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Southern Discomfort: Why the US presidential election is a lot like a bad MTV dating show

Illustration by Deshi Deng

During the US presidential election, a clever dating app, Maple Match, has leveraged on the fear of a Trump presidency in order to drive Americans to use the (Canadian) match-making service. In other words, for those considering leaving the US because they don’t wish to live under the tyranny of an orange reality TV caricature, there is a streamlined route for residency North of the border — marry a Canadian! While the welcoming gesture is undoubtedly appreciated, the “threat” of a Northern migration by the cowboy neighbor is not particularly new. It is mostly a suggestion for comic relief (paired with claims of an impending fascist takeover.)  And that influx of citizenship seekers definitely won’t happen on any significant scale, particularly in this case for one primary reason:

Trump will not win.

This is especially evident if you consider a Canadian approach to US affairs. The perspective of a nearby outsider, typically one characterized by objectivity and pragmatism, is quite valuable right now. Much like a school kid with a dramatic lab partner, the former may be able to stay out of the immediate blast radius while maintaining a safe enough distance to attain close insights on the latter. In other words, being one step removed from the childish chaos helps provide a realistic view of the situation.

Why Trump Will Not Be Elected

The Republican primary has played out like a mid-2000s MTV dating show featuring several men per woman. One where the natural match imbalance and a unique collection of egotistical bros catapults the group into a competition of extremes. Imagine for a moment that you are one of these men and that you have beat out all the competitors vying for the affections of Lady Liberty. Now, imagine she introduces you to her best friend, who you have to win over as well in order to secure a second date. Removed from the preceding battle of the fittest, this friend is a more neutral party. This friend is closer to the margin…

Similarly, once the Republican primary is won, the Republican nominee will have to win the approval of friends at the margins in the general election. In the spirit of pragmatism, let us consider the trends and probability based on the numbers. History tells us that US elections are won at the margins. It tells us that, typically movement at the middle decides elections. That is to say that the respective two bases (of a two-party system) remain relatively constant and that those more moderate (and, well, movable) tend to be the ones moving.

This middle man voter is what you otherwise have heard described as the swing state(s). Michael Moore, arguably one of the most leftist figures in American media, recently penned a five-point letter explaining matter-of-factly why Trump would win, citing the candidate’s appeal to Midwest states, some swing because he has promised the return of industrial-era jobs. But Michael Moore is wrong. Why? First, because the numbers don’t lie. Trump is technically too far behind (even with the addition of a few votes added in the Midwest.) He was never predicted to be ahead in Electoral College votes. Trump’s rise within the Republican Primary said little about how any Republican Party candidate would perform against Hillary. And no Republican has ever come back from this far behind.

With the Republican primary behind us, a candidate that invested so much in extreme rhetoric to elevate himself and unify a base must, ironically, move toward the middle and close the gap (in these swing states.) Just earlier this month, Trump’s position on immigration, one of his most well-known and controversial positions since practically the start of the campaign, is reported (by NPR, Univision and the like) to have become more moderate. If not moderate, certainly more ambiguous. Meanwhile, his support at the base is wavering. In recent weeks, electors in Texas and Georgia, typically party-faithful voter states, have spoken out about their discomfort with otherwise disqualifiable speech from a presidential candidate. It is not particularly novel that an elector would threaten to cast their vote another way, but it comes at a time when Trump desperately needs to be adding new electoral votes, as opposed to fighting for votes he presumably had acquired already.  

Furthermore, Trump has more to lose from his base and the middle to a third party candidate because, in this case, the leading third party candidate draws more support from conservatives.  The numbers just are not there. Simply put, Trump must run past the former Republican nominee’s position at this stage in the general election, and he is desperately fighting from behind. Any candidate would have to be in a full sprint at this stage, and Trump is listlessly jogging.

Why You Should Still Be Concerned    

If we consider, once again, the suitability of the MTV dating analogy, you might find yourself asking, “Why would I, or anyone, even be playing this high school-ish game?” “Do the Americans really behave in presidential elections as they do in reality TV?” How is it exactly that the events of this election represent the posture of the people? And where (or who) is the moral compass? With a presidential candidate who not only leverages the uncivil (and often abhorrent) behavior of the masses, but often sparks it, this begs the question: Has the time passed when the nation’s leader will serve as a moral compass?

Susan Faludi, in her 1999 book Stiffed: the Betrayal of the American Man, described a consumer cultural evolution in America where ideals of loyalty, team play and vocational excellence were replaced by, “a competitive individualism… robbed of craft or utility and ruled by commercial values that revolve around who has the most, the best, the biggest, the fastest.” She, in many ways, illustrates the gradual decline of the citizen and the commonwealth. Veteran American journalist and commentator, Bill Moyers, drawing from Susan’s well-studied observations, suggested that Trump is the poster boy for this projection of a man, characterized primarily by greed and a disdain for any check to one’s word or promise. “Trumpism,” states Moyers, “represents a model of public life which replaces citizens as makers of democratic society with a transactional politics that asks only, ‘what’s in it for me?’” At the core we see a model of man practically devoid of citizenship as we know it, which probably says a lot about someone that aspires to be public servant number one.

Fareed Zakaria, radical centrist journalist and author, recently went to great lengths to reiterate points made by moral philosopher and former Princeton professor, Harry Frankfurt (who himself used Trump as a case study), explaining why Trump is a “bullshit artist” and why bullshit is more an enemy of truth than lies. And the implication by Zakaria is that Trump is more dangerous to the country morally than a well-practiced liar. But is this not just another point to prove Faludi’s rationale about the devolution of the American citizen? The morality of candidates now, in an age of heightened visibility on the lives of individuals, is not only increasingly fluid but also less important to voters. The rise of the anti-villains in entertainment, the frequent reinventing of the individual brand, the pivot of a corporate mission, for example, all point to an irrational grace applied to the wrongs and evils of one’s past, just so long as it wasn’t too recent. This may be an illustration of deep moral flexibility, which resembles Faludi’s model man: a person concerned with the transaction more than the character. And it is troubling to think this flexibility would be applied to our standards for the nation’s leaders.

So, Canada ought to be warned — this shift, this milestone in American politics poses a real challenge. Despite the beautiful bromance between our Prime Minister and the current American President, we should not make the US the high school boyfriend; the immature, ego bro boyfriend. Already, so much of Faludi’s consumer culture appears to permeate pop culture. Let’s not get to a point where it starts to pollute the political process.

Why There is Hope

Imagine you actually made the ego bro your high school boyfriend. Then imagine you are asked to go to the dance at another school. Suddenly, it dawns on you: There are other fish in the sea! There is an entirely different school!  

While Trump’s appeal is tapping into a deepening divide between citizens and a government, record amounts of people have showed up to the polls during the Republican primary. This is to say, engagement in the political process is on the incline. Similarly, voices in media, even at the very end of the spectrum, may use frightening speech and suggest scary potential scenarios but at least they are “scaring” voters into participation, a privilege the majority of Americans take for granted.

Moreover, young people’s response to Bernie Sanders’ campaign — a platform focused on the improvement of public works — suggests a generation and real movement hungry for the commonwealth. This is to say that people may be ready to buck the (self-centered, consumer-oriented) system. Also, with the increasing popularity of a third-party option, participation without the endorsement or conditioning of mainstream media reinforces ideals of citizenry. And then there is the standard of leadership set by other nearby leaders, such as Prime Minister Trudeau, who maintain a business-politic characterized by intelligent civil service and discourse. It is for these reasons that give us cause for hope, and maybe consider the fact that there is an entirely different school and other, better fish in the sea.