It’s a different kind of political year when experts are debating whether the leading candidate for the Republican Party nomination is an actual Fascist. It’s been a long slide. Political scientist Wilson Carey McWilliams wrote of the 1976 primary system: “As it stands, federal law seems to encourage a politics based almost solely on leaders who relate to followers through the mass media. That is closer to the model of totalitarian parties than it is to traditional democratic ideals.”
Professor McWilliams’s judgment was harsh, shocking even. But our present nomination system is exponentially more dependent on candidates relating to their followers through media than he could ever imagine. That such a thing should happen might have astonished even Professor McWilliams, but that it came to pass through the vehicle of a brilliant reality show demagogue might not have been so surprising. Trump effectively markets vile racism, misogyny, and sheer stupidity.
For decades we’ve held the charming idea that Iowa and New Hampshire, for all their faults, at least held candidates to account by demanding their personal entreaties to the voters. Trump’s reliance on free media attention and arena rallies that dominated television, radio, newspaper, and social media coverage blew away that convention. As candidates like Chris Christie and John Kasich plodded along under the old wisdom, holding serial town meetings and shaking every hand, Trump stayed as far away from citizens as he possibly could. He perfected the ability to relate to followers through mass media.
There is a surreal sense to the daily cascade of polls that Trump relies upon to reinforce the narrative of his worthiness. Jeb Bush may have been a hapless campaigner but he had a solid grievance when he complained that polling and the Trump media circus were crowding out serious debate of foreign policy issues.
If you can’t beat Donald Trump, make a penis joke about him is the current campaign strategy of Marco Rubio. According to a recent story by Patrick O’Connor in the Wall Street Journal:
On the Rubio side, a team of data analysts, fueled by Red Bull and Red Vines, huddle over computers in the Optimus office in downtown Washington, D.C., running every conceivable set of numbers about the 2016 presidential race. Their binders contain detailed data on polling, delegate math and which TV stations in, say, Atlanta or Nashville reach the largest share of voters Mr. Rubio is targeting in the primary.
Those numbers shape tactics at Mr. Rubio's campaign headquarters a few miles away. His press team reviews the data every time they schedule an interview with the Florida senator.
Trump knows his audience without Big Data, but there you have Rubio, nerds scrunching through “every conceivable set of numbers” and then telling Rubio hey, that next rally, the data tells us a penis joke would go really well. And Rubio – a United States Senator - does it. And the crowd laughs and cheers.
Let’s not just denounce Trump, Rubio and the media and leave it at that. In what bizarre land of the brain dead do voters actually think Trump would force Mexico to pay for a wall on its border? When he promises to attack the families of terrorists, people cheer. What other time in American history have voters applauded a plan to murder innocent family members? Come to think of it, when has an American candidate offered this as a serious instrument of national security?
For the 1860 campaign, the Republican Party distributed a book of all seven of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. That was their campaign literature. The party expected voters to read and understand it, and the voters in that time of enormous crisis expected to be treated with the dignity of thinking citizens. We get penis jokes and Trump, but as the head of CBS says, “It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS."
We’re a lot closer to what Professor McWilliams feared than we may realize.