Viewpoint: Are Donald Trump and his rivals a big joke?

  • 9 February 2016
  • From the section Magazine
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With the US presidential election just nine months away, and would-be candidates battling it out in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, American political satirist, PJ O'Rourke casts a scathing eye over the candidates hoping to make it to the White House.

There's an American saying: "Anyone can become president." And in the 2016 election we've been trying to prove it.

The list of people running for president seemed to include everybody except Beyonce. And there actually was a rumour last October that Beyonce's husband, rapper Jay Z, might run.

The US presidential field has begun to narrow at last. Although, to judge by who's left, this is not because of quality control.

To the rest of the world Donald Trump seems like a joke. And, please, let's hope he is. Trump is a prank the American electorate is pulling on the American political establishment.

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Like many jokes, Trump is a manifestation of discomfort and anxiety.

America is a pretty good place. By world-historical standards it's an excellent place. And yet, according to opinion polls, almost two-thirds of Americans think the country is "on the wrong track".

What has got Americans so worried? The technological revolution is unsettling. So are rapid social shifts involving everything from immigrants to gender roles and sexuality. The global economy is shaky. And America's political establishment is so bitterly divided that we can't get bipartisan agreement on whether the sun will come up. (Republicans call predictions of dawn "unproven climate change science".)

So, for a laugh, a lot of Republicans are claiming to support a cartoon character - an over-confident blustery bigot, a self-inflated one-man business boom who claims he can make a deal with the devil that will have the angels of heaven lining up to buy condos in Trump Tower Hell.

Like many jokes, it's not very funny.

Trump's Democratic Party opposite number is Bernie Sanders. Bernie repeats the pieties of the 1960s New Left with a straight face, as deadpan as Trump is clownish.

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Find out more

  • PJ O'Rourke goes on the campaign trail in New Hampshire. Will people really vote for Donald Trump? And can he be the next US president?
  • Listen to The Report at 20:00 on Thursday 11 February on BBC Radio 4, or Assignment on the World Service on the same day, or catch up later online.

Bernie seems a bit foggy on things that have happened since Woodstock, especially in the realm of foreign affairs. Bernie doesn't know the Berlin Wall fell and doesn't know he's still standing on the wrong side of it.

Most of Bernie's support comes from people who weren't born when his ideas were in vogue. They're too young to know that what Bernie says may sound like it makes sense during the dorm room bull session, but sooner or later you have to put the bong down and exhale.

For the rest of America what's not amusing is Bernie labelling himself a socialist. The word has a particular and peculiar meaning in the US. If you say "I'm a socialist," what Americans hear is, "I'm going to take your flat-screen TV and give it to a family of pill addicts in the backwoods of Vermont."

Bernie is not the right man to break America's political deadlock. It would be worse than electing Angela Merkel prime minister of Greece.

Then there are the serious candidates. Chief among them is Hillary Clinton. She has been seriously trying to become president, one way or another, since 1992.

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Hillary is a seasoned, pragmatic, centre-left candidate. Her nomination by the Democratic Party was supposed to be inevitable. But it turns out that "evitable" is a real word in the English language. I checked the dictionary. We should start using it.

In a year when Americans have been willing to go in any direction for the sake of change, Hillary is setting her course by the beacon of continuity, the Lighthouse of Sameness. She's pulling her oar in an opposite direction, the one rower facing the wrong way in the Viking longship.

Now that Ben Carson has faded, the seriously conservative candidate is Republican Ted Cruz.

Dr Carson is a nice man. But he seemed to have no idea why he was running for president. GOP voters wanted him to go back to work as a neurosurgeon, perhaps removing Donald Trump's ruptured silicone brain implant that is endangering Republicans everywhere.

Ted Cruz wants a 10% flat-rate income tax. The US gross domestic product is $18tn. The US federal budget is $3.8tn. Suppose Cruz somehow lops $1tn off the budget. Suppose the 10% tax is somehow applied to the entire GDP. That still leaves a $1tn-plus hole in the national pants pocket.

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In American politics, you mustn't say that hardline conservatives don't count. But you may say that they can't count.

Cruz is also a hardline cultural conservative, vehemently opposed to gay rights, drug law reform and so forth. He's still fighting the Culture Wars. He's up on the front line bravely firing away without noticing that the other side has gone home to celebrate victory with legalised marijuana at same-sex wedding receptions.

The remaining candidates - all Republicans - are "The Muddle in the Middle."

Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie are seasoned, pragmatic centre-right candidates. And Carly Fiorina is the same, plus being a woman, minus the seasoning.

They all face the same problem as Hillary Clinton would, if Hillary were competing with five of herself.

Jeb Bush is the "Great American Failure Story". Here's Jeb with all the Bush influence, all the Bush political connections, all the Bush campaign funding, and he can't get out of single-digit polling numbers. This would be almost impossible for the son of an oligarchic family anywhere else in the world. Isn't America a wonderful country?

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John Kasich is the very popular conservative governor of Ohio, a not-very-conservative state.

Ohio is a microcosm of American conflicts - labour v management, nativists v immigrants, blacks v whites, Occupy Cincinnati v the 1%. They all hate each other, but they don't hate John.

Kasich beat an incumbent Democratic governor and was re-elected by a landslide. Before that he served nine terms shovelling important manure in the Augean stables of the House of Representatives - 18 years on the House Armed Services Committee and six years as chairman of the House Budget Committee.

No wonder he's so far behind. Republicans are in no damn mood for competent, experienced politicians with broad popular appeal.

Chris Christie is a former US district attorney, a prosecutor famously tough on crime. He was elected the Republican governor in Democratic New Jersey because voters hoped he'd clean up corruption. Not for nothing was the TV show The Sopranos set in that state.

Then one of Christie's top aides ordered lane-closing on the George Washington Bridge to Manhattan, causing huge traffic jams in Ft Lee, New Jersey, in order to punish the mayor of Ft Lee for not supporting Christie's gubernatorial re-election campaign.

"Bridgegate" was just the kind of thing that the Sopranos would do - if they used highway cones instead of guns.

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Carly Fiorina was the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, and the company's stock price fell more than 60% while she was in charge. I may forgive Carly, but my retirement plan never will.

Marco Rubio may emerge as the moderate Republican choice. He has a couple of things going for him.

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Rubio is a Washington "outsider". Well, actually, he's a US senator. But he's missed a lot of senate votes, and I assume that was because, during the voting, Rubio was outside Washington. This counts.

And Rubio gets the Latino vote. In Cuba. If Cuba had political polls, Marco Rubio would be polling far ahead of Raul Castro in the Cuban presidential election, if Cuba had presidential elections.

What does the 2016 presidential campaign tell us about my country? What I hope is that it tells us America has a great sense of humour.

Of course there's always the possibility that Americans are serious about who they're supporting for president. In that case America has no sense at all.

More from the Magazine

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Americans are generally known for having a positive outlook on life, but with the countdown for November's presidential election now well under way, polls show voters are angry. This may explain the success of non-mainstream candidates such as Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders. But what is fuelling the frustration, asks Vanessa Barford.

Why are Americans so angry?

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