The year of voting dangerously

Populist demagogues like Trump are not created instantly. They are the product of slow moving cultural and political trends.

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

It’s the year of the outsiders. It’s the year of the angry voter. It’s the year of the insurgents with pitchforks marching on Washington to take it back from the oligarchs. It’s the year where the rebel yell has drowned the little civility that remained in the political discourse. It’s the year when vulgarity, crassness and obtuseness were celebrated as courageous rejection of stale convention and political correctness, and when authentic passion exposed political expediency and cold calculus. It’s the year when Americans engage in the most ritualistic and longest election season in the world. No other country choses a leader with comparable pump and circumstance, splendid colors, outlandish expenses, exaggerated promises, and strange assortments of good, bad and ugly contenders, as America. It’s the season I admire the most, and dread the most.

Three rebels and a daughter of the establishment

Three of the four major candidates describe themselves and are seen by most as ‘outsiders’ seeking the highest office in the land to deliver the country from its current woes, and save it from the clutches of a compromised political class of professional Republicans and Democrats that rigged the system to its own benefit and betrayed the people. Two would be saviors, one from the Right, Republican Senator Ted Cruz and one from the Left, the self-described Democratic Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders, and the third, a rampaging narcissist, the racist, sexist, Muslim and Latino hater Donald Trump ,who expediently in this election cycle is describing himself a Republican, have dominated the last seven months of the long race. The fourth, is former Secretary of State, former Senator and former first lady, Hillary Clinton who along with her husband former President Bill Clinton have dominated the Democratic Party for the last quarter of a century. Hillary Clinton, who is being challenged for the second time in eight years by an outsider, finds herself unable to shed her skin as the legitimate daughter of the hated establishment.

Populist demagogues like Trump are not created instantly. They are the product of slow moving cultural and political trends

Hisham Melhem

For most of the pre-primary season, the outsiders were considered long shots and dark horses; at best protest candidates, at worst publicity seekers, particularly the former reality television host Donald Trump. Senator Cruz, who is universally hated in the senate, was not seen initially as a credible contender, and Senator Sanders was dismissed early on as a novelty, because the American electorate will not take seriously a socialist candidate, and besides he is challenging the supposedly anointed and inevitable Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.

Despair in the Heartland

The impressive electoral victories achieved by Cruz, Trump and Sanders in the states of Iowa and New Hampshire, conferred on the outsider candidates the credibility they craved and gave the movements that they have created a degree of legitimacy. The rise of the candidacy of Senator Sanders, his wide support among the youth, including young women and independent voters, has shaken the lackluster Clinton campaign. The issues that Senator Sanders is raising, such as income inequality, and how the special interests and big corporations at Wall Street are in control of the political class in Washington and a corrupt campaign finance system designed to serve the oligarchy, have galvanized a movement most observers did not see coming. And although Sanders’ speeches focus mostly on economic issues and are laden with disturbing statistics about poverty, inequality and social injustice, even his critics would concede that he brings to the campaign a genuine passion, that turn his rallies into poetry, compared with the flat, and calculating unattractive prose of Hillary Clinton. Even if Sanders proposed solutions are wanting or not fully achievable, (and he is not convincing as a Commander-In-Chief) he has forced Clinton to fight for the nomination, and pushed her further to the left by raising issues Democratic candidates ignored for decades. Sanders may not be able to win a national election, but he is being embraced by a significant segment of the electorate that is hungry for a trustworthy and transparent candidate who calls himself a socialist after decades of Democratic politicians fleeing from the label liberal.

If Sanders articulate from the left, the frustrations and concerns of the youth who are no longer sure that their future will be better than their parents’, Trump does the same from the right, albeit less artfully and less coherently the concerns of mostly middle aged whites who believe that their country is slipping from their hands and is being taken over by immigrants and minorities. Both candidates are tapping into a reservoir of alienation and despair. America is changing in fundamental ways, economically, socially, culturally and demographically, and many people and groups are unable to adjust. A recent study showed alarming trends of rising death rates among middle-aged white Americans, not due to cancer, heart disease or diabetes, but to an “epidemic” of suicides and substance abuse. The least educated within this group suffered also from physical pain due to deteriorating health, and financial distress. These new downtrodden citizens are spreading despair in America’s heartland.

The Time of the Khawarij

But it was the thundering demagogue Trump who violently shook the foundations of the Republican Party and wrecked the plans of its high priests and moneyed class to rally behind a safe establishment candidate who will be beholden to the real powers that be. The dust storm generated by candidate trump was like a merciless Khamsin coming from nowhere and blinded everyone in the political and chattering classes. It is difficult to explain this phenomenon of three dominant outsiders, particularly Trump to Americans let alone to people overseas. In an article in Arabic I likened them, particularly Trump and Cruz in a derogatory, tongue and cheek fashion to the Khawarij , the extremists of the early Muslim era. Literally the Khawarij are those “who went out” of the mainstream. In Islam the Khawarij sect was born the moment the split between the Sunnis and the Shiite sects occurred, and they were opposed to both.

Before Americans began to vote for their candidates, Trump was called, vulgar, clown, arrogant, serial liar, shameless and scandalous. And he deserved everything that was thrown at him. Many seasoned election experts and historians anticipated his demise, but Trump had an impenetrable skin and every arrow hit him was broken. Like the infamous Russian peasant Rasputin, he refused to die; and in the process broke almost every taboo in American politics. From the moment he announced his candidacy in his own unorthodox rambling way He insulted Mexican immigrants calling them rapists and killers. Then he broadened the circle of his favorite daemons; journalists, Muslims, refugees, and war heroes. His foreign bogymen were again the Mexicans, Chinese and the Japanese accusing them of stealing American jobs and of unfair trade practices. He threatened Arab oil producing countries allied with the U.S. that they should pay protection money or he would go and steal their oil.

Trump’s noxious rhetoric was adopted by some of his peers, including Senator Cruz, Senator Marco Rubio and Governor Chris Christy, who unleashed their own fury against Muslims and the non-existing Syrian refugees flooding the U.S. It was a season of fake faith, and exaggerated religiosity. Trump, the Casino owner, who married three times and who most likely never read the Bible seriously, all of a sudden got religion, and became a Bible wielding man of faith; never mind that he hilariously misquoted the holy book to a very religious audience. Senator Rubio injected God incessantly in his speeches, telling his audiences that as a President he will be guided by religion, ignoring the Constitution that guarantees the separation of Church and State. Senator Cruz, the most ideologically and religiously rigid of all the Khawarij candidates, turned his victory speech after he won the Iowa Caucuses, into a religious sermon, beginning with “to God be the glory”.

Trump the destroyer

Behind his clownish spectacles, his brash and vulgar ways, Trump has proven to be politically cunning and adept at discerning the fears, real or imagined of the angriest among the electorate, particularly the middle aged whites. Trump is exploiting the fact that a minority of 20% of Americans trust the federal government, and that 60 % of Americans are convinced that the American Dream is no longer achievable. Trump’s main slogan is “make America great again”. He always talks about restoring America’s ability to “achieve victories” once again. He channeled these concerns and fears into anger directed at immigrants, and Muslims and foreign powers. It was alarming that 65% of those voters who gave Trump his large victory in New Hampshire agreed with him that Muslims should be banned from the U.S.

However, the most dangerous trend Trump is creating is the mainstreaming of bigotry and the politics of fear and resentment of others. Trump is demeaning the political discourse in the country. Some of his “speeches” are disconnected incomplete sentence stitched together by primitive grunts. Once I tried to transcribe one of his “speeches” and ended up with something akin to political “Dadaism”, a collection of words picked at random and lacking meaning or coherence. His rallies have the cadence of mobs on the prowl. They are the modern American version of the Roman “Bread and Circuses” where Trump provides the palliative to satisfy the immediate, vulgar needs of the spectators. And the occasional protester is summarily thrown out and sometimes beaten.

Trump has been chipping away at what is left of civility in America’s political culture, and is destroying the Party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower. It is disturbing in the extreme, that now after his commanding victory in New Hampshire; Trump could conceivably become the Republican Party’s candidate for the Presidency. And yet, no one in mainstream media or in Public life would dare call this demagogue in his face that he is a bigot, dilettante, misogynist , racist and a peddler of the politics of fear. In times of political and economic uncertainty, patriotism becomes the last refuge of scoundrels. Populist demagogues like Trump are not created instantly. They are the product of slow moving cultural and political trends. In the last few decades we turned what should be healthy skepticism of central authority to hatred of government, anti-taxation into a quasi-religion. And a cultural war was waged against those who dared to be different, socially and culturally. Trump is the product of such trends. American patriots, Republicans and Democrats and independents should stop the march of this dangerous scoundrel to the White House.

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.