Only a little more than a month before the November election, both Trump and Clinton were rocked by new scandals. Headlines around the country and world reported on secretly recorded tapes and speech that reaffirm the public’s worst suspicions of each of them. In an already in many ways unprecedented election, the contest for the American President has perhaps hit a modern low.
Trump’s crimes are the most salacious and obviously morally troubling. In a just released hidden audio recording he casually brags about his penchant for sexually assaulting women. Further, he openly declares that his celebrity gives him full license to do so.
While Trump grabbed most of the media attention – perhaps for once completely unwanted – slightly under the radar was Clinton’s Wikileaks released speeches from Goldman Sachs. In them she admits her support for Wall Street and her intentional attempts to hide this from the public.
These scandals expose the moral bankruptcy of both candidates. The respective actions of Trump and Clinton should seriously challenge their legitimacy as presidential candidates. More fundamentally these revelations reveal just how morally unacceptable American democracy has become.
Accusations of questionable and possibly illegal behavior have dogged Trump throughout his career. These missteps range from being sued by the US government for racial discrimination to his multiple bankruptcies. In his short time as a politician, he has been castigated for his attacks on Mexicans, women and the disabled. Just as worrying, was the disclosure that he has not paid federal income taxes for possibly two decades.
Yet none of this could prepare voters for what he said during a secretly recorded conversation with Billy Bush in 2005. He blatantly admits to “grabbing” women’s private parts as well as attempting to have an affair with a married woman. Trump’s crudeness is shocking, his seeming permissiveness about sexual assault beyond the moral pale.
His apology was curt and almost devoid of genuine remorse. He explained his behavior as merely male “banter” among men and not reflective of his real respect for women. He proclaimed defiantly
"This was locker room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago. Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course - not even close. I apologize if anyone was offended."
On the exact same day, Wikileaks finally made the transcripts from Clinton’s paid speeches to Wall Street. They disclose a candidate that is “at ease” with the financial industry. More than this though they show her real allegiances to the 1% that directly challenge her recent claims to be progressive or willing to stand up to economic elites.
This came only days after it was revealed that as Secretary of State she privately inquired if the government could “drone bomb” Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. In one fall swoop, Clinton’s progressive pretensions were completely and finally undermined for good. Emerging instead was a politician in service to the oligarchy and embracing of militarism.
Unfit for Office
Trump’s comments have enraged public officials across the ideological spectrum. These remarks transcend the tawdry but typical sex scandal. Instead they point to a person who regularly abuses his power and victimizes women.
In the wake of these vile remarks, many within the GOP have called for Trump to drop out of the race. Not surprisingly, Trump has categorically thus far refused to even entertain such ideas. In response, members of his own Party have abandoned him in drove – including his own running mate Mike Spence who declared unequivocally “As a husband and father, I was offended by the words and actions described by Donald Trump in the 11-year-old video released yesterday”.
Whether or not Trump ultimately succumbs to the pressure to leave the race, it is telling that Republicans are at least ostensibly placing morality over politics. Trump seems to have crossed an ethical line that was bigger than winning a single election or partisan gamesmanship. Regardless, of whether this is the proverbial rats abandoning a sinking ship or authentic moral outrage, it is stands as a significant precedent that a political Party is willing to sacrifice the presidency in the short term in order to maintain the dignity of the office in the long term.
It is striking, and absolutely morally revealing, that the Democrats have not similarly denounced Hillary. Apparently the threat of assassination or the admittance of duplicity is not worthy of even the slightly condemnation. This deafening moral silence is particularly damning considering the Party portrays itself as the champion of “Main Street” and yet now has a candidate who is on record with saying that in order
"to figure out what works (the) people that know the industry better than anybody are the people who work in the industry…There is such a bias against people who have led successful and/or complicated lives."
Present is a troubling double standard. Trump is rightfully castigated for his offenses against women. However, Clinton is given an official “free pass” for directly contributing to the country’s selling of its democracy to the highest bidder. Tragically both major candidates are morally unfit for office, yet only one is being held publicly accountable.
Sex, Lies and America’s Deplorable Democracy
Of course, it would be either willfully naïve or profoundly ignorant to assume that the American presidency is only now being tainted by the stain of immorality. By contrast such nefarious behaviour follow in a long line of Presidential indiscretions – ranging from Jefferson’s relationship with one of his slaves to Nixon’s newly discovered virulent anti–Semitism.
Indeed, Americans seem to simultaneously idolize and enjoy being scandalized by their country’s chief executive. Yet this popular obsession with scandal also represents a dangerous historical trend that is far too often overlooked. Namely, politicians are held liable for their personal character defects but almost never made to answer for their culpability in committing broader offenses against humanity or the country’s democratic foundations. Thus, Clinton was impeached for a sexual liaison but Bush was never even indicted for misleading America into undertaking an unnecessary invasion of Iraq that resulted in millions of casualties.
The stakes are arguably considerably higher with Trump – who has displayed explicitly fascist tendencies and a propensity for inciting violence amongst his supporters. His campaign is – intentionally or not – allowing white nationalism back into the political mainstream. His “braggadocios” confession of predatory behaviour against women should, without question, disqualify him from the highest elected office in the land.
Nevertheless, it should serve as a wakeup call for what American democracy does find morally acceptable. It too often turns a blind eye to its reliance on militarism. It cynically tolerates oligarchy. It is all too permissive about politicians who intentionally con the American public out of their wealth and rights for the benefit of their corporate paymasters.
Clinton famously referred to half of Trump supporters as deplorable. While she has since disavowed this statement it points to an even more ugly truth. The country’s political system is increasing rotting from the outside in and the inside out – a disintegration exemplified by the respective nomination of these two candidates who represent the worst qualities of modern America. Whoever wins this election it is clear that US democracy has already lost.