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A Fearful Ascendency: the Rise of Trump

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What began as a joke is now no laughing matter. Donald Trump will most likely be the Republican nominee for the President of the United States. Given the deep uncertainty of this presidential campaign, there is a sense that he could even win the presidency. The headquarters of the Republican National Committee in Washington, D.C., teeters in fearful anticipation. No one would like to speak openly about the presumptive nominee, but most of the party faithful fear his ascendency.

Trump, the real estate baron, is truly an outside candidate. He says anything he wants, including dismissing the formidable pieties of the Republican Party on trade and foreign policy, and is therefore out of the party establishment’s control. Each of the mainstream candidates (Jeb Bush and Chris Christie) fell before Trump’s withering attacks and the massive support these attacks generated. Christie fell and then joined Trump’s juggernaut. Along New York City’s western highway are a series of buildings that bear—in large letters—Trump’s name. He was the real estate developer of these Trump Place Apartments. The Republican Party fears that it has been transformed into the Trump Party. He has done a hostile buyout under their noses.

The last Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, went to the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah to deliver a major address against Trump. Robert Hinckley created this institute in 1965 to “encourage the youngest and best minds to enter politics”. Neither Trump nor Romney fits the bill. Barack Obama defeated Romney in 2012. Trump seized the irony of a failed candidate taking the podium to attack his own party’s leading candidate. “Mitt is a choke artist,” said Trump in his inimitably harsh style. “He choked like I’ve never seen anyone choke.” Romney, in the same gutter style, called Trump “a phony, a fraud”. Trump’s “promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University”, said Romney. “He’s playing the American public for suckers: He gets a free ride to the White House, and all we get is a lousy hat.” Romney was referring to the red hats that are now commonplace at Trump rallies. They bear the slogan: “Make America Great Again”. This is the sum total of Trump’s message. He has said little else.

An indicator of how removed Romney and the Republican establishment are from the mood of the electorate of the Right was that several people in the Utah audience of 700 wore these Trump hats. When Romney said, “Donald Trump tells us he is very, very smart,” a heckler yelled, “Smarter than you!”

Ted Cruz, deeply disliked

On many issues, Trump is not as harsh as his rival Ted Cruz. Cruz comes from the extreme right-wing Tea Party section of the Republicans. He is an uncompromising religious zealot, who believes in much the same kind of programme as Trump on issues of immigration and war-making. (It was Cruz, after all, who said that he would bomb Iraq and Syria to “make the desert glow”.) Cruz is deeply disliked by his Republican colleagues. At a Washington Press Club meeting in late February, the party leader Lindsey Graham said: “If you kill Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody could convict you.” Beneath Senator Graham’s joke is an edge of what is widely believed. Cruz is no better than Trump and yet is the only other viable candidate in the Republican primary.

Romney urged his party to block Trump, not at the elections, where his warning has been irrelevant. A few days after Romney made his speech, Trump handily triumphed in the primary elections in Kentucky and Louisiana (Cruz won in Kansas and Maine) and is now well ahead to become the presidential nominee. What Romney wants is for the party leaders at their convention to create rules that circumvent Trump’s election victories and deliver the candidacy to an acceptable person. He did not say who this should be. This is for the better since the two establishment candidates (Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Governor John Kasich of Ohio) are anaemic.

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A “brokered convention” has its perils since it would likely turn off those people who are loyal Trump voters and who might boycott the general election in November. This would deliver a landslide to the Democratic Party, not only in the presidential election but mainly in the concurrent elections for the Senate and the House of Representatives. In anticipation of that prospect, the Republican leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky (a State that voted for Trump), will release his members so that they can attack Trump as they run for their own elections. This is pandemonium.

Why do the Republicans fear Trump so much? Romney evoked the racism and misogyny of the Trump campaign. Romney even said the word “misogyny”, something of historical proportions for a party that has systematically gone after women’s reproductive health and women’s rights. The “gender gap” in the 2012 presidential election was the largest in U.S. history, with the Democrats winning the women vote by 20 points.

On racism, the Republican coalition has relied upon Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” of 1968, which evoked issues of “law and order” and “States’ rights” to send a message—blow dog whistles—to whites in the South that the Republicans would not honour the victories of the civil rights movement. The idea of “cutting taxes” and “stopping welfare” suggested that whites would not have to provide compensation for the years of slavery and apartheid. It was a not-so-subtle way to reproduce racism in the Republican coalition. What Trump has done is merely shout out loudly what the Republican Party wants whispered. His fulminations against Mexicans and Muslims—dangerous as they are—emerged directly out of the coded racism of the Republican establishment. Trump is the outcome of the Southern Strategy, of the anti-immigrant sentiment in the party and the deep wells of Islamophobia that have been cultivated since the 1990s. In this, Trump’s danger is his nakedness.

What worries the establishment is more than this surely. Trump’s erratic political positions whip from condemnation of the Iraq War of 2003 to denunciation of the trade agreements from the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994 to the current Trans-Pacific Partnership. There is fear among the business elite that Trump will not honour the carefully crafted consensus between the two parties to protect the global interests of what is now called the 1%. The sum total of Trump’s platform was enunciated clearly in 2015 at a rally in Jacksonville, Florida: “We’re going to make our country great again. Remember this: the American dream will be back, bigger and stronger, I promise, than ever before. Ever.” With wages flat since 1973 for workers, that dream has been unattainable for at least two generations. It is the distance from that dream that draws disgruntled white rural voters to Trump and college students and urban multi-ethnic voters to the socialist barnstorming candidacy of Bernie Sanders.

Both Sanders and Trump have rattled the cages of the consensus. Sanders, the establishment believes, will eventually be undone by Hillary Clinton, who will loyally protect the interests of the 1%—unlike both Sanders and Trump. While Sanders could enliven the politics of unions and community organisations, Trump has merely enflamed the politics of his stature. One opens the door to a conversation about socialism, while the other opens the door to Trump. The establishment recognises the choice these men place before the electorate. It is socialism or—dare one say the word—fascism.

This essay originally appeared in Frontline (India).

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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