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Opinion Columnists 17 Mar 2016 The audacious vs the ...
Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist.

The audacious vs the entrenched

Published Mar 17, 2016, 12:51 am IST
Updated Mar 17, 2016, 12:51 am IST
A ‘responsible’ Donald Trump would be a non-starter. He cannot beat Hillary Clinton on her terms.
 Donald Trump holds a plane-side rally in a hanger at Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport in Vienna. (Photo: AP)
  Donald Trump holds a plane-side rally in a hanger at Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport in Vienna. (Photo: AP)

After the Super Tuesday primaries this week, the suspense over the nature of the contest for November’s presidential election in the United States is over. Although there are possibilities of a late upset created by the candidates shooting themselves in the foot or being felled on account of past misdeeds, it seems reasonably clear that the battle is going to be fought between

Hillary Clinton in the Democratic corner and Donald J. Trump for the Republicans. Viewed from outside the US and judging from conventional wisdom, the appearance seems to one of an entirely one-sided battle that may be reminiscent of the elections of 1964 and 1972. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson thrashed his Republican opponent Senator Barry Goldwater resoundingly. And in 1972, President Richard Nixon defeated Senator George McGovern so convincingly that it seems astonishing that the White House engaged in needless dirty tricks that eventually led to the President’s disgrace and resignation.


According to one view, Mr Trump is such a foul-mouthed maverick that Ms Clinton by comparison appears almost inspirational. It has been said that President Barack Obama’s former secretary of state is otherwise a sitting duck for the Republicans. But, instead of taking advantage of the pro-Republican sentiments in the country, the party faithful have honed into the one man who is likely to make Ms Clinton electable.

Ms Clinton’s apparent vulnerability is not merely on account of a complicated emails controversy that apparently exposes her scant respect for the principles of political accountability — something the Americans cherish, or at least pay lip service to. That someone so removed from the US’ ideological mean — and on the side of socialism at that — has given Ms Clinton a harrowing time at the primaries is revealing. That Senator Bernie Sanders is unlikely to be anything but an honourable runners-up for the Democratic nomination is by now certain. Yet, let us not forget that Mr Sanders is — or so I am told by an authority on US political trivia — the only American Jew to have won primaries in the US, ever.


Maybe that says something of the changing social attitudes in the Democratic Party or even about the appeal of a person advocating issues dear to the poor. I find it particularly significant that the vote for Mr Sanders came from the politically unattached and the young, the social groups that propelled President Obama to power in 2008. That suggests that a strong undercurrent of anti-establishment sentiment is determining voter behaviour in the US.

Ms Clinton will probably win the Democratic nomination without too much fuss, but that she is being given a run for her money doesn’t augur well for her. Curiously, or maybe not so, the contest in the Democratic Party is being mirrored in the more enthralling contest for the Republican nomination. Just as


Mr Sanders is tapping the strong undercurrent of resentment against conventional politics, Mr Trump is doing the same. There is no doubt that the Republican establishment loathes Mr Trump for two reasons: That he is unpredictable and that he is quite clearly his own man, impervious to pressure from special interest groups.

On Super Tuesday, Mr Trump prevailed despite the volley of a well-funded negative campaign that sought to grind him to dust. The reason why this campaign failed to dent his support is two-fold: First, after Jeb Bush dropped out for lack of popular support, the Republican establishment hasn’t been able to identify a single candidate who can take on Mr Trump without being burdened by the ignominy of a convention stitch-up. Secondly, like in the Democratic Party, there is a groundswell of resentment against staid, conventional politics. Despite the Republican establishment’s late endorsement, there is nothing conventional about Senator Ted Cruz too.


There is also a third factor that is working in favour of Mr Trump. The maverick billionaire — who has warmed Indian hearts by flattering the brain power of desi students — appears to have the ability to win over a section of the white working class that is otherwise inclined to vote Democratic. President Ronald Reagan and, in a different context, Margaret Thatcher had this ability to win over a slice of voters from the other side of the divide. In a presidential contest this wide support is invaluable. Indeed, the fact that there was more participation in the Republican primaries than the Democratic race could indicate something that the pundits haven’t quite woken up to.


In the past week there were indications that Mr Trump has mellowed a bit. He is steadily picking up endorsements that had proved elusive before he began topping the polls consistently. But a “responsible”

Mr Trump would be a complete non-starter. He cannot beat Ms Clinton on her terms. Mr Trump’s appeal is centred on his audacity and his ability to articulate mass anger. I don’t think he will ever be able to build a wall between Mexico and the US, keep all Muslims out of the country and arm-twist Apple to stop manufacturing in China — just three of his radical proposals. But by raising concerns over immigration and the decline of US manufacturing with polemical flourish, he has at least articulated American anger with politicians who refuse to take up these issues for fear of being labelled politically incorrect. The point is that there are large numbers of Americans who think that the US is losing its global clout because politicians are just too squeamish and inhibited. Mr Trump is shooting from the hip and assaulting holy cows in a language that is understandable to everyone. This appeals to all those unable to provide a rational and cogent explanation of America’s decline.


Mr Trump should not be underestimated, even despite Ms Clinton’s strong support among ethnic blocs among ethnic groups. Indeed, once the attention shifts from party conventions to the race for the White House, the battle may transform into one involving “ordinary” Americans and machine politics. If that happens, the race could be wide open.