Now that the Republican Party’s moderates have demonstrated their political weakness, it’s time to consider what Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio might mean for the future of U.S.-Russian relations.
Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who announced about his departure from the 2016 race last week, gestures as he addresses a gathering during a campaign stop in Manchester, N.H., on Feb. 1. Photo: AP
Even though it was long expected, Republican candidate and ex-governor of Florida Jeb Bush’s decision to withdraw from his presidential campaign was the center of media attention last week. The fact that Bush was unable to consolidate any meaningful support – despite all his early advantages - means that his rivals billionaire Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) are now the favorites to win the party nomination. And this turn of events means that today’s situation in the Republican Party is nothing short of a tragicomedy.
The Republican tragicomedy
U.S. President Barack Obama’s relative political weakness and real hatred from the Republican Party’s conservatives led to the formation of an unprecedented number (17) of official candidates for the Republican nomination.
Among those were both moderate representatives of the establishment (first of all, Bush, Rubio and also governor of Wisconsin Scott Walker, governor of Ohio John Kasich, governor of New Jersey Chris Christie), and very rightist populist leaders appealing to the conservative activists of the party (Texas senator Ted Cruz and Kentucky representative Rand Paul, ex-governor of Arkansas Michael Huckabee, ex-senator for Pennsylvania Rick Santorum, as well as religious activist, Dr. Ben Carson).
Such a state of affairs is pretty typical for Republican primaries: moderate candidates, supported by party officials, against ultra-rightist populists. These ultra-rightist populists are capable of winning the early primaries, thereby seriously weakening the eventual nominee with their criticism and moving the party program to the right, from the center to the edge of the political spectrum.
But this time, the sensation was the formation of the group of “informal” candidates. Three of them have never ever been professional politicians (Trump, neurosurgeon and religious conservative Carson and ex-Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina). The fourth candidate, an ultraconservative populist, Cruz, has always positioned himself as a party rebel, distancing himself from the party elite. It became clear that the Republican electorate, too, got tired of the duplicity of professional politicians and the system in general.
As the result of New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, five people remain afloat in the Republican race, with Trump the obvious leader. His main competition is now Cruz, who’s also trying to play the populist card. But at the same time, he is supported by ultraconservative religious circles. He has to fight Carson for their support, even though the chances of the latter winning are rapidly decreasing. With Jeb Bush now suspending his presidential campaign, his votes may go to Rubio and it’s not impossible that the latter would be fighting Trump and Cruz for that support.
The Trump phenomenon
All the carefully built political selection structure of the Republican Party crushed nearly at once when construction magnate, TV star and billionaire Trump entered the Republican race.
Smug and self-sufficient, he, unlike professional politicians, does not rely on sponsors, speaks normal human language and not political jargon, openly jeers at his competitors and fellow Republicans and is not afraid to discuss topics politically dangerous in the U.S., including the position of racial and sexual minorities and women.
The fact that he’s supported by about one-third of Republicans shows even better than Bernie Sanders’ success among the Democrats to what degree the American electorate is tired of careful, “politically correct” and very monotonous professional politicians of Washington.
Republican authorities are in dismay – Trump confused all their plans, pulled the attention of the press towards his campaign, and discredited a number of influential official candidates. At the same time, for many he’s not conservative enough ideologically. But his aggressive political platform against migrants, especially those from Latin American and Muslim countries, can lead to the Republicans losing the votes of that electoral group.
A realization of this reality forced the Republican authorities to first bet on the candidates who could rely on the support of Spanish-speaking electorate – such as Bush, married to a Mexican woman, fluent in Spanish and known for his liberal views on immigration problems, and Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, a young conservative senator from Florida. Populist senator Cruz, much more rightist and hard to govern, also has Cuban roots.
The Republicans and foreign policy issues
Given the influence in the Republican party is with a bloc of social conservatives who tend to push democratic values all over the world and are full of messianic faith in their own exceptionalism, their victory would bring nothing good for Russia. Even at the earliest stages of the campaign the Republican candidates were competing in demonstrating the U.S.’s decisiveness and uncompromising stand towards such countries as Russia, China, some Latin American and Middle Eastern countries.
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For instance, Rubio suggested refusing to talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a number of candidates demanded the shipment of arms to the Ukraine and to Sunni opposition groups in Syria, on which the West places its hopes.
In the meantime, Trump has completely changed both the “volume” and the semantic direction of the primary discussion in the sphere of foreign policy as well, putting immigration at the center of his election platform and describing the situation in terms that not a single career politician would dare to use before him. That influenced the positions of many other pretenders, forced to formulate their views on the problems the discussion of which they would rather avoid for as long as they could.
All that became a real nightmare for the Republican leadership, who’s still tied – from the one hand, Trump gets real and relatively solid support among the party’s activists, and that’s why it won’t be possible to “push” him away within the scope of a competitive elective system. He’s also almost entirely independent from the party top in the matter of resources. On the other hand, the scariest scenario would be Trump leaving the party in case of a conflict with the Republican authorities and his future positioning himself as a “third party” candidate.
That’s why the party authorities use a wait-and-see attitude, hoping that Trump would get himself into a scandal, or some serious compromising evidence would pop up, or the electorate would simply get tired of his stunts. Indeed, according to the standards of American election campaigns, Trump broke through pretty early – usually such bright and controversial figures don’t reach the finish line. But today it’s absolutely clear that Trump is for real and will stay for a while. And that’s why Republican leaders are starting to look at him closely – what if that’s their chance?
Speaking from the standpoint of U.S.-Russian relations, it is doubtful that a victory of a Republican candidate would scarcely benefit Russia. Most of them take a negative stand towards Putin and appear uncompromising in their views about Russia.
It looks like Trump’s victory, which seemed inimaginable not long ago and now is pretty possible, could positively influence U.S. policy towards Russia. Not overloaded with Cold War stereotypes, Trump also has a vast experience in business partnerships with foreign countries and looks at the world with a view of a realistic technocrat. He has spoken multiple times of the necessity to sustain normal relations with Russia and have a dialogue with the Russian leadership. Of course, there’s no full guarantee that such tractability would persist if he wins the White House.
Among the other Republican candidates that would continue the primaries fight there are few with adequate foreign policy expertise. Cruz, just as Trump, gives the impression of a cynical realist, and his implacability with the Russian government may turn out to be a cover for a rather realistic dialogue – as it already happened with former U.S. presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Speaking about the more ideological and less competent Rubio, it may so happen that he would work up the ideological rhetoric, and that could lead to consequences rather dangerous both for Russia and the world.
Meanwhile, even at this point we are just at the very beginning of the long road to the final party nomination. So time will tell. One thing one can say with certainty– this election cycle won’t be boring, especially for Russia.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.