I know, I know. I know. You were expecting me to be writing about my first few days in my new home, the rural village of Beseri in the small state of Perlis. But with the Iowa caucus results just announced and the fact that my most read blog post is straight-up political analysis (and it’s not even close), I figure I’d put off writing about the trials and tribulations of my new kampong life to talk about the U.S. Presidential election. Who knows, based on my click rates, maybe I should stop writing about my personal life altogether and just go into political punditry. Hell, if Tom “Why Learn from My Mistakes When I Can Continue to Be Wrong All the Time?” Friedman can do it, why can’t I?
As I darted into the teachers’ room between classes to check the results (which came around noon Malaysian time), I was initially happy to see Trump’s loss, since, I’ll admit, I had some money riding on it (more on that later), as well as the close Democratic race. Yet as I sensed the beginning of the end (I sure hope it is) of this crazy Trump 2016 ride, my grin slowly faded and I couldn’t help but feeling sick to my stomach, as if had just emerged from a traumatic experience and finally taken note of how close I had come to catastrophe. And still, I fear, the craziness isn’t over. For it seems, just six months after the Republican race seemed destined to be a three-way battle between the establishment Jeb Bush and the establishment-ish Marco Rubio and Scott Walker, it seems like the race is coalescing around three candidates, and only one of them was in the original triad.
You see, it just wasn’t supposed to be like this. I know because, for the first time, I decided to take my training in finance, political science, and statistical analysis and put it through the hardest of tests: small-scale political betting. I hadn’t considered betting much before, because, among other things, it’s illegal in the U.S. Yet a new, legal, non-profit betting site had just opened up and I thought I could make some quick money. The plan was simple: find candidates whose chances at winning the Republican nomination were overvalued, and short those candidates. The criterion I used to value the candidates was pretty simple: I believed that there was an almost 100% chance the eventual nominee would be someone who held public office at some point. I got my reasoning from looking, as the best current-events predictors do, from “the outside in,” and I knew that the last time a major party nominated someone who had never held public office (or worked in military/Cabinet like Eisenhower) was 1940, when the Republicans nominated Wendell Willkie. The Republicans were justifiably feeling desperate, since their party had all but been wiped out in the 1932 and 1936 elections, not to mention that the country was careening towards a scary, deadly war. Willkie lost that election by, well, a lot, and since then each party weathered wars, Jim Crow, stagflation, and large-scale geographical realignment, by at least having the good sense to nominate a candidate with some governing experience. With this in mind, I focused my attention on the three members of the Republican circus who had only spent their lives in the private sector: Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and of course, that guy with the orange hair.
By the time I’d summoned the courage to post a bet, Fiorina was trading at basically penny-stock value (where she remains), while Trump and Carson were both at around 20% to win the nomination. For either of them to win, I thought, the Republican Party would have to sink into this bizarro alternate reality amongst plenty of good options, from Crazytown (Ted Cruz) to almost sensible (Bush/Kasich), they would choose someone with no experience to get the nuclear codes (not to mention the fact that both their policies are crazy). Thinking the probability of that bizarro world was maybe 2-3%, I shorted Carson and Trump to win the nomination.
A month after my bet, the Carson train had lost steam, so I sold my stock at a profit and put the money I made into shorting Trump. I expected, like most people did, for Trump to slowly lose support as the Republican establishment picked a standard-bearer (likely Rubio). But it didn’t happen. Trump said more dumb things, and he just kept picking up support. Soon his stock on PredictIt was up to 30%, then 40%, then 55%. All of a sudden, my “surefire bet” had lost money. Even worse, political scientists and statisticians that I respect and trust were calling Trump the favorite to win the nomination, and warning of an inevitable Trump-nation if he won Iowa by more than 5-10 points.
I was scared for my bet, but more than that I was scared for my country. And it’s not just the rabid conservatism, though it’s worth pointing out that the Republican Party stands poised to nominate its most conservative candidate in over half a century, even if Rubio or Cruz wins. Ted Cruz, in particular, has cultivated a much more conservative record than Trump has, and yet, I felt relieved when I saw that Cruz had won Iowa and not Trump.
Here’s the thing: democracies work because citizens vote, broadly speaking, for candidates who meet their interests. Whether we like it or not, there’s always a reason why someone votes a certain way. A lot of times it’s based on economics, but not always (Sanders’ support started with affluent white people, arguably the people with the most to lose under his tax plan). Sometimes, those interests are annoying (voters who have an interest in stopping the so-called “War on Christmas”), wrong (voters who have an interest in being anti-vaxxers), or immoral (voters who want to keep Syrian refugees from entering the U.S.), but they’re interests nonetheless that have clear policy implications that can be represented in a democracy. Our long, clumsy campaign process, replete with its debates and TV ads and position papers, serve the purpose of clarifying to us voters what the policy implications of electing candidate might be. We learned from the debates this year that Rand Paul was VERY different from Chris Christie on data collection, and 2008 we got a sense of how Clinton and Obama would deal with Iran differently. That’s democracy in action.
I can point to what a Cruz presidency might look like, and what a Rubio presidency might look like. (They’re both very scary.) Yet after months of debates and campaigning, I still can’t point to what a Trump presidency might look like. Would there be an Apprentice reality show to pick the Vice President, or would it be former Senator Scott Brown? Would Tom Brady end up as Secretary of Labor? Can we rule anything out? We can’t, because Trump doesn’t actually play in the democratic process. He says whatever he wants, skips debates, and goads on the media. Whatever substance there is in his policy changes from week to week. Amidst Trump’s racist statements, offensive remarks, and general ridiculousness, we’ve forgotten that “Make America Great Again” isn’t just a campaign slogan; rather, it’s his entire policy platform.
There is a political tradition that doesn’t require our candidates for office to make crystal-clear policy statements, where leaders are right only because they are our leaders and little else. It’s neither liberalism nor conservatism, nor radicalism. And it’s certainly not democracy. It’s fascism—the belief that we need a strong leader to, as President Obama put it, “restore past glory” by defeating enemies of the state. This is not to say that Trump is a fascist or that his supporters are. But when he uses the rhetoric that he can make America great again because he’s awesome, he seems to be following more in the Mussolini tradition than the Washington/Jefferson/Madison one.
I still believe Trump won’t win the nomination, because as candidates start dropping out, support should flow to Cruz and/or Rubio at the expense of Trump. But it’s possible he wins—after all, he’s still leading the pack in the next three states that vote in the primary. And that possibility is something. We’ve seen other joke candidates rise in the polls before—who could forget Herman Cain’s pizza promotion-esque “9-9-9 Plan” and ridiculous “slow smile” video (and of course, Colbert’s spoof)? But Cain never had a real shot. Trump is different. Now that our nominating process has officially started, even amidst a disappointing outcome for Trump, a fascistic candidate a real chance to be the Republican standard-bearer in November.
I don’t know what needs to be done now. Maybe Trump will flame out and we can forget this whole thing existed. Maybe—we do have short political memories. But it seems like now is the time to start asking some real questions about what happened and what has driven so many in the political party that still controls the House and Senate to try to give Trump the nuclear codes. How broken has our system become? How is our voting process so easily hijacked? Why have so many lost faith in democracy? We started this election cycle in politics as usual and took a huge turn into bizarro world. As Iowa has thankfully shown, we may yet emerge from that world and only deal with the specter the GOP’s continuing shift right this election cycle. But that’s perhaps the subject of another blog post. The scars from the Trump-nado may start to fade, but they’ll always leave an ugly mark.