An American Tragedy Starring Phony Populism, Megalomania, Lying Hillary And That Basket Of Deplorables
The ascendancy of Donald Trump to the presidency is tragedy. This is because beyond Trump himself — a vile and pathetically borish boy-man incapable of growth, comprehension or compassion — were people who believed he would not only give voice to their angst, he would be able to act on it as president by turning back the national clock.
But lest we forget, lurking behind Trump’s pitchfork posse was a visceral racism, hatred of our black president and misogynistic loathing of the Democratic nominee, as well as a deep anger over the demographic tide going out on the white American hegemony; in fact, anger over change of any kind.
There also were genuine grievances, not the least of which were income disparity and offshoring jobs in an increasingly globalized world. Trump, it seemed, was that rarest of Republicans who understood. He spoke the language of the disaffected. But all his supporters got in return for their unquestioning support was a phony populism, more fear and the ravings of a paranoiac who will have great difficulty fulfilling his campaign promises even with a Republican Congress.
Supporters kept filling the seats at Make America Great rallies and cheered Trump wildly to the end. They didn’t care about the facts any more than Trump did. In a deeply depressing climax to a campaign that began in June 2015 when Trump descended deus ex machina from the escalator of his 5th Avenue penthouse to announce his biggest celebrity stunt ever, Trump did not purge America; America purged Clinton.
Hillary Clinton’s loss is one for the history books, and not just because she was the first woman major party candidate for president an overdue 96 years after women were given the right to vote and fell short despite expectations she would prevail.
While Clinton was unsuccessfully trying to shatter the biggest glass ceiling, Trump was shattering a few barriers of his own, and the yuge-ness of his support, which had seemed illusory from the outset of the general election campaign because he had won a mere 13 or so million votes in the primaries, was just enough to get him over the line.
Donald Trump’s campaign at times seemed to be more like a comedy act, but it was unambiguously a proto-fascistic message of hate-drenched white nationalism that galvanized, yes, a basket full of deplorables.
When it came to domestic and foreign policy, Trump could barely manage the jumble of policy positions ginned up by his advisers and further muddled by his lack of discipline — which is a deeply frightening trait since he is now president-elect — and a never ending series of unforced errors. This despite Come to Jesus interventions where his family, aides and Republican National Committee leaders repeatedly pleaded with him to stick to the teleprompter and not wander into the weeds where he invariably got himself into trouble.
A drearily predictable pattern emerged after Trump had vanquished a field of lightweights in the Republican primaries by preaching a raw wall-building nativism and then faced only Clinton and a suddenly hostile news media (well, some of it, anyway) that belatedly rediscovered fact checking and drilled deeper and deeper through the layers of a seamy past that revealed a man who may never have done an honest thing in his life in inflicting decades of balance-sheet carnage, including cushioning nearly $1 billion in business losses by not paying federal income taxes, ran a shell game disguised as a charitable family foundation, and repeatedly forced himself on women.
If there was a day that best typified the sheer depravity of Trump’s campaign, it may have been September 16.
It had been just another ho-hum week for Trump, who had boasted about his testosterone levels on a television celebrity doctor’s show, accused the Fed chairwoman of corruption, mocked an African-American pastor, again referred to Senator Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas,” again hinted his supporters should shoot his opponent, and again refused to release his tax returns.
Then on the morning of September 16, Trump summoned journalists for a “major news announcement” that turned out to be an infomercial for his new Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. and yet another opportunity to punk compliant cable news channels that had breathlessly gone live.
But before the morning was out, there was much bigger news than that even if it took Trump a mere 31 seconds to deliver it: He grudgingly and unapologetically disavowed his self-made lie that Barack Obama was not American born, but immediately jump started yet another false conspiracy by blaming Hillary Clinton for creating the birther controversy that he himself had ignited and fanned for the last five years in a sick effort to undermine the legitimacy of the nation’s first black president.
And then there was October 7, the day the Access Hollywood hot-mic video surfaced. Trump boasted in vulgar terms about how his celebrity status allowed him to sexually assault women with impunity, and that led to revelations by 12 women that they had been victimized by Trump, an exodus of backers and an announcement by House Speaker Paul Ryan, perhaps the most powerful Republican, that he would no longer defend or campaign for Trump, in effect prematurely conceding defeat for Trump and the party.
To the horror of the party elites, Trump happened to be the very kind of presidential candidate the party’s restive base had been clamoring for after years of being repeatedly stiffed by Bushes, Roves, Ryans and McConnells adept at mobilizing right-wing populist anger while coddling Wall Street and the super rich. And the elites, when confronted with the horrifying reality that their beloved party had become a victim of its own hubris, putting the White House even further out of reach, rolled over and allowed him to diddle them like extras in a bad porn flick.
The down-ticket fallout from Trump’s candidacy was virtually nonexistent. Democrats did pick up a Senate seat, electing the first Latina senator, while Republicans kept a substantial majority in the House and did well in state races.
As Donald Trump misplaced and then tried to regain his primary season swagger, he invariably took the bait dangled in front of him by Clinton and her surrogates.
Chief among them was Barack Obama, who delighted in messing with Trump’s febrile mind as the president’s popularity plateaued in sync with the campaign, and his wife Michelle, who may have delivered the best speeches of the campaign in scolding Trump and beseeching blacks and women to come home to the formidable voter coalition her husband galvanized in 2008 and called on again in 2012. Then there was Bernie Sanders, who belatedly if never completely convincingly supported the nominee.
Taken together, the three presidential debates were the most complete evisceration of a candidate in modern history, not that it mattered.
By the first debate on September 26, the polls seemed to be too close for comfort, but Clinton was dominating where it would matter most — the states with the most electoral votes — and Trump began cratering in many swing states as undecided voters began coming off the fence and opting for her.
That first debate was a catastrophe for Trump because it was his last best opportunity to prove that he was more than an intemperate windbag. But Trump made a fool of himself, falling into the trap Clinton set for him over former beauty pageant winner Alicia Machado while she cooly made the case that her worldview and three decades of public service made her best qualified to lead America over the next four years.
The second debate on October 9 was a tawdry street fight in which Trump wobbled between conspiracy theories, threats, glowering and rage while Clinton struggled to keep her dignity.
That debate was bookended by release of the Access Hollywood video and Ryan’s withdrawal of support and the candidate’s increasingly desperate claims that the election had been rigged by “crooked Hillary” as he crashed in the polls, and then the emergence of his biggest and baddest conspiracy theory of all — there was “a global power structure” of corporate interests, the media and, of course, Clinton herself that was conspiring to doom him.
By the third and final debate on October 19, it seemed to be all over bar the shouting, of which there was plenty.
Clinton was the clear winner, but in a pulse-stopping moment that will go down in history, he thumbed his nose at the American tradition of a peaceful transition of power by refusing to say that he would concede defeat although it was increasingly appearing he would lose.
It did not help that Trump’s shambolic campaign organization became a revolving door as he kept shedding campaign bosses, but in the end that didn’t matter either.
Sane didn’t work, so the campaign tried crazy. When that didn’t work, it went back to sane, and then crazy again as Trump settled on Steve Bannon, an “alt-right” warrior from the Breitbart school of scorched earth politics as his navigator. Bannon was comfortable in Trump’s parallel universe of dystopian true believers and vowed to let Trump be himself. Which he was. Perhaps Trump would have fooled more people if he had listened listened to his saner advisers.
Ever the hypocrite, Trump’s most effective weapon against Clinton was her deletion of 30,000 emails from when she was secretary of state. She asserted those emails were personal, while the FBI concluded no crime was committed and grudgingly reasserted that after FBI Director James Comey’s outrageous 11th hour announcement of the discovery of new emails in a clumsy move reminiscent of the tactics of J. Edgar Hoover. Trump, meanwhile, had destroyed thousands of emails, digital records and documents demanded in official proceedings over the years, often in defiance of court orders.
Trump’s policy panels were filled with right-wing cranks. His spokeswoman was an encyclopedia of false information. His campaign manager clashed with him with mind-numbing frequency, often publicly disagreed with her boss. His inner circle was dominated by ice-cold spalpeens, some with troubling ties to Trump’s favorite dictator, Russian President Vladimir Putin. His ill-fated transition team leader was a disgraced governor who faces possible criminal indictment for the Bridgegate scandal. His war chest was woefully inadequate as major Republican donors turned off the spigot. He further muddled his interests by mixing his business interests with his campaign.
And his ground game virtually nonexistent even if that ended up not mattering.
Hillary Clinton was not a great candidate and seemed to have a predilection for bad judgment, but she ran a disciplined, stay-on-message campaign underwritten by an immense, billion dollar-plus war chest.
Clinton was “historically disliked,” but she never was accused of lacking Trump’s basic decency. Her negatives also had less to do with Benghazi, private email servers, Wall Street speeches, family foundations and the toxic tandem of Huma Abedin and Anthony Weiner than good old sexism.
Clinton has lived a life antithetical to what a lot of us expect of a woman. While she did not make us feel cuddly like women are “supposed to do,” she did not try to hide her ambition while never being boastful about a long career that focused on the needs of the disadvantaged.
Shortly before the polls began closing last night, I reread my post-mortem on the 2012 Romney-Ryan flameout. Although I expected there would be differences between that race and this year’s race, I was blown away by the sheer meanness of the Trump campaign, although I have covered it for the last 16 months.
The complicity of the news media in creating the Trump monster cannot be understated. The media’s most grievous of many sins was to swallow whole the bloviations of the right-ring noise machine that Clinton was corrupt, and by the perverse calculus of this election season that somehow cancelled out the media having to note that Trump was not only unqualified to be president, he was dangerous.
And how a political party could have allowed someone as profoundly toxic as Trump to get so close to the presidency needs to be seriously examined after the last scrap of confetti is swept up. John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as a running mate in 2008 is a distant second, although that extraordinarily cynical decision did pave the way for Trump.
The Republican Party, of course, pretended that Trump was somebody else even when repeatedly confronted with his repugnant behavior.
It is bad enough that he will haunt the country as president and wreak god knows how much damage even if his border wall is never built and the U.S. does not leave NATO. Party leaders — and Mike Pence, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell in particular — should be horse whipped not just for their support of a man who threatens to undermine the very foundations of our democracy, but stood idly by while he consolidated power as did Der Führer in the 1930s, which is one Hitler analogy that is appropriate.
Now that Hillary Clinton has failed to save the country from Donald Trump and America finds itself looking into the abyss, we will have to pray that the republic can save itself.
This is the 163rd and final Politix Update column. I would like to say that it’s been real, but Campaign 2016 was unreal, and in too many respects surreal.
Journalists aspire to live in interesting times, but that can be a curse as this campaign has proven. I’m cooked, but I sincerely thank you for your input, patience and good cheer.
© 2015-2016 SHAUN D. MULLEN
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