The 2020 presidential elections in the US will be a unique if not an unprecedented electoral round in US history. It will not be a whole new ballgame as happens when a president completes his second term and both the Democrats and Republicans return to square one and select a new candidate out of an array of nominees after a long process of party conventions, caucuses and primaries in which, according to the laws and conventions in the US, the general public takes part in varying degrees.
This time, there is a sitting president in the Oval Office and he will ask the American people — and of course the Republic Party — to renew his mandate for a second term.
Naturally, this in itself is not new. Also, there is no guarantee that the incumbent president will be re-elected. Presidents Ford, Carter and Bush Sr only served for a single term.
But what is very new this time is that the incumbent is Donald Trump who has spent his past few years in the White House as though they were an extension of the electoral campaign he began in 2015.
Trump did not follow the usual pattern. Normally, new presidents take the first year in office to adjust to the new reality of being the head of government, one of whose first jobs is to appoint some 5,000 public officials who are essentially tasked with promoting the execution of the platform he laid out during his electoral campaign.
If clever, new presidents can get their most important nominees confirmed by Congress, drawing on the popularity that carried them into the White House.
Then, their second year becomes the year of achievement for which they laid foundations by reaching understandings with Congress to translate their platforms — or at least the feasible parts — into legislation and laws.
In the third year, presidents begin to prepare their platforms for the next four-year term and, in the fourth year, they work to win that term. If they win another four years in office, they begin to set their sights beyond the implementation of their agendas to their historical legacy and what historians will say about them.
The Donald Trump era is the exception to the rule. It is the departure from the norm. He never left campaign mode and worked to keep that climate alive.
He bothered little about government appointments. After more than two years in office, many posts remain empty. Until recently, 65 US embassies had been left without an ambassador. Other important posts in the State Department and Defense Department are still vacant.
Trump has remained fully absorbed in his electoral campaign battle against the US “establishment”: the political party establishment in both the Democratic and Republican parties and in Congress, the media establishment, and even the government establishment in key departments such as the Department of Defense, the CIA, the State Department and the Justice Department.
Although his predecessor, president Barack Obama, had embarked on that regrettable path of relying on executive decisions to override the opposition of a Republican-dominated Congress, Trump expanded the practice. Moreover, he started to do so in his first two years in office, when there was a Republican majority in both houses of Congress.
This president’s behaviour has kept him in a constant state of conflict with his political adversaries and in a state of war with the press.
The climate is aggravated by the polarisation in US public opinion that Trump has deliberately cultivated, firstly as a figure coming from outside the establishment, and secondly as a representative of the White ultranationalist right and its domestic and foreign policy preferences.
Ultimately, however, Trump and his personality are not the only variables in the American political scene. Even the question of his relationship with Russia, until the Mueller report emerged, was not the sole determinant of his first term in office.
Another major factor is that US politics is also changing. The change first appeared with the emergence of Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont who, in another recent precedent in the US, proclaimed his “socialist” personality and philosophy, his antagonism to big business and Wall Street, and his support for free education and free healthcare.
A new realm has opened up in the Democratic Party. So far, there are 22 potential candidates who have either said they would stand, or indicated a desire to stand for president. Among them, are quite a few progressives who have begun to outbid Sanders on that side of the political spectrum.
One is Elizabeth Warren who had been one of Sanders’ foremost supporters when he tried and failed to beat Hillary Clinton as the Democratic Party’s candidate in 2016.
Just as Trump had dragged the Republican Party towards the far right, Sanders dragged his party to the left, towards what many call socialism.
The 2016 presidential race was, in short, a reflection of the polarisation in US society that began at that time and that continues to the present.
That polarisation remains as sharp as ever, despite Joe Biden, Obama’s vice-president for eight years, a political and legislative maven in the Senate for many years who has just stepped forward as a representative of partisan and nationalist moderation.
Is it possible to predict who will win the 2020 presidential elections at this early phase? No. But this is not just because it would be premature to assess the political situation at this time but also because the political din and clamour is louder than ever.
We know that history favours the incumbent in the White House, especially when the economy is looking up as is the case at present when unemployment and inflation are low and incomes are on the rise. Such are the lessons from history.
As for what the present has to teach us, so far, the polarisation in the US is working in favour of Trump. His supporters are fanatics, committed and fed up with the liberal camp in the US, and they are not particularly concerned about the Trump-Russia connection.
Meanwhile, the Democrats are fragmented and torn between an array of progressive and socialist nominees while Biden does not have a prestigious record as a presidential candidate.
Does this mean that fate will hand Trump a second term? Again, the answer is no. The Russian question is still alive and the Democrats are determined to crack open its secrets in the Senate hearings until it culminates in a political and criminal indictment.
Also, more recently, the Democrats have begun to pry open Trump’s tax history which he had refused divulge in the previous campaign and which he has so far refused to divulge in the lead up to the next campaign, thereby setting another precedent. What this means is that there are great possibilities for learning more and making predictions accordingly.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Early prediction of US elections