Primary horrors

One occasionally hears mention of an electoral demographic called the low-attention voter – people who don’t have the time or inclination to follow politics closely, and perhaps make voting decisions on the basis of a candidate’s personal appeal. They are frequently derided as dupes who are easily conned into voting against their own interests. Perhaps they are, but I have wilfully sought to make myself a low-attention voter where the U.S. 2016 presidential election is concerned over the course of the last year. The reason I have done so is because I took one cursory glance at the list of candidates on the Republican side and felt the sanest option was to take cover until taking closer interest was unavoidable. Though, to be honest, I found it impossible to create an effective firewall to keep out all the noise. And right now, I feel like I always do at this stage in the cycle; that, given the impact of the US presidency on world affairs, the world’s citizens should be given a vote. 

I will say little about the race for the Democratic nomination other than to say that it appears to be reasonably level headed and largely concerned with policy debate, which is as it should be. Hillary Clinton, though I am not enthused by her foreign policy hawkishness, is plainly to be the most able and experienced candidate in either party running for the presidency, and is equipped to handle the pressures of the office. Of course, there is all that oft-reported Clinton baggage weighing down her campaign, though that is arguably more revealing of the media’s unserious obsession with tittle tattle than it is about the merit of her candidacy. She has been assailed by Bernie Sanders, whose prominence in this race is a strong indicator of the economic distress many citizens are feeling during these times, and about which I will say more later. It is not clear to me that he has a comprehensive programme for government beyond his key message, which is why I feel the nomination will be Clinton’s. That said, I wish him well, and if the pressure he is exerting on the Clinton campaign forces her into more progressive stances from which she can’t renege, then he will have provided a noble service.

The concerns are on the Republican side. The forthcoming – actually, already long ongoing – American election horror show has turned to out be more gruesome and terrifying than any reasonably sentient, compassionate human being could ever have comprehended. It is a contest in which one of the comparative voices of reason is Jeb Bush, whose floundering campaign is one of many features of Election 2016 to offer minor boosts to his brother Dubya’s reputation. Having long been a prisoner of precedent and compassion, I’d previously have thought that the so-called establishment candidates would have started bursting through to contest the nomination at this stage. It’s been noted by everybody, of course, that that refuses to happen. But it also scarcely needs mentioning that offering contrasts between the nuttiest candidates and the likes of Bush and Marco Rubio is a gesture of flattery towards those entitled fellows. They peddle various versions of the same voodoo economics, they espouse similar extremist belligerent stances on foreign policy, and they prostrate themselves in front of the same awful billionaires such as the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. It’s been a minor pleasure to see the party establishment’s preferred standard bearers being deprived of their birthright.

Some of the other candidates merit a mention. Rand Paul probably should be riding high, and probably would be if he tacked closer to his father Ron’s purer brand of libertarianism. He appears to have made the fatal error of seeking approval from the wrong crowd and adopting too many standard conservative positions when he had a chance to set himself apart from the despised Washington political class. The unpleasant Ted Cruz has done a better job of that, his wilful antagonising of senior colleagues being one of the things to recommend him. Ben Carson was momentarily in a handsome position, but succumbed as most such unqualified candidates eventually do. There are two interesting things to note about Carson. One being that the younger version of himself was a starkly more rounded, stable and admirable character. In microcosm you arguably see the decline of the public realm in America. Another is a curious characteristic of the American Christian right. That it is almost a beneficial thing for moral scolds to have sunk to exhibiting behaviour they typically deplore as depraved and wretched, because it offers a shot at public redemption. That could entail a predilection for soliciting the services of prostitutes, or harbouring a secret gay lover. Or, in Carson’s case, having an exaggerated violent past. Quiet a ghoulish Republican field, all told. But there’s worse.

The steady rightward lurch of the Republican Party over the past few decades hasn’t been corrected by the automatic stablisers that typically take hold in a democracy. This might happen, say, when the ideology of radical true believers is discredited by resounding electoral defeat, leading to a period of reflection and a return to territory nearer to the centre – insert term of choice concerning pendulum swings and gravitational pull here. However, the GOP has crashed through the boundaries of moderation and basic decency over the course of the past few years. It is not difficult to analyse how this has happened. The recent conservative playbook where elections are concerned involves dog whistles of particular racial and social wavelengths, and copious servings of jingoism and nativism. Red meat for the base. But the real agenda, when in power, is to lower tax rates for the wealthy and to be amenable to the preferences of Wall Street and the plutocratic class generally. The retail challenge of this brand of politics is to present this economic agenda as being to the benefit of everybody. For a long time the American right was good at it, and it tied in with the national narrative of the American Dream. The problem for the GOP establishment is that the economic contract with the middle class has been broken – people are realising the game is rigged against them – and this has left a lot of angry people cut adrift and highly receptive to populism, be it from the left or the right.

Into this void have stepped a number of candidates who are more serious about the facade of right wing campaigning, and conflating that with people’s economic grievances. And it’s really ugly. Following 9/11, Norman Mailer lamented the ‘pre-fascist climate’ prevailing in America, as dissenters from the crazed lust for war were viciously bullied by the neoconservatives driving foreign policy and their media enablers. Right now we’re beginning to see some indication of what America might be like with the ‘pre’ dropped. The chief threat out of this entire rogue’s gallery is Donald Trump, whose candidacy has admittedly offered the delicious sight of seeing the GOP establishment’s best laid schemes upended, while also providing a legitimate pretext for frequent use of words such as ‘flatulent’ and ‘bloviate’. The media is so fascinated by him, they have saved his campaign millions of advertising dollars. That is an ongoing mistake. Trump isn’t to be viewed as some sort of conduit for the American id. He represents a grave danger to America’s democratic values, already weakened by decades of subversion by monied interests. He might not be unique in the way he stokes fear and hatred, but he is the trashy arch-demagogue of many people’s nightmares. Anybody from an ethnic minority in America would be well advised to be highly wary of what this election cycle could produce. Usually implied in Godwin’s Law is a contention that to invoke the Nazis in an argument is to lose the debate. It is indicative of the perils potentially facing America that the Trump phenomenon doesn’t make such analogies entirely fanciful.

The Iowa caucuses taking place today may set much of the agenda for the remainder of the primary season. Currently they seem to indicate that we are likely heading for a Trump v Clinton presidential contest in the latter half of the year. There has existed the notion of the “American experiment” since the Declaration of Independence. It remains to be seen how stable the experiment remains after the introduction of volatile agents.

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