Covid-19 this week has claimed a high-profile victim. Herman Cain, ballistics analyst, pizza executive and presidential candidate, has died from the disease at the age of 74. He had tested positive to the virus a month ago, not long after attending Donald Trump’s major indoor rally on 20 June – at which he was apparently less than careful about wearing a face mask.
As I said once in relation to Fidel Castro, “Death is the universal human predicament; respect in the face of death is never inappropriate.” It would be entirely wrong to suggest that Cain deserved what happened to him or to wish a similar fate on any of his ideological associates.
That said, one might at least hope that the loss of one of their own in such a fashion might induce some soul-searching in the Trump camp. If their cavalier attitude towards the disease has been driven in part by the thought that most of the harm is done to their political opponents, this might help to bring some of the reality home to them.
Cain, however, deserves to be remembered for more than the manner of his passing. His run for the presidential nomination, although a failure, revealed important things about the character of the Republican Party and helped pave the way for Trump’s success four years later.
The 2012 primary contest was in a sense the opposite of 2016. The latter started with an extremist front-runner – Trump – and a succession of challengers (some relatively moderate, some extremist in different ways) trying to overtake him. All of them failed: not because Trump had overwhelming support, but because the anti-Trump vote was never able to settle on a single alternative to coalesce around.
In 2012, however, the early front-runner was a moderate, Mitt Romney, and the contest involved a series of rivals trying (ultimately without success) to garner the party’s extremist vote so as to beat him. Trump himself was an early favorite to do so, but he soon ruled himself out. Then Michelle Bachman and Rick Perry in turn shot to the lead in the polls, only to crash and burn.
Cain was the fourth anti-Romney. In due course he suffered the same fate, helped by a sexual harassment scandal from his days as CEO of Godfather’s Pizza. But in the meantime he showed himself to be something rather different from the usual run of presidential candidates.
Jon Chait argued at the time that Cain was not serious about being president, but was using the campaign as a business opportunity to enhance his career as a motivational speaker and conservative pundit:
The plan involves Cain raising his profile as a conservative personality, which he can monetize through motivational speaking, book sales, talk shows, and other media. Cain’s selling point is that he’s a black conservative who can capitalize on the sense of white racial victimization that has mushroomed during the Obama era. …
Cain is exploiting a loophole which allows a person to declare their candidacy for president, and then attract free media coverage and participate in nationally televised debates simply because the media can’t prove that they’re not really trying to win.
Some of that may already sound familiar. In response, in words that now seem prophetic, I suggested that lack of seriousness was not a guarantee of failure:
Maybe seriousness is not what the voters are looking for. …
[U]nhappy with more moderate candidates, especially Romney, Republicans are expressing their feelings in the most outrageous way they know how, by saying they would even vote for a black man.
But again it simply doesn’t follow that such attitudes couldn’t propel Cain to the nomination. If you’re driven by anger to threaten something completely crazy, what better way to show how genuine you are than by actually carrying out the threat? The more Republican voters are told, in effect, “You can’t be serious!”, the more their attitudes might harden.
It didn’t work for Cain – probably to his great relief. But four years later, with the Republican electorate even more embittered by a second term of the Obama presidency, those same voters reacted just as I had said. Trump, to his own surprise and to the shock of his party’s leadership, was the beneficiary.
Cain never seemed to show any ill-will to the man who had made his trick work. Perhaps he felt sorry for him; in any case, he became a loyal Trump supporter. Last year Trump offered him a seat on the Federal Reserve Board, but Cain withdrew when his prospects for confirmation by the Senate looked uncertain.
Trump paid tribute to him yesterday, calling him “a powerful voice of freedom and all that is good.” But Evan McMullin, the independent conservative candidate in 2016, was perhaps more to the point when he described him as “the first senior casualty of the science denial Trump cult.”