For political junkies like myself, this election year has been like passing a 42-car pile-up on the highway. We feel repulsed, scared, worried for ourselves — and yet we cannot turn away. Nothing about this election makes sense. A bombastic billionaire who commits gaffes that would typically kill a major campaign is doing incredibly well. A self-described socialist has garnered a wide coalition of support in a country known for intense hostility to anything remotely anti-capitalist or radically left-wing. We were promised “Hillary Clinton vs. Jeb Bush: Dawn of Justice,” a mundane showdown between two political dynasties, and instead we are getting something totally wild and unexpected.
The lazy answer to all this is that “people are angry!” No kidding. But why are people angry? Why are establishment candidates doing especially poorly this year? Why does fear and intolerance seem to be playing so effectively this year, when just two elections ago, a candidate who ran on hope and unity performed so well? These are all questions that should be considered, if for no other reason than to get a sense of where we are as a country. It is pretty much common knowledge that we’re a deeply polarized and jaded electorate, but studying the current field of candidates illustrates just where we’re at.
Advantages: Not an establishment politician
Disadvantages: Is Donald Trump
Cinematic Equivalent: Birth of a Nation (1915)
Typical Supporter: A working class white man whose job was just outsourced to Mexico, who loves racist jokes and aspires to soon own a flamethrower
I am not being mean. The data really does indicate that most Trump supporters never went to college and come from parts of the country known for racial resentment. The most telling feature about Trump voters, however, is how impotent and vulnerable they feel. These are the American reactionaries who worry about white genocide and believe “anti-racist” is code for “anti-white.” They worry that sharia law will soon be used to decide U.S. court cases. They fear that there is a “war on Christmas,” which is just the first battle in a covert campaign to wipe out Christianity entirely. They scoff at “political correctness” as repressive and tyrannical, when in actuality it just promotes sensitivity to traditional victims of discrimination. Their anxiety stems from the idea they are losing the “culture war” against “cultural Marxism,” and that their primary source of power — the white Christian patriarchy — is under attack from phantom “feminazis” and “Islamo-Leftists.” On the cultural front, Trump promises to go after these enemies: he will ban Muslims from coming to the United States, he will stop the “flood” of Mexican immigrants, etc.
It is on the economic front that Trump supporters have grievances grounded in reality. The truth is, less-educated American men have hard it rough in terms of work and wages. According to a 2014 poll, 85% of unemployed men lack bachelor’s degrees, while 34% identified as former felons, making it hard to find any work. Thanks to globalization and technological innovations, it is more difficult than ever for unskilled laborers to find work. Due to union-busting and the loss of collective bargaining power, less-educated workers find it impossible to unionize or take industrial action that could help them increase their wages and fight income inequality. Unlike the “culture war” that exists only in the minds of reactionaries, the war on the working class in the United States is very real. Trump offers them an economic nationalism, promising (without specifics) to get the U.S. better trade deals. In contrast to the typical Republican line, Trump does not advocate laissez-faire economics or tax breaks for “job creators.” Instead, he promotes a sort of autarkic vision that could be best summarized as “American jobs for American workers.”
(For all the Republican whines that Trump is betraying the Ronald Reagan legacy on free trade, let’s not forget that Reagan implemented protectionist policies to safeguard the U.S. steel industry from those “market forces” Republicans love to celebrate.)
You might wonder why these irate working class Americans do not rally to progressive causes, like raising the minimum wage or creating a federal jobs program. To paraphrase a disputed quote by John Steinbeck, this is because working class Americans do not see themselves as exploited proletarians, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. They still hold on to the American Dream, which states that success comes from hard work, and the main enemy is not the ruling class, but bureaucratic red tape. Donald Trump is the embodiment of the American Dream: a millionaire who is never embarrassed, who never apologizes no matter how racist, sexist or inappropriate he is. He is not a populist, because populists possess the common touch; there is nothing “common” about Trump.
Advantages: Sincerely believes the stuff he says
Disadvantages: Sincerely believes the stuff he says (possible serial killer)
Typical Supporter: A church-going, Longmire-watching grandmother who could be a character in a Cormac McCarthy novel
Ted Cruz is a jerk. No one really disputes this. Everyone hates him. He is smug and condescending. He loves to lecture people, especially other U.S. senators. He has no qualms attacking other Republicans, including the Republican leader in the Senate (in violation of Reagan’s 11th Commandment). People who knew him in college hated him. Those who trusted his lead in bringing about the short-lived government shutdown felt betrayed by him. Yet, his in-your-face style of doing things is exactly what many Republicans want from a party they see as having been too passive in resisting the Obama administration and assorted progressive triumphs over the last eight years. Remember when House Republican leader John Boehner stood on the House floor in 2010 and shouted, “Hell no, you can’t!” in response to the passing of the Affordable Care Act? Many Republicans want more of that. Ted Cruz is just the sort of right-wing ideologue who will give them that breed of impassioned, unwavering, Goldwater-style traditionalism.
If there is one voting bloc Cruz is relying on, it’s evangelical Protestants. The Cruz campaign believes there is a silent majority of deeply religious voters who failed to turn out for Mitt Romney in 2012 because the former Massachusetts governor was not tough enough on issues like abortion and “the defense of marriage.” Consequently, Cruz has taken pains to point out that he is the son of a pastor, to highlight his faith and to contrast himself against the “New York values” of Donald Trump.
His strategy hasn’t worked. As Elizabeth Bruenig has pointed out, evangelicals are not the monolithic entity the Cruz campaign counted on. Cruz does well among deeply religious Protestants who attend church regularly, but among those who are perhaps patriots first and Christians second, Donald Trump does better. In other words, for some evangelicals, with Trump they can have their Christian cultural war and their jingoistic nationalism, too. There’s also the fact that the Religious Right has grown disenchanted with the lack of progress on its more grandiose goals: Roe v. Wade is still standing, Planned Parenthood hasn’t folded, the “gay agenda” marches on, and so forth. In fact, in recent years, there has been a libertarian current in the Republican Party that opposes the blurring of the line between church and state. Many zealous evangelicals seem demoralized, and those that aren’t are focusing on restricting abortion access at the state level, where (unfortunately) they have had incredible success.
Plus, to return to my original point, Ted Cruz is a jerk. His win in Iowa was tainted by claims he had engaged in dirty tricks to steal votes from Ben Carson voters. More recently, Cruz had to fire a staff member for spreading lies about Marco Rubio. Typically, “good Christians” are known for at least the appearance of integrity and honesty. Cruz, however, is better known for being shrewd and conniving, with a take-no-prisoners mentality that is not troubled by moral qualms. Unfortunately for him, Christian martyrs are defined by losing honorable fights rather than winning dishonorable ones.
Advantages: Programmed to be hip, young and Latino
Disadvantages: The Republican establishment doesn’t elect presidents
Cinematic Equivalent: I Am Number Four (2011)
Typical Supporter: A wealthy Republican donor
Marco Rubio is like a film adaptation of a popular young adult book series that flopped. In 2012, after Mitt Romney’s defeat, the Republican Party published a report — an “autopsy” — that called for greater inclusion of ethnic minorities and increased outreach to young people. Like most young adult novels, the idea of Rubio did very well, as only a fantasy could. However, as sometimes happens, something got lost in the transition from conceptual framework to the live-action version. Some fans refuse to stop believing, and Rubio’s tendency to give victory speeches when he loses indicate that he hasn’t given up on his cult following of rich patrons and the conservative cocktails-and-cigars set.
Rubio sometimes seems to have been designed in a Republican lab, and not because of his infamous robotic debate performance. In 2010, he was one of the rising stars of the Tea Party movement, endearing him to the radical right, but has since shown his ability to cross the aisle on issues like immigration, winning over moderates frustrated by the GOP becoming the “party of no.” He’s proudly Cuban-American and bilingual in a party stereotyped as being full of racist whites. He’s young and purports to like dance music. The cherry on top: he comes from Florida, a swing state known for deciding presidential elections. He’s the perfect answer to the 2012 Republican autopsy: sellable to historically alienated demographics, but still firmly grounded in conservative principles.
The problem? He hasn’t won a single caucus or primary. Not one.
The reason is that the Republican rank-and-file doesn’t want to coalesce around the marketable, moderate candidate. They did that in 2008 and 2012, and what did it get them? Substantial losses to Barack Obama. They don’t want to concede to multiculturalism and embrace diversity; they want to fight it tooth and nail. They do not want a “path to citizenship” on immigration; they want “their” (white) country back. From a personage standpoint, Rubio’s youth has proved a double-edged sword. John McCain, as a war hero and foreign policy expert, had the capacity to be a statesman. Romney, with his business background, was seen as America’s potential CEO. Rubio is a parvenu, an inexperienced baby-face whose mere presence does not inspire confidence. In ideas, he is out of touch with the Republican base; in image, he is the broad-minded and cosmopolitan candidate of a party that is, for the most part, neither of those things.
Advantages: Not Donald Trump
Disadvantages: Is Hillary Clinton
Cinematic Equivalent: The Iron Lady (2011)
Typical Supporter: A white Prius-driving, Good Wife-watching professional woman
You cannot talk about the Clinton campaign without acknowledging the long-standing and completely understandable desire to elect our first woman president. As a man, I’ll never be able to completely understand the immense frustration generations of American women must have felt about being underrepresented in politics, and to have issues that impact them decided almost exclusively by men. Hillary has long been the best path to the realization of the dream of a woman POTUS, and more than that, she has been successful in a number of prominent political roles: First Lady, a U.S. senator, and most recently Secretary of State. It is hard to think of a more qualified candidate (much less an actual president) in recent memory. Just in terms of name recognition alone, she has a massive advantage that any candidate, Republican or Democrat, would be envious of.
The downside of being a household name since 1992 is that she has accumulated a lot of baggage along the way. Republicans, for the most part, loathe her, for everything from Vince Foster to Benghazi. Progressive Democrats, meanwhile, criticize her (and her husband) for joining forces with Newt Gingrich in 1996 to advance welfare reform, her support for Hosni Mubarak, her practically unconditional support for Netanyahu’s Israel, and her support for the 2003 Iraq War. With the Occupy Wall Street movement still fresh in peoples’ minds, Hillary’s cozy relationship with the financial industry is a big liability. These are more than just accidental handicaps; Hillary has a record of intentionally aligning herself with military adventurism and Big Business. In an election where class stratification and race relations are big issues, Hillary does not possess much credibility when it comes to pontificating about income inequality or institutional racism.
In response, Hillary and her supporters have sought to downplay her Wall Street connections. She has sought to portray her rival, Bernie Sanders, as a one-issue economic populist, telling a crowd that “breaking up the banks” would not end racism or sexism. The problem with this, as eloquently argued by Roqayah Chamseddine, is that it falsely separates gender discrimination from exploitation under capitalism when the two are not mutually exclusive, and indeed are often related. It does, unfortunately, fit into modern liberal feminism, with its emphasis on “leaning in” and “breaking the glass ceiling” — which, as Nancy Fraser argues, is only about enabling women to climb the corporate ladder. When it comes to achieving true social equality for women, white liberal feminists have been notoriously silent on feminist issues that do not impact women of color, such as police violence against women of color (be it Sandra Bland or the victims of Daniel Holtzclaw). By buying into the Clinton’s campaign partition of gender identity politics from anti-capitalist arguments, Clinton supporters are endorsing a form of feminist “equality” where women are “free” to be as overworked and underpaid as men, and where women of color remain regular victims of economic violence (such as the draconian welfare-to-work programs Hillary herself signed off on in the 1990s).
While Hillary has taken some punches from Bernie Sanders, 2016 does seem to be “her turn.” Once she secures the nomination, her next major hurdle will be her Republican opponent, who is likely to be Trump. Can she beat him? The very fact that this is even a question demonstrates how bizarre this election is. On the one hand, it’s a no-brainer. Warts and all, at the very least she’s not a lewd narcissist who caters to racist reactionaries. On the other hand, there may be more Americans who actively dislike her than Americans who passionately want her to be president. It may be that the greatest thing working in Hillary’s favor is the two-party system and voters’ limited options.
Disadvantages: Bernie who?
Cinematic Equivalent: La Chinoise (1967)
Typical Supporter: A Jacobin-reading, Democracy Now-watching college socialist
Bernie Sanders has been a failure.
I do not refer to his seeming failure to win the nomination. That was never in the cards, although no shortage of optimistic progressives seemed to believe he would, like Barack Obama in 2008, prevent Hillary from cruising to the nomination. For all his uprightness and intensity, however, Bernie never had the charisma or the appeal to minority voters that Obama used to such effect when he defeated Hillary. In fact, Bernie has a reputation for being, like Ted Cruz, a caustic jerk — as shown by his “side eye” at Hillary during one debate, his shouting, his finger-wagging, and so on. Bernie Sanders is a firebrand, an attack dog for the progressive left; he does not have the gravitas and poise one normally associates with a head of state or a head of government. I think he suspects this.
I call Bernie a failure because I think the point of his campaign was purely to challenge Hillary from the left-wing of the Democratic Party and, subsequently, push her to adopt more left-wing positions on a living wage, socialized medicine, education costs, and so on. This theory makes sense, because Bernie himself talked in 2011 about how Obama had moved so far to the right of the political spectrum because no one was attacking him from the left. If this was Bernie’s goal, it didn’t work. Hillary may have added her support for a health care public option to her campaign Web site, but that is not inconsistent with what she already supported in 2008. For the most part, she considers health care reform settled for now. She doesn’t want to raise the minimum wage to $15. She has mocked Bernie’s plan for free college tuition. As noted above, rather than cave to this challenge from her left, Hillary and her campaign has used the language of feminism and social justice to dodge and evade any attacks from Bernie, keeping her platform more or less intact as it was when she first entered the race: in favor of the status quo and business-friendly.
The Bernie bandwagon was always doomed, but it’s total deflation on Super Tuesday was its death knell. Why did Bernie perform so badly in Southern states? Many pundits have pointed to black voters as “Hillary’s firewall,” crediting the “engagement” of the Clintons with black communities in the past. In my opinion, there is a much simpler explanation: no one besides progressives, political junkies and Vermonters knew who Bernie Sanders was before 2015, and most people today probably think he’s Larry David. Where has he done well? New Hampshire and Vermont, which are literally his backyard and his home state, respectively. He also did well in Iowa and Oklahoma, no doubt because of his appeal to poor working class whites. He’s done poorly generally, however, not because of some ambiguous solidarity between black voters and the Clintons, but because Hillary has been a national political icon since Yugoslavia still existed on maps. I get really frustrated when Sanders supports whine that “black voters voted against their own interests” on Super Tuesday. Newsflash: people vote against their own interests all the time. In fact, I do it in most elections myself. I vote for the Democrat, even though the Democratic Party has not come close to representing my principles in my lifetime. However, like many people who vote Democratic, Republican politicians are even further divorced from what I care about. It does not surprise me — at all — that Democrats, whatever their age or race or gender, vote for a candidate whose name they recognize and who they believe will win in a national election, if for no other reason than to keep a Republican out of office.
To his credit, Bernie hasn’t smeared Hillary, only calling her out on her record and her policies. He didn’t use any dirty tricks against her, and quite appropriately called out the investigation into Hillary’s e-mails a Republican-orchestrated circus. He won’t make an independent run for the White House, which would only split the Democratic vote. This whole episode will likely mean Bernie going out of politics in a blaze of glory, his one last contribution to the progressive moment. It is just too bad it will have been unsuccessful.
Still, there is hope in the fact that a self-declared socialist ran for the Democratic nomination this year and had some success. It just goes to show that, while the status quo may triumph in the end (with a Hillary victory in November), we still live in an unsettled world. As long as that remains true, there is still hope that we can, from the ruins of the old one, create a better and more equitable world for ourselves and future generations.