This summer’s hottest political story has been the candidacy of Donald J. Trump. The business mogul has stunned the nation by rising to the top of the polls in the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, as the national media has feasted off his raucous rhetoric on a daily basis. The burning question on the minds of Americans across the country is exactly how Trump has become the GOP frontrunner. The answer lies in the degeneration of American democracy.
We should not blame Trump for the sad state of our politics. His candidacy is not the cause of the enormous injection of anonymous money into elections or the incessant stream of 24/7 news covering overly long presidential election cycles. For an American political system with so many structural flaws and no strategy to fix it in sight, the presidential campaign of Donald Trump brings exactly the kind of politics we Americans deserve.
Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy was famously based on the adage “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Today, establishment politicians’ strategy for elections is instead to “speak softly and carry a big wallet.” To be considered a mainstream candidate with a real shot of winning a major party’s nomination, American politicians must filter their public statements and exercise extreme caution in proposing bold policies. That filter is a financial one, as candidates must raise extraordinary amounts of money to remain competitive in races that now cost billions of dollars. Consider Marco Rubio, who instead of announcing his bid for the White House publicly, opted to deliver his message first to his network of wealthy donors.
Donald Trump is no establishment politician. Nor is he the run-of-the-mill anti-establishment figure. He has after all identified with both major parties in his career and donated millions to politicians of both party affiliations.
What sets Trump apart is that he has managed to free himself from the financial constraints imposed by the country’s broken political process. With a supposed net worth of $10 billion, Trump does not need wealthy donors and fundraisers to support his campaign. As a result, the financial muzzle forced over the mouths of just about every other candidate is not a factor for Trump—he can and will say anything.
And if some Americans think “The Donald” is too out of line, others certainly think establishment politicians such as Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton are too in line. Jeb Bush is seen as a continuation of his father and brother’s policies. A poll from June shows that a staggering 43 percent of likely voters are less inclined to vote for Bush due to the fact that both his father and brother served as president. Clinton has been dogged by the transparency of her emails and has been criticized for her newly-changed position on same-sex marriage and silence on trade policy.
In a post-Citizens United America where money is considered the same as speech, authenticity is an increasingly rare commodity. As candidates base their policy platforms on how to raise more money from wealthy donors, their rhetoric becomes the expression of the moneyed elite rather than of the voters themselves. No matter how outlandish he can seem, few would characterize Trump as a man who does not believe what he says. Despite controversies such as his characterization of Mexican immigrants as crime-prone drug addicts and rapists and his claim that John McCain is not a war hero, Trump has not only survived politically but thrived as he remains the GOP frontrunner even in the wake of those comments.
It is the allure of authenticity that allows Donald Trump to lead the polls. His bold and brash remarks may be out of the ordinary, but for many voters they serve as a refreshing rush of energy into an otherwise stale political environment. Voters would rather channel their energy into a campaign run by a bombastic billionaire than fall asleep to the politically measured and calculated remarks made by establishment politicians who speak through a filter dictated by finances.
Our political system has developed serious structural problems, which has led the prominent political scientist Francis Fukuyama to argue in his book Political Order and Political Decay that American democracy is undergoing institutional decay. Wealthy and narrowly focused interest groups have captured the legislative process and halted national progress to the degree that he describes our system as a “vetocracy.”
Fukuyama argues that major political shock may be necessary to revitalize societies ridden by institutional decay, According to Fukuyama, such a shock usually comes in the form of violent events such as wars or assassinations of national leaders–take for example the assassination of President William McKinley at the dawn of the Progressive Era.
Perhaps Trump is precisely the kind of shock to the system America needs. Fukuyama considers political shock to be a force that awakens all members of a society to realize just how broken their institutions have become and understand the need to fix them. Trump may not be leading a violent insurrection—and we should certainly be thankful for that—but his wars of words demonstrate to Americans just how degenerate politics has become. By shaking up our democracy via the 2016 election he has provided us with a wake up call we desperately needed.
Until our country can institute meaningful campaign finance reform, set up independent bodies to fix the drawing of districts, and clean up the protracted and sensationalized media coverage of our elections, we should not expect our politics to reflect intelligent and thoughtful discourse. Meaningful change can happen, but until then, the emergence of candidates like Donald Trump will prove to be the rule, not the exception.
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