With the primary season in the US presidential election campaign almost over, what was marketed by some pundits as “unthinkable” a month ago is now branded “inevitable”. Not only will Donald Trump be the Republican Party’s nominee for the coming showdown in November, he now seems to have a chance of winning, too, at least according to some opinion polls.
If memory serves me right, no recent US presidential hopeful has attracted so much opprobrium as Trump has, especially from the intelligentsia who see him as a semi-literate vulgarian who happened to inherit a fortune from his dad. The three million or so who voted for him in the primaries are dismissed as uneducated lumpens or bigots.
A huge majority of the Republican Party’s elected officials and other grandees are not prepared to rub shoulders with Trump, let alone endorse him. Some are even flying kites about a third party candidate to make sure Trump doesn’t get anywhere near the White House. A few have gone further by hinting they might campaign for Hillary Clinton, the Republicans’ bete-noire for three decades, or Bernie Sanders, the standard bearer of an ersatz Socialism made in Brooklyn.
A Trump presidency, we are told, would lead to ethnic and sectarian conflict in the United States not to mention a Third World War.
Is there anything to justify such jeremiads? In real terms, I think not.
Trump hasn’t offered any concrete policies. His promise to build a wall on the Mexican border, and to impose a temporary ban on Muslims visiting the US, have become part of political folklore and feature in dinner-table chats across the globe. But they don’t amount to policies.
The truth is that we don’t know what a President Trump may offer in concrete policy terms.
This is not surprising because US presidential elections often resemble a beauty contest rather than a serious examination of policy options. What voters are interested in is the candidates’ life-story, demeanor and charisma or lack of it. Much also depends on the public mood of the moment. An angry mood partly caused by America’s humiliation in Iran helped Ronald Reagan win in 1980. A mood of fatigue, partly caused by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, helped produce an unexpected victory for Barack Obama in 2008.
The voting habits of Americans mean that those who feel more intensely about the ambient state of the nation secure a much bigger say in picking the president.
Several studies of voting patterns in US show that only a third of those eligible to vote do so regularly. Another third vote only occasionally, sometimes only four or five times in a life. The remaining third never vote. The typical turnout in presidential elections hovers around 55 per cent with the outcome often decided by around 20 per cent labelled “independents”.
Those who say they are “horrified” by Trump’s success so far ignore two facts. The first is that democracy spells out the rules of the game but does not guarantee the outcome. In a sense it is like a game of tennis which, to be valid, must be played according to the rules while no one knows who might win.
There is no guarantee that democracy would provide us with the best possible government and the most reasonable political programme. Those who want those things had better look to Plato and his “Republic” or to Sir Thomas More and his “Utopia”.
Perhaps a better image of democracy would be that of a supermarket in which shoppers, standing in for voters, shop around, weigh brands and prices against each other, and fill their trollies as they like, then move to the cashier. No one could know in advance how all those shopping trollies are going to be loaded and with what products. But we know that it is the shopper who pays, including for his or her mistakes.
If that sounds too prosaic or even bland the reason is that, devoid of romantic fluff, democracy is prosaic and bland. The trouble is that human nature always craves for some flourish and romance. In democracy that craving is catered for by charisma.
In the case of Trump, the fact is that, though he may not be your cup of tea, he does have charisma for many Americans both because of his appearance and his “life story”. He is no Gary Cooper but, his controversial wig notwithstanding, he does look like what used to be regarded as “the average American” before the melting pot turned into a salad bar.
He is riding a wave of anger among white Americans of Anglo-European stock who, according to one of Trump’s loudest cheer-leaders Sarah Palin feel they are “losing” their country to a rainbow of immigrants, especially Mexicans and Muslims.
Those who may see this as evidence that Trump supporters are racists miss the point. Aristotle believed that in a democracy the ruler must resemble the average citizen as much as possible. For a chunk of white American electorate, Trump, who is partly of German and Scottish extraction, passes the test of averageness with flying-colors just as Obama did for the black chunk of voters eight years ago.
Not being American or Republican it may sound pretentious for me to offer advice. But I think Republicans would be wrong to try to sabotage Trump’s nomination through undemocratic cabals. If he is the choice of a majority of the party he should be allowed to bear the party’s standard in November even with defeat foretold.
The American presidential system suffers from a more fundamental problem. In it one man is granted immense powers which are, in turn, hampered through separation of powers.
The American founding fathers, all of them English, quietly shared Herodotus’ belief that monarchy was the best system of government if only because it had stood the test of time over millennia. However, having just rebelled against the English King in the name of independence, they couldn’t immediately re-plunge into the ideological Anglosphere.
The American voter is always looking for a savior, a man or, thanks to political correctness, a woman, who would act as what Germans call “Ganzemacher” (The All-Doer). This is why so many US presidents came from the ranks of the military while others, notably Franklin D. Roosevelt and, in a different context, Ronald Reagan, also filled that slot.
The French have had a similar experience. Having disposed of Louis XVI with the guillotine, they have been looking for a “providential man” ever since. They had the two Bonapartes, uncle and nephew, then looked to Gambetta after the 1870 defeat, to Petain after the 1940 debacle and, in 1958, to De Gaulle in the middle of the Algerian war.
All in all, both the US and France might have done better with a parliamentary system in which the head of state stands above partisan politics. But that’s another story.
For the time being, we may have to tighten our belts, meaning safety belts, and prepare for President Trump, just in case.