Editor’s note: This commentary was published, in a slightly different form, in the Shoshone News-Press on April 22nd (p. A7).
However much New York’s primary election may have clarified the Democratic and Republican presidential primary races, the cultural logic lurking behind this election season’s particular array of leading candidates remains pretty foggy.
But maybe the following may help decode it a little.
Let me suggest there are four distinctly different cultural subtexts lodged in the four leading contenders’ campaigns. Each subtext, moreover, reflects a bitter popular reaction, by a significant portion of the U.S. electorate, against a particular “Big Defeat” or symbolic setback each population segment perceives itself to have suffered in recent American history and memory.
Senator Bernie Sanders’ subtext is the easiest to discern. He speaks of it every campaign day. Sanders is anti-Wall Street and his tacit political theory is “follow the money.” In a sense, Sanders’ campaign is a 21st century reprise of Teddy Roosevelt’s early 20th century trustbuster crusade. The Big Defeat Sanders is reacting to was the nation’s Great Recession commencing in 2008, which he blames on our century’s Robber Barons and their shady financial practices. He pillories Hillary Clinton for taking six-figure fees for her speeches to Wall Street’s elite audiences and not releasing their texts for public examination. Not unlike many other Americans, he wonders why the sharp practices and rank greed that led to 2008’s harrowing economic crash have not led in recent years to federal courtrooms overflowing with prosecutions and punishments for the guilty parties.
Mr. Trump’s underlying subtext is a virulent anti-PC-ism. His ability to survive the numerous outlandish political gaffs of his campaign springs from the fact his followers glory in Trump’s refusal to talk the PC talk, even when he shows bad manners, acts unpresidential, or even ignores the U.S. Constitution. In short, the content of Trump’s gaffs carries less weight than their evidencing of his acid anti-PC disdain. Trump’s Big Defeat was the election of President Barack Obama. This is so, I would argue, because President Obama’s election – qua the election of an African-American president — represented a cultural zenith for PC’s high premiums on racial and ethnic equality. On the other side of the values fence, Trump’s anti-PC-ism retains a strong cultural preference for throwback tribal privilege and exclusionism. Much of Trump’s campaign rhetoric reflects this atavistic orientation – including, for example, his birthism attacks on Obama, his proposed southern wall keeping out Mexican illegal immigrants, his ban on Muslim visitors, and his misogynistic remarks about fellow candidate Carly Fiorina’s appearance and Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly’s aggressive debate questioning.
Ted Cruz’s underlying subtext, I suggest, is Bible Belt-ism. He revels in slow-saying “God Bless whatever-state-he’s-in’s name” at his political gatherings. Aside from his candidacy’s usefulness as a collection point for the Stop Trump movement within the Republican party, Mr. Cruz’s candidacy has been propelled by the popular reaction against the diffusion of liberal cultural values in recent American history. His Big Defeat is best symbolized by the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent opinion legitimizing same-sex marriage. Cruz sees dramatic changes regarding gay marriage and other LGBT issues as a full-blown national crisis. Though he cloaks his antipathy to such changes in constitutionalism and states’ rights, he does little to conceal his underlying Bible Belt-driven orientation.
Finally, Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Hers is the most diffuse in terms of issue focuses, partly because she’s running more on her wide experience in American political life and government than her positions on issues. But I think it’s fair to suggest that her predominant subtext, albeit a broad and multi-directive one, may be found in her desire to become the first woman U.S. president. By extension, Secretary Clinton’s Big Defeat lies in the continuing cultural salience of gender discrimination, disadvantage, and disparity in American life. Despite her oft noted weaknesses as a political campaigner, Hillary’s impressive resume seems to cry out a feminist lament: “If not Hillary, then who — and when?”
What’s striking to me about these four subtexts and their associated Big Defeats is how very different they are from one another. Bernie Sanders’ antipathy toward a handful of billionaires running the country, for instance, seems diametrically opposed to billionaire Donald Trump’s presidential hopes. Ted Cruz, a candidate almost universally disliked by his U.S. Senate Republican colleagues, manifests a kind of Southern regionalism that stands in stark contrast with Hillary Clinton’s urbane and secular East Coast sensibility. I, for one, wouldn’t want to be the fifth survivor in a lifeboat at sea with these four presidential candidates. Their remarkable differences reflect of course equivalently deep divides in our American electorate. Lessening those divides, one guesses, will require a president capable of providing, when appropriate, a little bit of Sanders, a little bit of Cruz, a little bit of Trump, and a little bit of Clinton. No small task, that.
— Ron Roizen