So this is what it’s come to, a choice between Fear and Hate.
It’s not hard to fear Donald Trump. His interest in the presidency will end the moment he wins it. Oh sure, he’s got a few ideas on how to redecorate The White House, and it’ll be fun watching him negotiate a trade deal with his new best friends in Mexico (or send Eric to do it).
But his ignorance of foreign policy is manifest. His people skills are non-existent. He has no patience for dealing with those losers in Congress. (That’s what he has Mike Pence for.) There is nothing in the Constitution that lets him declare bankruptcy if his plan for America turns out as rife with false promises as his casinos in Atlantic City. And God knows what he’ll tweet out at 3 AM while he’s up waiting for Putin to call. How are they hanging over there in Moscow, Vlad, getting any good poontang?
If Trump wins, it will be because a vast swath of America yearns to break the gridlock in Washington, and they believe a brash businessman who once worked the halls of Congress for insider favors knows how to do that. They are willing to overlook the fact he has nothing in common with them. He is a figment of their television universe, the kind of guy they would be if only they had gotten their high school diploma, learned to play golf, and had a daddy with $100 million to invest in their business schemes.
Whether he wins or not, Trump’s base of supporters will have to be reckoned with in the next administration. They constitute some 40 percent of American voters, and they are not just disgruntled blue collar workers who have seen their jobs disappear overseas, their incomes stagnate and their America become less white every day. The preponderance are Republicans who, even though they recognize he is a political charlatan, will “hold their nose” and vote for Trump. Why? Because they hate Hillary.
She is not an unlikable person. As Barack Obama once famously said, she is “likable enough.” What makes her such an easy target to hate isn’t her emails, or her foundation, or her handling of the attack on our embassy in Benghazi. It’s the fact her story is baked into the Washington culture that Americans outside the beltway disdain.
In a normal presidential election, like the one we all anticipated between Clinton and Jeb Bush, Republicans and Democrats would have been discussing more conventional issues, offering up competing tax plans to stimulate the economy, different visions of America’s role in the world, new ideas for better health care, entitlement reform, educational opportunities, and job creation – all the things that matter, and nobody has the patience to work through.
Donald Trump’s ascendance during the Republican primaries took a wide swing around the issues – which was fortunate since he has no solutions – on the stepping stones of hot button grievances that led his followers to a conclusion they already felt in their hearts: the system is rigged against them.
Hillary Clinton is a product of that system. Twenty-five years of operating in the highest echelons of government make her one of the Washington elite who are living the high life (Yes, I know her father was a wallpaper hanger), knocking down $600,000 for a speech to Goldman Sachs, with a foundation – a foundation, no less – that pays her husband millions to talk about how its contributors can pull at the levers of power.
Her emails, the focus of so much Republican animosity, would be little more than a blip in a normal election, but they have come to define her. It beggars the imagination to think Clinton, a 70-year-old Secretary of State who guarded the secret of the Bin Laden raid for six months and handled classified information for 8 years as a member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, has somehow compromised American security through an act we all do every day. The FBI, indeed, concluded last July she was careless but not guilty of disclosing any national secrets — and reiterated that conclusion just last night.
And yet, Trump rallies his troops with the cry “Lock her up!” for a scandal he deems “bigger than Watergate.” In any other election, this would all be a sideshow. But Trump has made it the centerpiece of his campaign because it taps into a rich vein of voters who think she is at the center of a government conspiracy against them.
Drain The Swamp
In Trump’s world, Washington is a cesspool of self-dealing politicians living in a secret world run by the lobbyists, paid for by the special interests, and winked at by the media. Clinton has proven she is comfortable working in the back alleys of this Washington, raising money at private dinners, conducting polls to shape her public views, and exchanging emails with shadowy advisors in the DC think tanks to enhance her positions. She is one of those 60s idealists who decided to work within the system, and wound up making the system work for her.
The exposure of her emails was like pouring red dye into that system, revealing just how much of public policy is actually conducted out of the public view. (In the same way, the WikiLeaks dump of tens of thousands of John Podesta’s private correspondence showed the inner workings of a political campaign.)
The Washington press corps, particularly investigative reporters from the establishment Washington Post and New York Times, have done a good enough job of covering the email imbroglio. But they are not the only so-called “news” reporters these days. Everyone has their own channel, their own take on things, and there is no reward for writing nuanced stories in a campaign that has come down to Fear vs. Hate.
Who Are The Media?
There will be a lot of seminars at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics next year assessing the media handling of this campaign. The first question to answer is what constitutes “the media”. In an era of declining print advertising, intense cable news coverage and surging alternative news sources on the web, the notion of a mainstream media seems outdated.
Donald Trump can, in a single tweet, reach 12.9 million followers on Twitter. Over 100 million Americans say they receive some political posts on Facebook, and 25% received a lot, according to a Pew Research report. In most cases, it is shared posts from a constellation of like-minded people, all listening to only the news and opinions they want to hear.
Somewhere in this political cacophony there have to be trend-setting news outlets, and that role seems to have fallen to CNN, Fox and MSNBC. Nothing could have worked out better for Trump. His experience on The Apprentice taught him how to work television’s craving for controversy, and his friendship with Roger Ailes, then head of Fox News, guaranteed him unusual access to its airwaves.
Before the campaign even got under way, I attended an Institute of Politics seminar where Reince Priebus and Debbie Wasserman, the respective heads of the Republican and Democratic parties, reminded political reporters headed out on the campaign trail that the parties control the process.
The Republicans had scheduled 12 debates during the primaries, Priebus said, and the party would not tolerate unfriendly (read liberal) moderators. Fox News would host five debates, CNN would carry four (but only after it agreed to pair its moderator with a commentator from right wing radio’s Salem Network) and ABC, CBS and CNBC would have one each. (MSNBC, probably the most left leaning cable channel, was shut out.)
Why do the parties have that control? Because the candidates are running for their party nomination, and that nomination comes with $500 million of party money for the general election and its apparatus of field operatives.
Cable News or Entertainment?
The first debate, watched by 24 million people, broke all records for primary viewership. But what seemed like a glide path for all 16 Republican contenders quickly turned sour when Fox moderator Megyn Kelly asked Trump about calling women fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals. The question – and Trump’s response a few days later that Kelly had “blood coming out her wherever” – set the tone for the campaign that would follow.
Trump survived the blow, and thrived on being known as the “politically incorrect” candidate. Fox News, meanwhile, devolved into warring factions, spurred on by the ouster of its long-time head Roger Ailes for his own sexually predatory behavior. Kelly emerged from the episode a stalwart journalistic heroine, while her counterpart Sean Hannity all but turned his primetime show into a Trump infomercial. (Bill O’Reilly’s aloof handling of the Republican convention and Brett Baier’s careless reporting on FBI leaks also did nothing to burnish Fox’s credibility.)
The man who learned the most from the first debate was Jeff Zucker, CNN’s president and CEO. He had long coveted Fox’s dominant news ratings, and he set out in 2016 to woo Fox’s right wing viewers by bringing more conservative commentators onto the CNN set. He added morning, noon and late night programming – all aimed at making CNN into a 24-7 political channel –and profits soared.
His signature mark on this election was bringing the campaign into the newsroom, populating its regular panel of political commentators (David Gergen, Gloria Borger, David Axelrod, Jeffrey Toobin, and Van Jones) with a succession of shills from various campaigns (Donna Brazille, Paul Begala, Jeffrey Lord, Kayleigh McEnany, and the shill of shills, Corey Lewandowski, who got $500,000 for his appearances.)
If the dialogue on the campaign trail were more substantive, there might have been a point to letting campaign surrogates expand on it. But Trump’s came armed with talking points for even his most outrageous insults, believing (rightly, it turns out) that if they talked loud enough and long enough, they could run out the clock until the commercial break. Their blather only debased the political discourse, and negated much of the good reporting CNN’s reporters were doing in the field.
I found myself this season gravitating to MSNBC, the lowest rated cable channel, for the intelligence of its commentators. Brian Williams, Chuck Todd, Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow have their own clearly defined biases. But Nicole Wallace was a welcome addition from the Republican side of the spectrum.
The only black mark on their coverage was giving Mark Halperin and John Heilemann a daily slot for their show “With All Due Respect”. The authors of Game Change and Double Down about the 2008 and 2012 presidential races are known for their inside anecdotes about campaign strategy. They are two of the best railbirds trackside at the horserace of politics. But their daily tip sheet on strategy and tactics left little room for discussion of the merits of the candidates, or the positions they espoused.
In their show, they gave currency to tracking polls, swing state ad buys, the spin coming out of the political camps, and the various paths each candidate might follow to 271 votes on the electoral map. Politics is a numbers game in their view. It’s all about how it’s playing in America, and their approach invited everyone to play along.
So we go to the polls this Tuesday with a very skewed perspective on the presidential choice we face. Lost in the minutia of that numbers game – and all the campaign rhetoric — is the fact America has never been as well off as it is today. Friday’s unemployment number is 4.9% — lower than it has been in almost a decade. Hourly wages have risen 2.9% over last year, again a record for the decade. The country has seen 73 consecutive months of job growth in the private sector, and the annual deficit is $1 trillion less than it was in the first year of the Obama administration. This should bode well for the incumbent party.
But there are pockets in the American economy still struggling with the effects of the Great Recession. There are still questions about how to fix Obamacare, bolster our investment in infrastructure, reduce income inequality, make education more affordable, reduce crime in the inner city, preserve the environment, and assure America maintains its leadership in an ever more complicated global economy.
We deserved a more thorough discussion of these issues, not sound bites, often based on outrageously distorted facts. Instead, we get to cast our vote against the person we fear most or the person we hate most.
It’s a sad end to a sad election. On Election Night, at least we’ll be able to tune into CNN, Fox or MSNBC to see the results — and maybe hear a concession speech that allows us all to get back to business.
But while we wait for an outcome, we’ll have the exit polls to occupy our time. How did the vote break down by men, women, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Caucasians? Who did the college-educated support, and who won the coveted non-college educated vote? How about evangelicals, seniors, millennials, and dog lovers?
Nothing makes us feel Stronger Together or Great Again than an election that divides us into competing interest groups.