Donald Trump being eyed up by fellow Republican presidential nominee Ted Cruz
By Guy Collender
(Modern History, Keble)
It is impossible to avoid the Donald Trump phenomenon and the frantic build-up to the election when visiting the American capital. From endless media coverage about the latest controversy to plastic figurines of the presidential hopefuls, there is no respite from what has become, for many, a source of national embarrassment. Hoardings mischievously read ‘Coming 2016, Trump.’ They refer to Trump’s new hotel, guaranteeing him a presence on Pennsylvania Avenue regardless of the outcome of the race for the White House a few blocks away. Meanwhile, as well as campaign T-shirts and badges, nutcrackers in the shape of Hillary Clinton are on display amongst the souvenirs. The bright packaging reads: ‘No more nuts in the White House.’
This febrile atmosphere shaped much of the discussion at the Alumni Weekend in North America – the first Alumni Weekend to be held in Washington DC. From the views of politicians and scholars during the academic programme to dinner table conversation, politics was the talk of the town. Eagerly anticipated, The State of American Politics was one of the most popular sessions. Despite the ongoing uncertainty in the presidential race, Democratic Congressman Jim Himes claimed to be ‘bizarrely optimistic.’ The former Rhodes Scholar called for a historical perspective. He said: ‘As an optimist, I think people get sensible when electing a president. The populism will come down.’ The alumnus, who completed an MPhil in Latin American Studies when studying at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, acknowledged long-term political challenges ahead, including climate change, but voiced support for political institutions. Congressman Himes added: ‘Don’t take my optimism the wrong way – there are fundamental problems. The question is do we have the apparatus to solve them. I have this sense that the US and the UK share a set of genetic antibodies against fascism.’
Nutcrackers in the shape of Hillary Clinton are on display among the souvenirs
Professor Lisa Miller, John G. Winant Visiting Professor of American Government at Oxford University, recognised the fractures within US politics and the electorate’s frustrations, but she also regarded the extreme candidates as representing a passing phase. She said: ‘We will see the pendulum swing back. The public are not as polarised as the parties are.’ Professor Miller emphasised that competition is healthy for democracies, and she spoke of growing interest in politics.
At the earlier plenary session, called the Politics of the Extremes, journalist and commentator Dr E.J. Dionne said it was unlikely that Donald Trump would win the Republican nomination, and even if he did so, he would get ‘clobbered’ in the general election. The former Rhodes Scholar, who completed a DPhil in Politics at Balliol College, Oxford, spoke of Trump dominating the national debate and grabbing the media attention. Dr Dionne highlighted that globalisation has led to lower wages for the most disadvantaged in rich countries, and he spoke of the challenge to identity from mass migration. He added: ‘We should pay attention to discontent because it speaks to hurt in our country, but we should not exaggerate. Everything is not broken in our country.’
Former Democratic Congressman and Rhodes Scholar, Tom McMillen with Guy Collender
Similar sentiments were also expressed in the Alumni Voices podcast series recorded in Washington DC. Basketball legend and former Democratic Congressman, Tom McMillen, predicted that Hillary Clinton will win the election, but he acknowledged that US politics is ‘very messy.’ He said: ‘The American people are very frustrated. There is a huge element of the American electorate that wants to kick the kitchen table over.’ The former Rhodes Scholar, who studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at University College at Oxford University, also criticised the ‘endless’ campaign cycle in the US.
All these subjects will resurface with more urgency closer to election day when Gerard Baker, the editor in chief of the Wall Street Journal, speaks at the Alumni Weekend in Oxford on 17 September. The alumnus, who studied PPE at Corpus Christi at Oxford University, will deliver a talk entitled The 2016 US general election: will Clinton be trumped? Booking opens on 27 June.
Guy Collender is Deputy Director of Alumni Relations
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Images © Guy Collender, Erin Hughes, Shutterstock