Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor
What a remarkable week in US history. The great human experiment with democracy in America has arrived at a dangerous moment. Many people ask me why as an observer of US-India bilateral foreign policy I spend so much time commenting on the sad reality television of domestic US politics. The reason is elementary. He or she who arrives in power in America will have profound effects on India’s future. Meanwhile, India’s own experiment with democracy is at a less mature and more delicate stage, and it is important for Indians to learn the stark lessons to be derived from the litany of poor American decisions: the slave trade, the treatment of Native Americans, the Civil War, Vietnam, Iraq, and yes, Donald Trump in 2016. In the next episode, we might witness democracy being voted off the island.
In a way Donald Trump has done the United States and the world a favor by perfectly embodying the worst instincts in the United States of America today so that we can work toward dealing with it. We’re not here to litigate this truth, because we hold it to be self-evident. Rather, below we will simply break down how we got here politically, because nobody else has successfully done so. It has nothing whatsoever to do with policy.
Now that Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee, we’ve begun seeing the predictable expressions of shock, disbelief and horror among liberals and moderates, and badly misguided analysis of why he won. Trump fans of course saw this coming from a mile away and explain his victory in bizarre terms, such as “America will vote for Donald Trump because once he’s in office, ISIS won’t even dare to mess with America ever again.” Yes, nihilistic terrorists will retire their suicide vests out of fear of the furry head and that’s why he’s winning. Right.
For the record, I too predicted the Trump victory, and even endorsed Donald Trump, in September 2015. His victory became obvious for one exceedingly simple and elegant reason requiring only three letters: E-G-O. Shockingly, despite a candidate who is defined by a pathological ego run amok, Trump’s ego is not the one to blame here. It’s the fault of many others on both the left and the right.
The Republican Party Clown Car, 2016 Edition It takes a near toxic dosage of self-obsession for ANY person from either party to convincingly tell the world every day for several years that they would be the best possible leader of the free world. In a watered-down field of 17 deeply flawed Republican candidates, all driven by their own outsize ego tripping, the time was especially ripe for a figure disliked by most of his own party to win the nomination with just a minority of the total votes. If a party is going to deliberately run a clown car, then it should not be shocked when the biggest clown takes over the wheel.
Let’s look at the results in the first state to vote in the primary, Iowa, courtesy newyorktimes.com. The Iowa circus is responsible for gifting the world Donald Trump and Ted Cruz as the front-runners for the rest of the GOP primary season despite the highest negative ratings. This small state, with less than 100,000 votes, started the narrative that this was going to be a Trump vs. Cruz race nationwide.
Of greater interest is the sheer number of governors, senators, and non-politicians who cannibalized each other before, during, and after Iowa to the point where two guys with only around 25% of the vote each would be anointed the front-runners. Similar results played out in other states such as New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada: Donald Trump established the lead with much less than 50% of the vote. Thank you George Pataki, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie, Rick Santorum, Rand Paul, Jim Gilmore, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, Dr. Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Jeb!, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, and everyone else who made sure that the donations, political operatives, volunteers, media airtime, voters, and America’s short attention span were all chopped up into little pieces in the months before and during the primaries. Thanks for wasting record amounts of money. Thank you for lathering up the right wing base into a froth over Barack Obama’s birthplace, immigrants, homosexuality, terrorism, China, abortion, and guns for years on end, scaring the crap out of our citizens with your political strategy of “sheep tremble, and here come the votes!” in the prescient words of Rage Against the Machine.
If I were one of the many members of the Republican party establishment wringing my hands right now, I would point to this absurd parade of so-called leaders for putting their own ego above their party, and their own party above their country, and failing all three levels in the process anyway. Trump would have been eminently beatable if leadership had consolidated its resources behind one or two viable options and a sensible and inclusive platform with fresh ideas early on and strategized to defeat the cancer within their ranks. That option would have easily won in November too because no party has won 3 White House terms in a row since World War II. But too many egos got in the way. And to a man (and woman), every single one of Trump’s opponents, whether they were in the race or were simply acting as halfhearted bystanders like Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney, fatally underestimated Trump’s hostile takeover of their party throughout this process.
Barack Obama Just as Obama greatly benefitted as a candidate in 2008 from the failed presidency of George W. Bush, his two botched wars and an epic financial meltdown, so too is Trump benefitting from the Obama administration’s shortcomings. Although Americans are in far better shape than they were in 2008, the president has failed to communicate the relevant facts and figures to the American people. Obama has not done a good job of educating citizens about the challenges presented by a changing economy, ISIS, or China, nor has he explained most accomplishments in terms people can understand. As president, he had a bully pulpit, and a chance to renew Americans’ confidence in themselves, and this effort has been inadequate. As a result, Americans are even more polarized than they were before he arrived in the White House. Obama’s ego failed him on this count, because he was under the impression until it was too late that the power of his personality would help heal the rifts that are rendering the American people apart from each other, and cause them to view one another as the enemy. On both sides, party has become more important than country, and we are reverting back to tribal behaviors based on race, income, or geography. This was Obama’s biggest failed promise, and even he recognizes that today.
In such an environment, a backlash against all politicians and all government is a natural result. Obama’s own ego led him to believe that his great successes in office would speak for themselves and he didn’t have to do the hard and, to be fair, perhaps futile work of marketing them to a woefully uninformed and balkanized public. The result could be as disastrous to Obama personally as it is to the country as a whole: the potential dismantling, brick by brick, of all of the hard work that Obama and his team have done over the last 8 years on domestic and foreign policy, while perhaps watching helplessly on the sidelines as Americans begin to violently riot against each other like in the 1960s, egged on explicitly by one party’s standard-bearer.
Yes, Obama underestimated Trump and did not take steps, especially in 2015 and 2016 that could have neutralized Trump’s rise. He has been overconfident that Trump wouldn’t win. He has not been forceful enough about the existential consequences of this race, including during a press conference on Friday when asked about Trump. He had better start if he doesn’t want to hand the White House keys over to the Donald.
The Media. The media entertainment complex is the most unforgivable culprit for giving Trump 99% of the political airtime simply because it amuses consumers the most. In a truly delicious irony, it is the media that would be the foremost victim of a Trump presidency, as we can expect the industry to lose a great amount of freedom, protection, and access to Trump and his cabinet, such as Treasury Secretary Kim Kardashian.
Trump has already encouraged hatred and violence towards journalists on multiple occasions and promised to ban military officials from speaking to the media. He said TV anchor Megyn Kelly was on the rag. His campaign manager manhandled a female reporter and the boss defended it. Trump kicked out a Hispanic journalist from his rally for asking a question. Supporters routinely beat people up in his name, and he hasn’t even yet held a real position of government authority in his life. His supporters send death threats to journalists they disagree with. Just imagine the very real possibilities if Trump had enforcement powers. Trump would make his hero Vladimir Putin proud; we should not be surprised to see media figures harmed by Trump’s henchmen or even thrown in jail for writing something he doesn’t like. The warning patterns are out there for all to see.
In order to make a cheap short-term buck, the media has not only failed us, they have put themselves in harm’s way. Trump has been covered as a serious candidate for fun and games and the reality show audience is entertained, instead of witnessing a proper vetting. The media has planted the seeds for the erosion of their own freedoms. The gigantic egos of media figures have blinded them to the delicacy of their own position and the ability to continue practicing their craft at all. And I’m, um, sort of sensitive to this particular issue.
Next Stop, Ego Train? All of this is to say, there is plenty of blame to go around up and down the ego train. With Republican attempts to stop Trump’s constant march forward already a miserable failure in our rearview mirror, the duty to spare the country and the globe from a Trump presidency now falls on the dislikable shoulders of Hillary Clinton. She is going to need all the help she can get. Bernie Sanders is grappling mightily with his own ego trip, which has lasted long enough. This is war. Hillary underestimated Obama for much of 2008, Bernie Sanders for much of the Democratic primary, and is doing the same with Trump in 2016. Surrogates including Obama and others of all political stripes will need to set aside their own agendas and get with the program. It’s serious now. This is the election of our lifetimes.