(VANCOUVER ISLAND) Political campaigns in the United States have a venerable tradition of being rough, combative, and down and dirty; not for the faint of heart or the thin of skin. In the last few election cycles, though, the race for the presidency has become an exercise in vicious, no holds barred exhibitions of adults behaving like primates flinging their excrement at one another.
The two-party system into which the American political structure has settled has created a style of politics that has degenerated into a shameful gladiatorial display of brutality. Every four years we watch the ritual of bloodletting that starts with having the parties tear themselves apart in the primaries by pitting their higher profile members against one another in a zero-sum, winner takes all slugfest for the nomination. This is then followed up by a cringe-inducing spectacle of the bruised and bloody vanquished mimicking sincerity as they endorse the similarly wounded nominee in a disingenuous spectacle of faux unity.
Then comes the main bout. After a full year of nonstop thrusting, parrying, feinting, and slashing, the nominated combatant of each party chooses a running mate to be thrust into the arena and then, to the sound of taunts, cheers, heckling, and wild applause, locks horns with the other contender. For the next three or four months, vitriolic abuse and accusations of various iniquities are raised, denied, and responded to in kind. Lies are told, fact-checked, and repeated. Rumours are started, spread, and embellished. Characters are assassinated, past sins are blown out of proportion, words are quoted out of context, outrage is ginned up at an awkward turn of phrase, inconsistencies pounced upon, and guilt assigned by association. Opponents do not disagree on matters of policy; they strive not to persuade the electorate of their suitability for the office, but to annihilate their opponent. The last candidate standing is then awarded the golden ticket to the White House and, after a transition period of a couple of months, settles in to govern the most powerful and fractious country on Earth.
The new president now faces people from both parties who are still harbouring resentment and hidden thoughts of vengeance over the personal abuse to which the were subjected during the last year and a half; these people are expected to work together and somehow collaborate on legislating in bipartisan ways. The campaigns are over and it is now customary to treat the vitriolic bellicosity of the previous year as though it was all pantomime. The pitiless ad hominem rhetoric, the ruthless personal attacks, the deliberate poisoning of reputations are all supposed to be forgotten and a new collegial spirit is supposed to emerge in order to govern with only the best interests of the nation as considerations.
It never happens.
On the contrary; old wounds fester and vengeance is planned and prepared to be served up as a cold dish. Partisan animosity prevails and cooperation is only for the cameras. While President Barack Obama was taking the oath of office at his first inauguration in 2008, the Republican old guard, including most of today’s GOP leadership, met to plot their strategy for undermining his administration. The Republican senators and congressmen settled on a strategy of obfuscation and obstruction; they agreed that the party’s only priority for the next four years would be to ensure that President Obama would be a one-term president. When Mr. Obama was re-elected to a second term, they doubled down. Now their stated aim would be to deny their president any accomplishment and to block any initiative he might support. They put it this way: If he was for it, they were against it.
The result was a gridlocked Congress. The 113th and 114th Congresses were among the least productive in the country’s history. The GOP used the previously rarely employed filibuster regularly and routinely to stall any movement on anything their president initiated or even approved of. They willingly brought upon themselves the lowest approval ratings in history; as long as it thrust a stick in the spokes of the Obama administration, they embraced it. Then, without the slightest hint of embarrassment or shame, they screamed for change, arguing that government was ineffective and needed to be reduced to nothing more than the military and a mechanism for enacting legislation to deny human rights to LGBT people, women, and minorities.
And now we have Donald Trump. He saw the dysfunctional, broken American political system and picked up on the acrimonious and hyper-partisan machinations that characterise modern Washington; he thought that he might just be able to increase his visibility and feed his voracious ego in that kind of environment. The infighting, the backstabbing, the personal abuse, all these appealed to him; he would be in his element. In this toxic milieu, he could thrive; he knew he was a master at lies and deception, at reneging on promises and commitments, at insulting and demeaning those who disagree, let alone oppose him. He knew instinctively that the world of national politics was so crippled and anger-filled that someone with his character, or lack thereof, could get in there and push it until it degenerated into an utter, chaotic, demolition derby. And he was right.
No one alive today has seen such a debased, ugly, and hateful exhibition at the highest level of American political discourse. The potential for this degraded spectacle has been there for a long time, and has been steadily increasing, but we might have thought that rock bottom had been reached with the reaction of the GOP to the country’s first black president. If we did, we were wrong. Candidate Trump has embraced that only partly latent bigotry in the country. He has liberated the beast of racial, religious, and gender-based hatred and given permission for divisive odium to be freely expressed. And to ensure that the political arena continues to morph into the hostile, angry, and bigoted environment in which he is comfortable, he deliberately and repeatedly stokes the prejudices and fears of his followers. He points to the ugly chaos he thrives in and tells them that only he can lead them to the Elysian Fields where they will be free to hate and to apply his version of ethnic cleansing by rounding up the Hispanics, the Muslims, and anyone else that pops into his mind.
A Trump victory in November will seal the fate of the American political system. It has been ailing for several decades now; a Trump presidency will sound the death knell for the remnants of the great democratic experiment that is the United States of America.
On the other side of the ledger is Hillary Clinton, a flawed but clearly not venal professional politician. Despite the smear campaign of the GOP, she is not a criminal and no individual in American history has been more thoroughly investigated. There have been active ongoing investigations with Hillary Clinton as a target for 25 years now, and despite the hundreds of millions of dollars and the person years spent on trying to find some dirt that will stick, she has never been found to have broken a law. Most of us couldn’t survive that level of scrutiny; I know I couldn’t. Moreover, as President Obama has pointed out, there has never been a presidential candidate who was as thoroughly prepared for the office of the presidency than Hillary Clinton.
So it comes down to this: Hillary Clinton, certain to be an effective president but perhaps low on the likeability scale on the one hand; Donald Trump, on the other, unconditionally guaranteed to plunge the United States and the world into an economic and moral whirlpool. A Trump presidency could realistically spell an end to any genuine democracy in the USA; he
literally poses an existential threat to the country. Anger at the status quo is understandable; the GOP ensured that by their subversive policies of the last two presidential terms. But to elect Trump would be a paradigm case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. There is no question that the bathwater needs to be replaced, but the baby – the once respected United States of America – needs not only to be kept, but protected and nurtured.
For anyone who thinks the US has any decency remaining, anything of value left after what we have seen on the political scene, that is the choice.