As Donald Trump inches towards the Republican nomination, and the Democratic party contest remains locked in battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, one wonders what the US is really all about.Donald Trump’s emphatic victories in Florida, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina, to add to his previous thirteen wins, makes him the clear favourite to win the GOP’s nomination for US president, while Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders remain locked in the battle for the Democratic party nomination. But the big story of this cycle of primaries is the routing of the Republican establishment by Trump, a populist property tycoon. Trump has just dumped out of the race the principal GOP establishment candidate, Marco Rubio, crushing him in his home state, Florida, 45-27% of the vote. Many worry about the damage Trump’s populist-paranoid style is doing to America’s standing, as his illiberal, Islamophobic and racist ‘anti-politics’ galvanises crowds and provokes violent protests across the country.
With 621 delegates to the nominating convention, Trump is almost half-way to the 1231 he needs to become the popular choice of registered Republicans, while Ted Cruz languishes in distant second with 396 delegates. Yet Cruz is also deeply hostile to the Republican party’s leadership and is, for now, the Tea party’s chosen son. Only John Kasich, who won his home state, Ohio, is openly loyal to the party but has just 138 delegates (mainly from his Ohio triumph).
Trump’s victories should not be surprising by now. His average polling in all five contests (Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio) on March 15 was 32.5%, and he’s getting even more popular, topping 50% Republican voter support nationwide for the first time. With his rallies turning violent, and attracting widespread protests, Trump has raised the temperature by refusing to condemn aggression and assaults by his supporters, and instead blamed Sanders and anti-Trump Republicans for the violence. According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre’s recent survey of hate crime, the inflammatory political rhetoric used by Trump, Cruz, Rubio and others, including by many more liberal voices, has created a climate of violence against minorities.
The GOP is as puzzled as everyone else: a few days ago, Rubio defended US President Barack Obama against Trump’s accusation that Obama had divided Americans – and its Rubio who’s been dumped out of the primaries by Floridians. Last week, over a hundred so-called ‘reasonable Republicans’, including some supporters of Bush’s global war on terror, rendition, torture and the Iraq war, declared Trump a racist, militarist warmonger – and the Republican electorate has delivered four more states to the Trump tally. Those dubbed the ‘crazies’ by the George HW Bush administration are now calling Trump names, but few Republicans are listening.
When academics were asked early on in the primaries if Trump was a fascist, most laughed. But comparisons to Benito Mussolini’s style are becoming more common. Trump’s anti-intellectual, illiberal, anti-minority, anti-democratic, anti-politics, which harks back to a mythical golden age of American greatness, which Trump promises to restore, his profound prejudice against minorities and outsiders, and opponents regardless of their politics, his flip-flopping and inconsistencies, and encouragement of violence at home and abroad – makes the comparison more viable. His campaign, and especially his rallies, look and sound like those organised by segregationist third party candidate George Wallace in 1968, whose language about protestors and disorder were remarkably similar to the restore-order-through-violence rhetoric of Trump. Both Wallace and Trump appear to welcome violent altercations because of their essentially authoritarian approach and appeal to strength over weakness.
With all this thunder on the right, it is important to remember that there is a real contest brewing in the Democratic party primaries. Although Clinton has won many more states than Sanders, with a little under 1100 pledged delegates, she is just 320 ahead of the ‘socialist’ candidate, mainly due to the proportional distribution system in party primaries. Sanders has been a strong second in several contests, including losing by under 2% in Illinois and by just 0.2% in Missouri. He lost Massachusetts (1.4%) and Iowa (0.2%) by tiny margins as well. But Sanders’s best states – those outside the deep South – are yet to come and the demographics there weigh towards Sanders. In such conditions, come the nominating convention in July, Clinton’s majority might be much smaller and force the hand of the so-called super-delegates of party elders towards Sanders. And, finally, most polls show Sanders defeating Trump in a presidential contest more handsomely than Clinton does.
But the bigger meaning of the primaries was perhaps delivered by the defeated Rubio. From within the Republican elite’s tent, he condemned the party’s leadership for complacency, arrogance and elitism towards conservatives: “…I blame… a political establishment that for far too long has looked down at conservatives as simple minded people… as bomb throwers…. taken conservatives’ votes for granted, and that has grown to confuse cronyism for capitalism and big business for free enterprise.”
With a few tweaks, that could as easily have been said about the Democratic party establishment – as Sanders suggests and millions of votes attest. The gap between the established political elite and the vast majority of Americans is now wider than it has been since the 1970s – the last time the very legitimacy of the American political system was called into question in the wake of the horrors of the Vietnam War, the illegal bombing of Cambodia, the furore over the leaked Pentagon papers and the Watergate scandal that destroyed Richard Nixon.
It is unlikely that a contest between Trump and any Democratic candidate will not be ugly, possibly violent, divisive and damaging to America’s global standing. But it might clarify what America really stands for.
Inderjeet Parmar is Professor and Head of the Department of International Politics, City University London.