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Sunny Nancy vs grumpy Donald

Whose message will win in 2020?

Newly elected US House Speaker Democrat Nancy Pelosi pledged to run a "unifying" Congress and to work to find common ground between Democrats and Republicans as part of an effort to heal the political rifts of a polarised nation.

DO you remember US President Donald Trump's dark and depressing inaugural address, and its angry and polarising Us versus Them message, suggesting that for "too long, a small group in our nation's capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost" as "Washington flourished - but the people did not share in its wealth" ?

The newly elected president pledged that he would protect the interests of the "forgotten men and women of our country" against the evil and corrupt elites in Washington. Their victims would therefore remember his inauguration "as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again".

The America that President Trump was describing on that cold and dreary January day was a nation threatened by "crime and gangs and drugs", or as he put it, an "American carnage" that would have to be stopped by the new White House occupant.

There is no doubt that the populist message Candidate Trump highlighted during the 2016 presidential campaign helped him win the electoral support of financially distressed and socially alienated white blue-collar workers in the rustbelt parts of the country and in the rundown rural areas in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, and in the process winning a stunning election victory in November 2016.

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And no one would deny that technological innovation and economic globalisation was hurting many Americans while rewarding others and that both the Democrats and the Republicans were failing to respond to the sense of frustration and anger that was sweeping across the country.

But what came to be known as Trumpism embraced a narrative that pitted Americans against each other and highlighted the divisions between two uncompromising political tribes, instead of bringing them together. It was a message soaked with pessimism and rage, not one full of hope and optimism.

And in early 2017 it seemed to be a winning political message. Populism and the many forms of tribalism were "in". Mr Trump battled the "globalists" and pledged to "drain" the swamp" in Washington, block the entry of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America, and punish China and other trade rivals that were supposedly stealing Americans jobs.

It is now two years after that "America-Carnage" Inaugural Address and the partial shutdown of the US federal government is entering its 17th day, with President Trump announcing that it could last "months and even years".

The president has made it clear that he would be proud to be held responsible for the "Trump Shutdown" and that he was not going to give up unless the Democrats - who now control the House of Representatives - agree to spend US$5 billion on his plan to build a wall across the border of Mexico to block the way of alleged gang members and rapists who seek to enter the United States.

In a way, erecting this "beautiful wall" was central to President Trump's campaign promises to the forgotten men and women of the country, and to his nationalist agenda; and at some point, he even suggested that Mexico would end up paying for the wall. It was a very concrete commitment which meant that by the end of the Trump presidency we would be seeing the wall.

So if no wall is built by 2020, that would mean that President Trump was unable to fulfil his commitment to his supporters aka his "political base". And if that happened, these angry Trumpists may decide not to go out and vote for their fallen idol in 2020.

But in fact, President Trump has failed to deliver on that promise at a time when the Republicans controlled the House for two years. And now that the Democrats are in charge, they are certainly not going to reward their political arch-enemy in the White House with the legislative reward in the form of a wall. Instead, they say they are willing to spend around US$1.6 billion on improving the security measures on the border with Mexico.

It may well be possible that sometime over the next few days the White House and the congressional Democrats actually reach a deal that would allow for the opening of the government that has already made life hell for thousands of federal workers while sowing confusion and anxiety among business owners who work for the government.

But ending the shutdown is not going to solve Mr Trump's political problems. While the tribal warfare that his presidency ignited may be helping him to secure the backing of his political base it is not only continuing to sustain the "resistance" on the political left but also alienating Republican constituencies, including women and educated urban professionals, and creating divisions inside the GOP. That raises the possibility that Mr Trump could face a Republican presidential challenger in 2020.

Pundits speculate that Mr Trump's failure to expand his support beyond his political base (which amounts to around 40 per cent of American voters) reflects the public's disapproval of some of his policies and his un-presidential behaviour.

But then it is also quite likely that President Trump may have failed to learn one of the lessons of the history of the American presidency - that the American people prefer that their presidents be "sunny", ie optimistic about the future of the country and intent on bringing the nation together. Cheerful, not angry. Unifiers, not dividers. A Happy Face, not a Grumpy Old Man.

As the Democrats prepare for their 2020 faceoff with President Trump, there are signs that they get it when it comes to reading the hearts and minds of the American people.

Someone who certainly seems to get it is the new Speaker of the House of Representatives, California Democrat Nancy Pelosi, who upon being elected to her job on Thursday, pledged to run a "unifying" Congress and to work to find common ground between Democrats and Republicans as part of an effort to heal the political rifts of a polarised nation.

"Our nation is at a historic moment," she declared. "I pledge that this Congress will be transparent, bipartisan and unifying, that we will seek to reach across the aisle in this country and across divisions across our nation," she stressed, quoting in her address such Republican icons as presidents Ronald Reagan and George H W Bush, two vocal proponents of immigration. What a contrast to President Trump's "America-Carnage" address!

Ms Pelosi will be presiding over a more diverse and younger Democratic majority on Capitol Hill, including a record number of women and minorities, lending credibility to her message of inclusion that contrasts with the divisive strategy of President Trump and a Republican Party that continues to be dominated by white men.

But Ms Pelosi and the Democratic leadership may have to contend with their own rancorous political base whose members are intent on advancing a more radical, left-leaning agenda and to use their power in the House to move to impeach the president as soon as possible - or as one of the newly elected young Democratic lawmakers put it on Thursday: "We're gonna impeach the motherf*****r". Not the kind of message that inspires unity and inclusion or projects a Happy Face.