The 2016 Presidential Campaign in the United States
Politics in the United States has become part of the entertainment world. Donald Trump, the presumptive candidate for the Republican Party, is a media-savvy real estate mogul who launched himself into mass entertainment with a “reality” TV show titled “The Apprentice.” This program had little to do with reality, but it introduced the narcissistic bombastic billionaire to millions of American viewers as a media star, just as “real” as the cowboy actor Ronald Reagan. Twenty-eight million people tuned in to watch Trump’s final episode. Trump has benefitted (and continues to benefit) from the power, wealth, and increasing sophistication of popular media and of advertising, which are progressively displacing other cultural, intellectual, or political realities in the United States and elsewhere. “The Donald” is an accomplished performer in this entertainment playground; surprisingly some people regard him as being charismatic. He is certainly the master of clever cutting attacks of his opponents, and of angry dismissals of policies with which he disagrees. Such tactics are lowbrow entertainment. He only stumbles when he attempts to say something substantive and informed. The shortcomings of his policy positions – really, their idiocy – do not dampen his followers’ enthusiasm even when they disagree. In short, he leans heavily on performance and on the soul-deadening popular media that is primarily attentive to ratings and, therefore, to money. La Société de spectacle has arrived. At the end of the day, political entertainment is just like all other entertainment, so why bother to focus on the hoary issues of the environment, education, economic inequality, financial speculation, international institutional impotence?
Trump also knows how to appeal to the populist anger of parts of the American electorate, especially those who are culturally conservative and economically declining. Large groups of blue-collar workers, skilled and unskilled, are becoming poorer in the United States, and they have come to realize that their middle-class dreams are only dreams, and that the core of the Republican Party is not willing to do anything to improve their lives. Trump has benefitted by attacking the “free trade” agreements that, most economists agree, have led to higher unemployment in certain sectors of the American economy. He effectively has criticized Republican Washington elites for their ideological rigidity, for their attacks on Social Security, and for failing to accomplish the basic tasks of government. He has lambasted the foreign policy adventures of all administrations, giving special attention to Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq, even implying that President Bush deliberately and knowingly invented the evidence of weapons of mass destruction. These attacks appeal to Republican Party members who have become alienated from Tea-Party advocates of free-trade and low taxes for the rich, and who are equally suspicious of traditional Republican moderates who preach a muscular foreign policy. It is amazing in retrospect that the media wonks, and for that matter the Republican Party elite, did not seen this coming; it is a textbook case of ideological myopia.
The most disturbing aspect of Trump’s candidacy, however, is his ability to stir up a populist us-versus-them nationalistic xenophobia. A self-aggrandizing bigot and bully himself (because of his wealth, he has never needed to restrain himself), Trump has valorized a nasty and aggressive scapegoating. He blames Mexican immigrants and Muslims, among others, for many of America’s problems. This is a natural progression from Trump’s first notable intervention into politics, when he joined the “birther” movement that claimed Obama was not eligible for the Presidency of the United States because he was not born an American citizen. The fact that this ridiculous charge was quickly refuted did not restrain its enthusiastic embrace by Trump, by right-wing bloggers, and by racists (including Trump’s butler for 30 years) who apparently could not countenance a black person occupying the White House. As many have noted, there is a fascist odor emanating from Trump. Carl Bernstein has referred to his rise as a “fascinating intersection of celebrity and neo-fascism.” Unfortunately, the mix seems to appeal to many Republicans who have become inured to the implicit nativist and racist elements common in Republican campaigns since the 1960s, especially in the South.
At the end of the day, this scapegoating will likely lead to Trump’s defeat in November. He has alienated so many women, Latinos, Muslims, and others, that it is difficult to see how he can get elected. Polls currently place him behind Hillary Clinton, the presumptive candidate for the Democratic Party. The anxiety of those of us who abhor Trump is that he could emerge victorious if there is a terrorist attack before the election. Though Trump has no experience in foreign affairs, polls indicate that he inspires confidence and strength. On the other hand, the hope of those of us who abhor Trump is that his candidacy will be so unpopular that it will lead to a Democratic landslide in national and local elections.
This would mean that Hillary Clinton would become the first female President of the United States. And, this would entail a continuation of the domestic policies of the Obama administration, but probably a more aggressive foreign policy. Her vulnerabilities, however, are numerous. Having been a “first lady” during her husband’s years as President (1993-2001), then a US Senator from New York (2001-2009), and more recently Secretary of State under President Obama (2009-2013), she is the consummate Washington “insider,” and as such represents all that the marginalized and the angry deplore. She also has had a cozy relationship with business and high finance. She began her legal career as a lawyer for Wal-Mart, and is reported never to have questioned the company’s notoriously regressive labor policies. She is also saddled with the conservative economic policies implemented during her husband’s years if office. Bill Clinton, in effect, instituted the economic agenda of the Republican Party, and he is seen quite correctly (and Hillary as well) as dragging the Democratic Party to the center, not unlike Tony Blair in Great Britain. More recently, Hillary has made millions giving speeches for banks and financial institutions, and relies heavily on their campaign contributions. This has alienated large segments of the white working class, even though Hillary has recently taken a more critical stand on trade agreements. It helps explains why Bernie Sanders has received strong support from labor unions and from young voters not frightened by talk of “socialism.” Other workers, as indicated above, gave up on the Democratic Party years ago, and have moved to support the populist nativism of Republicans like Trump.
Clinton also made a string of unfortunate foreign policy decisions that restrain her approval ratings. As a member of the US Senate, she supported the invasion of Iraq, and reportedly never bothered to view the classified documents made available for Senate review. To her credit, she has admitted that she made a mistake. As Secretary of State, she supported the intervention in Libya, reportedly convincing a hesitant Obama to support French and British actions. These specific decisions, however, are probably less damaging than the sense that she has not been entirely candid when questioned about her activities and policies (i.e., the ongoing investigation of her occasional use of unsecure email servers during her time as Secretary of State). People question her honesty, and some suspect that she would do almost anything to gain political power. While she has moved to the Left during the primaries to attract those drawn to Sanders, many on the Left (such as it is in the United States) fear that she will track back to the center during the campaign against Trump. Trump will undoubtedly make honesty a major issue in the campaign. He already is attempting to saddle Hillary with responsibility for Washington missteps.
Finally, there is the dismay of many younger women who have been told by their feminist elders that they should vote for Hillary because she is a woman. Gloria Steinem and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright did Clinton a disservice when they lectured young women that it was their feminist obligation to ignore the policy differences between Clinton and Sanders, and vote for Hillary because she is a woman, this in spite of Sander’s support of gender equality. The reaction was sharp and swift, suggesting that women-first feminism does not have the traction it once had.
The campaign promises to be nasty. Trump has given no indication that he will diverge from his campaign style; the “celebrity neo-fascist with no impulse control” (the description is George Packer’s) will likely continue to strut, bellow, and provoke. Clinton will parry his attacks, and attempt to keep the focus on substantive issues, especially those about which Trump has made outrageous or ridiculous statements. Vast amounts of money will be spent on negative mailings and attack adds. Many of us will grind our teeth, forced again to endure the pain of another seemingly endless (this time more disgusting than ever) presidential campaign. We can only hope that the majority of our fellow citizens will not be drawn to the posturing and xenophobic nationalism of the blowhard entertainer.