Open Essay

US Election: A Time of Fear and Loathing

James Astill is the Washington bureau chief and Lexington columnist for The Economist. He is a contributor to Open
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Are Americans going to choose as their candidate for the world’s most important job two of the most ill-suited claimants to that role imaginable?

Could Americans really be about to do this? Will nothing stop them? Are they going to choose as their candidates for the world’s most important job two of the most ill-suited, and in the case of Donald Trump, one of the most despised, claimants to that role imaginable?

They really could. The primary process, a series of state- level elections to decide who will represent the Republicans and Democrats in the presidential election due on 8 November, is about to begin in earnest—in Iowa on 1 February, when the mid- western state’s most committed voters will gather in small groups, or caucuses, to nominate a candidate. The Republican front-runner, in Iowa and across the wider GOP electorate, is Trump. A celebrity builder, he has no previous political experience. Yet he has formidable skills as a bully and rabble-rouser which, in this ill-tempered electoral season, could turn out to be more useful.

When he announced he was running for president last June, in one of his eponymous skyscrapers, Trump Tower in Manhattan, Trump was widely dismissed as a joke. He sounded like one, in an announcement speech that mingled characteristic braggadocio— well-known to viewers of American reality television— with a deeply pessimistic view of America (“We don’t have victories any more”), infantile statements about geopolitics, and racist bile. He boasted of his wealth and rare insight into the “clever” Chinese (“I’m not saying they’re stupid. I like China. I just sold an apartment for $15 million. Am I supposed to dislike ‘em?”).

Indeed, he liked the Chinese so much he promised to emulate them by building a “great, great wall on our southern border”, to keep out the Mexican immigrants he characterised as “people that have lots of problems and they’re bring those problems with [them]. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.” It was ugly—but what nonsense! How the Republican leadership must have snorted with derision.

Within a month of entering the race, however, Trump had surged to the head of a crowded Republican field. Even after several drop-outs, including Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, who was the first Indian American to run for president, there are still 11 Republican candidates in the race. And, defying the expectations of almost every commentator on American politics, including this writer, Trump has remained out in front. A few days from Iowa, opinion polls suggest he commands around 35 per cent of the Republican vote—almost twice the share of his closest challenger, a Texan senator called Ted Cruz.

Trump’s success is down to his brilliance as a showman, and the ruthlessness of his opportunism. With a stream of ever more outrageous statements, he has dominated news coverage of the campaign; his rivals—including Jeb Bush, who started the race with a war- chest of over $100 million—have been left to splurge on television ads, in desperation, without getting anything like his publicity. Whenever one of them has dared criticise Trump, he has mocked and belittled. Jindal was an early victim. Struggling to gain any traction in the polls, Jindal, whose parents moved to America from Punjab, but who has renounced his Hindu name (Piyush) and culture, called Trump a clown and questioned his claimed religiosity. Trump responded by suggesting, to his 6 million followers on Twitter that he scarcely knew who Jindal was.

Trump has meanwhile doubled-down on his apocalyptic view of America, and on his divisiveness. At his rallies, he urges the crowd to turn and jeer at the assembled journalists. In the wake of a terrorist attack, inspired by Islamic State, in California last month, Trump proposed, as a useful policing tool, to kill the relatives of terror suspects. He also vowed to ban Muslims from entering America, “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on”.

But then there is Cruz. He is considered to be the most disliked politician in the US Congress. A first-term senator from Texas, he appears to have made an enemy of almost everyone he has ever studied or worked with. He is known especially for cynical acts of self-promotion—including a 21-hour speech he delivered from the floor of the US Senate, in a vainglorious effort to block the healthcare reform that is President Barack Obama’s biggest domestic triumph. To eke out the hours, Cruz railed, gabbled, told anecdotes about his father’s upbringing in Cuba, and read a bedtime story (Green Eggs & Ham) to his young daughters, who were watching on live television in Texas. But Cruz’s struggle was a sham.

The vote on Obamacare he was ostensibly blocking with his marathon gabfest had already been scheduled. So this wasn’t the filibuster Cruz claimed; merely a windy speech. But if Cruz is cynical, he is a formidable politician. Running as a god-n-guns right-wing ideologue, and scourge of the Republican establishment (though, as an alumnus of Princeton and Harvard, he is hardly a backwoodsman), he could easily top the Republican list in Iowa. Around half the state’s Republican voters are evangelical Christians, a group Cruz has wooed especially.

On the Democratic side, there is similar uncertainty, but of a lesser kind. The front-runner is Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and first lady, who opinion polls give a bit over half her party’s vote. Her only real challenger is Bernie Sanders, an ornery septuagenarian and independent senator from Vermont, who should not be a serious threat to Clinton, but is becoming one.

A self-described ‘democratic socialist’, Sanders advocates a remake of American capitalism and the state on Nordic lines. This would include dismantling banks, providing free university education, building a universal healthcare system, and fleecing rich people to pay for as much of this as possible. He is not, like Trump, a rank populist; Sanders has a coherent social democratic view, which he has been propounding for decades. Yet he is pretty clearly unelectable in a country where opinion polls suggest the word ‘socialist’ is even more of an electoral turn- off than ‘atheist’ (to many Americans, they are synonymous).

All the same, Sanders is giving Clinton a scare. His campaign has the same insurgent zest, with vast gatherings and a determined grassroots organisation, that Barack Obama’s had in 2008. It has mobilised thousands of volunteers, with its cheerily- ironic unofficial slogan, ‘Feel the Bern’. Sanders looks able to win in Iowa, where almost half of Democratic voters call themselves socialists, and then take the New Hampshire primary which follows on 9 February. If he does, Clinton would probably still be the favourite for her party’s ticket. The primary contest will then move down south, including to South Carolina, on 27 February and a slew of southern states, including Arkansas, Georgia and Alabama, where the Democratic electorate includes many more Blacks, who prefer Clinton to Sanders by a margin of 2:1. Such a ‘southern firewall’ helped shore up Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992 (and also Walter Mondale’s in 1984 and Jimmy Carter’s in 1980). And yet, as Hillary Clinton will keenly know, almost no Democratic candidate has lost both early states and gone on to win the nomination.

America is in many ways exceptional; yet the main cause of these insurgencies is probably the same economic pressures that are roiling democracies across the industrialised world. You hear talk of them at every primary rally; but especially from the crowds who gather to hear Trump. Wages are not going up with inflation, so workers are putting in longer hours just to keep still. Median wages fell in real terms between 2009 and 2014 by 4 per cent. And those at the lower end of the pay-scale are the hardest hit; wages for restaurant cooks fell by nearly 9 per cent over the same period. White, working-class Americans, subject to that squeeze, are among Trump’s biggest fans.

Trump offers no feasible solution to this problem, other than an assurance that the star of The Apprentice will improve American leadership across the board: “Many of the great jobs that the people of country want are long gone, shipped to other countries. We now are part-time, sad! I will fix!” His infeasible promise promises to restore America’s working-class to better days by, in effect, rolling back globalisation. If America had fewer immigrants, wages would be higher; if it slapped punitive tariffs on Chinese imports, its industry would be restored to its past greatness, he argues. This is snake-oil. Economic research suggests that, because immigrants do not tend to compete with Americans for jobs, they have little effect on their wages; and if Trump thinks starting a trade war with China is a good idea, he may be less “very, very, smart” than he claims to be. But to a White working-class as resentful of America’s growing diversity—within three decades, non-Whites will become the majority—as they are economically insecure, nativism is a popular pitch. If not wages, Trump followers almost invariably cite immigration as their biggest concern.

There is still uncertainty over whether they will actually turn out to vote for Trump. Many of those gathered at his rallies are not regular Republican primary voters; a significant minority are sometime Democratic voters. Almost wholly reliant on the megaphone power of his celebrity, Trump’s campaign is also believed to have an inferior ground operation to that of more methodical rivals such as Cruz, or Marco Rubio, a senator from Florida, who is currently third in the polls and probably the Republican establishment’s last hope.

Then again, Trump’s supporters claim to be the most committed in the contest; they typically admit to having no second choice for the nomination. And Trump, who has risen by saying things that would have ended most political careers, has defied the normal rules of politics for too long for anyone to count on his demise.

Belatedly, the powerbrokers, billionaire donors and conservative newspaper editors who make up the GOP establishment have woken up to this in horror. Neither Trump nor Cruz looks able to win a general election—assuming, that is, that Sanders were not their opponent. They are too divisive; Trump has easily the worst favourability of any candidate in the primary contest.

Stirred to fury, two dozen conservative commentators recently published a compilation of broadsides against him in the National Review, an in-house publication of the conservative elite. Its attendant editorial described Trump as a ‘philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within these GOP in favour of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones’.

Much good that will do the GOP: because Trump’s supporters consider its establishment another of their problems. Indeed, one way to read their insurgency is as a protest by working- class cultural conservatives against a Republican elite whose support for free trade and immigration they now consider antithetical to their interests. There is, moreover, an element of hypocrisy to the establishment’s rebuke of Trump. Because when their electoral interests have coincided with populists— of whom, from George Wallace, a segregationist of the 1960s and 70s, to ‘Pitchfork’ Pat Buchanan in the 1990s, the American Right has a rich history—they have happily pandered to them.

So it was that, in the run-up to the 2010 mid-term elections, Republican politicians whipped up activists for the populist Tea Party movement, which is dedicated to shrinking the federal government, with a promise to repeal Barack Obama’s signature healthcare reform and much else, if they could only win back control of the House of Representatives. When they duly did so, and kept none of their exaggerated promises, many Republican voters felt let down; Trump and Cruz are both playing to the anti-establishment sentiment this engendered. In the process, Trump, with his racist rhetoric and following, has perhaps exposed the Tea Party for what it really was. It was less a campaign against government spending, than a campaign against the sort of spending its members didn’t like, chiefly on ethnic minorities and immigrants.

The only thing the establishment could usefully do to spike the Republican frontrunners’ guns would to prise a few more plausible candidates out of the race. The mainstream vote, currently around 30 per cent of the total, is split between half a dozen candidates, of whom Rubio is the likeliest to progress. If he, or just conceivably John Kasich or Chris Christie, the governors of Ohio and New Jersey who have both campaigned hard in New Hampshire, could unite that vote, they would pose a serious challenge. And if Trump’s support does flag, the establishment candidate would probably win in a straight contest with Cruz. The trouble is that no mainstream candidate is currently doing well enough to convince the rest that they cannot be that unifier. Meanwhile, to press their case for the role, they have spent a combined $35 million in attack ads on each other. By comparison, they have given the racist Trump a free pass. They may come to regret that.