“Deplorable” does not apply to half of Trump supporters—as Hillary Clinton exaggerated, then retracted—but it definitely applies to Trump himself. Since founding of the republic voters have had wildly diverse opposition to candidates’ positions, but we’ve long assumed they at least expect character . . . and that’s what Donald J. Trump lacks. This blog is not normally meant for political commentary, but the possibility of a distressingly unsuitable candidate for presidency of the world’s most powerful country is hard to put aside. “Unqualified” is too weak an adjective, one that could easily be applied to George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, along with many Democrat and Republican down-ballot politicians. But Mr. Trump goes beyond that. He is, as a person, by character and ethics, unfit to be a school principal, much less president.
Yet current, pre-debate polling suggests that roughly half of Americans will vote for him over Hillary Clinton in November. Two reasons promoted for that prospect are (a) Secretary Clinton is worse than he, untrustworthy and even disastrous, and (b) Americans in great numbers are unable to discern Trump’s unacceptability for office.
Secretary Clinton is not an unflawed candidate, though she has outstanding experience, a deep and thoughtful “policy intellect,” and has been vetted far more than any of this year’s aspirants. Further, few candidates have ever had as much spent on destroying them for decades as she. However, even though costly investigations proved no or insignificant guilt, in the twisted world of politics her opponents shamelessly cite the multiple investigations—instigated and controlled by her political opponents themselves—as proof of guilt!
Meanwhile, large changes in conservative circles over the past few election cycles have led to more fact-challenged politics since, arguably, the vitriol of the Adams-Jefferson campaign. Chief among the causes are fundamentalists’ theocratic incursion into conservative politics and the unprecedented influence of a specifically conservative media source. (I dealt with these phenomena in my posts, “Democrats vs. theocrats,” Jan. 30, 2016; “Flirting with theocracy,” Feb. 7, 2016; and “Batshit crazy, the stupid party,” Mar. 15, 2016.) The former inserted into political discourse “moral majority” beliefs with their uncompromising “God’s on our side” attitudes. The latter, Fox News, catered to conservative voters’ desire for “facts” tailored to their biases, as shown in reputable surveys to be at the expense of actual knowledge of domestic and international affairs.
The steady drum-beat of disinformation was mirrored in escalating internet falsehoods posing as—and by gullible millions mistaken to be—reality. Donald Trump—though a participant through his ridiculous “birther” claims—was not so much a cause of the evolving anti-science, fact-free swamp, but was by character well-matched to emerge from and exemplify it. To an alarming extent, facts just came not to matter. Emotional expression of angry voters were good enough to establish, or at least to satisfyingly mimic, truth.
The facts-don’t-matter environment transformed Hillary Clinton’s image. She has made some high profile mistakes, but partisan politics transformed those errors into a reputation for lying habitually, killing diplomats, and setting the Middle East on fire. Her almost unparalleled decades of public service and dedication to children and families mattered not. Some of her shortcomings were real (e.g., judgment about emails), many were manufactured (e.g., Benghazi, liability for President Clinton’s behavior), and some, as noted above, consisted of blaming her for being blamed itself (e.g., the multiple accusations instigated and pursued by Republicans that came to little or naught). The unrelenting behavior of far right Republicans and the unceasing disinformation from Fox News have, perhaps more than instances of Clinton’s actual missteps, led to findings by a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that voters by a ten-point margin judge Trump to be more honest than Clinton! That is about a man whose every appearance is likely to include lies. That is but one of the staggeringly bizarre comparisons, one similar to criticizing Clinton for her irritating secretiveness while dismissing Trump’s suspiciously hiding his tax returns.
My trepidation in this whacky presidential campaign goes much further than Trump, though I don’t want to understate his unsuitability for office. He is, of course, shallow, immature, blustering, reckless, narcissistic, arrogant, and deceiving. But he might lose the election, for perhaps most Americans, recognize him for what he is. In fact, it may be that most Republicans do as well; certainly the number of informed, thoughtful conservatives who have renounced him is telling. Still, he might win and subject the country to years of recovery from his damage—a post-Bush phenomenon on steroids. But win or lose, there’s a longer term worry. The campaign has revealed that there are millions of angry, ill-informed voters, many with honest grievances capable of being duped and manipulated by such a fraudulent candidate.
This election is not just about two different political philosophies. In fact, it’s hard to find enough coherence in Trump’s positions—even if they held still long enough for inspection—to deserve the word philosophy. If he governs by anecdote just as he campaigns, if uses presidential power to punish opponents just as he uses personal bullying, if as president he overlooks what most of us learned in 8th grade civics, if he treats national obligations as he’s treated his own as a businessman, if he seems never to know what he doesn’t know . . . the only philosophy that can be patched together is whatever at a given time pleases Donald.
A republic needs an informed, fact-conscious electorate; at our best we skate near the precipitous edge of that requirement. Trump endangers America at the critical core of governance, for his bombastic celebration of his own ignorance fosters that precarious, yet seductive attribute in the electorate. Clinton’s reputed shortcomings multiplied tenfold are not even in Trump’s league.