international analysis and commentary

Between doomsday and normalcy: the Trump meteor


So far, the year 2016 has been an annus horribilis for the Republican party, target of a hostile takeover by a media-savvy billionaire. At the Cleveland convention Donald Trump is celebrating his victory in this internal battle, in many ways the first of its kind in the entire political history of the United States. The next 110 days will tell us if Republicans face a series of disasters (a defeat in the presidential contest, possibly a loss of the majority in the Senate, perhaps even a party split) or a divine surprise: Trump as the underdog winning in November.

This year’s elections will also test several myths widespread among politicians and political analysts, such as: “Is the top leader really as important as we think this figure is?” We will see in November if having an outsider like Trump in the presidential ticket will be an advantage or a disadvantage.

This issue has been thoroughly examined by Oxford professor Archie Brown in his 2014 book, The Myth of The Strong Leader. Brown points out that “two highly articulate presidential candidates, with attractive personalities, who ran successful campaigns – John Kennedy in 1960 and Barack Obama in 2008” did not necessarily owe their victories to personal charisma. As Anthony King wrote in 2002 in his Leaders’ Personalities and the Outcomes of Democratic Elections, “Kennedy won because he was the Democratic Party’s candidate in a year when the Democrats were almost certainly going to regain the White House anyway, not least because a substantial plurality of American voters were Democratic party identifiers.”

Brown points out that Obama “also won in a propitious year for a Democratic contender for the presidency. The outgoing Republican president was exceptionally unpopular.” This author stresses that the impact of many successful leaders, like Tony Blair in the late 1990s UK, is greater when the differences between the main parties are small. “If party polarization increases, we would expect to see decreasing effects of party leader popularity on the vote.” As party polarization has indeed increased enormously in the last few years, one should expect that Republican voters will vote for the Republican candidate, even if his name is Trump, and Democratic voters will vote for Hillary, even if they don’t like her personality and her policies.

This scenario would point to a Republican defeat in November, and that is the opinion of most experts, from political scientists Alan Abramowitz and Larry Sabato, to statistician Nate Silver, who put Clinton’s chances of victory at 63,5%. The reason is that demography, notably the strong growth of Democratic-leaning minorities and their greater involvement in elections, now favors the Democratic party in the most electoral college vote-rich States (California, Florida, New York, Illinois). In 1968, the electorate was about 90% white, in 2016, the electorate is going to be just around 70% white and 30% minorities. Another factor at play is the fact that voters in the general election are a very different, and less militant, breed than those involved in the primaries.

However, another scenario also exists: what if Trump would be a “transformational political leader,” someone who is able to introduce systemic change in the political or economic system? Leaders of this kind do not appear in a vacuum, they are catapulted in the spotlight by exceptional circumstances, generally when a country is confronted by a deep crisis and all the old remedies have been exhausted. As examples of this category, Brown lists General Charles de Gaulle in France, Adolfo Suarez in Spain, Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, Deng Xiaoping in China and Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

These leaders played a decisive role because in their times nobody else could or would offer the citizens a new path: de Gaulle understood the necessity to end of a colonial war, Suarez steered the Spanish transition to democracy, Deng Xiaoping promised to Chinese citizens a long-awaited prosperity.

For Trump, entering the short list of transformational leaders would require several conditions that may or may not be present in the United States today. First of all, the crisis should be far deeper than it appears. On this point, the data are mixed: some large areas of the country have been suffering for a long time, for example, the so called rust belt struck by deindustrialization for example, but other areas, notably San Francisco, Seattle and New York have a vibrant economy.

The crisis must be moral and political, too: people should be convinced that no other path exists except a complete overhaul of the system. For white, male, blue-collar workers, who have seen their salaries go down for decades, and their economic and cultural security disappear, this could indeed be the case. This is exactly why they are the bulk of Trump’s support base.

However, great leaders must be able to convince a majority of their fellow citizens, and on this count Trump does not seem up to the task. First, he is not a genuinely popular politician but more an opportunistic, and maybe crooked, billionaire, someone who many Americans see as phony. Second, he may be accepted by a majority of white males, but that leaves an even bigger majority of white women and all the Hispanics, African-Americans and Asians outside his coalition. He is the candidate of a minority, an angry, militant – often gun-enthousiast – but a minority nevertheless.

This means that his success could arrive only if the United States goes toward the political equivalent of a second Civil War, which could also bring violence in the streets. Outside this doomsday scenario, Trump’s star should vanish from the political sky on November 8, 2016.