Putin did not create Trump; nor did he create a situation in the US where a candidate like Trump could get so much traction. Rather, in an election that was won on the margins, Russia was deeply and undeniably active in those margins; and that was enough to influence the outcome. That much should be clear to anybody who has spent time around campaigns, appreciates how close this race was or simply can do long division, or frankly, addition and subtraction.
Significantly, most of the strategies employed by civil society such as mobilizing people for elections, seeking to put pressure on members of congress, lawsuits and the like, rely upon functioning, and sometimes even sympathetic, political institutions. In the US, civil society has drawn much of its strength precisely from being able to operate in relationship to consistent and rational government institutions. After January 20th, the political space for this will continue to shrink. We already see a Republican congress that is extremely reluctant to look into conflicts of interests, and the ties between Trump and Moscow that would, in previous eras, be major and enduring scandals. Because of Republicans in the Senate who refused to do their constitutional duty and hold hearings and a confirmation vote for President Obama’s Supreme Court appointee last year, Trump will inherit a vacancy on the court. It is all but certain he will fill that vacancy with a very conservative judge, thus making it more difficult for civil society organizations to win cases in front of the country’s highest court. Lastly, that court will very likely support GOP efforts in key states to pass more voter suppression laws, making electoral strategies less likely so succeed.
The scope and unprecedented nature of this development has raised challenges for both parties. It is clear now that President Obama should have risked accusations of playing politics and more aggressively drawn attention to Russia’s hacking in October when the intelligence agencies became more certain that Russia was, indeed, doing the hacking. The Republicans, with a few exceptions, have made the mistake of simply denying the findings of the intelligence agencies and of supporting Donald Trump, the beneficiary of this hacking, as he tries to distract and bully his way out of this scandal. For both parties, and all Americans, the question of what to do now is not an easy one to answer.
Treating Trump like any other President is exactly what is needed for Donald Trump to gain initial successes in his efforts to rollback American democracy, follow through on his threats to limit constitutional rights and to make sure nobody looks to hard at that Russia issue. However, to cover these, and other issues properly, journalists and others in the political class will need an entirely new way of thinking about politics. Understanding what terms like democratic elections, election fraud, international democratic standards, conflict of interest, kleptocracy and democratic rollback, semi-authoritarianism really mean, and what they look like in the American context is absolutely essential to understanding, and properly covering, the coming Trump presidency. These are the concepts that will provide the best guidance for understanding the Trump presidency.
The revelations about Russia’s role in our recent election confirm what many suspected during the campaign. The revelations answer some questions that have been raised in recent days. For example, it is now clear that Jill Stein, who is also cozy with Russian President Vladimir Putin, took such an active role in calling for recounts to take attention away from the real story. Similarly, we now know that people like Senator Bob Corker and Mitt Romney, whose views on Russia are firmly in the mainstream of Republican foreign policy opinion, were never really in the running for Secretary of State, but were fodder for media speculation before President-elect Trump decided upon Rex Tillerson, a man with a close relationship with Putin, for that key position.
Move beyond the Clintons. For a few aging Democratic insiders, the Clinton name is still magic, but for everybody else, for better or for worse, the brand is strongly identified with scandal and ethical shenanigans. Additionally, thanks to this recent campaign, there are probably many female voters younger than 40 for whom Bill Clinton is primarily viewed as a sexual predator. Despite this, there are some in the Clinton’s world who think Chelsea Clinton should run for Congress, presumably as the first step in a more ambitious political career. The main reason, however, that the Democratic Party must move beyond the Clintons, is that the brand of center right politics on which Bill got elected and reelected in 1996 has no place in today’s Democratic Party, or for that matter in Trump’s Republican Party. The sooner the Democrats can finally get beyond the Clintons, the sooner the Party will stop having to defend what a decade of Democratic governance that looks much more problematic from 2016 or 2017 than it did from 1999 or 2000. For this reason, the only Clinton who should even appear at the next Democratic convention is George.
During the raft of protests following Donald Trump’s election victory, one of the frequent chants was “this is what democracy looks like.” Protesters chanting that were correct to remind us of the centrality of freedom of speech and assembly to any meaningful notion of democracy. Unfortunately, almost two months before Donald Trump will be sworn in as president we are beginning to see what democratic rollback looks like as well. A lot has been written about what might happen to democracy during a Trump administration, but we should not let that overshadow what is already happening to our democracy.
The truth is that the Democrats continued to reach out to white working class voters, and to offer policies aimed at helping them, long after these voters abandoned the Democratic Party. What the Democratic Party did not do, is walk away from their, admittedly sometimes inadequate, commitment to civil rights for people of color, women and LGBT voters. Those commitments, and the willingness of an increasingly emboldened Republican Party to exploit hatred and fear at every turn, are what has cost the Democrats white working class votes.
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.