Political change

Walk the walk (DNC 2016) screenshot by Susan Barsy
A return to ‘normalcy’ after the US presidential election is unlikely.  Many of us are tired of the campaign, tired of the endless opining, poll numbers, and tweets.  Tired of the candidates and the unpleasant prospects they embody, we long for the closure of election day.  Election Day!  What then?

Underneath the candidates is an undeniable weakness in both parties.  Over a hundred GOP leaders have said they will not support their party’s nominee.  Yet Mr Trump was chosen through a much-contested primary, in which voters failed to coalesce around any of Mr Trump’s numerous challengers, rejecting both moderates and conservatives.  Moreover, disgruntled Republicans subsequently failed to rally around an alternative, despite a protracted explicit attempt that Mitt Romney led.  Leading Republicans know what they’re against.  But what are they for?

The Republican problem isn’t a lack of talent.  It is a lack of a unifying, majoritarian ideology.  This is why disaffected Republicans have proved unable to bolt (as they did, for example, in 1912, when the Progressives, disaffected with President Taft, broke away to support Teddy Roosevelt’s effort to retake the presidency).  Republicans as a group don’t agree on what they stand for, having honed their identity as the party of ‘no.’  Should leaders who can’t govern their party govern the country?  I don’t think so.

Less remarked on is the disturbing weakness of the Democratic party.  In an election cycle playing out as an epic battle of personality, the idea that the Democrats are just as beleaguered as the Republicans is inadmissible.  Yet the Democrats are arguably as benighted.  They bank too much on identity politics, while relying on a concept of the role of government that has scarcely been updated since the 1960s.

Besides the staleness of their ideology, Democrats are turning people off with their record of poor governance in some cities and states.  Here in Chicago, corruption and egregious mismanagement are synonymous with Democratic rule.  I personally have grown disaffected with the state’s Democrats, who as a group have not come out in favor of reform and government efficiency.

At the national level, Democratic leaders like Donna Brazile want citizens to think that the practices of the DNC and the Clinton Foundation are nothing to be concerned about; yet this is the very attitude that voters find unacceptable and disillusioning.  Who believes that, if elected, Hillary Clinton would ‘run a tight ship’?  The Obama Administration has been a model of probity; but a Hillary Clinton White House?  Hardly.

Besides winking at corruption and coasting along on a raft of outdated and expensive ideas, the Democrats suffer from a striking dearth of junior leadership and grass-roots organization.  When will their next generation of leaders appear?  It’s appalling to consider that Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Rahm Emanuel were, until lately, their brightest stars.  The most admirable and powerful figures in the party are all senior citizens, which augurs well from the point of view of experience but augurs a bumpy leaderless period ahead.

Thus, despite the all-but-extinguished condition of the Republican party, it is doubtful whether the Democrats will win control of the Senate, let alone the House.

The systematic weaknesses plaguing both major parties indicate that the nation is heading into, but scarcely concluding, a period of partisan re-alignment.  The ugly factionalism that is so distressing for citizens to witness and that poses a grave threat to stable federal governance is likely to continue for some time.  When major parties die, it can take a while.  In the short-term, the parties’ problems will cause widespread anxiety and confusion.  Ultimately, reorganization awaits the emergence of clean new leaders with viable modern ideas.

Image: “Walk the Walk” (DNC 2016).
Screenshot by Susan Barsy.

Note: this post has been modified from its original version.

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Trump’s rise signals a full-blown political crisis

American primitive (La Brea diorama), by Susan Barsy
We are living through the 2016 presidential election.  Someday, perhaps next year, perhaps decades from now, we will try to recall just what it was like.  What was it like, when Donald Trump, in his bid for the presidency, claimed the Republican nomination and precipitated widespread political turmoil?

This is an experiential question, historical yet subjective; it’s not a question of fact, social science, or policy.  Therefore we will each be entitled to our own truths, however aberrant or incompatible.

Meanwhile, the very multiplicity of our views, which will never agree, adds to the confusion of what we are experiencing, the uncertainty of how it will all end.  Where is the nation heading?  What will happen to its party system?  Whose judgments and actions will prove to have been most insightful and right, a question whose importance will grow retrospectively, furnishing a yardstick for identifying who in our generation is most discerning, most trustworthy.

Watching and listening to a Trump-obsessed nation and being part of that nation ourselves, nets some insight into past political upheavals, particularly rise of Hitler in early 20th-century Germany.  The abiding mystery of Nazism is how the German people could have empowered someone so aggressive and hateful.  How could they have been so mistaken as to repose trust in someone so utterly inhuman, so indifferent to world order and prevailing norms?  From the perspective of August 2016, it’s more understandable how masses of citizens could end up giving too much power to a dangerous leader.

Something similarly unpredictable is happening in American politics, something for which we all bear responsibility, yet we aren’t completely sure what it is or how bad it will be.  And we don’t agree on what we should do.

Three conditions are combining in the United States, creating widespread and practically leaderless confusion.  Together, they amount to a dangerous political crisis, threatening a constitutional government we normally think of as stable and strong.  A disillusioned electorate cognizant of its powerlessness and vulnerability, a weak unresponsive leadership class, and the appearance of an unknown but charismatic ‘political savior’: there you have the recipe for political catastrophe.

All three elements—the frustrated expectations of American citizens, an outmoded and out-of-touch political establishment, and Trump’s charismatic authority—must be addressed to move beyond this dangerous political crisis.  Unfortunately, a rotten political system is difficult to replace or reform overnight.  Our parties are filled with self-seeking prima donnas.  Creatures of party, they’ve lost touch with the people.  They farm out the task of deciding what they believe in, relying on experts to formulate their positions.  Collectively, in their quest for personal power, the leaders of both political parties are failing the people of the United States.

Anti-Trump forces comfort themselves with the notion that, if only Hillary Clinton will win, the United States will ‘be okay.’  Thank goodness the people who are demanding change at any price are not quite a voting majority!  This theme organizes much political discourse.  The experts, who deliver so much in the way of political anesthesia, tamp down our anxiety with a never-ending stream of surveys and polls.  Meanwhile, Trump, with his stark directness, soldiers on defiantly, feeding his electrifying certainties to millions of mesmerized followers.  Trump and the popular discontent he energizes will remain a threat until his opponents unite and respond to the people’s needs by forging an appropriate yet superior ideology of change.

Image: A diorama showing
the inimical relation between two extinct species
at the La Brea Tar Pits Museum in Los Angeles.
Author photo.

Trump at the Top of the GOP Heap

The GOP heap (April 2016), © 2016 Susan Barsy
With Donald Trump’s sweep of five more states yesterday, his two remaining opponents in the GOP are looking more and more like also-rans.  Trump has not yet sewn up the nomination, but the odds that he will are increasing.  His victory in the so-called ‘Acela’ states demonstrated, perhaps more than any win up to now, that he is not a fringe candidate—that he has broad geographic appeal and can secure votes among diverse demographics.  Last night, for example, he carried the Philadelphia suburbs, defying those who imagine that Trump’s followers are mainly people of low means and education.

Last night, Trump won more than 53 percent of the Republican vote.  Ted Cruz, his nearest rival, polled dismally, placing third in four of the five contests, more damning proof of the Texan’s unpopularity in the moderate eastern regions.  In remarks following his victory, Trump deftly portrayed Cruz’s recent procedural maneuvering (e.g. wooing convention delegates) as ethically dubious and irrelevant.  While Cruz hopes to win nomination on the convention’s second ballot, Trump expects to win on the first, rendering Senator Cruz’s efforts nugatory.

And, honestly, if Trump continues to moderate his tone, it is difficult to avoid concluding he will be the Republican nominee.  Last night’s remarks showed him looking confidently ahead to Indiana and beyond that to the general election, where he will offer Secretary Clinton a formidable challenge.

Our Political Parties Are Behind the Times

REAL CLEAR POLITICS is offering a mind-bending set of survey results showing how respondents would vote in hypothetical general-election match-ups.  A number of organizations conduct these surveys, and at the moment the results of all of them are pretty consistent.

Clinton vs. Trump
Clinton would win

Clinton vs. Cruz
Clinton would win, but more narrowly

Clinton vs. Kasich
Kasich would win

Sanders vs. Trump
Sanders would win

Sanders vs. Kasich
Sanders would win

Sanders vs. Cruz
Sanders would win

These fascinating results help correct the myopia that sets in during the primary season, when passions within the parties control the focus.  On the Democratic side, Sanders is losing the delegate race to Clinton, yet in a general election he might fare better than she.  His positions, though untenable, might be more palatable than the kinds of ideas the Republicans are touting, for according to the polls, he would beat any of the remaining GOP candidates handily.

Interestingly, Clinton, though holding her own within her party, would fare less well than Sanders nationally.  She will be lucky if Donald Trump becomes the Republican nominee, because, of the three remaining GOP candidates, he is the only one she can probably beat.  She might be beaten by Cruz, and the lowly Kasich, according to these numbers, would defeat her easily.

Overall, these surveys highlight the blinkered condition of the parties.  Sanders, the candidate the Democratic establishment has refused to accept, points up the existence of a dominant voter base that Clinton’s candidacy isn’t capturing.  Clinton is electable, but Sanders is even more electable than she.  Old-style Democrats don’t want to see this.  They don’t want to abandon the comfortable centrist positions they’ve grown accustomed to.  They’re ignoring the reveille: new, more egalitarian policies are what the nation wants and needs.

On the Republican side, we see confirmation of what we knew from the start, that the Republican field was weak though large.  The two Democratic candidates are more in sync with national sentiment than are their counterparts in the GOP.  Overall, the Democrats are more likely to prevail.  Meanwhile, the GOP’s most viable candidates, Trump (on the basis of primary support) and Kasich (on the basis of electability), are those the party has been most unfriendly toward.  Cruz’s candidacy provides the sole hope for the staunchly conservative wing of the Republican party, a minority element that continues to jeopardize the health of a national mainstream Republicanism.

Neither political party has proved adept at accommodating the sentiments of the voters, who are demanding new leadership and significant ideological reform.

The disquieting Donald J Trump

O Uncivil One (cyanotype), © 2016 Susan Barsy

1.  I get embarrassed after expressing an opinion about Donald Trump, because I always feel that I don’t know what I am talking about.  I am so burned out thinking about Donald Trump that sometimes I find myself having an anxiety attack at bedtime instead of drifting off to sleep, which just isn’t like me.

2.  Sometimes I try to argue that Donald Trump can’t be such a terrible, dangerous person, because if he were, as a businessman, he would have already run into many, many problems with the law.   Running a large company entails complying with innumerable laws.  Workplace-safety laws.  Food-safety laws.  Laws governing equal employment.  Building codes.  Tax laws.  Donald Trump must be a person of considerable ability and judgment, I reason, because he successfully built up such a big business.  And because he likes to build things, I reason that he must be a constructive person by nature, who is not fundamentally interested in blowing up buildings and people in other countries.  He must have had to deal with many different kinds of people successfully, at least well enough to get to ‘the handshake.’  Ultimately, keeping a massive corporation going depends on consistency and conformity; paradoxically it also depends on freshness and flexibility.  Has Trump been a decent ‘river to his people’?  Or has he been every bit as bad as Walmart, but just covered up his company’s misdeeds more adroitly?  I reason to myself that if he had had major problems with the law and been a really bad ‘corporate citizen,’ his rivals would have outed him already, and the laundry list of his villainies would have made him a social pariah.  (To me, the much-talked-about problems with Trump University just don’t count, for reasons made clear in item 6 below.)

3.  I also feel embarrassed listening to Donald Trump because it weirdly resembles being privy to a private conversation.  Sometimes, at press conferences or when addressing late-night crowds after a victory, Trump’s tone is oddly personal and conversational, as though nothing in particular were happening, and as though he were shooting the breeze with me over milk and cookies at the kitchen table.  He gets a dreamy tone in his voice, talking about his employees, his hotels, his ‘operations,’ or the beautiful people of some state that’s just fallen to him.  When he talks about Florida, for example, he relates it to his own history and enterprises, not the other way around.  Sometimes it’s as though we are all going to be sucked up into the aura of Donald J Trump’s beautiful empire of luxury, leaving behind the angst and grunge of these second-rate United States.  Will the golden touch of Donald Trump brush off on the likes of you and me?  This is one fantastic effect of Donald Trump speaking.

4.  But I also feel uncomfortable when Donald Trump is being ‘tough,’ when he is being ‘scandalous,’ because I’m never certain whether he’s being scandalous mainly because scandal sells.  I know I should conclude that Donald Trump is ‘dangerous’ when friends say he is, but the way Donald Trump says many things, I find it difficult to nail his tone, to conclude that he is authentically mean and hateful.  Is Donald Trump a very genial and glitzy version of a Nazi, or is he someone who uses shocking utterances to get people thinking about how the American reluctance to draw bounds around itself might have trade-offs when it comes to internal order and economic well-being?  He is nearly alone in declaring loudly and in many registers that globalism has a big downside for the US, a downside that millions of citizens keenly feel.  If Donald Trump were anything like Hitler, could the Clintons ever have been induced to attend his wedding?  And what, then, to make of his rather noble tribute to Planned Parenthood, a compassionate tribute the likes of which have not been uttered by a leading Republican for decades?

5.  What I know is that Donald Trump cares nothing about civility, a traditional standard governing political intercourse and acceptable public-sphere behavior.  What does it matter if a person running for president has never held a public office?  It means he or she has never had to practice being civil.  Civility is the quality that keeps antagonistic parties on speaking terms, and what does effective government depend on more?  Trump at a campaign rally, however, speaks as though in the privacy of a corporate sanctum.  “Get them out” is a public-sphere translation of the message, “You’re fired!”, but firing a citizen is something not even the Donald can do.  To me, the violence and hostility Trump’s speech, and his deliberate decision not to practice civility, indicate why, if elected, he might be a failure at governing.

6.  Why do none of our objections matter?  Nothing is gonna stick to Trump because he’s a charismatic leader.  More than a century ago, the German sociologist Max Weber came up with the idea of ‘charismatic authority’ to explain why, seemingly in defiance of reason, some individuals inspire a large and faithful following.  Weber noticed that the charismatic rise simply because their followers see exceptional qualities in them.  Followers repose trust in such individuals on the basis of personality, not reason.  A charismatic leader’s claims to power rest on the possession of “exceptional personal qualities or the demonstration of extraordinary insight and accomplishment,” which inspire loyalty and obedience.  This relationship of trust helps explain why many Trump supporters have not wavered since deciding to back Trump at the beginning of his campaign.  Whether his charismatic spell over voters will wane, or whether it can be converted into an effective mode of governance, remains to be seen.

7.  Repeat the phrase, ‘Checks and balances,’ whenever the thought of President Trump induces panic.  If he’s really awful, Congress will rebel and impeach his ass.

Will the Electorate Destroy the Political Parties?

Artist's sketch shows men talking excitedly at an open-air polling place in NYC.

Something utterly unforeseen could happen in this election cycle: the electorate could destroy one or both of the parties through primary voting.

Both the Democrats and Republicans are ‘hearing from ordinary America’, and the message is hostile.  On the Republican side, voters are heavily favoring Trump, a sometime Democrat and independent only weakly identified with the Republican Party.  On the Democratic side, voters have shown an unexpected interest in Sanders, a lifelong independent who is parasitically exploiting the Democratic brand.  Meanwhile, the veteran politicians who have come up through the parties have had an unexpectedly hard time making inroads against the spoilers, a sign that the parties are badly out of touch with the times.

We hear about the ‘establishment,’ but what is it really?  The parties, we are discovering, are impotent.  There is little capacity for concerted action among party politicians themselves.  If there were, they would have stopped these threatening insurgencies long ago, shutting out Trump and denying Sanders his putative connection with the Democratic Party.

Trump and Sanders are political bounders.  Who are their friends on the Hill?  How would either of them accomplish anything, were either handed the presidency?  Who would their advisers be?

Yet, faced with such a sub-optimal outcome, the senators, governors, and leading congressmen within each party have exerted no discipline, done nothing in unison.  Democratic governors and senators are not speaking out, urging voters to back Hillary.  Leading Republicans watch helplessly as, with each gladiatorial debate, their candidates further damage and degrade the party.  In the process, party feeling—that most basic of bonds—is being destroyed.

And all because Congress has failed to serve ordinary America.  The national leadership of both parties, as embodied in Congress, has shirked its duties.  Congress has not worked to create the virtuous circle of corporate responsibility, abundant skilled employment, and robust domestic consumption that would make our economy strong.  It has not confronted our ridiculous trade imbalance with China.  It has not resolved the issues around immigration and citizenship that are practically and symbolically urgent to millions of Americans.  Finally, Congress has ignored the fact that it must rein itself in and show the American people that it cares about efficient and effective governing.  Those who serve in the House and Senate have no sense of urgency—the urgency that both Trump and Sanders, for all their defects, are brilliantly communicating.

It’s wild and alarming to imagine the parties being destroyed from inside.  If Trump wins the delegate race, for instance, others within the GOP will face a choice: either embrace him and his ideology, back a ‘protest’ candidate, or break away to form their own new party.  Americans witnessed something of this sort back in the 1850s, when, over the course of a decade and in response to the festering problem of slavery, the Whig Party fell apart, the Democratic Party split into northern and southern wings, and the Republican party emerged out of nowhere, sweeping Lincoln to prominence and victory.

Nothing so cataclysmic has happened in our lifetimes.  Yet, many signs indicate that the current party system is losing its salience because it has grown deaf to the people’s needs.  In such circumstances, parties can become defunct with surprising speed.  Trump, Sanders, and even Bloomberg understand that, for an intrepid candidate, the parties’ senescent condition spells personal opportunity.  Any of these candidates, if successful, would force a dramatic shakeup within the parties, transforming the political landscape of the nation and the capital.

RELATED:
Inside the Republican Party’s Desperate Mission to Stop Donald Trump’ (NYT)

Image: from this source.

This artist’s sketch from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper shows voters talking excitedly at an open air polling place in 1856.  The caption reads ‘Scene at the polls.  Boxes for the distribution of tickets.  Everybody busy.’  At that time, voting consisted of obtaining a pre-printed party ticket and putting it in a ballot box.  The three booths are labelled with the names of the three presidential candidates: Buchanan, the Democrat and victor; Fremont, the nominee of the new Republican (anti-slavery) Party; and Fillmore, who represented the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party.  Though the Democrats were victorious, the Republicans’ success in carrying some northern and eastern states created the impetus that would bring the new party to power four years later.

The Biggest Worries of 2016

An empty dining room decorated in an opulent European style.

Optimism is to be cherished, but, given the state of the world, it may be a foolish indulgence.  The times call for levelheaded engagement, not the dreamy complacency that optimism breeds.  Faith in our political system, in the American people, or in the capacities of elected leaders: faith like that has yielded small rewards lately.  The glue of trust that valorizes American government is disintegrating.

That the US has fallen into troughs of mediocrity before (think of the Gilded Age culture Mark Twain pilloried) is one of the few thoughts that consoles me.

Our national capacities matter more then ever, given the dire condition of the world, our institutions, and many of our communities.  What can we bring to 2016’s daunting prospect, a prospect defined by several cosmic and worrisome possibilities?

1. World War Three?

If it breaks out, it will be a war like no other, as was also true of World Wars One and Two.  In fact, it may already be underway.  We may not know it, simply because we are in the same situation as those who lived through other world wars. We watch as an unconventional conflict erupts and spreads in a fashion that the world order is unprepared to protect itself against.  In Syria and with the Islamic State, aggressors are working with playbooks that defy borders and prevailing conceptions of war and nationality.  As in previous wars, the Middle East’s war-within-a war has geographic and strategic traits that have already begun enmeshing a widening set of parties, both psychologically and militarily.

2. The decline of national sovereignty

World order as we know it is based on the concept of the nation-state: that states and powers have boundaries, and that, within those boundaries, all are subject to a nation’s laws.  The international order and our concepts of war are built on the notion that nations are sovereign.  In the many parts of the world, the concept of the nation-state has allowed humans to live peacefully under the rule of law.

These days, the integrity of the nation-state and the inviolable nature of national sovereignty are losing salience.  A host of contributing forces, both economic and geopolitical, was strikingly evident in 2015.  While Greece’s economic crisis exposed the mutual discontents inherent in the great experiment known as the European Union, its member-states are increasingly fractious, as the incidence of terrorism and a massive influx of refugees from war-torn and dysfunctional parts of the world have highlighted their loss of internal control.

Global mobility has increasingly challenged the static bulwark of the nation state, but the world’s leading powers have also rained insults on its integrity. Whether it’s Russia in the Ukraine, or the US in Syria, the superpowers frequently allow their desires to override their respect for the sovereignty of nations that they dislike.  Their increasing resort to overt and covert interventionism mocks the concept of national sovereignty.  Even changes in technology–such as the increasing sophistication of air-to-ground warfare–have made it easier to ignore and violate the clear boundaries that formerly protected nations from one another and impeded a general descent into war.

3. Witchy weather

Climate change, global warming—call it what you will, it’s a major worry.  Unbreathable air; murderous landslides; droughts and forest fires; glaciers melting, oceans rising.  Whether you’re a scientist or a believer in the Biblical end-time, you may agree (while wearing shorts in winter) that ‘Old Mother Nature’ is trying to tell us something.  Resource exhaustion is how a planet’s inhabitants typically do themselves in.  With omens like this, why worry about bombs?

4. The twin bankruptcies of Chicago and Illinois

Chicago and the State of Illinois are bankrupt already.  They just haven’t admitted it yet because of the shame.  The most powerful people in our state, especially the state legislators and Speaker of the Illinois House, Mike Madigan, will be remembered as the people at the helm when the ship went down.

Poor governance alone is to blame for Chicago and Illinois’s difficulties, for, ironically, both are richly endowed entities, with great human capital and masses of valuable resources and assets, including some of the world’s most productive farmland.  Illinois has one of the largest GDPs in the country, but it is saddled with a growing and inescapable debt load consisting chiefly of unmet pension obligations, the legacy of decades of corrupt and self-interested leadership.

The collapse of a major American city and its state AT THE SAME TIME has no precedent in US history.  History will remember and damn the leading politicians who for decades have written bad laws and abused the people’s trust.  Hold on to your hats, all Illinois!  2016’s going to be a bumpy ride.

5. A Donald Trump presidency

Beyond the well-aired controversies that Donald Trump inflames, his ascendancy portends chaos in the political realm.  Not only does Trump’s unwelcome prominence prove that the Republican National Committee has lost control of the party; it also shows the degree to which both parties and their personnel have lost touch with the sentiments of the electorate.  Whether Trump can convert viewers into votes remains to be seen, but if he polls well, we’re going to find out what happens when a candidate upends an entrenched national party.

Image: Carol M. Highsmith, Marble House, Newport, Rhode Island,
from this source.

Could Donald Trump Become President?

Trump being interviewed after the 5th GOP debate.

Could Donald Trump become president?   The most recent GOP debate left me wondering.  Until then, I trusted that Trump’s status as Republican front-runner would evaporate when the earliest primary votes came in.  Now, I have my doubts.  Trump, who has been a candidate for just six months, gave proof in the debate that he’s learning what he must do to keep his lead and garner real votes.

Moreover, even as Trump’s field of rivals narrows, his potential as a political leader is becoming more obvious.  For better or worse, he is the lightning rod around which the energies and ideology of the party are reorganizing.  Trump may be destroying the old GOP, but, without him, the GOP would be dead.

Trump’s zenophobic views have drawn condemnation from his opponents, his party, and the media. Most continue to believe that Trump’s star will fade, leaving the nomination a battle between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.  But what if that isn’t true?  What if, confounding these expectations, a re-calibrated Trump continues to lead?  Not only are Trump’s tactics shifting perceptibly, but some of his ideas are beginning to seem more plausible.  Last week’s debate, which 18 million people watched, gave Trump a chance to qualify and explain the logic of his most controversial pronouncements, which collectively stand as a rebuke to the sort of political moderation that has characterized all our presidents, Democrat and Republican, since Ronald Reagan.

In the debate, Jeb Bush warned that Trump would not get to the presidency by insulting people.  In fact, Trump pointedly refrained from belittling his opponents that night: he didn’t even attack Ted Cruz (who had it coming) given the opportunity.  Likewise, most of those onstage refrained from challenging Trump directly.  As Trump pointed out, though, moderators repeatedly asked Trump’s challengers to comment on his ideas, a pattern that only confirmed his centrality.

Trump’s doggedness paid off in the skill with which he defended and refined some of his positions. Beneath his intolerable soundbites are more focused convictions, such as that the government should be tapping the nation’s best people to thwart the internet being used to promote violence and terror.  Trump believes that neighbors and families who wink at subversive terrorist behavior in the US should expect to be severely punished.

Overall, Trump (who is not a social conservative) is tapping into a frustration that the US is failing to use all the tools and resources that it has to maintain internal order and safeguard its global economic supremacy.  A natural ideologue, Trump is carving out stands on illegal immigration and domestic security that are compatible with his interest in ending economic policies and practices benefiting rival nations at the US’s expense.  Trump’s intentions jibe with the people’s desire to see the value of their citizenship restored.

So, could a toned-down Trump garner enough popular support to be president?  Like it or not, the answer is yes.  Trump, Cruz, and, yes, Jeb Bush are shaping the parameters of this epoch-making campaign.  Could any one of them defeat Hillary Clinton in the general election?

For a transcript of the debate, click here.
For a fact-check of the debate, click here.

Good TV is the front-runner, for now

People are asking what I think of the GOP race. I think the GOP lacks a strong candidate and that any analysis failing to factor in the entertainment value of the debates is seriously flawed.

The candidates are in a phase of competition now being referred to as the ‘virtual primary.’  This is rather insulting to voters, because the virtual primary doesn’t involve any voting. Instead, the media scrutinizes other measures extraneous to the democratic process to report on how candidates are supposedly faring, consulting betting pools, Nielsen ratings, fund-raising tallies, and public-opinion polls.  By these measures, Donald Trump and Ben Carson are leading, and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are said to be gaining. Figures like Jeb Bush and John Kasich are said to be fading, to the point of being on ‘life support.’

Significantly, however, none of the fifteen remaining GOP candidates has dropped out since Scott Walker ended his bid on September 21.  Many commentators had predicted a rash of drop-outs from among the supposedly trailing candidates come November 1.  Yet, for now, all the candidates have chosen to stick around, possibly sensing that the supposed front-runners are unelectable and that the state-by-state primary votes will check the speculative nonsense of the virtual primary.

If, in fact, Republicans vote en masse to make a character like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, or Marco Rubio their nominee, it will spell another stage in the decline of the GOP.  Old-style Republicans who believe in collaboration and the preservation of tradition will begin drifting away, looking for a way to regain their rightful preeminence as a political force.  Go-it-alone candidates like Rubio and Cruz and fringe candidates like Trump and Carson do not enjoy the support of the party mainstream.  (See David Brooks’s op-ed in the New York Times on October 13, which elicited a deluge of assent from readers disappointed in the direction of the GOP.)

In the meantime, we are witnessing proof of the entertainment value of politics.  We can’t resist the cattle-call debates, because let’s face it, they’re damn good TV: ‘good’ in the sense of being unpredictable, juicy, and tangentially relating to matters of momentous seriousness.  These are the very elements that define great drama.  The debates have a circus-like atmosphere and are analyzed in the same performative terms that the commentators would apply to a boxing match or a new theater production.

The televised competition among the GOP candidates is entertaining, fantastical, and engrossing.  The possibility of an outlandish figure like Donald Trump becoming president presents a wild challenge to our collective political imagination.  Notwithstanding his red ferret-like face and ridiculous blond comb-over, Trump demands that we take him seriously.  He plays a wild card, rudely blustering and defying political convention.  His behavior, seen in purely dramatic terms, delivers a catharsis that many disaffected Americans find refreshing.  Trump also embodies attributes that citizens long to see in a political leader: certainty and a conviction of being competent to ‘reign.’  His style is the antithesis of candidates who are ruled by dweeby advisors and focus-group wisdom.

Trump’s intrusion into politics gives us something to ponder: for, were this particularly entertaining figure to become president, the effect on our political culture would be profound.  Yet my sense is that Americans don’t want cartharsis every day.  For now, Trump and the other candidates supply a unique form of entertainment–one that will dwindle in significance as audiences turn into voters and go to the polls.

The GOP candidates debate on CNN

I expect Donald Trump’s support to wane slightly after last night’s debate.  Of the eleven Republican presidential candidates to appear, several of his rivals are likely to gain.

Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio pulled out strong performances; Chris Christie had some effective moments, too.

Scott Walker was allowed plenty of airtime but came off as bland; Mick Huckabee came across as pleading for our indulgence (he had least business being on the stage).  Ben Carson lost ground by relying too much on low-energy generalities.  Kasich had one or two strong moments but relied too much on his record of performance in Ohio and the Senate.  The demand was for vision, and a sharp take on policy.

The moderator, Jake Tapper, with occasional questions from Dana Bash and radio personality Hugh Hewitt, did a great job of keeping the three-hour debate focused.  It was a strenuous format.  Candidates were called on unpredictably.  Tapper shifted the topic of debate often and quickly, sometimes arbitrarily cutting off comfortable discussions.  By and large, candidates spoke spontaneously and avoided boring set speeches.  Ted Cruz and Scott Walker were the worst when it came to spontaneity.  Cruz, of all the major candidates, is the most personally unappealing.  And, although Fiorina came across as powerful and poised, she fell back on rehearsed remarks too much, both in her discussion of the military and in the closing.

It was fascinating to hear how the candidates varied.  Their discussions of the legalization of marijuana, of the consequences of US’s military involvement in Iraq, the Iran nuclear deal, immigration reform, and the role of the Supreme Court under John Roberts, were particularly revealing.  Only Rand Paul and Ben Carson resolutely refrained from saber-rattling.  The other candidates vied to out-do one another with violent promises.  Scott Walker promised that if elected President, he would undo the nuclear deal with Iran ‘on day one.’  Fiorina likewise asserted that we should have no dealings whatever with Vladimir Putin, a position that Bush, Trump, and Paul all used to draw a contrast.  Several of the candidates invoked Reagan, insisting that the US is strongest when engaged diplomatically with the world’s scariest players.

Trump claimed that he would restore respect for America and ‘get along with everybody,’ but, when asked about his limited knowledge of foreign affairs, said only that he would put together a first-rate team.  Bush pleaded, more effectively than did Kasich, for a foreign policy committed to multilateralism and steady global engagement.  When one of Bush’s rivals tried to attack his brother’s record after 9-11, Bush’s simple response, ‘he kept us safe,’ drew sustained applause.

Cruz’s worst moment came when he tried to disavow his one-time support for John Roberts, whom he now depicts as an arch-enemy.  Trump’s worst moment came when he tried to compliment Carly on her beauty.  He also failed to summon a convincing reply when Bush accused him of having tried to get concessions on casino gambling from Hillary after giving her campaign money.

Bush’s best moments came when he admitted having smoking pot forty years ago, when he argued for a nuanced approach to immigration, and when, in the debate’s closing moments, he threw out the goal of propelling the US toward a high-growth-rate economy.  Marco Rubio showed his command of a rational immigration reform plan, but looked callow when he proclaimed that he had missed votes in the Senate because (essentially) the entire direction of Congress is mistaken.  His announced determination to leave the Senate in order to seek the presidency shows how unprepared to be president he really is.

All in all, the debate was refreshing in its breadth and intensity.  In the press of competition, the candidates, desperate to differentiate themselves from one another, came across quite candidly.  The bracing back-and-forth of this, the second GOP debate, casts into relief the dangerously lackluster character of the Democratic field.   A Democratic contest between Hillary and Bernie is going to make for poor entertainment indeed.  For now, the energy is with GOP field.