In Donald Trump's remarks following his win of a plurality of votes in Florida, North Carolina and Illinois on Tuesday, he made two particularly critical statements that may help us understand what did happen and what will happen in this election.
Properly understanding these remarks I think highlights the need to address perpetual war -- and foreshadows the compulsion of the establishment to merely use populist rhetoric, highlighting the need to form genuine populist alternatives.
What did happen: Trump addressed foreign policy as well as other issues -- while Bernie Sanders didn't meaningfully address foreign policy and largely limited himself to a one issue campaign.
First Trump quote: "And Paris was a disaster. There have been many disasters, but it was Paris. This whole run took on a whole new meaning -- not just borders, not just good trade deals. ... And the meaning was very simple: we need protection in our country, and that's going to happen. And all of a sudden the poll numbers shot up."
Trump has a point here -- Paris and San Bernardino attacks gave his campaign a different dynamic. Meanwhile, Sanders didn't meaningfully respond after the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, even thought he had tremendous opportunity to do so. Most notably, there was a Democratic debate on CBS the day after the Paris attack. As I wrote at the time:
So, at the CBS debate the day after the Paris attacks, Sanders didn't even want to talk about foreign policy. It was tragic really. He could have laid into U.S. foreign policy, he could have said that by arming the Saudis we've fostered problems, it would have jolted the campaign and the public could have been engaged in foreign policy in a meaningful way.
But he didn't.
The most he could do is criticize the invasion of Iraq, which is valid -- no one who voted for the Iraq war is qualified for any title other than inmate -- but 13 years later, totally inadequate. Whatever you have to say about economy (and even here I think Sanders could be better) will ultimately be trumped by the fact that you can't articulate a path out of perpetual war. If you don't show you've got a path out of perpetual war, the people will pick someone who they figure knows how to do perpetual war.
The conventional wisdom is that foreign policy doesn't matter. That may be true in terms of specific policies, but not in terms of a deep understanding of the U.S.'s place in the world. A president must help define that. Sanders failed. People are right to complain about the disparities in media coverage, but part of this has been self inflected by Sanders.
Trump has been contradictory, but has generally outlined a tough but non-interventionist, "America First" foreign policy. In fact, Trump has even discussed the trillions of dollars spent on wars that should go to infrastructure -- another thing Sanders failed to do. Of course, we don't know what Trump would actually do were he to become president, I'm merely noting what he appeals to -- which brings us to the second point.
What may well happen: Economic Inequality may well fade as an issue in a meaningful way. This ironically could erode Trump's base.
Second Trump quote: "We don't win at trade, we're going to win at trade. We're going to make our country rich again, we're going to make our country great again. We need the rich in order to make the great, I'm sorry to tell you."
Marcy Wheeler tweeted in response the night of Trump's victory speech: "3/15/16: When inequality ended being campaign issue."
Both Trump and Hillary Clinton will feel drawn to increasingly focus on each other and could jettison their populist rhetoric. It's clearly phony in her case, and clearly could be in his.
This ironically creates an opening. While establishment candidate Michael Bloomberg has ruled out running, there is space now for an anti establishment campaign that can authentically be called populist. Trump has benefited from the populist orientation of the country, but he didn't create it and he doesn't define it. He does not own the votes of poor working class whites. He has benefited from them, but -- positioning himself to take his base for granted could be vulnerable.
Indeed, as seems likely, if Clinton and Trump start ripping into each others hypocrisies, an opening may develop for a campaign from the radical center to draw in Sanders supporters and others from the left -- and Trump supporters and others from the right. The later would be people who are draw to populism, but don't want to be tainted by xenophobia, racism and misogyny. The Libertarian and Green parties may be the vehicle for such and effort, or they may continue to approach the electoral process from the margins, continuing to relegate themselves to low single digits.
Central to this is the spoiler argument. As I outline at VotePact.org/about -- the imperative is to develop a campaign that draws support from both the anti-establishment left and right. Doing so in effect siphons off votes in pairs from the establishment Democrat and psudo-anti-establishment Trump campaigns. At the very minimum, such an effort gives voters leverage. Absent such efforts, Wheeler's comment about inequality ceasing to be a campaign issue will likely prove tragically prescient.