2016 US Presidential Election – Lessons From A European Experience

Following a victory in New Hampshire on 26th May 2016, Donald Trump – the lone horse left in the race after Ted Cruz dropped out on 3rd May with John Kasich doing so a day later – got over the 1237 threshold of delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination. He has done so before fellow foregone conclusion nominee from the opposite side of the political divide, Hillary Clinton, could get the 2383 delegates she needs to cut a still unwavering, though numerically out of the game, Bernie Sanders off at the pass. She now has 2310, with Sanders on 1542.

Thus it is now down to a battle many would describe as bad vs worse. Many a prediction has already been made about the disaster that would befall the US and the world at large in case of a Trump victory. Some figure Hillary will win easily because Trump is so unlikeable, with others predicting that the man who turned US politics on its head can pull off the upset. Republican-friendly, libertarian political commentator Wayne Allyn Root has gushed that Trump will be the next Reagan, which is as beaming an endorsement as a Republican presidential hopeful can get.

A somewhat similar situation obtained in France in 2002 when the far-right Front National’s candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the second round of the presidential election at the expense of the Socialist Party’s Lionel Jospin whom he beat by taking 32% of the votes to Jospin’s 30% while incumbent Jacques Chirac had garnered 37% in first place, sending shockwaves through the nation. Taking the complacent political class by surprise was, however, to be pinnacle of Le Pen’s success; two weeks later he was on the receiving end of an unprecedented 82% – 18% second round drubbing at the hands of Chirac.

What caused this? The answer is the phenomenon in French politics known as the “republican vote”, meaning voting against a candidate, and by consequence for their rival regardless of one’s opinion of that rival, for the sake of the Republic and its values which the candidate is perceived endangering. Le Pen was able to slip through the first round, but the French two-round electoral system being equipped with the political equivalent of the balancing item from accounting / economics – the tool whereby imbalances in accounts between figures which should add up are corrected – used to offset the difference between the two figures, the far-right candidate’s rise was successfully halted.

Could we see shades of 2002 France in this 2016 US contest? Trump is reviled by many Republicans. After it became clear that he would handily win the nomination, many voices were raised to mourn what they saw as the new low the Republican party had sunk to. Mr. Trump’s detractors appear by and large to be falling in line with the new reality, albeit unpalatable. It has taken some convincing, but long after candidates of yestermonth Ben Carson and Chris Christie had thrown their support behind the growing and baffling Trump 2016 machine, Marco Rubio caved in and said he would support the will of the people who had chosen Trump. This after a series of spats during Republican debates when Trump would take no shortage of pleasure in destabilising Rubio, making him look like the absolute novice the confident Trump himself in fact was but like which he never acted. Libertarian hero fallen by the wayside Rand Paul has also supported Trump, while Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has come out in support of Trump after opposing him for months, while seeking to allay fears by playing the checks and balances card and reassuring people that Trump simply would not be able to run the country into the ground because there is too much of an institutional structure within which he would have to operate – and with which he would have to content – for him to do so.

House Speaker Paul Ryan says that he is just not ready to support Trump as things stand. The general feeling is that he too will warm up to the idea of giving Trump at least a lip service endorsement. A group coalescing under the banner of the Never Trump Movement seemed intent on doing all within their hinder Trump’s campaign, before folding mere weeks after surfacing, joining other former anti-Trumps in a dose of realism about Trump’s accomplishments that can be quite neatly summed up by the slogan of Buckley’s cough syrup – “it tastes awful, but it works”. Trump has been a bitter pill to swallow, but they have held their nose and taken their medicine.

The unstoppable Trump rise does have its fervent detractors. Jeb Bush, his former father and brother have refused to endorse the new (?) King of New York. 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney is currently denouncing Trump at every turn, saying he wouldn’t be able to be at peace with himself if he didn’t. The term “Republicans For Hillary” has gained some traction, and there has even been speculation surrounding the possible emergence of an alternative third candidate. In short, Trump has not and will not win everyone over.

That said, this month a certain turning of the tide was observed when he overtook the candidate he has branded “Crooked Hillary” in 3 out of 5 major weekly survey results – by margins of 43.4% to 43.2%, 46% to 44% and 45% to 42%, with Clinton winning 2 polls by 3% and 6% respectively. Up to late April Clinton still enjoyed a comfortable lead.

In comparison, Le Pen polled between 8.5% and 14% in the year preceding the April-May 2002 vote, just a little ahead of regularly flip-flopping centrist François Bayrou and far left-winger Jean-Pierre Chevènement. The corresponding numbers for both establishment candidates Chirac and Jospin were regularly in the high twenties.

Le Pen caught the Socialist Party off guard. Then Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, under the no longer used system of “cohabitation” which saw the Prime Minister coming from the main opposition party, was on cruise control en route to facing President Chirac, viewed as popular, though not always productive. In the run-up to the election Chirac could boast a popularity level of just over 60% – enough to make current President François Holland go green with envy given that he hit an unenviable low of 13% a month ago – while Jospin was in the mid-50s. September 2001 surveys had Chirac only just winning the following year’s ballot over Jospin, 51% to 49%. Jospin was plausibly on course to give Chirac a run for his money. He certainly didn’t have to worry about crazy old Jean-Marie Le Pen, conventional wisdom had it. Why, Bayrou by virtue of being sane and not an ideological leper would be a more serious threat! Even former Interior Minister Charles Pasqua – then known as a headstrong, opinionated political stalwart with a bag of headline-worthy utterances to his credit but not much more – polled nearly as well as Le Pen for a few months in 2001. Seeing it as a mere formality, Jospin announced his candidacy simply by sending a fax to media houses. Nothing to worry about, was the refrain.

In 2015 the man playing the role of Lionel Jospin in the American adaptation of this political drama, Jeb Bush, declared his candidacy. With his last name and Right to Rise PAC in tow, he set about the business of continuing the family trend of taking the reins at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Then along came Trump and after a number of either underwhelming debate performances or downright embarrassments versus Trump, the “Jeb Can Fix It” campaign was no more. Jeb Bush kept repeating that Trump had to start being civil for people to take him seriously, but that was not to be; President Obama declared that world leaders were rattled by Trump, and that he was sure Trump would become president because running a country was not like running a reality TV show, similar to when Ted Cruz said of Trump that “the time for the clowns and the acrobats and the dancing bears has passed” in February, meaning that Trump needed to get serious about getting down to the business of governing or, rather, leave the serious business of governing to the real practitioners like himself. Yet Trump is the nominee. Comedian Stephen Colbert said of Bush: “he looks bewildered, like he thought he was going to a wedding but really ended up at a Bar Mitzvah”. He had been caught flat footed with no idea what type of party was walking into. Like the perma-bewildered Forrest Gump saying sorry to the black militants for interrupting their Black Panther party, not realising “party” was not a festive gathering, Jeb was unaware that the Republican party was now moving to the tune of DJ Trump’s greatest hits.

Back in France, Socialist politicians called in unison for their supporters to vote Chirac for the good of the Republic, amid a number of anti-extreme right marches around the country. Chirac refused to debate Le Pen during the 2-week layover between rounds, about which Le Pen himself said “it’s not common for one to like one’s enemy, but you face them with courage notwithstanding. Chirac has no such courage”.

On the subject of debates, a few days ago the idea of a Trump – Bernie Sanders debate was floated by Trump himself and offers ranging between $1 and $10 million came pouring in from organisations keen on hosting what they knew would be a verbal slugfest. Trump ended up backing down from a game Sanders, citing the fact that he was his party’s presumptive nominee whereas Sanders could boast no such accomplishment as meaning that any debate between the two men would be inappropriate. Sanders then mocked Trump as an embarrassment and true danger for the world if he were to become president, saying that Trump only talked a big game.

According to Bill O’Reilly Trump and Sanders are much the same because they are both populists who have built their platforms on voter angst. Sanders himself explains that many Trump supporters are angry, as are his own, but that they are buying into false solutions being offered by Trump. Some commentators have explained that in the absence of Sanders as the Democratic nominee, his angry supporters could very well pivot towards Trump, as has happened in past elections in the 1960s and 70s with voters leaning rightwards on account of their need to express their dissatisfaction with the establishment.

The “republican vote” is not a feature of American politics as it is in France. Hillary Clinton has plenty of work to do in shoring up the support of Hispanics and the youth. The acrimonious struggle now taking place with Sanders does not help her with the latter. She has her fair share of detractors, and as such nothing can be taken for granted à la Jospin 2002, and this especially given O’Reilly analysis that at “this time in history, people want an avenger; they don’t want a politician, they want somebody who’s going to come in and blow the whole system up”, which describes anyone but the former First Lady. This does not mean that Mrs. Clinton is incapable of coming out with a victory. She is a political veteran – which is what leads to her being criticised as the ultimate status quo candidate – but this also gives her a wealth of experience from political battles of previous decades upon which to draw. She has, after all, campaigned for others, been First Lady, successfully run for the Senate in 2000 and unsuccessfully for the White House in 2008. In this respect she is similar to Chirac in France when he won his first presidential term in 1995. By that point he had been embroiled in political battles for 3 decades both as mayor of Paris and as prime minister, outmanoeuvring the likes of presidential hopeful Jacques Chaban Delmas in the 1970s, sitting President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing at the start of the 80s and finally rival candidate Edouard Balladur in the mid-1990s before getting to the Elysée promised land after his proverbial 40 years in the wilderness eyeing the top prize in all of French politics.

Trump’s star on Hollywood Walk of Fame is often vandalised and some even wish to see it removed. His political star has, however, been shining brightly regardless of any attempts to have him hide his light under a bushel, to borrow a New Testament Biblical reference (“Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house”).

One political historian explains that “sometimes when the mood of a people becomes tired, bored and perverse, the democratic temper will find expression in crudely rejecting whoever happens to be in office, casting him out only because he is in, and elevating someone else for no better reason than the prospect of hearing a new name and seeing a new face”. Clinton is an insider who just may be cast aside in favour of the brash new voice.

Time Magazine’s 14th March 2016 cover depicts Donald Trump and a checklist. The boxes ticked off show Trump as a “bully, showman, party crasher, demagogue”. The final and only unticked box is that of “the 45th President of the United States”. Without a predictable balancing item built into it (though, there is always the electoral college vote), and unless Republican leaders come out en masse to call for their base to support Clinton for the good of the US republic, and given Sanders’ supporters’ propensity for being up in arms in much the same way as their Trump-following counterparts, it is all up in the air.

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