What happened to the Tea Party? Where did it go? Why did it all but vanish? How did it come to pass that the party, the movement, that until five minutes ago was central to the conversation about politics in America has been wiped from the nation’s consciousness?
During President Obama’s first term and into his second, the Tea Party was the proverbial bull in the china shop: a highly energetic, highly disruptive, and highly potent political force that no one was able to tame. Consisting generally of right wing Republicans, the Tea Party was the first twenty-first century faction that was genuinely divisive. Tea Partiers caused an early and significant fissure in one of America’s two major political parties, proving impossible for mainstream Republicans effectively to control.
John Boehner, who became Speaker of the House in 2011, had the miserable experience of discovering that Tea Partiers, ostensibly his fellow Republicans, were impossible to lead. Instead, to his astonishment, he found himself dealing with a band of grassroots, anti-authority populists who shared nothing so much as a deep distrust of the American establishment.
Sound familiar? Turns out the Tea Party had a baby. The baby’s name is Donald. In other words, the Tea Party has by no means vanished. Rather it has a new face – the face of Donald Trump. Trump’s most fervent followers share many of the same characteristics and demographics that six or eight years ago typified Tea Partiers.
Tea Partiers were, famously, leaderless. Now they are not.
Robert Mugabe has insisted on staying president of Zimbabwe for almost 30 years. Bashir al-Assad is dead set on holding on to power in Syria, despite having wreaked death and destruction on his country and its people. Vladimir Putin has been either president or prime minister of Russia since 2000, and shows no signs of going anywhere far into the future. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already been either president or prime minister of Turkey since 2003, but gives every intention of plowing on with his plan to consolidate and strengthen his powers still further. And while China’s president Xi Jinping has been in office only since 2012, by every measure he has strengthened his hand since then, eliminating or muting much of his opposition, and suggesting he wants more of what he has for more, many more, years to come.
Seems power is intoxicating. Addictive. Habit forming. Hungry making.
Churchill, predictably, put it perfectly. Speaking about Hitler before the House of Commons in 1938, he remarked, “The might behind the German Dictator increases daily. His appetite may grow with eating.”
Trump has been attacked for his attacks on whoever is the other. For criminalizing the Clintons, for demeaning and debasing women, for slandering Mexicans, for excluding Muslims, for mocking Americans including war heroes and the disabled… I could go on. No need to though, for the full freight of his fury is easy to see, for example in the raging speech he delivered yesterday, in Florida.
But the frightening thing about Trump’s rhetoric is less what it reveals about what he thinks of others, than what it reveals about what he thinks of himself. He is a full-fledged, all-out, no-holds-barred messianic megalomaniac.
Yesterday’s speech smacked of nothing so much as Trump as savior – Trump promising members of his “movement” to deliver them from danger. “I take all these slings and arrows for you,” he shouted. “I take them for our movement so we can have our country back.” Only he can do this he insisted, play the part of martyr, to redeem us, to save us from ourselves and from the evils in the ether.
At one point he went so far as to invoke heaven and hell. “Many of my friends and many political experts warned me,” he intoned, “that this campaign would be a journey to hell. But they’re wrong. It will be a journey to heaven, because we will help so many people that are so desperately in need of help.”
“A journey to heaven.” When was the last time a prominent American politician told you that he and he alone could take you on a stairway to heaven?
Be forewarned. History tells us that were this man ever to reach the levers of power he would be nothing other than a delusional dictator.
I have seen the future for women leaders in the United States of America – and it’s not Hillary Clinton. Clinton might well become the next American president, the first female American president, but she will do so under a cloud. Notwithstanding the unmitigated ardor of her most fervent supporters, the totally of Clinton’s record is too tarnished for any electoral victory to be entirely celebratory.
Michelle Obama is different altogether. She is unfettered by her political past, which is precisely why she represents the political future.
She is known to have disdained politics before, during, and after her husband entered the political fray. Moreover after she became First Lady, her previous professional accomplishments notwithstanding, Obama spent most of her time behind the White House curtain. Most of her time in the White House she emerged from behind that curtain only to look great and engage in a few activities, every one of which might have been undertaken by First Ladies of a generation or two, or even three or four, ago. Michelle Obama even rejected the part that Jacqueline Kennedy and other predecessors played – that of supremely skilled White House hostess, using the perks of the presidential perch to grease the wheels of politics in Washington.
But during the last half year of her husband’s presidency, Michelle Obama has, for whatever reasons, metamorphosed. As the direct result of two sensational speeches – the first delivered this summer at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, the second delivered yesterday, on the stump in Manchester, New Hampshire – she has willfully and deliberately catapulted herself onto the national stage. Moreover, she has done so in her own right, on her own manifest strengths and merits.
It is impossible for me to believe that when her husband’s time in office is over, she will revert to where she was until recently. Michelle Obama has tasted the fruit of political influence, which usually is irresistible.
This year’s Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded to Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos. There was just one small problem. The peace deal hammered out under his leadership to end the world’s longest running war – between the Colombian military and Marxist guerrillas – had just gone up in smoke.
How had it happened? Santos had turned greedy. Basking in global approval, including by such luminaries as Pope Francis and President Obama, and reveling in what appeared considerable Colombian support, Santos called for a plebiscite. Despite a long history of national strife on precisely this issue, and despite no need for voter approval to make the peace deal official, Santos was certain he could win and then revel in electoral approbation.
Santos was wrong. He lost. Colombians who voted rejected the peace deal, 50.2 to 49.8 percent. Like Britain’s David Cameron, who was similarly spectacularly unsuccessful in trying to score public approval for a policy he particularly favored (remaining in the European Union), Santos was sure he could win public favor, only to be proven delusional.
On paper, direct democracy seems immensely appealing. It gives voters, ordinary people, the opportunity to say yay or nay on particular policy issues. What could be better? What could be more democratic than having the likes of you and me participate in collective decision making?
Turns out national plebiscites (sometimes called referendums) frequently come out badly. For reasons ranging from who turns out to vote, to how much information voters can secure, to reducing complex choices to simple yes and no answers, they can be risky and even dangerous, ironically undermining the democracies they are intended to secure.
Leaders who use plebiscites for whatever ostensible reason should be viewed with suspicion. For followers who vote in plebiscites cannot reasonably be trusted to do so wisely and well.