It’s now almost certain that the major party candidates for 2016 are going to be Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It’s not too hard to understand how Hillary got there, but how can we account for a billionaire businessman and television celebrity who has been back and forth between political parties about to snare the Republican presidential nomination? Why did he succeed in what some have called his “hostile takeover” of the party?
We hear that the “Republican establishment” doesn’t like Trump, and for sure he wasn’t their first choice. Still, the national party officials, the party’s leaders and entrenched members of Congress, and Republican-oriented K Street lobbyists, in the final analysis, are probably happier with him than Ted Cruz. Cruz challenges them head-on, whereas they’re probably more comfortable with Trump’s deal-making ways and status as a political outsider who’s really a consummate insider—never holding office, but long involved in political maneuvering, making big-time campaign contributions, and maintaining cozy relationships with public officials to get what he wants. The party establishment—especially in Congress—actually is probably the main reason for Trump, and why the nomination race quickly boiled down to him and Cruz. It has consistently shown itself to be punchless in resisting Obama and the left—even with the largest Republican majorities in eighty-five years—when they’re not actually embracing the “progressive” agenda themselves. Many Republican voters had had enough of a politics of duck and hide whenever the left raises its voice.
Still, the Congressional Republicans’ tepidness may be overshadowed as a cause of what happened by the fact that the party long since surrendered its freedom to choose its own presidential candidates. In an earlier column, I criticized the explosion of primaries and caucuses and thought that something like the JFK Democratic campaign of 1960 was more reasonable. There were few primaries then. JFK thought that the best way he could overcome his Catholic disadvantage was to do well in them and show the party leaders, who played the largest role in determining who would be nominated, that he could win a general election. He entered seven primaries and won them all. Even with that, he won narrowly at the convention. While, to be sure, the outsized influence of top party leaders would have a definite downside today in a time of a much-corrupted political elite, we saw the problem this year that democratism can cause for a party. In 1960, the people’s preferences registered with a party mostly indirectly—filtered through the leaders, somewhat like the electoral college—but now popular preference plays a much larger role.
This is especially the case for the Republicans, who have eschewed the “super-delegates” that the Democrats have. The spread of the democratic idea to all sorts of institutions and situations that Tocqueville foresaw has a hold on political parties, so that the widespread belief now is that whoever gets the most votes in primaries and popular caucuses, even if it’s a minority, should receive the nomination. What we’ve seen this year, however, shows that “the people” don’t have boundless wisdom: Trump and Hillary are easily going to be the two most “character-challenged” presidential nominees of any election year in memory, outstripping even Hillary’s husband. We should always remember that the great classical political philosophers—and our Founding Fathers, as well—saw democracy as a bad form of government.
Developments in the early 1970s led to the Republicans’ current situation. The McGovern-Fraser Commission reformed the Democratic party’s nominating procedures—“democratizing” them—after its raucous 1968 convention. Henceforth, the number of primaries and caucuses exploded. State election law changes were needed to accommodate this. The Democrats controlled most state legislatures at the time, so the Republicans had to go along and change their own procedures (even then, the GOP was playing “follow the leader”). Even though Supreme Court decisions since that time have affirmed that parties are private entities and state law is limited as to what kinds of elections and procedures it can mandate for them, the Republicans couldn’t shake the democracy bug. While the Democrats have restrained the people’s preferences with their super-delegates, the Republicans—who now control most state legislatures—have continued to wave the democratic flag and even expand it with crossover voting in many states that, while not establishing outright open primaries, has come close. Trump appears to have been the beneficiary of this arrangement. He did well in crossover voting states, especially in the crucial early primaries when he gained momentum that then couldn’t be reversed.
Although I don’t have firm evidence of this, in some crossover states the Democrats may have encouraged some of their adherents to vote in the Republican primary for Trump with the expectation that he would be a weak opponent. There were cases where the media asked crossover Democrats about this and they said they were voting for Trump in the primaries, but the Democratic candidate in the fall.
Trump has done especially well with working class and lower middle class Caucasian voters. To be sure, these are groups that have suffered economically, and have often felt abandoned by the trade deals and immigration policies engineered and supported by both parties that have cost them jobs. Why did that translate into support specifically for Trump? Other Republican candidates were also critical of these policies. The book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, by the eminent social scientist Charles Murray, perhaps helps answer that question. He chronicles not only the economic decline, but also the moral and spiritual decline, of these groups and their becoming more and more culturally distanced from the better-schooled (not necessarily better educated, in the true sense of the word) and better-off elements up the class scale. The working and lower middle classes were the groups more likely to be familiar with Trump from his television exploits where he fashioned an image of himself on The Apprentice as the “tough guy” who would “knock heads”—which they perceived is exactly what’s now needed. In a culture where formative forces such as religion, the family, and sound education are in drastic decline, celebrities have become a new reference point for a lot of people. Trump is the type of celebrity who could captivate the working and lower middle classes, reflecting their particular kind of insufficient personal formation. Actually, the country’s moral erosion seems to render the personal character of candidates—even one so morally “dysfunctional” and egotistical as Trump—irrelevant for most voters of any class. Additionally, the absence of citizenship education makes it that much more likely—again, among all classes—that candidates who merely “say the right things,” even without substance to back it up, will find voters gravitating to them. That has been seen vividly with Trump.
Even more troublesome has been the tendency of too many voters to embrace Trump almost with religious fervor, with nothing able to dislodge them. It wasn’t an overstatement for Trump to boast that he could shoot someone on the street and still not lose support. I don’t know if Trump is an authoritarian, but such blind loyalty could easily breed authoritarianism. When Plato discussed the decline of regimes, democracy—this is not the same thing as republican government—tended to slip into tyranny. How far might this go? Is democratism such a deeply ingrained ideology that if an undoubted authoritarian were running, should a party feel compelled to give him its nomination just because the majority clamored for it? Does the need to be democratic mean that even a figure seeking to suppress liberty should be embraced?
The current nomination procedures have crippled the Republicans in another way. Each primary season, it seems, starts with a mass of candidates. This year, it reached seventeen. Trump took the measure of this. Despite the clamor to be democratic—and, thereby, presumably to have majority rule—what typically happens is that the candidate who gets the largest minority to support him breaks out of the pack. The divided vote among sixteen other candidates and then a smaller number as time went on caused Trump not only to win contests, but also gave him needed momentum. The “democratic” nomination scheme encouraged egos and unrealistic expectations among the other candidates. Instead of coalescing behind a strong alternative, they divided the vote and allowed Trump to become the leader.
Nor has the current scheme produced good candidates. It has recently brought forth “moderates” who then go on to lose, and now has brought forth a candidate whose convictions seem to depart from many of the principles that have defined the Republicans for several decades. Further, the need to plan for such a large number of primaries and caucuses has resulted in candidates starting their campaigns a year or two in advance. To distinguish themselves over such a long “election season,” aspirants continually attack each other and hurt the chances for party unity for the general election. It has also led to irresponsible, exaggerated, and untruthful attacks on primary opponents, which play well to an electorate accustomed to sound bites. Trump, the hard-nosed big business maneuverer, showed himself to be a master attack dog.
A contrasting, perhaps less democratic, part of the primary election structure also helped Trump. He benefitted, especially at key points in the race, from the states that had winner-take-all primaries.
So, the Republicans’ problematical nomination procedures and practices have led to someone who’s hardly even one of them take their nomination.
(Photo credit: Charlie Neibergall / AP)