Has American Democracy Been Trumped?

Election '16

I've been having incessant conversations with friends, family and colleagues about politics, and they all boil down to the same question. Could Donald Trump be our next president?

Here is an amalgam of the conversation. See which side you're on:

- I think Trump might actually win.

- You mean the Republican nomination?

- No, I mean the election.

- Get serious. For starters, the Republican leaders would never allow that. They'd be much better off with Rubio-Kasich or Kasich-Rubio.

- Maybe they would. But there are no smoke-filled rooms anymore. Leaders don't make these decisions. Primary voters do, and they love Trump. The more outrageous he is and the less connected to facts, the more his support grows.

- Yeah, but he's a media phenomenon. He is such an egomaniac that he hasn't even bothered to build an organization. He has no ground game. That's why Cruz has pulled ahead on Iowa.

- Iowa is a special case because it's a caucus state. In a society where people are increasingly disconnected from politics, Trump can motivate people just as a media candidate. If he needs an organization to get out his vote, he can buy one.

- He's already peaked.

- Maybe, but under the new Republican rules that were put in place in 2014, all of the primaries after March 15 are winner-take-all. He only needs to come in first and he gets all of the state's delegates, even if he has 25 percent of the vote and, say, the runner-up has 22 percent. The Republicans did this to get an early nominee. They didn't foresee Trump.

- It's still unlikely that he will get 50 percent of the delegates. If he gets less than 50 percent and it's a brokered convention, all of the others will unite to prevent Trump from being the nominee.

- Think again. Trump may be a fool and a demagogue when it comes to actual policy, but one thing he's good at is making deals. Suppose he comes into the convention with 45 percent of the delegates. All he has to do is offer the vice-presidential nomination to someone who controls at least 5 percent of the delegates, and he's over the top. Can you imagine all of the other candidates, who really hate each other, somehow uniting to block Trump?

- Even if by some miracle he's nominated, he can't win. He has just alienated too many groups - women, blacks, Muslims, immigrants.

- That depends. If we have a few more terrorist incidents, or if some more skeletons come out of Hillary's closet, all bets are off. 

- Mainstream Republicans will vote for Hillary in droves.

- Yes, such as they are. But Hillary is not producing much enthusiasm, whereas Trump's base is really fired up. 

- But imagine the debates. This is complicated stuff. Hillary is so much better informed on the issues. He just makes it up.

- Right, but that doesn't seem to hurt him. She is hawkish for a Democrat, but there is no way she will be tougher than Trump. And the fact that this is very complicated stuff and Hillary really understands the complexity--that doesn't necessarily play to her advantage. A lot of voters want simple. And there is one more element.

- What's that?

- Trump is already the most populist of the Republican candidates, and the most appealing to working class voters. He doesn't hate government the way the others do. You can count on him to move left after he is nominated, posing as the defender of Social Security, Medicare and demanding higher taxes on the rich. Hillary, long allied with Wall Street, is less than an ideal opponent. She may take some Republican votes, but he may take more Democratic ones.

- That's sobering. Do you happen to know the rules for emigrating to Canada?

There is no right answer to this debate, of course. We will find out soon enough. But at the very least, American democracy is in uncharted territory.

Democracy has been seriously weakened by the role of big money on one flank, and by massive voter cynicism about politics and government on the other. In a national security crisis with no easy solutions, it is a sitting duck for a demagogue like Trump.

Working and middle class voters have been taking an economic pummeling for decades. The Democrats have tried harder than the Republicans to remedy that, but they haven't tried hard enough. The voters are right when they see both parties in bed with Wall Street.

The fact that the populist candidate is a billionaire is an emblem of just how messed up is the misalignment of self-interest, general disaffection, and voting preferences. What the hell, at least the man can't be bought.

Trump's use of "political correctness" as an all-purpose gibe is another reflection of political dysfunction. Much of what he dismisses as mere p.c. is in fact the legitimate assertion of rights. Black Americans, for instance, are finally saying enough to chronic mistreatment at the hands of police. Women are finally saying enough to sexual harassment and rape.

But the demands for respect are interacting poisonously with three decades of downward mobility for working and middle class white men. As Thomas Edsall recently reported in the New York Times, polls show that large numbers of voters are sick of political correctness, an all-purpose put-down that conveniently uses some silly demands at the extremes to disparage calls for redress as mainstream as the movement for civil rights.

Having a president with Great Dictator tendencies would be one more blow against democracy. We find out soon enough how much resilience our democracy has left--and if we are lucky we can then set about rebuilding it.

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