Even as the battle lines in the 2016 American presidential election have grown starker with the emergence of Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee and Hillary Clinton as the Democratic one, the course of the race is in some ways more confused that it was just a few weeks ago.
Then, Republican elites were falling in line behind Trump following his victory in the party primaries over all establishment challengers. Now, even many Republicans who, against their better instincts, endorsed the tycoon are expressing public unease with his divisive and undisciplined campaign.
Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders no longer has hope of winning the Democratic nomination, but continues to hold the Clinton campaign hostage to a list of demands that would pull her away from the wide-open center ground of American politics and to the leftist fringe. Many among the plurality of Americans in the middle of the political spectrum feel that they have no one to vote for in November.
The principal problem is on the Republican side. From the perspective of its establishment elites, Trump has conducted a hostile takeover of the party. Republicans have traditionally advocated policies that promote free markets, free people, and an internationalist foreign policy. But Trump supports economic protectionism, illiberal controls on immigration, an ethnic majoritarianism alien to the American tradition, and an approach to foreign policy that seems to reserve more vitriol for US allies than adversaries.
Trump is the leader of the country’s conservative party, but his policy positions are not in fact conservative. He heads a party of traditionalists even as he promises radical departures from tradition in foreign and domestic policy. Yet for many Republican leaders — and many Republican voters — the principal problem is not Trump’s policy positions, which may in fact be malleable and would be subject to the pressures of the Oval Office were he to be elected. Rather, the central concern is his character.
He sits at the head of a party whose leader in 1863 propounded the Emancipation Proclamation, but he plays the race card as a wedge. He seems willing to say whatever his audiences want to hear, leading him to take openly contradictory positions on a range of issues. He is abusive of those who disagree with him and seems to believe in his own cult of personality. He appears dismissive of core tenets of governance like America’s constitutional separation of powers, picking fights with members of the judiciary and with the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
His brashness may be an asset in connecting with angry voters who already support him, but it alienates the substantial majority who do not — many of whom did not vote in their party primaries, but will vote in the general election in November. Polling now shows that seven in 10 Americans view Trump unfavorably.
The conundrum for Republicans is that Trump successfully has mobilised a part of their voting base that supports him fervently. But his attacks on women, Muslim-Americans, immigrants, and even US soldiers and veterans may ultimately prove more successful in mobilising a super-majority of Americans who are not part of that hard-core base to vote against him in November.
Republican leaders are even more uncomfortable given the risks Trump poses not only to their principles, but to their Congressional majorities. A blowout in the presidential vote in November, in which Trump’s campaign collapses under the weight of its own contradictions, could also lead to a Democratic sweep of the House and Senate, with Trump not only losing the White House for the Republicans, but sacrificing control of Congress too — leaving a legacy of Republican defeat down the ticket that endures long after he fades from the scene. At the same time, most Congressional Republicans understandably cannot bring themselves to publicly support the Democratic nominee for president, because they are not Democrats.
Republicans are thus suffering from an existential crisis of identity, in which the core tenets of the Congressional and establishment wings of the party are rejected by the man who now leads it as their putative presidential nominee. No living former Republican president is supporting Trump. Nor is the party’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, who has emerged as one of Trump’s most outspoken critics. Party grandees like House Speaker Paul Ryan and 2008 presidential nominee John McCain are caught in the impossible position of acknowledging Trump as their party’s nominee, whom they will therefore support, even as they daily distance themselves from his divergent positions on key issues.
But even as Republicans form their circular firing squad, Democrats are not out of the woods themselves. Their nominee is an establishment aristocrat and experienced policy wonk who is hawkish on foreign policy. That these qualities could also describe Republican luminaries like Jeb Bush explains why many Republican elites who have never voted for a Democrat are preparing to vote for her.
But the votes of the elite will not decide this election. Bluntly put, a large proportion of the broader body politic at this time does not like or trust Hillary Clinton. Super-majorities of Americans polled, including many Democrats, deem her dishonest, untrustworthy, and corrupt. Trump’s jibe about “Crooked Hillary” sounds like a cheap schoolyard epithet, but it unfortunately sticks.
Yet is it friendly fire from fellow Democrats that perhaps has been more costly to the Clinton campaign thus far. Bernie Sanders may have done more damage to Clinton than Donald Trump ever will. His endless primary campaign against her has bled her substantial support, including among over 12 million Democrats who voted for him (as against 16 million for Clinton); nearly a third of them tell pollsters they will not support her in November.
Sanders’ old-fashioned state socialism and protectionism have pushed her in the wrong direction on trade, regulation, and other policy areas where she should rapidly be pivoting to the center ground to appeal to independents and Republicans unwilling to support Trump. His continuing challenge and lingering threat have prevented her and the formidable Democratic party establishment from turning their full fire on Trump.
Americans’ dissatisfaction with both the Democratic and Republican nominees theoretically leaves the door wide open to a third-party nominee who can occupy the center ground and appeal to both independents and disaffected partisans. But distinguished figures on both the center-left and center-right so far have demurred.
The American republic will survive whoever voters choose in November. But it is distinctly odd that, in a nation of 320 million people underdoing transformative domestic change in a volatile world, they will not have a more satisfactory choice of leader.
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