How long has it been since the 2016 presidential formal primary season began? Only since August when the first GOP “debate” was held? Why does it seem that we have been enduring the chaotic food fight and the new indoor world record for platitudes, sophistry, pandering, and demagogic bluster for at least a year or more? The dismal process has exposed this election’s stable of candidates as one steeped in mediocrity. The Democratic version (October) came with the not uncommon media exercise of tossing around the phrase “coronation”. But then a strange combination of reality and unforeseen anger at “the way it's has always been” forced the “front runner” to adjust her message. Her challenger, whose promised “revolution” is so described by virtue of his 1960’s protest mentality that it has excited young voters who thought it was something new. This unexpected momentum began to give the Democratic establishment stomach pains but Hillary was up to the challenge. Not being encumbered by an integrity compass, she simply changed her message to a kind of Sanders “socialism lite”. “You want to give young voters free college and tax the “greedy rich” to pay for it? Well then so do I.”
A virtual tie in the Iowa Caucuses brought on unfamiliar feelings of desperation in New Hampshire. So Hillary brought out the “big guns” like ageing feminist Gloria Steinhem. Whoops! Telling young women that their enthusiasm for the Bern was just driven by hormones because that’s where the young men were, was only exceeded in utter dumbness by another wrinkled version of feminism, Madeline Albright’s threat that those failing to support a “woman candidate” would find themselves in hell. Now that’s an inspirational message that’s hard to beat as an election slogan. But Hillary had an even “better” one up her sleeve after a sound defeat in New Hampshire and going into the South Carolina primary. Counting on South Carolina’s large black population, Hillary brought racial politics and group pandering to a new level, even for her.
“The whole nation is infected with systemic racism!” she declared. The evidence of course was irrefutable to the liberal mind and those who have been fed a steady diet of victimization: “black criminals are being sent to jail!” “Black men who have dropped out of high school can’t find jobs!”
But you can’t knock success, even in the world of pandering. Sander’s message of class warfare delivered by an “old white man”, didn’t appeal as much to South Carolina’s black voters as Hillary’s racism meme and she won big.
So the dismal promise marathon between an old radical with an old message and the ever self-entitled legacy presidential candidate goes on. Super Tuesday’s and subsequent primaries and caucuses has Hillary sitting on a substantial lead but still short of “inevitability”.
On the other side, we are witnessing a cringe inducing meltdown of the traditional electoral process in which candidates offered a mix of policy preferences with a feel good optimism that the perceived ills of society would be fixed by their leadership. Despite differences in political philosophy and programmatic emphasis, these past contests have been characterized by a level of personal respect for both the opposing candidates and the dignity of the institution for which they were all candidates. Terms like “gravitas”, “statesmanlike”, and “presidential bearing” were frequently mentioned in media discussions of the participants.
Those days are apparently gone. The 2012 “circular firing squad” that destroyed Mitt Romney’s chances in the general election was not heeded and the current display resembles something just short of a bar fight and reflects badly on all the candidates but especially on the front runner, Donald Trump. It seems highly unlikely that Trump’s advisers are behind his school yard behavior and overt and ugly hostility to individuals, groups, and policies, as a “tactic”. Surely defiance in the face of massive opprobrium on the part of the media and members of both parties, would be seen as potential political suicidal by seasoned political advisors. So the inescapable conclusion is that Donald Trump as an individual is deeply flawed in terms of building human relationships, intellectual inquiry and analysis, and respect for traditions, institutions and people with whom he is unfamiliar. This is the very antithesis of leadership.
By steering the debates, both on and off the stage, into these obnoxious depths, Trump has dragged the other candidates down into his disgusting realm, thus poisoning the entire process. How then is he able to maintain his level of support across regions and demographics?
Some say they like what he says even while disapproving of his demeanor. Others simply enjoy his cage fight hostility to the “establishment”.
So the pro-Trump narrative has two different threads. One is that Trump is the answer to what they perceive as the disassociation of the Republican Party from its true conservative roots and its slide towards the neo-liberalism of the Democratic Party. These critics make a credible argument with respect to the abandonment, acquiescence or compromise to ever increasing federal spending, intrusion of the government into the lives of individual citizen, over regulation of private businesses, and a level of internationalism that seems to some as overreach based on its indirect impact on U.S. national interests.
Conservative political philosophy with its emphasis on individual liberty and small government, they point, out has nothing to do with the prevailing emphasis on “social conservatism” and the religious based issues of abortion and gay rights which are playing such a large role in the contest. Concentration on these socially divisive and irreconcilable issues is indeed a distraction from fundamental conservatism and weakens the appeal of conservatism as a broad based political philosophy.
However ideological purism from any point of view is undesirable since it becomes too restrictive in an ever more complex political and economic environment and must therefore reject reality to maintain itself. Thus 21st Century conservatism must grow and adapt while preserving its foundational premise of individual liberty and limited government.
The other pro-Trump narrative is simply that government, aided by the political class of both parties, is corrupt, self-serving and out of touch with ordinary citizens. Trump, it is felt will “go into the ring” with these forces and break down the barriers to input by the citizenry. This is the “anger” explanation which is real. Trump voters are angry with economic redistribution policies, the accelerating destruction of an identifiable American culture by the failed logic and process of multi-culturalism and its handmaidens, a failed immigration and border policy and, the absurd proliferation of political correctness, all promoted by the political power of narrow interest groups.
These Trump voters are not concerned with saving or remaking the Republican Party but both of these pro-Trump arguments are flawed in some important respects.
Those who believe Trump can be the leader who will guide the Republican Party back to its conservative roots are wrong. Nothing Trump has said in the campaign, an indeed much of his political past, indicates an ideological commitment to such a path. Trump is a tactician, who has adopted populism as an election strategy. He is playing on the feelings of voters that they are merely pawns in the contest for power between political elites, which includes the other “establishment” candidates in the Republican primary contest.
These more analytical Trump adherents are willing to minimize the enormous gap between what Trump says he will do, the specifics of how he will do it, and what he is actually capable of doing as President. They are also willing to forgive his extraordinary personality defects which make him incapable of leadership in any context other than public forums of disaffected groups. A President Trump would find himself in a very lonely White House with few friends or political allies in the Congress who are necessary to rebuild the Party or pass any conservative or Trump policy agenda.
The “angry” bloc of Trump supporters, if he is successful, will see their anger satisfied in the debates between Trump and Hillary but even if he is somehow elected President, further satisfaction will disappear quickly as he is rendered ineffective by the political isolation that will surely follow.
The danger for both sets of “believers” is of course the likelihood that his “over the top” hostility to any but the cheering crowds before him will hand the presidency to Hillary as moderate Republicans simply opt out and the “anyone but Hillary” voters hold their noses and move into the “anyone but Trump” camp.
The instinctive desire one feels to see their political opponents pummeled has limits of propriety and tradition which Trump has far exceeded. The election is largely in the hands of self -described “independent” voters. Such voters, although made up of “leaners” towards one party or the other, have, by definition, open minds, but it would take a extraordinary degree of “openness” for these uncommitted voters to accept the excesses of Trumps behavior to consider him fit for the world’s and nation’s most important office.
Thus voters are seeing the sad spectacle of a failure of the electoral system. After eight years of passive incompetence and the absence of leadership in the White House, the choices are likely to be “the lesser of evils”. We have a legacy candidate without personal accomplishments whose celebrity candidacy is built upon her marriage to a former president and the political value of her chromosomes. Her vision for the nation is essentially a vision of her own status and power which she disguises as “progressive” policies depending on which group she is talking to and what her opponent is saying that seems energize the voters which she can then emulate.
Her opponent may well be the most offensive, least qualified presidential candidate in history. Even if all the present and former candidates in both parties are considered, only one has the experience, demeanor and accomplishments that would normally be seen as required for the office of the President. That would be former Congressman and current Ohio governor, John Kasich. But the electoral process has been taken over by the media and the result is a absurd hybrid of a reality show and a political version of “Judge Judy” in which Kasich lacks the “excitement factor”. So called “debates” are a combination of standard stump speeches, and accusations proffered by the other “debaters’ and the self-important moderators who wish to enter the debate to demonstrate how “tough” they are as ‘journalists”. These questioners seem to relish their role as instigators by encouraging the personal attacks with their he said, she said, questions.
This “info-tainment” process elevates the entertainment component over the policy component, encourages the participation of under qualified candidates, and produces repetitive results largely based on style over substance.
A flawed system needs to be changed if flawed candidates are to be avoided. The chances are not encouraging.