(First published in The Dominion Post, April 29.)
You have to say this much for Donald Trump: no aspirant for political office in America has created so much interest in distant New Zealand.In fact you’d probably have to go as far back as 1964, to the contest between Lyndon Johnson and his arch-conservative Republican rival Barry Goldwater, to find a US presidential election that aroused more interest worldwide. Trump can take credit for that, if nothing else.
The difference with 1964, of course, is that he isn’t even the candidate yet. The Republican convention that will choose the party’s nominee is still three months away, but already Trump is the subject of conversation around the water coolers (or would be, if our workplaces had water coolers).New Zealanders have watched the rise and rise of Trump with fascinated loathing and horrified disbelief. Distaste for him cuts across the usual political boundaries.
A recent UMR poll found that 82 per cent of National Party voters would back Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton over Trump. Even if it came down to a choice between Trump and Clinton’s “socialist” rival Bernie Sanders, National voters would support Sanders by a margin of 76 to 13 per cent.New Zealanders can’t understand why so many Americans seem to love an uncouth sideshow barker. It tends to reinforce the common perception that all Americans are crass and ignorant. But America wouldn’t be the world’s strongest economic power, and the pacesetter in every field from technology through to art and entertainment, if it were populated by idiots.
We tend to forget that voting in the presidential primaries involves a relatively small number of people, and that Trump’s backing comes from a disillusioned faction within that minority. Far more Americans dislike him than like him.A better picture of his standing among Americans generally is provided by an NBC-WSJ poll earlier this month that showed only 24 per cent of respondents gave him a positive rating compared with 65 per cent who saw him in a negative light.
So Americans don’t want Trump. They don’t want Clinton either, judging by the same poll which gave her a 56 per cent negative rating. Only 32 per cent liked her.That leaves us with a puzzling question: how can a country so rich in human capital deliver such a dispiriting set of candidates for the most powerful office in the world?
You have to wonder whether we’re witnessing a failure of democracy. It’s not working the way it’s supposed to.Trump and Clinton are polar opposites politically, but in their own way, each represents a democratic malfunction.
Clinton is the consummate political insider – a cold, calculating, slippery, artful schmoozer. Polls show that Americans don’t trust her, and neither should they. She can barely shut her closet door for all the skeletons rattling around inside.Trump, on the other hand, makes a virtue of being an outsider. He feeds off a deep and widespread sense of alienation.
By posing as a man of the people, which he demonstrably is not, he has harnessed resentment of the political elite. Unfortunately, not being part of the political establishment doesn’t, by itself, give him presidential credentials.And what of the other contenders? There’s Sanders, whose pitiful ignorance on crucial policy issues was shockingly exposed in a recent newspaper interview. And then there’s Ted Cruz, a repugnant Texan fundamentalist who manages, against the odds, to be even less attractive than Trump.
How has it come to this? How could American voters be faced with a choice between candidates so few of them want?And what happened to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F Kennedy? All articulated noble visions for their country, even if their personal lives – especially in the case of the alley-cat JFK – didn’t always bear close scrutiny. But we’ve heard little in this presidential campaign that has been either noble or visionary.
Democracy seems to be on its knees in Australia, too, where the brazenly opportunistic Malcolm Turnbull seized power last year from a wounded Tony Abbott and is now floundering in the polls himself, raising the prospect of yet more political convulsions in a country that’s starting to make Italy look like a model of stability.There are common factors here. Democracy, supposedly the property of the people, has been hijacked. Power now resides with elites, factions, spin merchants, wealthy donors, lobbyists and politically partisan media outlets.
It hasn’t happened here, at least not on the same scale – but that’s not to say it won’t.