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26 July 2016 23:44 (South Africa)
World

US 2016: Barbarians at the gate

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World
Photo: US Republican presidential candidates (L-R) Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz are seen on stage during the CNN Republican Presidential Primary Debate at the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music Opera House in Houston, Texas, USA, 25 February 2016. EPA/LARRY W. SMITH.

This year’s American presidential election has so defied early expectations and so confounded commentators that it has left many scratching for an apt metaphor to describe it all. J. BROOKS SPECTOR has found that a combat computer game or perhaps a TV series like Game of Thrones may offer a bit of help.

The American electoral campaign has far outstripped all the usual metaphors. Instead of the standard horse-race and battle illustrations so hallowed by time and journalistic practice, following the recent roll in the verbal mud puddle, courtesy of Marco Rubio and Donald Trump, as well as all the televised, ugly, fascist-style exhortations on display at Trump rallies as protesters have been frog-marched out of venues to the angry taunts of onlookers, the normal ways of discussing what is happening in America no longer seem sufficiently vivid to do the trick.

Instead, the writer has begun to visualise this year’s politics as a castle under siege. Across the plains, a vast crowd of peasants, dressed in rags and bearing scythes and pitchforks, has been marching on the castle, where its defenders know they are severely outnumbered. As a result, their spirits are ebbing fast. Moreover, it gets worse. On the other side of the castle, coming up a river, there is a swarm of longboats bearing Vikings, Visigoths, Vandals, Angles and Saxons also on the attack against those increasingly beleaguered denizens of the castle.

Meanwhile, inside the structure, the outnumbered defenders continue a time-killing debate about whether the boiling oil and pitch should be used against the peasants or the ship-borne attackers. And some are even considering inviting detachments of Vandals and Visigoths into the castle to help hold off the peasants and the other barbarians, although the last time that particular trick was tried out, back in Roman times, history says it didn’t work out so well for their empire. In this example, as should be increasingly obvious, the ramshackle castle and its dazed, confused denizens are what remains of the political establishment and the citizenry in the middle of it all. Those peasants are Bernie Sanders’ army and those ship-borne barbarians are stand-ins for Donald Trump’s supporters — and probably those backing Texas Senator Ted Cruz, just for good measure.

In recent years, a particularly influential political science study, The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform, had made much of what its group of authors had called “the invisible primary”. This was where influential party elders, political strategists and operatives, pollsters and key media commentators effectively set the electoral agenda and largely positioned and effectively promoted the contenders for presidential nominations, thereby profoundly limiting public choice. But, as The Economist noted the other day, “Political parties are never monoliths. As those inside them are ceaselessly aware, they are fractious and fractured. And yet, especially in two-party democracies, they endure. A mixture of delivering the goods their voters desire, dividing spoils between internal factions and adapting to external change allows them to overcome their centrifugal pressures. They even manage, much of the time, to look more or less coherent while doing so. For most of the 20th century most Americans knew, more or less, what their two parties stood for. These times, though, are out of step. Though political scientists proved slow to pick up on it, America’s parties are more fragmented than usual. The state of the Republicans is particularly parlous. But the contradictions among Democrats, though less obvious, also run deep.

Donald Trump’s run for the presidency has prospered despite lacking all the things parties usually provide for a frontrunner: not least strategists and policies, money. It is hardly surprising that the Republican Party failed to see Mr Trump coming. What is odder, and much more culpable, is its failure to address the mismatch between its grassroots supporters and its policy agenda into which Mr Trump has tapped so effectively. In its subsequent disarray, the party has come to resemble a newspaper that has just discovered that its readers no longer need it to mediate between themselves and the world.

The Republican Party arrived in the 21st century as an alliance of small-state, low-tax, pro-business voters with religiously inspired social conservatives and national-security hawks. It enjoyed a disproportionate popularity among white voters, the result of its successful recruitment of southern whites who disliked the innovations of the civil-rights era and, under Ronald Reagan, of blue-collar workers across the country. This mixture of interest groups had proved pretty successful: it held the White House for 28 of the 40 years from 1969 to 2008. During this time the pro-business lot were the senior partners in the arrangement, not least because they paid for the party’s election campaigns.”

In fact, insurgencies in both parties have boosted unlikely candidates far closer towards their respective nominations than anyone would have expected less than a year earlier. As the world now knows, hotel and apartment block builder, failed casino operator, reality TV show star, serial polygamist, illegal immigrant labour employer, avenger of Muslim/Chinese/Mexican perfidy against America, subject of a swathe of lawsuits charging fraud over his now-shuttered Trump University, and Benito-Mussolini-arm-salute-imitator Donald Trump has been on a tear to capture the Republican nomination. Never mind that, so far, he has been winning his primaries with significantly fewer than 50% of the vote in each state — and that his all-important delegate total is only around the number competitors Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have, together, gained so far. Nevertheless, his run, so far, has made him the frontrunner and man to beat.

Meanwhile, Democratic Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, sounding increasingly like a combination of Howard Beale (from the film, “Network”), Joan of Arc, Franklin Roosevelt, and the writer’s own union-organising grandfather, has seen his support go from being a rounding error in terms of public recognition and support to an apparent hot pursuit of the early overwhelming favourite of the Democratic Party’s royalty, Hillary Rodham Clinton. However, despite all those large, enthusiastic crowds at so many of his rallies, and the hyper-energetic support he has garnered in social media, by the time the actual vote totals from the primaries and caucuses, so far, have been tabulated, his delegate count has come in far below his rival’s. Add in the approximately 400 super-delegates now pledged to her and even before the Mississippi and Michigan primary results from 8 March have been counted, and Clinton was already close to half way in gaining enough delegations to capture the nomination on the first ballot at the party’s convention in late July.

Thus, for both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the various primary and caucus voting that takes place between 8 and 15 March will be critical in determining their respective fates. If, as expected, Clinton wins the two states holding Democratic primaries — Mississippi and Michigan — on 8 March by double-digit margins, she will have largely cemented her claim to the inevitability of her nomination, especially after votes in very big states like California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Jersey — where she is presumed to be strong — come along a bit later in the electoral calendar.

Meanwhile, for the Republicans, even after that call by Mitt Romney for a “stop Trump” movement, there was the likelihood such an idea from a scion of an increasingly reviled GOP establishment (at least in Trumpian eyes) might well encourage such people to work even harder in support of their champion. Now, however, there have been a few,faint signs that Trump’s march has slowed, most notably with the way late deciders in the most recent primaries eventually went towards one of his remaining opponents, once votes were finally cast.

As a result, Trump now faces a real test of his strength with a major Midwestern state such as Michigan, a place with about the national average of white, working-class voters. In the GOP voting, Michigan is the biggest prize among four states casting ballots on Tuesday, along with Mississippi, Idaho and Hawaii. For Republicans, there are 150 delegates at stake, roughly 12% of the number needed to secure the nomination, while 179 Democratic delegates are at stake in the two states, or about 7% of what is needed to cop a win of the nomination.

Commenting on these Tuesday votes, the AP had noted, “While Trump has stunned Republicans with his broad appeal, he’s forged a particularly strong connection with blue-collar white voters. With an eye on the general election, he’s argued he could put Midwestern, Democratic-leaning industrial states such as Michigan and Wisconsin in play for Republicans.

Trump is facing competition from Ohio Governor John Kasich, who has failed to win a single primary so far but hopes Michigan can give him a boost heading into his home state’s winner-take-all contest on March 15. ‘It’s not just the whole country that’s watching Michigan — now the world’s beginning to watch,’ Kasich said on Monday during a campaign stop in the state. ‘You can help me send a message about positive, about vision, about hope, about putting us together.’”

However, unless Governor Kasich can win his home state of Ohio and Rubio can capture his state of Florida (where polls say he is now behind), on 15 March, that could mean mean the GOP race will become a two-man competition, pitting the dramatically unlovable Ted Cruz against the appalling Donald Trump, while those establishment types in their besieged castle, to return to our initial metaphor, ponder over whom to pour their boiling oil on. Despite still trailing in the delegate count, Cruz remains in the hunt and is increasingly making the case that he is the only candidate who can prevent Trump from capturing the nomination.

Meanwhile, some mainstream Republicans such as Mitt Romney appear to have reached the conclusion that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton would defeat both Trump and Cruz, come November, thereby spelling doom for a veritable army of other Republican candidates for lesser offices. Their options for stopping Trump (or Cruz, for that matter) have basically shrunk down to making sure no one candidate gets a majority (if, for example, Rubio does win Florida and several big, largely urban states and Kasich gains Ohio and yet other big states), thereby throwing the convention into turmoil from whence a new, as yet unidentified, hero could emerge, or the even more unlikely option of breaking with a Trump nomination and launching a more moderate GOP third-party candidacy.

Before the Tuesday votes, Clinton had 1,134 delegates and Sanders 499, including super-delegates. A Democratic candidate needs 2,383 delegates to win the nomination. For Republicans, Trump had 384 delegates; Cruz had 300; Rubio trailed with 151 delegates and Kasich was at 37. For a Republican challenger to become the nominee, he needs 1,237 delegates.

After 15 March, many of the remaining states will have winner-take-all primaries, rather than splitting up the delegate counts proportionally, based on candidate vote shares. Given all these dynamics, a win for Clinton in Michigan will virtually spell the end of Sanders’ chances to achieve the improbable, even as Michigan may be the real bellwether revealing Rubio’s survival chances to fight another day, Cruz’s chances to start stealing a march on Trump – and The Donald’s ability to continue a high-wire act that seems to have defied conventional wisdom. We’ll be back once the four states voting on 8 March have had their results reported out and the commentators and analysts have taken their shot at what it all meant. DM

Photo: US Republican presidential candidates (L-R) Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz are seen on stage during the CNN Republican Presidential Primary Debate at the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music Opera House in Houston, Texas, USA, 25 February 2016. EPA/LARRY W. SMITH.

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World

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