Elections, Democracy, and “the Donald”
September 16, 2015
There are two, rather competing “stories” about the United States and its politics. By one of these stories, our political system is democratic and we the people are a democratic people. Periodically, as prescribed by our constitutions, elections are held, the people’s will is canvassed, and candidates run for offices in order to serve that will once they have been elected.
By the other story, one most are less familiar with, those with power – political, economic, and/or social power – seek to maintain those powers and to do so, they find it necessary to manage or “massage” our election processes, thereby limiting or even “short-circuiting” those allegedly democratic processes. The “Ins” do not “rig elections” in the ordinary sense of buying votes, but they do try their best to control elections to preserve their power so they can continue to serve their own interests and those of their supporters.
When there is widespread popular discontent, when the people are dissatisfied, even irate, when there is considerable “civil unrest,” such control or the “massaging” of our elections is of great importance to the “Ins.” At such times, “insurgents” arise, “Outs” trying to become “Ins,” and, if left unattended, just might succeed.
At such times, it makes sense for the “Ins” to adopt the mantle of “insurgency,” to appear as being against the very system that empowered and empowers them and that they control. Hence, these days, the phrase “Washington is broken” is a charge made repeatedly even by those in power, those who control the same “Washington.” Insiders try to run as if they were outsiders and, when they succeed, very little changes, as happened, for example after the 2006 congressional elections were won overwhelmingly by the Democrats. Of course, such a phenomenon often occurs, for example, in the 1968 presidential elections when Richard Nixon ran as an outsider, especially with regard to the Vietnam War, won a landslide victory, but then the war continued for another five years or so.
But what does this have to do “the Donald,” Donald Trump and his campaign for the presidency? On the one hand, Trump’s campaign may be seen as an interesting example of “massaging” our electoral process because while he looks and sounds like an insurgent, seeking to overthrow the established order, he is anything but. Trump is a billionaire businessman, just as Mitt Romney was a billionaire businessman. That he flaunts his wealth while saying allegedly outrageous things makes it seem as if he is “liberated;” that is, makes him seem to embrace “unauthorized” thoughts and would as president propose and implement policies outside the mainstream. In this way, he will “make America great again.”
Yet there is little indicate that Trump has thought much about, to say nothing of thinking in depth, what would help right our politics or, in the current lingo, “fix Washington.” In fact, it is more than plausible to argue that Trump is the perfect establishment candidate because, while he appears to challenge the establishment, he actually is its embodiment. He proudly boasts of his accomplishments, which of course occurred as he played the game within the established economic and social arrangements. Seemingly, Trump’s boasts amount to nothing more than a claim that he knows how to game the system, to have succeeded because he is more “competent,” “smarter,” and a better “deal-maker” that those currently holding power in Washington. The system, that is, the established order is quite capable of bringing America to greatness again, if only people will elect Trump and his cohorts. In brief, Trump is no insurgent; he is merely just another person who thinks that “competence” will be enough to remake or refurbish American society and politics.
How little this veiled argument for competence addresses the anger of many Americans is reflected by the fact that what makes Trump attractive are his allegedly outrageous statements, which illustrate that many Americans sense that the established order is anything but able to restore the United States to something like greatness. “Politics as usual” is not working and, hence, those who talk like Trump, those who claim they would embrace actions deemed beyond the pale by the presently authorized ideology, attract many of the dissatisfied and the disempowered.
Moreover, Trump’s alleged insurgency, while reinforcing the idea that our political system is democratic or open to significant challenges, actually undermines the possibility for such change. Those in positions of power, the politically pre-eminent, are quite willing to tolerate Trump and his antics because they know that, in the longer run, he will fail, that they will be able to defeat him. And when that happens or is made to happen, as it will, those in power will be able to reassert their indispensability, claiming that insurgency is a pipe dream and that the current system is the best that is available or even simply the best. Again, this has happened in the past, for example, when the establishment Republicans tolerated Goldwater for president in 1964, shortly after the Kennedy assassination, knowing he would go down to defeat against LBJ. Similarly, it is plausible that a similar phenomenon was arranged in 1972 when the Democrats tolerated George McGovern, knowing that Richard Nixon would beat him in that presidential election.
Trump then is useful to the politically preeminent, those who hold power in the currently established order insofar as he makes insurgency look inane, if not downright insane. As a result, no significant changes will be forthcoming in the aftermath of this presidential election and this will be regarded by the established powers as proof of their indispensability, even of their excellence. It is or will be a strange situation.