ANDREW NEIL: The U.S. hasn't been so riven since the Civil War

ANDREW NEIL: With Trump set to run again, the U.S. hasn’t been so riven since the Civil War

Ever since I studied American history and politics at the University of Glasgow in the late 1960s, I have taken a keen interest in U.S. current affairs.

I’ve been a White House correspondent, a Wall Street correspondent, lived there off and on, visited regularly for almost 50 years, written and broadcast about it and interviewed various presidents, including Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. I write these words from my apartment in New York.

So when I say I cannot recall a time when Republicans and Democrats have been in worse shape, I know of what I speak. Things are so bad that America could be on the brink of a political crisis — perhaps even a constitutional crisis — of historic proportions.

And it’s all largely down to one man: Donald Trump.

This week, he gave the clearest indication yet that he intends to run for the U.S. presidency in 2024. He told New York magazine that he’s already made up his mind to go for it — he just has to decide whether to formally announce before or after the mid-term congressional elections (for the House and Senate) in early November.

Things are so bad that America could be on the brink of a political crisis — perhaps even a constitutional crisis — of historic proportions. And it’s all largely down to one man: Donald Trump

No presidential hopeful, to my recollection, has ever announced their candidacy before the mid-terms. But my guess is that Trump will. Publicity is as necessary to Trump for survival as oxygen is for the rest of us. 

He hates the way other politicians — including several Republican hopefuls for their party’s presidential nomination, such as Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida — currently command the headlines.

If he announces renewed presidential ambitions in September or October then he will be centre stage once more come the November vote, and all eyes will be on who he has — and hasn’t — endorsed. That’s where he always craves to be and where he is happiest.

The fact he’s currently under ten different investigations by federal, state and district authorities, some of them criminal, I’m sure played no part in his decision — except that being president again would provide a certain immunity from most of them.

Whatever his reasons, it’s not good news for Republicans.

Trump hangs over the party like a poisonous cloud incapable of dispersion. The Trump cult still dominates the Republican base to such an extent that, as things stand, he is the clear favourite to win the Republican nomination. Thus does he stop Republicans from moving on from the tumultuous, toxic Trump years and fashioning a new centre-right agenda for the 2020s and beyond.

This would not matter so much if the Democrats, who hold the White House, House and Senate, knew what they were doing. But they don’t. In many ways they’re in even worse shape than the Republicans.

Almost eight out of ten Americans think their country is moving in the wrong direction under Biden, and only 26 per cent of Democratic voters want him to run again. More than 90 per cent of Democrats under 30 want a new candidate in 2024

They will lose the House in November, probably the Senate too, and no leading Democrat wants President Joe Biden to run again, bar Biden himself.

Consider the current condition of the President. As inflation soars above 9 per cent — the highest rate in 40 years — Biden’s job-approval ratings plummet to 33 per cent in the latest New York Times poll, the lowest in modern presidential history.

Almost eight out of ten Americans think their country is moving in the wrong direction under Biden, and only 26 per cent of Democratic voters want him to run again. More than 90 per cent of Democrats under 30 want a new candidate in 2024.

Age is regularly cited as the reason he shouldn’t make a second bid for the White House. At 79, he’s already two years older than Reagan when he ended his two-term presidency.

Should he win a second term, he would be 86 by the time it ended. Leading Democrats think that’s simply too old for the toughest job in the world.

Republicans have been having a go at Biden’s age and declining faculties for ages. But now even America’s overwhelmingly Democratic-inclined media — hitherto lapdogs with laptops when it’s come to the Biden presidency — are making it an issue. Including the mighty New York Times.

Its White House correspondent recently revealed that when Biden ‘shuffles’ rather than walks off stage, his aides are terrified he’ll trip on a broadcast cable. They ‘hold their breath’ to see if he can make it to the end of a speech ‘without a gaffe’.

He can appear ‘momentarily confused’, can’t remember even important names and ‘loses his train of thought’.

Democrats running for election in November are already distancing themselves from the President.

When Biden went to Cleveland, Ohio, recently to tout his economic recovery plan, the Ohio Democratic candidates for the Senate and the governorship thought it wise not to be seen alongside him. They had ‘scheduling conflicts’. Of course they did.

If — or when — Biden loses Congress in November, his agenda will be in tatters and he will be a lame-duck president.

Every leading Democrat I’ve spoken to agrees Biden should not run again. Not that there is any agreement on who should run.

Plan A was that it would be Vice-President Kamala Harris. But she is as big a gaffe-machine as the President and even less popular. She has effectively been discarded as Biden’s anointed successor. And there is no Plan B.

If Biden chooses to run again he will be challenged in the Democratic primaries, as Carter was by Edward Kennedy in 1980. It is by no means certain Biden would prevail.

If he leaves the field there will be a plethora of Democratic hopefuls throwing their hats into the ring, most of them even less impressive than the current cadre of Tory party hopefuls. Who knows who would emerge victorious?

So the Democrats are clearly vulnerable to a Republican onslaught. Not just in November, but in 2024. The Trump cultists think that with their man at the head of the ticket the Republicans would be a shoo-in. Wiser party heads are not so sure.

After all, it was Trump’s obsession with the ‘stolen’ 2020 election that cost the Republicans two Georgia Senate seats — and handed the upper house to the Democrats — in January 2021.

Trump’s endorsements for the November elections have already resulted in more extreme or outlandish Republican candidates in Arizona, Pennsylvania and North Carolina who will have greater trouble winning than more mainstream Republicans that incurred Trump’s ire.

And that same poll which showed Biden’s ratings tanking still had him beat Trump 44 per cent to 41 per cent in a 2024 rematch. In other words, the least popular president of recent times still beats Trump.

Trump would fight a backward campaign in 2024, seeking vindication for his stolen election claims. That would put off the moderate and independent voters Republicans need to take back the White House — and these voters are up for grabs.

Two-thirds of independents now disapprove of Biden. But they are unlikely to vote for a candidate who harps on about how he was cheated in 2020, something nobody believes outside the Trump cult.

Regardless of who wins in 2024, there’s a much bigger danger: that whoever loses will not accept the result. Trump, after all, has set the precedent.

Imagine, this time, that Trump wins but only by a slither. The Left, aping Trump, would claim the election had been stolen.

Learning from the chaotic, amateur attempt at insurrection by Trump hardliners on January 6, 2021, when they stormed Capitol Hill in scenes that disgraced American democracy, they would be capable of a much more professional and widespread campaign of civil unrest and violence.

In recent years they’ve already brought near-anarchy to city centres such as Seattle and Portland.

Or imagine that Trump loses again in a close-run race. He and his supporters would take this as proof positive that there’s a ‘deep state’ conspiracy to deny him the White House, not once but twice.

And this time his supporters would be better organised when they resort to violence to disrupt the democratic process.

Either result would spell crisis for America. Democracy requires two things: a victor; and for the loser to recognise the victor. Trump has undermined this prerequisite by refusing to admit defeat in 2020.

It is his most poisonous legacy to the American body politic. The extremes of Left and Right have learned the lessons. There is the risk of division and violence as bad as any since the American Civil War in the 1860s, undermining the very foundations of U.S. democracy.

Biden is clearly not the man to see America through this potential crisis. We do not yet know who is. That is why we are entering dangerous, uncharted territory — not just for America but its allies.

Churchill once said America could always be counted on to do the right thing — they just took their time about it.

As crime and prices soar, living standards struggle (with even baby formula in short supply), city centres are scarred by drugs, street-dwellers and lawlessness, and political divisions grow ever deeper and more rancorous, time is not on America’s side.

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