Fareed Zakaria| The Daily Star
Over the years, I have watched campaigns in third world countries in which one candidate accuses the other of being a criminal, sometimes even threatening to jail his opponent once elected. But I cannot recall this happening in any Western democracy until this week. The Republican convention has been colorful and chaotic, but above all, consumed by a vigilante rage, complete with mock prosecutors, show trials and chanting mobs. The picture presented to the world has been of America as a banana republic.We have descended so far, so fast that it is sometimes difficult to remember that this is not normal. It was only eight years ago that the Republican nominee, John McCain, interrupted one of his supporters who claimed that Barack Obama was an Arab and thus suspicious to explain that his opponent was in fact “a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”
Contrast that with the tenor of this campaign, which has been set from the top by Donald Trump, who has repeatedly insisted that Hillary Clinton deserves to be in jail. He even promised that were he elected, his attorney general would reopen the books and “take a very good look” at possibly indicting her, himself having concluded that she is “guilty as hell.” That might have happened in a Latin American country – 30 years ago.
The convention has been dominated by hatred of Clinton because it is the party’s only unifying idea right now. People have chosen a candidate who does not believe in the ideology that has inspired Republican leaders for decades – free markets and free trade, low taxes, limited government, deregulation, welfare state reform and an expansionist foreign policy. In a breathtaking interview with the New York Times, Trump announced that he would not honor NATO’s guarantee of security to America’s European allies, practically inviting Vladimir Putin to destabilize Eastern Europe. That is a break not just with seven decades of Republican foreign policy, but with a core American commitment that has kept the peace since 1945. It is the most reckless statement made by a presidential candidate in modern times.
And yet, it is hardly surprising. Trump doesn’t even pretend to have an ideology. His main idea is that he is great, and if the country elects him, he will make it greater. “Share my glory,” cries Evita in the Andrew Lloyd Webber production, which is what Trump promises his supporters as well. It is ironic that Trump rails against Latino immigrants given that his campaign seems to mirror those of Latin America’s Peronists, believing in the strongman above any set of ideas.
The Peronist feel is reinforced by the cringeworthy emphasis on Trump’s children, who were filmed throughout the convention smiling beatifically and waving at adoring crowds from the royal box (Bill Maher makes a similar point). In good dynastic fashion, they are his key deputies in business and the campaign. As the Washington Post pointed out, “there are as many Trumps speaking ... as sitting senators.” In fact, a highlight of every evening was a speech by a member of the family. And while the family got pride of place, Trump retainers were also showcased. Not one of the Republican Party’s five living former nominees (two of whom were presidents) spoke, but the manager of Trump Winery got a nice slot as did an assistant to the kids.
The Republican Party has given itself up to a single family and its business interests. Its convention has become a prime-time platform for the enhancement of that family’s fame and fortune. Whatever happens to the party, the country and the world, the Trump brand will come out of this election with even greater global celebrity, and thus with many more possibilities to affix its name to condos, golf clubs, suits and phony self-improvement courses. In fact, win or lose, one consequence of this election could be that, finally, Donald Trump will be worth what he claims.
Fareed Zakaria is published weekly by THE DAILY STAR.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 23, 2016, on page 7.