There is apparently nothing that Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump will not do or say to sully the nation and its democratic politics, as he campaigns for election to its highest executive office. Consider the following claims he has embraced in recent days:
- He has continued to assert, with no evidence (because there is none), that a sinister conspiracy of the Hillary Clinton campaign and a cabal of international financiers are “rigging” the election against him
- He has argued, with no evidence (because there is none), that Clinton should be impeached if she is elected, as if her election by the American people could not possibly be legitimate
- He has contended, with no evidence (because there is none), that the nation is awash in crime, with much of it committed by a sea of illegal immigrants
- He has suggested, with no evidence (because there is none to date, and very likely to be none that would justify anything like such a comparison), that the emails discovered on a laptop of the former spouse of a senior Clinton aide constitute a scandal “bigger than Watergate”
- In an obvious and ugly paean to racism, he has continued to claim, with no evidence (because there is none), that the polls must be watched by his supporters in America’s cities so that “Crooked Hillary” and her minions will not commit massive vote fraud and deny him election.
Unfortunately, it is easy to find signs of the damage these remarkable anti-democratic and authoritarian fantasies are creating. First, millions of Americans claim to believe him. That fact alone should give those who care about self-governance pause. Whatever their reasons, many voters are ready to cede their birthright of freedom to a pandering demagogue. Second, they not only believe him, but far from seeing him as the empty and unqualified individual he is, they place yard signs on their properties reading “Save freedom: Vote Trump-Pence.” If there is a better example of complete doublespeak in our current political milieu, I have not seen it. Trump, who has shown no respect for the American Constitutional tradition and its democratic politics, and who has repeatedly and consistently lied on matters large and small, even as he revealed nearly complete ignorance of policy concerns, has apparently convinced many citizens he will preserve their freedom. The irony could not be richer or sadder. Third, a share of Americans has taken Trump up on his nativist and racist claims, as, apparently, did the perpetrators who fire bombed an African-American church in Mississippi in recent days and scrawled “Vote Trump” across the burning wreckage. Finally, far too many voters appear willing to continue to hold their government hostage to the nonsensical whims of a would-be demagogue should he not prevail in tomorrow’s election by pressing GOP leaders to do all they can to obstruct governance going forward, including continuing to refuse to fill the current vacancy on the Supreme Court.
It seems more than reasonable to ask how we collectively came to this pass as a people and nation. How can so many not only countenance, but actively embrace such profoundly delegitimating and anti-democratic behavior on the basis of a foundation of lies, conspiracy mongering and scapegoating? At the risk of unduly simplifying a number of complex social trends, I offer a brief review, in no special order, of several of the most significant factors that together appear to have resulted in this dark turn for our national politics and our country more generally. Each must be addressed effectively by the American people and their political leaders, and soon, if these trends are not to inflict long-term damage on our governance institutions.
The Radicalization of the GOP
Dating at least to the mid-1990s and the “Contract with America,” the Republican Party has adopted an ever more strident core ideology that has often sought to hold governance and government legitimacy hostage to its political predilections. The Party’s leaders have demonstrated an increasing willingness to sacrifice even the possibility of governance and the common weal to the pursuit of power in the name of ideological belief. Such has now become a central strategy for the Party and is symbolized by Trump, whose narcissistic cruelty and capacity for bald-faced lies and fear mongering in the name of acquiring power are without precedent in modern American politics.
The Rise of the Conservative Entertainment Complex
Another key trend in our country’s politics has been the rise of conservative talk radio, internet and Fox News media figures who maintain their audiences and earn their salience and paychecks by mobilizing fear and engaging in angry diatribe and conspiracy claims regarding the supposed evils of those who possess political power and with whom they disagree. This industry has developed an out-sized influence in the Republican Party by capturing a significant following among its core supporters. These figures are accountable to nothing except the bottom-line and they have promoted all manner of delegitimating claims and rhetoric, including countenancing Trump’s absurd and unfounded argument that President Barack Obama was not a United States citizen, among many other fatuous contentions. As with Trump, there appear to be no limits to what they will contend and say in their efforts to garner ratings. Democratic probity and reasonableness as well as compromise come the cropper in this turn, as those who follow these media figures adopt their mantra and demand the same of GOP leaders.
Many political experts have noted that only approximately 31 of 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives were actually competitive this selection season. This is so because the parties (and especially the GOP, which dominates state legislatures where the work is done) have so adroitly drawn the districts to favor their incumbents. This is a travesty for democracy and the realization of its premise of one-person-one-vote, and works quite effectively to ensure that the most radical voters in each party will have a disproportionate role in campaigns and elections, and that those they elect are likely to hold views more conservative or progressive than the average American voter. This polarizing trend has made coalition building in Congress much more difficult as it has deepened, even as it has given incumbents more job security and less incentive to compromise and more to grandstand and posture to their base voters.
Even as a right-wing entertainment industry has arisen in recent decades, the remainder of the media establishment has for far too long been willing to countenance fabrications and worse from policy-makers on the view that “voters can decide” for themselves who is reasonable and hold them appropriately accountable. The present campaign has revealed the dangers of this course. Journalism should be about ensuring an informed public and not simply parroting the often outrageous fabrications of partisans. Trump has revealed how problematic this stance can be as he has rallied GOP voters on the basis of completely specious claims about crime, vote rigging, his opponent’s alleged criminality, immigration and much more, and these have been treated by many media outlets as if they were real options and issues. What is now clear is that amidst the many competing media establishments and forms of information that Americans receive each day, simply saying something over and over, however shameful and untrue, will convince some of its truth. Trump is surely a master of this form of demagoguery. The media must take steps to prevent its continued use as a megaphone for democratic malignance.
The media must also address a variant of this concern. Trump has been treated as an equal to Clinton and his often horrific and uninformed stands have been given a gravity equivalent to her far more considered policy plans (whether one agrees with them in every particular or not). In fact, he knows little and is a classic fear-monger. In truth, Americans effectively have one candidate who respects our Constitutional tradition and one who has promised to behave as an authoritarian leader and to trample on civil liberties, due process and human rights in a variety of ways. Whether one likes Clinton or not, she is not a demagogue and has not promised repeatedly to degrade our nation’s democracy or worked actively to delegitimate its institutions, as her opponent has done.
Donald Trump has ushered in a new turn in American politics of shameless lying. He has asserted untruths over and over again, and as noted above, many in the media have treated those as the equivalent of the more substantive stands of some of his primary opponents and of his general election opponent, Hillary Clinton. They are not. They are often complete fabrications designed to appeal to fear or prejudice or worse. But in our canalized media world in which many live in social media bubbles, Trump has convinced large numbers of individuals of many false claims. Worse, in many cases, those assertions are not only untrue, but they have also served to delegitimate our institutions, as in his demonization of Clinton, his statements about President Obama’s citizenship and his many claims about Mexico paying for a wall on our country’s border with that nation, among too many others to recount here. It is not clear how democracy can survive a continuous politics of false claims aimed not only at opponents, but also designed to sow distrust in self-governance. But such is the scenario the nation now confronts as its citizenry heads to the polls tomorrow.
These trends are more than discomfiting and they suggest that every vote will count in this year’s election. All eligible Americans should vote and should send a clear message they are weary of demagoguery and power-mongering, and demand an end to faux populist authoritarian claims. I frankly have been dismayed by how many voters have written or said they would “sit this one out” as they did not like either candidate. This behavior is always unacceptable in a democracy, but never more so than now, when our regime values are under active attack by a demagogue and his supporters. I think of the women in Afghanistan who endured beatings and many hours of standing in line to cast their vote just two years ago, and I marvel that so many people in the United States would abandon their franchise so lightly to those who support a charlatan. This nation deserves better. Whatever the outcome tomorrow, one must hope that GOP and Democratic leaders will demonstrate the courage to govern, rather than to obscure, pillory and engage in all manner of disingenuous ploys in the name of power. They must address the trends outlined here in a careful and open way if the wounds inflicted by this campaign and the politics that led to it are to be healed and our democratic way of life is to continue with some hope of vitality.