Repeating the question of a French interlocutor, Jay asks: “Is there someone who can defy the two major parties, capture the imagination of the country, and be elected president?”
The good news is: Yes, there is.
The bad news is: Yes, there is, and that’s more or less what Donald Trump did in 2016.
Trump had the good sense to run a Perot/Buchanan/Reform Party campaign inside the Republican party rather than as a third-party or independent candidate.
It would be relatively easy for someone with a little money or celebrity to take over and dominate a third party or independent movement. But if you have a lot of money or—and I think this is the relevant factor for Trump—a great deal of celebrity, you can simply take over the existing infrastructure of a major party, which includes not only the formal party apparatus itself but also the partisan loyalties of institutions and media figures. Hence the very odd spectacle of conservative Republicans of long standing being denounced as “RINOs” by people cheering the candidacy of a man who is literally a Republican in name only.
Democrats have had a good laugh at Republicans over this, but their party is just as vulnerable to celebrity, if not more so. They nominated Mrs. Clinton mainly because she is a familiar face and name, not because she has any particular acumen and in spite of the fact that her policy views are slightly to the right of the current Democratic party consensus. Anyone who thinks Oprah Winfrey or Mark Zuckerberg couldn’t do to the Democratic party what Trump did to the GOP is fooling himself.
It would probably be easier to stage a truly independent candidacy today than it was when Ross Perot tried it. But why would you bother? There really are two main political tribes in the United States, and that sustains the two-party system. It isn’t the other way around.