This Tuesday, Americans will make a fateful decision regarding the direction the country will take in coming years.
On one side, we have Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Secretary of State, senator from New York and Fist Lady who started her career working at the Children's Defense Fund and who has been, for better and for worse, at the heart of the nation’s politics, both foreign and domestic, for the last 25 years.
On the other side, we have a man who represents a threat to American democracy unique in the country’s 240 year history.
During this past primary season, Republican voters had, in the persons of Jeb Bush and John Kasich, a chance to nominate the popular current or former governors of vital swing states who had a clearly articulated vision of conservative principals and had demonstrable records of reaching across the aisle and working with those of the other party in the day to day business of keeping their states chugging along.
Instead, Republican voters chose a television curiosity with no political experience and a glaring ignorance of national and international affairs, a confessed sexual predator, a publicly committed racist and misogynist who said he would ban an entire religion, kill innocents in a nebulous war on terrorism, called on a hostile foreign intelligence agency to disrupt the democratic process of the United States, conspired (at least rhetorically) with a fugitive accused rapist openly hostile to U.S. interests, who vowed to destroy the separation of powers, who pledges to put both his opponent and journalists like myself in prison and who traffics in dark conspiracy theories in a brazen appeal to white nationalism and the most putrid strain of America’s polarized politics.
Part of the blame can be laid at the feet of the institutional Republican Party itself. Once an internationally minded entity run on an ethos of voter enfranchisement, especially of African–Americans (anyone who doubts that fact should read John Hope Franklin’s Reconstruction After the Civil War), decided, with the election of the country’s first African–American president, that, when in opposition, its job wasn’t, in fact, to help govern the nation and that indeed it wasn’t beholden to the rules of democracy, after all.
The threats of violence from the Republican “base” against President Obama began from almost the day he took office as well as Democratic members of congress, which in the case of Arizona’s then–congresswoman Gabby Giffords were acted on with catastrophic results. Rather than reasoned debate on the issues, policy differences were met with a government shutdown and reckless threats to default on the country’s debt. Realizing that the shifting demographics of the United States were against the party’s increasing drift into a white identity entity, the party whose members once died trying to register black voters became, nationwide, the party of voter suppression. The president’s prerogative of filling Supreme Court vacancies was met by an unprecedented stonewalling.
Enter Donald J. Trump, reality tv host and dubious businessman who began his campaign by deriding citizens of Mexico, our southern neighbor and one of our most important trading partners, as murderers and rapists and who has continued through the months selling a vision of our country is little more than a nightmare tapestry of lies held together by threads of racial and social rancour.
Consistently from the stage, Trump has claimed that the murder rate in the United States is the ‘highest it’s been in 45 years.” That is a lie, and it is not. He has demeaned the Indiana–born judge overseeing the lawsuit against Trump’s bogus “university” based on the Mexican heritage of the judge’s parents. He unforgivably slandered the family of Captain Humayun Khan, killed fighting in Iraq in 2004 with anti–Muslim slurs. He has promoted an economic plan that has been denounced by economists as “a dangerous, destructive choice for the country” based on “magical thinking and conspiracy theories over sober assessments of feasible economic policy options.” He has all but vowed to default on America’s debt, depriving the economy of a crucial safety net, in what the Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman called an example of “extrapolating from his own business career, in which he has done very well by running up debts, then walking away from them.” His refusal to release his tax returns, and his dishonest explanations for why he would not do so, means voters are in the dark about his web of debts and financial entanglements. Both Trump and his running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, have praised Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, with Trump also lavishing praise on the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. He has grotesquely hinted at the potential desirability of the assassination of his opponent, and for months has been calling for violence against any and all who speak out against him.
The violent rhetoric of Trump and his supporters directed at journalists in general and Jewish journalists in particular, many of whom appear, with great justification, to sense the threat Trump poses on a molecular level, should be the canary in the coal mine for all of us to see. Though I am not Jewish, after I spoke against Trump’s recycling of far right anti–semitic conspiracy theories about “international bankers” and “George Soros,” I was deluged with hundreds of death threats on Twitter, threats which Twitter refused to act against claiming they didn’t violate their terms of service. It is not for nothing that Bradley Burston, a columnist for Haaretz, Israel’s oldest newspaper, looked aghast at Trump and wrote that he is “sadistically vindictive, flagrantly hypocritical, proudly divisive. He will harm anyone, say anything, declare the opposite, to get what he wants.” Lest anyone miss the point, Trump concluded his campaign with a nakedly anti–semitic ad basically suggesting a trio of prominent Jews are responsible for all of the country's financial woes.
We have been forced to live in Trump’s gutter so long I think that many of my fellow Americans have simply been battered into believing that such behaviour and discourse is normal for a presidential candidate. It is not normal, and if such a thought process is married to all the tools at the disposal of the president, it will lead the country over the cliff on which it now teeters and into the abyss.
There have been precious few voices raised against Trump within his own party, but those that have done so deserve mention. In March, Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential candidate, warned that Trump’s “imagination must not be married to real power.” In May, Jeb Bush declared that Trump had “not demonstrated that temperament or strength of character (to be president and that) he has not displayed a respect for the Constitution....I cannot support his candidacy.” The National Review’s Jonah Goldberg wrote that “Trump is a fundamentally dishonorable and dishonest person, and has been his whole adult life...An insecure, morally ugly, man-child who thinks boasting about how he can get away with groping women ‘because you’re a star’ impresses people. He’s a grotesque, as a businessman and a man full stop.” The Wall Street Journal’s Brett Stephen’s wrote that “it will not do for Republicans to say they denounce Mr. Trump’s personal slanders; his nativism and protectionism and isolationism; his mendacity and meanness and crassness; his disdain for constitutional protections, and still campaign for his election. There is no redemption in saying you went along with it, but only halfway; that with Mr. Trump you maintained technical virginity. To lie down with him is to wake up with him. It’s as simple as that.” While other evangelicals have spat upon their own professed beliefs to endorse him, veteran GOP operative Peter Wehner wrote that “Trump’s character is antithetical to many of the qualities evangelicals should prize in a political leader: integrity, compassion and reasoned convictions, wisdom and prudence, trustworthiness, a commitment to the moral good.” More than 50 members of the Republican national security community signed a joint letter in which they warned that they were “united in our opposition to a Donald Trump presidency...His vision of American influence and power in the world is wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle” and that “Mr. Trump’s own statements lead us to conclude that as president, he would use the authority of his office to act in ways that make America less safe, and which would diminish our standing in the world.”
But most of the Republican establishment has demonstrated no such courage. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan endorsed Trump after an untold number of outrages, and though the latter declined to campaign for Trump after a recording revealing the nominee bragging about sexually assaulting women came to light he supinely ran back into the fold in recent days. They have indelibly stained the GOP to such a degree that its image as a coherent party with a set of principals and values has almost ceased to exist. Should Trump win, Trump surrogates like Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie and Jess Sessions will be remembered for playing with alacrity their roles as the American equivalents of Franz von Papen, Constantin von Neurath and other career politicians who gave Adolf Hitler the political cover he needed to form his first cabinet, complimenting Steve Bannon in his role as Joseph Goebbels and Breitbart News in its role as Der Stürmer.
(I won’t even mention the so called third party candidates, a pothead former governor with memory recall issues and a daffy heiress who believes being “founder and past co-chair of a local recycling committee appointed by the Lexington Board of Selectmen” is qualification of being president of the world’s most influential country, save to say it is a sad state of affairs that the fate of the republic may hang in the balance of their candidacies.)
Americans are cocooned and cushioned by the reality many (though not Native Americans or African–Americans) have shared since the country’s founding, decades of stable institutions and, in the national main, political fair play. They cannot imagine how quickly, and how violently, things can change. Those who dismiss Trump’s rhetoric as simply buffoonish bluster will be startled at how quickly things go downhill should he enter the office of the presidency. But make no mistake, with the powers bestowed on that office, Trump’s shredding of the constitution is not only a possibility but a forgone conclusion
In my 20 years as a journalist reporting on international affairs, I have come across the Trump template before, employed by those whose political behavior is marked by, as Robert Paxton said in his 2004 book The Anatomy of Fascism
(An) obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
In Côte d’Ivoire I saw how Laurent Gbagbo’s promoting his ethno supremacist cult of Ivorité took one of Africa’s richest countries and toppled it over into civil war. In Haiti, I saw how Jean Bertrand Aristide took the rancour of the masses and stoked it into an attempt to create a kind of garish fiefdom modeled on those of Uganda’s Idi Amin and the Central African Republic’s Jean-Bédel Bokassa. In Guatemala, I watched former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who oversaw the country’s worst period of genocidal bloodletting, form a political party, the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG), whose entire motor ran on anti–elite rage and was eventually revealed to be more criminal enterprise than political vessel.
I come from the exact strata of American society – the white, blue collar, Rust Belt working class – among whom Trump’s message has the most resonance, relatively unworldly people with a strong work ethic who feel all their hard work has been spat upon and shunted aside by years of free trade deals championed by both parties and a tax system that lavishes breaks on the wealthy and penalizes those of more modest means (championed, ironically, by the very same party to which they now claim allegiance). There is real pain and real despair there. I see it every time I go back to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where I grew up. But there is also a whining self pity that often can’t see anyone’s struggle as worthy as their own and a nearly millenarian sense of grievance that sees politics not as the art of the possible but as an apocalyptic struggle between a largely white industrial world that has gone and will never return against a confusing kaleidoscope of liberal urban elites, the country’s burgeoning non–white population, immigrants, alternative sexual orientations and other shocks to their system. If Trump voters often sound as if they think the world is about to end, it’s because the world as they have known it is ending. But these forces of demography cannot be reversed, by Trump or anyone else, and it is not a world my fellow working–class whites need to fear, but fear is the currency on which Trump trades.
The American democratic project has been characterized by inconsistencies since it commenced in 1776. Some of these tensions involved America’s actions abroad, and some in the way it treated its most vulnerable citizens at home. But, with the exception of a wrenching civil war that saw over 600,000 Americans die, few have ever questioned the value of the project itself.
When, at the end of the Revolutionary War, a group of dissident officers in the Continental Army all but suggested a coup against the newly inaugurated Congress in what came to be known as the Newburgh Conspiracy, the army's commander in chief (and future first U.S. President) George Washington gave an impassioned speech in which he inveighed on behalf “of our common country,” charging
As you value your own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the military and national character of America, to express your utmost horror and detestation of the man, who wishes, under any specious pretences, to overturn the liberties of our country; and who wickedly attempts to open the flood-gates of civil discord, and deluge our rising empire in blood.
This Tuesday we will find out if the ethos of the man we call the Father of the Country is still subscribed to by the people who live here now.
History has amply warned us of the path we are poised to go down.
In the July 1932 elections in Germany, also a democracy at the time, the Nazis received 37% of the vote, the most they every got. In the next election four months later, their share shrank to 32%. But by then it was too late. The serpent was already in the garden. In the 1990s, the people of the Balkans put their faith in leaders like Serbia's Slobodan Milošević and Radovan Karadžić who led the region into ethnic cleansing, genocide, NATO bombing and bloody war for a decade. In 1999, the people of Venezuela, desperate and vengeful after being ignored by their politicians for years, turned the reigns of their country over to former coup leader Hugo Chávez, his successor Nicolás Maduro and their “Bolivarian socialism.” They haven’t gotten it back since.
In Cuba, where I spend a lot of time these days and which has its own experience with strongmen promising to expunge a collective grievance through a cleansing release of violence, after the 1959 overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista, the new government, led by Fidel Castro, executed hundreds, possibly thousands, of people tied to the ancien régime after only the most summary trials (and many with no trial at all). Whether all or even most of them were guilty will never be known. The cry of paredón (to the wall) resounded, and the will of the maximum leader had to be obeyed. Today, one can still visit El Morro, where so many of them died, and El Capitolio, where Cuba’s congress met and debated, but which was shuttered after 1959, and remains so to this day.
Now, at another time, in another place, that cry raises its sanguinary voice again, in my own country in the form of a candidate and his supporters who call for his opponent to be jailed, for journalists to be arrested and killed, and for all those who speak out against hm to be attacked and battered into submission.
To Trump’s supporters, I say this: Today it might be the Democrats who are sent to the wall. It might be Jewish journalists, or Muslims, or Latinos or immigrants. But should this man ascend to to power, one of these days, not too long from now, his mob will scream for blood and it will be someone you love who is brought to the wall, for some transgression real or imagined. It might even be you. In my 20 years as a journalist I’ve seen it in countless countries before. People think it can’t happen here, but it can.
On Tuesday, when you go to the polls, vote as if your life depends on it. Because it does.