A United States election like no other | Paul Srarc

US Presidential elections are always considered ‘historical’ events. But the 2016 election seems to be more historical than most. Political observer Prof. Paul Sracic outlines what makes this contest so unique

Virtually all the polls are saying that Donald Trump will lose this election and that Hillary Clinton (left) will be President
Virtually all the polls are saying that Donald Trump will lose this election and that Hillary Clinton (left) will be President

Looking at the US presidential election from an outsider’s perspective, one gets the impression that this campaign is unlike any other in recent history. Is that impression shared in the USA?

Certainly: and not just in recent history either. We have quite frankly never had an election like this before. Even in the fact that one of the candidates has no political experience whatsoever – not even in a State legislature. That’s a first for the US.

Donald Trump has been known in the gossip pages for 30 years or more. But he really came to public attention through reality TV: which is also something new for American elections. What we didn’t see, I think, is what enormous electoral advantage that sort of celebrity status gave him. He was playing the role of a decisive leader on TV... but he was also being himself. What a perfect way to market yourself to the American people as a possible future President of the USA.

And he’s different in other ways, too. The way he speaks, the way he answers questions. People used to criticise George W. Bush for being inarticulate; but Trump makes Bush sound like Lincoln. Bush would butcher language, but he would give you a complete sentence as an answer. Trump often times gives only one word. Normally, you can’t speak like this and be a politician...

Paul Sraric
Paul Sraric

Is this part of his appeal? In the USA and elsewhere, there are indications that the electorate is growing suspicious of ‘traditional’ politics. Does this account for the rise of Donald Trump?

In almost every country we have seen a split between the elite and the common people. In the United States, it is particularly exacerbated because of the wide disparity between rich and poor. The traditional political class has become part of the elite, and I think what we’re seeing is a reaction against that. Look at the Clintons. When Bill Clinton entered politics, his appeal was that he wasn’t part of that establishment. He was the type who would jog to McDonalds and have a cheese burger. He was a typical American in many ways.

Bill Clinton: firmly part of the elite
Bill Clinton: firmly part of the elite

But look at what he’s become as he entered the elite. Now, he’s not going to McDonalds anymore. He’s vacationing at Martha’s Vineyard, with the other elite. He goes to international conferences with the Clinton foundation, hobnobbing with celebrities and the super-wealthy. Hillary Clinton gets paid half a million dollars to give speeches to banks. I think people are angry about this.

Bill Clinton is remembered for saying – though he didn’t actually say it in as many words – ‘I feel your pain’. That’s how he got elected; that’s how he beat George HW Bush. But now, politicians don’t feel anybody’s pain. They’re too far removed from all that. And the common people are looking for a champion. They know Donald Trump isn’t perfect; but they also know he isn’t liked by polite company. As one commentator said, he has all the right enemies. That’s what makes him appealing.

Isn’t it ironic, however, that the common people would choose Donald Trump as a champion? He might not be a traditional politician, but he is still part of the super-rich celebrity elite... hardly a representative of the ‘common people’...

It is the ultimate irony. But at the same time, Trump doesn’t behave like part of the elite. He may go overboard with ostentatious displays of wealth, but he doesn’t talk like someone who is super-rich. He doesn’t party at the Hamptons. He is not comfortable at very formal events. So he’s got this everyman character about him, even if he is not ‘every man’.  Maybe it’s the ideal combination. He’s got the money, so he doesn’t have to take money from anyone. At the same time, he has these ‘common man’ ways about him that are appealing. It’s an interesting package.

And yet, the polls seem to point towards an imminent Clinton victory...

Virtually all the polls are saying that Donald Trump will lose this election, yes. But the fact remains that he could have won it. His general appeal is very powerful to voters who feel voiceless. But he’s made so many mistakes, and there’s so much in his background that has damaged him. He doesn’t know how to handle that... he’s not good at getting out of those situations. That is where traditional politicians have an edge.

He may also have paid a high price for his non-conformism. Recent developments suggest that the Republican Party itself is now abandoning Trump in droves. Is it a case that Trump is also running against his own party?

Politically, in many ways, Donald Trump is not a Republican. His views are not traditional Republican views. The Republican Party has never been isolationist; it has always wanted to play a role on the world stage. Look at past presidents such as Richard Nixon, for instance, who was so interested and involved in international politics... or George W. Bush, who sent troops all over the world. Another pillar of traditional Republican politics is free trade. Historically, most of the votes in favour of trade agreements come from Republicans, not Democrats. Trump’s position on trade is 180 degrees opposite... 

But if Trump doesn’t have the support of his own party, how could he have expected to win an election?

In some ways, Donald Trump has been helped by rejection from other politicians: even from within his own party. It helps define him as the ‘anti-politician’. He is so much not a politician, in the eyes of his own party, that they won’t even support him. Looked at from the perspective of ordinary voters... isn’t that wonderful evidence that, if he is elected, he will blow up the system? That’s what many voters want. So if he had been a 10% better candidate, he could have won the election. I don’t think he will; but he did have an opportunity...

At the same time, it is not just Donald Trump who makes this election unusual. The Democratic campaign to choose a Presidential nominee saw Hillary Clinton edging past Bernie Sanders, who – in different ways – is also atypical. Is the Democratic Party suffering from the same malaise?

Bernie Sanders urged delegates to vote for Hillary Clinton
Bernie Sanders urged delegates to vote for Hillary Clinton

I think that is why you don’t see much enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton among Democrats. People in other countries often ask why Clinton is so disliked. Part of the answer is because she is not connected to ordinary Americans. She’s not a warm person to begin with; she doesn’t have the same warm personal touch that Bill Clinton had. The optics around her tend to be bad for her image, too. She likes to surround herself with rich, powerful people. She is part of the elite. That is why young people especially, who really wanted change, loved Bernie Sanders. To them, he was revolutionary. Clinton, on the other hand, doesn’t represent change. She’s not going to blow up the system...

This raises the question of why the Democratic Party would choose a continuity candidate, when its own electorate was hungry for change. Does this indicate that the US economic system is (like the banks) ‘too big to fail’? 

The Democrats had a way of defending themselves that the Republicans didn’t have. Ironically, in our politics, the ‘Democrat Party’ is the less democratic of the two in the way it operates. They have these people called ‘super-delegates’ at their convention; the Republicans have them too, but nowhere near as many. They are there for a purpose: to protect the party’s interests... to ensure that the party doesn’t elect a candidate it doesn’t work with. The Republicans don’t have that system. They might be wishing they had it now...

Prof. Paul Sracic is Chair of the Department of Politics and International Relations at Youngstown State University, Ohio, and director of the Rigelhaupt Pre-Law Centre