Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 15 July 2020

What Trump stands to lose if Washington DC gains statehood

DC is overwhelmingly Democrat and Republicans are fearful of how Donald Trump’s 'reign of error' will play out

People sit along the Georgetown Waterfront on the Potomac River despite off and on rain in Washington, DC, US, 20 June. Samuel Corum / EPA
People sit along the Georgetown Waterfront on the Potomac River despite off and on rain in Washington, DC, US, 20 June. Samuel Corum / EPA

The US state of New Hampshire has car number plates which say: “Live Free Or Die.” In Idaho, where there is a big farming community, the state number plates say “Famous Potatoes.” Perhaps all human life is somewhere between New Hampshire’s bloodcurdling demand for liberty and Idaho’s need for Americans to love potatoes, but there is one motto on American number plates which has a bitter twist. The US capital, Washington DC (District of Columbia), is not a state. Number plates in Washington therefore carry a complaint rather than a motto: “Taxation Without Representation.”

It is an echo of the 18th century slogan when King George the third taxed the American colonies even though they had no representation in the British government. But now the US House of Representatives has voted to give Washington DC representation by making the US capital America’s 51st state. It is a symbolic vote only, at least for now. No US territory has become a state since Hawaii and Alaska in 1959.

The population of the US capital is around 700,000, more than the population of existing states like Wyoming and Vermont. DC is overwhelmingly Democrat, and while Democrats in Congress voted for statehood, Republicans oppose it. Since Republicans control the Senate, DC will not become a state – yet. But big changes are in the wind ahead of November’s presidential election.

Opinion polls show that Donald Trump’s support is eroding. Joe Biden is ahead of Trump 50-36 per cent in national polls and more importantly in key states that Trump won in 2016. Biden – the “Not Trump” candidate – appeals to voters disappointed or disgusted by Mr Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic and his tin ear to protests about police brutality and racism.

Marie Smith joins a group called "Allies rally against Confederate and police violence," in Texas, US. Ricardo B. Brazziell / AP
Marie Smith joins a group called "Allies rally against Confederate and police violence," in Texas, US. Ricardo B. Brazziell / AP

When Americans go to the polls in November they vote for the president and also for every member of the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate. The House will probably stay Democrat. But Republicans are fearful that Mr Trump’s reign of error means they will lose senators in battleground states – Michigan, North Carolina and Arizona – and potentially lose control of the Senate itself.

That would guarantee statehood for DC, and that would then probably give Democrats two more Senate seats.

As a decade-long DC resident, I would cheer the idea of my former neighbours at last having representation in the government

Mr Trump’s former National Security Adviser John Bolton has warned that a second Trump term would also be disastrous for America’s stature in the world. It is already diminished. In travels from Latin America to the Middle East, Europe to the Far East I have met many people who love the US and quite a few who hate it. But I have rarely met anyone who pities the US as so many seem to do now. And yet American leadership, even in protests, is still a global event.

Who would have guessed that the killing by police of a black man in Minneapolis would lead to statues of slave traders and racists being destroyed in Belgium and the UK, along with Black Lives Matter protests from France to Australia?

In defence and security circles in Europe we complain about American leadership until we see under Mr Trump what lack of American leadership can look like.

Yet nothing can be taken for granted. Republicans may rally around Mr Trump, although the death toll from coronavirus continues to rise, and America domestically is far from being at peace with itself.

A father and son wear masks as they ride their bikes down the Capital Crescent Trail into the Georgetown neighbourhood of Washington, DC, US, on 20 June. Samuel Corum / EPA 
A father and son wear masks as they ride their bikes down the Capital Crescent Trail into the Georgetown neighbourhood of Washington, DC, US, on 20 June. Samuel Corum / EPA

An old Republican friend once explained that it is possible for a president to be elected while doing nothing much about race relations but it is difficult for a president to be elected while demonstrating that he does not care at all about race relations. Mr Trump appears to have fallen into that latter category.

And that is why the future statehood of Washington DC itself is so important. We could see by the end of the year voters across the US deciding they have had enough of Mr Trump. That will give a boost to Democrats vying for Senate seats, and that in turn will mean that Washington DC could at last take its place as the 51st state.

A sign on a lamppost in the Georgetown district of Washington, DC on June 22. Mandel Ngan / AFP
A sign on a lamppost in the Georgetown district of Washington, DC on June 22. Mandel Ngan / AFP

As a decade-long DC resident, I would cheer the idea of my former neighbours at last having representation in the government of their nation in a city that I love. I would also cheer the post-Trump Republican party taking a long hard look in the mirror and examining how it ended up with such a disastrous president in such difficult times.

But to win, Joe Biden needs to be more than the Not Trump candidate. He needs to find a vice presidential candidate of stature. He has said it will be a woman, and there are many talented female Democrats to choose from.

Above all the world needs to recognise that the only thing worse than the US throwing its weight around is the last remaining superpower being led by an uninformed president who has prejudices rather than policies, creates problems rather than solves them, and has little weight when it really counts.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and presenter

Updated: June 29, 2020 05:22 PM

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