It now is a commonplace to observe that Clinton and Trump are the two most disliked candidates ever to contest the Oval Office. While her favorable poll ratings are slightly higher than his, both are viewed unfavorably by more than half of those surveyed. Still, barring some unforeseen campaign calamity or tragedy, one of them will be the next president of the United States.
That noted, it also is true that their campaigns could not be more different. That difference is more than her optimistic view of the American future versus his dystopian fulminations concerning a country in decay, more than her openness to the world and to new Americans versus his fill-the-moat-and-pull-up-the-drawbridge approach to immigration. It is more than her nuanced views of policing and criminal justice reform versus his fear mongering and race baiting when it comes to crime—whose prevalence he habitually exaggerates.
More fundamentally, Clinton is running as the candidate of recognizable American political party, while Trump is the candidate of a Republican Party that has fragmented into incoherence and been reduced to a tawdry backdrop for the ego theater of Donald Trump. Clinton’s nomination, as the party’s Philadelphia convention demonstrated, is the product of normative political give-and-take, of balancing the interests and needs of the various groups that make up the Democratic electoral coalition. We have traditionally called that compromise and it’s what makes our political system work. Its absence in Washington in recent years explains our national government’s unforgivably irresponsible gridlock on a host of pressing issues.
When Trump supporters characterize Clinton as the “status quo” choice, what they’re really saying is that she is the candidate who represents continuity with American political history and the values of traditional public service—things we’ve always looked for in a president.
The developer turned would-be Deuce, on the other hand, is seeking something other than the office of chief executive. He’s running to be something our very first president rejected: the man on the white horse. George Washington may have been, as his contemporaries regarded him, the “indispensable man,” but he categorically rejected any notion that he “alone” could solve the nation’s problems or that his colleagues’ regard for him ought to have influenced the new country’s executive arrangements.
Washington was hardly without ambition—in fact, it had governed his life from adolescence—but his was restrained by a deep reverence for liberty and a loathing for autocracy that penetrated to the marrow of his bones. Trump—cunning, unserious and unscrupulous—knows no such boundaries. He is an instinctive bully and classic megalomaniac unfit to be trusted with the interests of others because he is incapable of acknowledging any but his own.
Trump is not running as the candidate of a party; rather, he has appropriated the burned-out shell of what once was the party of Lincoln as a convenient adjunct to his own appetite for power and acclaim.
Beyond using office to settle scores with the enemies he seems to acquire on an hourly basis, it’s murky what he would do with the power and popularity he seems to covet as ends to themselves.
Equally damaging, his contempt for the tested traditions and civilized consensus that up to now have governed even the most keenly fought presidential election clearly extends to the exercise of democracy itself.
By now, we’ve all grown a bit to tolerant of Trump’s constant complaints that when he isn’t clearly winning—in a debate, in a poll, in a campaign controversy—that he’s being cheated, that the system “is rigged.” This week, he went so far as to allege that, if he loses in November, it will be because the general election is fixed. “I’m afraid the election’s gonna be rigged, I have to be honest,” Trump told an audience in Ohio, a key swing state.
The failed casino operator’s longtime adviser and campaign surrogate Roger Stone went even further, telling an interviewer for a right-wing web site that voter fraud is rampant in the nation and that if Clinton wins a key battleground state like Florida after polls show Trump in the lead, the election would be “illegitimate.”
“If there’s voter fraud, this election will be illegitimate, the election of the winner will be illegitimate, we will have a Constitutional crisis, widespread civil disobedience, and the government will no longer be the government,” Stone said. He also promised a “bloodbath” if the Democrats attempt to “steal” the election. (By the way, independent election analysts and academics are united in the view that voter fraud is so infrequent in the United States as to be statistically irrelevant, which is one of the reasons federal courts have been so willing to strike down the states’ Republican sponsored voter identification laws.)
Given the violent hysteria Trump has consciously whipped up within the core of his support, this sort of talk, calling into question the integrity of electoral democracy itself is recklessly irresponsible incitement of the most contemptible sort.
The movement around Trump, in fact, less resembles an American political party with their tradition of coalition building and regard for electorate’s moderate middle ground than it does one of the nationalist, populist and authoritarian blocs that have spread what Fareed Zakaria so aptly labeled illiberal democracy across Europe—Law and Justice in Poland, Fidez in Hungary, Recep Erdogan’s Justice and Development in Turkey and, perhaps soon, Austria’s Freedom Party. Actually, Trumpism most closely resembles Italy’s Five Star party, which was founded by a television comedian, Beppe Grillo, and is virulently anti-immigrant and wants to take that country out of the Euro. Polls predict that if Rome called an election next week, Five Star would come in first. Far more than Islamic State or Al Qaeda, these movements—including Trump’s—threaten the fabric of the West’s democratic societies.
There is another, deeper danger that lurks in the wake of Trump’s campaign. The fact that so many Republicans heretofore credited with good sense, common decency and a regard for the national interest are willing to support a candidate they so obviously consider unfit for office is ominous almost beyond words.
It suggests that our electoral campaigns no longer are exercises in education or persuasion, but merely assertions of brute demographic power—so many old, white male voters poised against so many women, young people and Americans of color. In other words, the inexplicable and indefensible Trump campaign may do more than leave the GOP a hollow and crumbling shell; it may take us onto the path of majoritarianism.
Our notion of democratic impulses restrained from excess by inviolable notions of law and rights is, in fact, the antithesis of pure majoritarianism, but in a politics where people no longer even bother to talk past each other, that’s what may be left to us.
For that reason—and for so many others—Donald Trump must be defeated.