The first evidence that something was amiss in the American electorate came last February 20, when Donald Trump won the South Carolina primary. You don’t need to be steeped in the minutiae of United States politics to work out why that happened – all you have to do is clear out all Trump’s talk about walls and borders and focus on the US’ intervention in Iraq.
That’s right: Iraq. During a televised debate before the South Carolina primary, Trump attacked fellow Republican Jeb Bush by focusing on George W Bush, his brother and former president. George, Trump said, had ‘lied’ about why the US invaded Iraq.
“They said there were weapons of mass destruction and they knew there were none,” he said. Trump’s claim brought howls from political experts who confidently predicted that the claim would cost Trump votes. South Carolina, they said, loved the Bushes. But when the votes were counted, Trump had won. Numerous accounts told the tale: Trump beat Jeb by ‘campaigning against nearly everything’ that his brother George and his neo-conservative pals stood for, including the US’ catastrophic Iraq intervention and the resulting conflagrations from Syria to Libya that it spawned.
Now, three months later, the New York mogul is the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party. And while it’s easy to dismiss his triumph by claiming that the public has been seduced by a media savvy ‘liar’, ‘birther’ and ‘bully’, the truth is more complicated.
South Carolina showed that while Americans question Trump’s character, when it comes to military adventurism, they’re with him. Oddly, the only other candidate who has stood with Trump on the Iraq War is Bernie Sanders, who has attacked Hillary Clinton for supporting Bush’s intervention.
But opposition to the Iraq intervention is not the only thing Trump and Sanders agree on: Both have questioned the effect of the US’ free trade principles, blasted the North American Free Trade Agreement and rejected Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
Trump’s victory has scared the hell out of establishment Republicans, who are migrating to Clinton’s campaign, while Republican neo-Conservatives see in Clinton a symbol of their unapologetic militarism. The most prominent among them has been Max Boot, a self-described ‘American imperialist’ who has never seen a war he wouldn’t send someone else to fight. “For all her shortcomings ...” he recently wrote, “Clinton would be far preferable to Trump.”
The Democrats’ Max Boot is economist Paul Krugman, a liberal free trader who says Sanders has adopted “easy slogans over hard thinking”. Krugman’s resume is not in question, but he’s never had to live paycheck-to-paycheck like large numbers of Americans. While it is unlikely that Sanders will beat Clinton for the Democratic nomination, that hasn’t stopped Krugman from calling Sanders’ supporters ‘idealists’, ‘romantics’ and ‘purists’. Boot and Krugman have this in common: they love experts. The message is the same: instead of listening to neophytes such as Trump or Sanders, American voters should put their trust in the experts – that is, the same people who gave us Iraq and bankruptcy.
Which is not to say that Sanders is a Democratic Trump. He’s not: He calls Trump’s immigration policies ‘crap’, describes Trump’s views on women as ‘disgusting’, and slams Trump’s anti-Muslim screeds as ‘an embarrassment to our country’. Nor is it to claim that Sanders voters will make Trump their second choice.
Indeed, the odd confluence of the Trump-Sanders critique of the US’ military misadventures and Wall Street’s financial misdeeds have shown that, while elections are almost always about the future, this one is about the past – it’s about holding those responsible for the thousands of dead in Iraq and the bankruptcy of the country accountable for what they have done.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘The US election is about the past’.