Race for the White House is powered by delusion

Richard Wolffe Correspondent
We have reached the point of the long presidential primaries where some clarity has normally been reached. After several months of overproduced TV debates, over-hyped candidate interviews and over-examined polls, the first votes are just one month away. Several candidates have already dropped out of the race; several more donors and hacks have either jumped or been pushed out the window. As George W. Bush liked to say, it’s voting time.

But instead of clarity, the invisible primaries of this cycle – the phoney war phase – have brought us to a state of delusion. The chief culprit is Trumpmania: a chronic ailment that has engulfed everyone from the voters lining up to attend his freewheeling rallies to the august pundits who lined up to dismiss the supposed fad last year; from the horrified Republican establishment to the transfixed news media and, of course, the braggadocio of the candidate himself.

Delusion lies at the very heart of Trump’s appeal. His crowds want to believe that their country hasn’t and isn’t changing. They want to believe that the United States isn’t on a fast track to becoming a majority of minorities, and that same-sex marriage isn’t widely supported or even constitutional.

They want to believe that the old economy can be pieced back together, and that technology can be turned back like Syrian refugees. That Barack Obama was nothing more than an illegitimate corruption of the American way of life. Most of all, they want to believe that a property developer-turned-TV star – who spells out his name in gold-painted letters on properties that he does not in fact own – can indeed “Make America Great Again!”

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Trumpmaniacs hold their opinions truly, madly, deeply – and without any foundation in reality. They are the inheritors of what used to be a reactionary fringe of American conservatism. They are the modern-day version of George Wallace’s segregationists in Alabama; of the anti-international kooks of the John Birch Society; of Ross Perot’s anti-trade campaigners in the 90s; of Pat Buchanan’s anti-establishment “peasants with pitchforks”; of the anti-Obama Tea Party movement.

The problem is that their views no longer position them on the reactionary fringe of the Republican Party. Given the positional and tonal overlap between three of the top Republican candidates – Trump, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson – the Trumpmaniacs represent almost two-thirds of the Republican Party’s voters today.

Their rise has tipped the formerly rational leadership of the conservative movement into the kind of disbelief that is clouding its own judgment. For months, the pundits and political establishment have insisted – against all the polling data – that Trump simply cannot win the Republican nomination.

But delusion also fogs the Democratic view of the landscape. Many Democrats watch smugly as Hillary Clinton holds the centre ground of American politics. After all, her unlikely challenge from the Senate’s sole socialist, Bernie Sanders, is now dying in Iowa and struggling in New Hampshire.

Many of those Democrats mistake the weakness of the rest of the field as proof of the strength of the former secretary of state. Like Trump, Clinton seeks to attract the “squeezed” middle class, but it isn’t yet clear whether she can truly deliver that middle-class message. She has a 25-point economic plan to help them. But can she feel their pain, as Bill Clinton did?

The evidence is not promising. Clinton has styled herself as a compassionate grandmother, but the reaction has not been warm and cuddly. Her media team targeted Latino voters last month with a listicle about the seven ways the no-nonsense former diplomat was just like your abuela.

The result was multiple postings from real Latinos about how she was nothing like their grandmother, along with the hashtag #NotMyAbuela.

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Turnout will be key for Clinton, and apathy – or downright disbelief – remains her greatest opponent. She will need the Democratic abuelas and the party’s African-American base to show up in numbers sufficient to swamp what is now overwhelmingly the Republican support base: of white voters without a college education.

This is why Clinton’s best political friends are Trump and Obama: for both, in different ways, can drive minority voters to the polls – and towards a Democrat ticket – much more effectively than she can.

In their most delusional moments, Republican strategists like to claim that Trump has been good for them because he brings stratospheric TV ratings to their candidates’ debates. With tens of millions of Americans watching Republicans make their case against Clinton, the party is reaching huge numbers of normally disconnected voters for the first time, they say.

They want to believe that might be pivotal. But it won’t. Kim Kardashian also attracts a huge audience, and her husband, Kanye West, also threatens to run for president. Great TV characters do not make for great presidential candidates, but great ratings can add to the delusion. In a month’s time, the audience will vote for a winner in the caucuses of Iowa, and the reality show will turn into a real election. If the delusions survive those first votes, the Republican Party will need years of therapy to recover. – Guardian UK.

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