The 2016 Elections: Chronicles Of A Disaster Foretold

In October 2008, I went door-knocking in Wilkes-Barre, PA–for the Barack Obama campaign. (Earlier, I had donated a total of $100 to the Obama campaign, making two contributions of $50 each.) I was assigned a map of a neighborhood, along with names and addresses and an indicator of whether earlier in the election season, the voter at the indicated address had said they would vote for Obama or not. I met a mixed bunch during my travels; some of those who opened their doors to me were friendly, some were brusque. (I did not bother visiting homes which bore a McCain-Palin sign outside.) On one occasion, I ran into a gentleman standing in his driveway, made a few initial queries, and then got down to inquiring into whether Barack Obama could rely on his vote in the upcoming election. He said yes, because he was sick of ‘things not changing around here’–but then almost immediately launched into a loud and vitriolic diatribe. Against Hillary Clinton–who was not a presidential candidate, having been defeated by Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries.

It was all there–the standard elements of the critique of Hillary Clinton that American voters are used to hearing from ‘the right’: she’s untrustworthy, she lies, she’s a crook. As my interlocutor spoke, he grew visibly irate, waving his smoke-emitting lawn-mowing implement in my face. I came away shaken, having been made very aware of the fact that there were voters in this supposed ‘swing district’ in a ‘battleground state’ who were willing to vote for the Democratic Party’s candidate, but not for Hillary Clinton.

In 2012, I did not contribute money to the Obama campaign and neither did I go door-knocking; it did not seem like the campaign needed my help on either front. Like many others who had voted enthusiastically for Obama in 2008, I had felt some of my enthusiasm ebb; not enough hope and change I could believe in. I wondered whether Obama would take Pennsylvania again; he did. In the 2016 election season, I wondered again about that man in the driveway; I could sense there were others like him in that part of Pennsylvania; he was a recognizable member of an identifiable demographic. A working-class white man who had seen better days and was tired of waiting for ‘politicians’ to hear his voice. (My friend was wearing a baseball cap, natch, with a pick-up truck parked at home.)

Throughout this election season, over and above my expressed criticisms of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, I remained uneasy about her deep and abiding unpopularity with large segments of the American electorate and with her visible identification by yet others as ‘part of the problem.’ In 2008, Obama had presented himself as the candidate of change; it had been easy to portray Hillary Clinton as a member of the establishment. Eight years on, Clinton had become ever more entrenched as a member of the establishment; when she ran in 2016, the best she could offer was ‘more of the same.’ To folks like that man in the driveway in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

Donald Trump won the 2016 elections not just because of folks like that; he won because wealthy and upper-class whites voted for him too; he won because racism and sexism and xenophobia and chauvinism have not lost their power to seek out scapegoats and indict them for a host of crimes. He won because millions of voters who voted for Obama in the last two elections, could not bring themselves to, and indeed did not, vote for Hillary Clinton. Some of these voting predilections were visible early in the voting season; they formed the basis of the skepticism about her candidacy, and for some, the greater hope of the Bernie Sanders campaign. (Trump also won because of the vagaries of the American electoral system, which has been broken since time immemorial.)

Sanders’ primary win in Michigan indicated that: a) polls were not working as well as they might have been expected to b) Democratic strongholds and ‘bluewalls’ were not reliably so c) that in areas with economic downturns, job losses, and particular demographics (like Wilkes-Barre, PA) establishment candidates would suffer in comparison to ‘outsiders’ promising to shake up the ‘system.’ Very few seemed to care or listen; the Democratic Party was committed to getting its candidate across the finish line by any means necessary, including, if needed, the systematic denigration of the Sanders candidacy and the coalition that supported him. It was a fatal mistake.

The populist appeal of Sanders was lost, as was the energy and idealism of his campaign; those vital ingredients remained visible on the Trump side. The folks who attended Trump rallies all over the country were not any more racist or chauvinistic than the ones who came to McCain-Palin rallies in 2008, alarmed about the possibility of a black man with a Muslim middle name becoming president; they can be counted on reliably vote for the Republican candidate every four years. They were not the ones spelling trouble for the Democratic Party; the ones that were really the harbingers of electoral doom for the Clinton campaign were those who had thought change was coming in 2008 and 2012, who could not abide the thought of voting for an establishment that is now viewed as only concerned with its personal enrichment. The weight and power of party machinery would bring a candidacy for Hillary Clinton; it wouldn’t bring a presidency. It especially would not bring a presidency because there were some voters Clinton would never be able to persuade to vote for her, the ones who would unify any unease about a Trump candidacy into a solid anti-Clinton electoral bloc. In the last days of the election season, I had come to believe the polls myself and confidently predicted a win for Hillary Clinton; I had forgotten about that man in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

All has become ashes; American has elected a fascist to the presidency. Those who castigated the Sanders campaign for its lack of realism and chose to live with their own particular fantasy will be reconciled to this new state of affairs much more quickly than those who saw this disaster coming, and whose personal fates will be severely implicated in a Trump presidency.

The Republican Party Will Be Just Fine, Thanks Very Much

The supposed collapse of the Republican Party–in the face of an insurgent onslaught led by a motley crew of Tea Partiers, Donald Trump devotees, and Rush Limbaugh fans (which may indeed, be the same demographic)–during this election season is extremely wishful thinking on the part of election pundits and journalistic commentators. What animates these fantasies of an implosion in the Republican Party is, of course, yet another American political fantasy: that one day, there will be more choices on the political landscape besides the ones our current political parties offer. It also makes for entertaining speculation during a never-ending election season and offers more fuel for ‘discussion’ and ‘analysis’ on our twenty-four news channels.

The Republican Party will be just fine. When the smoke clears, after or before its convention, it will have found a way to package this election season’s supposedly ‘new lunacy’ into its platforms and manifestos, which are not too different in content from most of the central positions Donald Trump has adopted in his stump speeches. The Republican Party likes its fascism in the crypto, not the overt, varietal. Very soon–once he has locked up the nomination, if not sooner–Trump will begin to sound like that mythical creature, a ‘moderate Republican,’ and the party will close ranks around him. Just as it did last night, when his opponents at the Republican debate, after spending two hours abusing him as a con man and a fake, said they would still support him in the general elections. Trump’s racism and outright flirtations with white supremacism have not exactly caused a dramatic distancing from him on the part of party operatives and leaders either. Indeed, as many political observers have pointed out, among the Terrible Trio of Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz, Trump is the least dangerous, precisely because he is the least ideologically committed, which is why he is anathema to Republican leadership, who would prefer someone crazier in the dimensions of their choice. They’d rather eviscerate this nation’s Constitution and polity in their own distinctive style.

Most importantly, as Corey Robin has deftly pointed out, nothing Trump has said–or promised to do–marks him out as a singularity in the pantheon of Republican leadership and political thought over the past half-century.  Lest we forget, the Republican Party has provided us a stolen election in 2000, a president that declared an illegal war and sanctioned torture, and let Sarah Palin run as their vice-presidential candidate in 2008. Let that sink in for a second. This is a political party that was willing to take the chance of letting a person with the intellectual nous of a daffodil take command of a nuclear arsenal had John McCain shuffled off this mortal coil during his presidential term.

A few more floating turds will not radically change the character of this cesspool. A foul bubble or two,  a few roiling waves, and then the sludge will roll back over to conceal the depths below.

Tales of Three Morning Afters

The 2004 Presidential election was my first. I had not voted in the 2000 election because my naturalization came a few weeks too late for me to participate; I had observed the election itself from afar, in Brazil, and watched, amazed by the Supreme Court’s intervention, as the final, lame denouement came about. In 2004, I was cautiously optimistic, hoping that somehow, John Kerry would pull it off. He didn’t; Kerry was never a particularly effective candidate and US voters too, remained bizarrely trusting of the spectacularly mendacious and incompetent erstwhile inhabitant of the White House. I went to a election-result-watching get-together at a friend’s place, ordered Chinese food, and sat down, chopsticks and food cartons at hand, to watch the news. Not too long before midnight, it had become clear Bush was headed for a second term. I left, walking a long, cold walk back home, passing a traffic light that could have looked like a surfer’s greeting but, amazingly enough, that night, looked like it was giving me the bird. The next morning, when I awoke to read of four more years for George Bush, I felt a little sick. I felt guilty too, that my ignoring the Kerry’s campaign’s calls for donations, for help with getting out the vote by phone-banking or door-to-door knocking had somehow contributed to the loss. I couldn’t console myself my inactivity had nothing to do with it.

Four years later, my reactions were very different. I felt I had to contribute somehow–financially or with my time–to blocking any possibility of an extension of the idiocy that had ruled the White House for eight years. The memory of that November 2004 morning was still too strong. I worried I might wake up the day after, convinced I had enabled a John McCain-Sarah Palin White House. I did my bit–sent in money, knocked on doors etc–and after election night, awoke feeling much better than I had four years before.

This election season, I didn’t contribute money to the Obama campaign and I didn’t participate in voter turnout. I did though, fear the same outcomes as I had worried about in the previous two elections. The dissonance in my beliefs about the political monopoly of the Republicans and Democrats, my hopes for a third-party alternative, and my disappointment with Obama’s first four years, had by the end of the evening crystallized into a fairly simple desire: that Obama win, that though no matter how Tweedledum and Tweedledee I considered the two parties, I knew one of the two possible outcomes would upset me much, much more. So by the end of the night, I cheered for an Obama victory and when I went to bed, I did so knowing I would not wake up with a repeat of the 2004 hangover.

Obama’s victory is cause for relief, not exultation. Substantive progressive legislation still looks doubtful because, well, there is a Republican Party and a Democratic Party to deal with. And besides, there’s Obama himself, and the question of how he wants to run his second term. In the end, I’m sobered by the fact that fifty million Americans found an incoherent platform good enough to vote for, the election was as close as it was, and that so much political change still remains necessary.

Debates: Good for Drinking Games

In 2008, during that year’s interminable election season, bars in my neighborhood posted signs they were showing the Democratic primary debates, the presidential debates, the vice-presidential debates; we all seemed to be comfortable and enthusiastic about the notion of election debates as spectator sport. I made plans to watch the vice-presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden in company; I got together with a friend, we drank wine and bourbon, and laughed uproariously at that bizarre pair; I keenly watched too, the presidential debates between Barack Obama and John McCain. Eight years of a Bush administration were coming to a close, and I allowed myself to believe that, yes, change was in the air, that deliverance from that grinning fool and all he represented was possible. On election night, I hosted a results party. Friends came over, we checked laptops and television screens, whooped and hollered, groaned and moaned, drank champagne, nibbled nervously, and finally, when the Obama-election was announced, I opened my window and yelled out into the darkness: ‘Fuck you Sarah Palin!’

Nothing like that will happen this year.  Last night, as the first presidential debate kicked off, I finished dinner, sliced up an apple or two and sat down to watch the penultimate episode of Friday Night Lights. Later, I checked the news–the Yankees had clinched the American League East–and my Twitter timeline and noticed much chatter about the lameness of it all: the lying Etch-a-Sketch Mitt Romney, the dull Barack Obama, the ineffective Jim Lehrer. I posted a couple of facetious Tweets, read the opening chapters of Sanford Levinson‘s Our Undemocratic Constitution, and went to bed. I doubt the basic pattern of dinner, Netflix watching and bedtime reading will change on the nights of any of the debates to follow. In the case of vice-presidential debates, to quote an old friend, I would sooner slit my wrists with a butter knife than voluntarily watch Paul Ryan on television for even a second.

Part of the adverse reaction to the debates, as my remarks above indicate, is based on some weariness. But mostly, it seems unclear to me they offer voters anything useful in a political dimension. As my friend and ex-student Tara Mulqueen succinctly noted:

[I]ts very premise and construction of politics effects a massive closure on anything that might be deemed properly political.

To wit, it seems implausible that the format and staging of the modern debate offers anything remotely close to what might be termed a political dispute; the moment this political ‘encounter’ is placed on television, we lose any semblance of political struggle and descend into posturing built up out of the bare-faced presentation of talking points, the avoidance of analysis and argument, the evasion of difficulty. It’s almost as if some public spectacle were required to serve as the summum bonum expression of the vapidity of the election season i.e., the skirting and skimming of the most difficult problems that face the nation, and the debate does so, no pun intended, spectacularly. And puzzlingly enough, it isn’t even clear whom the spectacle is intended for: if undecided voters are undecided because they aren’t paying attention, then what is the point of watching?

The debates remain a spectator sport; fuel for Twitter-and-Facebook-chatter and drinking games; I paid up in 2008, but now I’m done.