How We Got into this Mess


Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves to supporters during a campaign rally in Mobile, Ala., on Friday, Aug. 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Of course you know what mess I’m talking about.  The United States has never in modern time had an election in which the candidate of a major political party was as unqualified as Donald Trump.  He would be, in the opinion of many national security experts of both parties, a serious danger if he ever reached the Oval Office.  Most serious economists agree that his approach to the economy–it’s impossible to call it a policy–would in all likelihood lead to massive deficits, international trade wars and another recession.

The list of Trump’s shortcomings is actually much longer. And that doesn’t even begin to address his sleazy and unethical business dealings, a level of narcissism rarely seen in public and a frightening blend of racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia. Trump is uninformed at a level that would embarrass most elementary school students, has shown no inclination to broaden his horizons or fill in any of the gaps and piles lie upon lie even as each one is disproved.

Yet, Trump may actually become the next president of the United States. For the longest time, few people, including me, thought that was a real possibility. We all share responsibility for not taking the threat seriously enough.  But beyond that initial complacency, there are a number of other factors and a lot of blame to share.

A logical place to start is with the Republican nominating process.  Trump was able to maneuver past a field of 16 other candidates clueless about how to oppose him.  Despite the Party’s rhetoric, the individual members of this field were remarkably weak.  The gaggle allowed Trump to avoid serious scrutiny in the early going.  Even when he led in early polls, the media–of which much more will be said–fell into a narrative from 2012 that there would be a succession of leaders in the race.

Some of the other candidates were woefully inept.  Others, who had initial support and qualifications, turned out to be dreadful campaigners.  Ted Cruz, who always fancies himself the smartest person in the room, waited until  too late to raise criticisms of Trump.  John Kasich, who in this field looked like a moderate even though he isn’t one, never put together a campaign with appeal beyond Ohio.

Recent  coverage has suggested that, belatedly, the press may be awakening to the need for more rigorous critique of Donald Trump.  The embarrassment of appearing as backdrop for a Trump infomercial for his new D.C. hotel may finally have stirred what’s left of their professionalism.  The concern, however, is whether this new attention comes too late.

Questions about Hillary Clinton’s emails, Benghazi and the Clinton Foundation have been pursued ad nauseam.  Meanwhile, the press has let  Trump slide on his refusal to release his tax returns.   With lots of opportunities, reporters have failed to point out in real-time his repeated lies.   His bizarre admiration for Vladimir Putin has been treated as a curiosity rather than a serious threat to our national security.

At long last, Trump’s use–very likely illegal–of his Foundation is getting attention.  That coverage came as the result of the work of one Washington Post reporter who has been examining Trump’s charitable contributions for several months.  Sadly, his efforts, up to now, have been an exception in press coverage.

Whatever happens between now and November 8, the possibility of a Trump victory has surely been enhanced by unbalanced and superficial coverage of his campaign up to this point.

Let me be clear that Clinton has brought some of the negative coverage on herself.  Still, although she has flaws as a candidate, many of the accusations against her are no more than caricatures of the real person.  Trump’s attacks and the willingness of the press to regurgitate his narrative about her has clearly impeded her efforts to appeal to voters.

I want to highlight the most glaring issue. It’s not uncommon for voters, when interviewed, to say that they don’t trust Clinton and even describe her as a liar.  Trump has repeated that charge daily and it’s apparent that some of his supporters believe it’s true because they have heard it so many times.

Fact checkers during the campaign tell a very different story.  Clinton does at times embellish or distort the truth, but she’s not even close to Trump in the number or proportion of lies and evasions.  Trump is a world champion liar while Clinton is merely a garden-variety political bender of the truth.

Journalists are finally starting to have the discussion about whether it’s their role to point out Trump’s lies.  The presidential debates will be a real test of whether they are up to the challenge.  If they do not call him on his outright lies, they are doing the American electorate a real disservice.

There are, in my judgment, two other factors, that explain why we run the risk of a Trump presidency.  The first is the gutlessness of many Republican leaders who back him even as they acknowledge his disastrous shortcomings.  While a number of prominent Republicans have refused to endorse his candidacy and have even spoken out against him, many others have set party above country although they know better.

That position, in turn, has encouraged rank-and-file party supporters to line up behind Trump’s campaign.  Additionally, the acquiescence of party leaders has given the candidate cover to continue his outrageous statements.  There are few profiles in courage this election season among leading Republicans.

Finally, it’s essential to look at the American voters who are lining up behind Trump’s candidacy.  For a long time, the press bought the story that they are predominantly individuals left behind by the global economy and hurting economically.  It’s the same narrative that was used initially to explain the rise of the Tea Party carried over to the Trump campaign.

Now, however, numerous studies demonstrate that his backers are not predominantly  economically disadvantaged.  Instead, they are characterized by three attitudes or perspectives.  Trump voters are virulently anti-immigrant in much the same way that Brexit supporters were.  In other words, they are driven more by cultural and social concerns than by economic ones.  They are worried about losing their position in the country’s hierarchy.  There’s no evidence, however, that they are actually losing their jobs to immigrants or that they are the victims of crimes committed by people coming over the border.

Trump’s appeal to their emotions is exactly what those voters want.  They like being ratified in their opposition to immigrants even when the facts suggest that immigrants pose little or no actual threat to them.  These voters, like Trump himself, don’t care at all about facts.

Trump’s followers, as is evident at any of his rallies, are also resentful and angry.  His venting is, in many ways,  a proxy for their venting.

Some analysts have argued that this segment of the populations has been ignored for too long and that Trump fills a gap that no other politician has addressed.  The problem with that assessment is that what Trump has done in response is to fan their resentment and encourage their xenophobia.  They are not really interested in specific policies, which works out well since Trump has none.

Finally, and most disturbingly, Trump appeals to racists, sexists, and homophobes in our society.  What we didn’t know, partly because they had tended to keep their prejudices largely out of public view, was that there are so many of them.  There is a dark and ugly underbelly of America that Trump has encouraged to come out of the shadows.  Apparently it wasn’t politically correct–note the irony–for Clinton to call them “deplorable”, but it’s hard to think of a better word to characterize their attitudes.

Finally, Trump’s not-so-subliminal message to this group is that “you certainly don’t want a woman as president after eight years of the black guy who probably was born in Kenya despite what I’m saying publicly now.”  What’s more disturbing than his message is that so many people are buying into it.

We have only one and half months until an election that has enormous stakes.  Hillary Clinton  won’t blow up the world; Donald Trump really might.  With a Democratic Congress, Clinton would have a chance to make progress on many of the issues that Republican obstructionism has prevented Barack Obama from advancing.

Donald Trump is unqualified , dangerous and appeals to all the worst instincts in people.  It’s hard to know which of those characteristics is the worst, but, in combination, they are terrifying.  It’s not too late to avert a disaster, but the threat is a real one.  Let’s move away from the brink and hurry to the nearest polling place.