Expert talking: dr. Tim Jelfs

Six questions and six clear answers from Tim Jelfs
about the upcoming elections in the US

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Tim Jelfs: “I’m an Assistant Professor in American Studies at the RUG. I’ve been here since 2011, having been born and educated in England. Teaching American Studies in Groningen has offered me an interesting perspective not just on the United States and its culture, but also on Dutch views of the United States. There’s clearly a love-hate relationship, I think it’s fair to say. My Dutch students seem both fascinated and horrified by present and past events in the United States.”

Trump is facing resistance, not only from the Democrats, but also from his “own” republican party. Republican John Kasich even argued that Joe Biden should be voted as president. He stated that “his ‘party responsibility’ is not above responsibility for his country.” In what way does it harm Trump in the changes to be re-elected that there is also dissatisfaction with his own party?
“It’s true that there are some prominent “never Trump” Republicans that don’t support the current president and have found in Joe Biden a Democratic nominee that they can get behind. But I don’t think this necessarily harms Trump, because there were some of these Republicans in 2016 too. The fact is that people both for and against Trump know what he is and what he stands for, and have known for some time now. He is a deeply polarizing figure, meaning he commands both a very loyal base and determined opposition. High profile Republican opposition to Trump from people like Kasich does, I suppose, have the potential to reinforce or further legitimize opposition from sections of the electorate that might previously have voted Republican–for example, certain wealthy suburban voters–but such voters find themselves appalled enough by Trump and comfortable enough with Biden that I don’t think the high profile defection of politicians like Kasich is likely to have a strong influence on the election either way. It’s exciting stuff for the cable news channels to chat about but not a key determining factor in the upcoming election.”

Trump has been following his own unprecedented course for 4 years, in which he makes radical decisions. In what way do you think America will look different if Joe Biden becomes president versus another Trump term for 4 years?
“Good question. You know, the easiest mistake to make about Trump is that he’s completely anomalous as far as U.S politics are concerned, and that his politics are somehow foreign to U.S. political culture. You see this mistaken point of view reflected in language that claims that Trump is acting like a “Latin American dictator” and so on. It’s really vital to understand that Trump is in fact surfing very long-running currents in American political life: nativism, xenophobia, economic nationalism, white supremacy, and so on. The unapologetically crass, vulgar way he articulates those politics certainly represents a break from what we may have come to expect from the presidency as a political office, and he is entirely comfortable with disrespecting the norms of that office, up to and including treating the institutions of liberal democracy with open contempt (attacking the rule of law, encouraging electoral fraud most recently). But there are also important things that haven’t changed under Trump, even where his rhetoric has broken with earlier presidents: most of the distribution of U.S. military and imperial power around the world, for example; or enormous (in fact, murderous) class and racial inequalities of class at home. These things preceded Trump and the question for Biden, if he manages to replace him, is whether or not he is capable of or willing to address them, or even if he recognizes these structural issues as problems that need to be addressed. Because a change in “style” and surface alone will not serve the USA very well, in my view, and nothing about Joe Biden’s political career past or present suggests he (or the Democratic Party, for that matter) are likely even to begin addressing these structural issues with the seriousness they deserve. The fact, for example, that Biden and his party are going into this election refusing, in the middle of a global pandemic, to recognize healthcare as a human right (refusing even to support Medicare for All!) tells you a lot about the limits of the Democratic Party’s ambition to change Trump’s America.”

It is widely known that Trump is proclaiming untruths, also with regard to the coronavirus. To what extent do you think the people in America still shrug their shoulders over Trump’s lies? Do you expect Joe Biden to exploit this in the race for president?
“Again, I’d say that the fact that Trump is a “known quantity” is important here. Much of the voters already knows that he is (to use a technical term) a bullshitter–in fact, that has arguably been vital to his extraordinary success in modern American life! He lies openly and brazenly and absurdly, but since when was politics anywhere, let alone in the United States of America, merely a question of truth, virtue, and moral and ethical consistency? Trump is not the first liar in American politics, though he may be the most unashamed one, and again, we’re getting a lot wrong about the political culture of the U.S. if we see him as the lone pollutant of an otherwise virtuous republic. His opponent, Biden, has a pretty long record of lies to his name too! What does that suggest about the political culture of the US and Trump’s place in it? Perhaps the issue is not so much that he lies, but the nature and volume of those lies and the dangerous and destabilizing effects of those lies on American life and American political institutions. So there are, I’m sure, plenty of voters genuinely outraged at the sheer volume and egregiousness of Trump’s lies as a matter of principle; the question is, are there enough of such voters to outweigh those who not only don’t mind that he lies, or don’t believe that he lies, or (and this is important) are pleased that he lies because he lies to defend things that they consider important–as if he was lying, in this case, on their behalf? Once you factor in these sets of voters, and then consider both those voters who are not going to vote at all–either because they’re prevented from voting by various efforts that have long actively suppressed the vote in the supposedly democratic U.S., or because they see no need to vote because voting has failed in recent decades to deliver significant change to them–then I don’t think Trump’s lies in themselves will be a determining factor. His incompetence in the face of the global pandemic is a separate question. That’s far more hurtful to his chances, I think, and may be far more important to the outcome of the election than his lying.”

“Much of the voters already know that Trump is a “bullshitter”. In fact, that has arguably been vital to his extraordinary success in modern American life! He lies openly, boldly and absurdly, but since when was politics, anywhere, let alone in the US, just a matter of truth, virtues and moral and ethical consistency?”

Barack and Michelle Obama are both lashing out at President Trump. They argue that he has never been, or ever will become, a suitable president. In addition, they accuse him of abuse of power. To what extent do these Obama’s statements affect the outcome of the election? Are the Obamas still influential?
“I don’t think the Obamas’ interventions will influence the outcome of the general election, but I’ve read interesting reportsabout Barack Obama’s influence in persuading some of the Democratic nominees to drop out of the primaries and endorse Biden. That was a very interesting moment in the Democratic race and was designed to ward off a strong challenge from the socialist candidate Bernie Sanders and at the same time avoid a brokered convention (in which it would have been too close a primary election  to determine straight away which candidate had won the nomination). So Obama certainly remains influential to some degree within the Democratic Party and has already influenced the shape of this election, if these reports are to be believed.”

Joe Biden announced early that Kamala Harris will be vice president. Do you think that Joe Biden, with Kamala as running mate, would appeal to a different kind of voter – such as women and black people – and thus attract extra votes? Or did Biden have an advantage on this target group over Trump?
“The selection of Kamala Harris is another one of those issues that the media encourage us to think must be important, but I really don’t think it will make much difference. On the face of it, Harris certainly doesn’t weaken Biden’s appeal with the kind of groups you mention. At the same time, however, it’s important to think beyond simplistic categories of gender and race. For example, Harris may appeal to women of certain classes (well-paid, well-educated, highly successful professionals like herself) more than others, while her past experience as a prosecutor and attorney general complicates matters in interesting ways. She was, after all, attorney general in California, which as Ruth Wilson Gilmore has shown in her great book Golden Gulag (of interest to law students, I’m sure!), has seen an explosion in prison building and prison populations over the last few decades. That Harris used proudly to refer to herself as the “top cop” of this state has been seized on by critics who see her and her career as at odds with the aims and priorities of some Black Lives Matter protestors. But all in all, I just don’t see her presence on the ticket making that much of a difference one way or another.”

 “The easiest mistake to make about Trump is that he’s completely anomalous as far as U.S politics are concerned, and that his politics are somehow foreign to U.S. political culture.”

Right now, there is a lot of commotion about postal voting because of corona. Trump thinks this is fraudulent. The Washington Post says that there is no evidence for this. USPS would have enough money and capacity to receive and process mail-in ballots. This discussion makes the current election unique from its predecessors. Are there other aspects that make the current elections different from the previous elections?
“The issue of mail-in voting and the USPS and the doubt that Trump and others are attempting to cast on the whole process do make this upcoming, mid-pandemic unique in some ways. But not unique in all ways, it’s important to add. There were midterm elections in 1918, right in the midst of the flu pandemic of that year.

The controversies surrounding the postal service are potentially very serious indeed, and Trump has long attempted to sow doubt about the legitimacy of electoral processes. He was a key supporter of the “birther” movement that opposed Obama on the suspicion that he was not a “natural-born citizen” of the US and therefore ineligible for the presidency. He also sought to explain Hillary Clinton winning more of the popular vote than him in 2016 as a result of voter fraud. There is as a result enormous potential for chaos regardless of the outcome–and remember, when Trump won in 2016, many of his liberal opponents wanted to portray the outcome as illegitimate on the basis of Russian intervention in the election. So, it will be interesting to see what happens, to say the least. But I wouldn’t say the potential for the outcome to be clouded by doubts about its legitimacy will make this election “unique” either.
As recently as 2000, for example, you had another contested election whose outcome was eventually (and far from democratically) decided by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court of the United States. And in a country that has experienced a Civil War before, it’s fair to say that things could obviously get much worse than they appear now. Unfortunately, I don’t find myself particularly hopeful that they will get much better, whatever happens in November.

Given the long-term obstacles placed in the way of many Americans even exercising their right to vote (e.g. stringent ID laws and limited polling booths in poorer areas), given the high number of eligible voters who choose not to vote (e.g. because they’ve lost all faith in the system, or they don’t live in a swing state or live in a gerrymandered district), and given the unrepresentative, anti-majoritarian features of the US political system (e.g. the electoral college, the distribution of Senate seats), there’s no guarantee at all that the outcome in November will either represent or be understood to represent the “will of the people.” That spells trouble for any self-styled democracy, I’d say, but all of those things I just mentioned also pre-date Trump and his further erosion of confidence in the electoral system. These are deep problems that the Trump administration is making even worse! But here’s a final thought: one way in which the elections will be unique is that whoever wins will be the oldest president ever elected! That seems appropriate somehow for an ageing republic with a poor state of health capable right now, it seems, only of looking back nostalgically to its past rather than rising to meet the challenges of its future.”

Annemiek van ‘t Hof

Marijn Geurts

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