The 2016 presidential election has been a head-scratcher, because for all thinking people it should have been over and done with as soon as Trump was nominated. But instead it’s been a very nervous time with people updating 538’s election predictions every 10 minutes and wondering how to stop these Trump zombie supporters if they aren’t moved by his manifestly unfit temperament and Pee Wee Herman-like campaign (I know you are Hillary but what am I?).
Now, in truth, despite weeks of breathlessly reporting “narrowing” in the polls, Clinton’s lead in the electoral college has never disappeared (but it did narrow). And it became clear to absolutely everyone that the media was, predictably, normalizing the election, and by extension Trump, by maximizing every even remotely negative Clinton story and minimizing the many, many negative Trump stories in a miasma of deplorables. It has at times looked like a re-run of the 2000 campaign when the media turned Al Gore into a joke and made George W. Bush a guy anybody would want a beer with, if he wasn’t an alcoholic who didn’t drink beer with anybody.
But last week seems to have been a turning point. Trump’s attempt to get the press to advertise his new hotel while sloughing off his birtherism by starting some brand new lies was met by resistance and finally a little indignation when they realized that he was using them. Hey, thanks for waking up. $3 billion dollars in free advertising too late, but yeah, he’s been using you!
Even the NY Times, who had announced that they were just fine with false balance 10 days ago, seems to have had a change of heart and decided to call lies lies. As we head into the debate season, the press has been more willing to attack lies rather than sit there and absorb them.
In at least five articles in the New York Times on Sept. 17, including the lead story in the print edition, the words “lie,” “false,” “falsely claimed” and “untrue” appeared in headlines, lead paragraphs, and top sections of the paper’s Trump coverage. The day before, CNN’s Jake Tapper called Trump “the most prominent pusher of the birther lie,” the Associated Press reported that Trump “peddled another lie,” and a Washington Post headline declared, “It’s time for TV news to stop playing the stooge for Donald Trump.”
It’s not a moralistic value thing to say that we have on the one hand a candidate that has warts and a 30 year record, who lies at times like a conventional candidate, no more or less. And on the other hand, we have a con man who is pathological in his inability to be consistently truthful. Trump has had days where he said one thing in an interview and said the opposite in another interview 10 minutes later.
But conservative columnist Bret Stephens at the Wall Street Journal, who turned on Trump months ago, says their untruths are not equal. In a column (paywall) on Sept. 12, he said, “The difference is that Mrs. Clinton lies tactically to protect herself politically. Mr. Trump lies compulsively to aggrandize himself or belittle vulnerable people, whether it’s a handicapped reporter or a bereaved mother,” Stephens wrote.
The other side of the ledger is Secretary Clinton’s task to improve her trustworthiness and motivate the wishy-washy, especially millennials, to vote for her, and moreover vote for a Democratic agenda down the line. Clearly, a strategy that just relied on using Trump’s own words against him was not the overwhelming success the Clinton team thought it would be because a bigger segment of the public than they realized didn’t hold it against him that he was a lying con man. Nevermind the basket of deplorables, many Americans are so out of touch with reality, on the left and the right, that they are just fine with blowing things up by electing somebody who might be deplorable, but at least he’s not a conventional politician! Whooooo!!! Let’s blow this country up real good!
I had conversations with people on both sides in the last week who were coming from the opposite perspective, a Republican and a Bernie supporter, who both justified Trump. On the GOP side, the justification was that maybe we need someone who could “blow things up” and on the progressive side the fantasy is that Trump may be the catalyst for the real revolution we need. The common thread is that the relative peace and prosperity we now enjoy, the economic hole that we dug ourselves out of, the military entanglements that we are largely out of, are not worth continuing if it means voting for Hillary Clinton. For the Republican who consumes Fox News, it’s all a lie anyway. The 4.9% unemployment and increases in wages that the census finally could report recently are concocted and phony, a third Obama term is an awful prospect because he’s been a disaster – Trump could be an improvement. For the Bernie supporter, who no longer supports him in so long as Bernie says to vote for Hillary, they were told that Hillary was awful and while they recognize that Trump is awfuller, there is a lack of context to it. The idea that the last 8 years were like turning around an aircraft carrier while one rudder was working against the move and we need to keep the boat moving in the right direction, this time maybe with all the rudders working together, is not as attractive as pure revolution, you know, the kind of revolution we’ve never had since 1776.
What about the New Deal, wasn’t that a sort of revolution? Yes, it was. Fueled by 25% unemployment and true despair that FDR and his party wanted to address aggressively by government intervention and Hoover’s GOP who warned against any sort of socialism and business regulation that would make the economy worse. In this analogy Trump could be Hoover and bring about the conditions for a real revolution. In 2020 we could elect a new FDR.
The problem is that that analogy is almost certainly wrong in the context of recent history. The real analogy with 1932 was in 2008. First things first, after the great recession of 2008-2009, do we really want another economic break down on top of that? It would be tragic for many Americans who haven’t yet recovered from the last downturn.
Secondly, we got our FDR in Obama, or as close as 21st century politics will allow us to have. The profoundly polarized American public of today would not let Obama have a majority in the House and Senate for more than 2 years in order to address the massive economic hole the great recession left us in. FDR got 4 terms to dig out of the hole with majorities big enough to create the revolutionary New Deal. Obama was able to get Obamacare and Dodd Frank done, which looking back now seems like an even bigger lift than the entire New Deal, considering the force of the opposition in the House, Senate and Supreme Court. If Hillary Clinton can get the next two terms, that will equate to FDR’s 1940 and ’44 terms. She has the real opportunity to create a better Supreme Court than Obama had. If she can at least get an amenable Senate there’s a fighting chance at fully turning that carrier around and moving towards a progressive agenda.
Of course Trump would stop all progress, intensify the already existing suffering and be a disaster (see George W. Bush). But the evidence that such disaster would bring about the revolution that the millennials imagine is nonexistent. There is no third party coming. That revolution in 2020 would be the election of a currently elected Democratic politician. Elizabeth Warren is the fantasy. And she would continue to face the conservative opposition that Obama, Clinton and any Democrat would face. She would have a conservative Supreme Court bolstered with at least one Trump pick. She would be once again turning the aircraft carrier around, after it had floated further off course from any destination progressives would want it to be.
No, clearly in the 2016 election it is essential to continue building on the Obama legacy. Blithely tossing it aside is not a real option. The revolution is in shaping the Democratic Party to be the progressive vehicle we would like to see it become. That effort is worth your 2016 vote and your continued activism.
Update: The above is not even taking into consideration our minority communities who are in panic right now over the prospect of a Trump presidency and the awful message that would send to his worst followers. As unarmed black men keep getting killed, and random attacks on peaceful Muslims intensify, it’s hard to justify a protest vote that could elect the icon of these haters.