The Republican Party seems to resemble a country that is just about to be hit by a devastating flood. After Donald Trump’s landslide victory on Super Tuesday, conservative leadership sounded an alarm, warning of the looming catastrophe that threatens to wash away the Good Old Party. There are two more weeks to reinforce the defense line before another big storm hits more states across the country, the alarm tells us. It sounds like a Katrina-esque hurricane is approaching GOP-land, expected to hit during the next primaries.
A decade ago, Katrina washed away George Bush’s dysfunctional government and opened the gates for the first black president of the United States. This time it may be worse: if the defense line does not hold, the Trump hurricane will flood what is left of the Republican Party into oblivion. It feels as though the GOP is imploding, having a meltdown; the barbarians are at their gate. After months of inaction, they are now back on their feet and running, making urgent phone calls, trying to mobilize crowds to stack sandbags. Will they call in the army to help build the trenches?
Is this all true? Is the U.S. facing dramatic political changes?
Who would have thought a year ago that the 2016 presidential election would be so much fun. And interesting. And important, too – if not crucial. Looking at the personalities of the candidates that put themselves forward for presidential nominations, there were only sad, boring and uninspiring faces. Some of them unknown, others out of the public eye since the 2012 elections. There were professional presidential candidates and losers among the 17 republican candidates when they started the race last year. In this sea of anonymity, one of the swimmers kept his head a bit higher above the water than the others. Oh no, another Bush again!
When you turned to look at the Democrats, you let out an even bigger sigh – oh no, it’s Clinton again!
It looked really unappealing; whether it was George, George Jr. and Jeb on one side, or Bill and Hillary on the other, the fact that Bushes and Clintons were heading towards the White House again made many Americans shiver. The clash of two old political dynasties! How is it possible that America, with all its talent, cannot find fresher and younger leaders who would be capable of replacing a political generation that has already said everything it had to say? The possibility that voters would have to decide between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush would not only be an exemplary deja-vu, but a reminder of the endless rule of Brezhnev in the former Soviet Union. All this in a period when even China set a limit on gerontocracy, and forced its leaders to retire when 70 years old. And where else in the world would it be possible that a husband and wife, or a father and two sons would all run for president? Was it not the U.S. – then a young and vigorous democracy – that helped Europe to get rid of its dynasties during World War I?
And then, just as a Clinton/Bush matchup seemed inevitable, real estate tycoon Donald Trump, age 69, joined the crowd.
I cannot say for sure – or rather, I have no proof – that American voters are turning their backs to the present political class because they are tired of the current “dynasty” politics. But on the other hand, I have no doubt that people who do not belong to the existing political establishment are angry not only because of a bad economy and lower income, but also because they might feel physiological need for a change. Most of the angry voters are outside of the establishment and feel completely detached from the political process. They oppose the class of donors that are leading the two parties. This, to me, was one of the most important factors that opened the doors to the outsiders like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. This is also the only thing that unites the two otherwise completely different populist leaders. While they may each do it with different methods and for different purposes, both Trump and Sanders are collecting what the political establishment has dropped and abandoned.
Of course, there are many other reasons for the populus’ disenchantment with the political class. In case of the Republicans, Robert Kagan’s analysis tells us that “Trump is the GOP’s Frankenstein monster. Now he’s strong enough to destroy the party.”
Trump is no fluke. Nor is he hijacking the Republican Party or the conservative movement, if there is such a thing. He is, rather, the party’s creation, its Frankenstein’s monster, brought to life by the party, fed by the party and now made strong enough to destroy its maker. Was it not the party’s wild obstructionism — the repeated threats to shut down the government over policy and legislative disagreements, the persistent calls for nullification of Supreme Court decisions, the insistence that compromise was betrayal, the internal coups against party leaders who refused to join the general demolition — that taught Republican voters that government, institutions, political traditions, party leadership and even parties themselves were things to be overthrown, evaded, ignored, insulted, laughed at? Was it not Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), among others, who set this tone and thereby cleared the way for someone even more irreverent, so that now, in a most unenjoyable irony, Cruz, along with the rest of the party, must fall to the purer version of himself, a less ideologically encumbered anarcho-revolutionary? This would not be the first revolution that devoured itself.
Then there was the party’s accommodation to and exploitation of the bigotry in its ranks. No, the majority of Republicans are not bigots. But they have certainly been enablers. Who began the attack on immigrants — legal and illegal — long before Trump arrived on the scene and made it his premier issue? Who frightened Mitt Romney into selling his soul in 2012, talking of “self-deportation” to get himself right with the party’s anti-immigrant forces? Who opposed any plausible means of dealing with the genuine problem of illegal immigration, forcing Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to cower, abandon his principles — and his own immigration legislation — lest he be driven from the presidential race before it had even begun? It was not Trump. It was not even party yahoos. It was Republican Party pundits and intellectuals, trying to harness populist passions and perhaps deal a blow to any legislation for which President Obama might possibly claim even partial credit. What did Trump do but pick up where they left off, tapping the well-primed gusher of popular anger, xenophobia and, yes, bigotry that the party had already unleashed?
Then there was the Obama hatred, a racially tinged derangement syndrome that made any charge plausible and any opposition justified. Has the president done a poor job in many respects? Have his foreign policies, in particular, contributed to the fraying of the liberal world order that the United States created after World War II? Yes, and for these failures he has deserved criticism and principled opposition. But Republican and conservative criticism has taken an unusually dark and paranoid form. Instead of recommending plausible alternative strategies for the crisis in the Middle East, many Republicans have fallen back on mindless Islamophobia, with suspicious intimations about the president’s personal allegiances.
Thus Obama is not only wrong but also anti-American, un-American, non-American, and his policies — though barely distinguishable from those of previous liberal Democrats such as Michael Dukakis or Mario Cuomo — are somehow representative of something subversive. How surprising was it that a man who began his recent political career by questioning Obama’s eligibility for office could leap to the front of the pack, willing and able to communicate with his followers by means of the dog-whistle disdain for “political correctness”?
We are supposed to believe that Trump’s legion of “angry” people are angry about wage stagnation. No, they are angry about all the things Republicans have told them to be angry about these past 7½ years, and it has been Trump’s good fortune to be the guy to sweep them up and become their standard-bearer. He is the Napoleon who has harvested the fruit of the revolution.
Kagan’s analysis is very thorough, but he only takes the Republicans into consideration, as if the dDemocrats are immune to the political process and to the very rapidly changing political culture. The changes are so fast that the existing tools for measuring society’s pulse are lagging behind. How long did it take for the pundits, pollsters and party leaders to realize that Trump is here for real? A few months ago, I wrote about the difficulty that the mainstream media and the political establishment have had in perceiving and understanding the fast-growing Trump phenomenon. Why have they had so much trouble? Because until a few weeks ago, the pollsters had all the their readings wrong.
And Sanders? Remember the laughter when he first came onstage and started talking about a political revolution? Sanders looked very lonely with his heavy Brooklyn accent and grey hair, carrying his 74 years on his shoulders. What does it take for an honest man like him to get on the road and start talking to people instead of staying at home and enjoying a good book? Is it anger? The irresistible will to say his last piece before his country goes down the drain? Sanders got out of his comfortable congressional chair and did something none of the youngsters had the guts or brains to do: he is now engaging thousands, even millions of people who previously felt that they were not part of the conversation.
Before this, Sanders was an outsider. Years ago, he tried to change the system within the institution. Who does not remember his eight-and-a-half hour filibuster speech in the Senate five years ago? And since he could not change the institutions then, he decided to go on the road and have his say.
In spite of his apparent defeat during the Super Tuesday, Sanders is already back on track, trying to inspire the populations that he’s neglected thus far. The appeal the 74-year-old man has among young voters is moving to watch. And with Sanders around, it will be interesting to follow what will happen in the Democratic Party if the Republican party melts down completely. Is it possible that the Democratic Party will remain intact if that Republican wall falls for real? How come none of Democrats are talking about this? There are a few hints here and there – like this one in the Week, which measures the steady temperature increase under the political surface. Perhaps the conversation about the strategy for and the future of the Democratic Party – not to mention the country – is missing because the Democrats are pleased with themselves for supporting a female president. As if having the first female president of the U.S. will resolve the things by itself – the purpose that justifies the means.
This is exactly how Kagan concludes his analysis: “So what to do now? The Republicans’ creation will soon be let loose on the land, leaving to others the job the party failed to carry out. For this former Republican, and perhaps for others, the only choice will be to vote for Hillary Clinton. The party cannot be saved, but the country still can be.”
But there are many people who are now saying the opposite. It is true that Hillary looks good at present, even if her achievements are not overwhelming. Her position is strong also because she has enormous support of the party apparatus. But what if Nathan J. Robinson is right in asserting that unless Sanders wins the Democratic Party nomination, the White House will end up in the hands of Donald Trump? Robinson gives a long list of reasons why Hillary Clinton is not electable.
However, we will see in a few months which way the U.S. will head. Perhaps one of the excuses for the present lack of broader discussion about the political system and the role of institutions might lay in the fact that the changes in the last few months have been happening extremely fast. But all these changes were long in coming. They started before Barack Obama – so hated by the Republicans – came into the White House.
The restraining orders that came into effect after 9/11 were the beginning of the descent towards the current paralysis of the political system. It was that terrible event and the war against terror that restricted debate in American society. With the extraordinary measures imposed by the Patriot Act, American society lost its innocence and vitality. Healthy patriotism transformed into a weird kind of nationalism that fishes in the backyard of old racism and militarism.
At the same time, the U.S. has to compete with China, a new global power that has a more authoritarian political system. It’s a system that tolerates no political discussion and has no democratic institutions. American leaders condemn the Chinese system, yet at the same time they are forced to acknowledge its higher level of efficiency. This efficiency tempts even Obama, as we can see from the way this administration is dealing with the media.
And this is one of the reasons why the appearance of Donald Trump fits so well in the predictions proposed by the Nation:
If Trump secures the Republican nomination, now an increasingly imaginable prospect, the party is likely to implode. Whatever rump organization survives will have forfeited any remaining claim to represent principled conservatism.
None of this will matter to Trump, however. He is no conservative and Trumpism requires no party. Even if some new institutional alternative to conventional liberalism eventually emerges, the two-party system that has long defined the landscape of American politics will be gone for good.
Should Trump or a Trump’s mini-me ultimately succeed in capturing the presidency, a possibility that can no longer be dismissed out of hand, the effects will be even more profound. In all but name, the United States will cease to be a constitutional republic. Once President Trump inevitably declares that he alone expresses the popular will, Americans will find that they have traded the rule of law for a version of caudillismo. Trump’s Washington could come to resemble Buenos Aires in the days of Juan Perón, with Melania a suitably glamorous stand-in for Evita, and plebiscites suitably glamorous stand-ins for elections.
Also published on Medium.