Anyone paying attention from a remote distance might be forgiven to think that American presidential elections are always fun to watch, a sort of serious entertainment that gets the whole world suddenly riveted to the dramas fast unfolding around the candidates and the issues involved. This is especially more so as the entire process approaches or enters the homestretch. Alas, it is not. A close attention to the process — and this should not be difficult to do particularly in this age of the Internet and YouTube — reveals quite frankly that it is not all hunky-dory but in fact a brutally nasty, ugly experience that’s definitely not for the faint at heart.
As the old saw goes, comparisons are odious. But we make them all the same. Having lived in the United States long enough, during which time I have witnessed many presidential and off-year election cycles up close, I find the temptation to compare our election process back home in Nigeria with the one here irresistible. Both systems, by way of similarity, tap deep into the ugly side of man. In the Nigerian system, for example, it is de rigueur for the political office seeker to deploy, if he can, thuggery, bribery, ethnicity, massive rigging, black magic, lynching and outright murder of opponents in his quest for power. But while the American system may frown on such because it operates a better rule of law culture, the sheer wickedness of the campaign, coupled with the unimaginably huge tons of money spent to influence the outcome, to say nothing of the malicious press coverage of certain candidates, produces a nastiness that is just as objectionable as the Nigerian experience. And yet, this is the same country that prides itself on having perhaps the best democracy in the world.
So here we are again in another presidential campaign season in America. The process has only just begun, but both the intra and inter-party squabbles are already on display. But while you might not really notice the civil war inside the Democratic party yet because it is being subtly waged at this stage, on the Republican end of the spectrum, the ugly fight is already in overdrive, thanks to a Republican candidate named Donald Trump who somehow believes that he stands a good chance of moving house to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in January, 2017. As all paying close attention may already have noticed, Trump is playing the game in a way that is more revolting than entertaining.
First, who is Donald Trump? Trump is a hugely known quantity over here. A billionaire, Trump made his vast fortunes in real estate, besides his involvement in reality television shows and casino business. Although Trump is not your typical politician, he has dabbled in politics, ugly politics, quite a lot, too. Until he eventually entered the race for the White House, Trump had dithered for many years over running for that office. But even when he failed subsequently to do so, he elected to make his voice clearly heard on several issues he cared so much about. One such issue was President Barack Obama’s US citizenship. Aggressively, he promoted, and feverishly, his fanatical faithful swallowed, the ludicrous claim that Obama had lied about his American citizenship. He believed (and still does) that Obama was born in Kenya where his father hailed from, a circumstance that should have disqualified him, in Trump’s argument, from being president of the United States in the first place. But facts never trouble the bigot, nor is the heretic ever disturbed by reason. Even when the media so many times confronted Trump with evidence that made nonsense of his claim, he stubbornly continued to perpetuate the myth about Obama’s birthplace. It is clearly that state of nativist, xenophobic mind that Trump has brought to his presidential campaign.
Lacking political decorum, and known for his frequently unfiltered ejaculations, Trump characterized unlicensed Mexican immigrants as “rapists”, “criminals” and drug peddler when he declared a run for the White House at his Trump Tower, New York, June 16, 2015. Trump is making immigration reform the bedrock of his campaign. The move shocked the establishment wing of the GOP which believes, and rightly too, that a win in next year’s presidential election is not possible without vast swaths of Hispanic votes. The lack of such a sizable Hispanic support cost Mitt Romney victory in the last election. Romney had said during his campaign that undocumented immigrants needed to “self-deport.” Hispanic voters didn’t forget that, nor will they forget Trump’s current campaign against them should he become his party’s nominee.
Disregarding party counsel to tamp down his ultra-rightist rhetoric, Trump is doubling down instead on his immigration plan. On August 16, he unveiled that plan in fair detail when he said that a Trump government, among other things, would crack down severely on undocumented immigrants by deporting them back to their countries of origin in large numbers. His government would seize whatever money these immigrants are sending home to their families. Trump plans to build a wall on the borders between America and Mexico and ask the latter to pick up the bill. Trump’s government, if it comes to exist, will also violate the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution which confers automatic US citizenship on any child born in the country.
If Trump is not targeting immigrants, he’s training his big gun on his opponents who include those in the media critical of his style, and indeed many in his own party. Picking up from where he left off three weeks ago, Trump, last Monday, resumed his derogatory tweets about Megyn Kelly of Fox News Channel who had peppered him with “unfair” questions during the last GOP debate hosted by the channel for ten of the party’s candidates. Trump mocked Kelly as a “bimbo” and wished that she had not returned from a vacation she had gone on days after the initial hostilities between Trump and the channel began over Kelly’s hostile probing. That happened on the same day he had a Hispanic reporter, Jorge Ramos, kicked out of his press conference in Dubuque, Iowa, for interrupting him repeatedly during a question and answer moment.
Trump once said he refused to recognize Senator John McCain as a war hero because he was captured by his Vietnamese enemies. This was after first tweeting on July 16 that the former Republican presidential candidate from Arizona “Graduated last in his class at Annapolis — dummy!” Going off on Republican strategist Karl Rove on the same day, Trump tweeted, “Irrelevant clown. Sweats and shakes nervously on Fox News as he talks ‘bull’ about me. Has zero cred.” Then at a campaign rally in Bluffton, South Carolina, Trump shared Senator Lindsey Graham’s phone number with the public because Graham who represents that state in Washington, D.C. and who is also seeking to be president of the United States, had criticized him. “What a stiff, what a stiff, Lindsey Graham. By the way he registered zero in the polls,” Trump derided Graham at the rally. Last Tuesday, Graham carefully chose some violent words for Trump. “Come to South Carolina, and I’ll beat his brains out,” he said. He also called Trump “a complete idiot.”
With all that, coupled with his inability to put meat on the bone of many of his proposals, you would have expected Trump’s poll numbers to have severely plummeted by now, and him walking quietly into the dark, lonely night. His opponents and the GOP establishment, expecting no less, have been praying and waiting to see Trump consumed by his own endless barrage of vile, vituperative and politically incorrect remarks. So far none of that is happening. Nothing. Not even the crassest of all the things he has said so far on the campaign trail has hurt Trump. Where other so-called conventional politicians would have been sunk precipitously to the bottom of the sea by the same crazy utterances, Trump instead gets a boost from them. He continues to soar in opinion polls, a reflection of the mind-boggling naivety of the Tea Party elements who largely constitute the Republican base, who hate Obama like poison, who believe he does not belong here and who, eureka!, have found an escape valve in Trump for the expression of that deep-seated, racially driven anger they have long harbored against President Obama.
In a bid to out-Trump Trump in his nakedly nativist agenda, many of his fellow Republican candidates are starting to steal a page from his playbook in hopes that their ratings might increase. At rallies, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson, are today invoking the term “anchor babies”, an offensive term for children born by undocumented Hispanic immigrants. Their aping of Trump is clearly worsening their party’s misery index.
Trump has caused irreparable damage to the brand. The only way the establishment wing of the party sees out of this mess is to continue to ensure that Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, is further damaged by the personal email server scandal ahead of next presidential election. The Republicans are aided in this partisan witch-hunt by their friends in the media, such as former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough of MSNBC who devotes a substantial segment of his morning television program every day to bashing Hillary and actually hoping that she is indicted by the Justice Department for owning and conducting state business with a personal email server during her tenure as Secretary of State. Scarborough once voted to impeach Hillary’s husband.
If they are unable to get an indictment and her automatic disqualification from the presidential election, then they must gin up a fight between Vice President Joe Biden and the former first lady by promoting a Biden-for-President campaign. Such a context, even anyone with half a brain knows, could be very brutal and nearly as ugly as what is going on inside the GOP right now. That way, the Republicans could eventually reap the benefit of a Democratic demolition derby in the November, 2016 presidential election.