Trump is Simply the End Product The Polarization of U.S. Politics Is the Culmination of Long-Term Trends
At the beginning of the U.S. primaries, the candidacies of political outsiders Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders invoked laughter among the political establishment in Washington. But the possibility of a candidate such as Trump actually ending up in the White House can no longer be ruled out. This article addresses a number of factors in the polarization of U.S. politics and society and will illustrate that this is the result of long-term trends. In early summer 2015, the political establishment in Washington laughed about it; billionaire real-estate mogul Donald Trump had entered the race for the White House in mid-June. Most political observers rated his chances of being nominated as the Republican Party candidate as extremely slim, and his poll ratings were still very low. At that point, Trump, the businessman with no political experience who “tells it like it is”, was the unlikely candidate of the 2016 presidential elections. The general feeling was that he would at least provide some entertainment during the summer slump, but that his campaign would fizzle out sooner or later. The situation seemed equally clear on the Democrat side: after losing to Barack Obama in 2008, former Secretary of State, Senator from New York and First Lady Hillary Clinton portrayed herself as her party’s only viable candidate. Bernie Sanders, at that time still an independent Senator from Vermont and a long-serving Member of the House of Representatives, had announced his candidacy in late April. However, at that stage barely any mention had been made of this self-professed “democratic socialist”. His positions were considered far too left of center to present any serious challenge to the favorite, Clinton. Political commentators in the capital considered Sanders to be an extremely unlikely candidate as well. Just a few weeks later, the situation had already changed radically. Trump and Sanders soon achieved good poll ratings as anti-establishment candidates, which led to them being increasingly seen as a serious alternative to the traditional candidates of both parties by the start of the Presidential primaries in February 2016. Since early May, we have been witnessing an unprecedented situation in the United States. Trump is now the only Republican candidate in the race following his victory in the State of Indiana. His main rivals, Senator Ted Cruz from Texas (an ultra-conservative Tea Party representative) and moderate Governor of Ohio, John Kasich, have thrown in the towel. In addition to that, as of May, Trump has reached the necessary number of delegates. As a result, it is highly likely that he will be nominated as his party’s Presidential candidate at the Republican National Convention in July. What makes this situation all the more astounding is that the billionaire is not in fact a “true” Republican at all: several points on his platform are highly unorthodox for the GOP.1 His lifestyle also fails to fit the traditional conservative mold (for instance, Trump is not very religious and has been divorced several times). His derogatory comments about various sectors of the population (Mexicans, Muslims, migrants and women) and his simple solutions to all manner of political issues show that, whatever else he is, he is certainly a populist. His nationalistic and xenophobic remarks and his hostility towards Islam evoke clear parallels with right-wing extremists in the EU. This inevitably begs the question as to why extreme candidates such as Trump and Sanders are faring so well in the current U.S. primaries. What is giving rise to the trends of radicalization, are currently found in both political camps and are dominating the 2016 election campaigns (elections for the House of Representatives are also due to be held in November)? The fierce debates and controversies that have accompanied the rise of Trump and Sanders illustrate once more just how polarized U.S. politics and society have now become. This polarization is proving to be a decisive factor in the elections, as it is benefiting the outsiders most of all. It would appear that this phenomenon has long exceeded the critical threshold, as the possibility of a candidate such as Trump actually ending up in the White House can no longer be fully ruled out. Against this backdrop, this article seeks to shed light on the polarization taking place within U.S. politics and society and to explain the factors contributing to the success of Sanders and, more especially, Trump. To this end, it outlines five factors, all of which were contentious before the current presidential elections. Indeed, the polarization of both political camps has not suddenly come about in recent months and years, rather it is the result of long-term trends in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the United States.