As Americans go to the polls in Iowa, US-Kiwi import Nik Dirga explains the fear and loathing driving Donald Trump’s rise.
If you’re an American living in New Zealand, chances are you’ll get asked for your take on US politics.
“So, do you think they’ll really elect Trump?” You hear this a lot lately.
Now, on the day of the Iowa caucus, as I sit on the other side of the globe from my homeland, I’ve come to the humbling realisation that I have no bloody idea what’s going to happen.
Entire libraries’ worth of pondering were written on the 2016 US presidential race before a single vote was cast. But in the madcap, logic-defying race to date, any expert telling you they know for sure what’s going to happen is lying.
The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary election are the first two actual tests of candidates’ appeal, and an awful lot of people are wondering if Trump has a full house or an empty deck of supporters. He’s made a lot of sound and fury these last few months, but what does it signify?
A very small percentage of Americans are going to start to make that clear.
Iowa and New Hampshire’s outsized importance are all part of America’s antiquated presidential election apparatus. Of the 50 states, Iowa is 30th in population and New Hampshire 42nd. Iowa is 92% white. New Hampshire is 94%. America as a whole is about 63% white these days.
Iowa’s caucuses are a down-home throwback to the days of barn-raisings and black-and-white TVs. Voters who’ve been sucked up to for months go to a church or school hall and vote at “precinct meetings”. You have to show up in person and dedicate hours of your time on a cold February evening, which automatically narrows the voters to those who can manage that – typically older, more dedicated or more fanatical.
In a situation that seems pretty dodgy to those used to media blackouts on the eve of New Zealand’s election, at the Iowa caucuses participants listen to hours of speechifying and hectoring by supporters of the candidates before they make their decision.
Of the 314 million or so people in the US in 2012, 122,255 voted in Iowa’s Republican caucuses, less than 20% of those eligible, which sanctimonious Sen. Rick Santorum won by 34 votes. Less than 30,000 people voted for him. You of course remember President Santorum then went on to a stunning victory in the November elections.
Candidates have to grab a majority of state delegates, who are selected as a result of the primaries and caucuses, to take their party nomination at conventions later this year. Iowa and New Hampshire don’t actually have a lot of delegates, but they’re first, so they get the lion’s share of attention. Candidates like Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Paul Tsongas or Pat Buchanan won early here, then lost in the long game.
Ossified Iowa and folksy New Hampshire demand being first every presidential season, because that’s about the only time the rest of the country usually thinks about them. The field will rapidly thin out as actual voters start to make their voices heard, and by mid-March, we’ll have a very good idea of who the party nominees will be.
Meanwhile, in California, my home state, my primary vote might as well be for President Santorum again because it always falls in June, long after the nomination process has been settled. The most populated, diverse state in the nation gets pretty much zero say in the nominating process, which is part of the reason candidates, Republicans particularly, tend to sound so extreme – they’re not trying to get elected by Californians or Floridians or New Yorkers; they’re going for Mr and Mrs Iowa.
The Republican candidates this year are a venal pack of hucksters, opportunists and no-hopers. You could say this about every year and every party, of course, but this year’s GOP field has really struck out. There’s no experienced party warrior (dishwasher-dull Jeb Bush, a Bush too many for most, has belly-flopped the entire campaign), just a motley rabble of rich businessmen – and one woman – on power trips and inexperienced politicians who all say they’re more outsider than anybody else.
The lessons learned by Obama’s thumping of John McCain and Mitt Romney have created some bizarro-universe results for the Republican party, who instead of becoming more inclusive and diverse have doubled-down on xenophobic rants and raves.
It’s the perfect environment for the first reality TV show candidate, Donald J. Trump, a thrice-married, multiple-times bankrupt businessman whose past is so thick with scandals big and small that in any ordinary political climate he would’ve been turfed out months ago.
But nothing sticks. Trump has hit upon a genius deflecting tactic – when attacked, attack back twice as hard, and never, ever, ever admit that you’re wrong.
A Trump supporter quoted in The New Yorker boils this worldview down to its topsy-turvy essence: “We like raw truth. Tell us what we need.”
Trump’s main opponent seems to be oily and unctuous Sen. Ted Cruz, who has never been described better than when writer Warren Ellis said on Twitter he looked like “a clown had gotten a sandwich bag pregnant.”
Sen. Cruz, you have 60 seconds on the subject of why you look like what would happen if a clown had gotten a sandwich bag pregnant
— Warren Ellis (@warrenellis) October 29, 2015
Cruz is so despised by his own party that they’re actually taking Trump seriously, and none of the also-rans – Bush, Christie, Rubio, ad infinitum – are so far able to claim any oxygen in the Donald Trump Show.
Trump doesn’t go in for the shining corn fields and waving flag optimism of most presidential campaigns. Not for him the high-flying rhetoric of Obama, Clinton or Reagan.
Obama said “Yes, we can.” Trump says “Make America great again,” implying that something has been stolen, ripped out of America’s heart in the middle of the night. Trump is about revenge, comeuppance and victory, not that hope and change stuff. They did something to us – you know, them, that vague and all-encompassing group of folks who mess everything up – and only Trump can fix it.
I honestly don’t think Trump believes half of the gibbering nonsense that cascades out of his mouth. I don’t know what Trump does believe, other than what he sees in the mirror.
The scary part is how many of his crowd likely do believe every word he says.
Trump’s no-filter style has awakened an ugly underbelly that’s always been there in American politics, but seldom quite so exposed since the days of Strom Thurmond and George Wallace’s unapologetic racist presidential runs of the 1940s and 1960s. Things once said in a kind of code are blurted out, without shame. Trump acknowledges his supporters’ fears a changing world is shutting them out.
“No one’s looking out for the white guy anymore,” Trump fan Rhett Benhoff of North Carolina told CNN in a thoroughly depressing series of supporter interviews. “The people that are coming in here from China, Indonesia and all of them countries, they’re getting pregnant and coming here and having babies,” Paul Weber of Iowa said in the same report.
His crowds are primed by years of seeing the reality TV show candidate hosting The Apprentice, telling contestant after contestant, “you’re fired. You’re fired. You’re fired”.
The Trump crowds want Trump to say “you’re fired” to anyone who’s ever wronged them. You’re fired to the beady-eyed boss who won’t give you a raise; you’re fired to the money-grubbing banks; you’re fired to the corrupt and hapless US health insurance system; you’re fired to those foreigners you don’t understand; you’re fired to all the chaotic and unfathomable pain and terrorism and bombings one can’t control. Trump’s America is a pre-9/11 fantasy, a swaggering bully who won’t let anybody push him around.
The system of checks and balances built into the US government make many of his more lunatic proposals – banning Muslims, anyone? – almost impossible to put into practice.
Thankfully, even if Trump manages to win Iowa and New Hampshire both next week, no matter what the headlines will say, he’s a long way from being elected President. Months of primaries are ahead, and there’s growing discontent in the Republican Party machine over how dismal a general-election candidate he would be. Pretty much every major poll out there shows Trump losing both to Democrat Hillary Clinton and her less-likely competitor Bernie Sanders in November.
It’s hard to imagine the majority of Americans deciding they actually want Trump’s red face screaming at them from the Oval Office for the next four or eight years.
Do I really think they – we – will elect Trump? I like to think optimism will win out.
A fella who used to be president once said, “There is nothing wrong in America that can’t be fixed with what is right in America.”
His wife is running this time out, and in the end that kind of message seems a lot more powerful than shouting “You’re fired” to everybody in the room until you’re there, alone, plump with rage and in the dark, waiting for the world to right itself again.