Saturday, December 12, 2015

Like it or not, Trump has changed the face of American politics

Loath as I am to contribute more Internet commentary on the "Trump phenomenon", it is undeniably a major political reality with potentially worldwide consequences. However queasy we are about it, it cannot be ignored, because it is not going away any time soon.
Out of the blue, Donald Trump has just gone a step further than any of Europe's ultra-rightists (Marine le Pen, Nigel Farage, Heinz-Christian Strache, even Geert Wilders) in calling for the complete exclusion of an entire category of people from the United States based on their religious and ethnic identity. Even for the American Republican Party, this is off the charts and beyond the bounds of civilized and acceptable politics, and the GOP is justifiably concerned about what it means for the party, the country, and indeed the world.
In pursuing this course, Trump has tapped into a political underbelly most had hoped never to see again. But tapped into he has, and his most extreme statements have seen his poll lead in the Republican nomination extended, not diminished.
And the repercussions are starting to be felt. Several of the other Republican nomination candidates, while publicly expressing their indignation and revulsion at Trump's words, have already started subtly angling their campaigns along a similar (although less extreme) line. Just by putting the concept out there, Trump has, like it or not, changed the way we discuss the issue, changed whether we discuss the issue. Many European far-right parties, already growing and size and popularity, have taken heart from all this American hand-wringing.
Whether or not you believe that Trump's proposals (and their apparent popularity) are playing into the hands of Islamic jihadists like Islamic State, and whether or not you believe that Trump himself believes in what he spouts (or just sees it as a means to his own megalomaniac personal ends), it seems clear that the politics of race, ethnicity and religion has resurfaced in the Land of the Free.
It is difficult for us smug Canadians, and even most of the decent Americans I have spoken to, to understand where Trump's support is coming from. Maybe we shouldn't be surprised, but it comes overwhelmingly from what some analysts are describing as "The Disaffecteds" - white, male, poorly educated voters, not necessarily from the Republican Party's traditional right-wing base, but who feel (for whatever reason) alienated from, or abandoned by, mainstream politics. It even cuts across party lines.
The conventional wisdom is that the politics of racial identity cannot hope to win the day in modern America. The last time this was overtly tried (Barry Goldwater in 1964) resulted in a decisive defeat, and today's America has both a lot more racial minority voters (particularly Latinos) and a much higher racial tolerance in general.
That said, whether Trump triumphs in the Republican nomination race, or is forced out (to stand as an independent), it is clear that he will take a lot of votes with him. Either way, the GOP - and even the USA - may never be quite the same again.

An interesting test of Europe's flirtation with ultra-rightism occurred recently with the regional elections in France.
Marine Le Pen's National Front party received its largest ever popular vote, but ultimately it failed to take any of the regions, despite have led handsomely in several regions after the first vote. The voter turnout in the second and decisive vote was much higher than in the first, suggesting that the electorate perhaps panicked somewhat at the spectre of a National Front victory. In a fascinating and extreme example of strategic voting, the Socialist candidates in two regions pulled out completely and urged their supporters to back the Conservatives in order to block the National Front.
The mainstream French parties (and probably most of the country) are clearly relieved at the outcome, but are looking on this scare as a timely warning. The ultra-right movement in France is strong and vigorous, and still out for blood.

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