Lately, as you may have noticed, I haven’t published very many new posts on this blog. The reason is that I’ve been preoccupied with politics, and I’ve found it’s exceedingly difficult to focus on spiritual matters when immersed (emotionally, at least) in the clash and grind of a presidential campaign. With this post, I hope to close the book on this election so I can get back to our usual subject matter.
The election, of course, is not yet over – and yet it is. At least at the presidential level, the outcome is already known. Indeed, one bookmaking outfit is already paying out to its clients who bet on Hillary Clinton. There’s no reason to think the firm will regret its decision.
In coming months, there will be endless debate about whether or not Donald Trump, under other circumstances or following a different strategy, could have won this election. For me, the answer is simple: the Donald Trump we know, the Trump who exists in our universe, could not have won. He simply lacks the right stuff. Nobody handicapped by Trump’s liabilities could realistically have attained the White House. He is a man with zero knowledge of public policy, a man who quite possibly cannot explain how a bill becomes a law or name the three branches of government. Worse, he has no interest in learning anything new, because he believes he’s already a universal expert. Knowing nothing about military matters, he boasts that he knows more than the generals. Knowing nothing about international trade deals, he boasts that he can make the best deals. Knowing nothing about campaign strategy, he ignores his advisers and pursues a hopelessly self-defeating course.
A candidate who won’t prepare for debates, who spends his nights tweeting insults to celebrity journalists, who limits his media appearances to a few friendly venues on Fox News and talk radio, who insults and ridicules constituencies he needs to win over, who foments pointless and destructive intraparty feuds, and who behaves like an emotionally unstable six-year-old ... is simply not going to win. There’s a story that when Donald was a small boy, he became so unhappy at a friend’s birthday party, presumably because the attention was on his friend and not on himself, that he picked up the birthday cake and threw it on the floor. Trump has said his temperament has not changed since he was in kindergarten. This appears to be true. He is still the angry little kid who throws the cake on the floor.
Still, it’s possible to argue that some version of Trump could have won this election – a Trump 2.0, a Trump from a parallel universe, a Trump who could master his worst tendencies, learn a modicum of self-discipline, memorize a smattering of salient facts, and organize a serious campaign with a competent get-out-the-vote effort. A Trump, in other words, who could pivot and act presidential, as the Trump of the primaries promised to do – which is just one of many promises that have not been fulfilled. A better Trump, a more adult, less volatile, less thin-skinned, more serious Trump who actually heeded his advisers and did the things that serious candidates do, might very well have won against the scandal-ridden, socially maladroit, and personally unlikable Hillary Clinton, who represents a continuation of eight years of policies that are widely felt to have been disappointing. This election was the Republican Party’s to lose – and lose it they did.
In an earlier post I pondered the question of whether Trump is a fascist. I concluded that he is probably not a true fascist but more of a right-wing populist with proto-fascist tendencies. To me, this still seems like an accurate assessment of Trump as he came across in the primaries; but in the general election his message became so muddled and his behavior so bizarre that I’m not sure what assessment to make of him today. Most likely, a President Trump would not prove to be a dictator, if only because being a dictator requires a mental focus, determination, and courage that Trump doesn’t possess. He’s a flighty, narcissistic popinjay mainly concerned with protecting his own image and preserving his persnickety vanity. Had he been elected, he probably would have spent most of his time goofing off on the golf course or on social media, while his vice president, chief of staff, and cabinet members did the heavy lifting.
So I don’t think we’ve dodged the bullet of fascism, as some people say. On the contrary, it could be argued that electing Hillary Clinton actually pushes us a tad closer to banana-republic status by cementing the idea that the rich, powerful, and politically connected are above the law. It’s palpably obvious that Hillary and her friends in high office saw to it that the FBI “investigation” into Hillary’s server scandal was fatally hobbled. This is hardly a surprise, but it is a disappointment and a worrying harbinger of the next four (or eight) years. We can expect Madam President to use the machineries of the IRS, the Justice Department, the EPA, and other bureaucratic organs to harass and stifle her political enemies when possible. This is, after all, the same Hillary who, as First Lady, tried to put the career civil servants of the White House Travel Office in prison simply so she could replace them with her Arkansas cronies.
In such a discouraging political environment, it’s easy to give up hope. Some academics argue that, having crossed our own Rubicon, we’ve effected the transition from a republican system of government to an “elective monarchy” not too dissimilar from that of Imperial Rome (though with the key difference that Rome never worked out a rational method for the transfer of power). Even if this perspective is valid, it doesn’t mean the United States is finished. Rome survived for hundreds of years after the republic died, achieving its greatest power, wealth, and influence in its imperial phase.
Besides, it may not be valid. The similarities between the United States and ancient Rome are arguably more superficial than real. And history doesn’t have to repeat itself.
What can we do to improve our prospects? For starters, we can eschew overheated rhetoric and irresponsible fear-mongering. Although it’s become de rigueur for each side to foresee an apocalypse if its candidate loses, the partisanship this time has been more feverish than usual. The hard left predicts a Fourth Reich if Trump wins, while the hard right predicts civil insurrection, even civil war. It’s time to remember Kipling’s advice to “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” The American system of government and the American people have both proven exceptionally stable, a fact that has consistently frustrated radicals and revolutionaries of all stripes. In this country there’s still enough innate suspicion of government to prevent a Hitler, Stalin, or Mussolini from gaining power, and, for most Americans, life is still comfortable enough to make manning the barricades an unviable proposition.
Another unattractive feature of today’s politics is the assumption that one’s opponents have been hypnotized, duped, and brainwashed – assuming, of course, that they are not actually evil. The possibility of honest, intelligent disagreement is rarely broached. And yet trade-offs are an essential part of democracy, and sensible compromise is the key to good governance. There’s nothing disreputable or traitorous about seeking common ground; the effort to find and uphold shared values has been the cornerstone of American politics throughout our history. Our best hope for the future is to reach out to those with whom we disagree, to respect each other’s differences, and, in the famous words of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, to “bind up the nation's wounds” while showing “malice toward none [and] charity for all.”
If we want a better country, we can begin by being better people. Let’s wash the stain of this election season off our hands and get to work.