“In this world of sin and sorrow, there’s always something to be thankful for. As for me, I rejoice that I’m not a Republican,” said American journalist and satirist H L Mencken. The nine Republicans sharing the stage with Donald Trump during their party’s first debate must have been rearranging Mencken’s quote, cursing the fact that they are Republicans.
For Trump, odious and blustering billionaire that he is, is well ahead of the pack in the early days of the race for the Republican nomination for the presidency. The once-proud party of former presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan has descended to lauding a fact-challenged reality-show host. It would be hysterical were it not so tragic.
Yet on Aug. 5, just ahead of the first Republican debate, the Real Clear Politics average of polls had Trump at 23 percent, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush well behind at 13 percent, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker at 11 percent.
None of the other Republican hopefuls (there are 17 ‘serious’ candidates in all) was above the 10-percent threshold. Most discouraging for the rest of the field, it is not as though Trump were not committing verbal suicide every day.
Just over the past summer, he has laid into Mexican immigrants (denigrating them as “criminals” and “rapists”), war hero Senator John McCain, and popular Fox New anchor Megyn Kelly, who had the temerity to ask Trump about his former statements denigrating women. In Trump’s boorish replies to her, it would seem as if her question was on the mark.
Trump will be with us for a while, but he will not assume the mantle of Lincoln. American politics is sick, but the illness is not yet terminalDr. John C. Hulsman
However, for the moment, despite these daily gaffes that would fell mere mortals, it is all Trump, all the time. He may resemble the middle-aged bore with the bad comb-over at every golf clubhouse, ranting about the world, but in his very angry remarks he has struck a nerve with America’s hard-working have-nots.
How can this possibly be explained to rational human beings? Given America’s rigid first-past-the-post electoral system, this means populist movements, to have any say at all, must work within the cramped confines of the established Democratic and Republican parties.
Trump’s sickening if temporary rise has merely underlined that a vocal minority of around 20 percent of the Republican Party (roughly corresponding to his poll rating) -populists enraged with the American political establishment in general - support Trump specifically for ‘telling it like it is,’ rather than the Republican Party generally.
Herein lies the danger for the party. When Trump blithely made clear he would not rule out a third-party run if he fails to win the nomination, alarm bells went off throughout the Republican establishment. Candidly announcing that he places himself above his party means he will never have the nomination, as most Republicans simply will not accept such blackmail.
On the other hand, were a large segment of the populist right to follow Trump, they would hand victory in the presidential election to the right’s hated nemesis Hillary Clinton. The trick for the party is not just to see Trump off, but also woo back his angry, populist voters.
Failure to do so will make him the Ross Perot of this election cycle, a man whose independent candidacy doomed George Bush’s chances at re-election in 1992, and handed the White House to Bill Clinton.
However, Trump has no political organization behind him to speak of, something necessary to win the nomination of any serious modern American political party. He will be with us for a while, but he will not assume the mantle of Lincoln. American politics is sick, but the illness is not yet terminal.
So who can win? There are three possibilities; and given the 17-way split, there are others who could still emerge, such as maverick Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, or Ohio Governor John Kasich. At present, however, the three most likely winners are Bush, Walker, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
Bush has raised more money than he can count (as of mid-Aug. 2015, a whopping $120 million). He has locked down the lion’s share of the best political operatives to run things in the crucial early nominating states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. He is the darling of the Republican political establishment, and his poll numbers are competitive in a one-on-one race with Hillary Clinton.
Walker is a genuine conservative who can claim to have prospered in Wisconsin, Democratic-leaning territory. He took on public sector union power, surviving a recall effort, and won a second term for his principled stand, making him a conservative hero. He appeals to both party regulars and social conservatives. Far more than Bush, he can reach all segments of the fractious party.
Rubio has the highest favourability ratings of any major candidate, which means more people like him than do not (unlike Clinton, Bush or Walker). Youthful yet eloquent, Rubio can electrify crowds by his true personification of the American dream, as he rose from his parent’s immigrant roots to become a Senator, all in a generation. It is a genuinely optimistic story for a country that, despite its flirtation with the gloom of Trump, remains the most optimistic place on the planet.
In the wake of her email-server scandal that refuses to go away, and her lackluster campaign, Clinton’s negatives continue to rise, giving the three hope that if they can weather the Trump challenge and win back the populist right, the White House could be theirs.
However, there is a gigantic ideological problem brewing for whoever is going to be the Republican nominee. To win over Republican populists, the candidate will have to move to the right. To win over independents (and win the general election), the candidate will have to move to the center. Doing both at once is impossible, and amounts to the slender advantage Clinton retains as the 2016 election gets fully under way.
Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has also given 1490 interviews, written over 410 articles, prepared over 1270 briefings, and delivered more than 460 speeches on foreign policy around the world.