Photo: Darron Birgenheier
Donald Trump has cemented his lead in the Republican race for the presidential nomination, and after leaving Super Tuesday as the biggest winner, it might be too late to catch up. Who is to blame for this? Most likely, the USA’s polarized political system and the fragmentation of the Republican Party.
When Donald Trump first announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination, most people believed it to be a joke. The real estate magnate, beauty pageant owner, and television personality had close to no political experience, except for a brief run to become the presidential nominee of the Reform Party in 2000. He has delivered few policy ideas, and even fewer that can be considered serious and realistic, and has instead focused his campaign on saying that he will make America win again, with little or no implication of what that really means and how he is going to achieve it.
Still, as the results of Super Tuesday were reported, it was clear that he further consolidated his comfortable lead in the Republican race, and it is now uncertain that any candidate will have a realistic chance of overtaking him before the Republican National Convention in mid-July. This can only mean one thing: Republican voters have dropped eligibility as a criterion for presidency. From suggesting to ban all Muslims from entering the country and to build a wall on the border of Mexico (which somehow Mexico will pay for), to insulting the looks of his opponents in the bid for presidency, constantly dropping misogynist and racist comments, and failing to clearly disavow the support of a former Ku Klux Klan leader, Donald Trump has done just about everything that should compel voters to turn their backs on him and let him return to the business sector. But his outrageous remarks seem to have enticed rather than scared away voters, leading to the previously apolitical to come forward and carry him to the Republican nomination. How can this be?
The reason may be the polarization of American politics. During Obama’s presidency, the conflict between Democrats and Republicans have been more pronounced than ever before. In 2013, the US government entered a shutdown, since the divided Congress and President Obama could not agree on the funding of government business, a scenario that was almost re-enacted in 2015. Furthermore, the Senate has been reluctant to conduct hearings of Obama’s new appointments to the federal government, meaning they cannot be confirmed and begin their work. This has been going on throughout Obama’s years as president, although the most prominent case is the recent refusal of the Senate Republicans to hear any Supreme Court nominee put forward by the administration.
This polarization has hindered the administration from working effectively, and turned every minor issue into a huge fight between Democrats and Republicans. American politics has become perceived as more about winning elections than governing, and made significant changes to the way the country is run close to impossible. Moreover, politics has become seen as an industry, where contributors are willing to spend millions to make sure that their politicians win a seat in Washington D.C., where they can block legislation deemed harmful to the contributor.
This, in turn, has led to the alienation of voters, who have lost faith in the mainstream politicians, and instead turned to new voices and ideas. Trump’s critique of the politicians in D.C. and their dependencies on donations for their campaign can be seen as such a voice: by coming from outside the distrusted political class, people have more faith in him adhering to the people’s concern and actually listening.
The same trend can be seen among the Democrats, where Bernie Sanders have exceeded expectations in gathering the leftist anti-establishment vote, and forced Hillary Clinton to work for her delegates. But in the Democratic Party, Clinton, the very definition of establishment, is still in a clear lead for the nomination. If it is the polarized political system that is the cause of the anti-establishment sentiments, why has Sanders success not been comparable to Trump’s?
The difference lies within the parties. The Democratic elite have united behind Clinton, with 40 senators endorsing her campaign, and none endorsing Sanders. Other potential candidates, such as Joe Biden and Elisabeth Warren, stepped aside at an early stage, allowing the mainstream Democrats to put their internal differences aside and join together in promoting Clinton.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party is fragmented, and there is a lot of bickering between its different factions. The internal fighting between fiscal conservatives, the religious right, and the Tea Party movement, among others, have divided the Republican Party, and prevented them from gathering behind a single candidate. Up until recently, there were four mainstream candidates – Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Chris Christie – all with support from different actors within the party. Belatedly, the mainstream Republicans seem to have agreed upon Marco Rubio, but he faces an uphill battle against Trump, especially as Ted Cruz remains in the race, attracting far-right votes.
This internal fight has led to Republican anti-establishment sentiments not being directed only towards D.C., but to their own party elite as well. This is why Trump is in the lead, while Sanders is still fighting from below: Trump entered a fragmented party where no one trusted the own leadership, while Sanders entered a party where the elite still enjoys the loyalty of its members.
This is the Republicans’ problem. They need to earn back the trust from their voters, and the only way to do that is to reunite the party, and stop the infighting. The party elite seem to have realized that: there has been news of meetings to discuss how the party can gather behind a single candidate. But it might already be too late: once they are finally ready to unite, the only candidate left to unite behind may be Donald Trump.
By Viktor Sundman