WASHINGTON – Will Donald Trump be the Republican presidential nominee? May be yes. Bizarre, but now distinctly possible.
Emotions in politics
It is a given that politics is also (and sometimes mostly) about symbolism and emotions. And it is also a given that among people seeking public office those who are more adept at interpreting and expressing the prevailing emotions can get a lot of support. At least for a while; that is until most people get back to their senses. Right now, because of ISIL, the Islamic terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, the prevailing emotion is an outsized fear of terrorism. And this a Trump moment.
Trump understood this anxiety bordering on national hysteria. And he found a way to ride this wave. He struck a chord by declaring, (among other things), that he would impose a ban on all Muslim immigration. And he is going to be get really tough on ISIL. He will bomb them, and destroy them. Forget about civilian casualties and any collateral damage. After that, his numbers, already high, shot up beyond 40%.
We accept occasional lapses
Manipulative leaders who exploit exaggerated fears are not good for any democracy. This is not good leadership. The well-being of democracies depends on reasonably well-informed citizens picking reasonably rational political leaders –especially in difficult times.
We accept occasional lapses into irrational emotions which include the hope to be “saved” by a Superman-President as something that can happen, every now and then. However, we believe that in the end all will be well, because normally these dangerous fantasies are limited in time and scope.
Rationality will prevail
We reassure ourselves by stating that eventually rationality will prevail. Yes, when people are scared, frustrated or hopeless, they are likely to make poor political choices. They may go for populists like Donald Trump, or Ross Perot back in 1992. Would-be leaders who over promise, say grandiose things, and all that.
Indeed, we say that eventually sanity will have to prevail, because this is who we Americans are: fundamentally rational pragmatists who instinctively know what is best for the country. Yes, there will always be a fringe of emotional people who will make irrational choices when it comes to choosing leaders.
But the majority can be depended upon to be level-headed. Most Americans will see through the populists and they will correctly dismiss them as charlatans.
This has gone far enough
Yes, except that according to this play book Trump should have already flamed out. By now, people should have seen enough. They should have gone through the phases of curiosity and interest for the political novelty, followed by disappointment.
According to the play book Trump should have been discarded as a one-of-a-kind grandstanding publicity seeker whose love for the limelight comes along with an understanding that the public policy process is a gigantic game show that can be expertly manipulated by a smart TV host.
Aren’t we past the point of “Good-bye Mr. Trump?” “Yes, Mr. Trump, flirting with you was fun, for a little while. But now we are going to get hitched to a serious guy. You know, someone who actually knows something about government.”
This is not a fad
Well, we are way past that point. And therefore we can only conclude that this is not a temporary fad. At least for a sizable core group of Trump supporters, this has become a real political choice.
It is now clear that a significant portion of adult Republican voters are willing to take a bet on a person who delivers clever lines, as opposed to policy positions, simply because they are totally fed up with all the establishment politicians, (Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, among others).
Say what you want about Trump, but he has good political instincts. He naturally and intuitively “knows” what disoriented and now scared people need to hear. They want the clever punch line. They want tough language. They love his take-no-prisoners attitude.
Who knows, may be Trump’s vagueness about policies is deliberate. Indeed, why be specific when people are more than satisfied with a few tough words uttered by a tough looking man?
Look, may be all this will go away and Trump will not get the Republican nomination in the end. Or he may get it, and not get elected. May be sanity will return in America.
Fed up with the establishment
Still, what we have seen thus far indicates that most Republicans are completely fed up with the traditional political process run by the professional politicians, those who have been around for decades and who are demonstrably unable to propose anything new. They are so fed up that they are willing to make irrational choices.
From this perspective Trump’s high ratings tell us two things. Number one, they indicate a yearning for a fresh approach to politics and policy. We have had more than a decade of stalemate in Washington. The “system” is frozen and does not work.
Number two, these high ratings indicate that millions of Americans who want change are willing to follow a natural show man, with zero public policy experience, simply because he promises to “Make America Great Again”. As a minimum, this is not wise. Can Trump really perform the miracles he promises in Washington? This is the critical issue that most of his supporters prefer not to think about.
The Republic is in danger
We can understand that children make silly choices. But when adults guided only by emotions make silly choices about who should lead them, then the Republic may be in danger. This whole American self-government experiment was and is predicated on having a majority of sane people as level-headed participants.
If most of us are prisoners of emotions –however sincerely felt– then the long experiment predicated on rationality, and therefore rational choices, may be in jeopardy.