Wayne O'Leary

Dystopia on the Potomac

Has there ever been a more dispiriting contest in the modern history of presidential elections? Lesser evil doesn’t even come close to describing the choice. In the blue corner, we have Hillary Clinton, feminist avenger and cutter of ethical corners, who promises, if elected, to relitigate the 1990s. In the red corner, we have Donald Trump, angriest of the angry white males, whose loose lips will sink every ship in sight, probably including his own.

It’s enough to persuade the most dedicated of political junkies to swear off politics for life. Yet, we should have seen it coming, since the cake was baked a long time ago.

Clinton was really the Democrats’ pre-selected candidate-in-waiting as far back as the start of Obama’s second term; the party’s increasingly dominant feminist wing would accept nothing less than her nomination as the symbolic affirmation of their cause. And party centrists, who controlled the process, had learned nothing over the previous quarter-century, convincing themselves “Hill and Bill” could get it right this time and put an end to the harping on the populist left by doing the same things as before and getting different results. In reality, this detour back to the future is the pathway to political rigor mortis.

Trump, in the meantime, has appeared to come out of nowhere, but his rise was predictable as well. He (or someone like him) was bound to emerge as the expression of the GOP’s wrathful post-2012 state of mind and be anointed as the anti-Hillary. The GOP wants to re-fight the culture wars of the 1990s, which ended inconclusively and unsatisfactorily, as much as the Clintons do; they want to go back to the future, too. Trump, his partisans reason, can squelch the Clintons once and for all through sheer high-decibel lung power and in-your-face sarcasm and intimidation.

Their Democratic adversaries, however, are convinced of their divine right to rule. With unsurpassed arrogance, they believe they should rightfully have been returned to power in 2008 and would have been, but for the interloper Obama, who didn’t wait his turn. After the subsequent two terms of backing and filling, which combined two years of cautious, tempered accomplishment with six years of compromise and strategic retreat, they’re ready to see him off and set things to rights.

Team Clinton thinks it knows better than the incumbent administration how to run the government and, especially, how to formulate a muscular foreign policy. One problem: their restoration can’t succeed without Obama. In particular, he’s the key to the black vote, which saved Hillary in the primaries. So, we have the spectacle of the freshly minted nominee clutching the president and desperately holding him tight, allowing no distance between them.

The president, for his part, needs a Hillary victory to save his watered-down legacy of Obamacare and Dodd-Frank. This has produced “the hug,” wherein the two principals waltz uncomfortably around the political stage as one, somewhat like the cast in the famous final episode of the 1970s Mary Tyler Moore show.

The hug was a key part of the Democratic National Convention’s Clinton lovefest, the embarrassing, touchy-feely soap opera that occupied an entire evening in an effort to “humanize” Hillary and counter her widely perceived untrustworthiness. Unfortunately, it was cancelled out by the revelation of the anti-Sanders emails orchestrated by bottom-feeding Clinton pal Debbie Wasserman Schultz and her DNC associates.

Trump, who doesn’t do hugs, has his own problems, foremost among them (aside from the jaw-dropping list of people he’s insulted) his uneasy status as a relatively moderate candidate representing a right-wing party. Believe it or not — and it is hard to believe given his inflammatory rhetoric — the Donald is probably the least conservative GOP nominee (John McCain possibly excepted) in over a generation, cordially despised by the big-business wing of the party for his anti-globalist positions on trade and immigration.

At the same time, Trump is a decidedly imperfect messenger for the populist message he’s expounding. He exhibits the attention span of a hummingbird and rarely thinks things through, offering pro-corporate tax proposals, for example, that exactly contradict the anti-corporate trade policies he advocates.

But if Trump never thinks before speaking, Clinton never speaks without calculating; you can almost hear the wheels turning. He’s spontaneous in the guileless (but often destructive) way a small child is guileless; she’s devoid of spontaneity, a programmed, robotic candidate, hip-deep in position papers — something for every voting bloc.

Finally, if the Donald lacks the incisive knowledge to discipline corporate America effectively, Hillary lacks the necessary will. She and Bill have been wholly owned subsidiaries of America’s business and financial interests since leaving the White House in 2001, raking in $230 million according to Forbes, mostly in corporate speaking and consulting fees. The candidate herself took in $12 million within 18 months of resigning from the State Department.

In the age of economic inequality, the Clintons have used their connections to ascend not just into the 1%, but into the 0.01%. It’s not illegal, but it’s a suggestion of petty corruption and really bad judgment. Their fellow high-roller Trump got his billions, we are led to believe, through good, old-fashioned “honest graft.” To paraphrase George Washington Plunkitt, Donald and the Clintons seen their opportunities and they took ’em.

So, will these paragons of moral rectitude give us a campaign based on redressing America’s economic imbalances? Of course not. They’ll campaign on identity politics — nonwhite and female/LGBT identity politics in the case of Clinton, white and male identity politics in the case of Trump. The corporations, meanwhile, will get a pass.

Do you see a dilemma developing here? If so, you’re not alone. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll taken in mid-July, a third of registered Republicans say they are disappointed that Donald Trump will be their nominee, and a third of registered Democrats feel the same way about Hillary Clinton.

And so, folks, the question of the hour: What time is it? Yes, that’s right! It’s Lesser of the Evils time, that treasured season of the year when we get to vote for someone we never wanted for president, on the grounds that not to do so would be considered irresponsible.

So get ready to prepare your ballots. Hillary and Donald are waiting.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2016


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