Maybe Flint, Michigan isn’t the only place in this country with something strange in the water. How else can we explain the fact that Donald Trump is now the presumptive Republican nominee for President? Is it possible that millions of people across the country actually believe that he is the best available candidate for the most powerful office in the world?
Let’s take it as a working hypothesis that the bulk of the country’s water supply is untainted, so that we have to look elsewhere to explain why millions of purportedly rational Americans voluntarily cast votes for Trump. No doubt historians and political scientists will debate that question for years to come, so I can hardly expect to reach a definitive conclusion here and now. But it’s still worth trying, even at this early stage of the general election campaign, to make some sense out of the bizarre phenomenon that is Donald Trump. After all, regardless of who wins the general election, American politics will never be quite the same.
The last time I attempted a serious examination of the race for the Republican presidential nomination, I did not take the possibility of a Trump victory seriously. Obviously, I was wrong, but I was hardly alone. Before the voting started, nobody took Trump’s candidacy seriously. To all appearances, Trump himself didn’t take his candidacy seriously until he started winning primaries. From his point of view at the outset, the campaign was a win-win proposition. Whatever the result, he would get more attention than he had in recent years, and lots of free publicity for his various business enterprises.
So what happened? How did the most demonstrably unfit presidential candidate in living memory become the presumptive Republican nominee? The leading lights of the punditocracy, with the perceptiveness born of hindsight, have pointed to a number of factors that played out in Trump’s favor. The unusually large field of Republican candidates (seventeen at the outset) lowered the threshold needed to be seen as a serious candidate. Trump’s reality television popularity enabled him to start the race with a high level of name recognition, while most of his rivals were unknowns outside their respective home bases. Trump’s ability to self-fund his campaign, moreover, made it unnecessary for him to worry about persuading donors of his continuing viability, which is the most common cause of prematurely terminated candidacies.
The conventional wisdom at the start of the campaign was that Trump’s candidacy was bound to fade once those who might be tempted to vote for him got a closer look. As a result, the more mainstream Republican candidates kept aiming their fire at each other and did not try to coalesce against Trump until it was too late. The two candidates initially favored by the Republican “establishment”, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, turned out to be seriously flawed. Bush ran a lethargic campaign, while Rubio turned out to be less than stellar in the intellect department — a fact used to devastating effect by Chris Cristie on his way out. (Why Cristie, even as he prepared to end his own candidacy, chose to help Trump by savaging Rubio is a question for another time. I have no inside information sources, but I continue to believe that there are facts relevant to that question that are not yet publicly known.)
As the end of the primary season approached, the leading non-Trump candidate — the last one who had a statistical chance of stopping him — was Ted Cruz, a man so thoroughly disliked by all who know him that some mainstream Republicans actually preferred Trump. When it became clear that no one other than Trump could amass a majority of the delegates before the convention, the last faint hope for anti-Trump Republicans was a “brokered convention,” one in which no candidate received a majority on the first ballot. There was a time, of course, when every convention was a brokered convention, and nobody expected presidential nominating contests to be decided before the convention even began. That time is long gone, however; today’s voters expect each party’s’ choice of nominee to reflect the will of its primary/caucus electorate. Trump understood and took advantage of that expectation, effectively foreclosing the last potential obstacle to the nomination.
All of these factors played their part in Trump’s success, yet even taken together, they seem inadequate to explain why so many allegedly rational people gravitated toward a pompous demagogue like Trump. What did they think they would accomplish by putting him in the White House? Were they at all concerned about his bigotry, or his schoolyard bully persona?
And while we’re in the neighborhood, let’s not lose sight of the surprise story on the Democratic side of the presidential contest: the unexpected success of Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont Unlike Trump, Sanders will not win his party’s nomination, but he has done substantially better than anyone expected when the campaign began, and he has done so without any of the natural advantages that Trump has exploited. Sanders, unlike Trump, began his campaign with virtually no name recognition and no ready source of funding. While Trump continued to benefit from a ridiculously large Republican field until near the end of the primary season, the smaller Democratic field narrowed quickly, leaving Sanders head-to-head against Hillary Clinton fairly early in the race. Although Clinton ultimately won the delegate count, and thus the nomination, some recent polls have suggested that Sanders might actually be a stronger candidate against Trump.
What’s going on here?
I want to make it clear that I am not equating Trump with Sanders. Trump is a pandering blowhard who will say anything to achieve power. Sanders is a decent man who happens to hold opinions — some of which I agree with — that are too far out of the mainstream to be achievable in the foreseeable future. The similarity of these two candidates lies not in their ideology (in Trump’s case it’s hard to tell if he has any ideology other than self-worship) but rather in the profile of their core supporters.
Much of the punditocracy seems to be settling on what we might call the anger hypothesis as explaining both Trump’s support and much of Sanders’s support. In this view, both of these non-mainstream candidates reflect many voters’ feelings of powerlessness in the face of a stagnant economy and a government that seems directionless. Voting against pre-packaged candidates who espouse mainstream complacency is one way — perhaps the only effective way — for voters to tell those who seem to be in charge of the political process that the status quo is unacceptable.
I think that this hypothesis is largely correct, though I would characterize the resultant emotion as despair rather than anger. Many Americans have lost faith in their ability to succeed. They see the American dream as a myth — or, at best, a relic from a bygone era. They find it increasingly difficult to believe that if they work hard and play by the rules, their children can have a better life than they have. Mainstream politicians, unable to offer a viable solution to these problems, end up either implicitly or explicitly denying that the problems exist at all. That denial of the realities that most Americans see all around them only heightens their alienation from the political process. If those who seek political office cannot even acknowledge their problems much less suggest solutions, many ask, why bother to vote?
Faced with such seemingly intractable problems and sensing that the citizenry is running out of patience, both Sanders and Trump have responded in tried and true fashion— by looking for scapegoats. For Sanders, the scapegoat of choice is the “one percent,” i.e., the extremely wealthy — an overly simplistic approach, but one that at least results in proposed policies that have some connection to the problems he seeks to address. Trump, whose supposed business acumen is his primary selling point, can hardly use the super-wealthy as his scapegoat, so instead he reaches into the darkest corners of the human psyche, turning his rhetorical firepower on the newcomers, i.e. the immigrants, legal or otherwise. Somehow, in Trump’s delusions, fear of Spanish speaking immigrants crossing our inadequately guarded Southern border to steal low-paying jobs that most native born Americans don’t want are conflated with Muslim immigrants sneaking into the country to carry out terrorist attacks. Thus, in the parallel universe inhabited by Trump, the “wall” that he has repeatedly promised to build along our southern border– and to make Mexico pay for, no less — is connected in some unexplained fashion to the fight against terrorism.
Donald Trump is, to put it mildly, temperamentally unfit to be President. I suspect that he is the most unfit presidential candidate ever nominated by a major party, though I lack the comprehensive expertise in American history that would be necessary to assert that position definitively. Clearly, however, he would be the most dangerous Commander-in-Chief of the nuclear age — and if that sounds frightening, it should.
Given these circumstances, the result of the general election should be a foregone conclusion, but the experience of the last few months suggests that underrating Trump could be dangerous. The race may yet turn into a landslide once the swing voters focus on the choice before them, particularly if Trump proves to be incapable of exercising even a modicum of self-control. At this point, however, it looks to be a close race.
How can that be?
The short answer is that Hillary Clinton is one of the most hated people in American politics. Her negative popularity ratings are at a level that would be historic if she weren’t running against Trump. It’s not entirely clear why she is so strongly disliked. Whenever I ask one of her detractors why they dislike her so much, I get a vague answer like “she’s vile,” “I don’t trust her,” and “she lies about everything.” (These are all direct quotes from actual conversations, by the way.) And of course, if the person I am speaking to is (as is often he case) an Orthodox Jew, I am also told: “She would be terrible for Israel.”
The other justifications offered are too vague to refute, but the attempt to smear Hillary as anti-Israel is demonstrably false. Some of those who in recent years, have dedicated themselves to bringing more Jews into the Republican party, know that argument is false but use it anyway, out of panic at the prospect that Trump’s candidacy could undermine their efforts. There are, to be sure, long-term trends in the Democratic Party that are legitimately worrisome to lovers of Israel. These trends require more careful analysis than I can undertake here, but in any event, they have nothing to do with Hillary Clinton or the current presidential campaign.
Among the specifics sometimes offered to “prove” Hillary’s hostility to Israel is her 1998 embrace of Yasir Arafat’s wife, Suha, during a trip to the region as First Lady. When Hillary first ran for the Senate in 2000, she had little independent record on the Middle East, so it was understandable (though not entirely fair) to blow that incident out of proportion. Since then, however, she has served for eight years in the Senate and four years as Secretary of State, and she has consistently shown herself as a true friend of Israel. The frequency with which her pro-Israel detractors point to the 1998 incident as evidence of her supposed anti-Israel bias only underscores how little evidence they have to back up that charge.
Of course, Trump, who has never held any public office, has no record to judge on Israel or any other issue; his rhetoric on the Middle East, however, has not been noteworthy for its expressions of support for Israel. In any event though, while I fully agree that policies concerning Israel’s well-being should be a major factor in determining how Jews vote, particularly in Presidential elections, they can’t be the only consideration. When the Jewish people were first exiled to Babylonia, the prophet Jeremiah charged us to “seek the peace of the city to which [God has] exiled you, and pray to the Lord for it, for through its peace will you have peace.” (Jer. 29:7) The world has changed a great deal in the intervening centuries, but the prophet’s words — a combination of moral obligation and enlightened self-interest– still ring true. In modern democracies like America, we have the opportunities that our ancestors never dreamed of, opportunities to participate in the political process for the benefit of ourselves and the country in which we live.
With that opportunity, however, comes a responsibility to use the franchise wisely, for the benefit of our country and the world. To elevate to the most powerful office in the world a man of the temperament and character of Donald Trump would be a reckless gamble with the very survival of humanity, and an epic demonstration of ingratitude toward the country which has provided us with more opportunity than any other during the long centuries of our exile.