Back when America was “great” – say, in the 1970s – the most unpleasant emotions a presidential race might inspire were “fear and loathing”. We expected our political process to provoke antagonism and ennui. We did not expect it to trigger projectile vomiting.
But this year is different, with psychotherapists reporting widespread depression, insomnia and digestive problems among the electorate. Record numbers are voting early, by mail, as if to purge themselves of all connection to the proceedings.
Add in the realization that the whole world is watching this spectacle and the sensitive American is likely to feel something akin to physical shame – as if someone had walked in and found them deflowering a close relative or a pet. And just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, the Clinton email scandal looped in penis-fetishist Anthony Wiener, estranged husband of Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin. The most sordid side of our democracy has been laid out for all the world to see.
On the Republican side, there is a person so broadly offensive that the liberal news source Huffington Post feels obliged to end every article mentioning him with the kind of warning you might expect to find on a cigarette pack:
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the US.
His supporters – generally portrayed as laid-off blue-collar workers who, in the absence of unions, have devoted themselves to the cause of whiteness – cheer on each of his macro-aggressions. To them, he is a giant middle finger in the face of the bipartisan political elite, and the crazier he acts, the more resounding this fuck-you gets. It doesn’t matter that most of Trump’s assertions can’t stand up to fact-checking; ignorance has been enshrined by an entire alternative media, stretching from Fox News to Stormfront on the Nazi-leaning right.
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On the liberal left, tragically, we do not have Bernie Sanders, who would have dispatched Trump’s populist pretensions with a wrist flick. But no, representing the side of tolerance, good government and cosmopolitanism, we have the very epitome of Democratic party elitism, a woman who labeled half of Trump’s supporters “deplorables”, a politician who is so robotic that any efforts to analyze her motives risk the charge of anthropomorphism. Consider her statement on the Standing Rock occupation in North Dakota, which could have been issued by an unmanned typewriter. As soldiers and police bore down on the protesters, she urged all parties – tribal peoples and the pipeline company that threatens their culture and habitat – “to find a path forward that serves the broadest public interest”.
If a withering cynicism hangs over the land it’s because both candidates share a Tony-Blairish zeal for turning money into influence and vice versa. He has his Trump Foundation, whose largest beneficiary was reportedly a fountain in need of renovations that faces the Trump Plaza hotel. She has the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, which shares some of its revenues with the global poor, but also emits a stench of corruption which, according to leaked emails, even the ever tractable Chelsea could not help noticing.
The question is not who will win but what happens the day after. If Trump wins, we know that the bulk of our movie stars will migrate to Vancouver and that brown-colored people of all professions will be encouraged to self-deport. But if Clinton wins, all bets are off. Trump has never unequivocally declared his willingness to concede if he loses, and has in fact hinted that his supporters should exercise their second amendment rights, ie shoot her, if she attempts to limit gun ownership. At the milder end of the conservative spectrum there is talk of “civil unrest”, and at the wilder end talk of armed revolution and civil war. Over the weekend I heard a commentator on the usually soporific NPR news advise listeners to stock up on bottled water.
But the war has already started. A historian could trace its beginnings to deindustrialization and the massive layoffs of blue-collar workers in the 1980s and 90s, leaving the victims to the thin pleasures of methamphetamine and gun ownership. Liberals advised the erstwhile working class to get an education so they could find a place in the “knowledge economy”, and offered them Trump University and its many equivalents in which to do so.
Of course, the election might change nothing at all. This year’s round of armed combat began with the takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge by disgruntled rural white men, all of whom were just acquitted by a jury. It came to a climax last week with the violent suppression of the Standing Rock occupation. With either Clinton or Trump, we will be left to choke on our mutual revulsion.