The New Politics of Frustration

Donald Trump with supporters in Biloxi, Mississippi, January 2, 2016
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Donald Trump with supporters in Biloxi, Mississippi, January 2, 2016

A revolution is taking place in our presidential campaign. Though no one has voted yet and the polls—especially nationwide ones—shouldn’t be taken too literally, there’s every indication in both parties that what’s termed the political establishment is being rejected. We’re some distance from the end of the nomination contests, though perhaps not in the Republican race: if Donald Trump were to sweep Iowa and New Hampshire it’s hard to see how he can be stopped. So far, the talk of a savior entering the race is only that, and to make such a challenge would be daunting. Those who’ve ventured to predict the outcome and gone by past patterns haven’t had it right. Politically, this country is in a new place. It’s best to ignore suggestions of historic parallels.

As of now, the anti-establishment candidates in both parties—Trump and Ted Cruz for the Republicans, and Bernie Sanders for the Democrats—are either well ahead of or giving close chase to the rest of their respective fields. That shouldn’t be a surprise. The public mood has been building toward this situation. Leaders in both parties are seen as having failed various tests and are being rejected. The complaints against the status quo are similar among Democratic and Republican voters. In fact, so alike is the dissatisfaction that there are indications of a possible large crossover vote; in a recent survey, nearly 20 percent of Democratic voters say they would vote for Trump in a general election. Some of the complaints are familiar, but a striking one is new.

The most familiar—and bipartisan—grievances are that the middle class has been squeezed; that wages haven’t kept up; that the divide between the very rich and poor continues to grow. These are deeply felt issues, despite the fact that, in recent months jobs have been coming back and unemployment, at just 5 percent (among those who’ve remained in the job market), is half of what it was when Obama took office, an achievement that virtually no one expected. A sleeper issue, however, has also finally come to the fore: the corruption that infects our political system. It had long been said that the public doesn’t care about this matter, but upset over the gradual loss of control of our political system to those who can buy it is now palpable. For very different reasons, both Trump and Bernie Sanders are seen as incorruptible.

On the Republican side, there’s major disappointment that’s led to embitterment about their elected politicians. It wasn’t just the radicals who were swept into Congress in the 2010 midterm and subsequent elections who failed to deliver on their promises. To assuage the radicals, Republican leaders also pledged to do things they couldn’t, such as block the president’s proposed bailout of the banks—a major rallying cry for what became the Tea Party—or repeal Obamacare; despite umpteen votes in Congress, the health reform act still stands and has a growing constituency. There’s still a sizable budget deficit (though it’s been reduced by more than half). The reckless Iraq war continues in another form; the Middle East is more a shambles and more dangerous than before that war; and the US doesn’t seem to be “winning” against the terrorists, particularly ISIS. It doesn’t matter that some of these charges may be somewhat at odds with reality—it’s what a large portion of the public believes. In politics, impressions triumph over facts. Further, though President Obama has accomplished quite a lot, especially considering the implacable Republican opposition he has faced, the widespread impression is that Washington is dysfunctional; the Republican strategy of trying to keep Obama from succeeding has boomeranged on the party itself.

Over the period of Obama’s presidency, many voters have come to view the established politicians as out of it and irrelevant, and so the thing to do in this election is to try something new. This feeling seems to be particularly prevalent among Republicans, where if Trump and Ted Cruz come off as nihilists and are dismissed by the party’s establishment that’s in their favor. But the public rejection of conventional politics has also hit Hillary Clinton. Though she’s to the left of the way her husband governed, she’s been cautious in her approach to several controversial issues, and though sometimes the caution reflects that she’s being responsible, that she thinks in terms of governing, she fails to generate the excitement that Sanders does. She has of course been pulled somewhat further to the left by Sanders’s unexpected challenge, and her campaign is concerned about the dangers of that when it comes to winning the general election. Recall the profound lack of enthusiasm last year when the consensus among political observers was that the country was headed for a presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.

The leading rebels in both parties, Trump and Sanders, are admired for similar traits: they speak in clear, uncomplicated terms; they come off as uncompromised; they reject the status quo; they “tell it like it is”; they evoke some humor—and their nearest rivals don’t. Both Trump and Sanders could be bringing large numbers of new people into the nominating process. The huge crowds that both candidates draw are heavily comprised of people who haven’t voted before. On the Democratic side, there’s a sharp distinction in the age groups, with Sanders drawing younger voters than Clinton does. Traditionally, older voters are more likely to show up at the polls, but in the ahistoric moment we’re in, precedents may be irrelevant. Trump is drawing people of all ages.

The primary contests to come after Iowa and New Hampshire are of a different nature, particularly in the Democratic race: South Carolina and Nevada—and after them first a group of southern states, which vote on March 1, and then industrial states (where industry is coming back, whether or not people feel it), states that are closer to the overall demographics of the Democratic electorate, in which minorities comprise 42 percent. The Republican party’s electorate in the southern states is more conservative than it is in Iowa and New Hampshire. Theoretically, Hillary Clinton should do better among the Southern and industrial states than Sanders, whose Vermont constituency contains few minorities; in the early stages of the campaign Sanders’s somewhat defensive rhetoric about his record vis-a-vis blacks rested on his long-ago support of the civil rights movement. Lately, to appease the new and more radical Black Lives Matter movement, he’s included a sentence or two in his talks about more contemporary black concerns such as police brutality, but this may not be convincing. The pollster Peter Hart says, “So far, there’s no real sign that blacks are about to turn on Hillary.” Further, if Clinton takes on Sanders’s inexperience in international matters and can paint him as naïve in the face of new terrorist threats, she may make more headway against him in later primaries.

For now, having Sanders as her opponent is turning out to be Clinton’s worst nightmare. His relative leftism and her connections with Wall Street allow him to portray her as a captive of the corporate world—a charge about which she’s defensive. Further, the word authentic has been greatly overused but in this case it’s a crucial part of what’s been making Sanders much more appealing than Clinton. If Sanders is successful in the early contests, he does have an advantage for the longer haul: he has raised a great deal of money in small donations—in the fourth quarter of 2015, he raised an impressive $33 million, nearly as much as Clinton, but with an average donation of just $27 he can go back for more. Sanders doesn’t come across as encumbered by the Democratic party’s interest groups or big donors, as Clinton does. And while Clinton can seem programmed and compromised, the Vermont senator, having buried his innate grouchiness, comes across as the grandfather or uncle people can trust.

A truism has arisen that Clinton performed better in 2008 when she was under unexpected pressure from Barack Obama. She did become a more skilled campaigner but she isn’t at her most attractive on the defensive, and when attacking she loses a positive message. Subtle knife work isn’t in her arsenal. Lately she’s been using some of the same lines she did then. On Tuesday, she pulled out the mocking image she had used against Obama in 2008, of his supposed assumption that once he was elected it would all come easily because the heavens would open and a “celestial choir” would sing. She misleadingly describes Sanders’s health care proposals as damaging Obamacare and other health care programs by turning them over to the states; when in fact what Sanders proposes is to enact a single payer system. In Iowa, daughter Chelsea went further, saying simply Sanders wanted to abolish Obamacare and other health programs. This was a strange debut for their offspring and a sign of the Clinton camp’s nervousness if not panic at the growing possibility of Sanders victories in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Hillary Clinton has taken to asserting that she is more electable than Sanders, but national polls, for what they’re worth, show Sanders prevailing over Trump and Cruz to both of whom she loses. (Clinton also has a potentially quite serious subterranean problem: the possible results of a major FBI investigation, examining her having used a private email server while she was Secretary of State and the potential conflicts arising from the fact that some major donors to the Clinton foundation also had business before the State Department.)

Both a reflection and a symptom of significant public uneasiness with the choices they’re being offered in this election is that according to a very recent Washington Post-ABC poll, of all the serious candidates only Sanders has a net favorable rating—what pollsters use to measure a candidate’s likability. Sanders’s favorable margin is 4 percent, while Clinton and Cruz rate unfavorable by one point. Perhaps signaling a new trend, or limits on how far he can go—whether if he’s the nominee he can he be elected—Trump has the highest unfavorable rating of all, at 35 percent favorable and 62 percent unfavorable, while Jeb Bush ranks second in that unwanted category with 35 favorable and 58 unfavorable. Bush has recently improved considerably as a candidate, more confident and coherent, but it may be too late and his patronym may turn out not to be helpful, nor may his relative centrism amid a very conservative field be what the Republican electorate is looking for.

This fascinating election is also a troubling one. The center isn’t holding and both parties are so deeply divided as to raise the question of whether any victor will be able to govern. Trump and Cruz are appealing to our darker impulses; and lately Marco Rubio, highly ambitious even as this group goes, and scrambling for third place in the first two contests, has dropped his once-sunny demeanor and begun to echo the front-runners. Trump has a genius for reading what his audience wants—which can lead him to bully-boy tactics, as when his supporters were beating up a Black Lives Matter protester at a rally in Birmingham, Alabama, Trump shouted various versions of “Get him the hell out of here.” But his followers love him because he breaks the rules. He suggests that he will get things done through the sheer force of his personality. The Des Moines Register political reporter Jennifer Jacobs recently wrote, “[A] desire to disrupt the way government typically works is a major consideration for caucus goers. And they see The Donald as a demolition agent.”

The anger, fear, resentment, racism, and frustration that are playing into the current political climate make for a turbulent situation.  This is a situation prone to undermining our democratic system. It’s not an overstatement to say that in this political climate this election encourages a certain fascist strain. We’re not there yet and our democratic impulses are strong. The disturbing thing is that that fascist tendency can even be glimpsed.