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US 2016: Trump’s ultimate descent into total darkness



US 2016: Trump’s ultimate descent into total darkness

Looking forward to the final debate on Wednesday evening, J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates what this phase of the presidential election campaign can mean for the nation. He is not a happy camper.

Just like the narrator in F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”. Now, change the “we” for a “they, Trump supporters” and the “past” for “some imagined, mythic, illusory past” and you begin to approach the flavour of the current American presidential election’s near-final phases.

Three weeks to go. Finally. Authors will probably never write a novel about this campaign as beautifully as Fitzgerald did about the jazz age, but by the time this election is finally over, scholars, analysts, soothsayers and even some of the protagonists in the battle will be churning out “I told you so” books, one after the other, in a torrent of political prose.

Nonetheless, none of those authors will ever quite match the analysis of American politics in Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, All the King’s Men. Penn’s novel chronicled the rise and fall of a demagogic politician who bore a startling similarity to Louisiana Governor Huey Long. This novel then gave birth to two films based on the novel (one starred Sean Penn, while the other earlier one allowed Broderick Crawford to gain an Oscar). Subsequently, another political novel, Primary Colors, built around a Bill Clinton-esque politician, was a runaway best-seller and led to a film based on that book as well.

Just for fun, compare the two versions of the moment and when neophyte gubernatorial candidate Willie Stark discovers his ability to animate the crowds, using those now-far-too-familiar Trumpian tropes of anger and red-meat-flinging, dog-whistle politics. Somebody in the Trump organisation must be some kind of serious film buff. Or maybe The Donald himself.

This never-ending presidential campaign in America lurches forward with less than a month left to go before the ballots are counted. Right here is where, previously, we would have typed, “…before the ballots are cast”. But, in fact, Americans are already voting, in many states by the use of advance balloting. This matters rather more than most people yet realise because by the time the calendar reaches Election Day, somewhere north of 30% of all voters will have already made their choice – with some having done so at the end of September.

That means a growing number of people are about to make – or have already made – their decision based on what they have heard or seen so far. As a result, the remaining campaigning – and most especially the third and final presidential debate on October 19 in Las Vegas, Nevada, following the same rules as the first debate – will be important largely to the shrinking pool of voters who have yet to make up their minds in a handful of battleground states like Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina. But this may also be true in several states that have been Republican for decades such as Georgia, Arizona, Utah and even, conceivably, a state such as Texas.

These states seem to be shifting towards the purple rather than being solidly red states on the GOP side of the ledger as a function of the changing demographics of the states in terms of voter registration. In the latter case, it may all come down to the Hispanic vote and their turnout to vote. And that, of course, depends on their being registered to vote. In Texas and everywhere else voter registration is ultimately dependent to a considerable degree on the ground game of a campaign. That means chasing down people one by one to find out if they are citizens and if they have registered to vote – and then getting them to actually do so on Election Day or before via advance voting.

And that brings us to what has happened since we last “skinnered” about the American election campaign. In the days following the second debate and after the original lewd video featuring Donald Trump in conversation with reality show host Billy Bush, additional women have come forward to accuse Donald Trump with various versions of unwanted sexual advances – or still more jarring sexual assaults.

Then First Lady Michelle Obama stepped into the arena to deliver a hard-hitting but deeply moving speech at a campaign rally in New Hampshire on behalf of Hillary Clinton, saying how deeply she was offended by the sleazy rhetoric on that bus in that video recording. Michelle Obama, without ever mentioning Donald Trump by name, made it very clear who she was talking about, noting that she was deeply offended by his unseemly remarks for herself and her children, yes, but she also felt for decent men everywhere to be lumped together with this lout.


Her speech may eventually come to be regarded as one of the great political campaign speeches of the past half-century. This would be particularly amazing, since it was from someone not even running for office. President Obama’s own speech in Cleveland, meanwhile, while not rising to the level of his spouse’s rhetoric, did feature a shoutout about GOP candidate Donald Trump – asking how people could believe that the loutish scion of a millionaire could become the avatar of hard-working people, by virtue of his peculiar mix of bigotry, millenarianism, and faux-populist nationalism.

But the real prize, of course, eventually goes to the winner of the election, rather than the ribbon for best speech or campaign slogan. The polling done after the second debate (taking into consideration the release of the decade-old sleaze video and the rash of Republicans saying they could no longer support him or that – in at least a few cases – he should step down, as with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s Facebook post, and let Mike Pence be the nominee instead), indicated somewhere between a 4% to 11% margin in favour of Hillary Clinton, on a national basis. The polling in a number of battleground states also indicated significant leads for her as well in most of them.

In tandem with this polling, moreover, some Republican office holders running for re-election in House or Senate races found themselves in especially awkward positions. They discovered – surprisingly, perhaps – that much of the strongly Republican share of the electorate, while they disliked the Trumpian rhetorical overkill and his “locker room banter”, was unhappy with those GOP candidates who had attempted to create some moral daylight between themselves and the party’s woeful presidential nominee. Paradoxically, the same voters also seemed to be angry all over again towards these same candidates when some of them disavowed their disavowal of Trump, a few days after their moment of moral high dudgeon with him.

More troubling still to many of the party’s candidates, campaign operatives and strategists, is that it is becoming clear a growing number of the usual big Republican donors (those rich folks who, over the years, have routinely contributed to candidates and GOP-supporting super PACs and who have served as bundlers of other direct contributions) appear to be joining a herd decision that believes contributing to the Trump campaign is now basically a waste of good money after bad. As a result, they are now concentrating their energies on raising funds for the Republican National Committee and related bodies for various congressional races instead, with the idea that something can be salvaged from the wreckage.

Accordingly, the Trump campaign finds itself being out-fundraised. It is not just the money of course. It is what money does. Less money means fewer phone banks and campaign boiler rooms, fewer television ad buys, less money to support voter registration and Election Day turnout drives, more modest polling and related analysis, and, ultimately, less money for paid staff, offices, transportation, computer and telephone costs – and less coffee and indifferent cold pizza to keep all the worker bees stoked 24/7.

As the Trumpian narrative continues to take hits in the broader public mind from all his self-inflicted wounds (including those late-night, mile-a-minute tweets about whoever is the latest victim of The Donald’s ire), Trump has increasingly turned to one of his favourite whipping boys – the media. To a considerable degree this comes right out of Steven Bannon’s playbook (Bannon is Trump’s latest campaign head) from his time with his alt.right website, Breitbart News.

But, the Trumpian version is to link the media with Clinton and even some renegade Republicans as part of some vast, multitentacled conspiracy plotting to destroy Trump’s effort to save the republic. The fact that newspaper after paper has been falling in line to endorse Clinton because of Trump’s own pronouncements, rants, and blunders – well beyond such mainstays as the Washington Post or New York Times – becomes yet more proof of the conspiracy. Perhaps even the recent letter from 55 former nuclear missile launch officers announcing that Trump simply doesn’t have the temperament to be president is part of this vast Clintonian conspiracy – along with all those Republican foreign policy and economics experts who have previously signed similar letters. Who really knows?

By now, this conspiracy has become entangled with Trump’s long-running riff that the whole election is rigged, the Democrats are importing vast crowds of immigrants to vote against him, the polls are fake, and that his supporters must organise themselves to serve as ad hoc voting monitors to keep things from going over to the forces of evil through systematic voter fraud. Some of his supporters echo Trump’s own allusions to this election as being the last one before the country is destroyed. Talk about an eschatological fantasy. But the problem is that by trying to undermine the idea that the election is an honest one, this contributes to ever-increasing alienation from the political process by many and it also helps aid an international narrative that the American political system is bogus, corrupt and shot through and through with the machinations of hidden forces.

This weekend, in fact, Trump moved onto some really strange territory, even for him, now arguing that at the second debate Hillary Clinton was on drugs. As a result, candidates should be forced to take drug tests – presumably before debating, or taking the oath of office, perhaps. Come to think of it, perhaps such a requirement might also apply to releasing tax returns and related documents?

To get some professional advice about such substances and some perspective on this drug testing business, this writer approached a clinical psychiatrist to ask what prescriptions might be ordered for someone – say, Donald Trump – who was showing a serious narcissist personality disorder, demonstrated growing levels of hallucinations, and offered clear evidence of feelings of paranoia. We were told that typical medications for hallucinations (which would be related to psychosis) and paranoia (particularly paranoia associated with a diagnosis of schizophrenia) would be Risperdal, Abilify, Zyprexa and Seroquel.

To assist in stabilising the patient’s mood, and dependent on the specifics of the case, medications could include lithium, Tegretol, and Lamictan. While the latter two are used to treat seizure disorders, they can also work effectively to stabilise mood. Wellbutrin is often used in conjunction with a mood stabiliser as well. Important is that some of these medications, “when combined, potentiate one another” so self-medication would not be advised. Additionally, to help calm a person down, the doctor advised that benzodiazepines, such as Valium or Azor, or their generic equivalents could be used as well. Of course, any or all of these would seemingly disqualify a Trumpian candidate from getting a green card from the debate authorities if his own suggestion were to be used. Nonetheless, if they were administered, they could certainly help lower the temperature of this campaign!

Meanwhile, with all of these problems on the Republican side, there are some very real challenges within Hillary Clinton’s campaign as well. These range from the latest round of those Wikileaks-released, purloined e-mails that seemingly show the candidate to be (shock, horror) a politician who sometimes tells one thing to one group, and then shades that presentation when speaking with another group. Then there is her continuing inability to put away – finishing it off once and for all – her State Department e-mail problem, the muttering or worse about her entanglements with the foundation that bears her name, and the outsized speaking fees from banking associations. The Trump campaign is now trying to fasten on to a comment she offered in one speech to a Latin American banking group a few years back (but now in an era where trade and open borders are apparent major shibboleths) that she favoured greater free trade and the freer movement of people and to drive these revelations about Clinton home with still-wavering voters.

Still, much of what Donald Trump is doing now appears to be an effort to shore up his base and strengthen his connections with people who are already in his corner, rather than encouraging independents and undecided voters, let alone Democrats uncomfortable with their candidate, to come on over to his dark side. If that is true, that seems to argue that deep down in his heart, Donald Trump knows the battle for the White House is over, and that he is now going to bind his supporters to him for new crusades and new adventures – but not to move into the White House. But the resulting damage to the national psyche will not go away easily – especially if he persists, post-November 8, in insisting that the Clinton forces, in tandem with their allies, have stolen the election away from him. That result will be a new and very troubling development in American political life – even if he doesn’t get the big prize and be able to order Clinton to spend time in the “big house” instead of the White House. DM

Photo: Supporters hold placards as US Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, USA, 14 October 2016. The US presidential election is scheduled for 08 November 2016. EPA/ERIK S. LESSER


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