A gloriously revealing moment on the campaign trail in 2008: I go to watch the Republican candidate John McCain in rural Ohio, busy nailing the faux “town-hall meeting” thing. Yes, sirree, he has it all – lumberjack shirt, boots, grin, adoring audience of tobacco-chewing locals.
Then this: a little old lady takes the microphone and warbles, “That Barack Obama, he’d be a disaster as our president.”
“Yes, ma’am!” McCain thinks that was the question (hey, there were few tougher) and is about to take the microphone back but the old lady persists: “One more thing, senator. That Barack Obama: he’s an Ay-rab!”
McCain freezes for a second. The sentiment is uncontroversial in rural Ohio but this is going out on TV coast to coast. So he takes the plunge: “No ma’am, you are wrong. Senator Obama is not an Ay-rab.”
So far, so good. But with his next sentence comes a muddying of the waters that says so much about the modern Republican Party: “Ma’am, Senator Obama is no Ay-rab; he’s a family man . . .”
Say what, senator? Well, it’s unclear. The GOP’s rhetoric – marching its supporters up and half-down some strange hills over the past few years – has left many Republicans confused: do we really think Obama is a foreigner? And what do we think about foreigners anyway? Do they have families?
The confusion that struck me at that Ohio rally all those years ago has only worsened in these post-New Hampshire Trump End Times. Wilder and wilder talk; deeper and deeper disappointment for the wound-up faithful. A Fox News poll last year found that 62 per cent of Republicans felt “betrayed” by their own party’s leaders.
That poll will have been no surprise to the Washington Post columnist E J Dionne, whose new book, Why the Right Went Wrong, suggests that GOP politicians have made promises to supporters for decades (chuck out the illegal immigrants, balance the budget, end abortion) that could not be kept. Each new set of disappointments leads to wilder promises and yet more of a gap between rhetoric and reality.
Tear down this wall
Recently, the big hill that Republicans have marched up is Mexican immigration. Let’s build a 2,000-mile wall! The idea is being suggested seriously, and not just by Trump.
But hold on – even if you think illegal Mexican immigrants steal jobs, might it not be wise to wonder whether they will do so for much longer? For the first time since the 1940s, more Mexicans are leaving the US than entering: according to the non-partisan Pew Research Centre, between 2009 and 2014 870,000 Mexicans arrived in the US, but a million Mexicans returned to their country of origin. Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Pew’s Hispanic research, was categorical: “Mexican migration to the US has been one of the world’s great migration stories, and this data shows it has come to an end.”
How many Republicans know this?
Here’s where the Republican race gets tricky. The vague hope of the so-called moderates is that you put a vacuous establishment figure on the ticket (Marco Rubio fits this bill perfectly) and Billy-Bob’s your uncle. They will mutter some home truths – perhaps during a coughing fit, so that few people notice – and folks will calm down.
It won’t work. A GOP moderate could easily win the 2016 election but the task of rescuing the party for the longer term is much stiffer. Too much of the focus is on the sideshow of various constituencies the GOP needs to please (Hispanics, etc) and not enough on what the core of the modern Republican Party should be. Must creationism still be embraced for the Iowa caucuses? Is compromise with foes still anathema or, as it once was, a central part of US political life?
Surely, they also need to acknowledge that if there is an appeal to be made to Americans about keeping minimum wages low, reducing the national debt through spending cuts, even restricting abortion further, then heck: make the damned appeal! But on the basis of facts. Tell people what they might lose and what they might win. Be right-wing if that is what works – realistic analysts aren’t calling for the GOP to embrace West Wing soppiness. But be rigorous. And generous. Smile a bit.
The complicating factor in all of this is that the Democratic Party, which by rights should be licking its lips and preparing for another presidency, is in just as big a mess. In those decades of Republican confusion, the Democrats have charted a course every bit as unsatisfying to their emerging base.
The problem is much bigger than the Clintons’ relationship with Goldman Sachs. Hillary Clinton talks about her record of service but how has she changed the culture of America? Look at gay marriage, which has gone from deeply unacceptable to utterly unremarkable in many American states in the blink of an eye. A triumph for liberal-left values. But frankly the TV show Modern Family did more to help that cause than any senior Democrats, Barack Obama included. Even on gun control, Obama and Clinton have followed, not led.
At Bernie Sanders’s campaign headquarters the fans chanted, “She’s a liar!” when Clinton came on the TV after her Iowa victory. Some 83 per cent of young Democrats in New Hampshire backed Sanders and socialism. City-dwellers, single women, atheists, Hispanics, Asian Americans – the great quinoa-fuelled demographic tsunami that is already having an impact on city politics from Seattle to New York – has yet to make its mark on the national Democratic Party. But it will. Bernie Sanders is only the start.
For both the big US parties, 2016 is a horror show, and it’s only just begun.
Justin Webb is a presenter of Radio 4’s “Today” programme and a former North America editor for the BBC
This article appears in the 10 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle