It is difficult to imagine politics uglier than the insults traded about snakes, witches and thieves ahead of South Africa’s local government elections. But the 2016 presidential elections in the United States have been a dragnet of vitriol, unsubstantiated accusations, hyperbole, bombast and bigotry. On Saturday Night Live this weekend, Alec Baldwin, who parodies Donald Trump in the skit, broke out of character, telling Kate McKinnon, who plays Hillary Clinton: “I just hate yelling all this stuff at you… I feel gross all the time.” The polarising campaign has left America feeling battered and dirty. And the new president is unlikely to be able to remedy this any time soon. RANJENI MUNUSAMY reports from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In case Hillary Clinton did not have enough problems already with the FBI and Wikileaks sabotaging her campaign, and a somewhat chilling alliance between Donald Trump and the Russians, she also has to contend with an onslaught from religious conservatives. Because of her pro-choice stance, some church leaders are warning their congregations that they will be consigned to eternal damnation if they vote for the candidate that encourages women’s right to choose.
“It is a mortal sin to vote Democrat… immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell,” proclaimed a flyer distributed at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in San Diego, California. It also declared that Satan was working through Clinton.
Moderates in the church have denounced this but continue to emphasise “the sanctity of life” as a major determining factor in the election. Most church leaders ask people to vote according to their Christian conscience – whatever that might be.
With 83% of Americans identifying themselves as Christian, according to an ABCNEWS poll, church leaders are highly influential. If they are able to hold their noses over Trump’s crassness, racism and abusive behaviour towards women, he lines up with religious conservatives on emotive issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, human cloning and embryonic stem cell research.
But this election is very much about the “lesser evil”, and not just for religious fundamentalists. Clinton’s flawed record has made her cannon fodder for the Republicans, and the ever-prevalent e-mail saga somehow manages to dwarf Trump’s numerous sexual, financial and ethical scandals. The FBI’s reopening of the investigation into the e-mails has led to a tightening of the gap between Clinton and Trump in the polls, meaning that she is having to work harder at chasing votes in the battlegrounds.
On Sunday it emerged that FBI Director James Comey notified key members of Congress that after reviewing all of the newly discovered e-mails, the agency would stand by its original findings against recommending charges.
But the damage has already been done.
While Trump’s rallies continue to draw massive crowds, the Clinton campaign has leaned heavily on big name celebrities to jack up turnout at events and at the polls.
Trump is relishing pointing this out.
After Clinton appeared on stage with Beyoncé and Jay Z in Cleveland, Ohio on Friday, Trump told his supporters in Reno, Nevada: “We didn’t bring any so-called stars along. We didn’t need them. The reason Hillary has to do that is, nobody comes for her. She can’t fill a room.”
“That’s almost like a form of cheating, right?” Trump added.
The dip in the polls after Comey’s letter to Congress about the e-mails was released last Friday has caused despondency for Clinton campaigners. At a Democrat campaign office in Bakery Square, Pittsburgh last week, volunteers were visibly sullen, having to face another uphill battle convincing voters to turn up at the polls.
Retired political journalist Mackenzie Carpenter, who works the phone bank at the campaign office, says it has been difficult to get people enthused about Clinton’s campaign. “Barack Obama’s time was very moving. Even though having a woman president is a big deal, people don’t feel the same sense of history.”
Carpenter, a straight-shooting former journalist who has covered many presidential elections, says Clinton does not have any magic touch and her baggage has weighed heavily on the campaign. “People need to be reminded how bad the alternative is,” she says. “But if Clinton was running against any other Republican, she would not be winning.”
Dr Louis Picard, director of the International Development Programme at the University of Pittsburgh, believes that despite all the problems they have faced, “the Democrats and Clinton are going to limp past the goal line” on Tuesday.
There has been “very sloppy management” on the part of the Clintons with their long-term style of behaviour from the 1990s of keeping things secret, says Picard. While Clinton might make a better president than she was a candidate, a huge slice of people in America might question her legitimacy as their leader after the election. This will be especially so if the election outcome is close, Picard says.
The interpretation of a number of Trump supporters, particularly those who are uneducated, is that Clinton is guilty of something criminal related to the e-mails, even if they do not know exactly what that would be. There is also a resistance to the last barriers to gender equality being broken down.
“There is almost an hypnotic process people fall into because of their built-in bias and irrational fear. Trump appeals to that and feeds their anger,” says Picard. “America is moving towards a non-white majority and that makes white people fearful, just like they were in South Africa.”
That is why, despite proposing absurdities like a wall to keep foreigners out, Trump is still closing in on Clinton.
For people like 26-year-old Lorena Tule-Romain, this also creates fear as the poll nears. When she was nine years old, she, her sister and their mother walked eight hours across the desert from Mexico into Texas. After a rigorous bureaucratic process, and having to live in limbo for many years, Tule-Romain finally got citizenship in August. She is married to an American citizen and has a young child, but still worries what a Trump presidency would mean for her and her family?
“I have been there and crossed that wall to come live here. Now it is like we are only welcome when we are needed,” she says. “For my mother it was a choice of life and death for us. If we had stayed in my home in Mexico, I don’t know if I would still be alive because of the drugs and crime. We risked our lives going through the desert,” Tule-Romain says.
Gisele Fetterman has similarly anxieties about her future under a Trump presidency, having come to the US from Brazil when she was eight years old. She is now married to the Mayor of Braddock in Western Pennsylvania and has three children. On Thursday she hosted a gathering of “Immigrants for Hillary” at her home.
“I am an American, a patriot, I love America more than most Americans do,” she says. “I am so grateful to live here, even excited to do jury duty earlier this year.”
Her husband, John Fetterman, is more cutting about what a President Trump would mean for his family and for America. “Donald Trump is unfit to serve as president. A vote for Trump will tilt this country towards anarchy.”
Fetterman says Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign has been “horrible and divisive”.
“As a father of three young kids, I find it wholly unacceptable. And it is just going to get more and more coarse.
“It must terrify the rest of the world, as it does us, that Donald Trump might have access to the nuclear codes,” Fetterman said.
As America lurches into the final hours before the vote, tensions and emotions are peaking. “Trumpkins” have taken to making death threats against editors of newspapers that have endorsed Clinton and mobs gathered outside some media organisations to protest their coverage, claiming bias.
In a country plagued by incidents of gun violence and where sexism, racism, xenophobia and homophobia still thrive, the 2016 election has brought out the worst in many Americans. The challenge from Wednesday might not be so much about making America great again but about becoming sane again. DM
Ranjeni Munusamy is participating in a 2016 US General Elections Embed program administered by the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) and sponsored by the US State Department’s Foreign Press Centres and US Embassy Posts.
Photo: US presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (R) speak at campaign rallies in Westbury, New York, US, September 26, 2016 and Toledo, Ohio, US September 21, 2016 in a combination of file photos. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/Jonathan Ernst/Files
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