Fear has a good day

March 16, 2016

Danny Katch and Alan Maass analyze the outcomes of the latest primaries.

DONALD TRUMP drove out one rival for the Republican presidential nomination and built on his commanding lead, while Hillary Clinton withstood a second surge by radical rival Bernie Sanders to become an even stronger favorite, in what may be remembered as the pivotal day of the 2016 presidential primaries.

In different ways, fear defines the campaigns of both frontrunners.

From the start of his campaign, Trump has appealed directly to scaremongering and scapegoating. More than anything else, he preys on despair and discontent among voters on the right, including with leaders of the Republican Party--and he directs the blame at the most vulnerable people in society.

Clinton's manipulation of the fears of Democratic voters is more complicated. With a general election against Trump in mind, she is already trying to turn herself into a candidate of "hope" who can "make America whole again," as she claimed earlier this month.

But first, Clinton has to overcome Sanders' challenge by taming the enthusiasm he generated among millions of people who want to see a change in the Washington status quo. Despite her decades as a fixture in the leadership of Democratic Party as it galloped right, Clinton now claims to be a "progressive"--but one "who likes to get things done."

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton

When Sanders threatened to make the Democratic primaries more than a coronation-in-advance by winning support for an agenda he unapologetically describes as socialist, Clinton and her supporters among party leaders stooped to smears and misrepresentations. Their message was simple: Don't vote your hopes, but your fears--not for the candidate you agree with, but the one who claims she can stop the Republicans.

In the March 15 primaries, Trump drove out his Republican opponent who was seen as the strongest candidate against the Democrats in November--Marco Rubio suffered a humiliating defeat in his home state of Florida and suspended his campaign.

But the GOP race shouldn't be considered over yet. Ted Cruz, the favorite of the Tea Partying Republican Right, kept pace with Trump in Missouri and North Carolina and is still within striking distance in the delegate count, while home-field advantage in Ohio came through for John Kasich. Trump is on target to win a bare majority of delegates to the Republican convention in July, but it's a long time between then and now, especially with much of the party leadership still hoping that he will fail.

By contrast, Clinton has returned to status of prohibitive favorite to win the Democratic presidential nomination.

Sanders' upset victory in the previous week's Michigan primary stopped the media from writing off the rest of the campaign, but even then, Clinton was padding her substantial lead in convention delegates--and that's before counting the Democrats' undemocratic "superdelegates."

On Tuesday, Sanders tied Clinton in Missouri and managed a narrow defeat in Illinois, but Clinton won by double-digit margins in Florida, North Carolina and Ohio. As in Michigan, Sanders did better than previously among African American voters, but the youth vote that propelled his biggest successes wasn't as big a factor this time around.

The calls will continue for Sanders to drop out and unite behind the presumptive nominee, and Sanders will almost certainly reject them, as will supporters in states like Wisconsin, who will want to have their say.

But another moment is coming, just as certainly: The moment when Sanders honors his repeated promise to support the eventual Democratic nominee for president, despite his increasingly strident criticisms of Hillary Clinton. That same moment will put a question to all the people who voted for Sanders as an alternative to politics as usual: Will they be content to see their hope for a "political revolution" reduced to a vote for another "lesser evil" in November, or will they seek something more.

BACK IN October, MSNBC predicted that the Republican race for the presidential nomination would be decided by an "inevitable showdown" between two well-connected Florida politicians.

After a campaign dominated for months by Republican frontrunner Donald Trump's various feuds, a new rivalry is taking center stage that may ultimately have a far bigger impact on the GOP race: Jeb Bush versus Marco Rubio.

Not so much.

Even by then, Bush was proving to be a human vacancy, unable to stand up to Trump's silly taunts that he had "low energy" or--more to the point--prove that he had any solid answers to basic questions, like what he thought of his brother's disastrous war in Iraq.

When Bush wilted, Rubio became the candidate to beat according to convention wisdom, since Trump would surely fade away. A Latino who became a senator in the Tea Party wave election of 2010, Rubio was seen as an ideal candidate for a party looking to show that it could make its reactionary message appeal to a multiracial voting base.

Only the GOP dream candidate turned out to be useless. It began with the New Hampshire debate where Rubio did an excellent Saturday Night Live-style satire of himself, a computer-generated Republican candidate capable only of repeating the same complaint about Barack Obama.

As his campaign began to tank over the coming weeks, Rubio tried to regain momentum by taunting Trump about his hair and the size of his...hands. Rubio's idea of wit--"Donald Trump likes to sue people. He should sue whoever did that to his face"--actually made the billionaire reality TV star look presidential by comparison.

It's doubtful that Rubio would have won even without these gaffes, and not only because he exudes phoniness from every pore. Rubio may well have cost himself a shot at the presidential nomination three years ago when he joined a bipartisan group of senators trying to pass "comprehensive immigration reform," In a primary race where the GOP candidates competed at uttering the most offensive slurs against immigrants, Rubio was easily painted as a sellout.

The failed immigration legislation Rubio tried to sell was incredibly draconian toward undocumented immigrants. That it helped doom his presidential chances is another sign of just how far the one-time first party of American capitalism has been dragged to the right--though not without shifting the whole political spectrum along with it.

And now Donald Trump has crashed the party.

THE CAMPAIGN among leading Republicans to derail Trump in recent weeks has been remarkable--in both its size and its utter ineffectiveness.

Among other luminaries, Mitt Romney and Michael Bloomberg warned of the dangers of Trump winning the presidential nomination, which seems only to have confirmed the confidence of Trump supporters that they must be doing the right thing. According to the FiveThirtyEight website, more than 1,700 anti-Trump TV ads ran in Florida before the March 15 vote, yet Trump still won by almost 20 percentage points.

As Trump further cements his lead, it's important to remember that he's still only winning around 40 percent of the vote in each state. He hasn't so much taken over the Republican Party as taken advantage--of the divide between the hard-core right wingers represented by the likes of Cruz, and the still-right-wing-but-slightly-less-fanatically-committed-to-obstructionism-at-all-costs wing of Rubio and Kasich.

Even now that Rubio has bowed out, the anti-Trump opposition will still be divided between Cruz and Kasich. So while it remains hard to imagine that the "Grand Old Party" would put forward a presidential candidate who considered paying the legal expenses of a supporter who sucker-punched a protester, it's even harder to see how they will stop Trump.

In fact, the people who have been most effective at halting Trump's momentum aren't Republicans at all. They are the young Chicagoans who organized a protest of thousands that forced Trump to cancel his scheduled rally earlier this month at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The Chicago protest was a classic case of a bully getting exposed, and it resonated across the country as an expression of disgust with Trump. It's no coincidence that it took place in a city that was the site of the first of the immigrant rights mega-marches 10 years ago, the historic teachers strike in 2012 and the daily protests late last year against Mayor (and close Clinton ally) Rahm Emanuel over the murderous actions of the Chicago police.

Liberal organizations behind both Clinton and Sanders are trying to use the momentum of Chicago to call on supporters to keep rallying against Trump--while simultaneously working to get out the vote against the Republicans in November.

More protests against Trump are welcome--including the rally planned for New York City this Saturday. But it's important that the left recognize cynical attempts to whip up Trump-phobia in order to generate enthusiasm for Clinton that she is incapable of generating herself.

Trump--who, after all, has no record of being passionate about any cause other than his own wealth and celebrity--might try to move to the center if he is the Republican nominee in a general election.

But even if he doesn't, the best way to combat the hatred he promotes is not to support a candidate like Hillary Clinton, whose defense of mass deportations and endless war in the Muslim world has helped make Trump more legitimate. The best way to fight back is to follow the lead of Chicago and organize our own resistance.

SO WHAT about the Democratic side?

According to Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, the March 15 Democratic primaries were "great night for...polls." After the epic fail on Michigan a week before, Silver was heaving a sigh of relief that the pundit industry's chief export wasn't needing to be recalled for being completely defective.

But for Sanders supporters, March 15 was a lousy night. The final returns in Missouri apparently gave Clinton a razor-thin victory, giving her campaign a clean sweep of five contests. Illinois was closer than expected, perhaps because of the energy of the anti-Trump protest--but Sanders was beaten badly in Ohio, where supporters hoped to duplicate the Michigan upset.

Still, it's worth remembering just how far Sanders has come. Just two months ago, it was only dawning on the media and political elite that "the Bern" evident in the huge turnouts at Sanders campaign events might translate into a vote that could shake Clinton's iron grip on the nomination.

And as the primaries have gone on, Sanders has shown a greater combativeness toward Hillary Clinton and the party establishment.

In Illinois, for example, Sanders came out in support of the April 1 day of action for education justice called by the Chicago Teachers Union. And he blasted Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel, telling the New York Times: "Hillary Clinton proudly lists Mayor Rahm Emanuel as one of her leading mayoral endorsers. Well, let me be as clear as I can be: based on his disastrous record as mayor of the city of Chicago, I do not want Mayor Emanuel's endorsement if I win the Democratic nomination."

Sanders likewise refused to condemn the protesters at Trump's Chicago rally, putting the blame squarely on a campaign that "has promoted hatred and division against Latinos, Muslims, women and people with disabilities, and his birther attacks against the legitimacy of President Obama."

That was a stark contrast to Clinton's terrible statement that basically conflated the pro- and anti-Trump sides at the rally.

In reality, Hillary Clinton isn't a much better candidate than Marco Rubio once was. But as this primary season has demonstrated, Clinton's overwhelming support from the Democratic Party apparatus, from top to bottom, gives her a huge advantage, despite the genuine enthusiasm that Sanders has generated.

Many Sanders supporters hope their candidate's long-shot success can achieve more than kind words and a photo op at the Democratic convention in late July. As Ryan Lizza wrote for the New Yorker:

If Sanders arrives at the Convention with a sufficient number of primary victories and between a third and half of the delegates, he will also be able to influence the Party's platform. His advisers told me that Sanders will fight for more anti-free-trade measures, a commitment to campaign-finance reform, and breaking up big banks.

The problem, though, is that convention platform planks mean nothing to Democratic leaders, whether elected to office or part of the party's apparatus. Consider, for example, that the Democratic platform long favored the kind of single-payer health care system that Sanders now advocates--and Clinton and other party leaders dismiss as utopian--but nothing was done about to achieve it.

The Democratic campaign isn't over. Sanders is expected to do well in primaries to come over the next weeks, even if he is further than ever from stopping Clinton from becoming the nominee. And Election 2016 is likely to see continued protest against Donald Trump now that the Chicago demonstration has opened the way--and that's not to mention the points of struggle beyond the election.

Nevertheless, March 15 has brought the test of Bernie Sanders' real commitment to a "political revolution" closer: Will he support--and urge his followers to support--a candidate who is the epitome of the two-party system against which he called on people to rebel?

It matters what socialists say and do now in preparing for the struggles ahead, when--as always--our enemies will be not only fanatical Republicans, but Democrats who claim to be on our side.

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