CANBERRA – Barring a major upset, Donald Trump should win the nomination of the Republican Party. Hillary Clinton, long considered the presumptive Democratic front-runner, is facing an unexpectedly tough insurgency from an elderly socialist challenger. By contrast Trump was not given any chance but has confounded pundits, analysts and opponents, and created consternation among U.S. friends and allies. The election may well be decided on who generates the stronger negatives, with people voting not for the candidate they like but against the one they hate.
Many had assumed Trump was indulging in cyclical and bombastic self-promotion, would not really run, but if he did would spontaneously combust and disappear off the electoral map. Instead he keeps soaring, to the puzzlement of analysts and irritation of party grandees. No matter how many media, party and other heavyweights have been mobilized to clobber him, like the Energizer bunny in the famous ad Trump just keeps going and racks up wins.
Of all the candidates in both parties, Trump’s appeal seems to reach the broadest and deepest with respect to region, class, education and income. The unifying theme is he channels their frustrations with a fearlessness they have grown to admire. They are looking for an in-your-face champion who will stick it to the snobs (elites) and scolds (political correctness warriors). Trump offers slogans not policies, insults not bonhomie, and shouts loudly instead of engaging in debate. Where Americans generally are welcoming, courteous and polite, Trump is one-finger rude, crude and vulgar.
Trump has survived all efforts to take him down by rivals and the party establishment because he embodies middle America in two key respects. The American dream has soured for millions as the manufacturing sector has been hollowed out and work and jobs have been exported to China and other low-cost factories. A shrinking economic elite has captured a growing share of wealth while workers have lost jobs or fear doing so, and real wages have fallen, greatly widening inequality.
Trump may be mega-rich but projects himself as the only U.S. candidate to understand the pain of ordinary Americans. He is also the only Republican who could credibly frame the election as a choice between Clinton as the candidate of Wall Street donors and himself as the people’s champion. For Clinton to underestimate him could prove fatal.
The second significant part of his appeal is he articulates the violent backlash against political correctness gone mad. Laws, rules and institutions have been captured by the permanently aggrieved and perpetually outraged to impose a stifling vision of social nirvana alien to the basic common sense and decency of citizens. Militant minorities are the new intolerants, vilifying and criminalizing majority opinions and actions in defense of traditional values. At some U.S. campuses I would earn a formal rebuke for saying the only race I believe in is the human race.
Trump is the personification of the rallying war cry: “We are mad as hell and we are not going to take it any more.” The political insurrection is a movement to reclaim America in reverse. People have had enough of faux politeness; they are looking for a cultural warrior and Trump is their champion. All others are standard smooth-talking professional politicians. Only he is the real McCoy.
Fissures and tensions that have been simmering and bubbling for decades are starting to explode and threaten to blow up politics as we have known it. The Republican establishment, as is true of all ruling classes throughout history vis-a-vis all great revolutions, was slow to spot what was happening, failed to respond in time with corrective measures and then retreated into full denial mode after Trump’s string of successes.
More, the Republican establishment was so blinded by its ideological antipathy to government that it failed to see how, for the majority of its own supporters, government was the solution to what ails them and the salve to their angst: regulation of financial institutions to protect the general interest, control of borders by restricting immigration, an industrial policy for coping with the hemorrhage of manufacturing jobs to low-wage countries, free trade agreements that liberalize trade to the benefit of all instead of being disguised investor protection agreements at the cost of workers, access to affordable education and health for the family, and other social as well as national security measures.
Instead the party has been complicit in deliberately delegitimizing any role for the government in a modern economy, even functions that it can perform better and cheaper than the private sector. They have indeed become figures of self-parody as the party that preaches governments don’t work so they can be elected to prove they don’t.
Trump, with a record of having built things but without the damning record of having held elective office, is the outlet for the angry, the fearful, and the aroused. He has turned the tables on his own party critics: he has mobilized and recreated the Republican center and proven that the establishment occupies the fringe.
For other countries there are two sources of worry. The first is the most obvious: What would a Trump presidency mean for the foreign policy settings and actions of the world’s most powerful country? Would it be erratic, unpredictable, aggressive, isolationist, protectionist, picking trade wars with China and risking military conflicts? Is he rational and stable enough to be trusted with the nuclear codes?
In fact while there are many worrying parts to his pronouncements to date, in some respects Trump is among the sanest in recognizing the limits of U.S. power and the need to pull back from costly foreign adventures that have damaged U.S. interests instead of strengthening national security. He is the only Republican to have stated the obvious regarding how Americans were deceived into the Iraq war by the Bush administration. From this perspective Clinton has to be the candidate of choice for the war machine even more than for Wall Street. And indeed some leading neoconservatives have publicly said they would vote for Clinton as the lesser evil.
The second, equally grave worry is that the unique American political process provides an outlet for public anger and frustration that is not available to the citizens of many other democratic countries, whose pain, resentment and alienation from their political, economic, cultural and intellectual elites and mainstream media is no less. If the disenchantment with politics reaches breaking point, a revolutionary upheaval would follow. Trump has perfectly captured the fact that ordinary people, fed up with being contemptuously looked down on by the elites, are returning the compliment.
If you make peaceful change impossible, President John F. Kennedy warned, you make violent revolution inevitable. Similarly, if mainstream politicians belittle, deride and dismiss popular beliefs and anxieties, they make the rise of populist demagogues inevitable. Even if Trump fails to win the nomination or loses the election, the new U.S. president and political leaders of all countries had better start putting some distance from Wall Street (or equivalent) and edge back toward Main Street.
Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, Australian National University.