The rise of the ridiculous

It is usually the case that elections are won/lost on the performance of the one holding the keys to the office, with one side touting the achievements during the reign, and the opponent excoriating just the same. Rare are the occasions when sentiment becomes the campaign war cry than performance, like how it is playing out now in the US Presidential election primaries, particularly on the conservative side. One look at campaign circus that's rolling through every caucus and town hall meeting in the heartland of the country confirms the Goebells strategy of winning the hearts and minds of the gullible people - the bigger the lie, the more they believe. In any election, the world over, the incumbent starts off being the punching bag to the opponents, paying for the promises that remain unfulfilled and a society that hasn't turned into a Utopia yet. The opponent always has a fun time poking and joking, pointing and jousting with the inequities of the system that continue to fester in the system despite the incumbent's best efforts. And that's how the whole election system is designed too so that no one side has an unfair advantage come the election day. While the incumbent has the official machinery behind him to make good of his past promises, the opponents are always endowed with the less than perfect nature of the status quo to beat down the defender with. By this very nature of the setup, the incumbent has a mountain of ill-will to climb and win over the electorate once again and the opponent has to merely fan the flames of resentment. And that is why the pride and prestige attached to a reelection in many times greater than the first run to the top post, for, overcoming the ever-growing negativity towards someone is power is the hardest sentiment there is to triumph over. It is like what they say about the value of a car that starts its depreciation count down the moment it leaves the dealer lot. Same is the case with anyone sitting on the throne for the very first time. These unsaid rules, being what they are, there comes a time when a candidate comes out of nowhere, refuses to abide by the rules above, makes them up as he goes along, and importantly, appears to be on the winning track.

Make no mistake, Donald Trump isn't the first candidate in history (US, at least) to rush to the center stage out of ignominy and topple the apple carts of the establishment. In fact, he is the third iteration of that brand of politics, even from the recent history, to tap into the rich vein of public anger and make the most of it. The first to attempt such coup was Ross Perot, the angry Texas oil billionaire, who ran as the independent candidate against Bush Sr, the incumbent, and Clinton, the challenger, and handed the latter the election by splitting the votes of the conservative by a considerable margin. Eight years down the line, it was the turn of the Democratic party to swallow the bitter pill of a closely fought contest from a rebel candidate with similar political ideology, Ralph Nader of The Green Party, who took just enough votes away from Al Gore's kitty to award Bush Jr. the prized post. But what's different this time around is a candidate rising through the ranks from within the establishment itself, making himself not an outsider or an off-chance-er, but a genuine (more on this, later) and legitimate contender, who is in the race not to split votes or spoil someone else's winning chances, but to take it and keep it all for himself. Who would have thought even a year ago that Trump, who announced his Presidential bid on a moving escalator coming down in one of his gaudy and swanky hotels, has now a serious chance of standing in the media room in the West Wing of the White House addressing world media about issues that do not involve and revolve and concern him personally? But then, His Second Coming isn;t entirely unexpected and unanticipated either.

He is the Frankenstein of fringe ideas cultivated in the conservative party that are militantly espoused during Obama's term to wrest back the presidency, not through the usual way of mining discontentment of familiarity-weary electorate but by going to the extremes and essentially scaring people into thinking (er.. believing) that the "apocalypse was near" (actual quote) and the only way out is to boot the black guy out of the office. Now when Trump employs the same strategy to an even graver degree insulting and alienating influential groups of voting blocs (minorities, women, immigrants), the chickens have finally come home to roost creating an existential crisis within the Republican establishment, who aren't worried just about their survival in the coming general elections, but their very relevance in the future. Trump is as much the product of the current climate as he is the culmination of the polarizing strategy manufactured and marketed by the master strategiest, Karl Rove, the man instrumental in seating Bush Jr. in the White House.

First, the environment. Far fetched as it may seem, the seeds of Trump's popularity were sown not in the currently bitterly divided political field, but far away in the world of make believe, the entertainment media, the TV, and that too way back in 2002, with the then freshly minted smash hit British import, American Idol. In what was the first of its kind on American TV, here was a talent judge, Simon Cowell, who just told 'like it was', a euphemism for caustic, bitter and a tart tongue that threw away all the niceties often employed in public platforms and simply spoke his mind, even if it meant belittling and insulting people right to their faces for even the slightest lack of true talent. It was a truly watershed moment in popular culture, a style that is still being replicated the world over with varying results, when standards of public discussion and engagement were lowered by quite a few notches for the public to be confused whether they were amused by what they were looking at or repulsed by it. Either way the shock value propeled the show and the judge's antics to the stratosphere causing a major transformation in how the talent/reality shows are produced and how they are perceived. Trump's current meteoric rise owes a lot to the abrasive style of Simon Cowell's elevating the act of polarizing opinions to an art form, which, for a lack of a better term, pundits dubbed it as 'entertainment' and not the vulgar and tasteless display of power and taste that it actually was. Trump mimicked much of this behavior in his reality shows too to great effect stoking the sadistic instincts in the viewer of seeing someone berated and belittled in front of the whole world, all this to a comic effect. And now when Trump, when in one public meeting after another, picks his targets - immigrants, poor, women, and for that matter, any centrist idea, and rips them to shreds in his trademarks disses and dismissals, abuses and epithets, he is simply reprising his earlier TV role as a 'shock jock' on a much bigger forum. During his initials days of the campaign, for the oft asked question as to why people were turning up to hear him speak, the common answer answer was 'it is entertaining'. To his credit Trump never changed or tone down or reverse or flip flop or waver on any of his stances, like most of the politicians are wont to do, whenever there is a blowback on their current positions. He makes no bones of the fact that he is crude, crass, loud, and vile, at least in his delivery, and the public (who love him) love it, calling it not only entertaining, but honest.

...And the Republican establishment has Karl Rove to blame for it all. Trump could never have Trump had it not been for Rove's moves for really lowering the bar on qualifications, competency, intelligence and plain common sense, to sneak his candidate into the President's chair. He did this by harping entirely on wedge issues (abortion, gay rights, and religion) polarizing the electorate and forcing his base to turn up at the polling booths in droves, and vote for their candidate (Bush Jr.) who spoke more to their sentiments and fears than policies and positions. For such was the simplistic view of the world of Bush where his positions were entirely binary (later seen in his 'us vs them', 'allies vs axis of evil', 'with us or against us') lacking any concrete understanding of geo political dynamics (he once actually said, 'I know how the world works') that Rove had to look for a completely different toolkit to get his candidate elected. And his strategy was simply brilliant - instead of selling the candidate, sell the issues. Raise the tone of the issues to a fever pitch to such a high decibel level that the supporters are whipped into a frenzy and pull the lever for Bush. For the first term, it was 'restoration of dignity and honor to the White House', a broad swipe on the Lewinsky scandal during Clinton's final months in the office, and for the second, it was social issues like abortion and gay rights, drumming up the evangelical votes across of the country. Observe how in all this humdrum, there is no focus on the candidate's intelligence or his performance record or any single qualification that shortlists him for the highest seat in the country (in the whole world, no exaggeration). And when Trump now talks only in absolutes, wonder which playbook he is quoting from?

The rise of the Tea Party movement during the Obama Presidency (with the message 'taking back my country', a revamped version of Rove's earlier 'restoration of dignity....'), the amping up of the negativity by the conservative media, the picking of Sarah Palin (who makes Bush Jr. look like a Rhodes Scholar) as Vice Presidential candidate, all point to desperation on the conservative side to win an election at ANY cost, making discussions happen only in charged up atmospheres with raised tempers and temperatures so that shouting, labeling and name calling can pass off as patriotism and love for the country, throwing nuance and compromise out of the window in the name of passion and posturing and resorting to every little dirty trick available (and constitutionally allowed, like sequestering, filibustering, creating logjam) to deny President Obama any legislative accomplishment. The problem with such a direction is, it can go one way - downward. And so in the current Republican field, where everyone is contending for the title of the angriest person in the group, dialogue automatically dumbs down to personal barbs, trading insults, and finger pointing, sans any substantive discussion.  And this is exactly why Trump is winning for the simple reason that he just had a lot more practice at this game from his days in TV, with the rest scrambling around trying to come up with zingers and one-liners and repartees and failing hard at that.

If anything, the 2016 Presidential election would serve as a clarion call to the political establishments on both sides of the aisle to not flirt with the personal emotions of the public (hate, bigotry, dislike, anger, intolerance and xenophobia), lest they are trumped at their own game by someone who excels at out-insulting, out-bullying and out-fear-mongering the rest out of contention. The quote goes 'you can fool all for sometime and some for all the time, but not all for all time'. Unfortunately (and luckily for Trump), the campaign period and public memory are both short and that's just enough time.

1 comment:

Sirish Aditya said...

Super illuminating post on what is happening in American elections right now. Thanks for the brief; I understood more from these few hundred words than from innumerable TV shows and newspaper editorials. Come to think of it, have you considered sending this piece to a mainstream media house for publication?