Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Summer Fling?

“And when President Obama asked Hillary to serve as his secretary of state, she put aside their hard-fought campaign and answered the call to public service once again.”
—“Hillary’s story,” www.hillaryclinton.com

“The president has indicated that his view that the decision that he made, I guess 7 years ago now, to add Joe Biden to the ticket as his running mate was the smartest decision that he has ever made in politics.”
—White House press secretary Josh Earnest, on Monday

August is a month for catching up with various friends and family. People are on their holidays, making the most of the time before school starts, paying and receiving visits. I am finding that one question that keeps popping up in conversations is, what is the deal with Donald Trump?

I am usually one of those people who always has an answer for everything, but I have to admit, when it comes to Trump… I got nothing.

His unexpected success—at least thus far—in the Republican primary does not add up. What I cannot figure out is, who are all these people telling pollsters that they support The Donald? Are they defecting from other candidates? Or are they people who previously did not even exist for political purposes?

If you spend a lot of time following political journalism and opinion-making, it is easy to fall into the (apparently illusory) security of thinking that you have a clear grasp of the American political landscape. You know what portion of the U.S. electorate are Tea Party, how many are moderate Republicans, the rough number of those in the mushy middle, the general percentage of moderate Democrats and vaguely how many are off in the left-wing/socialist category. Or at least you think you do. And you think you know more or less the positions people in each of those groups support. If one candidate is surging, logically it must be at the expense of one or more other candidates, right?

So how do you explain Donald Trump? His positions are not only all over the place but they change with startling frequency. Are conservatives who found Mitt Romney unacceptable—or voted for him only grudgingly—because of positions he took years ago when running for governor of Massachusetts really going to embrace someone like Trump who can be heard praising a single-payer healthcare system and bragging about giving lots of money to the Clintons? Is there really such a significant portion of the population that is caught up in rampant nativism while blind to the fact that, politically and philosophically, Trump is all over the map? It makes no sense.

Maybe the way I see the world is all wrong. And maybe that is because the people who (mostly) live and work in New York and Washington and who shape our view of politics in the U.S. see it all wrong—or at least incompletely. My confusion over the Trump phenomenon made me remember something that struck me back in May when the Irish elecorate approved same-sex marriage. The referendum passed by 62 percent to 38 percent. That was an impressive and overwhelming victory for the Yes side but, at the same time, 38 percent is not insignificant. That’s well over a third of the electorate. And yet there was no Irish political party that supported the No side. Certainly some parties supported the referendum more enthusiastically than others, but all were on record as being in favor of same-sex marriage. How did people in the No camp feel that there was no political party that gave voice to their side of the issue? Did that not make them feel excluded from the political process? In the end, it did not seem to matter. There was no backlash and the No side accepted the result, for the most part, graciously and moved on.

When it comes to Donald Trump, I have to wonder if there is not some unidentified mass of people out there that people like me do not perceive—mainly because pollsters do not ask the right questions—who do not feel adequately represented by any wing of either of the major U.S. political parties. And, if that mass of people exists, has Donald Trump managed to connect with them? Maybe the exact position he takes on any particular issue does not matter so much as his attitude and his way of talking. Or maybe it is the way he confounds and annoys the usual talking heads on all the cable news channels that endears him to so many souls. Or have we just gotten to the point where you have to be a celebrity to break through all the media chatter and make an impression anymore? After all, Barack Obama won two presidential elections pretty handily and it definitely wasn’t because of a long political track record. He became a phenomenon in his own right that went well beyond simply being a state legislator or a newly-elected U.S. senator. His detractors took to referring to him as the first celebrity presidential candidate.

The conventional wisdom is that Trump has a definite ceiling and, as the Republican field thins, his standing will drop as voters coallesce around the remaining alternatives. That sounds right, but so did the conventional wisdom that said he would be a very temporary flash in the pan—just as he had been in 1988, 2004 and 2012. I have less confidence than ever in being able to anticipate what the American electorate might do. Personally, the idea of Trump winning the nominatation or—heaven forfend—actually getting elected unnerves me. Some commentators have put out the idea that Trump could turn out to be America’s Vladimir Putin. I think that is overstating things, but I do believe that he could have the potential to become America’s Silvio Berlusconi.

New Yorker cartoon

But why worry? Even if he did somehow get nominated, Hillary Clinton would defeat him handily, right? Well, things are starting to look shaky on that side. This past weekend I actually heard a few—though certainly not all—faithful Democratic pundits sound more than a bit worried. Perhaps the most ominous early sign, though, might be a New Yorker cartoon that caught my attention. It was one of the daily cartoons published on the reliably liberal magazine’s web site. A medieval queen in a castle is giving orders to a burly fellow wearing an executioner’s black mask and holding an axe.

She is telling him, “I need you to delete all my messages.”