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The Presidential election has already proven to be counter-intuitive, with Donald Trump seemingly re-writing the rules for all election campaigns, and successfully claiming his spot at the top of the GOP heap.
Bernie Sanders was dismissed and ignored by Hillary Clinton, the Democratic National Committee and the mainstream media, and he now out-flanks Hillary in both Iowa and New Hampshire polling, and likely beyond.
Unexpectedly, Trump accomplished something truly useful in his bid so far, that we can only thank him for, which is to have exposed how truly sub-qualified the rest of the motley GOP field really are. Jeb is clearly not the “smarter Bush,” Carson is barely coherent, Cruz a mean-spirited megalomaniac, Rubio an opportunistic rube, Christie an unapologetic bully, and the exposition goes on. Even after outrageous statements by Trump that would have felled any traditional campaign, his popularity continues to rise and the spread between he and his cohorts increases.
It seems that those who have done best at competing with Trump are those who have tried to mimic his campaign tactics most completely. The January 2016 GOP debate was a surreal performance, where the focus was either continually accusing President Obama of something just short of treason or calling for a huge military increase, more wars and a hard line on immigration (or all of the above). The entertainment value, if there was any, was watching the group try to out-passion or out-punish one another, in the name of inspiring their “base”—the hoped-for ticket to a primary win.
But there was one big difference between Trump’s mostly consistent hard line policies, promises and attitudes, and those of the other six: Trump was being authentic, and the others were not. Each in their own way attempted to out-Trump Trump, which is always a losing proposition.
Bernie Sanders has managed to upset Hillary’s apple cart, so far, based on a number of factors, not the least of which is his surprising ability to attract both Millennials and women voters. Sanders’ motivating effect on these and other voting groups, including many Independents and Republicans, seems to have outweighed whatever risk there might have been in proudly proclaiming himself a Democratic Socialist at the outset of his campaign. His voting block doesn’t seem to care about that. And his supporters include many unlikely bedfellows, which has both politicians and pollsters scratching their heads.
Donald Trump may be a blow-hard, a misogynist, perhaps even a racist and/or a fascist, but there is little doubt that he is being authentic when he expresses these dubious traits. While his facts and/or his conclusions may be wrong, he always appears to be saying what he truly believes, without a second (or even a first) thought. He is clearly not beholden (at least not yet) to billionaire politicos like the Koch brothers, so when he says he isn’t bought and paid for, or pre-corrupted by Washington, like some of his opponents, he always appears to be telling the truth. His thoughts, his words and his actions are in alignment, however repugnant they may be to his detractors, and for that reason, he resonates as authentic with his GOP supporters.
Trump’s authenticity speaks louder to his base than any specific policies he might represent, however counter-intuitive that proposition might seem. His under-informed supporters may not fully understand the details in his positions on this issue or that one, or what practical implications those positions might have in the real world. But they understand, in broad strokes, that he expresses their frustrations, speaks to their fears, and gives a certain “respectability” to their prejudices, allowing them to come “out of the closet” with an assortment of often paranoid right-wing views that are well out of the mainstream. He promises to do things differently in Washington, if elected. And he projects that authenticity. So therefore, to his followers, he must be trustworthy.
Bernie Sanders is poised to repeat Obama’s connection to mainstream progressive voters and potentially his ascent to the White House. He may even go beyond expectations in his ability to attract many independent and even old-school (pre-Tea Party) GOP voters. This all remains to be seen, of course. But as was the case with Obama and as is certainly the case with Donald Trump, what has propelled Sanders to the front of the line at this point in the campaign is his obvious and unflappable authenticity.
Sanders has been consistent in his political positions for literally decades, unmoved by either lobbying dollars or by political correctness (in the original meaning of the term, unpolluted by the current GOP definition). Plus, the positions that Sanders has held and continues to hold, are apparently in-line with voters’ sentiments and desires, as evidenced by multiple public opinion polls. When most voters look at Bernie Sanders, they see an older American that may look a bit disheveled, a bit angry and certainly not a “pretty” candidate by any stretch. But they also see a candidate that isn’t putting on any airs, who is clear on his political priorities, who is remarkably civil to his opponents (imagine that), and one who has been transparent, consistent, persistent, and, well…authentic.
The current public view, among an overwhelming majority of Americans, is that our democratic process has been hijacked by the corrupting influence of big money. The big banks ripped us off, Wall Street ripped us off, insurance companies are ripping us off, billionaires dictate the outcome of our elections, and a simple examination of donor money origins suggests immediately that our elected representatives are either locked down inside a broken system against their will, or are inherently corrupt. So, the most important question that is on the mind of the average voter, in this coming election in particular is, “Who can we trust?”
In the case of the Republicans, Trump has emerged as the leader in authenticity, as discussed above. Simply by virtue of having amped-up their right-wing extremist rhetoric in order to keep up with Trump, his GOP opponents have had to shift away from authenticity, and Trump cleverly points this out to GOP voters. This is not to say that Trump’s GOP competitors are never authentic in any context. Surely they must be. But with regard to whether they truly represent the common man and woman of their base and are not beholden to the big-monied interests that largely own and corrupt politics today, they cannot resonate the way Trump does.
On the Democratic side, the calculus is different, yet similar. While Sanders has established his credibility in the all-important authenticity race, Hillary Clinton is another matter altogether. Without even stepping into the opposing arguments of whether or not Hillary is in fact trustworthy or not, it is safe to say that she is at very least perceived as not-trustworthy by practically all Republicans (not that they were ever potential Hillary voters anyway), and more importantly, by too many Democrats and Independents to ignore. Even her supporters seem to be there by accident or by default.
One need only look at this month’s deployment of Chelsea Clinton as a surrogate for fundamentally untrue and purposefully misleading attacks on Sanders, in order to be reminded of Hillary’s willingness to not tell the truth, in order to achieve some goal. This is anything but authenticity, and it speaks to the underlying reason that the word “inspiring” is rarely used to describe her candidacy. Hillary has not demonstrated her authenticity in her campaign to become President (perhaps, voters reason, because it doesn’t exist), and unfortunately for her, this will cost her the election if she is directly matched up against the authentic Trump.
With Trump’s “authoritarian voters” base fired up, the legacy GOP and Hillary-haters lined up, billionaires ready to spend what it takes to prevent real change, and corporate media ready to guide the narrative, the stage will be set. At that point, any lack of Hillary enthusiasm among voters (not to mention the 14% of Sanders’ supporters who say they will not vote for Hillary in the general election) will likely be just enough of a no-show of support for Hillary at the polls to cost her the election, and most incredibly, to enable the Democrats to once again snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, dealing a possible death blow to what’s left of public enthusiasm for the political process in America.
Only Sanders can beat Trump. If the Republican candidate is someone other than Trump, for any reason, perhaps Hillary can prevail, because at that point, the “authenticity factor” will be laid on a level playing field. That singular trait will no longer define the most important quality and qualification that voters will be looking for (since no candidate will possess it, in their eyes). At that point, voters will make their decisions based on other, more traditional measures, influenced as usual by a barrage of negative advertising. We can assume that in the absence of a Mr. Trump, likely none of the remaining field of Republican hopefuls will have what it takes to woo the electorate into believing that they are better qualified to hold the land’s highest office than Hillary (who at very least has real-world experience).
But should Mr. Trump make earn his way to the title of Republican nominee for President, the ultimate outcome of this election will ultimately rest upon who the Democrats have chosen as their standard bearer in the primary. And whether or not they are willing to (1) go with their gut, (2) vote out of fear, or (3) stay home altogether.
Author: Richard Lang
Editor: Travis May