults he has succeeded in putting the wind up the American political establishment, both republican and democrat.

Even in the bluest [democrat-voting] areas I’ve visited, people talk with disdain about Hilary Clinton. In one of the most stinging moments of last week’s debate Trump called the Clinton Foundation a ‘criminal enterprise’, citing a $25,000 donation from a Brazilian bank and her dealings with a Saudi Arabian regime which – to quote Trump – ‘pushes gays off buildings’. He claimed she was hypocritical to talk about women's rights while supporting the Saudis and told her to ‘give back the money’.

For all his bluster, Trump is right to hold Clinton to account on potential conflicts of interest surrounding her Foundation’s links to big business and foreign states. We now know that among the multi-million dollar donors to the Clinton Foundation who used Clinton-connected lobbyists at the US State Department were corporate giants Microsoft, Pfizer, Exxon Mobil and even Mexican TV network Azteca.

The problem is, these points are being made by Donald Trump.

And nobody likes a bully. 

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