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Electing a president in an age of superheroes


After a nightmarishly interminable American pre-primary campaign process, filled with enough candidates to fill a clown car, the American polls finally opened in Iowa last week. And though Donald Trump only came in second, odds remain very solidly in his favour that he will be the Republican nominee for President come the summer.

Trump in superhero garbAnyone who insists they understand why Trump remains so popular in the United States is lying. Even after all these months, it's a mystery. He's run before; did poorly. He's a billionaire who has had four businesses file for bankruptcy. His policies might as well be tweets, they're so lacking in detail.

And he regularly says mean, indefensible, appalling things, such as his comment a week ago that 'I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters.'

Almost any other candidate would be out of the race after one such comment. Trump makes them weekly. And polls suggest his popularity soars highest when he does.

For me, one story of this election — and recent elections, as well — is that when it comes to President, many Americans want someone who speaks to their own deepest dreams and ideals and insists that such things are attainable. A champion.

In 2008 Barack Obama captivated the American electorate with his persistent refrain that 'Yes we can' pull our country out of the quagmire of wars, arrogance and economic collapse that the Bush/Cheney presidency had presided over, and build the fairer, more welcoming nation that we wanted.

Trump's vision of reality is almost the polar opposite of Obama's, a sort of post-apocalyptic hellscape where foreigners, the unemployed (and women) are eroding society all around us. But, he, too, has positioned himself as a champion of those filled with frustration, insisting it doesn't have to be this way.

And through this lens, the relationship between his verbal abuse and his popularity makes a kind of sense. He's the candidate who 'tells it like it is', who is unafraid to throw a punch at anybody, especially 'sure things' like Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton that the political establishment has been trying to force the electorate to accept.

Underlying all the bluster, misogyny and phobia, Trump's message is that nobody has the right to push you around. And that speaks to people, far more than experience or demonstrated expertise.

That dichotomy of romance versus resume is even clearer in the Democratic campaign.

Bernie Sanders is in many ways the Trump of the left, a political outsider who says what progressive-leaning Americans have long been thinking — that the wealth disparity in American society is appalling and unjust; that our young people are being driven into completely shocking levels of debt; that our future is left in the hands of fossil fuel companies with no real interest in saving the planet.

And most of all, that it doesn't have to be this way. That we can fight back.

And much like Trump, Sanders' position papers offer little substance. He's a candidate of the dream, rather than the practicalities. He has been in state and federal politics since the 1960s, but until 2015 he was an independent, with no political affiliation.

That intellectual and political independence allows him to speak truth to power (though not when it comes to the gun lobby). But how it will translate into votes in Congress is hard to know.

Clinton, in the meantime, has more political and government experience than anyone on either side of the aisle — in fact, probably more than all of them put together. She's done it all: lawyer, state government, First Lady, Senator, Secretary of State. Truly, when it comes to competence and experience, I would be hard pressed to name the last candidate equally qualified.

But many Democrats don't see in her a champion for their dreams. As much of a rock star as she is on the world stage, she's at best an average campaigner and at times terrible: stiff, repressed, wonky, out of touch. In the summer her media team sent out a tweet inviting students to describe their experience of student debt in three emojis. You could hear Twitter gasp (then pounce) at the bizarre misstep.

There's also a lot of fears on both sides of the aisle that she's just plain dishonest, that she and her husband have always seen themselves as above the truth in any number of ways (a feeling her secret email account only reinforces). And that no matter how much Sanders pushes her platform to the left, none of it means anything about how she'll actually govern after the election.

Those fears could be entirely correct. Honestly, in some ways it's a criticism that could be levelled at Obama, with his hearty embrace of drone strikes and the prosecution of whistleblowers.

But at the same time, it's hard not to see this American hunger for heroes as a dangerous Achilles heel right now. The ability to articulate a population's hopes or fears does not demonstrate the aptitude to get anything done. And the insistence that things don't have to stay as they are is not itself a concrete, realisable plan for change.

In this age of social media, where the capacity to instantaneously express an opinion online seems to lead people to believe they've 'made a difference', perhaps we no longer can see that distinction. If only our choice of president was equally inconsequential.


Jim McDermottJim McDermott is an American Jesuit and screenwriter.

Topic tags: Jim McDermott, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, American election 2016



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Existing comments

The election of a US President is a long drawn-out process. And watching from far off, as Australians do, the perspective may not align with American views. I can acknowledge Donald Trump's appeal to the disenchanted of those who take the trouble to vote. His misogyny and bluster lets him down though. Hillary Clinton shows tenacity after her dreams were scuttled last time around by a very appealing Barack Obama. I can understand where her secret email account and her husband's self-immolation could cost her votes. On the other hand, no one else running for the Presidency has achieved perfection and so it's an even playing field. Could she really be worse than Nixon? How many more sleeps till the Americans vote?

Pam | 05 February 2016  

Indeed, Bernie Sanders is the Trump of the left and like a lot of free-range socialists he is very good at denouncing the rich and powerful but he never seems to me to be able to offer any sensible policies to redress what he sees as the injustices afflicting Americans. As for Trump, as I listened to him declaring that he ‘could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters’ the though occurred to me that if, instead of 5th Avenue, he mentioned Wall Street he might have actually won a few voters.

Paul | 06 February 2016  

Sanders please. A dream is better than a nightmare.

Peter Goers | 08 February 2016  

I am not sure dreaming of a better, more egalitarian, kinder and socially just America is, in itself, a bad thing. As you say, it's about translating that dream into reality. The next President will really need to be a bit like the current Pope and cut through a lot of nonsense in Washington to ensure that policies don't get ground to death by process or stymied by powerful lobbies. He or she will, obviously, need to treat some of the modern communications media, such as Twitter, with extreme care: there are no 'instant' solutions. I have a feeling that Donald Trump will not be President: I don't think there are that many stupid Americans around. Marco Rubio, hopefully, will be the Republican candidate. I believe Michael Bloomberg may throw his hat into the ring if Hillary looks like running out of puff. Mainstream Americans, often not involved with the primaries, don't want an extremist. They are very cynical of PR; party machines; lobbyists and 'anointed' or 'self-anointed' candidates. I will be interested to see what happens when the smoke from the primaries clears. It's still crazy at the moment.

Edward Fido | 08 February 2016  

"Many Americans want a President who speaks to their deepest dreams and ideals."... Americans, like all people, are attracted to high ideals, but are also attached to deep-seated instincts of self promotion. Anyone who can appeal to the latter, while disguising it under the cloak of the former, will win votes. It is the classic clash of the 'Haves; and the 'Have-nots'. "We would all be better off if the disadvantaged would only pull their weight. Helping them only makes them lazy. So let's grab what we can, and it might inspire them to make more effort." There is a flip side, of course.

Robert Liddy | 08 February 2016  

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