(September 2016) Ezy Reading: Huddled
Masses, Dirty Politics & the death of the GOP
Evan Kanarakis

 

The 2016 electoral season has arguably been one of the most venomous in living memory, and political commentators have been hard pressed to find examples of previous Presidential campaigns so lacking in substantive debate on core policy issues. Instead we have been witness to an ugly election cycle characterized more by personal insults and sensationalist mud-slinging. It is lost on few that while this is one of the most embarrassing and disappointing chapters in American politics, it is also one of the most important elections the country has ever faced.

On one side of the fray is the Democrat Hillary Clinton, who has struggled to separate herself from the perception within the electorate that she is yet another ‘establishment’ candidate. Here, many argue, is a multi-millionaire with ties to big business and banks, a reputation for secretive, almost entitled behavior, and who has effected little change during her political career (indeed some claim she has instead been responsible for countless costly – and perhaps criminal- missteps). Despite this broad-stroke portrait, Clinton nonetheless secured her party’s Democratic nomination because her fundamental ideology and social, economic and foreign policies still aligned with and appealed to a majority of Democrats. And while she and Bernie Sanders engaged in a charged, at times ugly battle for that same nomination, it is telling that Sanders fully extended his (more leftist) support securely behind Clinton, even as some of his staunchest supporters are still loathe to do. Sanders didn’t endorse Clinton because he was simply being a ‘good soldier’, it was because he ultimately believed he could still relate to her political ideology, and that ideology represented, in his view, the best chance for America’s future.

On the other side of this battle is Donald Trump. From the outset, it must be said that Donald Trump’s win for the Republican Party nomination represented a successful democratic outcome wherein the citizenry’s vote clearly communicated their choice for leadership (no matter how unexpected his chances for victory once seemed). That so unconventional and politically inexperienced a candidate won his party’s nomination for the Presidency also tells us of the great divide that exists in the United States today. A significant number of Americans (and this was reflected, at the opposite ideological spectrum by the strong showing of support for Sanders’ campaign) feel that their country has lost its way, largely because of a corrupt political establishment that only continues to fail them time and again. Such failure, they say, demands an unconventional solution. To this end, the Republicans chose Trump.

The problem, of course, is that Donald Trump represents a dramatic ideological shift from traditional Republican values. For decades the identity of the Republican Party – even as it has skewed more and more conservative - has been one that places an emphasis on so-called ‘family values’, eschews overt interference from big government into the lives of private citizens, and largely endorses fiscal conservatism. Socially, many feel that core Republican values have shifted further right (and more out of touch) from the true ‘middle’ in today’s America – a country wherein most Americans now say they support gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose. Regardless, none of the seventeen GOP candidates for President expressed a strong reversal on these long-held staple Republican issues.

On the surface, Trump sounds like a traditional Republican when he declares his love for America, the need to promote family values and ‘make America great again’. He is pro-life and has stayed largely mute on gay marriage, arguing that the Supreme Court has ruled on a matter that he prefers would be decided at a state level. Trump also rails against big government and over-regulation. He believes in a strong U.S military. He says he would dismantle Obamacare and crack down on illegal immigration. None of the above policy stances represent a sharp turn away from an atypical GOP Presidential platform.

But where Trump starts to deviate is revealed by a deeper analysis of his temperament, ethics and choice of dialogue. Traditional Republican conservatism may have always appealed to what was once a largely white, older and less educated base, but Trump’s campaign has chosen to communicate his message in a very different manner that appeals more emotionally to base feelings of having experienced unjust economic distress and hardship that are largely due to socio-cultural, establishment policies that have persistently placed the interests of minorities and ‘the less deserving’ ahead of ‘true’ Americans. For a citizenry feeling that their chance at the American dream is further out of reach than ever, this frustration has grown into resentment, and Trump has channelled it into outrage, one impulsive broadside Tweet at a time. This has helped fuel an increasingly toxic brand of conservatism which doesn’t think of America as an ‘America for all’.

This decidedly non-Republican brand of outrage has overstepped the traditional line drawn in U.S politics that aims to keep the discourse civil, the debate respectable, and the candidates ‘Presidential’, and it is absolutely fair game as to whether this has also drawn into the focus the question of Trump’s substance, experience and temperament. Whether Trump’s malice is representative of his genuine anger about the state of America today and a want to make things better ‘no matter the cost’, or if he is simply an egotistical, thin-skinned demagogue who knows that tabloid theatrics garner media attention is up for debate. Yet no matter the reason, countless times Trump has lowered the discourse in the campaign: mocking a disabled reporter, threatening freedom of the press, making disparaging comments about women, Muslims and Mexicans, criticizing a senator (and fellow Republican) for being a prisoner of war, and bringing up the past infidelities of his opponent’s husband. This is all on top of countless revelations from Trump’s past that many cite as making him unfit for the Presidency –  a 1973 lawsuit over his refusal to rent to African Americans, the alleged fraud surrounding ‘Trump University’, accusations that he stiffed former contractors and refused to pay them, and that funds from his own charity may have been used to help pay off legal fees related to outstanding lawsuits. He has also refused to release his tax returns which many cite as evidence that Trump has likely been using the tax code to his advantage to pay little to no tax for many years. Trump calls this ‘smart’, even a he glosses over the insulting inference of what that must then make the rest of the tax-paying populace. Trump loves to boast about his business successes, but his apparent view of capitalism as ‘generating profits by any means necessary’ is surely something that should trouble most traditional, ‘values’ Republicans.

This is by no means a traditional election. The Republican Party as we know it is changing before our eyes, and the Party’s old guard (even as so many have begrudgingly lent Trump their endorsement) must be wondering, privately, if the future of their party would fare better with a Clinton victory that might allow what’s left of the GOP to ride out this ‘Trump moment’. Or, again, perhaps Trump simply represents an evolution of a party – and party politics – that is in keeping with the demands of the electorate, no matter how ugly and unorthodox it may seem. Demographics would indicate that the GOP better start appealing more broadly and more quickly to young minorities or they’ll become a political dinosaur. But not in this election. A few months ago Obama asked Republicans, "If you are repeatedly having to say in very strong terms that what he has said is unacceptable, why are you still endorsing him?" Alas, many of those same Republicans are fighting for their own political lives, and polls seem to indicate that there is little Trump can say or do that swings his support base away from him. Fiercely loyal, Trump supporters appear to relish his every scandal, angry retorts and unconventional attacks. Many find his frank, harsh tone refreshing. It emboldens them. As a result, most Republican politicians appear to feel that it might be safer to stay with the crowd and endorse Trump, the future of the true GOP (and their own integrity) be damned. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton we must concede, also represents one of the weakest candidates to be put forth for President by the Democrats since Michael Dukakis. A large proportion of eligible voters believe that neither candidate offers much choice.

Politics has always been a dirty business but, as Winston Churchill once said, ‘Politics is not a game. It is an earnest business’. It remains to be seen if the electorate feel Donald Trump is the best possible answer for what ails America, or if they are taking an enormous gamble with an individual who may not merely destroy the Republican Party as we know it, but may well transform the United States from a nation welcoming those ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free’ into something altogether different and once inconceivable.

The electorate will decide soon enough.

 

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