The United States presidential campaign has reserved the greatest reward for those – at least among Republicans – with the most sinister solutions to its problems.
Electioneering in the US is often a silly season. Candidates, bored stiff by campaigns for election that are measured in months if not years, are constantly looking to add a little something – kissing a horse for example, or like Michael Dukakis in his failed election campaign in 1988, joyriding in a tank, that is newsworthy if not noteworthy.
But there is nothing that is funny or even enjoyable about this campaign season. It is hardly a celebration of the US values that all candidates claim to honour, but the opposite.
|US Elections: Trump’s foreign policy|
The lesser of two evils?
Pick your poison: Trump or Cruz? The message is an extraordinary – and politically winning – escalating litany of complaints, threats and warnings on everything from Obamacare to trade, immigrants from Latin America, and of course, refugees and Muslims, wherever they live.
Campaign rhetoric is not known for close attention to nuance, but Cruz and Trump – the former out of malevolent calculation, the latter because subtlety is a quality unknown to him – embrace the slash and burn theory of policy formulation.
Cruz’s offer to “carpet bomb” the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) strongholds as an operational solution to the challenge it poses appears woefully out of place these days as the Syrian army backed by Russian (not US) air power reclaims Palmyra and opens the way to Deir Az Zor and Raqqa.
But such a critique completely misses the point of this election contest. The mission of the leading Republican candidates, as they see it, is hardly to convince voters of the merits of their solutions to the US’ economic or international travails.
Trump hasn’t even tried to formulate policies as they are generally understood. Rather, the point of the campaign is to mobilise and exploit the discontent of those who can no longer even dream of the American Dream, the majority of citizens who do not even have an extra $500 in the bank.
It is far easier to strike up the band, salute the flag, promise to “Make America Great Again” – and to end the party by demonising immigrants and Muslim refugees.
Trump’s signature policy is simply “Believe Me”. Like the itinerant guitar player who skyrockets to political power in the underappreciated American classic A Face in the Crowd, Trump exhorts his audience – that is, voters – to believe rather than to think.
He mocks the electorate – crowing that he could run someone over in the street – and he wouldn’t suffer politically. And so far, he is right.
‘Drinking the Kool-Aid’
This is the opposite of a debate among contenders that is meant to be at the heart of the US’ democratic tradition.
True, the gutter is not totally unfamiliar territory in American policies.
The cartoon-like disputes between 'Little' Marco, 'Lyin'' Ted, and most recently 'Incompetent' Hillary are all of a piece in a campaign where victory is measured in the ability to inflame the masses.
Thomas Jefferson was once accused of pimping Dolley Madison and her sister Anna to foreign visitors. Her husband, the third president, was accused of being impotent and thus unfit to lead the young, virile country.
Cruz, unlike Trump, is an authentic revolutionary – a smart and dedicated master of this black art, which has won him the disdain of his colleagues.
“If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you,” observed Senator Lindsey Graham, only half in jest.
But Graham too has decided to “drink the Kool-Aid”, endorsing Cruz as the hammer he hopes will short-circuit Trump’s road to the White House.
Such is the concern among a shell-shocked Republican establishment that Trump’s victory will result in a Republican debacle at the November polls.
And with the loss of the Republicans’ majority in the Senate, they are ready to hand Cruz – the outsider whom they detest – the noose with which he will hang them, as Lenin once observed.
On the Democrat side, Bernie Sanders has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in challenging the system’s favourite – Hillary Clinton.
Like Trump and Cruz, he owes his popularity to his ability to channel the seething discontent among large segments of the American public that is struggling to find a political voice.
But Sanders parts ways with his Republican opponents at the fork in the road that leads to a midnight knock on the door, internment camps, and the guillotine.
Inflaming the masses
Torture detainees because that’s what ISIL does, repeal Obamacare, loosen the libel laws against disrespecting journalists, rip up the agreement with Iran, make Saudi Arabia, South Korea and even Israel pay for US military aid, reform an “obsolete” NATO… These are simply props in the Republican roadshow, useful only insofar and as long as the public is willing to buy.
The cartoon-like disputes between “Little” Marco, “Lyin'” Ted and, most recently “Incompetent” Hillary are all of a piece in a campaign where victory is measured in the ability to inflame the masses.
The trouble is, this is not a cartoon and as much as they would seem to be, personalities like Cruz and Trump are not cardboard characters, but serious contenders to be president of the United States of America.
The standing ovations offered to Trump by an enthusiastic crowd at the annual conference sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) are akin to the conditioned responses famously noted by Pavlov.
Trump, not unlike the parade of political performers who regularly grace AIPAC’s dais, promised them the moon – scrapping the deal with Iran, dissing Obama, and moving the US embassy to Jerusalem.
The much-discussed reservations about Trump’s rants against Muslims and closing the US to them proved stillborn.
“Believe me,” Trump repeatedly declared, and the audience cheered.
It was Cruz, however, who best captured the costs of the failure of the US’ political leadership during the Obama years. Palestine, Cruz declared at the outset of his speech, “ceased to exist in 1948”.
If only it were so. Cruz is selling a dream, however malicious, that buries years of painstaking if unsuccessful US and international diplomacy. The audience, intoxicated by this seductive fantasy, applauded wildly.
Geoffrey Aronson writes about Middle Eastern affairs. He consults with a variety of public and private institutions dealing with regional political, security, and development issues.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.