It’s probably safe to say this presidential election cycle has probably brought the greatest entertainment to politics than has ever been seen in a very long time. Policy discussions have devolved into a series of childish insults hurled at each other, and the race has truly become less of a true clash of ideas and more of a personality contest where whoever can better imitate the schoolyard bully will probably get the nomination. Terribly detrimental for the functioning of democracy, perhaps, but it does all make for some great TV.
And the man who brought us into all this, Donald Trump, simply doesn’t stop making politics so entertaining. Fresh from his huge victory in New Hampshire, Trump started off with a shocking debate performance where he upended a decade of Republican ideological orthodoxy, declaring that George W Bush is a liar, and that he is in favour of parts of Planned Parenthood, the satanic organisation that the GOP loves to hate. He received a flurry of (not very positive) publicity when Pope Francis, ending his Mexican tour, said that Trump was not a Christian. The frontrunner then proceeded to cap off the week by winning big in the South Carolina primaries, leaving Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz scrambling for a distant 2nd place finish.
In the end, political writers and reporters everywhere have to admit that they are drawn to covering Donald Trump because he is so entertaining, and the crazy fact that the number of his seemingly politically suicidal acts continues to appear to have a linear relationship with his poll numbers. I have to admit that I’ve fallen into this trap as well. As a writer, I usually make it my goal to simplify current events and turn them into readable, pre-packaged blog posts that may at times brush over things. Trump is especially vulnerable to oversimplification; the elementary school level vocabulary, the simple (and often so blatantly wrong) ideas, and the ridiculousness of the candidate himself makes it all the more tempting for writers and reporters to just keep covering the surface of what he’s saying and make it all sound like a joke. (I do have to add that I feel bad for the people at The Onion, attempting to parody a man who is pretty much beyond parody).
However, now that Trump has handily won in two of the first three early states, I think that it’s about time to ask deeper questions and look beyond just the entertainment factor. The reasons for why his candidacy has become so appealing has been covered to death- I can’t count how many times I’ve read about “the year of the outsider”- but what do his successes mean, aside from generating more sky high TV ratings?
Certainly, it’s burning the house down and is evidence of a party in flux. The most symbolic event that happened after the South Carolina primary was Jeb Bush suspending his campaign. Speeding through his speech, Bush seemed like a broken man, and in the end many will feel pity for him. Here was someone for whom the White House had become almost a birthright, considered in some distant past a frontrunner who managed to scare away Mitt Romney long before the race actually started, who was so badly thrown off course by a reality TV star that he couldn’t even finish in the top three in South Carolina, a state that had saved both his father and his brother in their own respective campaigns. The state that was supposed to be ‘Bush country’ did not save him; rather, it was the coup de grâce to his campaign, and perhaps the political dynasty as well.
As mentioned previously, everything that Donald Trump did was supposed to be political suicide. No one in the GOP is supposed to challenge the ‘fact’ that George W. Bush was a good president who kept America safe; no one in the GOP is supposed to call the decision to go to Iraq a disaster, and certainly no one in the GOP is supposed to call George W. Bush a liar. Trump did all that and emerged unscathed.
What does this show? Obviously, it’s the death throes of a political dynasty, but it’s more than that. It shows a party in chaos, where party elites have completely lost control over its own base, where the party leadership find it impossible to set the direction of where it should be headed. It reveals, in a most public fashion, that the Republicans are not a party ready for governance. The party establishment desperately wanted a candidate it found acceptable to be the nominee, and his name was Jeb Bush. Now that Jeb Bush has floundered, the next best hope is with Rubio, who is still battling anti-establishment Ted Cruz to claim the mantle of being Trump’s most viable challenger. The establishment truly have lost control over their own party. And this is no mere speculation any longer; unlike what some pundits think, the establishment cannot “wrestle back control” from what the party base wants. If they could, they’ve done it long ago. Instead, the fact that Trump is still on top after three states have voted mean that there is little control anyone but the voters themselves can exercise over the nomination process. Bush being forced to drop out after a disappointing result in Bush country is as symbolic as it gets.
Secondly, it’s blurring ideology. Trump has a history of being a liberal and until very recently held many views that better fits in with the Democrats than the Republicans, and it led to a hilarious Stephen Colbert skit. And now, the closet liberal seems to be coming out, especially after admitting that he doesn’t fine Planned Parenthood all that evil. This became even clearer when Trump confused himself for Bernie Sanders.
As a Thai and not an American, I find the concept of such rigid ideological stances in politics a little alien. Unlike in the United States or in Europe, there is no such thing as a “left wing” political party or a “right wing” political party in Thai politics, and most Thais will not be able to distinguish the difference between these two ideologies. Politicians, instead, run on pragmatic platforms, proposing different solutions to different problems; there is no blanket prescription such as “the size of government must be reduced in all cases”. And it seems that Trump is going by this playbook, rather than sticking to hard right positions on all the issues. Sure, he’s very extremist on certain issues like immigration, but he’s also to the left of most Republican candidates on many other issues.
What this is destroying is the ideology that has been espoused by movement conservatives since Reagan’s era, and the importance of both economic and social conservatism that the Republicans have long upheld. And the Republican base seem not to care very much. After all, apart from losing to Ted Cruz among the ‘very conservative’ demographic, Trump seems to have won all others. Ideology, at this point, doesn’t seem to matter. The lines between ideologies is now being blurred, and the importance of being an ideologue is now overstated.
So how do we describe the sum of the results of Trump’s trampling over the conventions of the Republican party? I’d like to borrow a term from economics to help: creative destruction, which was originally used by the great economist Joseph Schumpeter to describe the disruptive process of transformation that accompanies innovation. The Republican party of old was broken, a political force capable only of disruption and creating gridlock in Washington; it was, as many called it, “the party of no”. It was also a party that had tried to cover up its wounds from the Bush years, but not very convincingly, and what Trump has done is tear those wounds wide open and pour salt on them. Trump is forcing the GOP to have difficult conversations about the latest GOP administration to take office that it would not be having otherwise, and he is posing difficult questions about its ideology. He is revealing the fundamental disconnect between the Republican base and the establishment, while at the same time also being the logical extension to what the establishment has been sowing for years. Of course, “creative” implies that the havoc that the Trump has caused to the party is positive. Many would see no positive in what Trump is doing, but at the very least, by posing the challenges and questions that he, consciously or not, is doing, it is forcing the GOP to have a very long and hard think about its own identity, past and future.
Of course, we cannot forget what Trump has also revealed about state of America itself. He has shown that despite the high-minded rhetoric of its most senior public officials – their inclusiveness of all regardless of race and gender, their support of human rights, etc. – at its core, the American heartland is still composed of an electorate a surprising portion of which is quite blatantly misogynist, racist and isolationist. 8 years after the election of Barack Obama seemed to show that America could leave its racist history behind, we now see that it is still fundamentally grappling with the same issues.
And so we have it- creative destruction, brought to you by Donald Trump, wrecking a political party and exposing hard truths about the world’s greatest superpower.
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In my post written after the Iowa caucuses, I wrote a series of predictions for how the election would turn. Now I’d like to revisit some of these predictions and hazard new ones:
1. Donald Trump is now the GOP’s presumptive nominee. Ted Cruz barely lost second place but he still came in third place in South Carolina, a state he was so sure he would do well in. If he cannot win in South Carolina, a state that he has remarked is very similar to his home state of Texas, then where else can he win? And, more importantly, Trump showed that he was able to pull a victory similar to New Hampshire in the south; what does this mean if he can replicate this again and again elsewhere? South Carolina has cemented Trump’s frontrunner status, and by depriving Cruz of further momentum, Trump seems to have locked himself for victories in many Super Tuesday states. Rubio is now Trump’s primary challenger. By dropping out, Bush did Rubio a huge favour; the establishment can now coalesce around a single candidate (ignoring John Kasich, who did well in New Hampshire but has no clear path forward). But it’s hard to imagine how to defeat Trump. He’s taken on Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, the Republican National Committee, Barack Obama, Megyn Kelly and even the Pope, and nothing’s been able to stop him. Even if Bush dropped out before South Carolina, adding all of his votes to Rubio would not have been able to stop Trump.
2. Bernie Sanders will continue to be a dangerous challenger to Hillary Clinton. This post has focused entirely on the GOP race, but the Nevada caucuses today also had significance, even if I didn’t get to discuss it. Although Sanders lost by five points, it showed that he had made a clear dent in what was supposed to be a Clinton firewall. More importantly, Sanders did well among Hispanics, an ethnic minority that Clinton was supposed to win. Sanders’s biggest challenge is now the African-American vote. Sanders, who marched with Martin Luther King, is still finding it difficult to find support among black voters, not least because he views everything through his lens of economic inequality. If Sanders can make inroads into the this group, then he can win the nomination.
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Just a short final note- I’ve found myself posting more regularly on the American election now, and I suppose that’s not a bad thing since it is one of the most important current events going on right now. However, I don’t mean to turn this into an American politics hub. I’m also currently working on a post about the challenges facing modern Japan, and have posts about Thai politics planned out as well. What I’m happy about, however, is the fact that for once I’m keeping up with blogging goals, and my biggest goal was simply to blog more, which I’ve certainly been doing.
I’d also like to thank everyone for your support of my writing. After my blogging received an award from the Council of International Schools, there has been an uptick in views of my writing, and I’ve been able to receive plenty of feedback on my writing since then, which I truly appreciate. Also, my blog was recently shared by Sean Munger, a writer whose work on promoting more awareness of the Byzantine Empire’s history has been stellar; if you have some time, check out his blog!
Thanks for reading.