Voter rage fuels fringe benefits for Trump, Sanders

For those who are worried that Mr Donald Trump is a new Mussolini in the making, I have reassuring news. Based on his performance at a weekend rally in Plymouth, New Hampshire, Mr Trump is far too boring a speaker to make a convincing fascist dictator.

Yet, despite his manifest flaws as a speaker and as a human being, Mr Trump has succeeded in dominating the run-up to the US presidential election for months. His success in the Republican race - and that of Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, on the Democratic side - testifies to how the political establishment has lost the trust of voters.

Many Americans seem to have concluded that the political system is so corrupt and dysfunctional only a total outsider can be trusted to take charge. The point was driven home to me while talking to a voter at the Plymouth rally. A lawyer, he told me that if he did not vote for Mr Trump, he would opt for Mr Sanders.

The Trump and Sanders pitches have strong similarities. Both lambast all mainstream politicians as in hock to corrupt special interests and lobbyists. Mr Trump, a billionaire, makes a virtue of the fact that his campaign is self-financed - making him immune, he says, to the pressures brought to bear on all the other Republicans by their donors. Mr Sanders has raised most of his campaign money from small donations and has put Mrs Hillary Clinton on the back foot by pointing to the hundreds of thousands she has accepted in speaking fees from the likes of Goldman Sachs.

In her speeches, Mrs Clinton consistently displays her impressive grasp of detail and public policy. Yet her campaign's argument that she would be "ready on day one" to be president emphasises her status as a member of the political establishment. That seems risky when large parts of the US public seem to detest the political elite.

By contrast, both Mr Trump and Mr Sanders are running from the fringes of their parties. Both have said things that would be regarded as political suicide in a normal year. Mr Trump is probably the most openly racist candidate since Mr George Wallace, the segregationist, in 1972. Mr Sanders calls himself a "democratic socialist" - in a country that has always rejected socialism.

Yet the fact that both men are happy to smash rhetorical taboos has strengthened their claims to be genuine outsiders. That seems to be what voters are looking for. The conventional wisdom remains that they will trip up later in the campaign. But then a year ago, the idea that Messrs Trump and Sanders could win in New Hampshire would have been regarded as absurd. So who knows?

What is already clear, however, is that America's political class is only beginning to grasp the depth of the anti-establishment mood gripping the US. Almost eight years after the financial crisis, this mood seems to be growing in strength, not weakening. President Barack Obama's announcement last week that the US unemployment rate is now below 5 per cent barely registered on the campaign trail.

Instead, all the talk is of students reeling under unpayable debts; and of parents having to work at two or three low-paid jobs to make ends meet. The idea that the economy is "rigged" in favour of insiders is now embraced, in some form, by most of the candidates in both the Republican and Democratic parties.

Yet almost all the candidates running in New Hampshire make unconvincing populists. That they are running for president is a strong indication these people are successful members of the US elite.

If America's yearning for leaders from the political fringes continues, the implications will be profound. The system, dominated by the Democrats and Republicans, has always rejected political extremes. That means that, behind the day-to-day dramas, the nation has benefited from a deep political stability, which has contributed greatly to its economic strength and global power. If America's immunity to extremism is ending, the whole world will feel the consequences.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2016, with the headline 'Voter rage fuels fringe benefits for Trump, Sanders'. Print Edition | Subscribe