I pay close attention when I hear a candidate talk about “bringing down the system” or “starting a revolution.” People of Soviet/Russian origin take these phrases seriously, having seen more than our share of national upheaval. But I understand that in America these violent statements are mostly just rhetoric, especially considering that America hasn’t had a president who wasn’t a Democrat or a Republican since Millard Fillmore, the last Whig, left office in 1853.
As the Whig Party collapsed, many of its members refused to join the newly formed Republican Party and became part of the xenophobic “Know-Nothing” movement. We might see this situation reenacted this year as Donald Trump’s know-nothing candidacy threatens to destroy the GOP.
Trump’s passionate supporters—he doesn’t have any lukewarm ones—like to boast about their candidate’s policy ignorance and how he doesn’t follow the rules. He’s not a politician, they say, and he doesn’t sound or act like one. This can be an advantage in a campaign, of course. Nearly every candidate in history has tried to exploit the unpopularity of Washington by running as an “outsider,” even sitting members of Congress and incumbent vice presidents.
Trump is a true interloper, never having held elected office, but it remains to be seen if a non-politician would actually be any good at performing the duties of a most political job. Shaking things up simply for the sake of doing so can break the good along with the bad. And while it makes for good copy to keep repeating, as Trump has, that “the system is broken,” it will take a surgeon’s scalpel to repair it, not a barbarian’s bludgeon. (Please note that this is a metaphor, not an attempt to recall Dr. Carson.)
Even an actual barbarian, Conan himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, found he had a lot of learning on the job and compromising to do when he became the Governator of California. An American president learning on the job in today’s increasingly chaotic global security environment would be more apocalyptic than any of Schwarzenegger’s movies.
The “system is broken” chorus from the Trump camp has risen in volume as he has encountered resistance from the Republican establishment and others who realized that Trump is sure to be crushed by Hillary Clinton in the general election and that if he does somehow become president, it would be an unparalleled catastrophe. Better late than never, I suppose.
Trump is also meeting resistance from complex GOP primary rules and simple math. It’s obvious that Trump is very good at dividing, but he hasn’t quite figured out addition. He has to reach 1,237 delegates to claim the nomination outright and it’s not at all clear he can make it with 15 primaries left. For a self-proclaimed “winner,” Trump whines an awful lot about the technicalities and regulations he claims are thwarting his march to victory.
Leading Fox commentator Bill O’Reilly recently added his potent voice to the debate, saying that it would be unfair for Trump to be discarded at the GOP convention if he has more delegates than anyone else—1,237 or not. Championing Trump and the high ratings his general election candidacy would no doubt bring the cable networks is one thing. Publicly calling for ignoring the rules is something very different. The “backroom deals” O’Reilly and Trump are so alarmed about are openly part of the system. And while it would be odd for the GOP to look beyond the three remaining candidates, 1,237 is important for a reason. Plus, it’s strange to talk about Trump’s “majority” when he’s only achieved a result better than 50 percent once in any primary, that of his home state of New York.
O’Reilly considers himself something of a historian, with a series of books dedicated to great figures, all titled the same way: Killing Lincoln, Killing Reagan, etc. He should know that the blame for so many of America’s arcane electoral rules falls on the Founding Fathers, who wanted to build safeguards into the finely-tuned republic they were creating. They understood that a complex political jungle was better than the political desert of a monarch or dictator.
As for the distasteful wheeling and dealing among political insider, in smoke-filled rooms far from the eyes of voters and the media, they also played a big role in the early days of the GOP. In perhaps the most critical election in American history, a prestigious and well-connected Senator and former governor of New York came in with the best chances in a crowded Republican field. William Seward got 37% on the first ballot, far more than the 22% of his nearest rival. But deals were made in the dark of night, cabinet positions were offered and accepted, and lo and behold, on the third “corrected” ballot the GOP delegates selected a persuasive outsider from the West: Abraham Lincoln.
When I retired from professional chess to join the anti-Putin pro-democracy movement in 2005, I was often asked how my chess experience would help me in what was laughably called Russian politics. “Not at all,” I answered. “In chess we have fixed rules and uncertain results. In elections in Putin’s Russia, it’s exactly the opposite.”
As Putin steadily dismantled Russian democracy, keeping sham elections in place while making them meaningless, I often had cause to remember a line that the Spanish political philosopher José Ortega y Gasset wrote nearly 90 years ago: “The health of democracies… depends on a wretched technical detail—electoral procedure. All the rest is secondary.”
If the electoral system is transparent and functioning properly, if the rules are clear and enforced, nearly everything else—ideological extremes, media and advertising, corporatism and populism—is bearable.
Trump’s assault on “the system” is a politically convenient assault on democracy. Unfortunately, it is also a popular message in this year of insurgent candidates on both sides of the political spectrum. Purely negative messages usually don’t win out in American elections, but this year is not normal. Trump’s own campaign now says that his dictatorial rhetoric was an act, as if a candidate cynically employing bigotry and extremist rhetoric for political gain should be reassuring.
Trump’s followers would have us believe that the only people welcome in America are those who came over on the Mayflower in 1620. This is ironic considering that during the voyage from England to the New World, the men on that ship wrote the Mayflower Compact, the first governing document of Plymouth Colony. They knew that rules mattered, something Trump and his supporters seem all too eager to ignore today.