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Analysis
Search for scapegoats

Search for scapegoats

Trump's campaign and the politics of discontent

by Marsha Vande Berg in San Francisco

Wed 22 Jun 2016

The campaign now underway for the US elections on 8 November has unveiled a battle for America’s soul. Presumptive Republican candidate Donald Trump preys on fears in America’s rank and file about losing ground to globalisation, international trade agreements and immigrants, particularly Mexicans and Muslims.

America's downtrodden believe they are disadvantaged by an elite political class that has failed to ensure equitable opportunity and their personal security. Trump is directing Middle American fears toward cultural scapegoats, threatening to separate the country from long-held values of an open and tolerant society.

Trump’s cultural wars are not unique to the US. In the Philippines, as well as parts of Europe, including in the UK’s battle over European Union membership, populist camps are winning support. Egged on by angry rhetoric, this spreading disenchantment reflects general unease about our multicultural 21st century and the unrelenting sweep of social and technological change.

Trump has been described as temperamentally unfit to be president. He displays a pocketful of hot-button issues, machismo bravado and unchecked confidence. He seeks to position himself as independent of ‘politics as usual’. And he wins cheers from supporters for positions such as his call to combat terrorism by expanding the use of torture.

Having defeated six Republican candidates, Trump faces a single, seasoned politician in Hillary Clinton, the first woman to win the nomination of a major US political party.

Clinton has been assiduous in defining her candidacy. In contrast to Trump’s scattershot positions, her policies offer a clear picture of what she stands for and the issues that she is likely to champion if elected.

A cursory comparison of the two candidates on economic issues suggests disparities in line with typical political party preferences. A similar review of foreign policy underscores the depth of Clinton’s experience compared with Trump, who shows little if any appreciation for 50 years of US foreign policy and diplomatic achievement.

On the federal debt, tax restructuring, discretionary spending and entitlements, Trump would push for a balanced budget ‘relatively soon’, while Clinton addresses the issue of rising debt and a national security risk. Trump would cut the corporate tax rate and repeal the estate and alternative minimum taxes; Clinton would seek a tax surcharge on wage earners of $5m or more, and raise medium-term capital gains and estate taxes. The Trump initiatives would cost federal coffers $9.5tn, while Clinton’s would add $1.1tn.

Trump has pledged to reduce the size of the federal government by eliminating the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency. Clinton would earmark $1.1tn for infrastructure, universal pre-school, higher education tuition assistance, elderly care and paid family leave.

Trump would scrap the Affordable Care Act, while Clinton would keep it with some changes. Clinton would expand entitlement programmes for the most needy: Trump opposes cuts to social security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Trump opposes outright the Transpacific Partnership agreement and would repeal the North America Free Trade Agreement. Clinton has modified her earlier pro-trade stance to oppose TPP, a reaction to Democratic primary opponent Bernie Sanders’ effective campaigning.

Clinton’s foreign policy stance is aligned with that of Barack Obama’s administration, much of which she helped shape as secretary of state, while Trump’s get-tough stance is often transactional in its approach. He would have the US declare China a foreign currency manipulator – and force Beijing to accede to trade terms more favourable to US interests or face punitive tariffs. He insists that allies assume a greater share of the financial and related burdens for US security, even going so far as to suggest that Japan, a pivotal ally in Asia, should consider building a nuclear arsenal.

Trump seems to believe that he does not need to show how he can effectively govern and lead America. Instead, he regales voters with divisive rhetoric, targeting those discontented with globalisation and angry at other people's perceived privileges.

Trump has exposed a strain of unhappiness in the American body politic, which he suggests addressing by identifying scapegoats. The question is whether he could win the presidency and then lose at his own game of bringing others arrogantly to their knees.

Marsha Vande Berg is Distinguished Career Fellow at Stanford University this year. This forms part of OMFIF's series of commentaries on the US presidential election on 8 November.

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