“Nancy Reagan, former first lady, was lovingly laid to rest beside the remains of the Republican Party.”
These were the words comedian Bill Maher used two weeks ago to comment on two events: the funeral of Nancy Reagan, and the impact of the presidential primaries on the Republican Party.
The same night Bill Maher made this comment, Donald Trump canceled a rally in Chicago after a clash between his supporters and anti-Trump protesters brought to life the ghost of political violence.
The following Saturday, Time magazine put on its front page a classic photo of the Reagans facing a huge crowd of supporters in 1976. Standing above the cheering mass, Nancy and Ronald Reagan gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes in a moment of triumph. This time though, a worrisome question pops up between the presidential couple: “What happened to this party?”
I can’t think of an anchor of a political show who recently did not ask at least one major conservative politician if he or she is going to vote for Hillary Clinton in case Trump wins the Republican nomination. To say that the American right wing is going through a serious existential crisis would be an understatement.
This is not the party of Reagan, Lincoln, or even the tea party. It is a party that desperately struggles with its own recent history; a party that has just realized that one-third of its electorate have taken quite seriously the talk about good old America falling apart and the urgent need to “restore” the country back to some mythical past greatness. Polarization and intentionally denying that compromise is possible are part of the same story line — a story line in which the talented instigator, Trump, simply falls perfectly into place. He even had the audacity to steal his campaign slogan from the icon of the right wing Ronald Reagan: “Make America Great Again.”
Nancy Reagan’s famous motto, “Just say ‘No’” did not help the fight against drugs, and, at least for now, its delayed use doesn’t seem to be helping the Republican elite’s fight against the businessman-politician. In two weeks alone, between Super Tuesday on March 1 and the key vote on March 15 in Ohio and Florida, the American voter saw 14,000 anti-Trump ads.
All were paid for by the anti-Trump Republican opposition. Two-thirds of the money came from the allies of his opponent, Marco Rubio. The “Donald Trump thinks we are stupid” ad and other commercials showing a cut of Trump’s derogatory comments about women are only a few examples of the massive opposition effort within the GOP. The 2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney called Trump “a phony, a fraud” in a public speech, which was an unprecedented attack from a senior party member against a front-runner. Well, he did Trump a favor; it turned out those who support the real estate mogul can’t stand exactly the type of politician Romney is.
The goal for Republican candidates is to win 1,237 delegates, which guarantees a victory at the Republican National Convention in July. If none of the now-remaining three candidates — Trump, Cruz and Kasich — gathers the 1,237 votes needed, the Republican Convention in Cleveland in July will turn into a totally unpredictable hall fight. If Trump wins the majority, some party leaders may choose to line up behind him, as did New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Even in this case, there will still be a large percentage of Republican activists who will revolt, a percentage that represents about two-thirds of GOP supporters.
After his victory in Texas, the ultraconservative Ted Cruz chose to quote two Democratic presidents, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, to provide examples of great inspiring words worthy of being passed on to future generations. He made a point: If Americans want to rest assured that their children won’t one day be ashamed of the words of an American president, they shouldn’t vote for Trump. Cruz himself is a political extremist on almost any issue. Although far from being loved, he at least doesn’t fuel the toxic currents Trump’s statements do.
The businessman Trump acts on intuition, not purpose. While putting labels on Mexicans (rapists, criminals), Muslims (they hate us!), protesters (organized instigators), we know he is getting the support of the most frightened, confused and frustrated elements among right-wing voters. His strategy to win them over is straightforward and effective.
Recently, John Kasich also declared Trump to be dangerous by airing a selection of Trump’s statements directly encouraging violence. How would you interpret the front-runner’s announced intention to pay the legal fees of a 78-year-old supporter who punched out an African-American protester at one of his rallies? The fear that a serious clash may occur during one of these incidents dominates the presidential race debate in the media — for instance, during a CNN discussion on the subject, my favorite commentator, Ana Navarro, emotionally called for having zero tolerance toward aggressive rhetoric and said to “fight the fire with fire.”
On the other hand, the reality show that Trump is running is a blessing for TV stations. CBS President Les Moonves made an outrageous statement to investors that Trump may not be good for the country, but he is good for ratings; sad, but true, and also a valid statement on the current state of American political life, at least in one part of the spectrum.
Contrary to the Republican situation, the situation in the Democratic camp does not stir up unpleasant emotions. The debates between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders get sharp at moments (after all, the senator promises a revolution!), but they don’t go as far as measuring up to each other on a profane level or exchanging personal insults.
Sanders’ victory in Michigan on March 8, which was a rare example of shattering predictions, poll numbers and expert expectations to pieces, brought him back into the race. Although he has a serious disadvantage in the delegate count, his revolution is far from over. Because of the specifics regarding how the Democratic primaries are held (the vote is proportional), even if he loses state after state, Sanders can hold on in the race for a long time, as long as he loses by small margins.
Besides, Bernie raised a record $42 million in February donated by 1.2 million people. The amount of an average donation for his campaign is $27, which means he can ask the same people to donate again and again (in the United States, the maximum allowed for a personal donation to a particular candidate is $2,700), while Hillary will have to use her time to attract bigger donors. In the meantime, many of her vulnerable spots, such as the email controversy during her tenure as secretary of state or her husband Bill Clinton’s foundation, could turn into a serious threat. Last but not least, the Democratic superdelegates, who are heavily leaning toward the Clinton camp, are free to change their mind in case their elected team members change their composition.
Sanders’ appeal, however, goes way beyond running the numbers. Even if he loses, he has already changed Clinton’s platform, pushing it to the left. His presence in the race actually guarantees her more support in the future and betters her chances of winning the presidency by making her look less stuck in the status quo.
Clinton’s position has been that America is already great — there is no need to demolish it and start from scratch; it simply needs a renovation. After the debate in Flint, Michigan, where the population had been poisoned by the criminal recklessness of state and local authorities, the former secretary of state looked rather resolute about going for a more thorough renovation. It is hard to tell how far she would go if she became president. The ardent rhetoric of presidential candidates often does not turn into political reality. Barack Obama could tell us a lot about that. But Hillary Clinton definitely looks solid as of today, and the Democratic Party is much better positioned in the presidential race than its opponent on the right.
At the funeral of former first lady Nancy Reagan, Hillary gave George W. Bush a hug. After all, former presidents and former first ladies are a species of their own.