Trumped democracy?

It is time politicians talk straight and on important topics. Otherwise, there will be more space for Citizen Trump and the like.

Ernesto Gallo Giovanni Biava
4 March 2016
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump participates in a debate sponsored by Fox News on March 3, 2016.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump participates in a debate sponsored by Fox News at the Fox Theatre on March 3, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images. All rights reserved.The west’s largest democracy as it goes to the presidential polls confirms the overall feeling of exposure to democracy’s current malaise. Is the cause to be found in Donald Trump? We think that Trump’s popularity is a sign, rather than a source of the problem. A glance at the other candidates, both Republican and Democrat, clarifies the point.

US citizens seem disaffected by whatever has a flavour of ‘establishment’. In both camps those perceived as candidates of the ‘elite’ are having a hard time. Marco Rubio, the Republican Senator from Florida, garnering the support of important former candidates (among them, New York’s George Pataki) and billionaires like Oracle’s Larry Ellison, is often perceived as a ‘golden boy’ of Republican politics. However, he has performed rather poorly and limited experience (just five years as a Senator) does not help. His more experienced opponent, Chris Christie, who interrupted his speech in New Hampshire referring to Rubio’s ‘25-second memorized speech’, was basically right. Do people like Rubio, for all their rhetorical talent, know what they are talking about? How much do they know about specific issues in foreign or economic policy? Do they understand the problems of unemployed or underemployed Americans (or Europeans)? Of course these are some of democracy’s structural problems, but they are coming to the fore more clearly. Governing classes in the democratic west have lost quality.

It seems American citizens have had enough of Jeb Bush’s Texan family despite his being the most moderate member of his own ‘dynasty’ as a Governor in Florida promoting sensible environmental policies. John Kasich, Governor of Ohio and second in New Hampshire, is an experienced, soft-spoken, and intelligent ‘moderate’, but, despite his distance from Washington’s establishment, is perceived as ‘too political’ by current voters. What do US voters think about Hillary Clinton then? How big was her defeat in New Hampshire, which followed a modest performance in Iowa?

Clinton’s defeat in New Hampshire (where she obtained just 38% of the votes vs. Sanders’s 60.4%) was probably the most important moment so far in this White House race. Are voters tired of somebody who, one way or another, has been in the innermost circles of power since 1992, with her association with Bill Clinton and powerful donors such as George Soros and Warren Buffett? Have Americans lost trust in her after some dodgy episodes (e.g. the use of private emails when she was Secretary of State)? Probably all these factors are playing a role. It is shocking though that “Among voters who cared more about honesty and trustworthiness…only 5 percent chose Hillary Clinton.”  Equally shocking is that young people seem to largely prefer her senior opponent, Bernie Sanders: only 16% of those under 29 chose Hillary.

Hillary’s problems might be linked to worsening economic conditions particularly for young people, who seem to prefer Mr Sanders’s more radical recipes. US youth unemployment in fact is rather low – at least by European standards; 10.3% in January 2016, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Furthermore, despite the financial crisis, the US economy has done rather well, both in the Clinton and Obama presidencies. Many youths are disaffected because they want to see change; more transparency; new faces; new and more radical ideas. A comment on her health care projects by Hillary, after her narrow win in Iowa, betrays a rather patronising tone: “I know young people think these are just details,” she said. “That I should just fly at 30,000ft and just say, ‘OK, you know, we’re just going to do this and we’re going to do that. Thank you very much’ – but that’s not how I believe we should select the president. I want you to know what I’m going to do for you so that you can hold me accountable.” No, this is clearly not going to attract young Americans’ votes.

No surprise then that so many, not only among youngsters, ‘feel the Bern’ and vote Sanders. Ironically, the Vermont Senator is 74 years old and his economic policies, perhaps too ‘socialist’ to win the White House. However, this testifies to the will to change and aspiration for a politics closer to citizens. Sanders will probably have difficulties in the southern states, but what he is achieving is already remarkable, in light of his heavy-handed (by US standards) taxation policies and his past as a left-wing independent.

Then of course there is ‘The Donald’. With a net worth of $ 4.5 billion (more, says the tycoon), Donald Trump does not need many donors. His story is not so new in the western world: a few years ago Italy had Silvio Berlusconi. Trump is ridiculing a political establishment which seems to underestimate his power and grasp of people’s gut-feelings and is unable to find a viable alternative. Not by chance so far the other Republican frontrunner has been another ‘outsider’, the Texas Senator, Ted Cruz, with his fundamentalist positions on issues such as the free market, the role of religion in politics, and the use of firearms. What if Ted Cruz and ‘The Donald’ ended hand-in-hand, one stronger in the South, the other in the North, and despite their recurrent clashes?

Although US elections are often fought on domestic issues, the lack of familiarity with international affairs this time is rather appalling. Hillary is here of course outstanding, but her record as Secretary of State is marred by crucial mistakes in the Middle East and a rather confrontational, if ineffective, attitude towards China. Have US would-be leaders understood that China is soon going to overtake America as the world’s biggest economy and, like it or not, that the world is moving towards a G-2? Have they understood that the USA has lost the trust of once crucial allies (Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey are some examples) and will be more lonely in a world where the EU is constantly declining? Marco Rubio calls for a hard line with Beijing – no red carpets for president Xi. Hopefully he will realise that the USA and China can only prosper or fall together – no other possibility is in sight.

US citizens are alienated by politicians who keep repeating traditional mantra and seem to mainly rely on marketing gurus or the support of statistics experts. It is time politicians talk straight and on important topics. Otherwise, there will be more space for Citizen Trump and the like.

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