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What is the matter with America?

The presidential race is disquieting, and is dominated by uninspiring, average and mediocre candidates from both parties

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

In 2004, American journalist and historian Thomas Frank published a book entitled ‘What is the matter with Kansas? How conservatives won the heart of America’, in which he explored the reasons why so many citizens vote against their own economic and political interests. The phenomenon of individuals ‘betraying’ their social class is well known, and the history of left-wing activism in the twentieth century is full of examples of leftist and Marxist leaders betraying their privileged classes and leading the charge of the downtrodden, against the entrenched economic and political order. Frank’s book is a complex and fascinating tale, told in penetrating, witty and at times hilarious prose, of the slow transformation of his native Kansas from a left-leaning state in the 19th century, into a hotbed of conservatism in recent decades.

Frank delineates how the conservative Republicans framed the issues in deceptive ways, how they distorted political concepts and how they projected themselves as the defenders of traditional American values, and the authentic representatives of the ‘average’ citizen who is supposedly being manipulated by the liberal elites. Instead of focusing the political discourse on the economic interests of the voters, on transparent and accountable governance, and the political empowerment of a well-informed citizenry, conservatives shifted the discourse to explosive or so-called cultural ‘wedge’ issues such as abortion, banning gay marriage, prayers in schools, opposition to gun control and immigration. In this surreal and myopic world, the alienated citizen undermines his/her own interests without realizing it. Thus, ‘Strip today’s Kansans of their job security, and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land, and next thing you know they are protesting in front of abortion clinics’.

Of demagogues, narcissists and flamethrowers

Every election cycle in recent decades brought with it an assortment of ambitious, self-appointed saviors of the Republic. Narcissists, eccentrics, publicity seekers, demagogues, rich men and women who believe that they are entitled to lead, who run along serious candidates with established political records. Although the Republican Party tends to produce most of these candidates, the Democratic Party has had its own smaller share, notably Al Sharpton, who had a checkered political past, including dabbling in race exploitation. Four years ago, the initial phase of the Republican Presidential race was dominated by Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, a loud flamethrower, and Herman Cain, an eccentric and unserious candidate.

This year, the large Republican field, with its well-known governors, like Scott Walker and Rick Perry, former governor Jeb Bush. and sitting senators like Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio, has been shaken by Donald Trump, the loudest, meanest, most reckless, most uninformed and richest mouth that has entered the political Coliseum in recent years. And like the gladiators of yore, he shows no mercy while cutting his scorched-earth path. Donald Trump will not clinch the nomination of his party, but because of his wealth and celebrity and the shameless fascination of the Media (particularly television) with his incredibly inarticulate and vacant views, he will leave a trail of political wreckage in his wake that could conceivably undermine the Republican Candidacy.

Keeping the barbarians behind the wall

Trump declared his candidacy on June 16, with vintage unrestrained arrogance, claiming that he would be the greatest president ever elected, and vowing to deprive Iran of nuclear power and defeating the ‘Islamic State’ ISIS, without saying how. Then the mouth began to spew some of the most nativist, xenophobic and overtly racist insults against Mexican immigrants ever uttered publicly by a candidate.’ They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems to us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists.’ Trump was throwing red meat to the hard core nativist conservatives in the Republican Party, exploiting their fear of illegal immigration and promising them that he will build a wall, to keep the proverbial barbarians behind at bay. Trump found the convenient enemy, and his popularity soared, in part because the Media allowed itself to be exploited by a master manipulator. In a silent commentary on the lack of moral courage and basic decency, most of his rivals and the National Republican Committee refrained from criticizing his racist rants. There was no profile in courage anywhere in the Republican field.

When Trump viciously attacked Senator John McCain’s status as a war hero who languished and got tortured in Vietnamese jails for 5 years, because he was ‘captured’, his rivals realized that he provided them with an easy and uncostly reason to pounce on him. Governor Rick Perry was the candidate that stood out among his peers, when he delivered an eloquent speech warning that Trump’s political rampage could derail the Republican Party in the election. In a speech in Washington, Perry called Trump’s candidacy ‘a cancer on conservatism’ that ‘must be clearly diagnosed, excised and discarded’ if the Party is to be preserved. Perry said that ‘Trumpism..is a toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition if pursued’.

A reservoir of alienation and idiocy

But not even attacking a national hero could slow Trump’s numbers from rising in opinion polls. Analysts said that Trump was tapping into a deep reservoir of voters’ alienation from a dysfunctional political system, a lack of an effective immigration policy, that Republicans are not thrilled with the current field, and the voters’ fascination with blunt spoken candidates ‘who tell it like it is’ and can stand up to China, Russia, Iran and other adversaries of America. It is also true that Trump was tapping into an equally deep reservoir of voters’ ignorance, apathy and idiocy.

The Republican race looked like a circus, and some of the acts could have been very entertaining if the status of America in the world was not very serious, with unprecedented violence in the Middle East and an assertive, even belligerent, Russia and China. Other candidates had to come up with their own stunts, to show the voters that they are still in the race. Senator Graham released a video in which he was shown destroying his cell phone in a variety of funny ways, after Trump carelessly revealed his cell phone number publicly. Senator Rand Paul had his own act online in which he was shown burning or shredding the United States tax code. One wonders, who will save the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodor Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower from itself? Watching this political spectacle, a circus with multiple simultaneous acts, one can only ask: What is the matter with America?

The L'enfant terrible of Republican politics

In previous election cycles, some of the current candidates sought Trump’s political endorsement and financial help. Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee in 2012 said after receiving Trump’s blessings: ‘having his endorsement is a delight’, despite Trump’s racial and ethnic attacks on President Obama, and after questioning repeatedly whether the President was born in the United States. Many of those Republicans who were rightly indignant when Trump questioned Senator McCain’s heroism in the war, were leading the charge to destroy the reputation of Democratic Senator John Kerry, another Vietnam veteran who has his own share of scars and medals, when he ran against President George W. Bush in 2004.

Donald Trump, in his abrasive, aggressive and ruthless McCarthyism, is at home in the Republican Party circa 2015. This is a party that has been nursing in recent decades a culture of demonization of Democrats and liberalism (Democrats are not innocents of such demonization, but they have not been as thorough and as relentless as the radical conservatives in the Republican Party have been). The rallying cry of the Reagan Revolution that the Federal Government is the problem, has morphed into hostility against Government and that hostility towards Government and the paying of taxes constitute the main pillars of the new religion of the Republican Party.

In recent years, all the non-fundamental issues of governance (almost unfettered access to guns, abortion, same sex marriage, denial of climate change) have become the hallmark of the Republican Party. Some Republican leaders wallow in their denial of climate change and the theory of evolution and they relish the status of the Republican Party as the anti-science party. The Republican convention in 2012 adopted a number of planks that demonstrated the surreal world that author Thomas Frank described in his book: a plank against abortion, a plank against immigration, a plank against the ridiculous and non-existing threat of the so-called Sharia Law and a plank calling for stricter enforcement laws against adult pornography. The obsession of some conservative Republicans with some sex related issues, reminds me of the similar – actually worse- obsession with sex that many radical and Salafi Islamists exhibit.

Disquieting elections

The United States is still, and should remain, uniquely qualified to lead the world in these times of global transitions in regions as varied as the Middle East, Europe and East Asia, and in the areas of trade, communications and social media, and should remain capable of doing great things, preferably with partners, but alone if necessary. But the current paralysis and dysfunction in Washington will prevent even a gifted and strong President regardless of his or her party affiliation from pursuing such goals. More than sixty years ago, the world was envious of America’s marvelous inter-state highway system and bridges (Built by the Republican Eisenhower), a network that is decrepit and crumbling right now. The United States is the only advanced country in the world without a high speed trains. Income inequality is threatening the middle class, and most Americans don’t think that their best days are ahead. There are spaces of poverty in the country that are truly shameful. The presidential race is disquieting, and is dominated by uninspiring, average and mediocre candidates from both parties. We may end up with two candidates representing two entrenched political dynasties that have dominated presidential politics since the 1980’s. Surely America deserves better than this.

Two years ago, I lamented in this space that ‘the U.S. today, is a disheveled superpower. We are no longer the leaders in education, health, economic growth, personal income and happiness. Unless radical systemic reforms are enacted soon, the country will continue to muddle through a polarized, darker territory. This is no way to govern a ‘great power’. Is it too much to ask : What is the matter with America?

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Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.