Recently, I saw a lovely work by one of my favourite artists, Alexander Calder, called ‘McGovern for President’.
The art was created in support of George McGovern’s 1972 US Presidential bid, one which ultimately failed against the political machine of Richard Nixon, a highly intelligent yet ethically flawed man.
It is important because there are some strange similarities to the 2016 campaign.
By 1972, the American protest movement had much of the wind knocked out of its sails. The Vietnam war continued to rage and the question became not ‘would America win’ but ‘how badly would America lose’.
McGovern was a long time anti-war campaigner and his anti-war presidential bid split his party. A group called ‘Democrats for Nixon’ formed who were distressed by their candidate’s anti-establishment message. The 1972 election was the last time a genuinely anti-war candidate got past the primary phase – that is until the election of 2016.
I have grown rather exacerbated by those on both the anti-war left and the right who acknowledge that Hillary Clinton would be the worst President in American history, but say of Trump ‘he’s the lesser of two evils’.
The situation is far more subtle and interesting than that, and a quick look at modern US Presidential elections makes this abundantly clear.
In an age when the military-industrial complex has become the tail wagging the eager political dogs, the fact that even a remotely anti-war candidate could slip past the primary phase of an election is remarkable in and of itself.
During the previous election Ron Paul also attempted to stand as an anti-war Republican, but was successfully sabotaged from the start by a war hungry Republican Party. Yet Donald Trump has been able to exercise political independence due to his high public profile and his personal wealth. He has thus far outlived the political lives of his critics, and may very well win the election.
Just as McGovern split his party in 1972 over his anti-war stance, so too has Trump. But if one wants to find a closer anti-war analogue to Trump, one has to go back slightly further, to the election of 1952.
The 1952 election was the last one of the three formal attempts made by Senator Robert Taft to secure the presidential nomination of the Republican party. Each time he lost to a pro-war candidate.
Taft had a solid and consistent anti-war record. He opposed US involvement in every war America fought during his time in office.
Crucially Taft became a prominent voice opposing the creation and later existence NATO, the Korean War, and the anti-Soviet provocations in Europe.
Taft saw military might as a means to defend one’s own country against an aggressor, not as a means of empire building or as a way of spreading an ideology.
His views had a great popularity in parts of the country, but ultimately he made enemies of the mainstream politicians in both parties and in the media.
Retrospectively, many amongst the US intellectual elite praise Adlai Stevenson, General Eisenhower’s Democratic challenger in both of his elections, as being the ‘voice of reason’ in the first full decade of the Cold War.
But Stevenson was simply arguing for a ‘kinder gentler’ cold war. Taft said that there should be no Cold War at all, and he opposed all of the instruments and institutions of Cold War set up by both the Democrat Truman and the Republican Eisenhower.
Many also look back with undue fondness on Eisenhower, who after overseeing the establishment of the military-industrial complex proceeded to warn Americans against it upon his leaving office.
Taft opposed the creation of the military complex from day one. The credit ought to be his.
Where in 1972 McGovern was the ideologically anti-war candidate of the left, Taft opposed war and military expansion from a deeply conservative perspective. In this he is very much like Trump.
A true definition of conservatism means supporting stability and tradition at home, non-intervention abroad, and a robust defence in the event of a threat of military aggression from a foreign power.
In this sense Trump and Taft are part of a US conservative tradition that has been relentlessly attacked over 60 years of interventionism and hawkishness.
Like Trump Taft was often able to silence his enemies due to his political pedigree. He was the son of William Howard Taft, a former US President and Supreme Court Chief Justice. Had Taft not been born of such a pedigree he might well have been shut up and shut out.
Trump has been able to stand his ground because his personality has been well known for decades before his challenge for political office. His wealth has assured him financial independence from the so-called special interests who control Hillary Clinton’s campaign more securely than a puppeteer controls a Punch and Judy show.
America has changed a lot since Taft’s last attempt to secure his party’s nomination in 1952. It has also changed a great deal since 1972. In 1972, singer Barbara Streisand actively campaigned for McGovern’s anti-war campaign. In 2016 she is campaigning for the biggest war hawk in US presidential election history, Hillary Clinton. In 1972, fine artists like Calder contributed to McGovern’s anti-war effort. Where are such people when it comes to supporting Trump?
Donald Trump is the candidate of peace through strength whilst Hillary Clinton is the candidate of war through chaos and lies.
It is not a matter of the lesser of two evils. The choice is clear.
If you salivate at the thought of war, Hillary Clinton is a highly capable candidate.
If you yearn for real peace and a genuine anti-war candidate, Donald Trump is the best thing America has produced since at least 1972.