Return of American war dead temporary boost for Trump

A ceremony at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, yesterday to mark the return of the remains of US soldiers. The return marks a partial fulfilment of an agreement reached between the US and North Korea. .
A ceremony at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, yesterday to mark the return of the remains of US soldiers. The return marks a partial fulfilment of an agreement reached between the US and North Korea. .PHOTO: EPA-EFE
A ceremony at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, yesterday to mark the return of the remains of US soldiers. The return marks a partial fulfilment of an agreement reached between the US and North Korea. .
A ceremony at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, yesterday to mark the return of the remains of US soldiers. The return marks a partial fulfilment of an agreement reached between the US and North Korea. .PHOTO: EPA-EFE

With ratings down, he needs new narratives as mid-term polls near

The return of war dead is always an emotional event for any country, but arguably even more so in the United States.

The handover of 55 sets of remains by North Korea, thought to be of Americans killed in the 1950-53 Korean War, has been framed as a pledge fulfilled by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

War veterans are a key constituency for President Donald Trump, who clearly wants to line up a series of triumphs to pitch to voters, with less than 100 days from the mid-term elections on Nov 6.

Mr Trump has some things to boast about to a base which remains almost unshakably loyal. Good economic numbers are the main item. Last week, he talked up low unemployment figures and estimates of 4.1 per cent GDP growth in the second quarter of this year.

He has also boasted of a crackdown on the MS-13 street gang; of averting war with North Korea; and of a "GREAT meeting" in Helsinki last month with Russian President Vladimir Putin - while dismissing almost anything critical or contrary as "fake news".

But he is also setting up for a showdown over funding for his border wall. His threat of a federal government shutdown if he does not get the funding from Congress is a gamble that makes Republicans nervous as it could backfire on them.

"His party has not reacted well to his threats about a shutdown, because when a president says he's all right with a shutdown, then it is likely the party will be blamed," Dr Glenn Altschuler, professor of American studies at Cornell University, told The Straits Times.

China's retaliation on trade tariffs is hurting farmers, who also form a large chunk of his support base.

A ceremony marking the return of 55 sets of remains believed to be of American troops killed during the 1950-1953 Korean War was held yesterday at Osan Airbase in Pyeongtaek, South Korea - five days after a US airplane transported the remains to Sout
A ceremony marking the return of 55 sets of remains believed to be of American troops killed during the 1950-1953 Korean War was held yesterday at Osan Airbase in Pyeongtaek, South Korea - five days after a US airplane transported the remains to South Korea from North Korea. Pyongyang's return of the remains of American soldiers killed in the Korean War may give only a temporary boost for United States President Donald Trump ahead of the midterm elections, analysts said, as there has been little progress on the broader North Korean issue, particularly on denuclearisation. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

And in the wider context of talks with North Korea not producing concrete evidence thus far of denuclearisation or disarmament, the return of the remains may be at best a distraction from the real matter.

"Whenever you have the return of the remains of soldiers, that's emotional for Americans," said Dr Altschuler. "That said, it's a one-day story."

 

A ONE-DAY STORY

Whenever you have the return of the remains of soldiers, that's emotional for Americans. That said, it's a one-day story.

DR GLENN ALTSCHULER, professor of American studies at Cornell University.

Mr Trump would find it difficult to return to the triumphal narrative of the war dead remains if there was no broader movement on the North Korean issue, he said.

Given that the war ended in 1953, the return of the remains is unlikely to resonate outside war veteran circles or with millennial voters, said Dr Charles Bullock, professor of political science at the University of Georgia.

The mid-term polls are shaping up as a referendum on Mr Trump, with candidates coveting his public endorsement and dreading his public disapproval. Already, campaigns, political parties and outside groups have booked or aired more than US$1 billion (S$1.34 billion) in television advertising, the journal The Hill reported last week - making it likely that the elections may be the most expensive mid-terms in America's history.

But despite the cult-like loyalty of his base, Mr Trump's overall approving rating - 40 per cent in the week of July 23-29, according to Gallup - remains lower than for almost any other president at the same juncture. And usually, the party in power loses ground in mid-terms.

"The President has not derived the advantage you would expect him to have derived either from the tax cuts or from an extraordinarily robust economy," Dr Altschuler said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 02, 2018, with the headline 'Return of American war dead temporary boost for Trump'. Print Edition | Subscribe