In the olden days, campaigning for the United States presidential election would begin in the small States of New Hampshire and Iowa. These are the States that still have early primary elections for the two major parties (Democratic and Republican) to select their nominee for the general election. Iowa conducts its election through the caucus system, where registered voters of the parties gather in small meetings to vote for their nominee. New Hampshire allows its residents to vote. But the scale of the State is so small that they might as well gather in school cafeterias and cavernous barns to discuss their way to a decision. This is called retail politics. One would not have been able to understand a U.S. election cycle without a visit to these States, it was the only way to get a whiff of what was to come.
Things have changed dramatically in U.S. politics. Now the presidential campaign is non-stop, with potential nominees calibrating handshakes and comments with an eye to focus groups and the eventual election. The country is deeply polarised with nearly as many people who are diehard Democrats as Republicans. The presidential election is decided by the small margin of “independent voters”, whose choices are the only ones that matter. But to get to the presidential election, the candidates must run the gauntlet of the base of their party. This is where matters become complex. Despite the marginal gap between the Democrats and the Republicans on major issues, small differences become greatly magnified in the primary campaigns. Both Democrats and Republicans have to appeal to their respective bases to earn their votes and loyalty. Careful calibration allows the candidates to froth for their following and appeal to the fickle independent voters. Unlimited money has lubricated campaigns to shout at voters through advertisements. Television debates are often the first time voters see the candidates.
Democrats have an easier time this year. The have all but anointed their candidate—Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton has a long resume and a longer list of supporters. She raises money effortlessly and has a devoted following among the party faithful. Her challenger, the putative socialist Bernie Sanders of Vermont, is drawing large crowds, but he confesses that he is in the fray merely to sharpen the issues. “Maybe I shouldn’t say this,” Sanders said recently, “but I like Hillary Clinton.” Hillary Clinton appeals to all wings of the Democratic Party. This is not difficult. For all her problems, she appears more sensible on most issues beside the paranoid bellow from the 17 Republican candidates. The Republican drift into bewildering rhetoric and the U.S. elite’s condescension toward Sanders’ pitch against income inequality make Hillary Clinton the preferred candidate. Close scrutiny of her record will likely not be done for any microscopic evaluation would show that she is not as liberal as she claims to be (to appeal to the Democrats). This will be another campaign of style rather than substance.
The first Republican debate, in Cleveland (Ohio), provided the full spectacle. The 17 candidates had to be divided into two sections, with the top 10 in the polls meeting in the evening while the lesser seven (including Bobby Jindal) in the late afternoon. The billionaire Donald Trump, who leads the field, set his mark on the debate with his brash personality and his take-no-prisoners attitude. When asked about sexist remarks he made, Trump said, to applause, that he opposes “total political correctness”. He did not apologise for anything. Trump appeals to white men who feel that their country has slipped away from them. They do not want Trump to speak carefully. They want barnstorming rhetoric of the Right that disdains social progress and attacks their bugbear, Big Government. Other candidates fought for the same demographic but none of them have the carefree confidence of Trump. This is not his career. He has no stakes in the race. But he has plenty of money, celebrity appeal and a base that enjoys his cavalier directness. Trump is a serious threat to the Republican Party and a boon to Hillary Clinton.
The establishment’s candidate, Jeb Bush, came across as dull and uninterested. He was outflanked by the testosterone of Trump on the one side and Chris Christie and Rand Paul on the other. These are men’s men—gender equality, gay marriage and social programmes are all equally reviled. These are emblems, for them, of the Nanny State.
In the 2012 election that re-elected Barack Obama, 56 per cent of the women voted for the Democrat; 54 per cent of the men voted for the Republican. This gender gap has widened since then. If the contest in 2016 is between Hillary Clinton and any one of these Republican men, the gap will widen yet. Bush is not temperamentally as much a man’s man as the others, or indeed as his brother. But he has to run with a gun in one hand and a scowl on his face. No other mode is possible. Gentleness and humaneness are mistaken for weakness in the Republican Party. The ridiculous exaggerations of manliness on display at the debate are necessary. The old pastor Mike Huckabee had to try his hand as a military hawk. He had to go after “transgender soldiers”: “The military is not a social experiment. The purpose of the military is to kill people and break things.” The audience liked this line. It comes from a man who has no military experience. He came to politics from the Church. This is not the Church of forgiveness. This is the Southern Baptist world of James Robison and Jerry Falwell. Their machismo is reserved for their antipathy to gays and lesbians. “Gay folks would just as soon kill you as look at you,” said Falwell in 1977. The word kill is essential here. It links the obsessive disregard for social progress with guns—a toxic cocktail of the American Right.
The libertarian wing of the Republican Party finds its standard both in Trump (who is against all of Big Government) and Paul (whose father, Ron, was the leader of that wing). Paul opposes government surveillance and is wary of military intervention, both issues that bring him on the wrong side of his party. Libertarianism is no longer stuck in its classic mode of opposition to government intervention in the lives of citizens. Most Republicans are now fairly comfortable with Big Government even if they will never admit to it. Government surveillance is forgiven if it is seen to be a protection against terrorism or promotion of big business. No war is to be disdained by the Republicans, who would like to use all of the tax coffers to finance the military and the police. There is no hesitation about government spending here. Republicans are equally interested in prohibitions—against homosexuality, against gender equality, against the right of minorities to live with dignity. What characterises the new libertarianism is the right to be offensive, the right to live without “political correctness”. This strand of Republicanism draws from the well of old racism and traditionalism. It would be like a return to the old days when minorities could be openly disparaged as well as when women had fewer opinions and more recipes. Sexism and racism are packaged neatly as liberty. It is what turns off women and minorities from the spectre of Republicanism.
Neither of the political parties will address the pressing issues that continue to plague the U.S.—recession, substantial unemployment, high personal debt, low levels of confidence in the political system. Hillary Clinton will not have to make a case on any of these issues despite the entreaties of Sanders to at least discuss the perils of high income inequality. She will shrewdly avoid making any specific commitments. Hillary Clinton is already running on the fact of her obvious intelligence and her general belief in a social safety net. This appeals to liberals, who are terrified by the Republicans, and will likely draw significant numbers of women among the independents to give her an easy victory. The more Trump fulminates, the less Hillary Clinton will need to offer her agenda.
This article originally appeared in Frontline and is reprinted with permission.