Barbarians at the gates

I’ve mentioned before that decisions based on fear almost never work out. Decisions based on other factors don’t always work out, but in my experience they have a much better chance. Any chance at all is better than what fear offers.

But it’s true that fear plays well in politics, especially in a democracy. Demagoguery sells. The good news is that healthy democracies have a way of balancing themselves out over time.

The bad news is that they don’t always have time. When the barbarians are at the gate, those inside the walls seldom take the time to reflect. They act, and not often with good results. Building higher walls isn’t the answer.

Which brings me to my recent discussions with friends about Donald Trump. One friend compares him to Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian charlatan. Like Trump, Berlusconi offered little more than bread and circuses when facing tough policy questions. That tactic, of course, was a favorite of Roman emperors.

But I think Trump also bears some resemblance to another Italian, Benito Mussolini. The two share a vision of an intermingling of statism with unbridled corporate power, enforced not just by the law but also by street thugs. In short, fascism.

When asked about his supporters’ violent tendencies, the Donald shrugs it off. It’s easy to compare them with would-be brownshirts, the organized gangs that Hitler used. Europeans are rightly worried about Trump’s rise. It wasn’t that long ago when fascists and their fellow-travelers held power, with the “silent majority” either cowed or complicit.

But the United States isn’t Europe in the 1930s. I hope.

For one thing, Americans as a whole reject harebrained populism. William Jennings Bryan lost three (!) presidential races to the Republicans, the first in 1896. In more recent times, George Wallace failed to gain the Democratic nomination, and third-party candidates of whatever stripe have been sent packing.

For another, the United States isn’t a parliamentary democracy. That’s hard for Europeans to get their heads around, and for many Americans, too. But the fact is that no American president has ever been chosen by the people. The Electoral College system essentially changes the contest from a national vote to 50 individual statewide elections plus the District of Columbia.

So it’s hard to see how Trump can gain the presidency. He has sewn up the authoritarian vote,  but that’s perhaps half the Republican vote and one-quarter of the overall electorate. Add in the momentum factor, and it seems likely he’ll be the nominee. But in a general election, the calculus changes.

If Hillary Clinton should become the Democratic nominee, as seems likely, many Republicans would rather stay home than vote for Trump. With Michael Bloomberg declining to run as a third-party candidate, you’re looking at a two-person race, with Clinton’s solid base of perhaps 40% of the electorate and Trump’s base at 25%. That’s a lot of ground for the Donald to make up. He might win some small states (Utah, for instance), but a Democratic landslide seems likely to me in a Trump-Clinton race. All she really needs to do is win Ohio – that one state has been enough to decide every presidential election in the past half-century.

Still, American politics can be unpredictable without an incumbent in the race. (When incumbent presidents run, the result is remarkably predictable: if the economy improves in the year prior to Election Day, he wins; otherwise, he loses. The only exception was Gerald Ford.)

The ability of a campaigner can occasionally affect the outcome. John Kerry was notoriously bad. Clinton, too, can put an audience to sleep. One of the most damning arguments I’ve seen from her supporters is that she’s extremely competent. Almost nobody votes based on competence. This isn’t a college entrance exam. The Trump supporters I know tell me “at least he’s interesting.”

Many Democrats are salivating at the prospect of a Trump candidacy. They’re misguided. In 2008, the Republicans were delighted when Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic nomination imploded and Barack Obama became the nominee. Easy to beat, they thought.

Be careful what you wish for.

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