This essay will lay out my analysis of the 2016 presidential elections thus far, candidate by candidate. I will also make some predictions for how the rest of the election will play out, and explore some implications of those predicted results. I will begin by analyzing the major candidates:
Donald Trump’s support comes largely from white working class people who are angry about the class war that they have been losing for decades, but are radically *confused* about the causes of that deterioration for working people.
They do not understand the complexities of global capitalism, the complete take-over of our government by the ultra-rich, how certain trade policies like NAFTA and the TPP affect working people, how the wealth that our labor produces gets siphoned to the top and re-directed towards imperialism and corporatism instead of making our lives better, etc. And since they do not understand the real causes of their misery, they support the candidate who simplifies everything into “good guys vs. bad guys”, who creates convenient scapegoats, dumb-downed narratives, and who points tribalistically and accusingly to people with different skin color as the problem.
I do not blame working people for not understanding these complex causal factors, though. People are stretched thin, they must work harder for less money, they are under constant pressure and stress. Working people don’t have the time or energy to study the intricacies of policy, to read tomes on American History, to deconstruct capitalism, and to educate themselves on how the system works. I understand why Trump’s hyper-simple bullshit works on so many people, but it doesn’t make it any less depressing, and it certainly doesn’t mean we should not fight our asses off to combat that narrative and those toxic politics.
But we have to understand that the problem that working people of all colors are facing today is NOT other working people. It’s not Mexicans, it’s not Muslims, it’s not China. The problems we face are inherent features of the economic system under which we all toil, and if we are ever going to approach a solution to these complex problems, we are going to have to realize the reality of our situation, and aim our anger at the correct targets. Trump’s candidacy is dangerous because it aims that anger at other working people, and at vulnerable communities, instead of at the systems of power and wealth that dominate us all.
However, despite Trump’s far-right populist rhetoric, many of his policies tend to be pretty moderate, even bordering on liberal. Healthcare, for example, is an area where Trump refuses to be goaded into being a cliché’ Republican. He has advocated for robust government assistance for poor people, defending it even when Ted Cruz hammered him on National Television in the 10th GOP Primary debate. On war and the military Trump is also curiously moderate. He advocates a form of isolationism and an end to rampant imperialism, even going so far as to argue that we should charge countries money for having a US military presence within their borders and refusing to defend Israeli exclusively; opting instead to be a “neutral moderator” in the Palestinian / Israeli conflict. On campaign finance, Trump actually plays a very important role in these elections just by being so unapologetic about his past financing of politicians all over the spectrum, and by funding his own campaign. Of course he is allowed to do this only because he is so wealthy, but by pulling back the curtain on campaign finance, and mocking his competitors in the GOP by admitting he has funded them in the past, Trump is making a powerful point about the role that wealth plays in American politics. Whether he is fully cognizant that he is in fact playing this role is another question, but regardless it has been instrumental in drawing supporters to him and in exposing the plutocracy of Washington even to people who do not support him.
All of this makes Trump an enigma: He simultaneously espouses fascist policies and center-left policies; all under the same broad platform. I do not think Trump has any real ideology or deep political values, which goes a long way in explaining the oddity of his platform. He is, first and foremost, an opportunist and a businessman; he sees that there is a vein in American Politics that has yet to be tapped by any presidential candidate and takes advantage of that by tapping into it arrogantly and violently. If the political winds were blowing in a totally different direction, I assume Trump would tap into *that* vein without a moment’s hesitation. This makes Trump popular and dangerous. We have no idea how he would ACTUALLY govern, and since his policies are all over the place, we have reason to believe that his government could be anything from ruthlessly authoritarian to moderate and bipartisan. One thing we do know, though, is that Trump’s main competitor on the right, Ted Cruz, would be a truly horrifying president; and we should be relieved if Trump beats Cruz in the primary.
Cruz, unlike Trump, is a true partisan. He has a clearly defined worldview, ideology and value system. He is a far-right wing, Christian zealot, and if he were somehow able to slime his way into the presidency, we would be the furthest-to-the-right president in modern US history. He would make the Bush/Cheney administration look moderate in comparison. Cruz is the culmination of the Tea Party movement; he is an obstructionist, a free-market fundamentalist, a despiser of government and of the public sphere in general, and he is a Christian extremist. He would use his power to push for a Christian Conservative socio-economic policy platform that would bring out the worst in Americans and do lasting damage to America.
The area in which he would do the most harm is in the Supreme Court nomination process. It is likely that the next president could be responsible for appointing up to 3 Supreme Court Justices. And since they have lifetime appointments, a Cruz presidency could continue destroying America for decades. We have every reason to expect him to appoint what would amount to three more Antonin Scalias; a truly terrifying prospect. Additionally, Cruz would likely have a majority Republican Senate, allowing him to get nominees approved and get bills through congress with considerably more ease than he otherwise would be able to.
Luckily, however, at this point in the primary process, it seems increasing unlikely that Ted Cruz will win his party’s nomination. He is behind Trump in the polls, and the only state he is slated to win is his home state of Texas. Texas is a large, and therefore important state when it comes to delegate distribution, to be sure, but even if Cruz wins Texas, he is fighting a steep uphill battle against both Trump and the GOP establishment who has rallied behind Marco Rubio in every other state. He is even losing the coveted Evangelical vote to Trump, a truly weird development, seeing as how Trump is about as Christian as a money-obsessed ego-maniac can be; which is to say not at all (See: Jesus’s teachings). But we have come to expect hypocrisy from the Christian Right in America, so perhaps it makes more sense than it initially appears to.
Marco Rubio is the GOP’s last chance at securing a nomination that won’t humiliate and destroy the party. The Republican establishment does not want Trump or Cruz to represent the party in the general election; they want a more inclusive conservatism that broadens the tent a tad while still maintaining the GOP status quo: lower taxes, aggressive neo-conservative foreign policy, and “family values” (i.e. Christian Conservative values). Marco Rubio is also important for the establishment because he is their best chance at appealing to Latino voters, a segment of the population that the GOP has traditionally done poorly with, but one which is increasing important with every election cycle. While Trump plays up xenophobia and nativism, Rubio and the GOP understand that if they are to stay relevant into the future, they need to change tact, and start appealing to this huge demographic, which means playing down their white identity politics and opening their arms to diversity within the party. Too bad their base disagrees…
Rubio is representing the establishment in an election year when the establishment is precisely the target of so much anger and hatred, on the Left as well as the Right. His only hope is for Trump to fail to get to the 1,237 delegates needed for a clear primary victory, and for the GOP to go into a brokered convention (a situation in which no single candidate has secured a pre-existing majority of delegates) where the Party will be free to choose their candidate, regardless of the popular vote. What frictions and tensions that will cause between the establishment and Republican voters remains to be seen, but I predict it will cause pretty nasty in-fighting as the Party tries desperately to stay relevant in the eyes of GOP voters while also putting forth a candidate of their choice, and canning the candidate that Republican voters clearly want: Donald Trump.
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton
On the Democratic side of the elections, the same anti-Establishment vs. Establishment dynamic is playing out, but on a more mature and sophisticated level. As the GOP devolves into childish tantrums, name-calling, embarrassing debates, and even dick jokes (See Rubio’s comment about the size of Trump’s hands), the Democrats have managed to stay congenial, high minded, and serious. The debates between Clinton and Sanders are substantive and informative. But do not mistake the agreeableness of the debates for a lack of contentiousness; the Sanders and Clinton competition is no less important for the Democratic Party as the Trump v. Rubio v. Cruz competition is for the GOP.
Sanders is the clear progressive, employing a sophisticated populism aimed at millennials and working class folks. His analysis is class based and consistent. But Sanders has been an independent for 30 some years, and only joined the Democrats in order to make a legitimate run at the presidency. But within the DNC, the picture is clear: Hillary is the desired nominee of the party, and even though Sanders is ostensibly running as a member of the party, everyone knows that he is not a true Party member. The DNC wants Hillary, and with their super-delegate system, they will get Hillary. Period.
The importance of Sander’s campaign is not so much in the chance that he can win, but in a handful of facts about his strategy and message. Here are the most important aspects of his campaign (in no particular order):
1) He refuses all corporate and special interest campaign money. He funds his campaign solely through small donations from average citizens and has still managed to out-raise all but two (Hillary and Cruz) of the other candidates. For the first time, the possibility of a truly competitive grass-roots campaign, funded solely by citizens, is being realized.
2) Sanders identifies as a Democratic Socialist. Previously, a candidate self-identifying as a socialist would mean that candidate automatically loses all chances at running an even slightly competitive campaign. But Sanders has unapologetically accepted the label, and by so doing, has enabled millions of Americans, especially younger Americans, to revisit the term and contemplate seriously the ideology behind it. Sander’s campaign has freed the term “socialist” from its Cold War connotations and brought it back into the American Political mainstream; this bodes well for the possibility of a Socialist Party and Socialist candidates in the future. (I am leaving aside the debate over what makes someone a “real socialist” for now, the nuances of that conversation escape the scope of this essay, but I hope to blog about it soon.)
3) Bernie Sanders has advocated for “political revolution”. By this he means that the people have to realize the limitations of electoral politics and organize outside the system in order to put appropriate pressure on the system. This means that voting every 2-4 years is not enough; only by organizing outside the two party system, and by taking to the streets, can working and poor people truly advance their political interests in system built by and for the wealthy elite.
These aspects of the Sander’s campaign will have a continued influence on American politics well into the future, and even if his campaign ultimately fails to get the nomination, it will not be in vain. I fully expect to see the blossoming of an unapologetically socialist politic over the next decade or so, and perhaps in the future we can look back on the Sander’s campaign and point to it as a turning point for Leftist American politics; a turn away from the Democratic party and towards a far more progressive, working class political party. At least that is my earnest hope.
— Predictions —
Finally, I want to make some predictions. Today is March 1st, 2016 (Super Tuesday), where 12 states will vote in their respective primaries and caucuses. After tonight we will have an even better view of what the likely outcomes will be, and who will be facing who in the general election. It’s a perfect time for some predictions, so here they are:
My prediction is that when the dust settles, Hillary Clinton will be facing Donald Trump in the general election. The GOP will do everything within their power to prevent a Trump candidacy, but will ultimately fail. Their only hope is to keep Trump below the 1,237 delegates line, so that they can enter a brokered convention and have far more control over who their candidate will be. But even if they manage to pull that off, they will do so at cost of their base’s loyalty and respect. The base will see this move as a cynical attempt for the party to disregard the people’s wishes, and will lead to even more fervent anti-establishmentarian politics on the Right in the future. The party will continue to fracture and disintegrate as the base and the establishment battle one another for control over the party’s future. This can only be a good thing for anyone on the Left, but specifically for the Democratic Party who will likely take advantage of the discord in the GOP. They will win the election, and get to install the first Woman president after they had 8 years of the first Black president. Making history in back-to-back presidential elections, further alienating the GOP as the party of the past, and solidifying the strength of the Democratic Party into the future.
And make no mistake: Hillary will wipe the fucking floor with Donald Trump in a general election. She is far more experienced in politics, she is a much better debater, Trump has a large closet full of skeletons for Clinton to expose and exploit, and the GOP will split: many Republicans going for a third party candidate over trump, refusing to vote, or even going so far as to vote for Hillary; accepting the loss but preserving the Republican party as a whole into the future, hopefully allowing for some mid-term gains as the GOP base reacts to a Clinton presidency in the same way they reacted to the Obama presidency. Its counter-intuitive but true: Hillary defeating Trump will be good for the Republican Party. A Trump presidency would be devastating for the Party, for reasons I outlined above.
In conclusion, tonight’s results will give us a strong indication as to how the rest of the primary season will go, and if I am correct in my analysis, Trump and Clinton will win big tonight, and become all but inevitable candidates for the general election; at which point we will almost certainly have a Hillary Clinton presidency starting in early 2017.