In 2003, California experienced one of the most bizarre political circuses in the state's long history of bizarre political circuses when campaigners agitated for the recall of Governor Gray Davis. The result was a ballot with a "yes/no" vote for the recall — and multiple columns of gubernatorial candidates to replace him. 135 people, including porn stars and of course the Terminator, wound up on the ballot. The election became the subject of guffaws and speculation on national media and complete puzzlement overseas. People made game shows out of it.
For the residents of California, though, the recall wasn't actually all that funny. The financial and social situation that contributed to the recall in the first place was a nightmare for the state, and the administration of the election was marked with numerous problems. When the dust settled, Arnold Schwarzenegger was the governor of California. It was much less a novelty and much more a harsh reality.
The current situation with the 2016 Republican candidates for the presidency is reminding me of California in 2003 in a very uncomfortable way. At a casual glance, some of the candidates seem so ludicrous, with such ridiculous ideas, that they look like easy targets for mockery. The sheer size of the field makes for easy pickings when it comes to poking fun at the election, and those living overseas are having a good laugh over American electoral politics.
But in all seriousness, there's nothing funny about the Republican field, which currently includes 16 candidates, with more likely to declare in the near future. Of those, Donald Trump — yeah, the guy with the funny hair and bigoted comments about Mexican immigrants — is in a decisive lead. Scott Walker and Jeb Bush are right behind him, making up a formidable triumvirate, as it's likely we'll see at least one of these men on the ballot. They're followed by Mike Huckabee, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, and Chris Christie.
A lot can happen between now and the primaries, let alone the Republican National Convention, but one of those people is going to be the 2016 Republican candidate, and that person could win the election — possibly even without resorting to election fraud. One of these people could become the next President of the United States, and if Republicans maintain their hold on Congress, the country could be facing a very strong swing to the right.
This should frighten people. Not just liberals who are nervous about a shift to the right from our current moderate/neoliberal government, but everyone, including most moderates on the right. For liberals, a McCain re-run would be a welcome thing at this point. For at least some moderate Republicans and even those on the stronger end of the right, these candidates represent a political, social, and personal nightmare.
Many of these people aren't just Republican candidates, but far-right extremists who've demonstrated time and time again that they maintain extremely radical conservative values.
While people mock Trump for his comments on Mexican immigrants, they're reflective of the larger Republican field right now. It's staunchly anti-immigrant, anti-woman, and racist. It sponsors regressive economic and labor policy, most notably in the case of Scott Walker, who has been running Wisconsin into the ground. The release of two Planned Parenthood "sting" videos with more to come illustrates that conservatives are eager to whip up the vote, mustering considerable political capital as well as campaign funds from these misleading and sometimes outright false attempts at smearing Planned Parenthood. This won't be the first or last instance of exploiting social attitudes to score political points.
These are issues that should be worrying us. They're not funny. The fact that one of these men is likely to take his hateful attitudes all the way to the presidential debates and possibly into the White House is deeply disturbing.
Media commentators and pundits are pointing to Trump and his ilk as political liabilities for the Republican party, noting that the party's attempt at presenting a moderate facade are failing when candidates like Trump dominate the headlines. He's been especially devastating for the party's efforts to secure the large and growing Latina/o vote, as few people would feel inclined to vote for candidates who demonstrate such naked hatred for them, their communities, and their nations of origin.
But just labeling Trump as a liability suggests that he's the bad apple in an otherwise fairly tame field. The entire Republican field looks like this, though individuals within the field may have slightly varying views on subjects like immigration. Any one of these men would be a terribly regressive president, likely undoing decades of work and definitely many of the significant strides made during the Obama presidency.
President Obama's decision to ram through a variety of social initiatives through executive orders means that the next president can quickly reverse them, and it's a clear certainty that any one of these men would likely undo the Obama Administration's key executive orders within weeks of going into office. Some, like Ted Cruz, have promised to do just that. Any one of these candidates could back a Republican-led Congress into dismantling or defanging ACA and other landmark legislation, and would likely quickly slash federal funding to social programs across the country, leaving the nation's poorest most vulnerable.
Looking at the Republican field today compared to that in 2012 or 2008 illustrates that the GOP's leadership is taking a hard swing right. Tea partiers and the like were once considered a mockable fringe, but today, the words and deeds of the candidates are frighteningly in line with their ideas. This field provides disturbing evidence that even as Democrats become more and more moderate, abandoning many fundamental liberal values and eliminating the possibility of a national liberally-inclined party in the United States, another disturbing trend.
The thin grasp on the basics of the Constitution, American jurisprudence, history, foreign relations, and much more on the part of many of these candidates raises the specter of a nightmarish presidency, one where the nation is led by an incompetent man with far too much power. There's nothing laughable about that — the memories of the Bush years are surely not all that far behind us.
This isn't an argument for unequivocally supporting the Democratic field, which has its own significant issues that need to be dealt with — as Elon James White puts it, candidates need to earn our votes. But we do need to stop giggling over the Republican field and take what the GOP is doing seriously, or we could be eating it in a little over a year, and then, suddenly, nothing is going to look very funny any more.