Fear and loathing in Trump nation
Regardless of which candidate wins the election, Donald Trump will remake the Republican Party and will change America
The die is cast. It is official now. And the angry masses have spoken and have chosen Donald J. Trump as the Republican presidential nominee. It shall be written that the United States of America, the strongest, most influential country in history circa 2016 held an election unlike any other. That the nominee of one of its two major political parties was a well-known charlatan, a vulgar, narcissistic, misogynistic and chauvinistic scoundrel who conned his way in his business affairs, and shady relations with dubious associates throughout his life.
During his meteoric rise to political prominence, he fully employed the tools of intimidation that he had honed in his personal and business dealings, slicing his opponents mercilessly and mostly with sadistic relish, he insulted their physical attributes, distorted their records, denied their experiences, coined epithets for each one, and lied repeatedly about his record and never presented a single coherent policy position, and always, always played on people’s fears and anxieties by manufacturing boogeymen of all sizes and promising to slay them if he is elected.
The nomination of Trump is unprecedented; he was never elected to any office, and his “Republican” credentials are very thin, and throughout his adult life he was not driven by political or ideological considerations but by opportunistic impulses and by his boundless greed. This is a wealthy man – no one knows the size of his wealth, but certainly it is not as big as he claims- who prides himself of rigging the system to avoid paying taxes trough declaring bankruptcies, and establishing fake enterprises like his infamous “Trump University”; Trump is the product of the very economic and political establishment that he is telling us now he is running against.
An American strongman is born
The fact that less than 11 million citizens voted for Trump in the primaries and caucuses representing less than 5 percent of eligible voters is no consolation to those opposing him, because the popular passions he has unleashed by his shameless fearmongering of “others”, be they immigrants, Hispanics, Muslims, Arabs, or Mexicans, his naked exploitation of legitimate economic dislocations, and the alienation of large swath of Americans from the dysfunctional two party system, and his defamation of whole communities inside and outside the United States has already intimidated many of his early critics. There is more than a whiff of George C. Wallace, the late racist governor of Alabama and three-time presidential hopeful, permeated Trump’s rallies, and the threats that he and his supporters have issued against those who dare to demonstrate against them could conceivably lead to bloodshed.
Regardless of which candidate wins the election, Donald Trump will remake the Republican Party and will change AmericaHisham Melhem
In recent weeks the Republican Party and most of its pliant leaders and many of Trump’s rivals have rallied around him, including Senators Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio who exchanged personal insults and invective with Trump during the primaries, and other party luminaries like Senator John McCain whose record as prisoner of war was dismissed by Trump. They have invoked party unity and the visceral opposition to the likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Rubio is now volunteering to speak on behalf of Trump at the Republican convention.
Talk about profiles in courage. Only a handful of current and former Republican leaders like the 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, and some vocal commentators and writers are still waging a rearguard but desperate resistance to Trump’s hostile takeover of their party. The case of one of the few Republican leaders still manning the ramparts against the Trump onslaught encapsulates the state of fear and loathing in Trump Nation. Trump’s disdain to his Republican critics and his misogyny were on display recently when he gratuitously attacked Susana Martinez the first Latina Governor of New Mexico, who is also the leader of the Republican Governors Association, simply because she refused to endorse him or attend a rally in her state. But what was more shocking than the attack, was the silence of the other Republican governors who failed to defend their esteemed colleague. Only the Speaker of the House congressman Paul Ryan, who is still delaying his endorsement of Trump dared to show solidarity with Governor Martinez. Even the foreign leaders who either dismissed or criticized Trump early on because of his hostility to international trade agreements, or his call for the temporary exclusion of Muslims from entering the US found themselves recalculating after he captured the nomination.
When President Obama said during the Group of 7 nations summit in Japan that the positions and pronouncement of the Republican nominee have “rattled” foreign leaders, Trump said “If they are rattled in a friendly way that’s a good thing, not a bad thing”. It was ironic, that President Obama whose policies towards Russia, Syria, Iran and China have rattled many of America’s traditional allies, was saying that Trump’s views have rattled world leader, a belief he clearly shares with them.
If Trump is elected, his executive and political power will be so immense and incommensurate with the number of those who voted for him. Historic political hinge moments, good or ugly, are not necessarily achieved by huge majorities of people. In fact small enthusiastic numerical minorities driven by political, ideological or religious passions and led by strong and charismatic leader or leaders have been shaping, building and destroying civilizations since the beginning of organized societies.
The conventional explanation of the rise of Trump nation, (and the Bernie Sanders’ phenomenon on the Left) which reduce his appeal to political alienation from Washington and the economic disparities of many Americans, particularly middle aged white men who are either unemployed or underemployed has merit, but Trump (and Sanders) are about much more than that.
The American society – because of shifting demographics, the digital revolution and the economic and political impact of globalization and in the wake of the two longest wars in American history- is changing in a dizzying and on almost every level, and many people are unwilling or incapable of adjusting to these tectonic shifts. By their nature, transitional times are uncertain. The fears and anxiety they create provide fertile land to cunning opportunists like Trump.
When faith in established institutions fades, as represented by the dysfunction of the two party system in Washington, and when governance on the federal, state and local levels fails to efficiently address the people’s expectations particularly in times of economic uncertainties, the appeal of a strong savior willing to act in unorthodox fashion becomes very attractive. Hence, Trump’s appeal to many social constituencies; White low income voters without college degrees, as well as some professional and upper middle class voters, also very conservative voters as well as moderate Republicans flocked to his campaign. Even surprisingly – given Trump’s ostentatious and promiscuous life style- some Evangelical groups found in him the answer to their prayers.
The Republican predicament
Trump nation could not have risen if the Republican Party did not create the toxic environment for such phenomenon. In recent years the Republican tent of olden days has all but disappeared; the socially moderate but fiscally conservative Republicans have been declared extinct. The old healthy conservative skepticism of centralized power was gradually turned into hostility to federal authority. In this environment a trend of anti-intellectualism sets in. Science and the Humanities, as well as critical inquiry, are seen as secular anti-religious tools. About 74 percent of Republicans in the U.S. Senate and 53 percent in the House of Representatives deny the existence of climate change despite overwhelming scientific proof. A Public Policy Polling poll early this year showed that 49 percent of Republicans say they do not believe in evolution. Only 37 percent say they do. And a whopping 57 percent of Republicans would support establishing Christianity as America’s "national religion" which reveals a shocking ignorance of the American Constitution. During the Obama years, these trends became more pronounced.
The leadership of the Republican Party did not challenge the “birther movement’s” implicitly racist claims that President Obama was not born in the United States, or that he is a closet Muslim. The rise of the so-called Tea Party with its armed demonstrations and provocative rhetoric, made the Republican Party more and more entrenched in its ideological rigidity. Donald Trump is in part the product of this Republican universe. Is it Trump that we don’t understand? Or this latest skewed version of the Republican Party that we don’t understand? It is both.
It is a political heresy to question the decisions of the people, or the will of the masses even when the choices of the multitudes are puzzling or disastrous. But it is true that masses in the streets or even at the polling stations make uninformed decisions and vote for illiberal politicians or vote against their economic interests. It is also true that political idiocy and cultural ignorance should not be ruled out when complex political events or phenomena are analyzed.
Every time Donald Trump opens his mouth he celebrates his anti-intellectualism and revels in his parochialism. In Trump nation, supporters are seen as fans, and those who flock to his rallies are expected to act like spectators at a sport stadium. In Trump nation, vulgarity, obtuseness, and implicit racism are seen simply as expressions of political incorrectness.
Regardless of which candidate wins the election come November, Donald Trump will remake the Republican Party and will change America, after an election like no other. Welcome to the strangest and most perplexing election in the world.
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