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November 6, 2016 [LINK / comment]

Campaign 2016 grinds to a nasty, ugly end

Thankfully, this hideous mockery of the democratic process is almost over. Historians will no doubt look back at this year's presidential campaign as a turning point in which old customs and norms that kept our republic on a relatively even keel were tossed out the window like so much litter from a speeding car. Who cares? After all the foul language from the big mouth of Donald Trump, and after all the shrill retorts and legalistic evasions from Hillary Clinton, we can at least look forward to a period of respite. And after two months have passed, we will then face the grim reality of inaugurating a new president who quite frankly does not deserve to lead this nation. How did it come to this?

In today's News Leader, a letter to the editor which I wrote appeared. It represents a modest first step on my part toward answering the question above. It is slightly edited from what I wrote (see below), omitting the names of the minor party candidates. (I didn't realize until after I wrote it that the independent candidate, Evan McMullin, is also on the ballot in Virginia.)

November 3, 2016

Seldom if ever have the two major party candidates for president been as unpopular as the ones this year. It's no wonder that both the Trump and Clinton campaigns have emphasized not their own candidates' virtues, but rather what a catastrophe it would if the other side wins. The scary part is they both may be right. Mr. Trump has offered very little in the way of a serious policy agenda, and his habitually outrageous rhetoric is not only reckless but undermines the civic culture upon which our democratic system depends. Mrs. Clinton has positioned herself as the safe choice, but her past record shows her to be deeply troubling from an ethical point of view.

Voters who are still undecided should resist being bullied into accepting the status quo dichotomous choice. Are Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump really the best choices that our political system can offer to the voters of this great nation? I don't think so. To me it is clear that something has gone terribly wrong in the nomination process, creating strong incentives for extremist forces or those with a hidden agenda to snatch the nomination from someone who might attract more voters in the general election. If that is indeed the case, voting for either the Republican or the Democratic candidate would merely signal acceptance of a system that is breaking down.

Admittedly, the other options -- Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Jill Stein -- are not compelling, and a significant vote share for them might affect the outcome in unpredictable ways, such as in 1992 (when Ross Perot helped Bill Clinton) or 2000 (When Ralph Nader helped George W. Bush). If nothing else results from this dreadful year of presidential politicking, let us at least undertake a serious reform of the nomination process and the election process in general. The United States might do better with a two-round system in which the top two candidates (and only those two) are on the ballot in the November general election.

Andrew G. Clem

Note that I did not urge anyone to vote a particular way. That in part reflects my long-term "migration" away from Republican ranks, to the point where I now consider myself an Independent. But it also reflects my own uncertainty about voting. Until September, I had been leaning strongly toward voting for Libertarian Gary Johnson. Then he made that infamous "What is Aleppo?" gaffe [showing his limited knowledge of the Syrian civil war. That and other things led] me to question whether he is fully prepared to serve as commander-in-chief.

I wish I had called attention in that letter to the fundamental problem of political polarization in this country. Not only has the level of discourse degenerated, but the very basis for communicating based on a shared understanding of reality is coming unraveled. For example, the New York Times (hat tip to Connie) recently called attention to the hyper-partisan websites and Facebook groups that spread bogus stories in an attempt to rally one side or confuse the other side. As the traditional news industry slowly fades away, the alternative media is becoming the main source of information for many people, especially young people who just don't know any better.

Since this is the first blog post on politics I have written since July 13 ("Redistricting reform movement is growing"), I should at least say a few things about the past four months. In case I have not already made it perfectly clear, my feeling of disgust with general trends in this country, and with the two major political parties in particular, makes it hard to muster the energy to write about it.

The not-so-Democratic convention

The big irony about the Democratic National Convention (in Philadelphia) is that it was stage-managed in a most undemocratic way. Supporters of independent socialist Bernie Sanders were furious that the Clinton team not only manipulated the nomination process (via "super-delegates"), but largely prevented Sanders people from participating at all. Clinton was forced to accept some left-wing language in the Democratic platform, and she apparently turned 180 degrees on trade policy, coming out against the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership. [As the crooked nature of the heavy-handed politicking became known to the public, Clinton supporter Debbie Wasserman-Schultz had to resign her position as Democratic National Chair.] The big question was whether party members would unite behind Hillary, and for the most part the answer seems to be "yes."

At the convention, Bernie Sanders gave a tepid "endorsement" of Mrs. Clinton, leading some to question whether it was a sincere geture, but since then he has consistently urged his supporters to vote for the party's nominee.

Wells Fargo Center - 2016

Wells Fargo Center, on the south side of Philadelphia, site of the 2016 Democratic National Convention. (August 31, 2016)

I was in Philadelphia for a few days two months ago, attending the American Political Science Association annual meeting, and it was a nice coincidence that the two events took place in the same city. At least I think it was a coincidence!

Tim Kaine for V.P.?

Mrs. Clinton chose as her running mate Senator Tim Kaine from Virginia. It was a safe choice, aimed at securing the Old Dominion for the Democrats, and most polls indicate that it she has a comfortable lead here. Ironically, Virginia used to be a solid "red" state, voting Republican in every presidential election from 1968 through 2004 (see my Politics in Virginia page), but things have changed since Barack Obama became president.

Some people from other states have asked me what I thought of Tim Kaine. I usually reply that he is an archetypical liberal Democratic activist, basically sincere in his convictions but not above the "horseplay" that often accompanies politicking. When he was first campaigning for governor in November 2005, I received a campaign flyer in the mail that was patently bogus, and as far as I know, he never renounced it. My critique of his "State of the State" speech in January 2007 [pointed out his weaknesses as governor.] I first saw him in person at a public event here in Staunton in November 2008. Since being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2012, he has been a loyal mainstream Democrat. I will say [without reservation one] good thing to his credit: He has repeatedly insisted that there should be a congressional vote to authorize the use of military force in Iraq and Syria, since large parts of those two countries have come under the control of ISIS. He is quite right that the constitutional prerogative of Congress to declare war must be respected, and this country cannot remain a republic for long if the President is allowed to initiate armed conflict anywhere he so chooses. All in all, he is a good choice for Mrs. Clinton.

FBI investigates Mrs. Clinton

This year's "October Surprise" was when FBI Director James Comey informed Congress (via a vaguely-worded letter) that the agency has reopened its investigation of Hillary Clinton, after some e-mail messages from her top assistant and confidante Huma Abedin were on a laptop computer owned by the latter's estranged (and strange) husband, Anthony Weiner. Republicans jumped for joy, and Democrats cried "foul", accusing Comey of being a right-wing stooge. To me, that's preposterous, especially if you recall his cautious treatment of Mrs. Clinton when he decided not to recommend indictment of her over the e-mail scandals last summer. He probably feels trapped, having given Mrs. Clinton a pass before, and wants to protect not only himself but his agency from charges of favoritism, in case something truly incriminating is found in those e-mails. The politicization of the criminal investigation process has led some people to urge that a special prosecutor be appointed, as was done in the Watergate scandal, and the Clinton scandals of the 1990s. See

My hunch is that not much will come of all this, although some Republicans are talking about holding impeachment hearings right after Inauguruation Day next January. Good grief...

The fractious Republican convention

Fears of chaos at the Republican National Convention (in Cleveland) turned out to be less than fully warranted, and at least there was no violence. There were all sorts of rumors of 11th-hour maneuverings by the "Never Trump" faction to change the rules so that delegates pledged to vote for Trump could be released from their obligations and vote their conscience. There was good reason for such a change, as Trump not only failed to "cool down" his rhetoric as the spring turned to summer, but he actually doubled down on his infamous trash talk. First Megyn Kelly, then revisiting the Rosie O'Donnell fracas, and then more insults and more spin-control from his underlings. One of his top advisers, Paul Manafort, was obliged to leave the campaign after reports of his unsavory dealings with shadowy figures in Russia emerged. But in spite of all the chaos within the Trump campaign, the convention itself proceeded in a more-or-less orderly way. [Unlike his Democratic counterpart, Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus played a passive, neutral role that merely paved the way for Trump's nomination; "party unity!"] I just pity the poor souls who participated in that gathering, watching the Grand Old Party be snatched away like a burglar stealing precious silver from a wealthy mansion.

One of the ironies that Donald Trump has brought to light is how the Republican Party has come to embody the same kind of white working-class focus that the Democratic Party used to represent. I sometimes hear older Republicans in this area talking about how they or their families used to always vote Democratic, as though the two parties' identities had completely reversed. The "Party of Lincoln"? Not so much any more.

Another irony about the Trump movement is how many of its members are furious with "Never Trump" folks, accusing them of being disloyal "RINOs." Party unity! But the funny thing is that many Trump supporters proudly proclaimed their intention to demolish the old Republican Party and rebuild something totally new from its ruins. These people, often associated with a nationalistic faction known as the "Alternative Right" (or just "Alt Right"), often exhibit disturbing affinities with white supremicist groups such as the Aryan Nation or the Ku Klux Klan. Some of these people are practically spoiling for a fight, hinting at some kind of race war, and they are armed to the teeth.

Prior to the convention, Trump paid a courtesy call to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who eventually made a reluctant, half-hearted "endorsement" of Trump. It was a lot like the way Bernie Sanders was courted by the Clinton campaign, but after Trump behaved so terribly and campaigned so miserably in late August and early September, Ryan and other top Republicans partially "walked back" their endorsements. It is a sorry spectacle that a campaign is being run so poorly.

Quicken Loans Arena

Quicken Loans Arena, in downtown Cleveland, site of the 2016 Republican National Convention. (August 7, 2012)

Mike Pence for V.P.?

After a series of rumors prior to the convention, Donald Trump announced (via Twitter!) that he had chosen Indiana Governor Mike Pence to be his running mate. It was a unique means by which the decision was announced, exemplifying Mr. Trump's habit of communicating with the public in an extemporaneous, often ill-considered way. In the months since being chosen, Pence has been walking a delicate tight rope in distancing himself from Mr. Trump's many outrageous comments with actually repudiating the presidential candidate. Pence seems to be well-liked by most people, but he seems to carry baggage for being closely associated with Christian conservatives, the same sort of people who ousted long-time Indiana Senator Dick Lugar in the GOP primary election in 2012, with the result that a fringe GOP candidate (Richard Mourdock) paved the way for a Democratic victory in the general election. I'd like to know what Pence's role in that was. Otherwise, I think he would do fine as a vice president.

President Trump: seriously?

It is hard to imagine what a Trump presidency would be like. Back in June or July, I wrote this on Facebook:

I just watched the movie "The Music Man" once again on TCM, and it reminded me of the presidential campaign. Many people complain that Donald Trump is a totally fraudulent huckster taking advantage of gullible people, and that he doesn't know a thing about what he is claiming to be. Yes, but that's almost beside the point. Just as Shirley Jones forgave Robert Preston for all his lies, and then by her selfless love for him helped foster the illusion of magnificence in the final "76 Trombones" march, so too do millions of forgotten middle Americans give life to a candidacy which, as seen by the rational mind, lacks any content whatsoever. In our postmodern world, everything is a social construct.

Unlike many others who engage in political debate on Facebook, I have largely refrained from disparaging supporters of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. In fact, I think there really are valid reasons to vote for Trump (or for Mrs. Clinton), but for the most part those reasons do not apply to me. I sympathize with those who have lost patience with "politics as usual" in Washington, and my own record as a political activist bears out that same desire. But the basic fact is that, given that Trump represents precisely the type of sleazy, low-brow, populistic kind of politics that I been warning about over the past several years, for me to vote for him would signify a renunciation of all those warnings. Do I want Mrs. Clinton to win? Of course not. I reconciled myself to the bleak prospects for this country's political future several months ago, and while the election does matter, we are pretty much screwed no matter who wins.

I have no inside knowledge, and I admit that the electorate is volatile and perhaps may be angry enough to elect Trump as president, but I remain under the strong impression that Trump is not really trying to win. He might be doing all this as a publicity stunt for his business empire, or who knows why? But for me the scary thing is what happens in the post-election aftermath, when (assuming he loses) the recriminations begin within the GOP. My hunch is that the primary purpose of the Trump campaign is to complete the hostile takeover of the Republican Party, small parts of which I personally witnessed a decade ago. Republicans such as Paul Ryan who failed to support Trump will be under extreme pressure to step down from the "Alt Right" activists who are now prevailing in the party. Regardless of the outcome of the election, I don't see an end to the intra-party struggle any time soon, and frankly I'm glad that I have nothing to do with it.

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 07 Nov 2016, 2: 27 PM

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