In November of 2016, in what was a truly unprecedented and remarkable election cycle, the United States of America elected political newcomer Donald Trump as their new president. Flash forward four years later, and the 2020 version is no less strange or unique, albeit perhaps for completely different reasons, because (in no particular order): the Covid landscape has changed everything; the world has now seen what four years of a Donald Trump presidency looks like; race and gender equality are front and center of the agenda; and an economic recession the likes of which the world has never seen is not just at the doorstep but has rammed its way into the house, gone through the corridor and has chained itself to the sofa.
Given all this, it is easy to forget what a stark choice the US electorate has this election season, and what – beyond the above – is at stake. What will be won or lost if either politician wins? With China and Russia looming large – for varying and different reasons – how will the election of either politician likely affect the international landscape?
What, and to what extent, is hanging in the balance?
The devastated economy which emerges from a post-pandemic context will be an uphill struggle for both parties and is a battle neither is likely to win in the short term – less severe recessions and even the Great Depression were not overcome in a few short years.
The truth is that whoever wins, massive governmental investment and infrastructure builds to stimulate the environment are certain, the only question is where these will be targeted, a point both parties certainly disagree on. Notwithstanding, Biden is unlikely to pursue the Green New Deal proposed by the left of his party, so perhaps there is less space between the two candidates in this area than they would like to admit.
In a different political cycle, this is one area that many candidates would like to sit out, and await clearer horizons before they jump in to get involved.
Since taking office in 2017, Donald Trump has had the opportunity to appoint two supreme court justices – Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch – altering the balance to 5 conservative and 4 liberal justices. If he gains another 4 years in office, with certain justices like Ruth Bader Ginsberg nearing retirement or worse, he may have the opportunity to appoint another justice during his term, which – given the relative youth of his appointees – would likely load the Supreme Court in the favor of conservatives for a generation.
Race & Gender
The Black Lives Matter movement , although founded in 2013, has seemingly reached a critical mass and gained the nationwide attention in the US that it has been demanding for years. Between systemic racism, discrimination and police brutality, tensions in the streets of many cities run high on both sides of the political spectrum. Race is likely to feature front and center of the election cycle, with the incumbent consistently ready to cross red lines to stoke the base of his electorate, and Biden having mass support across the African American community.
Gender in the USA – and in particular gender equality – continues to be resurgent, and the issue has only been heightened over the past four years with the emergence of the ‘Me Too’ movement, highlighted by the most powerful man in the country having what might be termed a chequered history with women and the women’s movement. Notwithstanding, Biden is not clear of mud and blame, accusations of inappropriate touching being claims which have been hard to shift.
Biden’s nomination of Kamala Harris as Vice Presidential candidate, however – not only the first woman, but the first Black-South Asian woman in such a position – has broken a glass ceiling of sorts, and is being celebrated by women across the country. In 2016, women voted overwhelmingly against then candidate Trump, and given events during the first term, this time round that ‘protest’ vote may hurt the Republican candidate even more.
Immigration & Borders
In the last four years Donald Trump has made more than 400 executive actions on immigration. He continues to talk about and push forward with his plans to build a wall between the US and Mexico border – although the construction is going slower than he originally planned – and he has set the lowest refugee admissions ceiling ever, from 50,000 in fiscal year 2017, to 18,000 in fiscal year 2020. Long gone are the days when even conservative Republicans could talk about the importance of a fluid border, as did Reagan and Bush senior in 80’s debates. The landscape has both literally and metaphorically changed and the southern border is one of the most politicized areas in the US, a fact which is unlikely to change.
Should Trump achieve a second term in office, he would be emboldened to pursue this line of policy, even accelerate it, whereas a Biden success with its attendant Latino support would undoubtedly wholly alter the discourse around this most contentious of issues, although to what extent we can only wait and see.
The International Landscape
The USA has never been more America First than during Trump’s first term in office. Traditional allies have often been ignored whilst personal meetings and friendships with controversial world leaders prioritized. At the same time existing agreements have been annulled, with some notable exceptions in the case of – for instance – Israel, with the US Embassy moving to contested Jerusalem.
The clear daylight between the two candidates as regards the international landscape can essentially be seen as a continuation of the go-it-alone personal policy-making of the Trump administration, as opposed to a Biden Presidency which would place the USA once again in broad groupings and alliances.
And what to say of Russia and Russian ‘interference?’ This strangest of issues looms larger than ever without anyone really able to point to what happened, what continues to happen, and what this means for the future of democracies everywhere.
It’s an often-used cliche when elections come round to say that the current vote is the most important one we have seen in our lifetimes.
Well, this time, it might be just about right.
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