American politics is having a Howard Beale moment.
The fictional anchorman in the 1976 movie “Network” who famously rails “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” — to the perverse delight of his ratings-obsessed producers — embodies both the tone and the tactics of the 2016 presidential election thus far.
Widespread voter anger at the perceived failures of lawmakers has driven the unexpected resonance of populist messages spread by Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, the celebrity business mogul who holds a commanding lead in the fast-dwindling Republican field.
Deep hostilities vented at President Obama, immigration reform, America’s foreign policy, Muslims, the media, and marriage equality — along with a blanket rejection of anything that smells of politics-as-usual — have been the norm for GOP candidates vying to convince voters they’re tougher and smarter than their opponents.
Perhaps most surprising to observers is that Trump, a former Democrat, has vaulted to prominence despite lacking both political experience and conservative credentials. In fact, his popularity has relied largely on torching the tried-and-true playbook and targeting sacred cows of the GOP establishment, including free trade. Most recently, Trump’s refusal to immediately condemn support from white supremacists has intensified efforts by party leaders and more moderate Republicans to halt his bid for the White House.
It’s a bewildering civil war that many analysts say threatens to derail the party’s quest to retake the White House and could leave permanent damage in the process.
“What’s been remarkable all the way along is that the candidates with the least experience and the most anti-establishment positions are the ones doing the best on the Republican side,” said David Gergen, who served as an adviser to four presidents and is now a senior political analyst for CNN. It’s a dangerous dynamic that “could shatter the Republican Party in the long term.”
“I think there are conservatives and Republicans who know in their bones that the party is going off the rails. You hear [Gov.] John Kasich talk about that quite explicitly,” said E.J. Dionne Jr. ’73, an opinion writer for The Washington Post.
“I think a lot of Republican politicians were eager to use the discontent that the Tea Party and other forces on the right represented, but then found themselves cornered by that very discontent,” he said.