California is not the only part of American now burning. So is the political system. The metaphor “fire” has served a number of purposes for human endeavor, mostly positive. Out West, the fire is tragic, but in human affairs, fire has indicated resolve, purpose, and dogmatic sense of mission, also hard to “put out.”
The political arena is where fire has burned the brightest and where it has played its most dominant role. Today, in the Republican primary campaign, fire is evident. Donald Trump is on fire, and he is burning the rest of the pack into ashes. Turn on the TV; all you get is Trump.
Fire explains failure, success and “burning” desire. In 1996, Colin Powell dropped out of the presidential race, claiming that he lacked “fire in the belly.” Going deeper into history, fire has often been ascribed to America in the world – the weltanschauung. The first official statement of the new Republic offered fire. On April 30, 1789, President Washington’s first Inaugural Address told the country that the American experiment represented “the sacred fire of liberty.” This theme would repeat into the future as though there were a single grey-bearded speechwriter for the ages. In 1809, President Thomas Jefferson told a Washington audience that the United States was “the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up into other regions of the earth.” A century and a half later, John Kennedy electrified the country with nearly-identical rhetoric: “The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it – and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.” Closer to home, George W. Bush, in preparing the war against terrorism, invoked the same image: “By our efforts, we have lit a fire as well – a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.” Not to be outdone, President Obama in his first Inaugural, provided almost the same. The American Founding Fathers, he said, “still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience sake.”
Thus, from the beginning, the greatness of American liberty has been associated with fire. Is the same phenomenon still present today? Does Donald Trump represent the flame of American greatness? He certainly thinks so, his numbers eclipse all the sixteen others, but most political pundits hesitate … and wait.
The image is totally absent from the current campaign, but every Trump comment seems only to “fan the flames.” The rest of the field, in the meantime, seems transfixed, scrambling for recognition and uncertain as to how to fight fire. The Republican leadership, plus Fox News, does not appear comfortable with the specter of a Trump ticket, and even less comfortable with the candidate using his time to bully one of the media’s star anchors. The adolescence of this should be embarrassing to the candidate, but the fire rages. This dominates despite the absence of most of the traditional qualities of candidacy: governing experience, nuanced talking points, measured conversation, respect for others, sophisticated policy options, etc. While, admittedly, few other people are billionaires, calling the remainder of the American government “stupid” and calling analysts such as George Will and Charles Krauthammer “losers” should not be a political virtue. But it is and the fire rages and the numbers climb.
Using the metaphor introduced herein, there are at least three main options available to face the current challenge to the political system as most appreciate it.
First, “fight fire with fire.” The voters are “angry,” and Trump, it is said, has “tapped in” to this. So, therefore, should the rest of the field. Get angry, loosen your language, shout at the camera and identify with the dissonance that, apparently, has provided the “spark” for the current unrest. Have little respect for authority and less for other opinions.
Second, call the Fire Department. Sixteen polished candidates, with combined years of experience and expertise, watching their poll numbers rise and fall a few points does not bode well for the campaign. A concerted effort to expose and diminish a singular appeal might serve to resurrect honest debate and throw “cold water” on the source of the flames. All it takes is one spark (is it Carson?).
Third, let the fire “burn out.” The final resolution of all fires is that they inevitably expire by themselves, with no help from anyone. But the path of the destruction is terrible.
Finally, there is one last option: the eternal flame such as the one that presides over John Kennedy’s grave in Arlington Cemetery. But that is reserved for posterity only. The Donald must wait.
Please note that views of IWP faculty members do not necessarily reflect those of The Institute of World Politics.