NOTE: This is a long read. 3400 words. I tried a shorter version but it felt like I was selling the effort short. Sorry.
If there’s one thing you can say about the western political landscape prior to 2008, it’s that we generally accepted the results of elections and got on with our lives.
Here in Australia, we’ve had a bunch of contentious, polarising Prime Ministers over the years but we usually accepted our lot and got on with things after an election – until the sacking of Kevin Rudd in 2010. He was replaced by Julia Gillard after an internal coup. She ended up forming a minority government after a bitter election later in 2010 and was then replaced by Rudd again when her polling fortunes sank in 2013. Rudd lost to Tony Abbott in a landslide but Abbott abused his mandate, wasted his political capital and was ousted by Malcolm Turnbull in 2015 after another internal coup. That’s five Prime Ministers in 5 years – the most hostile 5 years of politics of my lifetime.
The most contentious US election in recent history was the 2000 presidential election when George W Bush won Florida, and the presidency, in dubious circumstances that ultimately saw the Supreme Court intervene to stop a re-count. Al Gore, the Democratic nominee, received 500,000 more votes than Bush on a nationwide basis, but Bush had more electoral college votes and was named President.
Gore may have hated the court’s decision and I’m sure he whined about it personally to any friend who would lend an ear. But still, he did one important thing at the time – he went on national TV and accepted it. Here’s an excerpt from Al Gore’s concession speech:
Now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College. And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession. I also accept my responsibility, which I will discharge unconditionally, to honor the new President-elect and do everything possible to help him bring Americans together…..
That speech was an exhibition of leadership. Democrats may have been fuming with the court’s decision but Gore’s message was “we’ve got a new President, let’s get on with things” and I’m sure that George W Bush’s presidency had an easier first 12 months than what it might have had otherwise, because of it.
18 months later, of course, September 11 happened and Bush’s reaction to that event is at the core of the political climate that greets us every morning when we wake up and scan the news. Everything we see now has its roots in what happened then.
America was justifiably outraged at what happened on September 11. The vast majority of the world’s population and governments were outraged. George Bush gathered great support for his attack on Afghanistan in retaliation. I thought it was right. And I still do.
Then came Iraq.
There’s a lot of mileage made in election campaigns these days with regards to who supported the war in Iraq. It’s mostly bullshit. It wasn’t as large a majority but it was still a vast majority, more than 2-to-1. The vote was taken based on evidence that we now know was – at the very least – the result of poor intelligence gathering and analysis. At worst, it was a flat-out lie designed to get the American war machine moving on a country with lots of oil. Where you land on that spectrum is completely up to you and for the purposes of this article, moot.
The war in Iraq continued. Bush won another election the year after it began but things were turning sour. A higher-than-expected death toll, stupid things like ‘Mission Accomplished’ and scandals such as Abu Ghraib all contributed to a turning of the tide.
A fresh-faced representative from Chicago with a good turn of phrase made use of this turning tide. He’d already impressed everyone with his speech at the Democratic National Convention in July 2004. So much so, in fact, that people began to expect him to run for president. Less than 3 years later, in February 2007, he announced his candidacy and it was bigger than Michael Jordan returning to basketball in 1996.
(It shouldn’t be but) It was significant that America had finally elected a black president. Speaking as an outside observer – and I know that I’m not alone on this – it felt like it was about time. In fact, if America allowed for a president to serve a third term and polled the rest of the world, I reckon Obama would win with 95% or more of the vote against the current Republican nominee. He’d beat the Democrat nominee by a handy margin, too. Again, a moot point.
I don’t know if the timing is simply coincidental or not, but a year after Obama was elected, America saw the rise of a political movement called The Tea Party. The Tea Party was a deliberately de-centralised group of like-minded citizens with a focus on economics. They were concerned that government was getting too big, the deficit was too big and taxes were too high. They were zealous. They felt disenchanted by a Republican party that they thought had become too absorbed in issues that government should stay out of. Social issues, etc.
As mentioned, I find the timing of the Tea Party’s rise in 2009 to be curious.
The ‘birther’ movement – people questioning Barack Obama’s birthplace, citizenship and therefore his right to run for president – started back in 2004 and it gathered pace during the election campaign. Republican presidential candidates in 2008 largely let the matter slide but Republican supporters, especially those on the radical fringes, did not. The Republican party largely serves a white-voter demographic and certain elements within this demographic could see the writing on the wall in terms of Obama’s winning momentum.
The Tea Party’s subsequent rise and virulent anger after the election of the first black president is, at the very least, curious. I know you might need proof of my theory. So here’s a gallery of serving and recently-retired American politicians identifying as part of the Tea Party Caucus. You might notice there’s a certain demographic similarity shared by the vast majority of them.
OK, it’s not ALL white people. Just 81 out of the 83 pictured. And it’s not all men. There are 8 women in there. That’s nearly 10%! Progress!! Diversity!!
I know that some of these people are genuine Tea Party types and some of them probably just embraced the Tea Party movement simply to remain popular. And I know that the vast majority are decent people at their core – except for Ted Cruz, who is slimy and who’s father apparently killed JFK (I read that on the internet so it must be true!!).
Some of them might actually be using their office to do some good.
I’m simply pointing out here that there’s a certain demographic being elected here, by a voting bloc that, for the most part, shares those demographic traits.
Maybe I should stop mincing words right here……
There are a number of people who didn’t like a black man being elected as president and the vast majority of them were white. For some of them, it became a source of motivation and they became politically active – some of them in the Republican party, some of them in the Tea Party movement but as independents, and some of them outside the direct political framework.
Lots of them don’t like the idea of a female president, either.
The Republican Party is to the right of the political spectrum. Tea Party candidates tend to be to the right of the Republican party. For some, however, even the Tea Party is not far enough to the right. They see the Republican party’s embracing of the Tea Party as proof that their grassroots movement has become mainstream and therefore, compromised.
Enter Donald John Trump.
Lauded for being the anti-establishment candidate, Donald Trump swept through the GOP primary race like an orange mist. It really is amazing that he wasn’t found out during the Republican primaries, when the issues were actually debated more than they have been during the election campaign.
Trump flip-flopped on so many of these issues, his stance changing from week to week according to the wind. And still, his opponents could barely land a blow. Trump was able to bat them off one by one. Sadly, this was due to nothing more substantial than his celebrity and his salesmanship. It certainly wasn’t because of policy.
Even stranger is that we could now be forgiven for thinking of those Republican primary days as being the era of The Good Donald. His focus was on belittling only his Republican opponents. It was the fight-within-the-fight at this point and while it contained some shocking moments – his mocking of a disabled reporter, for example – he was still doing the Dems work of picking off candidates with actual policies behind them.
I urge you to watch this video presentation from Keith Olbermann for GQ magazine. It was released mid-September and it outlines 176 outrageous things Donald Trump had done to that point, most of them during the primary season.
As mind-blowing as that list is, consider the stuff that’s come out about Trump since that video was made…..
It doesn’t contain anything to do with the release of parts of his 1995 tax return, which indicated a claimed loss of more than 900 million dollars. That’s enough to reasonably see him paying no tax for nearly 20 years. It also raises 900 million questions about his business acumen (pronounced ah-KYOU-men in Donald-land).
It doesn’t contain anything about the audio recording where he talks openly about sexual assault – the uninvited kissing of women he doesn’t know and the seizing of their pet cats without asking. All of which he says is OK because he’s a celebrity and he can get away with it.
It doesn’t contain anything about the number of women (9, and counting) who have come out since the second presidential debate and told their stories of him doing to them exactly what he said in the audio recording.
It doesn’t contain anything about the way he’s abused those women again with his characterisations of them – mocking some of them with regard to their looks (“she wouldn’t be my first choice”).
It doesn’t contain anything about his admissions to Howard Stern – more audio recordings in his own voice – where he brags about walking into womens’ dressing rooms unannounced while he owned several beauty pageants.
It doesn’t contain anything about the conspiracy theories he is now espousing about secret cabals looking to take over the world.
It doesn’t contain anything about his 3am Twitter-fest and week-long argument with a beauty queen after the first debate. A beauty queen.
It doesn’t contain anything about his threat – to her face in the second debate – to appoint a special prosecutor and direct that prosecutor to jail his political opponent. And, by the way, that’s a threat that is a) usually the reserve of tinpot dictators, and b) beyond his actual power as president.
And I’m sure there’s more.
It feels like Trump has got away with these outrages, mostly because he’s still in the race. He has suffered from them, of course – as of today, Hillary Clinton has a likelihood of winning the election of around 86% according to fivethirtyeight.com. But that still means that Trump has a 14% chance of winning, and Donald Trump winning this election would be an unparalleled indictment on the American voter.
How has he survived?
Donald Trump has not survived because of his ability to explain the details of his policies. He spends at least 50% of his time on the stump talking about his opponent. Usually more. His policy talk is all populist generalisations – we’re going to win with trade, we’re going to defeat ISIS, we’re going to blah blah blah. It’s all just themes. It’s more important for him to mention the words Radical. Islamic. Terrorism. than it is to talk about healing the racial and religious divides within his own country. Details are left to his surrogates and even then, those details are vague.
Donald Trump has survived because he is a sociopathic, narcissistic egomaniac for whom no gutter is too deep, no lie too outrageous. He’s survived because he has deliberately and directly appealed to the lowest common denominator in politics – fear – and he has a rusted-on following that’s been primed, pumped and is more than ready to embrace that fear and receive their saviour.
What does their saviour do? He promises them things that do not stand up to any scrutiny.
He promises to build a wall that would be both ineffective and completely impractical. He promises to impose tariffs on goods made outside the United States, tariffs so big that companies would feel compelled to bring their factories back to America. He doesn’t tell people how much more they’ll be paying for those goods, or that those prices would make those businesses uncompetitive and force them to close. That’s too much information.
He promises to reduce tax from 35% to 15% AND spend more on roads, bridges, and other infrastructure AND reduce America’s national debt. Magic maths.
He damns a supposed lack of jobs in America and promises to create a rather unbelievable 25 million new jobs (remember when Republicans claimed that government doesn’t create jobs?).
Note: The unemployment rate was 6.8% when Obama was elected in November 2008, reaching a high of 10% in October 2009 because of the GFC. It’s now at 5%.
And that’s just a handful of his flawed arguments. There are plenty more.
America, like the rest of the world, has changed. Those changes have brought diversity, progress and great wealth – the Dow Jones index has nearly tripled during Obama’s presidency, from 6626 in March 2009 to over 18,100 today – but that wealth has not been shared by everyone.
Progress has seen some industries stripped of their need for a human workforce. While new industries have created new jobs, especially in the technology sector, there have been others in older industries that have lost their jobs, some of them at an age where re-training is neither easy nor practical. That’s tough, it’s true. And it’s felt more keenly in small towns that used to be prosperous but are now being abandoned. The depth of feeling is understandable.
What is neither understandable or forgivable, however, is the exploitation of those feelings by the fringe-dwellers that are now occupying some of the advisory seats around the Trump table. Combine that change in the American economy with the nationalism discussed at the beginning of this piece and then sprinkle in some fear of domestic terrorism and you’ve got a toxic brew.
Donald Trump now has a guy named Steve Bannon as the CEO of his election campaign. Bannon was the Chairman of Breitbart News, the far-right (or alt-right) website that encompasses a worldview full of conspiracy theories about one-world governments and other nasties. It’s an outfit that works similar to the propaganda wings that we’ve seen in places like Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, China and North Korea. You make your own news, or twist real news according to your worldview, and you repeat it over and over again. And in 2016 you can do it with a slick website and a Youtube channel.
From a story at CNN (or the Clinton News Network, as they’ve been dubbed by the alt-right)
“This is the journalism of affirmation, not verification,” Tom Rosenstiel, the executive director of the American Press Institute, said of right-wing news sites. “It’s designed to reaffirm what you’re thinking.”
And if you think Trump has a strong enough mind to regulate the input of someone like Bannon, think again. He’s gone from being caustic and bombastic in the primaries to being flat-out conspiratorial in the last week:
Donald Trump on Thursday railed against a conspiratorial plot by the Democrats, corporations and the mainstream media; renewed calls for the imprisonment of his political opponent; and portrayed himself as a populist hero battling a globalist elite.
You’ve heard Trump talk about the media at rallies every day, right?
My mind isn’t made up yet as to whether he really believes this stuff or if he’s just laying the groundwork for the various scapegoats he’ll name when he loses next month.
But either way, it’s dangerous.
Another man who’s been named as an ‘informal’ advisor to Trump is Roger Stone, a lobbyist and political operative since the late 1960’s, and a guy so nuts that he actually has a tattoo of Richard Nixon on his back.
More irony – the guy who calls his opponent Crooked Hillary being advised by a guy with a tattoo of Richard “I am not a crook” Nixon.
Stone also has his own radical right-wing website and online radio show. Right now he’s selling Clinton Rape Whistles and encouraging people to blow them at Democrat events.
A close ally of Roger Stone is Alex Jones, the nut behind a website called Infowars. If you’ve seen people interrupting Democratic events while shouting “Bill Clinton is a rapist” and wearing a ‘Rape’ T-shirt in the style of Obama’s iconic ‘Hope’ image, that’s not necessarily because those people are politically committed. It’s because Jones offered them $5000 to do it.
Jones also did a video recently where he claimed he spoke to Secret Service sources who assured him that Hillary Clinton is demon-possessed and smells like sulphur. Go to the last minute of the video for that quote. Or watch the whole five minutes if you want to see Crazy in full effect.
These are the grade-A idiots that are looking to hi-jack the right side of the political spectrum.
This is who the Republican establishment lost to. Do you think some reform is needed on the right? Mmmmmm.
The end game?
Some people are saying that there could be a Brexit event here, where the polls do not predict the outcome and Donald Trump actually wins office.
That is the the nightmare scenario.
I continue to have faith in the American people, however; Faith that they won’t vote for this hateful, racist, opportunistic, lying, egotistical, misogynistic windbag who doesn’t actually know his policy base.
My hope is that there will be a win for Hillary that’s big enough to put these far-right nut jobs in the frame. Theirs is not a solution. It’s a power-grab, pure and simple. And who knows what would follow? I’m not sure even they do.
America is saddled with this two-party situation where other voices struggle to be heard. It needs at least two valid alternatives for people to choose from. They don’t have this right now. The Republican Party itself needs the alt-right to be set at heel in order for it to get its act together. Again. The population of the US is not skewing white in the future and the GOP needs to articulate a platform that retains conservative values but poses these ideas in a color-free way.
Sadly, I don’t think there’ll be an elegant concession speech from Trump, though he did surprise many by coming up with an expression of admiration for Clinton’s toughness at the second debate. I confess we may be subjected to an inauguration ceremony for America’s first female president that’s marred by interference from Trump’s followers.
My bad dream scenario is one forshadowed by Australia’s former Foreign Minister in today’s paper:
If Clinton takes office on January 20 she will have been defined as “crooked Hillary” by Republican attacks over emails, the family foundation and paid speeches to Wall Street. Only one voter in three sees her as honest or trustworthy and she may have the lowest approval rating of any victor since polls began. No honeymoon. Little goodwill.
Add lashings of misogyny to this toxic atmosphere and all is tailored for a Republican revival, and a revival with strong elements of Tea Party radicalism and Trump’s populist white nationalism.
For Trump himself, there is talk that he might join up with some of his nutbag advisors and start a TV network, probably web-based, that’s far to the right of Fox News. Some sort of conspiracist wonderland, maybe, where the seeds will be sown to have another far-right tilt at the presidency with a younger, fresher candidate in 2020.
That’s a scenario that needs to be stopped.