Wayne O'Leary

The Tragedy of 2016

As this was being written, the contenders in the 2016 presidential sweepstakes were stumbling toward the finish line (thankfully), with Hillary Clinton apparently on track to outlast Donald Trump and claim the Pyrrhic victory; it all couldn’t end soon enough for most Americans.

This great contest of the unpopulars — let’s call it the run for the wilted roses — had brought out the worst in our politics. Progressives, naturally, wanted to blame it exclusively on Trump, portrayed in the liberal media as the second coming of Adolph Hitler, but there was plenty of blame to go around. Clinton virtually called for a revived Cold War over reports that Russians had hacked her embarrassing emails.

Coming down the homestretch, here were the issues under discussion: the weight-loss problems of a former beauty queen; the debate over who did or didn’t love Vladimir Putin; Hillary Clinton’s health and stamina; Donald Trump’s attitude and behavior toward women; the comparative awfulness of the Trump and Clinton foundations; and, of course, the supreme question of our time, do you prefer a misogynistic xenophobe or a crooked liar in the White House?

Here were the issues barely mentioned or not discussed at all: climate change and environmental policy, free trade and deindustrialization, preserving Social Security and Medicare, financial reform, wage stagnation, income inequality, health care, and the Middle East quagmire – to name a few.m 2005 took center stage and swept all before it. Personally, I suspect it revealed less what Trump actually did and more his penchant for stupid bragging, a pathetic attempt to seem macho by someone who is, socially speaking, an overage fraternity boy. But we may neve

Toward the end, it seemed advantage Clinton, as Trump’s now-famous taped Access Hollywood interview fror know for sure, since the whole sexual-groping episode degenerated into a classic “he says, she says” dispute involving several Clinton partisans. Still, it sounded like something Trump might have done, so his accusers got the benefit of the doubt.

That consensus opinion, which evolved into what appeared (prematurely) to mark the critical turning point of the entire presidential campaign, was abetted by Clinton’s “outrage machine” (so labelled by New York Times reporter Jason Horowitz), the seamy David Brock Internet operation famous for pressuring the political press to publicize opposition “gotcha” moments on behalf of the Hillary campaign. Yet in the prevailing environment, Brock’s machinations proved almost superfluous; the establishment media, consumed by Trump phobia, was already fully on board the Clinton team.

One of the disheartening aspects of the 2016 campaign was the total loss of objectivity and good journalistic practice exhibited by national news outlets; this included the Times, the Washington Post, and even such publications as the normally nonjudgmental New Yorker, all of which chose to crusade openly and in unison against Trump as an existential threat to the Republic.

Most especially, it included television network NBC, through its cable channel MSNBC, which in its hysterical, over-the-top attacks on Trump (scripted for maximum liberal offense), became the Democratic equivalent to the Republican Fox News channel, disseminating a constant diet of heavy-handed propaganda and scare-mongering on behalf of its party’s establishment.

This didn’t start with Trump, but was a continuation of the MSNBC conversion from a forum for left-of-center discussion into a bastion of Democratic centrist opinion that began during the primaries, when it was geared to taking out Bernie Sanders and paving Hillary Clinton’s road to the nomination. Sanders and Trump, different in so many ways, did share one thing in common: they were threats to the establishment and the political institution the establishment has lately chosen to advance its interests, the centrist Democratic party of Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Thomas Frank, who has written incisively about the new retrograde Democratic party (most recently in the November issue of Harper’s magazine), calls the great Democracy the organ of a “meritocratic elite,” which is comfortable, credentialed, and the self-appointed arbiter of what is legitimate and permissible in our politics; it is an odd coalition of the privileged upper-middle class in combination with minorities and the very poor, representing Wall Street as well as Silicon Valley and led by affluent, upwardly striving white-collar professionals of whom Clinton was the perfect personification.

There is, however, no place in this new Democratic coalition for the white working class, or even the lower-middle class, which is why their members drifted in considerable numbers first to Sanders and then, in desperation, to Donald Trump. Unfortunately, Sanders was blocked by nostalgia for a Clinton golden age that never existed, and Trump, with his manifold flaws and incoherent ideology, was never the proper messenger for a bottom-up populism.

That is the tragedy of 2016. The struggling working class badly needed a champion; instead, it’s been consigned to the scrap heap of history (pending a Trump epiphany) on the assumption that it’s no longer required in today’s brave, new high-tech economic world. Nevertheless, the cause animating this year’s working-class anxiety, anger and alienation remains; it’s called, in a word, globalization.

William Greider, a journalistic voice of clarity amidst the pre-election avalanche of anti-Trump rantings, outlined the problem, the debate we never had this year, in the Oct. 24 issue of The Nation. In Greider’s words, “Trump is a jerk, but he has exposed globalization’s ills.” Regrettably, he added, Clinton (then our presumed next president) had nothing to say about the fundamental cause of America’s lost prosperity, the globalized economic policies responsible for flattening the middle and working classes. Her incrementalist social-policy prescriptions and assertions that America was “still great” wouldn’t do.

In Greider’s view, the loss of America’s economic stability, the source of our national dysfunction, has been a result of accepting globalization’s depredations as inevitable, something tantamount to free-market acts of nature, rather than (like prosperous Germany) formulating meaningful industrial policies to offset them. The nature of those policies should have formed the essence of the 2016 debate.

Instead, we were treated to a Seinfeldian campaign about nothing, in which the personal deportment of the candidates was paramount. Solutions could wait. Warm and fuzzy niceness, a preference for democratic norms, and an expressed sympathy for life’s losers were seemingly all we required in a president. As it turned out, we got even less.

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, December 1, 2016


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