One of the disappointing features of this presidential election season is its fear-mongering, megalomania, and anti-intellectualism on the Republican side. This all comes to a head in Donald Trump, of course, but the other Republican candidates evidence it in varying degrees as well.
Fear is the great driver of this bullying, bombast, and bullshit. A failing economic and political system calls forth anxiety, insecurity, and vulnerability from within; the rise and threat of ISIS from without. We have come to experience the world post 9/11 the everyone else lives in and it is profoundly disorienting. The time is ripe for demagogues.
Thus Donald Trump. And Ted Cruz. And so on down the line of candidates. Trump is the best at it. That’s why he leads the group at this point. He fully exploits the fear rampant among us presenting himself as a “Leader” who, while a bit crass and rough around the edges, who isn’t afraid to speak “Truth” and threaten to beat them with a “big stick” if they don’t kowtow to him. This bombast is his platform. Specifics aren’t really needed or wanted. Security is the issue and bullying and bombast are the prescription. Truth isn’t really important, as it often isn’t in a presidential election, but the candidates’ relation to truth in this election season has been at best occasional and at worst non-existent.
This election, even more than other recent ones, will turn on perception and image. Who can best present themselves as the “One” who can settle our fears and effectively deal with the “threats” out there in the world.
Democrats don’t seem to quite understand this. Even with the success of Obama at doing just this in the 2008 election, they don’t seem to get it. Nor do many of their supporters. Clinton is the establishment candidate par excellence. She runs on record, pedigree, and proximity to power. She’s the maintenance candidate with a slightly different inflection from her Republican colleagues (but not necessarily those running for the nomination). She talks policy and incremental change without fundamental reorientation of the system. Sanders, too, talks policy, especially economic policy. He promises substantial change in that system in the interest of equality. Clinton addresses neither the internal fears or external threats very well. Thus she cannot make the emotional connection with the electorate that Trump, Cruz, Rubio seem to have made. Sanders addresses one aspect of our internal anxiety but not much else. While he has connected emotionally with the longings and aspirations of a goody segment of voters, his failure to address a broader spectrum of fears and anxieties of our country leaves a compelling (to me at least) policy analysis on economic matters but nothing else to hang our hearts on.
Democrats don’t have to be bullies, engage in bombast, or spew bullshit, but they do need to recognize that this is the ground on which this election will be ought. Bullies, bombast, and bullshit are not going away from the Republican side. But can democrats find a forceful yet winsome way to address the concerns of the heart of America as well as its pocketbook? I don’t know. They’re not very good at it. The 2008 Obama campaign offers an instructive example to learn from. Otherwise, there is a real chance at this point that Donald Trump might be our next president!