In 2008 President Obama inspired voters with a vision of hope. The optimism surrounding Barack Obama was not only a product of voting for the first African-American to the Oval Office, but also a result of the Illinois Senator’s own rhetoric.
Tears were shed when Obama gave his victory speech, none more moving that those from African Americans who had lived through the struggles of the civil rights movement. After years of war and controversy in the aftermath of September 11th, the election of Obama offered a note of optimism, a vote for hope.
Almost eight years later, 2016 looks to be tinged with widespread discontent with the status quo, mistrust of establishment organisations and a vitriolic rejection of political orthodoxy: the Anger Vote.
“Our leaders are stupid”
Donald Trump has been the subject of analysis for months now. While there are a few reasons for his rise in popularity, at the most fundamental level he personifies anger that has been bubbling away in conservative America for years.
This anger is directed at many issues: political correctness, multiculturalism, economic depression, governmental gridlock, international anxiety over China, fear of terrorism. Donald Trump offers an abrasive champion for Americans who are unsatisfied with the status quo, feel that the American dream isn’t working for them, and are afraid of international dangers. While he is particularly popular with less educated and poorer white Americans, his appeal is by no means limited to this demographic.
Trump’s obnoxious, almost comical self assurance has a simplicity that allows it to resonate with all of these concerns. It hardly matters that his answers are poorly researched, self contradictory, or downright unrealistic. It’s the fact that he recognises why there is populist anger and reflects this anger.
Particularly for conservatives who dislike the President, Trump’s persona as an unapologetic, simple spoken and brash outsider draws a satisfyingly stark contrast to the eloquence and deliberation of Barack Obama. Ben Carson has been a similar offer to conservative Americans, but profoundly failed to capture the anger vote in the same way as Trump and Ted Cruz
Trump avoids engaging with the complexity of issues. Central American immigration is growing? Build a wall. ISIS is a threat? Ban all Muslim immigration. For anything else, the handy ‘our leaders are stupid’ answer seems to satiate his core support.
Sending a message to Wall Street
On the other end of the political spectrum there is another figure riding a wave of anger through the primaries.
The irascible Bernie Sanders has steered his campaign into the headlines over the past few months. Sanders’ appeal lies in his rejection of the contemporary D.C-Wall Street axis, and champions Americans who feel that the economic system leaves them behind.
The senator is riding a wave of popular dissatisfaction in the wake of the global recession. To his supporters, the recession symbolised an uncontrolled financial elite playing with the fortunes of everyday Americans, and allowed to do so by a political system that was unwilling to address excesses on Wall Street.
‘If a bank is too big to fail it is too big to exist’ is the mantra of Sanders. His campaign is the manifestation of the anti-Wall Street sentiment that has exploded since the recession.
Hand in hand with this message is his determination to assail money in politics. Sanders’ argues that the Citizens United Supreme Court case sold the government to big money donors, as Super PACs now pour millions of dollars into election cycles to decide the contours of political debate.
Bernie’s righteous fury over the corruption in America’s political economy, and the government using public money to bail out banks after the recession, has earned him loyal support among progressives and young liberals. He presents himself as an outsider, untarnished by the shortcomings of the system, and ardent about social justice.
For the Clinton campaign, Sanders has unleashed an unwelcome surge of popular resentment over established power networks and forced her to reconsider her positions as a result.
The Hope Candidate?
Amid this groundswell of angry voters, it has been hard to identify the candidate of optimism during the primaries.
Hillary Clinton has not moulded a candidacy based on hope, but instead essentially put herself forward as the natural successor to President Obama, who remains very popular among Democratic voters.
Trump does dabble with a kind of optimistic tone with his ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan, but the ‘again’ caveat clues in to his nativist, fiercely nationalistic and divisive language.
Sanders surely does offer hope for many young liberals, but his entire message is predicated on an assumption of corruption that capitalises on the Anger Vote.
The one candidate who has actively attempted to put himself forward as a hopeful figure is Marco Rubio. His initial calls for a ‘New American Century’ resembled the happy warrior message of Ronald Reagan, particularly evocative when coming from a young hispanic senator.
Despite virtually all Republican candidates attempting to lay claim to being a true successor to Reagan, most ignore the that the twice elected President actively presented himself as a figure of optimism, declaring ‘Morning in America’ in 1984.
Rubio’s personal background of an immigrant family making their way in America strikes a note of hope, telling a story where the American dream came to fruition.
Unfortunately, as the gang of Trump, Carson and Cruz has dragged the Republican primary into a muddier, more aggressive brand of right-wing conservative politics, much of Rubio’s early inspirational rhetoric has been replaced with firm dedications of his conservative credentials. Rubio has emphasised his hawkish qualities in foreign policy, and devoted himself to personal attacks on both his Republican rivals and Hillary Clinton, abandoning almost any complicity in attempting to fix a broken immigration system in 2013.
If Rubio wins the Republican nomination, he will have to carefully decide what tone he wishes to take: the soaring oratory calling for a revitalisation of American promise in the 21st century, or playing on voters’ international fears and anger with Washington D.C. Balancing both is not an easy task.