Tuesday, 5 April 2016
The nomination process for the 2016 Presidential elections is now well underway. Last week we took a look at the Democratic Primary and made a key endorsement. Now it is time to turn our attention to Republican side of the contest. Initially the plan was to do an overview of the candidates, analyse their strengths and weaknesses, and then in the spirit of fairness make an endorsement in much the same way as we did for the Democratic Primary. Unfortunately, after much consideration the Ephemeric is unable to make an endorsement at this time. Here's why.
Introducting Donald J Trump
Of course, this piece is going to be about one person in particular. Whether you like him or not, Donald Trump has undeniably turned his campaign into a pop culture phenomenon in a way that few politicians ever have. Everyone is talking about him. Trump memes have infiltrated internet culture all over the world. Recently on watching a technology live stream from Sweden, a joke was made in the format of "Make [blank] great again!". It's everywhere.
But when you get over the humour in the situation the fact remains, this is really happening, one of America's two main political parties is really on the verge of making Donald Trump their representative in the next election.
This is, after all, a man who has gone on record stating that women should be punished for having abortions, that Muslims should be banned from entering the United States, and who wants to build a wall between America and its neighbouring countries (and responded to criticism from the former President of Mexico with the petulant "that wall just got ten feet higher!"). This is a man who has openly condoned violence at his rallies, repeatedly insulted numerous women in politics and the media based on their physical appearance, and mocked physically handicapped people for "looking funny". This man has talked about his penis in Presidential debates because he felt sensitive (and weirdly obsessed) about the size of his hands, attacked his opponent for having an "uglier" wife than him, and debates his opponents by giving them nicknames like "little Marco" and "Lyin' Ted" as a substitute for policy arguments. He's attacked Hillary Clinton for not being able to "satisfy her husband", accused news anchor Megyn Kelly from having "blood coming out of her wherever", and reassured those critical of his tone on race issues by asserting that he's confident that "at least some Mexicans" are not rapists and criminals.
This is a man who lies pathologically. The widely respected Pulitzer prize winning Politifact rates 78% of his public statements as at least mostly false (compared to 65% for Ted Cruz and 28% for Hillary Clinton). His lies are numerous and diverse, ranging from denying statements that are present for the whole world to see on his website or in previous interviews, to his ever shifting excuses for the criminal conduct of his campaign manager, completely made up statistics, doctored videos claiming to show, among other things, immigrants pouring over the border from Mexico (footage actually from Africa), and Muslim Americans cheering 9/11 (never actually happened). Indeed one could spend all day going over the many things Trump has said and done which are outrageously and demonstrably untrue, but instead I'll just leave you with a partial list.
On the issues, Trump has gone from a moderate pro-choice New York Democrat to a supposedly hardcore conservative. He has talked about ending the department of education and rolling back Federal Government provided healthcare, only to seconds later state unequivocally that healthcare and education are among the most important services the Federal Government provides. He has proposed a trade war with China, advocated committing war crimes by bombing civilian centres in the Middle East, and proposes outright banning any use of the term "climate change" in America. From one sentence to the next he calls for interventionism, then isolationism, big Government, then small Government, liberalism then conservatism. His comments throughout his campaign have been incoherent and inconsistent at best, delusional and dangerous at worst. He either has a complete lack of understanding of the meaning of what he suggests, or he simply doesn't care and sees policy as merely a soundbyte to win votes.
It's an embarrassment for America, but in particular for his party. So much so that the normally lock-step party unity is dangerously close to shattering, to the point where prominent establishment Republicans won't commit to supporting Trump should he win the nomination. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus cut a hilarious and pathetically tragic figure before the recent debates as he attempted to grit his teeth and put on a show of cheerful unity in order to gin up enthusiasm ahead of a Trump win. He has become a laughing stock, along with every other Republican official who has held their tongue on this farce.
The point we're trying to make here is simply, how is he winning his primary? The Republican Party has its problems, but surely they have a few credible politicians left? He has said more than enough completely outrageous, insane, and frankly offensive things to disqualify anyone else from the Presidency, and carries himself with a demeanour that's more 6 year old child than Presidential, and yet he has been handily leading his party's primary from the start.
So just what the hell is going on?
How did Trump dominate the GOP?
The short answer is that this is simply the inevitable culmination of years of Republican Party policy. The Trump movement that has overrun the party and threatens its very existence is a monster of their own making.
But let's wind things back a little bit, to 2009 after the election of Barack Obama. The administration of George W Bush had gone out in scandal, considered by some to be among the very worst in American history. His controversies were numerous, and he left office with record low approval ratings in the 20s, and a whole new generation of Americans rallied against him and his party in a way not seen for decades. The Republican Party could have taken this moment to re-evaluate, to learn from their mistakes and reign in the party's excess and what many people viewed as a flirtation with extremism, but instead they doubled down, and went deep into denial.
In the eyes of a public they had already alienated, Republicans doubled down on religion and anti-intellectualism, they doubled down on class warfare and intolerance, they abused the powers of Congress to reach unprecedented levels of administrative obstruction. They did all of this with the explicit and frequently stated intention of damaging the Obama Presidency as much as possible, not even bothering with the pretense of acting in the interests of the country. Partisan politics taken to a whole new extreme. The clear conceit being that if Obama's Presidency failed, it would make their own maligned administration look good by comparison.
The crux is that in their mad attempt at self-vindication, they have forced themselves into increasingly extreme and indefensible positions. They have willingly ceded the middle ground to Obama's Democrats by necessity so they can continue to attack everything he does, and the more reasonable his position, the further they have to shift out to the extreme. Anyone will tell you that this is unthinkably shortsighted politics. The apparent intention was to fire up the most fanatical, and therefore most likely to vote, fringes of their own party with a view to short-term success, but there has been seemingly no thought given to re-establishing themselves in the long-term.
Thus by its own volition the Republican Party has become dependent for survival on the rage of fanatics. The party has veered so far to the right that traditionally Republican policies (like Obamacare), conservative judges (Merrick Garland), and any Republican who even so much as touches the Obama administration (Jon Hunstman) are now considered far too liberal for the party. Even qualified, reasonable politicians like Mitt Romney were forced to take indefensibly fringe positions in the primary in order to get nominated.
What used to be the party of moderate fiscal conservatives like Reagan and Romney is now the party of Jim Crow and David Duke. If you don't believe that, just have a look at the Jim Crow-like voter discrimination policies being prioritised by Republicans all over the country, and just look at how Trump refuses to criticize KKK leader Duke, because he knows all too well that the racist vote is a big part of his voter base.
The pyschology of a Trump voter
But don't fool yourself into thinking that these voters are all just racist or homophobic, those are simply examples of something far more fundamental about the nature of fanaticism.
Now bear with us as we talk science for a moment, but there exists a strange phenomenon, one that has been illustrated time and time again by independent studies. When someone is proven wrong, rather than altering ones beliefs to incorporate the new information, the tendency in human nature is to do the opposite, to hold onto those false beliefs with even greater conviction. It's called the backfire effect, and the more extreme and deeply held the belief, the bigger the effect. The psychology here is simple; people are insecure by nature, their worldviews form a part of their self-identity, and when that identity is challenged they fight back. The problem is that the deeper one entrenches one's self, the more complex the mass of ever increasing schema becomes. This is essentially the textbook definition of how fanaticism develops. This whole movement is pure partisanship.
So ultimately these voters are all unified by a single thing: a worldview that is out of step with mainstream reality (whether it is archaic bigoted notions, or merely a strong adherence to the conservative values that were so spectacularly repudiated by the voters) combined with an overpowering need for self-validation in the face of a world that no longer makes sense to them.
This is exactly what we have seen with the Republican party these past eight years, a single-minded obsession with self-vindication. So it is no surprise that their new direction would find them kinship with these desperate fringe personalities. It should be clear now that, by the very nature of fanaticism, the deeper the Republican party dug itself, the more and more extreme its fringe elements would become. This has led directly to the problems they have today.
Why the Republican Party created Frankenstein's Monster
Simply put, these voters are easily manipulated. Why bother going to the effort of crafting technically detailed policy, trying to pull off the difficult feat of appealing to multiple voting blocs, when you can get a whole lot of people to vote by simply appealing to fear? Why deny yourself the financial support of sleazy lobbyists whose interests might be at odds with the voters, when you can simply talk about "scary Muslims" and then not even have to risk revealing such unpopular policy to the distracted public?
In the Republican Party's apparent shortsightedness and cynicism they have spent eight years dredging the lowest common denominator for the sake of short-term gain. Now those extremists are all the party has left, so it is absolutely no surprise to see them take over completely.
Back in 2009 The Ephemeric saw this trend developing, and predicted it would bring about the demise of the Republican Party, a claim which at the time was ridiculed by some of our readers, but now appears eerily prescient. A split has been developing for years between the mainstream Republicans and this fervent fringe movement. Mainstream Republicans have been tolerating the fringe in so far as they can manipulate and take advantage of them, and the fringe has been sticking with a party they really disdain, because their politicians have been saying hateful bigoted things on the sly with a wink and a nudge.
The inmates take over the asylum
Here's the difference with Trump. When you're a relatively credible mainstream Republican, you want to stoke these fires without explicitly appearing to be extremist yourself, hence why you use code words like "religious freedom" when you actually mean not allowing homosexuals to marry, or talk about "birth certificates" when you really mean "hey look at that black guy" (ever wonder why Obama's opponents were so obsessed with his middle name?). You have to be deft enough not to appear too crazy to the mainstream electorate, while still letting the extreme fringe know you've got their back.
Trump doesn't do that. He has gone full-steam into crazy town, saying things that the Republican Party already knows this fringe base wants to hear, but that no sane Republican would ever be willing to say explicitly for fear of alienating the more moderate voters they need in order to win a general election. Why would he do this in spite of the conventional wisdom to which all his peers adhere? Partly it's shortsightedness, Trump has been winging this entire primary, so it's entirely in character that he would focus on crossing this initial hurdle before worrying about the general. But partly it's this: Donald Trump thinks the voters are idiots.
You can see it plainly in the language he uses, simplistic, childlike words and phrases. Instead of describing specific policy, it's just "really really good, really terrific". All nuance is gone, instead everything is defined by either "winning" or "losing". We apparently need to "win at trade" and "win at immigration" whatever the fuck that even means. Rather than specify criticisms against his opponents, they're just "losers", or he gives them childish nicknames. The reason he has taken so easily to internet memes is because that's literally his entire campaign, childish slogans and catchphrases, "we don't win anymore!", "make America great again!".
The Trump Coalition
And therein lies the heart of the Trump coalition. It's not just a case of bigots hearing bigoted things and giving him their support. His base comes from a wide variety of emotionally insecure fringe voters who are desperately seeking self-validation. These voters stand for absolutely nothing. They don't care that Trump talks about healthcare proposals that sound identical to Obamacare, they don't care that he criticizes Republican pillars like Bush or the Iraq War, and they sure as hell don't care about the obvious contradictions in Trump's few policy positions. In their extreme partisanship these people seek only one thing: validation. They just want to win. Trump is right to focus so heavily on that word, because that's the number one selling point to them.
These down and out people just want to win the election to vindicate their views, their intellect, and their whole worldview that has been so fundamentally challenged in recent years. This is why they are so obsessed with Trump's braggadocio catchphrases, his name calling (Trump fans have taken to calling his detractors "Cucks", a slang term for someone whose wife is cheating on them), his fixation on winners and losers. The entire subtext of the Trump campaign is "don't be a loser, back me and everyone will know you're a winner!" It's the same basic psychology that we've already discussed ad nauseam, and Trump is only too happy to appeal to this baser instinct.
And yet the Republican Party still tries to convince itself that their policies and the "mainstream" appeal of conservatism are the reasons behind the enthusiasm of their voters. They are wrong, this Trumpism is radically different to anything they have ever seen. Trump is a salesman first and foremost, his entire brand is based on the notion that he's a winner and if you buy what he's selling then you can be a winner too. The Republican Party is selling the same old snake oil to voters whose motivations it has gravely misinterpreted, Donald Trump is selling validation to an audience that badly craves it.
Ultimately what's happening right now is something that people have been predicting for years. The Republican Party in its desperation has been digging itself into a hole of crazy, and now they've completely lost control of the movement. They spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars stoking fear and anger thinking it would somehow lead to permanent resurgence. It hasn't, and now they face a very real existential threat.
As it stands, it is almost impossible for anyone other than Trump to win the nomination before the convention. Even if the party establishment gets its way and it comes down to a contested convention, that gives them the impossible choice of backing Trump, or overturning the democratic process by selecting someone nobody voted for, a move which would likely split the party permanently. And if Trump does get the nomination, then there's the question of whether to support him, and in his victory essentially hand over the soul of the party to Trumpism, potentially dooming the conservative movement for a generation.
It's a cruel twist of fate that in order to save the conservative movement, they might have to give up this election. Let Trump get the nomination, and then let him lose in order to nip this Trumpist movement in the bud before it begins. But the cruelest thing of all is that whatever happens, they can have no one to blame but themselves.