Since I moved here from New York, nearly three months ago, everyone I’ve met has asked me some variation of this question: “How could someone like Donald Trump have become a serious contender for the presidency of the US?” Implied in the question is the assumption that someone so far removed from the American political establishment should not be able to make it this far in an election process apparently designed to protect the status quo.
But anything more than a cursory reading of American political history suggests the opposite is true: The election system allows, even encourages, outliers to make a run for the highest office, with the important caveat that they use one of the two dominant parties as their path to power. From Abraham Lincoln to Harry S Truman, US presidents have frequently been politicians who have either challenged the establishment, or have at least given voters the impression of doing so.
Trump is not an unexpected, unlikely presence on the centre-stage of US politics, he is merely the latest representative of a well-established type: The Outsider. In my own adult lifetime, all but one of the American presidents have been men who projected themselves as anti-establishment challengers of the status quo. That image — and in some instances, it was no more than an image — is what voters seem to like.
I was still a child in 1977, when Jimmy Carter won power, largely by presenting himself as The Outsider. With the American political system still fresh from the disgrace brought upon it by Richard Nixon, voters were looking for a candidate with as little connection to the Washington elite as possible. Carter was a governor of Georgia (hardly the most consequential state in the country), and he played up his roots as a peanut farmer and Bible-spouting Christian, contrasting himself with the President Gerald Ford, who carried the taint of Nixon.
Four years later, Carter was beaten by a man who claimed to be even farther away from the cesspit of Washington: The actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan. Again, voters warmed to his projected image as a disruptor of politics as usual.
The trend was bucked by Reagan’s successor, George HW Bush, who was a Washington insider through and through, but who benefited from the fact that his rival, Democrat Michael Dukakis, was unable to credibly claim the mantle of The Outsider.
Bill Clinton, who came next, was the consummate political interloper from Arkansas, a state with little political weight on the national stage. He, too, made much of his humble roots, against Bush’s perceived elitism. And Bush was weakened by the presence of a third candidate, billionaire Ross Perot, whose credentials as The Outsider were stronger than Clinton’s; the electorate was unwilling to stick its neck quite that far.
Then came the strange case of George W Bush, a child (literally!) of the establishment who portrayed himself as an anti-establishment figure. He professed disdain for the Washington politics that had characterised his father’s career, instead touted his political roots in Texas, a state that revels in its opposition to the northeastern elites. It helped Bush Jr that his opponent, Al Gore, had even deeper ties to the establishment.
Until Donald Trump came along, Barack Obama was the most unlikely candidate to have ever won the presidency. Not only was he a Black man with a Muslim middle name, he built his platform around the promise of disrupting Washington politics. Remember “Hope and Change”? His opponents, meanwhile, were symbols of the status quo: Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party primaries, and John McCain in the election. (McCain tried to compensate by picking Sarah Palin as his running mate, but not even her iconoclasm could offset his reputation as one of the establishment’s high priests.)
Apart from embracing otherness in pursuit of the highest office, these presidents all had one other thing in common: They did not to live up to their promise of challenging and changing Washington. We can discuss another day whether Washington can be changed by anyone aspiring to be The Outsider. The fact remains that Americans have consistently voted for just that, and their champions have consistently failed to deliver. Their disappointment is the deeper because the Washington elite, having co-opted their champions, have grown even less responsive to voters’ wants and aspirations.
Trump rides on that disappointment. He is The Outsider’s Outsider, and his threat to tear down the establishment carries real menace. He takes such glee in humiliating the Washington elite, including the grand panjandrums of the Republican Party he purportedly represents, it is hard to see how he might work with them if he were to become president.
This is precisely his appeal for voters who feel betrayed by career politicians posing as change agents. By burning his bridges with the establishment, Trump seems to have removed any likelihood of crossing over to the other side once in office.
This is why he has a chance of winning, no matter the outcome of one or two debates. Clinton, ever the embodiment of the establishment, should be scared. She should be very scared.
Bobby Ghosh is editor-in-chief of Hindustan Times