My political awakening was in 1964, backing Barry Goldwater. Some saw his nomination as politically suicidal – as Trump’s or Cruz’s would be. But Goldwater was a serious man, a principled candidate, a prophet before his time. Trump is a bomb-thrower.
Indeed, his candidacy has no philosophical grounding. It’s all atmospherics, finger-shoving, and personality — an odious personality at that, which bizarrely seems to work to his advantage. He gets the jerk vote. There’s also the “successful, can-do businessman” thing. Which is bunkum too, as columnist Ross Douthat points out, envisioning an ad campaign savaging Trump’s wreckage-strewn business history.
The left likes to link conservatism to fascism supposedly on the “right.” Yet fascism was really closer to communism or socialism, all of them centered on a domineering state – which true conservatives abhor. Trump is no conservative; and his campaign does have an unmistakable whiff of fascism. His chin-thrusting braggadocio evokes Mussolini, posturing as the strong leader who will sweep aside namby-pambies and set things right. He’ll deport all the illegals and build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. He’ll make the trains run on time. (For the record, it’s a myth that Mussolini did that. Power and competence are two different things.)
“Make America great again”? More like a banana republic.
Cruz is just about as bad, a smarmy con man. Maybe it’s no surprise that evangelicals taken in by preachers and a fairy tale man-in-the-sky would likewise fall for the political equivalent.
The angry old white man vote might carry the nomination, but not the country. Republicans went over a cliff with Goldwater, but at least he stood for something worthy. It seems nuts to go over the cliff for what juvenile jollies Trump provides. To nominate him is to elect Hillary. But (though I normally refrain from saying this of those I disagree with) rational thinking is no part of the Trump phenomenon. This is what you get from years of Republicans stoking anti-intellectualism and crude cultural resentments. It could destroy the party if an anti-Trump tsunami sweeps out its legislators too, handing control of gerrymandering to Democrats. The presidential electoral map already strongly favors them, and demographic trends do as well.
Part of the trouble is the sensible Republican vote being diluted among too many candidates. The party’s serious leaders need to unite behind just one – surely Marco Rubio. He would defeat Hillary, really a weak, damaged candidate, with all her baggage. But instead, regarding Trump, the Republican “establishment” now exhibits the classic stages of grief – it started with denial, and ends with acceptance.
But what if – the nightmare scenario – both parties nominate unelectable candidates? I wrote long ago that Hillary could be felled from the left. All the energy is with Sanders. His taking both Iowa and New Hampshire might spike Hillary’s juggernaut. But while Democratic activists have veered sharply left, they’re deluded to imagine the country receptive to their message. This is still a center-right nation, leery of left-wing class warfare. In November, just one word – “socialist” – will sink Bernie, no matter his disingenuous attempts to redefine it.
The rise of ridiculous candidates like Trump and Sanders is symptomatic of America’s broken politics – dominated by fire-eaters of both left and right, neither grappling realistically with our challenges, let alone coming together to tackle them. This, and its disheartening results, is what makes voters susceptible to the likes of a Trump. I have long argued that a possible way out of this mess might be via a centrist third party candidate, of serious stature, well-funded, talking sense to voters as adults, and calling out both major parties for their dysfunctionality.*
Reportedly Michael Bloomberg is considering it. Conventional wisdom says it’s doomed. But remember Perot in 1992, a somewhat similar though deeply flawed candidate, who nevertheless got 19% of the vote – and a three-way race could be won with 35%. We’re also told Bloomberg couldn’t win because he’s pro-choice and anti-gun – though just such a candidate actually did win the last two elections. Bloomberg is imperfect in other ways, but let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good. I’d gladly support him. And whereas Perot contended against two plausible candidates (Bush 41 & Bill Clinton), Bloomberg would be far stronger vis-a-vis a Hobson’s choice of Bernie versus Trump.
This rational optimist wants to believe, like David Brooks in his latest column, that our great country will, at the end of the day, never elect a Trump, Cruz, or Sanders. It’s customary to genuflect at the ultimate wisdom of the electorate. But voters in other countries have made some pretty horrible mistakes. America is not necessarily immune from this pitfall of democracy. Trump too could win a three-way race with only 35%.
* See my own presidential announcement speech; click here. Alas, I did not get a groundswell of support.