OK, guys, this is the deal: I’ve been half stuck writing an ultra-dense post on Marxist economics (an oxymoron, I know), but being the kind of exhaustive nutso I am it has taken me from “Limits of Capitalism” by David Harvey to “Late Capitalism” by Ernest Mandel to “Monopoly Capital” by Baran & Sweezy to “Studies on the Development of Capitalism” by Maurice Dobb. And of course I had to go back to “Capital” by Marx himself, specially volumes 2 (just to confirm how abysmally bad and muddled it was) and 3. And to “Imperialism as the Highest Stage of Capitalism” by none other than Lenin (just for funsies). Long story short, I’m still mired in the midst of it, not knowing when I may finish. So, as I usually do, I started a new post in parallel, to keep my mind occasionally out of the depths of bad metaphysics posing as bad economics. Only it turned out to be conceptually even more demanding (a project of mine for a long time, which was going to be an appendix of my dissertation but I finally pulled it out for lack of time: a refutation of Libet’s arch-famous experiment which has been construed countless times as the definitive refutation of the existence of free will, to which I answer bollocks, but going anywhere more nuanced than that requires apparently endless amounts of intellectual heavy lifting… again, I hope to be able to share an accessible version anytime soon).
So just to keep my faithful readers entertained, and for my own amusement, I decided to spend some time writing about the most non transcendental issue I could find in the news, the one less likely to require any sort of mental exertion, and being an avid follower of the American electoral process I obviously settled in the baffling (for all the punditocracy at least, we’ll see that the proverbial men in the street have a different view altogether) rise in the polls of the bombastic casino magnate and real state mogul of the title. As most informed citizens may know, currently the Donald leads the field of candidates to be the standard bearer of the Republican party come next November by a substantial margin, both nationally and in the first states to vote (Iowa –where he seemed to have lost ground to similarly implausible candidate Ben Carson for a while, but where he is solidly back at top; New Hampshire and North Carolina). He has been doing so for months, which makes his rise, at this point, substantially different from that of similarly outsider candidates in the last election cycle (when we saw the likes of Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry and even Sarah Palin climb to the top of the republican primary polls for brief stretches of time, before the conservative electorate had a good look at them and decided they were not presidential material): Will Trump win?
Being a bit more than two months away from the first actual votes being cast (1st of February in Iowa), I don’t see how Mr. Trump may be dislodged of his position. He could try to offend Latinos, a rising voting bloc with increasing influence in the November election, by calling them rapists and threatening to deport 11 million of their brethren. He could try to disparage women, doing inappropriate comments about his only female contender (Carly Fiorina). He could try to alienate further the party’s orthodox anti-tax-at-any-price group suggesting that tax increases are not entirely off the table. He could try to drive away the hawkish wing of the party asserting he has no interest in nation building, troops on the ground (except for guarding the Southern border) or any “serious” foreign policy initiative distinct from talking tough to Putin, Arafat, whoever is leading China these days and Bashar el Assad… oh, wait, he has already done all of the above, and in each occasion pundits to the left and to the right have declared it the beginning of the end of his lead and the turning point leading unavoidably to the demise of his candidacy, only to see his lead consolidate in subsequent polls.
At some point, we have to accept there is a good chance that come February he is still leading, and starts to transform that lead in more delegates than any other candidate, up to the republican convention in July. Maybe not yet the biggest chance, but definitely not a negligible one. In the remaining of this post I want to discuss what may prevent that from happening, and how likely I think that scenario is. According to most analysts, Trump has benefitted so far from a highly fragmented camp. The big money behind more conventional (and more palatable to the party’s establishment) candidates has been too divided to let its influence be noted, but at some point (sooner rather than later) it will start coalescing. Also, at this point in previous races the vast majority of the electorate hasn’t been paying any attention at all, so when asked by pollsters who they would vote for, rather than confessing their ignorance they offered the only name they recognized, which would favor inordinately the candidates with a more widely known “brand” (an area in which Mr. Trump can not be beaten). As the real voting approaches, the received wisdom goes, voters will seek more information, get more familiar with the proposals and the personas of the different alternatives and gravitate towards someone more viable (more electable, with a broader appeal, that could attract the number of moderates needed to win a general election, an area in which you would expect the magnate to be very vulnerable).
The fragmentation is indeed bound to diminish in the following months, as more and more contenders realize they don’t have a snowball’s in Hell’s chance and quit (I’d say Christie, Huckabee, Gilmore, Santorum, Pataki, Kasich and Fiorina will exit first, followed by Carson, Bush and Paul, leaving just Rubio and Cruz to battle it out with the Donald ‘til the end). However, I’m not that sure about the “more information” effect, as this campaign has been accompanied by unprecedented levels of attention, attested by the stratospheric following of the five debates celebrated so far. I’ll just cite an admittedly non-scientifically, non-representative sample I directly witnessed not long ago. One of my FB contacts asked his republican friends how many of them would support Mr. Trump, were he the Republican candidate in the general election. This person is as civil, accomplished and cosmopolitan as you can dream of, so his network of acquaintances should be representative of the most enlightened wing of the Republican Party. About 40 people answered, and not a single one of them hesitated declaring they would vote for Trump in the blink of an eye (some were even annoyed that the question was being posed at all, while nobody seemed to have any qualms or made any question about that vile, lying, mail-hiding, America-bashing Hilary Clinton that the Democrats were about to coronate without such qualms). To say that I was surprised would be an understatement. Some of the respondents I had interacted with before, and I knew them to be also educated, sophisticated, financially secure, well grounded and participating in the civic life of their communities. And they were declaring their potential allegiance to an individual that, according to the (mostly liberal, we have to concede) media was a bigot, a know-nothing, a fear monger, a con man, a swindler, a populist, a peddler of dangerous racist fantasies, a buffoon, utterly unelectable and would lead the GOP to its most embarrassing and crushing defeat in centuries. It is then that I started really paying attention to the Trump phenomenon and what it can tell us about the state of American society, and to see that there is a whole undercurrent that the mainstream press is not adequately reflecting.
Some of that undercurrent is explained by the level of vitriol and mistrust I explored in my post about increasing polarization that affect most (western and non-western) societies: on polarization, but some is specific to the dynamics of the American society. It has become a commonplace to understand the Trump story as the manifestation of the anxieties of a segment of the white citizenry that see its traditional grasp on most levers of power slowly slip away. Doubtlessly, there is something of that (just see the comments of his supporters decrying what they perceive as unpardonable grievances: affirmative action that gives more opportunities to blacks than to their kin and a lax immigration law enforcement that has allowed a considerable number of Hispanics to shape the social fabric of an increasing number of communities), but I don’t think that exhaust his appeal, or the capability of that appeal to overcome what in other times would have been insurmountable barriers (the electability issue). What I think the “angry old white males” narrative glosses over is the amount of young males (mostly white also, yes) and of women that are almost as much frothing at the mouth as the former at what they perceive as the unrelenting attack of the current administration on everything they consider good and worthy: Old Dixie, America’s standing in the world, the sanctity of marriage, the freedom of each and every individual to be as bigoted as they want (thus refusing to officiate/ serve/ register a gay couple, for example) and of course, the right to have as many military grade weapons in their homes as they damn please, irrespective of criminal history or even mental state.
As it has been documented, all those people (many of whom are not that old, and not male to begin with) are fed up not only with the administration, but with the party they expected would take a stand against it, and that for the last seven years has been unable to roll back what they see as an irrepressible tide of godlessness, secularism, state intervention in the economy and favoritism towards that “other people” they consistently see as dangerous, riotous, degenerate and undeserving (so whatever is given to “them” has to be taken from the law-abiding, God-fearing, hard-working citizenry, all coded words for white, Anglo, mostly Protestant). And that inability has driven them to be so extremely mistrustful of the establishment candidates the party elders are trying to shove down their throats that they see every Trump bluster and offense as a refreshing proof that he is unbounded by the unholy alliance of convention and special interests that fetters the existing cadres of the Washington bureaucracy, that he is not in the payroll of big corporations, with an eye to go through the revolving (and revolting) door that connects former lawmakers with the moneyed interests of K Street and Wall Street, detrimental as that connection is for the “little guy” with which they identify.
So I’d say I’m more bullish on Trump's prospects than the majority of political analysts I’ve read so far. I don’t think its irreversible yet, and if the electorate happens to be a bit more rational than what I credit them for I think Rubio is the one better positioned to end up being the party’s standard bearer (I don’t see how if they suddenly start paying an inordinate attention to matters of general electability the republican voters may pass over Cruz’s similarly glaring flaws). But I don’t think it is going to be nearly half solved by March, so we still may see a Republican party in full panic mode (we have seen “somewhat panicky” so far) confronting the perspective of being represented in November by the most unorthodox, most unhinged, most unbound by convention or convenience candidate of its whole history. A candidate that, frankly, I can’t see having an infinitesimal chance come November against Hilary (as I can’t seriously imagine any other Democrat winning the nomination, barring an outright indictment from the FBI in the mail affair, which seems highly unlikely, to put it charitably). Be it as it may, it sure as heck is going to be fun to watch.