The last reason I got this wrong is the most upsetting. My 16 year old self, the one with hair halfway down his back, running around San Francisco spouting radical political slogans would have gotten this right, but I didn’t. The things I believed then, that a big majority of white America was racist, that a clownish authoritarian could get elected president and would surround himself with white supremacists, made many see me as some kind of left wing nut back then. Turns out that version of me was right.
Before we panic too much we should recognize the possibility that given how little Trump knows about governance, me may just turn the government over to Vice-President Mike Pence, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader. It is an extraordinary reflection of what is happening in to our country that a lifelong left wing Democrat sees governance by what would be the most right wing triumvirate in American history as a hopeful outcome, but it is better than the enduring damage there is good reason to believe a more engaged President Trump will inflict on our democratic institutions. We have survived right wing governments led by the likes of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. They too seemed frightening and dangerous; and they did long lasting damage to our country, but our democracy survived. However, neither of those ideologues ran against the mores, conventions and attitudes that make our democracy function. Nor were they hyper-sensitive, angry at the world, or convinced that the world was rigged against themselves personally. Trump is, and he will go back to those wells of hatred and intolerance whenever he wants to mobilize his base, or perhaps simply when he gets bored.
That, unbelievably, is not the major problem the US will face even if Clinton wins. The most immediate challenge Clinton will confront is how to walk America back from the brink. She will come into office with a substantial minority who, encouraged by Trump’s irresponsible rhetoric, will believe that her presidency is not legitimate. Additionally, Trump’s efforts to undermine faith in American democracy and to embolden the most racist and bigoted people in the US could guarantee instability and an authoritarian movement that could get even bigger.
Although Friday’s events are not going to make Donald Trump the President, they are a reminder of some of the challenges Clinton will face when she gets in the White House, and not just from the Republican Party. The trust issues that have always dogged Clinton and the way she and her husband have long danced up to the line of what is illegal, while frequently crossing ethical boundaries, is real. It is true that much of this is exaggerated by conservatives who have hated the Clintons for decades, but these conservatives hated Barack Obama just as much and his administration was far less enveloped in scandal than Bill Clinton’s. It is also true that there is a no small amount of sexism that fuels this attitude towards Hilary Clinton, but her husband encountered much of it as well, and he is a man.
As this campaign, the nastiest in a very long time, comes to a close, activists, leaders and elected officials from both parties must wrestle with the lessons of this election and determine where to go from here. The lessons of this election, however, are contested and depend very much on how each party answers a similar, almost parallel question. For the Republicans, the key question about this election is whether Hillary Clinton is a pathological liar who prima facie should not hold high office and who represents a threat to the US, or whether she will be a President with whom they will disagree on many issues, but with whom they can work. Democratic leaders and activists are asking whether the abomination and threat to the democratic process that is Donald Trump is an aberration that grew out of the quirks of this year’s primary season or whether he is the natural development of a party that played footsie with bigots for more than a generation and through efforts to limit voting rights, massively increase surveillance and lead the US into a foolish and illegal war, has been betraying American democracy since the Bush administration.
This is relevant because as the campaign progressed it is becoming clear that if Trump were not running for office, but had drawn the attention of a good investigative reporter, or an ambitious Attorney General, like, for example, New York’s whip smart, hard-working and progressive Eric Schnederman, he would very likely be facing substantial civil, and possibly criminal charges for how he used his charity, the con that was Trump University, nonpayment to many vendors and most significantly, a decades long history of sexual assault of various kinds.
Lincoln Mitchell and Bobby Curran discuss MVP voting, the NL wild card game and Will Big League Baseball Survive.
We have now become a political community where we literally cannot remain focused on the possible criminal behavior of a candidate for the highest office in the land for more than a few days. It turned out to be timely for Trump that the debate was scheduled for Sunday, but if it hadn’t been the debate it would have been something else. Thus far he has changed the conversation about his anti-Mexican comments by breaking new ground in Islamaphobia, has drawn attention away from the Trump University ripoff, remember that?, by revelations about his campaign’s ties to Russia. Sunday night was just the latest in this pattern; and we can be sure there will be another scandal that will arise to distract our attention from his ominously nervous body language during the debate. That has been the singular contribution of the Trump campaign to political strategy. He has turned the previous conventional wisdom of “when you’re in a hole stop digging,” into “when you’re in a hole, get out and immediately start digging a deeper one.”
Pence and Kaine debating each other will, on substance, look no different than Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012, but also of Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan in 1984, but it seems pretty clear that by the time the 2020 election rolls around, this partisan dynamic will have changed. Trump’s campaign has demonstrated that the GOP can no longer assume working class whites will vote for their economic royalist policies, while the Democratic primary made it clear that younger Democrats are no longer content with the incrementalism with which the Clintons have defined the Democratic Party for more than a generation. It is not clear what the next iteration of the American political party system will look like. The GOP might look very different after a Trump defeat or victory. It is also possible, although much less likely, that an opening will be created for a new party, but it is very hard to imagine the system returning to what it has looked like for the last 30 years.
Although the policy differences we saw last night were significant, but not much different from what we see in most presidential debates, the differences of style, approach and, yes, temperament remain the real story of this campaign. This campaign is an argument over substance, but it is also one about the state of American political institutions and even America itself. We see this in comment’s like Trump describing African Americans and Latinos as “living in hell, because it’s so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot,” and in the dystopic picture he paints of the American economy. For Trump this is a country in the midst of a war on the police where the middle class economy has collapsed just in the last eight years. These are the fantasies that have driven his campaign from its inception.
The reaction to Clinton’s comments is a reflection that in 21st Century America it is considered worse by many to call somebody a racist than to actually be one. This is largely in part to many overly-sensitive European-Americans who chafe at any suggestion that racism is still a problem in the US. However if we do not view Mr. Trump, a man who has referred to Mexicans as rapists, promised widespread religious discriminations against Muslims, advocated violence against African American demonstrators and supported anti-Semitic themes that are older than our country, as a racist, and if we give a pass to his supporters because they are upset about Hillary Clinton’s emails or the economy, than the word has no meaning at all. In other words, if Donald Trump is not a racist, what would somebody have to do to be considered a racist? And, what is the line that cannot be crossed before people who do not abandon that candidate are not themselves racist? For many Americans, it is already clear that Trump has crossed all those lines.
The incoherence of Trump’s ideas, and his struggles to present them in a reasonably clear and informed way, also preclude what should be a meaningful discussion between the candidates. It would be valuable for the American people to hear the central arguments of the foreign policy establishment, of which there is no better representative than the Democratic nominee, challenged. However, between Trump’s inability or refusal to do anything more than speak in seemingly random superlatives, insults and promises about foreign policy, and Matt Lauer’s obsession with a political scandal about which every American has already made up their mind, we missed this opportunity yet again.
The question of what a wealthy, older and egotistical man chooses to do after losing an election, potentially in a very humiliating manner is not, on its own, a particularly interesting one. It is, however, significant because the fear of being bored and neglected by the media could push Trump into further efforts to destroy the social fabric of the US and undermine our political institutions. Given how much Trump has spoken about the potential for this election being stolen, it is easy to see how he might choose to pursue that narrative as a way to ensure that people pay attention to him. It is also not hard to imagine how Trump could continue to appeal to the most intolerant aspects of his political base to guarantee that at least some people are listening and paying attention to him. This is, of course, speculation, but the last sixteen months have demonstrated that Donald Trump will stop at nothing to pursue his need for attention and his political goals. There is little reason to think an electoral defeat, even a drubbing, will change that.
Perversely, for many months now, the conversation about race has included an examination of the question of whether or not Donald Trump is racist. It is appalling that after months of his words and Tweets, listening to his core campaign messages and observing his efforts to cozy up to, or at the least failure to distance himself from, white supremacists, we are still debating this. It is possible, even now to turn on the television and hear a group of pundits earnestly discussing whether or not Trump is racist. This is a bit like having an earnest discussion about whether or not the sun is hot.
The desire to portray Donald Trump’s campaign as more of an outlier than it actually is partially grows out of a legitimate bewilderment on the part of the media and others both at Trump’s behavior and at how well he has been doing in this election. However, it is also misleading and understates not the degree of racial polarization in this election, but the degree of racial polarization that has characterized American political life, and partisan politics, for decades now. Trump is a racist who has placed intolerance and bigotry at the center of his campaign in a way that is unique in modern times, but he would not have been able to succeed in this endeavor if the Republican Party had been a more pluralist and diverse institution for the last few decades. Moreover, the similarities between this and previous elections, while perhaps not consistent with more interesting election year narratives, demonstrate the enduring strength of our two party system and how difficult it is, even for a candidate like Trump, to disrupt it.
The problem with Clinton’s approach is that it overlooks the reality that many voters, particularly those on the left wing of the Democratic Party, but also some Republicans and others as well, are not happy with the conduct of American foreign policy in recent years, or indeed decades. Bernie Sanders was unable to fully exploit this the primary because he was woefully unprepared to discuss most issues of foreign policy. Nonetheless, the Clinton campaign should be aware that many Democrats support her in spite of, not because of, her record as Secretary of State.
Talk of an intervention or rumors of Trump dropping out will do little to change Trump or damage his campaign. However, the increasing number of Republican politicians, just in the last week or so, who have stated their intention to vote for Hillary Clinton will. People like Meg Whitman and Richard Armitrage send a clear message with their endorsement of a Democrat, that Trump’s temperament disqualifies him for the presidency and that conservatives can survive a Clinton presidency. Those messages will resonate with the more educated white voters that Trump still needs in order to consolidate his white voter base. More importantly, if the news is filled with stories of Republicans who are supporting Clinton, Trump’s numbers will continue to decline thus creating an easy environment for more Republicans to abandon their erratic and not particularly conservative candidate.
It was very difficult to watch that convention and conclude that in the likely event of a Clinton victory in November, the people in that arena and the millions of Americans they represent, will accept defeat easily. Americans have always been proud of our ability to accept political defeat and move to fight another day. There is, however, real reason to think that will not happen this time if Clinton wins. The people in that room do not see the coming election as a hard fought campaign between two loyal Americans, but as a battle between a crooked, dishonest, criminal who should not be allowed to live freely, let alone serve as President of the United States, and a heroic figure who is the only person able to save the country. This is a dynamic that threatens the very core of our democracy.
litical instability is lurking on the sidelines of American political life as well. The frequency of extra-judicial killings of African Americans by police from Staten Island to Baron Rouge, the killing of five police officers in Dallas and, perhaps the willingness of Donald Trump to dance up to, and occasionally cross, the line of encouraging insatiably are all evidence of this. The widening wealth gap, a sense among many that socio-economic mobility is limited, and more general racial and ethnic tensions also raise questions about continuing political stability in the US.
Thus, a political party and conservative political movement that has, often disingenuously, sought to make personal responsibility a mantra for decades, has not held their voters responsible for being taken in by what 2012’s GOP nominee Mitt Romney called a con man. Few conservatives this year have called on their base voters to act responsibly, instead we have been treated to months of reporting and analysis focusing on the dysfunction and problems facing lower income white people and communities across America.