If there is one thing that the first Republican debate showed us, other than the fact the GOP seems to get more and more clownish with every election, it is that the Republican establishment and their department of propaganda over at Fox News are deeply concerned about the success of Donald Trump. Right from the start, the first question of whether any of the candidates would withhold their support of the eventual Republican nominee was clearly targeted at the billionaire New Yorker, who would probably destroy any shot the Republicans had at winning the presidency if he ran as a third party candidate.
The problem with their attack has become pretty obvious: It was based mostly on the notion that he is not a real Republican or conservative, as his past support of universal healthcare and abortion, among other things, reveals. However, as seen with certain polls giving Trump the win by a wide margin, ideological consistency over time has become a minor importance to much of the GOP base.
Indeed, the fact that Trump is speaking his mind, regardless of whether it is offensive or even true, has attracted many Republican voters -- which of course says something about Republican voters. His fame and billionaire status have obviously given him the advantage in a society where fame and wealth are worshipped and held in higher regard than intellectual substance. To many Americans, the fact that he is entertaining is good enough reason to vote for him, or the fact that he is a billionaire, which must mean he knows what he is doing, right? This worship of wealth and entertainment is an obvious sign of Americas cultural decline.
Fox News commentators attacked Trump for his inconsistent ideology. If he were John Kerry, they would have called him a flip-flopper. Unfortunately for Fox News, Trump does have a consistent ideology, and its called Donald Trump. His ego is his ideology, which is highly advantageous in a society like ours, where people don’t care so much about ideas, but personalities. Trump speaks of building a giant wall that the Mexicans will pay for and getting the best trade deals with foreign countries. How will he get Mexico to pay for a wall and get the best trade deals? He provides no hint of how he will accomplish these goals other than "getting the best people" (while calling our diplomats and negotiators complete morons). If any Democratic nominee spoke like this, (or any nominee who wasn’t rich and famous like Trump) they would be laughed off the stage. His words have zero substance, yet his wealth and famous ego provide it enough weight that the Republican base takes him seriously. Sure, he’ll get the best people, end of story.
Now, Trump isn’t the first politician whose ideology is based on himself. For many politicians, power is their ideology. This is when politicians say and promise whatever it takes to get elected, and then completely retreat from their promises, or alter their opinions with whichever way the wind blows. The two modern dynasties of American politics, the Bush’s and Clinton’s, clearly crave power, and change their views whenever it seems advantageous. Hillary Clinton is currently attempting to become a progressive populist after twenty years of being a Wall Street centrist. During the nineties, centrism was in fashion after the fall of communism, and President Clinton embraced financial deregulation, welfare reform, “three-strikes” prison policy, and other right wing plans.
Today, progressivism has risen from the grave after the thirty years of neoliberal policies have proven to be completely disastrous for the middle class and America’s longterm economic stability. Hillary is doing what any good politician would do, she’s embracing whatever is currently in fashion, as Bill did in the nineties. Jeb Bush has similarly flip-flopped on issues like his brothers war in Iraq and immigration policy, which he altered his opinion on because “the climate changed.” (Not that climate!) Neither of them have a moral vision of what is right or wrong for this country -- they have a vision of being in power.
The GOP debate showed how irrelevant ideology and ideas have become, as every question and answer was void of any real substance. This is, however, what the GOP base wants -- a strongman personality who will embrace all of their irrational fears (Islam, immigration, homosexuality, socialism, etc) -- not someone with practical ideas and moral values, and a commitment to those ideas and values.
The only candidate for the 2016 presidential election who has a firm ideology is Bernie Sanders. This could have also been said for Rand Paul in the past, but he has since given up his commitment to libertarian thought, becoming what he once claimed to despise: a Washington politician defending the status quo, as he did at the debate when Trump refused to promise his endorsement to the eventual Republican nominee. Sanders, on the other hand, has always been committed to progressive ideals, since he participated in the historic March on Washington in 1963 to his tenure as the mayor of Burlington. He never backtracked from what he believed in, even during the three decades of neoliberalism that nearly killed the American left. He does not change what he believes in when it is not vogue, but remains committed and rides through the storm, and most importantly, cannot be bribed to change his beliefs.
Of course, Sanders has been receiving some criticism lately, especially from the Black Lives Matter movement, that he is too focused on class and wealth inequality, without looking at other forms of oppression in modern America, specifically racial oppression. Sanders has taken this criticism seriously, and over the weekend introduced his new national press secretary to a crowd of 15,000, Symone Sanders, who is a criminal justice activist and Black Lives Matter supporter. She started speaking with him three weeks ago, and her first form of advice was "that racial inequality and economic inequality are parallel issues." Since then, Sanders has become more vocal about racial inequalities, and has introduced a page on addressing racial injustices.
Still, even if Sanders requires some improvement on racial inequalities, there is little doubt that he is genuine and has a record of being committed to what he believes in -- something that has become all to rare in American politics of today.
Of course, Donald Trump also has a record of being committed to what he believes in, which is Donald Trump -- through all of the bankruptcies and bailouts, Trump has always been dedicated to keeping himself and his ego afloat. He is addicted to attention, and the attention he’s gotten with his current foray in politics may be like the first shot of heroin into a junkies arm. As a progressive, it’s hard not to want Trump to run as a third party candidate, as it would likely hand the election to the Democrats. But Trump is making a mockery of the GOP and American politics, while unintentionally exposing the dangerous passions that so many Americans hold dear, whether they be nationalism, xenophobia, or white supremacy. People find him refreshing because he is not didactic or concerned about ideas, and he is not a career politician -- he is a strong personality, a political frankenstein of the Twitter age. He is also the polar opposite of Bernie Sanders, who talks ideas and is committed to creating a more equal and just society. They are both outside the establishment and represent the growing anger in American politics, but Trump represents the kooky reactionary side, while Sanders represents the side of progress, with a commitment to ideas.
One thing is certain, the GOP and Democratic establishments are concerned, and they should be. Both gave up their ideological principles a long time ago for realpolitik calculation, and this is finally catching up to them. Whether we will move into a new age dedicated to ideas and progress, or an age of reactionary known-nothing politics, is something that the 2016 election may just determine.