Watching what is happening these days in American politics, people who care for the US are rubbing their eyes in disbelief: Is this really happening or is it just a bad dream?
Did we really just hear a leading candidate for the sole superpower’s presidency, a potential successor to Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt, allude to an interviewer’s period, besmirch black youths as lacking spirit, defame Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists, and vow to make Mexico pay for an anti-immigrant wall he would stretch from California to Texas?
Did we just hear a leading contender for the American presidency – a man who never saw a battlefield from within or even just wore a uniform – dismiss John McCain as a coward, because he fell in Vietnamese captivity? How does the Republican Party allow this caricature of a politician do his political apprenticeship at its expense, on its most important stage, at the most sensitive moment, risking its return to power?
The answer is as simple as it is foreboding: American politics is ill.
THE ILLNESS of American politics is an inversion of Israel’s.
Our political parties are too strong. America’s are too weak.
Israeli parties have excessive control over who will get into politics. That’s a big problem whose causes and damage this column has discussed over the years. However, Israel’s parties don’t let politically untested people even come near the national steering wheel and red buttons.
In the US they do.
In a healthy political system, Barack Obama’s presidential bid would have been stopped in its tracks by his own party, and not because of his background or his views, but because of his patent inexperience. A man whose only relevant line on his résumé is one unfinished term as a senator is not an eligible candidate to lead his party, let alone his country, not to mention the entire free world.
Democrats may or may not regret Obama’s political ascent, but Republicans sure do, so why are they repeating their rivals’ mistake? Trump is so politically naked that he doesn’t even bring the measly legislative stint that was all Obama arrived with at the White House door.
The closest Israel came to positioning a political novice at the helm was in 1996, when Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister at 46 without having served as a minister. Yet that premiership followed eight years as a lawmaker; four as a deputy minister, who in Israel participates in weekly cabinet meetings; two years as a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, where he saw close up, day after day and hour by hour, how the country is run; four years as ambassador to the UN, where he experienced global diplomacy; and four years as leader of the opposition, where he got a feel of the country’s pulse while standing between the government, the legislature and the public.
This is what Obama’s résumé lacked, and this is what Trump’s record lacks. It is also what the good-looking and brash, but patently unripe, Sarah Palin lacked when she was hastily catapulted forward by one man, and applauded inscrutably by their party, as a vice-presidential candidate.
Such candidates’ bios alone should have disqualified them for the jobs they sought, even before discussing the kind of egos that led such unequipped people seek the hypersensitive positions for which so many found them unfit.
It was the job of the parties to disqualify such candidates even before hearing them knock on the door. Even a middle-of-the-cornfield university seeking a president doesn’t let just anyone join the contest before being screened by a search committee that weeds out unsuitable candidates well before they become known, so that the actual choice boils down to a shortlist of reasonable candidates.
Had they been assertive and visionary, America’s political parties would have taken it upon themselves to screen aspiring candidates before they become formal candidates, so that the parties, their country, and the rest of the world that looks up to America for political inspiration don’t end up stuck with an unqualified leader.
An efficient Republican Party would not have fielded in 2008 a candidate unfamiliar with economics, as John McCain was; not because it should have predicted the meltdown in Wall Street with which McCain, a foreign affairs specialist, was suddenly overwhelmed, but because an efficient party would verify that its candidate is familiar with, passionate about, and confident responding to any issue that might suddenly overtake the agenda.
If equipped with such clout and driven by such a mindset, the party that Trump now threatens with a hostile takeover would have nipped his candidacy in the bud, telling him that he is putting off Hispanics and blacks, and that’s not what the party he wants to lead is out to do; that he is putting off women, and that’s not what Republicans stand for; that he is offending thousands of war veterans, and that’s not what Republicans do; that he is woefully devoid of any political experience, and it shows; and that he and his hairpiece should return to the reality TV shows where they came from.
NOW SOME would wonder: Can a political party bar anyone from fighting for its leadership? Isn’t such exclusion undemocratic? Well it isn’t. Not only would such a screening process be democratic – a candidate barred from one party’s leadership contest would be welcome to seek another’s, or to run independently – the lack of such a process is democracy’s perversion.
A party is by definition about exclusion; that’s why it’s partisan. It’s where you tell those who don’t think like you to go create their own party, and it’s where you tell those who you think will damage your cause to take their business elsewhere.
Parties are not meant to be political Hyde Parks, orphanages or springboards. They are meant to be like-minded people’s furnaces of ideas and engines of leadership.
Yet both the Republican and the Democratic parties understand their role not as producers of leadership, but as spectators in a political rodeo that they have outsourced to the media.
So self-humbled has American party politics become that the Republican candidates’ debate that the world just saw was engineered and governed not by their party, but by a broadcast organization, which for its part rated, elevated and relegated the debaters according to popularity polls. That means several thousand people with dubious political judgment effectively got to fatally damage candidacies based, at best, on superficial knowledge of their victims’ baggage. That is what happens when parties don’t screen their candidates by themselves, creating the political vacuum into which entertainment gets sucked, deploying tools that are injurious to the political system itself.
The degeneration of American politics created the vacuum into which the two forces that now run American politics were sucked: Money and TV. And no one could personify better than Donald Trump the two’s combination, and their disparagement, obstruction and ruination of what once were proper political thought and conduct.
The role FOX assumed in America’s distorted political process is but the natural sequel of what began when Trump the real-estate magnate became Trump the TV star who, in a Darwinian game show, kept dismissing on air candidates for a job he offered with the rude quip: “You’re fired.”
Conspiracy theorists will say that FOX, once it realized the political process had been abandoned to its devices, consciously created a setting that spotlighted the telegenic and scandalizing Trump, the way the fictional Union Broadcasting System celebrated the mentally ill news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) in the 1976 filmic satire Network.
The madness of the character immortalized by his cry “I am mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” was bad in every other respect, but for his station it was a bonanza; a rating accelerator serving a TV executive who believes that “we no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies,” because “the world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business.”
Such a theory about FOX is of course far-fetched. It isn’t far-fetched, however, to say that Donald Trump is right now the Howard Beale bridging between American politics and American voters through American TV.
And it takes no conspiracy theorist to realize that the same political illness that produced the Obama presidency is now cultivating the Trump candidacy, the latest parable on the decadence of American politics.