I’ll start with the assumption that everyone reading this knows who Trump is, the fact that he’s participating in the USA’s presidential election and that he has a habit of outrageous claims, continuing conspiracy theories such incumbent president Obama’s birth certificate being false (recently dropped) or being plain discriminatory in proposed policies (promising to not allow Muslims to enter the USA). I’m not going to debate in this article whether he’s good or bad, it is my view that he has an extremist rhetoric that no one should condone and that’s the premises this article is based on. I’m going to analyse however how the political system of the United States managed to create him as a viable candidate.
The first culprit is the political system, for myriads of reasons, but I shall list the 3 I happen to consider most impactful and important:
1.It created a paradigm in which being extreme can be considered the norm. The problem in being able to viably choose only one out of 2 candidates (many times, not being able to do even that, many candidates having no real opposition) is that they can’t agree with each other on most issues. I’ll explain why with a comparison in a usual multi-party system. If you have 4 parties, a left-wing, a centre-left, a centre-right and a right-wing, then you have middle grounds on which you can converge, coalitions can be formed and compromise is usually the way a state with 4 major parties would function by. Simply because you don’t have to be completely opposite to your opponents, as they are 3. You nuance yourself from them (of course, the left-wing is going to be a polar opposite of the right-wing, but you still have the centre parties which can sway either way). Now, there are two differences from the hypothetical situation explained above. First, and the obvious, there are only 2 major parties.
The second, more complicated one, they aren’t differentiated in a way most Europeans would classify as left or right, but rather a centre-right (democrats) and right-wing (republicans). This brings itself to another 2 major problems: there is no middle-ground as motions in front of the house can either be partisan or non-partisan, since no coalitions can be formed. Second, it becomes very hard to market yourself as being different in front of voters when most policies look remarkably similar, with few notable exceptions. And those few notable exceptions lead to a political scene which is characterized by polarisation. This isn’t necessarily bad when we’re talking about how to better help the poor or whether the state is too big, but these were the debates of 40 years ago. Not to say they aren’t existing today, it would unfairly discredit the slow albeit sure progress into the acceptance of LGBTQA marriage, or Obamacare and other policies that are being adopted to ensure a more fair and equitable life for every American citizen. Unfortunately, when the democrats started arguing for more regulations on companies to start combating global warming, there was no middle ground for the republicans to take. There was no 3rd party to have the interests of both turned into a compromise. The republicans just started to deny science. And this has been seen in most progressive measures ever proposed by democrats. Pro-choice? You are against anything holy and are going to burn in hell. Thing that the minimum wage should be raised to liveable standards? You are going to destroy business in America. And the list goes on and on.
That’s not to say that there aren’t any reasonable conservatives in America, it’s just that the GOP leadership, in an effort to make itself seem completely different compared to the liberal Democrats, is going completely opposite on every measure and rhetoric they bring up. The vice-versa being of course just as true, but the problem is that GOP rhetoric is now basically hate-speech that caters (statistically) to old white men that aren’t willing to accept that everyone else should have the same rights as them. Basically, old people being scared of losing their positions of privilege are the ones mostly voting for republicans(less than 2% are Latinos, 1% Afro-Americans and barely 15% are under 35).
The biggest problem with this is that it normalized this rhetoric. Americans have become desensitised to what your average person would consider extremist rhetoric because they’ve had it for the last 40 years. When the democrats were pushing for normality (civil rights regardless of colour or ethnicity) the republicans were there to greet them. The same is happening now when regarding disproportionate police violence against African-Americans. And this is the conclusion of the first issue. A lack of a 3rd party (for various reasons, they won’t catch soon any momentum in the USA) made both the democrats and the GOP very unlikely to compromise in order to keep appearances as being as different as possible. While the democrats have turned progressive and towards a welfare state (maybe too extreme sometimes) the republicans became more extremist with minorities and have a full-fledged science denial movement just in order to disagree with the democrats.
This has normalized the train of thought that these are part of freedom of speech and thought and have created an arena of post-truth politics in which facts start to matter less and less, as long as you’re different from the other side. You might recognize this as the hallmark of Trump (and other Trump-ish candidates). An appeal to emotion is going to be made, scare-mongering and hate-speech, regardless of facts. All because of a bi-party system with easily solvable systemical causes (voting system, gerrymandering, ballot access for 3rd parties etc.) that forces you to choose one extreme or the other and has divided the American society in such a way that you would distrust a stranger just based on the sole fact that he voted for the other party. But this leads me to the 2nd issue of the political system:
2.There won’t be (at least soon) any 3rd party candidates with enough momentum to dislodge the main parties. I’ve mentioned some of the issues in the paragraph above, but the truth is horrendous to even watch. Let us start with gerrymandering.
This is how a district can change in just 2 years after a new legislature is elected in the state, the example being the way in which republicans redrew the boundaries in Travis County, Texas, to dilute the democrat voters into more republican heavy areas. The problem is that 3rd party voters in the USA are already minorities in most of the voting districts they are part of, so they are, plain and simple, easy to put out of the race. But what if it wouldn’t exist? There are a few states in which independent committees decide district lines, so why don’t 3rd parties gain an advantage there, as 58% of Americans think that one is needed and that the 2 major ones don’t do a good enough job at representing them?
The answer is the voting system, first past the post (winner take all) makes it a) unrepresentative to the wishes of the voting population, since only one seat is awarded, it makes a hypothetical 3rd party that gets 10% of the vote still not able to gain anything and b), the result of that, people are strategically voting so that their vote isn’t wasted, as such it only kills the chances of the 3rd party even more. That’s if they can get funding, as investors are, of course, unlikely to pour in funds into parties that can’t represent them and the limited public funding Americans have is restricted to getting 5% of the popular vote in the last presidential election. And they can’t get into televised debates as they are run by a private committee which itself is ran by both republicans and democrats, which have no interest in the extra competition, so they keep them out. Even ballot access is not a given, as the conditions vary from state to state and most don’t have anything to favour a 3rd party entering the race. This lack of any 3rd viable party has 2 impacts, the first of which I mentioned in the point above (lack of a middle ground that results in extremism becoming normal) and the other is that people just don’t feel represented and start losing faith in the establishment. With a Congress approval rate of 18%, it’s clear that the American public no longer trusts the system, and as such, an anti-establishment candidate such as Trump (in rhetoric) has high chances of securing nominations for different positions from an electorate that no longer trusts the bread and butter politicians. Overall, an unrepresentative system gave birth to an anti-establishment sentiment, which made it unavoidable that a candidate would exploit it at some point.
3. The third and last reason I shall give as to why the political system is broken, and why it can be used by a candidate such as Trump to get an edge in any election, is the way the president is elected in the first place. I’m going to pass through the way the primaries work, and after I shall take a look at the Electoral College and why it completely fails to fulfil its purpose. Now, both primaries look similar until they reach their respective conventions. They get a number of candidates that get into an electoral race in each separate state for the nomination and support of their party.
Looks simple and fine, doesn’t it? Except, not every state has the normal booth voting we know, many have caucases which are, for all intents and purposes, public voting, in which you vote just by moving your body from one point of the room to the other. Of course, rules vary wildly in the states on how they are held, but for the purpose of simplicity, primaries are our general booth voting election and caucases are part of the primaries of electing the party nominee, but are a method of public voting. Now, not everyone can vote in the primaries, at least not in all states. Some have closed elections; others have semi-open and open elections. The closed ones are open only to party members that can only vote in their respective party’s primary, the semi-closed ones allow for independents to vote in only one of the primaries (of their choosing) and the open allows for everyone to vote in any or all primaries, if they wish so. That’s, of course, if you can follow the voter ID law of your state, which may force you to actually register as a voter for a certain party. If you don’t, then you aren’t eligible to vote for anyone. After this, the voting is not actually direct, you are merely choosing delegates, which may or may not be forced to make the same choice as the state made for them at the conventions, which then go to the party convention and vote for the presidential nominee.
Note, gerrymandering affects the way delegates are chosen as well. Finally, we have superdelegates (named as such by the democratic party, not named but with basically the same function in the GOP), delegates which aren’t pledged by any state and instead are seated by the party itself and can vote for whomever they please (rules may vary by the party branch of which they are part of). Their role is to protect the establishment, and as I’ve just proven at the last point, the people don’t really trust the establishment anymore. If this system seems rigged to you, it’s because it is. It’s unfair, undemocratic and the fact that candidates that are chosen reflect the popular vote is a mere coincidence (usually because only one remains by the end of the primaries), not a causation of the uselessly complex and easy to manipulate system described above. The problem? Any candidate can use this to his advantage, just by pointing out the huge flaws in the system in a fear-mongering, hate-speech, emotions appeal type of rhetoric. And this is happening right now, in this election cycle. That’s how you up your chances for winning the primaries and becoming the candidate of your party, at least. But then come the presidential elections, where, again, the vote isn’t direct. In it you vote for electors which, again, might or might not be forced to vote as the state did.
There are currently 538 electors and they are divided per state as following: each state gets 3 electors and they are afterwards divided proportionally to the population of each state. This creates a system in which the vote of a citizen from Wyoming will count 4 times as much as one’s from Texas. And since only 2 states give out their electors proportionately to the popular vote, that means that you need only 50%+1 of it in order to obtain all the electors of most states. This mathematically translates into the fact that you can win without having 50%+1 of the popular vote, the worst situation possible to describe actually giving a possibility of winning with 22% of the popular vote. Even if that’s an extreme situation, a candidate lost the popular vote but won the electoral college 3 times in history (the most recent being the 2000 race between George W. Bush and Al Gore). Again, this allows for a rhetoric that appeals to emotion that will only try to prove the system as being rigged in the hopes of gaining enough anti-establishment voters to your side. This is unavoidable, as people are going to observe eventually that their votes aren’t proportional and the more they lose faith in the system, the more dangerous a candidate like this might become.
The second culprit for the system that made Trump viable is the political culture in the USA. I’ve mentioned at the beginning of this article that the parties aren’t divided in a left/right economical leaning that would be recognizable by Europeans, instead focusing on a liberal centre-right (democrats)/conservative right-wing (republicans). Besides the obvious of this being bad as there is basically no sort of left-rhetoric (Bernie Sanders was a notable exception of this election cycle), this also creates a paradigm of right and extreme right. But how did they get here? The answer is The Red Scare. Basically, the Cold War in which anything remotely left-wing was considered communist and automatically investigated by the government, as well as used in scare-mongering campaigns by politicians, created an America in which being left-leaning will get you to be called communist even to this day. And this political culture is also working in tandem with many other issues on the board, usually being polarized to the core. This hasn’t worked well with the advent of new media. Quite simply put, Americans have a penchant for negative campaigns and the internet made it easier to do it. But the problem is that combining with the red scare made it impossible for quite some time to sustain any sort of rhetoric that even dared to resemble social-democracy. As such, Americans now complain that taxes are too high and that corporate taxes should be lowered, when they are at the lowest they have been in decades.
And this only feeds unto all sorts of speeches on the far-right. Oklahoma banning abortions is one of many examples of extremism that just becomes norm because it has been permitted to become that way. When the political culture won’t allow a bipartisan system to have a progressive and a conservative party then it will become a system dominated by a somewhat liberal party and an ultra-conservative one. And the war on progressive policies is long and ingrained into American culture, ranging from the civil war against slavery and coming in force into the fights that feminists still have to face into the 21st century in “the land of the free”. There is also another cause for this. The political background in the USA makes it such that they consider themselves vastly different from Europe, which on some points they are. However, this also politically isolated them from European reforms (voting rights, for example). And this is seen exactly in political campaigns, when comparing them to opinion polls about the EU. The average American doesn’t hate the EU, but somehow, scare-mongering campaigns that target, and I quote Mitt Romney (2012 republican candidate): “[…] the worst of what Europe has become.”, are oddly effective due to their isolation from European models. I’m not saying that the European model is necessarily the best in the world, there are countries in the UE that are empirical proof that it doesn’t always work. But it could’ve at least provided another area of debate in the USA, maybe even an outlet for more left-leaning policy debates that would’ve made it easier for the GOP to exist without having to resort to extremist fear-mongering rhetoric.
In conclusion, I’m not trying to call the average GOP voter or party member extremist, and I’m certainly not trying to dismiss all conservatives as being right-wing racists. But the fundamental truth remains. Americans are at fault for creating Trump by creating a system that allows for extremist rhetoric to exist without being held at fault, actually indirectly condoning it by following a path of scare-mongering and isolation from outside politics. This, combined with a legislation that is either too unclear or plainly biased regarding 3rd party candidates, a voting system which is plainly not doing its job in representing people and a presidential election system that is broken in more ways than I managed to cover in this article have brought forth an anti-establishment movement that any candidate could’ve used to gain momentum. It’s still too early to know if Trump will win, but he clearly has the chance, and the only question that we should’ve asked shouldn’t have been: “How are people voting for him?”. It rather should’ve been: “What took so long for a candidate like this to appear?”.