As the presidential election season enters its last two months, my mood and the mood of the country grow ever more dispirited. The reason is simple: the two major-party candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, are the least-liked, least-admired, least-trusted presidential candidates in recent history. And everyone is feeling the depression that comes with facing a voting booth to select a candidate you would prefer were not even running, a candidate that you’re feeling compelled to vote for primarily in order to prevent the other even-more-hated choice from winning. We all feel that and more. There’s desperation mixed in too—the desperation of those who are convinced that a President Trump (or a President Clinton) will be a disaster for the nation. And for me, personally, there is the desperation that comes from contemplating a United States of America that is so impoverished of leadership, so cynical about elected officials at every level, that it has offered up two people out of the 300 million in this vast country who are more repulsive on almost every level than even the recent idiots who’ve run for the office. It is as if we were suddenly back in ancient Rome and the imperial line had thrust upon us a Caligula or a Nero or a Tiberius. But Rome by that time was no longer a republic; it had become an empire ruled by the imperial line beginning with Augustus. The state and its rulers were corrupted by absolute power and the license and perversion that often accompanies inbreeding. The United States, by contrast, is still nominally a democracy, a representative democracy promoting the myth that the people rule and the rulers are obliged to follow. And for a while, with the election of Barack Obama as the first black president, it almost seemed as if this really were the case. No more. Clinton comes from a presidential dynasty via her husband, who was president twenty years ago and first kowtowed to the oligarchs. And Donald Trump comes from a line of inherited wealth that allows him to trumpet himself as beyond the corruption of money.
That’s not all. The mood of the country is more than dispirited; it’s ugly, it’s threatening, it’s beginning to seem akin to what pertained in 1930s Europe. Both sides—but especially conservatives—have retreated to a kind of unbridled rhetoric that has abandoned all sense of restraint or decency or balance. “Incendiary” only begins to describe it, and it begins with what Trump started out with: nasty, snarling attacks on immigrants, on Muslims, on the President, on his primary rivals, and now on his opponent. It’s as if we’re in some schoolyard brawl. And unfortunately, this type of rhetoric matters. It inflames supporters and encourages them to violent actions to match the violent rhetoric (several protesters have been beaten up at Trump rallies). While some Republicans feign outrage over Trump’s lack of restraint, its source can be traced back to the basic stance of the entire party in Congress which, from the moment Barack Obama took office, made no secret of its overriding strategy: to block anything that might make the first black president look effective. The disrespect for a sitting president (and the disrespect was a thinly disguised ‘dog whistle’ meant to signify contempt for the Black man in the White House) thereafter was built in. To get to Trump and his nasty, gutter-spawned generalizations was only a short leap. The point is that this stuff is contagious: and so we have had Hillary Clinton recently generalizing about Trump supporters as “deplorables”—racists, xenophobes, Islamophobes, and basically ‘white trash.’ Which they in large part are, of course. But it is not the kind of general condemnation that is likely to win over those voters with doubts about their candidate, or to calm the election waters.
Now we have candidates actually making overt references to violence and bloodshed. First Donald Trump said that if Hillary Clinton is elected and gets to appoint federal judges, “there’s nothing you can do folks,” and then added this veiled appeal to rifle owners and assassination: “Although the Second Amendment people—maybe there is, I don’t know.” More recently we have had the governor of Kentucky, Matt Bevin, going even further to predict the dire effects if Hillary Clinton becomes president. In a speech to the Value Voters Summit on September 10 in Washington DC, Bevin’s answer to whether the country could recover from a Clinton presidency raised the specter of real bloodshed:
“I do think it would be possible, but at what price? At what price? The roots of the tree of liberty are watered by what? The blood of who? The tyrants to be sure, but who else? The patriots. Whose blood will be shed? It may be that of those in this room. It might be that of our children and grandchildren. I have nine children. It breaks my heart to think it might be their blood that is needed to redeem something, to reclaim something that we through our apathy and indifference have given away” (Associated Press: Sept. 13).
What the hell is going on here? This is not Germany after World War I. This is not Italy in the 1920s. But clearly, some people in these once-United States are feeling the kind of desperation that leads them to think in terms of problems so intractable, of marginalization so extreme, that American blood may have to be shed. Revolutionary blood? Civil War blood? Some further remarks by this alleged governor, Bevin, provide further clues to this perceived alienation:
“Look at the atrocity of abortion, so many have remained silent. It’s a slippery slope. First we’re killing children, then it’s ‘don't ask, don't tell.’ Now it’s this gender-bending, don’t ask, don’t be a bigot, don’t be unreasonable, don’t be unenlightened, heaven forbid..” (Ibid.)
In other words, the rhetoric used for abortion—“we’re killing children”—has segued easily into the rhetoric of killing, of battle, of armed resistance, of revolution. People whose values have been violated by modern society—which provides choice for women to control their reproduction, and for gays to marry, and for transgender people to use public restrooms—are being encouraged to think only violence can be used to restore their dreamed-of place at the top of a society that used to deny such rights. That is really what’s at the core of this dispiriting mess. There are whole areas of the country, primarily in the South and the Midwest, populated by people who feel that their country is being stolen from them. Stolen primarily by people who should be at the bottom of the social ladder but whom government has given a helping and unfair hand to ascend. And their ascension seems to threaten the position of the mostly white populations who had long taken their social primacy for granted. The government that helps these ‘outsiders,’ these darker races, is therefore cast as the enemy. Its rules and regulations, its aid to ‘slackers’ and ‘illegals,’ its promotion of equal rights to those who by ‘inherited right’ should have no rights at all—all of these inflame a corrosive bile in the hearts of those who see themselves vanishing. And so they flock to the candidate whose posture seems to represent them, the candidates who use the violent rhetoric that they themselves use in private to curse those who are ‘stealing’ what they consider is rightly theirs: their place, their government, their country, their birthright as the ‘right’ kind and color of people.
Where this will end is not clear yet. If the demographics are allowed to take their natural course, the people of color will in fact shortly outnumber the malcontents, and there will be no need for contests or debates. But it is not at all certain that demographics will be allowed to proceed unhindered, or without some blood being shed. And that is what is dispiriting in the end. As positions continue to harden, as the rhetoric gets more and more inflammatory, it becomes difficult to see how saner heads, as most often in the past, can prevail. And though to this observer, it is impossible to see how whole populations can be persuaded by the simple-minded lies of the demagogues, clearly large numbers can. The only question becomes, how far will the crazies go? How angry and belittled are these interior masses? How willing to water their personal tree of ‘liberty’ with blood?
I have to tell you that at this moment, it doesn’t feel hopeful—not least because the only viable alternative is the other ‘hold-your-nose’ candidate.