Donald's the Democrat's Trump card
All right, all right, first things first: Relax, Donald Trump won't be president. His surge to first place in Republican primary polls probably reveals little more than the well-documented phenomenon American political scientists call the 'discovery, scrutiny, decline' effect; or put differently, 'see it, try it, dump it'.
New candidates often get a bounce in the polls for the interest they generate. The public then examines them closely, finds them wanting, and drops them. Remember those few days in 2008 when the sun smiled upon the Republican Party, the world met Sarah Palin, and it seemed John McCain might actually beat Barack Obama? Then she started giving interviews.
The same thing will happen to Trump. It's worth remembering that his 'surge' is all the way up to 18 per cent. He may well hold that support, because his bombastic rhetoric delights that sliver of the American electorate which is the populist Right. But each time he opens his mouth, he annoys someone else in the remaining 80-odd per cent of Republican voters. Sooner or later, he'll join that long list of Americans he loves to mock: the losers.
Hurting the party
But along the way, he's doing the Republican Party serious damage. Because he's not just annoying the Republican majority, he's annoying most everyone else. On his popular FiveThirtyEight blog, the psephologist Nate Silver recently argued that Donald Trump is the world's greatest troll, baiting his opponents and thereby drawing ever more attention to himself. It's a good media strategy, but crummy politics, and the dilemma for Republicans is that Silver's advice to them - to ignore Trump until he just flames out like any spent meteor - may be a medicine worse than the disease.
If they do ignore him, they risk looking complicit in what he has to say. Each time Trump gets away with one of his statements, swing voters inch closer and closer to the Democratic nominee. So even though he won't get to be president, Donald Trump may well have a hand in who does. He's Hilary Clinton's dream candidate.
The fact that a cartoon character like him could even get a hearing in a presidential contest is an interesting case study of how the road to political hell can be paved with good intentions. American politics used to be a fabulously corrupt affair of backroom deals and pork-barrel payoffs.
Presidential nominees were chosen at party conventions in which powerful brokers cut deals among themselves. Once elected, presidents got their congressional allies to pass legislation by using their patronage power to buy votes, while senators and representatives negotiated 'earmarks' - targeting some of the spending authorised by a bill to the constituencies of those supporting it - so as to get it through Congress.
It was ugly. But it also meant party elites could weed out loony fringe candidates. It also meant that Congress could actually get things done. Then came the drive to clean up politics. Nominations were turned over to party members, who chose the candidates for local elections, as well as the delegates to presidential conventions, in primaries. Since only the most ideologically driven voters turn up at primaries, that turned nomination campaigns over to the party's extreme. It also meant anyone who could excite just a bit of support in the most extreme elements of that base could get a hearing. Ergo Donald Trump.
It also meant that Congress was no longer filled with people who could deal, but with ideologically driven members who disdained compromise of any sort. And so we're left with today's American politics, where opponents scream at each other and gridlock rules.
Bismarck famously said that politics was the art of the possible. In a pluralistic society, that means crafting compromises among many competing groups, who sometimes have very different views, inevitably requiring give and take. The 'vision thing,' as George H.W. Bush once called it, breathes life into politics and gives us the energy to get involved. But governing itself is best left to kings, not prophets.
- John Rapley is a writer and academic based in London, and author of 'The Money Cult' (Simon and Schuster, 2016). A long-time Gleaner correspondent, you can follow him on twitter @jarapley and at https://brixtonsubversity.wordpress.com.