For the past several years, I have been writing about the emerging political crisis in Europe. The inability of European mainstream political parties to face the fact that the European Union is not functioning as intended would, I have argued, delegitimize these mainstream parties and bring about the emergence of seemingly exotic challengers. We have seen these parties emerge throughout Europe — most right wing, some left wing, all sharing a sense of the failure of the mainstream. In general, they have not yet taken power, but they have reshaped the dynamics of European politics, as can be seen in the twin crises of the Greek economy and immigration. Borders are being closed, the expulsion of a member taken as a serious option. Things that were unthinkable 10 years ago have become common currency, and European mainstream political parties are reeling.
Something not altogether dissimilar appears to be happening in the United States. The politicians who were expected to be leaders in the race for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination have been, for the moment at least, completely marginalized. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, all considered likely frontrunners, are far behind. Bush in particular had the support of the party’s dominant operatives and was expected to be ahead. Instead, Donald Trump, followed by Carly Fiorina, have substantial leads. In the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton, the candidate of the Democratic establishment, continues to hold a lead, but Bernie Sanders — senator from Vermont and an avowed Socialist — is not only closing in but leading in New Hampshire and Iowa.
In the Republican Party, Trump — a television personality and billionaire real estate developer who has never held a political post in his life — is not only leading the polls but has been ahead almost from the beginning. Trailing Trump are a former business executive who is a woman, and a renowned neurosurgeon who is black — not something expected in the Republican Party. In the Democratic Party, a Socialist — not a term of endearment to most Americans in the past — has become a serious candidate. There has been much speculation as to what is happening. This is important enough that, although it is not strictly geopolitical, I need to address it, because it could change the United States’ behavior in some potentially significant ways. Even if the old order reasserts itself, and Bush faces Clinton in the general election, something has happened that must be understood.
The Republican Surprise
The most interesting of these figures is, of course, Trump. From the standpoint of conventional American politics he is entirely inappropriate and should not be leading in the polls. He is. What makes him most interesting is that to the extent he has clear policy positions, they are not conservative. He has supported a single-payer — read government — organized health care system. He supports changes in tax policy that would abolish tax breaks for hedge fund managers. In spite of his position on immigration, these two views, and particularly his position on health care, ought to make him anathema to most sectors of the Republican Party. They haven’t.
In my view, the Republicans don’t care about his positions. Politicians have exhausted the electorate by taking policy positions on which they will make policy speeches. To the media, this makes them politically serious. But the fact is that the positions they take during an election matter little. There are three reasons for this. The obvious one is that what politicians promise and what they do are very different things. Second, the way the founders structured the presidency, few presidential policy positions will see the light of day. The president presides. To the extent that he governs, he does so along with Congress and the Supreme Court, neither of which he controls. Finally, policies are what presidents might want to do, but they have little to do with what presidents will do.
George W. Bush never imagined in the campaign of 2000 that his major focus would include a war in Afghanistan. Barack Obama in particular was tremendously adept at making speeches in which all sides could sense that he wanted what they wanted. He was sophisticated in political seduction and in the use of policy positions to facilitate that. When he became president, he was constrained by the constitutional system, by both the domestic and international political reality and by the fact that most of his campaign promises were simply designed to gain votes.
As Trump’s popularity shows, in the Republican Party, the draw of ideology has weakened, as has the attraction of particular policies. What there is a desire for is a person who is prepared to say what he thinks, without apology and without concern for the consequences. In other words, the Republicans are looking for authenticity. This desire is not unique to the Republicans, either. David Axelrod, who was an adviser to Hillary Clinton, was quoted last week as saying she needs to get away from her talking points. What Axelrod meant was that in this environment, her constantly calculated most effective sound bite has become the least effective sound bite. Sanders is a socialist, he has always been a socialist, and he runs as a socialist. Few regard themselves as socialists, but in the Democratic Party, having a candidate who is authentic, who is not running in order to win but who wants to win because of who he is and what he wants, is powerfully seductive.
The Power of Honesty
Trump and Sanders share something important. Neither is prepared to compromise who he is for the office he is running for. When Bill Clinton ran into political trouble, he spoke unapologetically about triangulating his position. What that means, stripped of its jargon, is that he would select positions that would maximize his popularity and support. To put it bluntly, there was nothing he believed in as much as his own political success. You cannot imagine Trump or Sanders triangulating their positions.
Let’s bear in mind that Clinton won re-election. Triangulation worked. And announcing that he was triangulating did not alienate everyone. Clinton represented the high point of successful and open adoption of popular positions. Bush and Obama continued to do it, but it became less and less successful. It is one thing to know you are being conned in a time of relative prosperity and peace, and another thing to know you are being conned when neither prosperity nor peace is certain.
Trump’s success is not rooted in saying things that others secretly agree with. It is rooted in very clearly not caring whether anyone agrees with him or not. He is not particularly knowledgeable in some areas and he says he doesn’t have to be because he will hire people who are knowledgeable. A candidate both admitting limits to his knowledge and asserting that it doesn’t matter because he will develop staff is refreshing in its honesty and states what everyone should know: Presidents don’t know everything. They hire people for that. Trump was expected to collapse in the polls for saying this and other things. He did not. It was not because the public agreed with what he said. It was that the public longed for someone who was authentic. The same could be said for Sanders. He might have been a hippie who wrote ruminations on sex in his 20s, but so what? Sanders had lived not in preparation for running for president, but for the sake of living. We all have things in our past. There can be no “gotcha” from the press if you don’t care what they think.
There is a deep debate over whether you should vote for a candidate for president based on what he believes or based on who he is. I have written on this and made the case for character being more important. Candidates can endlessly declare their beliefs, but apart from the limits of a president’s power, a presidency is not about policies; it is about how a president deals with an invasion of South Korea, Soviet missiles in Cuba or 9/11. There is no policy paper for the unexpected, and the most important thing that will happen in any presidency is the unexpected. The heart of a presidency is character, and the only way to judge a president or a candidate is with an authentic view. That gives voters a chance to judge what a president might do if the unexpected happens. Therefore, why concern yourself with what a president will do if Congress, the Supreme Court and the Islamic State leave him or her alone? They won’t.
There are cycles in politics, and we have reached the end of the cycle in which creating artificial personas will work for candidates. The enthusiasm for Trump is not because of what he believes, but simply because he is prepared to show himself. The same truth works, in different ways, for other improbable candidates, and is ominous for the more conventional ones.
I have written in The Next 100 Years that America operates on a roughly 50-year cycle and that the last cycle ended with Jimmy Carter and the current one began with Ronald Reagan. If I’m right, then we are about 15 years from the end of this cycle, which means that internal problems and tensions will mount. The 2016 election will be most noteworthy because, at least for a while, the most improbable things seemed ordinary. Trump’s status as a credible presidential candidate and Sanders’ potential among the Democrats should startle anyone. I will lay odds that neither will win. But that isn’t the point. The thirst for authenticity is there among the electorate, and it will reshape the political landscape.
The Europeans have to solve crises, and that is the root of their problems. They have less time to worry about authenticity. The United States is not facing Europe’s crisis, so it can approach its crisis in a slower and less urgent way. But the revolt against the triangulated candidate is real and will not go away. We need to take this shift seriously in terms of what kind of presidents there will be in the future and in terms of the periodic crises that affect all countries, including the United States. The desire for political authenticity is not a crisis for America yet. But it is a harbinger of change far more important than a debate between ideological extremes. It is a debate over what makes someone a leader.
“The Crisis of the Well-Crafted Candidate is republished with permission of Stratfor.”