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The American Scream

Tunku Varadarajan is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is an Open contributor
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It is a fight between the inscrutably cynical Hillary Clinton and the swashbuckling nativist Donald Trump. The unpopular may defeat the popular in the end


 WHEN THE inhabitants of Planet America line up to elect their leader in November, they will, in all likelihood, choose between two candidates— Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump—who are more violently unlike each other than those in any previous American presidential election contested by two or more candidates: in other words, in any election since 1796, when John Adams became president of the United States. (George Washington, before him, twice ascended to office by unanimous vote.) 

Hillary and Trump are not just different—they are as mutually contrasting as Switzerland and ISIS, or quinoa and steak. 

Each candidate stands to break the political mould. Trump will not, by any means, be the first racist to be elected president if he wins; but he will be the first realtor or casino operator, as well as the first to have been married more than twice, or to have bankrupted companies. Almost prosaically, by comparison, Hillary will be the first woman in the White House. 

What follows is an attempt to understand this year’s presidential contest. (By popular convention, I refer to Mrs Clinton as ‘Hillary’ and to Mr Trump as ‘Trump’.) 

Hillary the Unpopular 

You’d think that Americans would be more energised by the prospect of electing their first female commander-in-chief; but after Barack Obama’s election in 2008, it is no longer mould-breaking to be mould-breaking. 

As Hillary has found to her chagrin, playing the Woman Card has only helped to alienate those American women— mostly under 40—who are post-feminist, who grew up taking equality for granted. In other words, those who have scant direct experience of the workplace or educational sexism (or worse) that was a formative experience for women of Hillary’s generation. In fact, in the early rounds of her competition with Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, the only women on whose solid support she could count were those aged 66 or older, women like herself. And when Hillary deployed feminist icons from this cohort—Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem—to lecture young women on their duty to vote for a female candidate, the backlash was mutinous. Young women asserted that they voted with their minds, and not—as their riposte to Hillary went—with their vaginas. 

The tart paradox is that many young Democratic voters—educated White women and politically ‘feminised’ White men—have thrown their support behind old man Sanders, who is not particularly mould-breaking in a demographic sense (other than in his very, very muted Jewishness), but who exudes the type of honesty that Hillary lacks so blaringly. Her unlovely campaign manner—so easily construed as a witch’s brew of political cynicism and naked ambition—has been amplified by her contrast with Sanders, whose candour can seem boyish, even naïve. Had Hillary been competing against a typical Democratic ‘machine’ politician—Joe Biden, say (or a John Edwards from the past)—her lack of sincerity would have been judged against a competing brand of insincerity. It would have been a case of her evasions against Biden’s evasions. 


 Hillary is paying a price for being the one anointed to make history. She’s also paying a price for being the hard one to love in a one-on-one contest with an endearing old dude 

Instead, we have had episodes such as the one from a recent debate, in which both candidates were asked if they supported ‘fracking’—the contentious method of extracting oil and gas from shale rock. Hillary answered first, offering tortured references to local consent, to the emission of methane, and to other conditions that would determine her position: a baroque response tailored to address the question with much detail and little clarity. Hillary took a whole minute, after which the audience was quiet, becalmed by her long-windedness. Sanders, next, leaned forward and drawled: “My answer is a lot shorter: No I do not support fracking.” The applause that followed was loud as hell. 

In this one scene, we saw exactly why Hillary is unpopular: she is cynically inscrutable, striving to craft an answer that doesn’t commit her to any position. In an election with shifting sands, hers is the rational way: why say something now that you can’t finesse later? Yet Sanders was populist and Manichaean: what you heard and saw was what you got. His approach is apt to expose the sham in his opponent. I have principles, he says to her. What do you have, Hillary? 

In many ways, Sanders has had by far the easier campaign: As a subversive candidate, he is held to a lax standard. He is examined not for his content, but for his theatre. Commentators have written about his impact and his style, and about what he’s doing to Hillary. Only late in his campaign have they started to ask hard questions about how he’d pay for everything he was promising the American people in his quasi-Socialist Utopia-in-waiting. Hillary has been held to higher standards: She is treated like a bluestocking, and cut no slack. It’s all very unfair, she must think. But it’s also very predictable. She’s paying a price for being the one anointed to make history. She’s also paying a price for being the hard one to love in a one-on-one contest with an endearing old dude. 

Trump the Popular 

Trump has ridden the bronco of political rage, a beast that is bucking like mad and has thrown off its back an array of wimps. Jeb Bush, the favourite of the Republican establishment, was hurled unceremoniously to the ground and trampled. As of this writing, Marco Rubio, the party elite’s next best choice, is on the verge of similar humiliation. 

It is quite the spectacle: Trump, an insurgent who seemed almost make-believe when he started out, is set to capture the presidential nomination of one of the most consequential political parties in global democracy, a party that has defined the terms of conservatism in the Western world in the post-war era. It is now scrambling hard to shoot down its own frontrunner, using every trick and loophole at its disposal. This is an unprecedented— and unedifying—state of affairs. 


 Trump’s nativism, his invocation of a mythic state in which self-sufficient and self-confident people thrive in a country walled off from the world, has a potent appeal to Americans who feel betrayed by their political elites 

How did the Republicans fall so low? One is tempted to say that the party has had a particularly mediocre crop of candidates this election cycle, and that there are no men of substance with whom to go into combat against the Democrats. But that is only part of the answer. In truth, eight years of Obama have turned the Republicans into a mud-wrestling rabble. It is no longer a party in which natural leaders emerge. 

If Obama can lay claim to a massive achievement— apart from being the first Black man in the White House— it is to have thoroughly neutered the Republicans. And he’s not done this by design, precisely; rather, the Republicans have disintegrated from the force of having hurled themselves against him repeatedly. As attack after attack on Obama has been repulsed—whether in Congress or in the courts—the party of Lincoln has lost its poise, and its ideological moorings. It is enraged and incoherent, almost King Lear-like in its fulminations against Obama: “I will do such things—what they are yet I know not—But they shall be the Terrors of the earth.” 

Unfashionable though it is to say, Obama has also had a profound psychological effect on White America, particularly on blue-collar males whose economic condition appears to worsen by the day. This has led to widespread racial and proletarian self-pity—a demoralisation on a national scale, by which I mean not just the erosion of political morale but also of political morals. Trump is the self-styled force of moral rearmament, promising an end to a whole load of BS. He will Make America Great Again, which his supporters understand to mean an end to the dwarfing of the White American Male, whether by Mexican “rapists”, Muslim “terrorists”, Chinese currency manipulators, and the wider global conspiracy to beggar America by free trade, all abetted by the feckless Black man who is president. 

Trump’s nativism, his invocation of a mythic state in which self-sufficient and self-confident people thrive in a country walled off from the world, has a potent appeal to Americans who feel betrayed by their political elites, and by politicians who talk down to them. They’ve seen bankers go unpunished for wrecking the economy, soldiers die in lands they can barely find on the map, and jobs vanish under the pressure of competition from places where labour works for less. In the midst of all this comes Trump, offering them his barbaric yawp; and this yawp is for them the sweetest sound they’ve heard in years. 

Why Hillary Will Beat Trump 

Will there be a battle royale when Trump takes on Hillary? I think not, although it will be a clash of civilisations. If the two come to be their parties’ candidates for president, we shall have an American version of the French presidential elections of 2002, when the conservative Jacques Chirac faced the xenophobic Jean-Marie Le Pen in the run-off. Most of civilised France gathered around Chirac, who took 82.2 per cent of the vote to Le Pen’s 17.8 per cent. 

I’m not suggesting that Hillary will beat Trump by similar numbers; far from it. But she will win with very impressive comfort. The phrase ‘cake-walk’ comes readily to mind. 

This is one reason why the Republican establishment is in an anti-Trump overdrive at present: its hostility to Trump derives only in part (albeit an important part) from an aversion to his philistinism and the loose cannon that serves as his tongue; his racism, implied and overt; his gaudy Islamophobia and sexism; his economic illiteracy; his hostility to the party’s central conservative tenets, including free trade; his uncharted populism; his disreputable curriculum vitae; his potential to wreck diplomatic relations with some of America’s closes allies (including Japan and India); his bilious disparagement of America’s immigrant ethos; his inability to articulate any rational policies; and his startling disrespect for his fellow Republican candidates. 

To stand even a remote chance of winning nationally against Hillary, Trump needs the votes—as David S Bernstein has calculated for Politico—of seven out of every 10 White male voters: ‘That’s a larger percentage than Republicans have ever won before—more than [they] won in the landslide victories of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and far more than they won during the racially polarised elections of Barack Obama.’ In the last election, Mitt Romney won 62 per cent of White males, running against a Black male opponent (Obama). Can Trump top that against a White woman (Hillary), who is backed by all labour unions, and who will have at her side that still-formidable campaigner, Bill Clinton? I don’t think so. 

It would be extraordinary, too, if more White women voted for Trump than for Hillary. Add to that the likely exhortation by Bernie Sanders that his supporters—predominantly young Whites—throw their weight behind Hillary, and you have Trump in a demographic ditch. After all, the 27 per cent of Hispanics who preferred Romney to Obama in 2012 are most unlikely to vote for Trump, given the abuse he has heaped on Mexicans and his promises to build a wall on the southern border. The New York Times has also reported that thousands of legally resident Hispanics are rushing to apply for citizenship so as to vote against Trump in November. 

As for Black voters—of whom 93 per cent voted for Obama in 2012—Trump is virtually persona non grata after his clumsy flirtation with the Ku Klux Klan. Black Americans are flocking to Hillary, because they believe that she best represents their interests, and because they feel that it is time to compensate her politically after abandoning the Clintons in 2008 in favour of Obama’s historic candidacy. 

Unlike in France in 2002, when many on the left held their noses and voted for Chirac to keep Le Pen from power, few conservative voters are likely to cross over to cast their votes for Hillary. Although accurate polling numbers are as yet unavailable, it isn’t unlikely that many will abstain, and sit out this election. The Republican establishment, having battled to foil Trump, will not push its voters to vote for him. 

The party will—if it’s wise—keep its powder dry for 2020. This election cannot be won, and the sensible Republican mission must be to let it happen with as little lasting damage as possible. The French Socialists were soundly eclipsed in 2002, but lived to fight another day. They now have a president in the Élysée Palace, and the conservatives are in disarray. The Republicans, too, must play the longer game. The 45th president of the United States will be a Democrat, to be sure. It’s time, now, for the Republican Party to focus its attention on the 46th president, and on the next election. Trump will not run a second time.