Scandal, democracy’s salt and pepper, has been flavoring US presidential races for more than two centuries.
Thomas Jefferson won amid revelations that his Federalist rivals plotted to have New York and New England secede from the union.
Abraham Lincoln’s Democratic rivals could not glue their northern and southern parts, whose split foreshadowed the approaching civil war. In 1872 the Republicans split over the Grant administration’s corruption. In 1952 Dwight Eisenhower alleged that Washington was swamped with communists. In 1968 George Wallace demonized “pointy headed intellectuals,” and in 1972 George McGovern was stigmatized as the candidate of “amnesty, abortion and acid.”
One might therefore assume that the abrasive presidential campaign that will culminate Tuesday is but another link in a long chain. It isn’t.
Previous scandals were either part of the American nation’s maturation process – like the repeated disputes surrounding slavery – or part of passing anxieties, like postwar communism’s sway. Other scandals were about personalities, like the clash between the brash soldier and gruff farmer Andrew Jackson and the well-traveled, multilingual, Harvard- educated intellectual John Quincy Adams.
The election campaign that is now finally drawing to a close had in it some of these elements, but unlike the previous 57 presidential contests, this one has been not just about personalities, opinions, or situations but about imperial decline, social disintegration, political deterioration and moral decay.
THE RISE of Donald Trump, regardless of how he performs next week, will be impossible to dismiss as a hiccup in America’s political history.
The man who was originally seen as a clown delivering a serious affair’s comic pause has since morphed from harmless rascal to civilizational vandal.
In Israel, if a prime-ministerial candidate had derided a war veteran like John McCain for having fallen captive, he or she would have vanished politically that same day. That he would speak this way without having even served one day in the military, at a time when others were drafted in droves, would have altogether made him an outcast. And had an Israeli politician disgraced the parents of a fallen soldier, as Trump has, he might have been attacked by pedestrians.
The Republican candidate’s disrespect for those who, unlike him, sacrificed for their country; his derogatory remarks against entire minorities, from blacks to Mexicans; his unsubstantiated charge that the election is rigged; his claim that “international bankers” are backing his rival; his praise for the genocidal Bashar Assad and the revelations concerning his treatment of women were more than mere misdemeanors and slips of the tongue; they defiled America’s patriotic ethos, ridiculed its most sacred social ideals, rammed its cultural values, and hammered at its political foundations.
Trump’s daily rhetorical bravadoes were underscored by political ignorance, programmatic fuzziness and general scorn for facts that no big-party candidate has ever displayed.
The vow to fence the Mexican border is sheer madness in terms of its every aspect – logistical feasibility, economic rationale and political results.
His vows to cut corporate taxes from 35% to 15% and to spike the minimum taxable annual income to $25,000 are plausible ideas, but ones that by any sensible economic logic entail sharp spending cuts.
Yet Trump said he would actually raise defense spending, and at the same time claimed with a straight face that all this “will not add to our deficits or to the national debt.”
Even a kid managing his allowance can see this is voodoo economics.
No wonder that the “senior economists” Trump claimed had written his economic platform were never presented.
Such a team in all likelihood does not exist. Indeed, Trump has offered no indication that he has actually studied any of the complex issues for which he nonchalantly offers quick and painless cures.
Coupling all this with the Republican old guard’s helplessness in the face of what they themselves see as their party’s hostile takeover, one must conclude that American leadership has reached a historic crisis.
Had Trump’s bundle of deceit, frivolity, obscenity, bigotry, manipulation, ignorance and anger come from, say, a third-party candidate, it could have been judged as marginal.
But it is coming from the elected leader of the Republic Party. It is part and parcel of what adds up to an American body that evidently craves healing and a soul that must be searched.
What happened across the political divide during Trump’s ascent only enhances this conclusion.
THE DEMOCRATS were caught off guard by Bernie Sanders’s zenith much the way the Republicans were by Trump’s.
The populist who made idiotic vows to create jobs by “breaking up the banks” and to finance public university tuition by skimming $300 billion off of “Wall Street speculators” should have been exposed by his own party as the demagogue he is. When he said he would make healthcare universal through a tax that would cost “the typical American worker” but a weekly $1.61, his own party should have shown him the real numbers – nearly three times higher – and told him to take his ride on someone else’s back.
Instead, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Sanders swept thousands off their feet, to the astonishment of the Democratic Party’s aloof elite. Their candidate of choice, Hillary Clinton, was seen by a critical mass of Democrats as a creature of the establishment, the representative of privilege, nobility and alienation.
Whether this image was fair is immaterial, as is the overblown outcry over her emails’ mismanagement.
What matters is that so much like their Republican rivals, the Democrats’ doyens had no idea how the people felt in general, and how they felt about their candidate in particular. The Republican billionaires who invested heavily in Jeb Bush were no more aloof than their Democratic peers who assumed Clinton’s name and CV would be greeted with universal applause.
Clinton herself was equally out of touch when she opened her campaign by shouting to a captured audience: “Are you ready for a woman president?” The assumption that gender could be turned into this election’s main issue, after women had long risen to lead dozens of other countries, from Argentina and Brazil to India and Bangladesh, could hardly be more anachronistic.
Even more conceited was Clinton’s characterization of Trump’s followers as “deplorables.” Her failure to distinguish between Trump and the desperadoes he attracted spoke volumes about her distance from the masses she purports to lead.
The writing has been on the wall ever since last decade’s financial meltdown, but America’s political establishment would not decipher its writ.
Popular wrath down in the field remained undetected even after Eric Cantor’s defeat two years ago in congressional primaries while serving as House majority leader.
Barack Obama, with all due respect to his election’s racial gospel, was elected not because of his background or record, but because his rival, John McCain, was unprepared for an election that took a sudden turn to economics, a field in which he was poorly versed.
Obama, for his part, while better informed economically, was ignorant on foreign affairs, where his damage to US interests has been immense, from Europe, where he did not see that Germany was dragging him to an unjustified clash with Russia, through Asia, where he failed to effectively discipline North Korea for violating its agreements with the US, to the Middle East, where he arrived at the embattled Hosni Mubarak’s cheek with a Judas kiss, and at Bashar Assad’s doorstep with an empty gun.
This grim diplomatic legacy now awaits the winner of a decaying political system’s bizarre, embarrassing and alarming 58th presidential election.
THE REPERCUSSIONS of all this transcend America.
The whole world watched as America’s one presidential candidate meandered between ethnic slurs, women’s genitals, conspiracy libels and economic alchemy, while the other candidate failed to floor and nail him down. Throughout the world, millions who care for the US feel that whoever wins Tuesday, the American people have already lost.
No wonder that while America lost its political bearings, a tri-continental authoritarian belt consolidated between Russia, China and Turkey.
The US has lost the world’s fear and respect, and worse: Turning on their TV sets for the latest report on America’s presidential circus, despots are losing their sense of political inferiority. Democracy, they will now argue, is a self-destructive system that ultimately delivers poor leaders, schism and anarchy.
Wednesday morning the US will have a new president.
Whoever that is, the American people will have to repair its political system, in disregard of the White House and its new tenant.
America’s best and brightest – authors, historians, philosophers, jurists, economists, entrepreneurs, anyone who can think, articulate and influence – will have to emerge from the woodwork and launch a nonpartisan effort to restore America’s lost vision, clout and honor, and fix the United States that so many of us adore.www.MiddleIsrael.net
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