This sad, bankrupt political season is finally about to expire, not so much peaking as simply and mercifully running out of time. To our great shame, our normally conciliatory and even redemptive quadrennial election process has been hijacked by the organizations and institutions we depend on to deliver a national leader every four years. The 2016 election will get an asterisk — the year when the (presumptive) winner ran uncontested on substance, but barely escaped the primordial ooze of schoolyard taunts, belligerence, and a tangle of embarrassing document leaks and hearings findings.
It may be, as Matt Taibbi says in the Oct. 14, 2016, issue of Rolling Stone, that this election’s organizing principle is the Trump candidacy, that Donald Trump “laid waste to the American political system.” It turns out, though, that there is no wizard behind the gold curtain — just a stunted, empty vessel with a nihilist’s conviction that nothing really matters, and a gift for cynical exploitation.
Mr. Trump’s ascendency owes nothing to his policies and everything to his gift for disrupting the failed institutions and organizations we have depended on — our two national parties and the political media establishment — to structure and keep watch over our national political leadership and our elections. To his credit, Mr. Trump saw and called the Republican Party and the ratings-driven media on their decay and ineptitude, did a quick calculation of the return on his investment for his personal investment — and then he kneecapped the Republicans and some 16 other contenders for the nomination, along with the entire print, broadcast, and digital media establishment; stepped over their corpses, and never looked back.
Today’s Republican Party can’t hope to achieve an electoral majority, and can’t reconcile the large and growing gap between the nostalgia for an orderly world belonging to its patrician conservative base and the reality of the disaffected it has assiduously and cynically cultivated. Demographics, the cumulative effect of an expanding electorate, technologic disruption, and a permanently changed world economy simply won’t allow it. So, unable to cultivate a viable right-of-center candidate and unable to fend off Mr. Trump’s televised assault on the primary and caucus system, the Republican Party assembled in Cleveland in August to anoint the candidate they all reviled, and then handled the ensuing apocalypse with near-uniform dishonesty and cowardice.
The party that wouldn’t govern, the party of birther conspiracies, the party of dog whistles — the party of Lincoln, for heaven’s sake — became the party of lock-her-up and worse, and the GOP’s elders acted on only the narrowest of self-interest and signed on. These are political war crimes, and the Republicans’ license to practice politics should be suspended for at least the next eight years.
The Democrats, of course, have suffered their own encounters with elite disconnect and personality deficiencies, but have dodged the bullet for the moment. Perhaps the momentum of the Obama years and the contrast between the remaining claim of the Democrats on their centrist base and the Republicans’ ugly dysfunction makes the Clinton campaign seem positively Athenian by comparison. What is certain is that had the Republicans fielded a remotely acceptable candidate, the Democrats would be looking at a much different electoral map right now.
The disappointing failure of journalists and the media (two different things) to illuminate, moderate, and monitor the 2016 campaign centers on their failure to hold the Trump campaign and Mr. Trump himself accountable to standards of seriousness, intellect, and honesty. Captivated by the menacing phenomenon of Trump rallies, call-in interviews, and especially the onslaught of attention-getting tweets, which took on the importance of policy papers, America’s political press corps and its media company owners took their eye off the ball in a big way. Instead of the illumination we needed, we got spectacle and false equivalence.
As the business model of journalism has failed, and the financial support (and audience) for independent journalism has diminished, rigorous reporting has been increasingly subsumed by entertainment. If news reporting is just entertainment, and the competition for audience and advertising is relentless, then what we see each night — the horserace polls, the talking heads, the ludicrous embedded spinners — is simply meant to jack up ratings and revenues. Can anyone imagine Walter Cronkite or James Reston building a report around Billy Bush or Howard Stern?
While the political apparatus to which we outsource democratic elections was failing under the weight of its own self-interest, we the people should have seen the mess coming. Mark Danner, trying to make sense of the Trump ascendency in the spring (“The Magic of Donald Trump,” May 26, 2016, The New York Review of Books) cited an observation by philosopher and critic Richard Rorty almost 20 years ago:
“Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.
“At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed, and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots….
“One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion…. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.” —Richard Rorty, “Achieving Our Country,” Harvard University Press, 1998
In the end we citizens own our own political discourse and our own elections. We watched Donald Trump play the class clown and recoiled, but the owners of the Republican Party franchise didn’t cast him out. We watched television magnates turn over billions of dollars of air time in the name of trumped-up journalism (and were shocked when Matt Lauer turned in an amateurish performance as forum moderator), and we rewarded them with enormous ratings and billions more in revenue.
The vast civic freedoms and latitude most of us enjoy assure that ultimate responsibility lies only with us. So go to the polls, take your children as witnesses that you cared, call your family and friends, and consider spending a day or two in New Hampshire or Pennsylvania or Ohio. Standing up to be counted isn’t just symbolism or rhetoric — it’s a badly needed act of contrition and affirmation.