The intolerably long presidential race in the US is well underway and so far it has been the Donald Trump show. The real estate and showbiz magnate has shocked and awed his way to being the Republican frontrunner, drawing almost 25 million viewers to the recently concluded CNN Republic debate. American political campaigns are usually conducted with scientific precision, but Trump’s audaciousness has upended the rules of the game. He has admittedly worked very hard on his perception; he said so openly during an appearance on a late night television show.
Trump has had many well-documented failures in the corporate sector, but when it comes to reality television, where ratings determine success, he has been successful for a long period of time. Whether you love him or hate him, he knows how to get your attention. While other presidential hopefuls have aides, campaign managers, and PR gurus advising them on how to draw attention to themselves, Trump, just by being Trump, has taken over. His larger-than-life persona has definitely helped, but what lies at the heart of the Trump-mania is a thirst for brutally honest and undisguised opinions. The American public, and you could make a similar argument about numerous societies, is simply tired of the focus-grouped, carefully curated, and over-rehearsed speeches that politicians have delivered for years. Trump has cast all those things aside and relied on the sentiment of the Republican Party members for his success. He has made comments that are xenophobic, racist and sexist, but has gotten away with all of them simply because he insists that he only “speaks his mind” and does not care for “political correctness”. The polls show that this is working, with Trump still in the lead.
The bumbling campaign of Hillary Clinton over the summer offers sharp contrast to Trump’s strategy. Overly reliant on her staff and aides, Clinton found herself in a hole she could not dig herself out of. She was coming across as impersonal and dishonest, and the never-ending stories about the e-mail controversy were hurting her in the polls. Like any astute politician, she changed course and apologised. That would have been the end of the story for most politicians, but the fact that her campaign staff had advised her to do so, and that their new strategy would be to bring “more spontaneity” meant that the story was not over.
To be successful in politics, one has to pass two tests of electability. The first involves being elected by your own party. To clear this hurdle, politicians rely on ideological purity. Primary voters are ideologically grounded and go out to vote in large numbers. This inevitably draws candidates away from the centre. The second test, where one must be elected by the majority of the population, requires a more complex approach. Centrist arguments that appeal to the independent voters are critical. Those that veer too far into the extreme find it hard to move towards the centre and ultimately lose the election. In a less crowded Republican field, Trump may very well fail the first hurdle and fade by the end of the year. He will, most definitely, not win the 2016 elections. But what he has achieved already should not be discounted: the American people are fundamentally unhappy with the way politicians communicate.
This is not simply a phenomenon restricted to the US. In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn became head of the Labour Party, promising to take it far to the left. In Greece, Alexis Tsipras held on despite losing out on the bailout negotiations with the European Union. In Spain and France, political parties that have been on the fringes are contending for power. In Pakistan, we ourselves have witnessed the dramatic rise of the PTI. All of these contenders are challenging the political establishment in their respective societies. The political playbook of the late 20th century is becoming outdated with every passing second. The world is entering a new political age, one that is more confrontational and raucous. Elections in the US are dazzling, and the beginning of this era, ushered in by the man who knows how to wow an audience, has plenty of fireworks in store.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2015.
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