Candidates From the Lab
We already know the most significant truth about the 2016 presidential elections: that it is yet another brawl in the running global conflict between an alienated public and the institutions and elites that manage the established order.
The two candidates are almost laboratory specimens for each side of the struggle. Donald Trump is the anti-everything, not-a-politician politician, whose outlandish statements horrify opponents but bemuse his considerable base of support. At his best, Trump expresses the legitimate frustration of the public with institutions that promise the world yet deliver mostly failure. At his worst and most typical, he is the political equivalent of the vandal in the museum, willing to rip apart traditional arrangements and commitments because he has no clue about their value.
For her part, Clinton is the very model of a modern time-server – a politician whose features have congealed into an institutional mask and whose statements are a hymn to the status quo, to the vast reassurance of her followers and predictable outrage of the antis. At her best, she represents the voice of grown-up responsibility touching US commitments at home and abroad. But at her worst and most typical, Clinton behaves like a divine rights monarch in search of her electoral Versailles, above the law and mere bourgeois morality.
The visual propaganda of both sides is telling. Trump opponents invariably show him with mouth wide open, hair flying, out of control. Those hostile to Clinton portray her as a frozen mask, scarcely human, a serpent’s stare. Both images are caricatures. Neither is entirely false.
The Establishment Isn’t
The horse race aspect of the contest, so absorbing to the news media, will be decided in the context of the larger struggle. Clinton embodies a hierarchy that has lost favor with the voters. She is supported by many, beloved of none. Her best hope is to allow Trump to show himself unworthy of the public’s trust. Scare tactics or contemptuous mockery have only solidified his standing with his base.
Trump, by contrast, rode the wave of public dissatisfaction to the Republican nomination. He must now persuade a much larger and more diverse public that he is a weapon in its hand. His main obstacle is himself: even a mutinous public expects a president to think before he speaks. His best hope is to maintain a relentless focus on negation, on the repudiation of the ruling elites. To the extent that his personal history, with its multiple “lives of the rich and famous” episodes, has been a central issue to the campaign, he will have failed to connect with the interests of the fractious public.
If we have learned anything from this electoral season, it’s that the great unraveling of the institutions has gone faster, further, and deeper than most observers – myself included – had supposed. The rise of Donald Trump has been conventionally explained as a grassroots revolt against the Republican establishment. But that can’t be, because there was no such thing. The “establishment,” if it ever existed, had cracked to pieces before Trump arrived: we just hadn’t noticed. Jeb Bush’s risible impersonation of an establishment candidate only proved the point. Bush lacked a following, barely had a pulse at the polls, and could claim nothing like an insider’s clout. He was endorsed by a crowd of gray-headed seniors who averaged 11 years out of office. That was what passed for an establishment.
So far as the Republican Party is concerned, Trump’s candidacy must be viewed as a moment of revelation and acceptance – more of a burial than a revolt.
The Democratic Party has endured a similar collapse in authority. Barack Obama crushed a true establishment – fronted, as it happens, by Hillary Clinton – back in 2007. Since then, the president and his immediate circle have felt no debt and little allegiance to the party hierarchy. In the 2016 Democratic primaries, more than 40 percent of the vote, and all the militant passion, went to Bernie Sanders – an old, white, dull, marginal Independent. Many of his voters view Clinton as a cog in the system they despise. Any untoward event after her election will propel them to the streets.
In somewhat slower motion than the Republicans, the Democratic Party is unbundling into dozens of political war bands, each focused with monomaniacal intensity on a particular cause – feminism, the environment, anti-capitalism, pro-immigration, racial or sexual grievance. This process, scarcely veiled by the gravitational attraction of President Obama and Clinton herself, will become obvious to the most casual observer the moment the Democrats lose the White House.
Enter the Mutants, Raging
A catastrophic turbulence is sweeping across the landscape, brought about by the new information dispensation: what I have called the Fifth Wave. American democracy has not been spared. From the commanding heights of the information sphere, the public now batters the grand structures of power and politics until little remains of their legitimacy. Political parties, we just observed, are disintegrating. Trust in government has fallen near record lows. Trust in the news media is at an all-time low. Forty percent of the American electorate lack confidence in the integrity of the electoral process.
Into this institutional vacuum strange new forms have swarmed, mutant offspring of the old left and the old right. These are the children of negation and sectarianism, full of theatrical anger, shouting for the downfall of the elites and the established order while giving no thought as to who or what is to follow. They excel at those extreme, self-righteous postures that set the tone for US politics today.
Identity rage, once the province of tenured professors, has become the official ideology of the Democratic Party. White identity politics, hard to distinguish from old-time racism, is a significant online presence in the Republican presidential campaign. The contending forces bear scant resemblance to the geographic coalitions that disputed our national elections in the past. They have become unmoored from history – quite willfully, too, since the past is perceived by them to be the birthplace of injustice. The thrust of political passion, here and everywhere, is toward a republic of purity and virtue: a blank slate. The voices of moderation and keepers of our political traditions have been cowed into silence. They have nothing of interest to say in any case.
At least, all of the above would be true if one removes Hillary Clinton from the equation. Clinton resembles a stiff and formal icon of the elites and the old order. She might be compared to the last Byzantine emperor, watching with mute incomprehension as the infidel hordes approach the city walls.
Despite my apocalyptic framing of the story, the 2016 presidential elections are unlikely to bring about Armageddon, final battle between good and evil. The contestants are of an entirely different order, and my guess is that few, if any, of the points in dispute will be settled by the vote. The quarrel between public and elites will not pause for Inauguration Day. While the future direction of the struggle is uncertain, we do know what is at stake: every aspect of the democratic process, of economic activity, of our place and power in a fractured world.
The twenty-first century, in brief, is up for grabs.