An ode to the politics of dissatisfaction

The United States is about to elect someone to shepherd one of their two major parties during the upcoming presidential election. Their presumptive nominee is a powerful businessman with little to no political experience. He is also an unapologetically racist, sexist, ableist, xenophobic demagogue who has been linked to multiple fraud schemes and has publicly quoted Benito Mussolini (founder of modern day fascism) at least once.

Of course, the first part isn’t unusual. Eisenhower had no non-military experience in politics, and Obama won the office after only one Senate term; the post-Reagan Republican Party presidential nominees, with the exception of Bob Dole, have tended towards pro-business former executives. But the second part is certainly unusual – perhaps.

Over the course of the Obama administration, the Republican establishment has done a phenomenal job of alienating most of its support base. Their recent endeavours have been centred on blocking anything that Barack Obama could conceivably do, from the Obamacare resistance and infamous government shutdown, right up to the recent wave of antagonism towards Merrick Garland’s nomination – despite Garland’s views aligning with moderate Republicans as much as those of most Democrats.

It can’t exactly be determined what set them off, but one factor is certain, and this one factor might have been the trigger: President Obama, like him or not, is one of the most consequential presidents in history, with a record for translating his proposed platform to actual achievements well surpassing Clinton, and approaching that of Lyndon B. Johnson and James K. Polk. (Polk is often considered the most consequential president.) Add to that the fact that Obama has long-lasting widespread appeal unseen since Reagan, and you have a formula perfect for bothering the Republican establishment.

While representatives such as Ben Sasse have attempted to sway the voter base back into the hands of the G.O.P., anyone with a memory of a year or more will be able to recall that many of the Republicans now calling for peace and rationality, including Sasse, Paul Ryan, and Ron Paul, were proudly part of movements like the Tea Party – committed to the doctrine, whether they knew it or not, of the Republicans becoming the party of opposition, rather than the party of freedom that they once were. What’s important about this is not about their hypocrisy – that can be forgiven, given the circumstances – but the fact that they seem unable to recognise what led to this, or that they were once part of the problem.

Of course, there have been other movements as well, creating multiple “wings” within the Party: Christian Right, moderate, hawkish, libertarian, etc. What is important is that there is now a schism at the heart of the Republican Party, one that it may not survive. Every movement is dissatisfied with all of the others. The moderates, those who are actually willing to do their job and work with the sitting administration, are derided by Mitch McConnell et al. The Libertarian Party is seeing its biggest spike in membership in years, thanks to the exodus of libertarian Republicans. This seething distrust emanating the Republican Party means a schism has all but torn them in several different directions. A challenge was waiting to happen.

Enter the Donald.

Now, without jumping into all of that first, it’s important to remember that the rise of Trump is not particularly unusual, given the precedent set by any of the populist movements gripping the West, from any political direction: the rise of Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing Scottish National Party, Geert Wilders, the Front Nationale, and Greece’s Syriza have proven that much. (Gerry Adams was just ahead of the curve.) Even Canada had its own moment, with the all-too-quick reign of the New Democratic Party as the official opposition. While Trump’s effect is monumental, he is certainly not unique. (And we should take solace in the fact that this would bother him.)

A Republican Party this torn was prone to takeover by anything similar to these populist movements. In America, the Democrats aren’t immune, either: anyone in 2009 would’ve labeled Hillary as the clear favourite to take over after Obama. While Obama has been consequential, dissatisfaction with, amongst other things, his corporate stance, is growing in younger Democrats.

Make no mistake: people don’t like Trump. This election is historic in its dislike for the candidates: repeated polls – remember, primary numbers generally do not translate at all to general election patterns – have confirmed that Clinton is the most disliked candidate since 1980, and Trump is the most disliked candidate since polls of this nature began. Despite the fact that Clinton will invariably be the Democratic nominee, she, as someone who isn’t exactly part of the Democratic progressive movement, will have to do significant legwork to get dissatisfied voters to her side.

Trump is not a vote of confidence, as other nominees would be. Trump is a protest vote, as Bernie Sanders is for many Democrats. People don’t seem to care that he has quite literally no in-depth policies; that he was a Democrat until 2009; that his “business acumen” has led to a string of failures. They are voting for him to voice dissatisfaction.

What does this mean, exactly? We’ll have to wait and see. The G.O.P. is certainly irreparably damaged. The Libertarian Party will likely take a significant share of their voters; many prominent Republicans have all-but-endorsed Clinton. It may be the closest that America, a historically anti-populist country, comes to a populist victory. Regardless of whether that victory actually happens, it’ll be the biggest political change in 150 years.

By Arjun Kaul 


Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.