The emerging conventional wisdom of this election cycle is that Donald Trump represents an existential threat to our country and our democracy. Indeed, his campaign has involved the candidate uttering a series of bizarre and incendiary comments about women, ethnic and religious minorities, and his impatience with democracy.
But we should not let Trump’s persona and ideology--which has lurched into territory long the preserve of fascists--distract us from either his party’s slow and steady drift into right-wing fanaticism or the extent to which the four main candidates in the 2016 presidential election represent different, fundamental, and very dangerous ideas and consensuses.
Donald Trump’s contribution to this mess is his embrace of ethnic nationalism: the idea that citizenship and its benefits should be based on race. While Trump--the man who supposedly “tells it like it us”--has constantly backed away from each inflammatory statement as soon as he is called on it, he frequently returns to them, and has been sufficiently consistent in this regard that we should be seriously worried.
His recent weeks might have been dominated by outrage as his cynical assault on Gold Star parents, but the moment that crystallized his candidacy came when he argued that a judge of Mexican heritage was not fit to serve because his race made him incapable of examining facts, assessing evidence, and pronouncing the judgment he was trained to offer. Trump’s statement invited every white, nationalistic American to call into question the viability of black, Latino, and Asian Americans to possess the full attributes of citizenship.
Part and parcel of Trump’s ethnic nationalism have been the suggestions that if he loses the election it will not be because he ran a ramshackle campaign predicated on offending core constituencies in American politics. It will be because the election was rigged to benefit people who aren’t really even American. He and his campaign have suggested that this should be greeted by an armed citizenry taking to the street, causing a “bloodbath”, engineering a “constitutional crisis”, and murdering his rival.
There is a man whose contempt for democracy is clear. He and his party also deny the realities of climate change, the greatest long-term problem facing the planet, and go so far as to suggest that people should take pride in the consumption and production of dirty and unsustainable forms of energy that work to the clear detriment of people around the world.
The Green Party’s Jill Stein represents another fundamental set of flaws with American liberalism (in spite of the party’s leftist credentials). Unlike some of its regional iterations, the national Green Party gives the impression of pandering to affluent and eccentric white suburbia, both with its candidates “wink, nod” pronouncements on vaccines--where the scientific verdict is really quite solid--and its chronic inability to link its environmental ethic to an economic platform that resonates with the country that exists outside of Marin County.
The Green Party’s sins seem like small fry when compared to the Libertarian Party, led by Gary Johnson. One selling point of this party to a public exhausted by protracted and pointless imperial wars was its leader’s critique of our leaders’ pathological commitment to intervention. But Johnson’s running-mate has tried to put the brakes on the party’s isolationism.
But the fundamental flaw with the Libertarian Party is its quaint, fairy-tale belief in the wholesome property of markets, as though a “free market” is a) something that has ever existed in the world; and b) something that functions separately from the machinations of the political world.
Less than ten years ago we had the awful experience of seeing what damage that a far more moderate version of this dangerous idea could do to our national economy. Rolling back “government”--the one institution capable working at the macro level for a broad-based public interest rather than a narrowly-defined private one--is a stupid idea that is at the very heart of the Libertarian Party, and an important plank of the Republican Party (alongside its Klan-style white nationalism and general fury at the modern world).
Another set of ideas, remarkable both for how bad they are for how long they have endured in spite of experience and evidence, involve an aggressive, violent, interventionist U.S. foreign policy. Hillary Clinton, the preferred candidate of neo-conservatives in this election, spent eight years as Senator and four years in the State Department as one of the foremost advocates of American aggression in the wider Middle East.
That aggression--in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and beyond--contributed to our massive national debt, led (as intelligence agencies warned at the time) to the proliferation of international terrorism, killed and wounded tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers, and has led to the deaths of millions of our fellow global citizens, while generating instability that leads to further inequality that in turn is guaranteed to fuel a new generation of conflict.
Particularly when it comes to the two large parties, the fact that their standard bearers are uniquely associated with truly awful and dangerous concepts of nationalism and ideas about American power, says something frightening about our country.
On the one hand, it suggests that one of our major parties is in the process of transforming itself into a party of white nationalism, prepared to hand power to a candidate who openly talks about upending constitutional norms and singling out citizens for punishment or disenfranchisement on the basis of their race or religion.
On the other, it suggests that the idealistic internationalism that once fueled parts of the Democratic Party, and the humanist ethic supposed to stand behind its claims about universalism, are dead, and that the party is in the process of becoming the vehicle for its own form of toxic, jingoistic nationalism, its violence directed outward rather than inward.
Trump’s rhetoric, at its worst, can seem to herald the end of our republic. Happily, his chances of victory seem to slide further away with each week. But the ascendancy of Hillary Clinton represents the upsurge of one of the most dangerous and destructive ideas in human history, particularly in the last 500 years for people in the non-western world: the conviction that one group of people has both the right and the power to transform the world and its people in its own image, using whatever tools and force it has at its disposal.
Members of her party seem constitutionally incapable of offering criticism toward their nominee so great is their fear of Donald Trump. But if responsible voters do not take care and remain vigilant and critical, they will avert the triumph of fascism by ensuring the empowerment of a hubristic and terroristic security state led by a long-time advocate of aggressive war.