What’s with the Popularity of Off-Beat Political Candidates?

What’s with the Popularity of Off-Beat Political Candidates? August 15, 2015

What’s with the Popularity of Off-Beat Political Candidates?

Many people are scratching their heads over the growing popularity of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate. (To be specific—as a candidate for the Republican Party’s nomination as its presidential candidate next year. However, Trump has made some indications he may run as an independent should he not receive that nomination, so I think it’s fair to just call him a “presidential candidate.”) That popularity, to say nothing of Trump himself, is leaving many observers bemused if not dumbfounded. Compared with most of the other candidates, announced and not-yet-announced, he has little to no direct political experience as an elected or appointed office holder in government. Some question how much thought he’s even given to what he would do as president. He’s running against “politics as usual” but on a very thin platform of specific ideas that seem detailed or well-prepared.

And yet, Trump is leading in the polls (for the Republican nomination) including especially in my home state—Iowa. That’s significant because Iowa is always considered a kind of bell weather of which way the political wind is blowing in a party. I know that many conservative folks in Iowa who attend and vote at Republican caucuses are conservative Christians. The Republican party there has long been dominated at the grassroots level by conservative evangelicals (including some of my close relatives!). My question is what is attracting them to Trump? They supported Pat Robertson in a presidential race (for the Republican nomination) in the 1980s. Is there some similarity between Trump and Robertson—as presidential material in the eyes of conservative evangelicals who are politically active?

Recently, former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura has stepped up to support Trump and announced that he would like to be Trump’s running mate next year—assuming Trump is the Republican nominee (which at this point with a long stretch to go seems like a fairly safe assumption barring any major changes). That should make many people who support Trump sit up and think. One is somewhat known by his/her supporters. (I’m not talking character here, just perceived policies.)

Remember, these are my “musings.” I’m not writing as an expert in politics.

I lived in Minnesota when Ventura was elected governor. I watched his candidacy closely—along with the candidacies of others. (Back then I was more addicted to watching and reading the news than I am today.) I was teaching in a liberal arts college and noticed that many of the students, especially the males, were laughing and joking about Ventura as a political candidate, especially for the top role in state government, but I didn’t think they would actually go out and vote for him. Nobody did. I remember seeing Ventura walk in a neighborhood parade—as a candidate for governor running on the Reform Party ticket but often considered an Independent candidate. He wore a sleeveless undershirt (not even a T-shirt) and waved smilingly at the crowds watching the parade even as many laughed and some booed. But many cheered him on—I assumed as a courageous if foolish underdog. He was running against two long-term Minnesota politicos—one of them Hubert Humphreys’s son.

I will never forget the night of the election. As Ventura’s numbers rolled in and climbed above those of his rivals, the news casters could not hide their shock if not dismay. The polls had not shown him leading. As everyone knows, Jesse “The Body” Ventura was elected governor much to the chagrin and embarrassment of many people.

The next day I asked all my students who were willing to indicate how they voted to do so. Most (most!) indicated willingly and gladly that they voted for Ventura. News people reported that, all over Minnesota, students who normally would not vote in such an election rushed to the polls to vote for Ventura. The common reason was “He’s different.” Meaning—he ran against a system, state government, many people distrusted. The state income tax was unpopular and Ventura promised to return the “rainy day fund” to the people, which he did. Even after we moved to another state we received annual refunds of our Minnesota taxes for two or three years.

It’s generally agreed that Ventura turned out to be a better governor, overall, setting aside amusement, than many people expected. But, he didn’t change the system as much as he promised to or hoped to. Who really ever does? Can they? Is “the system” simply too big for any governor or president to alter significantly? Do people really want all that that would entail? And yet, candidates who promise to change “the system” for the benefit of the “little man” or the “average person,” or whatever, often are popular for saying so insofar as they are perceived as not part of “the system” themselves.

One other thing stands out about both Trump and Ventura, something they have in common. Both say whatever they want to without regard to “political correctness” or political orthodoxy—even within the major parties. Both admit without shame or embarrassment that they don’t know or understand the “inner workings” of the parties or government but that they will, if elected, manipulate them. But to what specific ends? For whose benefit? That’s often unclear, but many people are automatically attracted to “plain spokenness” and even outright verbal disdain for whoever is perceived as “the elites.”

If Jimmy Carter is right, the U.S.A., far from being a true democracy (as most people think of that), is an “oligarchy”—a country run by a relatively few families who have over the years garnered insider influence and power. If he is right, government, especially the federal government, has become a Leviathan beyond the ability of any one elected candidate, even to the highest office, to tame.

A few years ago I read a column by a political pundit (I wish I had kept it, but I didn’t) who revealed something, using verifiable statistics, that I doubt most people know. According to him, over the past many national elections, only one result always stays the same. No matter who is elected, the rich become richer and the poor become poorer. That means, if true, that the system is set up that way and is either unalterable or the people who get elected to high national political office just don’t want to change it.

This situation creates the impression that the U.S. is controlled by “elites” and many people, both on the political right and the political left, automatically, in knee jerk fashion, support whoever they perceive as a threat to the perceived elites. For now, at least, I take it that Trump’s popularity is one of the greatest ironies of recent American political history. He may be a Washington “outsider” in some sense, but if he’s not “elite,” who is? And yet, he’s widely perceived to be a threat to the “elites,” whoever they are because he doesn’t speak their language. When he talks, like Ventura, he doesn’t sound like someone else carefully wrote his words. He says whatever comes to his mind to say and lets the chips fall where they may. Rarely does he back down, even when what he said was considered offensive by most of the media and other politicians. Many people like that. What they need to stop and consider, though, is whether that really will work for a president? What other politicians in, say, the last century, were known for that? How did they work out when elected? (I’m thinking here of national leaders outside the U.S. as well as inside the U.S.) Many people are easy targets for demagoguery—especially in troubled and uneasy times.


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