It is hard to see anyone else winning this year. But Hillary’s White House tenancy will be turbulent, with Obama sniping from the wings
A spectre is haunting American politics. Its name is Donald Trump, a former liberal Democrat billionaire, now a born-again “conservative” Republican, whose presidential campaign seems to have caught fire like no other. As he wends his way across the republic in a private jet, drawing record crowds, trampling on all the sacred pieties of American politics, he spreads fear and trembling among the political and chattering classes. From the Left, Village Voice columnist Lucien Truscott IV accuses Trump of practising a kind of “toy fascism” which, however, he claims, is bleeding into “one of the classic tactics of real fascism, com[ing] up with fake problems and then present[ing] fake solutions.” The Right has been no less categorical. Days before the first caucuses in Iowa, National Review, flagship journal of the respectable Right, summoned 22 of the most distinguished American conservatives to explain why Trump was not an appropriate person to be the Republican presidential candidate. Its ideological sister journal, The Weekly Standard, was even more emphatic. In a bitter article entitled “The Nominee We Deserve?”, Stephen F. Hayes asks the question, “Do Republicans deserve to lose? . . . The Republican frontrunner is a longtime liberal whose worldview might best be described as an amalgam of pop-culture progressivism and vulgar nationalism . . . He’s a narcissist and a huckster, an opportunist who . . . over the past several decades . . . was often funding the other side.” The fact that each of these accusations is correct seems not to matter at all to the voters in Republican primaries.
Although in the Iowa caucuses — the first in the nation — he was edged out by Senator Ted Cruz and followed at an uncomfortably close margin by Senator Marco Rubio, Trump subsequently went on to further victories in New Hampshire and then in states as diverse as Michigan, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Hawaii and Mississippi. In Nevada he even did well among Hispanic voters. He won North Carolina and Missouri, not to mention delegate-rich Illinois and Senator Marco Rubio’s Florida (causing the latter to end his candidacy). It is becoming increasing clear that no other candidate, not even Ted Cruz, the darling of Evangelicals, and Governor John Kasich, who won the key swing state of Ohio, can knock him out of the box. In the meantime, Trump has won endorsements from retiring candidates New Jersey governor Chris Christie and neurosurgeon Dr Ben Carson.
It is true that in many of these contests Trump has not won a clear majority, but that may be due more than anything else to the fact that there were several other candidates on the ballot. He may indeed go to the Republican presidential convention with the largest number of delegates, but still fall short of the number needed to seize the prize. Theoretically this calls for a brokered convention, which is not an unusual event in the history of the Republican party. President Warren G. Harding was nominated in 1920 only after 102 ballots (no misprint). In the days when Americans were accustomed to politicians deciding on a candidate in the proverbial “smoke-filled room”, voters accepted their party’s choice. But in the age of the populist primary, involving scores of millions of voters across the country, the voice of the people will not easily be denied.
If the party professionals — the lobbyists, the lawyers, the “bundlers” of large contributions — attempt to impose a candidate other than Trump, the brash New York developer may take his voters with him to an independent bid. Or quite possibly the people who are crowding to his rallies will be embittered at the tactics of the professional political class, and simply stay at home. Meanwhile angry Republican professionals have talked openly about running an insurgent candidate of their own on a third ticket. Former Speaker of the House John Boehner has suggested that the man who should run if there is a brokered convention is his successor Congressman Paul Ryan (who was Mitt Romney’s running mate in the last presidential election). The outcome would be an unquestioned victory for whomever the Democrats nominate.
There is, of course, the possibility — once a wild card but no longer — that Trump will arrive at the convention with enough delegate votes garnered in the primaries and caucuses to put himself over the top. At the time of writing he has 652 delegates to Ted Cruz’s 407 (needed to nominate: 1237). But delegate-rich California and New York have yet to vote. Even if Trump wins the race fair and square, he may find it difficult to turn to the other candidates whom he has been savaging with such relish — particularly Rubio and (lately) Cruz — for support against Clinton. In any of these scenarios the only contribution Donald Trump would have made to the Republican party would be to hasten its collapse and eventual disappearance. Indeed, some have even suggested that he is engaging in a “false flag” operation for the Democrats. Even if he isn’t, he’s almost worth as much to them as if he were.
Lost in all the Republican handwringing are some harsh demographic facts. Even if the party finds itself forced to nominate Trump, he will probably lose. The reason is quite simple. As America becomes more urban, more unmarried, more non-white, the Democratic party increasingly consolidates its stranglehold on the electoral college. This is a quaint mechanism established during America’s founding which assigns to each state as many votes as its members of the Congress. This means that heavily-populated states like New York, California, Illinois, Florida and Ohio weigh in the final balance even more heavily than if the race were simply determined by popular vote. (It even makes possible a technical victory by a candidate who fails to win the popular vote, as in the 2000 election.) Moreover, any Democratic candidate can count on what might be called the academic-entertainment-media complex to work tirelessly on behalf of the party’s choice, even if (as in the case of John Kerry in 2004) it has to do so figuratively holding its nose.
Therefore it seems almost unavoidable that Hillary Rodham Clinton will be the next President of the United States. This is not to say that Mrs Clinton is a particularly attractive candidate. She has never faced a serious opponent in any election except one — the primary she lost to Barack Obama in 2008. She is utterly unlike her husband, who derives energy from the contact with crowds and loves the rough and tumble of retail politics. Actually, as one commentator put it, she regards campaigning as “something of a nuisance”. She feels more comfortable on television than meeting ordinary people, some of whom are quite tiresome, and meeting them by the thousand if not hundred thousand.
She has a sense of entitlement which she does not always disguise, and which seems out of place for a candidate who pretends to run from left of centre. Her casual remark early in the campaign that when she and her husband left the White House in 2000 they were “flat broke” (they were down to $5 million in the bank, which assuredly is “flat broke” among the super-rich whom they know and with whom they prefer to spend their leisure time). Her family foundation provides a very useful device to interface with people anxious to buy influence in the next Administration, some of whose funds probably bleed into non-charitable causes. Moreover, both she and her husband are seen as mercenary; they have become fabulously wealthy since leaving the White House by paid speeches (Goldman Sachs shelled out $675,000 for three of these, and the cash-strapped University of California at Los Angeles paid her $300,000 for a single engagement). On top of all of this, the FBI is investigating her use of a private email server for her correspondence, much of it classified, during her tenure as President Obama’s Secretary of State. There is always the possibility of an indictment for violation of secrecy laws, but no one who knows Democratic politics thinks that Obama’s Justice Department will move against her, whatever evidence is brought to light. As she herself says when asked, “That is not going to happen.”
When Mrs Clinton first decided to run for elective office in 2000 — as senator for a state in which she had never lived — some conservative critics likened her to Eva Perón. The comparison was poorly founded; Eva Perón was a genuinely popular figure with a huge following in her own right. Actually the female politician Hillary Clinton most nearly resembles is another Argentine: former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Like Mrs Clinton, Mrs Kirchner owed her entire political career to her (in this case late) husband, and equals Hillary Clinton in her charmlessness, vindictiveness and tendency to confuse the public interest with her own. Of course Mrs Clinton is much more polished and more skilled at using the media (which in any case is far more abject and submissive than its Argentine counterpart). The differences in personal style between the two women speaks more to differences in the political culture of the United States and Argentina than anything else.
Even the only serious challenger to Mrs Clinton for the Democratic nomination probably does her more good than ill. Bernie Sanders, the 74-year-old independent senator for Vermont (now campaigning as a Democrat) is a genuine American eccentric — a kind of zanier version of Jeremy Corbyn. (NB: Although he holds up Denmark as a model of the good society, he and his wife chose to honeymoon not there but in the Soviet Union.) Like the Labour leader, he draws much of his support from people who are new to politics or at any rate not normally involved in day-to-day party matters, and his attacks on Mrs Clinton (which are remarkably restrained, all things considered) nonetheless call her to task for being in thrall to the “big banks” and the “big PACs” — the latter being devices which allow both parties to accumulate huge monies circumventing various campaign finance restrictions. This kind of rhetoric makes Hillary seem positively moderate and sensibly centrist, to the point that one might suggest that if Trump is a false flag for Hillary from the Right, so is Sanders from the Left.
Yet Sanders has turned out to be a more interesting, even exciting candidate than Mrs Clinton. He has represented the minuscule state of Vermont for two decades both in the House and Senate, but, to put it mildly, he has never been a visible force in congressional Democratic politics. On the other hand, he has awakened a degree of enthusiasm that Clinton’s supporters might well envy. His campaign is funded entirely by small contributions, and he has been taking in millions of dollars after each debate. His campaign events are youth rallies, where he promises free things to everybody — particularly free university education for all — supposedly to be paid for by the banks, the corporations, the “one per cent” — in other words, the very people who all too visibly are the brokers and funders of Hillary’s Democratic party. Sanders’s vote-getting abilities are also not to be denied; he not only won the primary in New Hampshire, which after all is a neighbouring state with Vermont, but also Colorado and Oklahoma, but most importantly, in Michigan, one of the classic industrial states hard-hit by globalisation. The latter win was particularly unsettling to the Clinton people because they had predicted she would finish there a good 20 points ahead of Sanders.
These victories show that Democrats are still hungering for someone who brings something fresh and new to the table. Which does not mean that Sanders can win the nomination; the machinery of the convention has been set up in such a way that this is virtually impossible. People in the party are already beginning to reconcile themselves to the fact. One T-shirt seen at a rally recently read “Settle for Hillary”. In a Washington DC bar known as a Democratic hangout, I recently overheard one of the customers say to another, “Well, you don’t have to like a candidate to vote for her.”
The more interesting question is whether the Democrats, lashed almost against their will to the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, can govern once they win the election. This is the big story of 2016 which so far the media and the pundit class have ignored. The same electoral system which exaggerates the victory of a presidential candidate also corrects its bias in the Congress. Every state including ones with tiny populations (Wyoming, Idaho) has two senators and a minimum of one member of the House of Representatives. And while the Democrats may recapture the Senate in this cycle, there are various legislative mechanisms by which the minority, particularly if it is a sizeable one (as it is likely to be), can obstruct the course of business. This, combined with redistricting accomplished by Republican-controlled state houses these last few years means that there will always be a sizeable constituency of people who, if they don’t vote for Trump, think somewhat like him on issues like immigration, free trade agreements, political correctness and reverse discrimination (“affirmative action”). Trump’s appeal reaches deep into one of the classic constituencies of the Democratic party — the white working class in industrial states, afflicted by loss of jobs to globalisation and racial and gender preferences imposed by an all-knowing federal bureaucracy in Washington. The crisis of the contemporary Republican party is an inability to aggregate all of these disaffected voters into an electorate.
This brings us to the sombre question of what American politics will be like with Hillary Rodham Clinton as President. All indications are that she will be a weak and unloved chief executive — not that this will deter her from attempting to force-feed the country on a diet of increased taxation and nanny-state political correctness. Although she hopes to derive a political bonus from her role as the first woman President, she is unlikely to generate the kind of excitement (and buy the political indulgence) that was Barack Obama’s eight years ago. For one thing, unlike Obama in 2008, she is a known quantity — indeed, too well-known for her own good. For another, her feminism is sharply discounted by her indulgence of her husband’s sexual dalliances. For yet another, she is likely to face a House of Representatives controlled by the Republican party (which she has already publicly identified as “the enemy”).
While Trump may not be able to win the presidency, the following he has gathered around him, perhaps 30 to 40 per cent of Americans, disproportionately male and white, though declining demographically, will not disappear entirely in the next decade. Governing is not merely winning elections, but bringing people along who may not have voted for you. In short, a shattered and leaderless Republican party is not a formula for unimpeded rule by Democrats. Rather, it bespeaks a crisis of governance that will affect the United States as a whole.
There is one last point to which the political and media classes in Washington have failed to give proper attention. There is no love lost between President Obama and the Clintons. He has never fully forgiven Mrs Clinton’s husband for attributing his (Obama’s) victory in the South Carolina primary in 2008 to racial chauvinism, and although Mrs Clinton served in the cabinet for four years, her meetings with the President were infrequent; she was normally cut loose to pursue her own agenda (and fall into several traps). Moreover, more even than most politicians Obama suffers from acute narcissism. No speech of his on no matter what subject fails to include the word “I” dozens or even many dozens of times. Accustomed to the limelight and the adoration of partisan crowds, not to mention even more than usually indulgent media, he will not find it easy to quit the White House and fade into private life. In fact, he has no intention of doing so. He recently announced that he will break with precedent and remain in Washington DC after he leaves office.
This is a formula for a kind of government-in-exile somewhere in the more elegant suburbs of the capital. Every time Mrs Clinton makes a decision, the press will rush off to Obama’s mansion to find out whether or not he approves, particularly if it appears that she is tampering with his legacy. Thus the gathering storm over American politics grows more troubling with every passing week.