Trump 'exacerbated' already existing divisions in US society: Academic experts

Bassem Aly , Friday 21 Sep 2018

In a talk organised by the American University of Cairo, two professors of political science put forward their analysis of what's happening in America

Ambassador Karim Haggag (L), Professor Shebli Telhami (C) and Professor Mohamed Kamal (R) speaking in lecture on US politics at AUC in Tahrir, 20 September, 2018 (Photo: Bassem Aly)

Prominent experts on US politics said on Thursday that American society has been suffering from divisions that were “exacerbated” by the election of Donald Trump as US president, but not created by it.

In a public lecture titled “What is Happening in America”, organized on Thursday by the American University in Cairo as part of the Tahrir Dialogue Series, the two professors of political science, University of Maryland's Shibley Telhami and Cairo University's Mohamed Kamal, explored current polarization in US society and taced their roots.

Telhami started by "giving a flavor" of the extent of the political division within US society, including that of the "phenomenon" of incumbent President Trump.

"Trump won [the presidential elections], but it was a very close race, and could have worked in a different way," said Telhami.

In the 2016 presidential elections, then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton won roughly 2.9 million votes more than Republican candidate Donald Trump.

Yet, swing states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, which allowed his predecessor Barack Obama to reach the White House four years earlier, were crucial in propelling Trump to victory in the race.

America has a unique voting system that involves the Electoral College; while Hilary may a secured the popular citizen vote, Trump won the Electoral College vote thereby securing the presidency by 304 votes, while Clinton only obtained 227 votes. A minimum of 270 is required for the election of a president.

Telhami offered several theories, or widely-circulated interpretations, about why Trump became president.

Among them is the ability for Trump to portray himself as "anti-establishment", despite his long-standing relationship with the Clinton family. The Clintons had sought his financial support in past for electoral campaigns. Yet, Trump was seen as a "hope" for White Christian Americans.

Another theory, Telhami noted, was the alleged Russian support for Trump.

Such accusations led to the Robert Mueller special counsel investigation into whether Trump cooperated with Russia to win the US elections, as well as whether Trump attempted to hinder investigations.

Another theory, according to Telhami, is that some "people were more open to him than others" because he is seen as a "pragmatist", this is seen in his rejectionist position towards the long-standing Iraq war.

Telhami here cited the example of ex-Democratic president Jimmy Carter publicly saying he prefers Trump over other Republican candidates such as Ted Cruz.

Telhami added that some people "fear" Vice President Mike Pence more than Trump himself.

He also said that some voters chose Trump because he is seen as a businessman and it was assumed he would know how to handle the economy.

Telhami said that "globalization increased the gap between the rich and the poor" in the United States, which "made it harder" for people to "live the American dream" by previous means of earning money through hard work and the development of their professional skills.

Thus, votes were presumed to be gained through Trump’s "anti-globalization" stance and his calls for restoration of limits of free trade between the US and other countries.

Telhami said that "demographics play a role" as Americans who worked, studied or have friends abroad are more likely to define themselves as "egalitarian", "citizens of the world" and opposed to Trump's "America First" electoral slogan.

While Democrats, according to the polls that Telhami conducted, define themselves in this manner, Republicans are more attached to their "religious identity" as Christians.

Telhami added that recent books, including Fear that was written by the Washington Post's veteran journalist Bob Woodward, confirmed that Trump most likely a "narcissist."  

Trump's personality, according to the likelihood of him being narcissistic, gives the chance for many within US politics, including White House staffers and lobbies, to "manipulate him".

Regardless of which interpretation is the most accurate, Telhami emphasized that the United States is suffering from a crisis in its "identity politics", a situation that has been going on for the past few years.

He said that there is a "clash of civilizations" inside US society itself, more so than that between the United States and other parts of the world.

For Telhami, Trump has "exacerbated" this division, though he is not a major cause of it.

He argued that it "feels like two different countries when you listen to" pro-Republican television networks such as Fox News, as opposed to pro-Democratic outlets like CNN or MSNBC.

Referring to his own field research, Telhami highlighted that 50 percent of Americans are against Trump's travel ban, while 49 percent are backing it.

Last year, Trump suspended the issuance of immigrant and non-immigrant visas to applicants from Libya, Iran, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, all Muslim-majority states, in addition to North Korea and Venezuela.

A conclusion that Telhami reached after finalizing six polls since the start of the presidential campaigns and end of Trump's first year in office is that Democrats are "starting to like Muslims" more than before.

On the contrary, Republicans continue to be anti-Muslim, especially given has Trump spoken about "Islamic terrorism" after several Islamist militant attacks on "US soil."

Telhami said a similar division exists on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Democrats are "pro-Palestinians," while the Republicans support Israel.

Telhami concluded by saying that Trump won because he earned more votes from those who supported him, not from the undecided voters, adding he might possibly be elected for a second term.

But he expected that US society would "move in a different direction" in the long run, noting that the midterm elections in November will show whether Democrats can still reach victory.

For Kamal, he emphasized that "we should not be surprised" by the controversial positions taken by Trump, as he had promised to adopt them during the campaign stage.

This includes a trade war with China, a harder position on immigration than that of his predecessors, and moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

While most observers expect that Democrats will get a majority in the House of Representatives after the midterm elections in November, Kamal, however, said he "is not sure" whether they will be able to mobilize more voters than the Republicans.

"Democrats are stressing on votes of young people and millennials, but we can't be sure they will show up and vote for Democratic candidates on the election day", said Kamal.

American voters will cast their ballots for all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, and third of the seats in the Senate during November's midterm elections.

The elections are widely seen as a test of the popularity of the Trump administration after more than two years into office. 

If the Democrats were to take control of the House of the Representatives, many say they can stop many of Trump's future plans, and might also begin taking the necessary steps for the impeachment of the president. 

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