Despite the unprecedented Clinton-Trump race, Hawaii’s 2016 political campaign has been very much like the campaigns in almost every election here in at least the past 20 years — calm, quiet, lethargic and likely uninteresting to most potential voters.
You might be tempted to see Hawaii’s relative lack of political buzz as blissful relief. Who needs to be exposed to more junk about Donald or Hillary? Lucky you live in the islands where the palm trees sway and the presidential candidates stay far away.
Resist that temptation, because Hawaii’s 2016 campaigns are evidence of a darker, more limiting side.
Our calm is a false peace concealing important things that are misunderstood or just plain wrong about our politics. Actually what we have isn’t calm. It is doldrums.
Hawaii’s political life is dead in the water.
One of the leading causes of this death is the state Republican Party, which no longer participates in political discourse in any significant way.
The state’s GOP has gone silent.
Neither Supporting Nor Opposing Trump
This is how odd and dysfunctional things have become. In other places, Republicans get criticized for talking up Donald Trump. Hawaii is likely the only place where we should be critical of the GOP for not talking about Trump enough –really at all. Or about anything important pertaining to 2016, for that matter.
Tea party people and other conservative rivals like the Hawaii Republican Assembly call the state’s Republican leaders RINOs — Republicans in Name Only.
In fact, a better description of the state GOP is PINOS — Party In Name only.
What Republicans believe and do in Hawaii is a well-kept secret, and the biggest keeper of the keys is the party leadership itself: GOP leadership as super-secret squad.
There are some conservative voices like Sam Slom, Rick Hamada, and HIRA (an organization that Republicans Party regulars treat as a fringe group nemesis.) That’s about it for visible representatives of conservative beliefs.
Two bad things result from this silence of the elephants. First, it offers no alternatives to the consensual, sort-of-liberal politics in the state.
Second, that lack of discourse about Trump conceals some very important things about both Republicans and the state as a whole, things that we need to understand in order to better rid ourselves of the usual myths and conceits about this place.
Like the way folks here view Hawaii’s Trump voters.
Donald Trump easily won the Hawaii GOP caucus with 43 percent of the votes, about the same percentage he was getting in other states at the time.
No one, certainly not any Hawaii GOP official, has explained why Trump did so well here.
The usual explanations for this — more spin than substance — is self-serving: Democrats crossed over; those Trump supporters are not like us; don’t worry, because he has no chance of getting the nomination.
The typical Hawaii Democratic explanations were: the state’s Trump supporters are haoles, religious fundamentalists and racists.
Hints From the Poll
All of those explanations are at best unproven, and likely wrong, as The Civil Beat Poll suggests.
It shows that Trump supporters are in fact quite ethnically diverse, and that Haoles support Trump less than do other groups.
Overall, only about 25 percent of Hawaii’s likely voters say they will vote for Trump. The percentage that favors him is slightly lower among whites (21 percent), but much higher than that among Hawaiians (40 percent) and Hispanics (63 percent).
You would not want to go to the bank with these findings, because the number of people in each of these categories is rather small.
Ethnically, Trump supporters in Hawaii don’t seem to have a lot in common with those on the mainland.
Yet the findings certainly suggest that people should not simply dismiss Trump voters here as old white Republican stalwarts, snooty Kahalans, uneducated Eastern Kentucky-like redneck miners, white nationalists, or the usual lists of suspects we name in order to reassure ourselves about our political world.
Or putting it more bluntly, we are clueless. We know next to nothing about Trump supporters in Hawaii, and reassure ourselves by making explanations up and by focusing on the fact that Trump is going to get creamed here.
“Trump’s gonna lose. Great! Now we can get on with our lives.”
That sounds like ignorance, shortsightedness and self-deception to me — and a guarantee that Hawaii’s political life will remain dead in the water.
Of course this is not all the state Republican Party’s fault. Serious political assessment and critique have never played much of a role here — no Hawaii political pundits from the right or left and all too few public intellectuals who look at Hawaii’s political life in broader, more empirical ways.
But for goodness sake, a political party — even a minority party — that appears to have gone mute and underground?
Don’t think about this as the “need to maintain a vital two-party system.” That’s too civics-lesson and too sterile—a dispassionate cliché.
Think of this as a Republican failure that contributes to the further diminishing of our civic life.
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Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.