Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Washington, Las Vegas and Our Presidential Candidates

During a recent visit to southern France, many locals asked where I and my friend were from. When she said she was from Las Vegas, people would invariably get excited and wanted to have long discussions about her city while no one cared about my hometown - the capital of the United States and the western world. This now reminds me of the situation with Donald Trump: everyone wants to discuss him, but there is little genuine interest in either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.

Perusing European newspapers online these days one finds the US news sections flooded with stories about Trump. His every utterance and every move is recorded and discussed in detail, and if Sanders or Clinton are mentioned, it is mostly in relation to Trump. Like: Sanders agreed to debate with Trump after Clinton refused. It's a good thing President Obama went to Hiroshima, to provide a little diversion although even he could not come out entirely Trump-free. He must have been asked a lot of questions about the Republican presidential contender to warrant the statement "world leaders are rattled by him."

But what about Americans? Trump has not changed much in the past few months. Neither has his rhetoric improved. Yet from a candidate that was initially considered nothing more than a clown in the presidential campaign circus, he has become a serious threat to Hillary Clinton, a Democrat and seasoned politician who seemed to have the presidency in her pocket.

Pundits offer explanations such as Congress fatigue, fear of terrorism, loss of manufacturing jobs, Trump's TV popularity, his (dubious) business achievements, straight talk etc. I don't buy any of that. I think Trump's formula for success is the same one that gave power to Yugoslavia's Tito, Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, Lenin, Stalin, Putin and, yes, even Hitler. They were the kind of leaders that could persuade masses, especially uneducated masses, that they had the strength to protect them from whatever. If there was no threat to the nation, one was invented.

As school kids in the communist Yugoslavia we were taught the locution: Yugoslavia is surrounded by troubles (BRIGAMA). The Croatian and Serbian word for "troubles" was an acronym made from the initials of the countries bordering Yugoslavia (Bulgaria, Romania, Italy, Greece, Austria, Hungary, ie. Madjarska and Albania). So from the earliest age, we were made to believe that our country was on the verge of an attack. Tito ruled uncontested for more than 30 years but after he died, the country he had built fell apart. Hitler's Germany went up in smoke, the Soviet Union disintegrated and the kind of Serbia Milosevic had in mind died before it was born.

Even though history proved Stalin to be a mass murderer equal to Hitler or worse, he enjoyed rising popularity after the Soviet Union collapsed and before Putin stepped in to take the role of a new "strong" leader. Some people still mourn Tito's Yugoslavia, and Hitler continues to fascinate the world albeit in a negative way.

About a decade or so ago, while I was driving my son to school, a local station was re-broadcasting the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate on foreign policy. I pointed out to him how sophisticated the discussion was in comparison with the contemporary presidential debates. I particularly considered Bush junior a poor speaker. Now I could point out how sophisticated his debates were in comparison with the ones we've had this past year. Trump especially is a terrible speaker with hardly any complete sentence in his diatribes, and every word of phrase he deems "strong" repeated at least two or three times. 



Example from his Rolling Thunder speech Sunday: "Make America great again! Very simple. Make America great again! So, in riding over, there are hundreds of thousands of people all along the highways, and they can’t get in! In other words, you’re very good at real estate. You got in! Congratulations! Congratulations. " His vocabulary is very limited and the language he uses to describe his rivals - "crooked Hillary" and "lying Ted Cruz"- is beyond the pale. And yet it does not seem to matter at home or abroad.

The amount of attention, including negative attention, Trump gets in the news media gives him status and importance. In the eyes of many people that translates into power. Every nation wants a "powerful" leader, but the United States, to maintain its status as the world premier superpower must have one. Being cruel and obnoxious is more acceptable than being apologetic if it is serves to project the image of power.  

I am reminded of a classic Serbian tale by Radoje Domanović of a people looking for a leader to take them to the promised land. They think that a silent stranger walking with a staff must be the wisest so they pick him. They follow him through thorns and wasteland as he seems to avoid a strait road. When he falls into a chasm, they jump after him. Many die on the way. When months later three remaining families confront the leader, they learn that he is a blind man.

Although the story does not apply to the United States, it illustrates how important an image is for a leader.

With the statue of Abraham Lincoln looking down, Trump delivered his usual crude oration on Sunday, with Rolling Thunder bikers cheering him on. A Vietnam War veteran was quoted as saying “He’s an asshole, and that’s what we need.” Another one said “We need to retake America, because we’ve lost it.” Wow! I must have been asleep. I never noticed we've lost our country. But I noticed that we've lost class. It almost seems as if no classy person would want to run for president any more.  Certainly no one like George Washington who as a teenager copied by hand 110 rules of civility that he followed all his life.  The current crop of presidential candidates seems oblivious to them:

 -  Speak not injurious words in jest nor earnest; scoff at none although they give occasion.
 -  Undertake not what you cannot perform but be careful to keep your promise.
 -  Speak not evil of the absent for it is unjust.

Maybe such rules don't apply to campaign speeches. But while in the past leaders strove to sound educated, today they want to identify with the rude and the illiterate.  Is that how they see the majority of voters? Europeans are commenting on Facebook: "America, you might call this an election, but the rest of the world is viewing it as your IQ test. And it's not looking good."

I have always believed (and been rebuked for saying it) that a nation has the leader it deserves. Especially in true democracies where the head of state is freely elected. This is not to say that every individual gets the leader he or she deserves. I tend to agree with de Tocqueville in that "a majority taken collectively is only an individual, whose opinions, and frequently whose interests, are opposed to those of another individual." Come January, a new president will be sworn in here, one that many Americans will not have wanted: a president elected by the majority and imposed on everyone.

The rest of the world will have to deal with our president too. And not everyone will be annoyed if it is Trump. Judging by the amount of attention he gets in the foreign media, he is more appealing to many people overseas than either Clinton or Sanders, sort of like Las Vegas is more than Washington.

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