Category Archives: 2016 presidential election

Americans shouldn’t ignore Trump’s racism

For a while I flirted with the idea that Donald Trump is an entertaining candidate.  I liked the fact that he was shaking up traditional politics and sneakily admired the way his sheer chutzpah seemed to be getting him through the primaries.

But Donald Trump is no joke, and it will arguably be his greatest achievement to keep us seeing him as a rough-edged diamond making headway against a wretchedly corrupt establishment, instead of the dangerous demagogue and bigot that he really is.

It seems absurd at the moment that it is the Democratic Party which is in disarray, and not the party which has just seen a debt-driven real-estate chancer and reality television star seize their nomination from under their noses.  The Republican high command isn't just holding its nose to endorse Trump.  It is leaping willingly into the position of co-conspirator.  As House Speaker Paul Ryan becomes the latest leading Republican to endorse Donald Trump, let's remind ourselves of the person that all these top politicians now believe is absolutely the right person to lead their country for four years.

This is the man who has accused his now supporter, Ted Cruz, of "coming from Cuba" and suggesting he should have been disbarred from running for president.  This is the man who wants to ban all Muslims from America and who has happily perpetuated the myth that Muslims were celebrating in the streets of New Jersey on 9/11.  This is the man who wants to build a wall to stop any Mexicans from entering America, and who has described Mexican immigrants as "drug mules or rapists".  This is the man who has used the sly rhetoric of religious bigotry when he had a go at then-rival Ben Carson's membership of the Seventh Day Adventist Church.  Slate writer William Saletan has done a great job in identifying the ten things any politician who endorses Trump needs to defend.

Trump's inherent racism and malevolence go deeper than this though.  His Trump University is currently facing a class action which exposes it as a major scam, designed to rip off anyone who signed up to its courses, peddling false prospectuses of what it offered and preying on the weak and poor in order to make its money.

The judge who has been handed this case happens to be an Hispanic judge, whom Trump consistently tweets about as being biased against him, impugning his judicial integrity.  He also refers to the East Chicago born judge as "Mexican" in his statements, and he made much of the judge's "Mexican" race when he spoke to a crowd at one of his rallies.  Saletan again:

Trump’s attack on Friday continued in this vein. “I have a judge who is a hater of Donald Trump,” he told a crowd in San Diego. “His name is”— at this point, Trump, having raised his voice like a drum roll, held up a piece of paper and pronounced the name carefully, gesturing for effect—“Gonzalo Curiel.” The audience booed, and Trump let the moment soak in, shaking his head in solidarity. Trump told the audience two things about Curiel: that he “was appointed by Barack Obama” and that he “happens to be, we believe, Mexican.” After railing against Curiel and the lawsuit for more than 10 minutes, Trump concluded: “The judges in this court system, federal court—they ought to look into Judge Curiel.”

Donald Trump isn't a joke.  He is the worst type of malevolent, minority-baiting demagogue whose relationship with the truth is so tendentious as to beg the question of whether he even understands the concept.  He is a man who incites violence at his rallies and stoops to slews of personal insults against his opponents in the absence of any thought-through policies.

The British politician Edmund Burke famously noted, back in the late eighteenth century when all Europe was abuzz with the daily news of slaughter in the French Revolution, that "all that is required for evil men to triumph is that good men stay silent".  I might demur about whether all of the Republicans who are rolling over in front of Trump are necessarily good men, but they are fantastically not just keeping silent, they have chosen to add their voices to the evil in their midst.

Donald Trump is riding high at the moment as his likely opponent in the autumn election is mired in her own primary battle.  But if and when Hillary Clinton does win nomination as the Democratic candidate, then all those Bernie supporters, and Bernie himself, need to take a long hard look at her opponent.  For all her flaws, Hillary is not a racist, and nor does she approach Trump's levels of deception and wanton bigotry.  If Sanders supporters think that somehow it's ok to stay home when Hillary faces Donald, that their own purity shouldn't bring them to vote for a seasoned candidate because she has compromised too much, well then they too can count themselves in the legion of Burke's silent good men (and women), who wilfully allowed a man who will tarnish their democracy to be elected president.  There are no innocent voters in this contest.

Sanders, Trump and the challenge to parties

A month or so ago it looked as if the Republican convention would be the best spectacle for those who love a bit of political anarchy.  With Donald Trump marauding his way through the Republican primaries, faced by establishment opponents who clearly loathe him, what would have been better than a convention which tried to overturn the popular vote and insinuate a more acceptable candidate.  This would be a better spectacle even than Ronald Reagan's attempt to usurp the nomination of sitting president Gerald Ford in 1976.

Yet in such a short space of time the Republican conflict appears to have died down in the face of a pretty well invulnerable Trump candidacy and it's the Democrats who look like hosting at least a fractious, if not fully contested convention.  While Republican leaders accept the inevitable and start looking to make their peace with the candidate they desperately didn't want, the Sanders campaign for the Democratic nomination strides on, now even bringing violence and chaos in its wake.

The difference would seem to be party loyalty.  Trump himself may not be particularly loyal to his newly acquired Republican brand, but he's holding the good hand.  He's the presumptive nominee.  Those old establishment Republicans - or, to be more accurate, those new establishment Republicans like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio - are going to hold their noses and endorse Trump, because they need their party to win in November.  And win not just the White House but Congress as well. Trump can corral the Republican party because the party needs him.

The Democratic party, meanwhile, neither needs nor wants Bernie Sanders.  The problem is that Sanders will fail to get the Democratic nomination but will still need to create the maximum disruption against the party in order to gain any traction.  Like his fellow insurrectionist, Sanders has no loyalty to the party whose label he recently adopted.  In a two-party system, both he and Trump saw their only chance for presidential success as being to take a major party hostage rather than run as a failed Independent.  Trump's gamble has succeeded, Sanders' has failed.  But Sanders' momentum is such that he can at least keep going, and since he's not really a Democrat that party's leadership appeals to him will have no impact.  Any more than Republican appeals had any impact on Trump.

Effectively what we are seeing are the attempts of two maverick insurrectionists to turn the party system against itself.  It is arguably the logical consequence of a political system which forces everyone to adapt to the two-party system.  If that's all you can use, then it is hardly surprising that the parties themselves become a target for otherwise independent, or socialist, or Green, or whatever other type of candidate who might be out there.

As it stands, then, the Democratic convention is going to be the most exciting.  Sanders is looking to gain traction in the California primary and has made no bones about taking his fight all the way to the convention floor.  The cries from the Clinton camp, and the establishment Democrats, will fall on deaf ears because Sanders has no use for party unity.  The slightly maudlin calls for Sanders to accept his defeat graciously so that Clinton can look to the general election battle against Trump are mis-directed and misconceived.  There would be no need to make appeals to Sanders if Clinton had managed to effectively dispatch his candidacy via the primary vote.  His continued campaign is as much an indication of her serious electoral difficulties as it is his own stubbornness.

2016 will not mark the end of the two-party system in American politics, but it has shown just how it is possible to subvert the parties in the interests of outsider campaigns.  The establishment - in either party - rules no more.

Is Hillary’s lack of the "vision thing" a real problem?

There is an interesting article up on Politico, strikingly headlined "How Hillary could win the election and lose the country".  Writer Todd Purdum considers the problem of a centrist, status-quo candidate becoming president (Hillary) in a year when all of the drive and momentum has been on the side of the radical, change-politics-now candidates.  Not unreasonably, he points out Hillary Clinton's lack of a clearly articulated vision and essentially postulates the idea that she might win the election by default - in that the Republicans will choose a virtually unelectable candidate in either Trump or, less likely, Cruz - but then fail to appease a country seething with discontent once she's in office.

It is an alarming thesis but one that may also be giving too much credence to the noise coming from the energised masses of left and right.  It is in the nature of democracies to go through regular convulsions, and for the reporting media to announce these as the critical convulsions of an era.  Such is modern democratic politics.  But it is also worth noting that the majority of people vote for little more than a relative competence in governance and stability on the home front.  These are unexciting attributes that are hardly going to rouse great audiences or inspire click-baiting readerships, but they are the greater part of a country's polity.

It may well be that Hillary Clinton's advantage as a candidate is that she does not arouse unreachable levels of expectation, and that she offers instead a rational, pragmatic competence in governing.  Yes she does have her guiding principles - the traditional Democratic ones of greater fairness, positive but non-confrontational diplomacy, a broad liberal belief in the beneficial impact of wise but not over-reaching government.  Certainly it's true that, set against the moral certainties of a Sanders or a Trump these are significantly less exciting attributes.  But there is an argument that Clinton is winning the Democratic nomination - and is odds-on favourite to win the November election - because most Americans prefer to embrace the less exciting, but likely more productive, option.

Donald Trump is generating enormous publicity with his campaign, and can claim to be providing a voice for the voiceless in his brash comments, but in so doing he is also turning many Americans away from him.  The elderly Sanders has managed to tap in to the holy grail of youth support, but youth is ever fickle and unrealistic, unmatured by the wisdom of years which show that compromise and realism offer better paths forward amongst diverse and contradictory humans than the apparently clear-sighted vision of idealistic politics.

It is noteworthy that in Mr. Purdom's vigorous article, he devotes a paragraph to re-living the exalted rhetoric of previous presidents.  Observing that the key power of the presidency is the power of persuasion, he cites again Kennedy's words about passing the torch to a new generation of Americans, or Reagan's "morning in America".  These were powerful pieces of rhetoric, but they were just that, and neither Kennedy - cut off too early but already arguably in the throes of seriously under-performing to the high-blown tones of his inaugural speech - or Reagan, who ended his years enmeshed in the Iran-Contra scandal, were able to translate their flights of rhetoric into reality.

More recently, it is often stated that one of President Obama's persistent problems throughout his eight year presidency has been that no achievement or policy could ever match the soaring heights of his first election's rhetoric.  A brilliant candidate became a troubled president whose achievements live consistently under the shadow of the expectations he aroused.  More notably, possibly, is the fact that Obama's popularity is growing as he works out his last year because his rational, reasoned speeches stand in such stark contrast to the populist and unrealistic rhetoric of some of his would-be successors.

Hillary Clinton is not a great candidate.  She is a work-horse determined to be a realistic president.  She has produced thought-through positions on many areas of policy but can't easily translate this into neat, visionary sound-bites.  Yet it would be a mistake to assume that her failure to be a rabble rouser means that she has somehow missed the mood.  If her presidency begins with a sense of realism rather than over-articulated optimism, she may in fact have hit just the right spot and be in a position to tackle America's problems with the effectiveness of a political pro, rather than doom herself to disappointing her supporters because she raised up a whole level of unattainable aspirations.

Re-Defining the western consensus

Donald Trump's startling success in the current Republican primaries is starting to hit home and spark a tranche of "we could have a president Trump" articles.  None of them make for happy reading and they're not intended to.  Trump is the horror story that most liberal observers of politics - whether that be liberal-right or liberal-left - hoped they wouldn't have to witness.  Could it be that the "pax occidentalis" that has held since the end of the Second World War is about to come apart?

Trump is an easy to recognise trope of the populist nationalist variety.  He shares none of the internationalism of any of his post-war predecessors.  His candidature hearkens back to the days of Warren Harding, but with an added nastiness.  His victory would bring to the White House a man who is perfectly capable of bringing the old international, American protected consensus crashing down.  Anne Applebaum considers this disaster in her Washington Post column, and adds a potential Marine Le Pen presidency of France with a British exit from the EU to the mix, just for good measure.  It's a pretty depressing vision.

Comparisons with Hitler are over-used and inaccurate, but what is apposite is the comparison between the frustrated, politically dislocated electorate of Weimar Germany in 1933 and the current frustrated, politically dislocated electorate of America in 2016.  The Spectator's Freddy Gray has provided a fascinating and cogent analysis of both what it is that Trump is tapping into in America, and how it is likely to play out in America's world role (worth buying this week's edition for, an online preview is here).  Gray writes that  "an ever larger number of Americans feel angry at the system.  The Donald embodies their rage and multiplies it as in a hall of mirrors".  Yes.  Exactly.  That's what populist demagogues do, and when a nation feels uneasy about itself and its manifest destiny, an electorate can turn quite nasty.  Nasty electorates produce nasty leaders.

Gray is particularly good, later in his piece, at acknowledging the huge impact America has had on the nature of the post-war world, and the democratic security that western nations have rather taken for granted, even as much of the rest of the planet disintegrates into strife and savagery.  A president uncommitted to such a role is more concerning than we might think.  As Applebaum notes, Trump has little time for modest democratic politicians and their compromising, negotiated positions, but he does express admiration for Vladimir Putin.  Putin is arguably the most sinister and dangerous man to govern Russia since the late Josef Stalin.  He seems to combine similar levels of paranoia about the non-Russian world with an opaqueness that makes him impossible to read.  (He is, incidentally, superbly portrayed in Netflix series "House of Cards", as fictional Russian president Petrov.)

Of course, much of this is speculative.  Trump is not only not president, the odds are still against that possibility.  Marine Le Pen is not yet president of France and could suffer the same fate as her once popular father.  But electorates are not bound to elect moderate, reasonable men and women, and we may just have reached a time in the affairs of liberal nations when de Tocqueville's fear of democracy may prove wholly justified. 

Trump comes to Washington

Donald Trump's presence is already clear in Washington DC.  A couple of blocks down from the White House a large placard announces that Trump is coming here in 2016.  Whether or not his company's renovation of the old Post Office building into its latest hotel (with what will be "Washington's largest ballroom" - just right for an inaugural ball) is a sign of a more serious presence in the nation's federal capital is yet to be seen, but as South Carolina's primary enters its closing phase as I write, Trump is starting to look like an unstoppable force.

If New Hampshire proclaimed Trump's ability to transcend the largely hostile coverage from the mainstream media, and his clear political potency after having been seen initially as a national joke, then South Carolina could be the primary that makes him the almost unbeatable front-runner.  Trump as president is not looking quite such a remote prospect today.

Of course, this extraordinary and unpredictable race still has many curves to navigate, but Trump as stayer and possible victor is shaping up as a clear line in the primary sands.  Cruz is his closest runner, and that is one of the reasons South Carolina is so significant.  Win there, and Trump shows that he is more than capable of winning the evangelical vote on which Cruz's run so much depends.  Cruz's appeal is narrow compared to the more iconoclastic Trump. 

As for Rubio, as one MSNBC commentator noted today, coming 3rd., 5th., and 3rd does not constitute front-runner status.  He needs to win somewhere!

If South Carolina goes for Trump today, he may not need the swanky new hotel he's building.  There's a nice residence just down Pennsylvania Avenue just waiting for the New York billionaire to move in.