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OPINION: After the Primaries

In this column Joaquín Roy (roy@miami.edu), Jean Monnet Professor of European Integration and director of the European Union Centre at the University of Miami, writes about this year’s unusual race for president of the United States.

MIAMI, May 13 2016 (IPS) - It was no news to observers, analysts and potential voters that Hillary Clinton would seek the Democratic nomination again to run for president of the United States in November 2016. This was not a surprise. But what only a bold analyst could have speculated is that Bill Clinton’s wife would end up facing off against such unlikely rivals.

On one hand, she would face novel competition in her party from another, very different, senator. Hillary would have to present herself as the candidate who truly represented the ideals of the Democratic Party, in contrast to Bernie Sanders, who declared himself a “socialist”. Although no one expects him to defeat her in the primaries, Sanders has put up an unexpectedly strong showing.

On the other hand, even more surprising and unusual was that Hillary would go up against a one-of-a-kind Republican candidate, who has triggered much consternation and extreme comments. If Donald Trump’s nomination is confirmed in Cleveland, it will go down in U.S. history as one of the strangest political races. Voters, observers and analysts are still wondering about the reasons underlying his spectacular ascent – which Clinton should worry about, if she means to defeat him.

The Sanders phenomenon can be explained to some extent using traditional analytical methods. The ideological inclinations of the senator from Vermont are not really that new. So far it has merely been a curious case of a political leader not afraid to use terminology outside of the grasp of most citizens and voters. It is not easy to translate what is known in Europe as “social democracy” into U.S. English. “Social Democrat” or “Democratic Socialist” are terms that don’t fit into the everyday vocabulary of people in the U.S. So to simplify, he opted for “Socialist”, which in the U.S. has more radical connotations, and which popular culture has turned into a synonym for “Communist”. This is the sense in which Sanders’ positions differ from Hillary’s.

His ideas have enjoyed a warm reception among young university graduates with less employable degrees, students struggling with the high cost of tuition, women of a certain cultural level, the unemployed, victims of the recession, people who have fallen out of the already shrunken middle class, and those disenchanted with the traditional propaganda of the political parties.

The case of Trump, meanwhile, has roots that go deep, far from the superficiality indicated by the things he says. The billionaire without experience in formal politics sends out a basic message, promising to make the United States “great” again. He plans a series of confrontations abroad, and not only on the economic front. But at the same time, his foreign policy stance is reminiscent of the most extreme form of isolationism that reigned in this country just before the times of crisis and armed conflict that the United States faced in the two world wars.

Trump alludes to a mythical country that actually only exists in the memory of people in the U.S. who are nostalgic about something they themselves never experienced and which is only sustained by high-flying speeches. It is an idyllic, basically Anglo-Protestant America which reluctantly accepted the necessary waves of immigration from the rest of the world. He uses the rhetoric needed to build a national identity in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th.

Trump’s simple message focuses on calamities from outside: Companies abroad undermine U.S. industry by producing cheap merchandise that then floods the U.S. market, while undesirable undocumented immigrants steal local jobs. The remedy: high import duties and walls along the border.

As indicated in Sanders’ campaign speeches, the real enemy shared by the voters of Clinton and Trump is the rampant poverty and inequality plaguing what is still the most powerful country on earth. The citizens are losing confidence in the country and they feel let down by the lack of answers from the Washington establishment.

Hillary will have to clearly differentiate her message in the election campaign from these two visions of the United States. Sanders’ is the most grounded in reality; Trump’s is a fantasy. But both are real from an electoral standpoint.

Translated by Stephanie Wildes

 
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