Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
The November 2016 Presidential election is Hillary Clinton’s to lose. And she’s losing it.
Just about everything that was being written or said about this election a month ago, after the two major-party conventions and the major “bounce” Clinton got from them (thanks largely to the Democratic National Committee’s scheduling their convention just one week after the GOP’s, they largely neutralized any “bounce” Donald Trump could have got from his), has turned around on its ear.
The race is not “tightening,” as Democratic propagandists keep insisting; Trump has made up his post-convention deficit and the momentum is on his side. The national polls as of this writing show the race dead-even, and a recent Bloomberg News poll showed Trump five points ahead in the critical “swing state” of Ohio (http://www.latimes.com/nation/ct-donald-trump-ohio-poll-20160914-story.html). Democrats, who 16 years ago complained when Al Gore won the popular vote for President but George W. Bush carried enough states to win in the Electoral College, now pin their shrinking hopes for maintaining the Presidency on the hope that Clinton can carry enough states to win the Electoral College even if Trump wins the popular vote.
What’s more, according to Jon Wiener in The Nation, (https://www.thenation.com/article/are-hillary-clintons-strong-poll-numbers-misleading/?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=New%20Campaign&utm_term=daily), the poll numbers probably underestimate the strength of Trump’s support. “Trump voters might be lying to the pollsters,” Wiener argued. “Some voters don’t want to tell a live interviewer that they back a candidate who has been so offensive and outrageous. The pollsters call this ‘social desirability bias’ — ‘the desire of respondents to avoid embarrassment’ in speaking with interviewers on the phone. But on November 8, in the privacy of the voting booth, they will cast their secret ballot for the Republican.”
Through his xenophobic and bigoted attacks on Mexicans, Muslims and just about everyone who isn’t “white” (whatever that means) and Christian or Jewish in their religious affiliation, his attacks on women and people with disabilities, his cries against the media (who have actually been some of the biggest friends he’s had in this campaign — more on that later) and his repeated assertions that “the system is rigged,” Trump has made racism, sexism, religious bigotry and prejudice in general not only acceptable but a source of pride to his supporters. Like talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who built a huge audience 30 years ago by essentally telling his listeners, “The liberals say you should be embarrassed to be racist and sexist. You should not be embarrassed. You should be proud! Those are the attitudes that made America great!,” Trump has mobilized a determined and committed base to vote for him, put white males back in the position of power they deserve and thereby “make America great again.”
And as she slips farther and farther behind in the polls, Hillary Clinton is all too aware of what’s happening to her. The problem is that she’s a lousy politician and the fear of losing the race is provoking her into rookie mistakes. First she made that insane comment at a Human Rights Campaign fundraiser September 9 that “you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables, right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it.”
When the story about that speech — given at a fundraiser thrown for her by America’s leading mainstream Queer organization and featuring Barbra Streisand and openly Gay singer Rufus Wainwright — broke over Google News, my heart sank. Hillary had just made the same mistake Mitt Romney did on May 17, 2012 when he told a group of his fellow 0.01 percenters at a fundraiser in Florida that “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what … 47 percent … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”
Clinton made the same mistake Romney did: in a room where she felt comfortable, where she could be reasonably confident she could make an outrageous statement like that and every member of the live audience would agree with her, she broke her usual caution and “cool.” What’s more, where Romney at least committed his gaffe at an event he thought would be private — only a member of the staff of the hotel where it was taking place secretly recorded it and it came out four months later — Clinton, again abandoning her usual caution, had actually invited the media to be there.
What’s more, she not only said half of Trump’s supporters were racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic or whatever, she stuck her foot even farther down her mouth by saying they were “irredeemable.” The last time she and her husband bought into the idea that certain people are so evil they are “irredeemable” was when Bill Clinton pushed all those “tough on crime” bills through Congress that have led to the incarceration of up to one-quarter of all African-American males — and for which Hillary rightly lambasted her principal primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, for having voted for in Congress.
Things got even worse for Hillary Clinton two days later, when she collapsed at the most embarrassing and humiliating event conceivable — a tribute to the first responders to the 9/11 attacks at Ground Zero in New York on the 15th anniversary — from what her staff at first said was simple “exhaustion.” Then her staff came up with dribs and drabs of information before finally acknowledging that she had been diagnosed with pneumonia. All of a sudden, the Right-wing Web sites that had been posting comments attacking Hillary Clinton’s state of health and her physical fitness for the Presidency suddenly looked not only credible but prophetic.
Barring a dramatic last-minute turnaround in Clinton’s fortunes — and given how many times during this campaign Trump has not only recovered but actually benefited from his apparent mistakes, it’s hard to see any way she could possibly say or do anything to hurt him — Trump is likely to build his momentum from now until the election and win the popular vote by a comfortable, if not a landslide, margin. As I write this, the first one-on-one debate between the two is scheduled for Monday, September 26, and it’s being hosted by Lester Holt of NBC, a network Trump used to work for as host of the “reality” TV show The Apprentice and which has been biased in his favor the entire campaign.
During the month between the Democratic convention and Trump’s catch-up in the polls, commentators were saying the debate would be Trump’s last chance to appear before the American people and convince them that he will bring about the change they so desperately needed. Now it’s looking like it’s Clinton, not Trump, who needs the boost from a killer debate performance to avoid having her campaign sink completely.
An Electorate Desperate for Change
One irony is that in that September 9 speech — which Clinton walked back from only enough to say that she was wrong when she said “half” of Trump’s supporters were part of her “basket of deplorables” — is that right after that her analysis of what she’s up against in this campaign was right-on. She hit the nail on the head when she described the other “basket” of Trump supporters as “people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”
The Democrats started out this campaign with a lot going against them. First, they’re trying to win their third Presidential election in a row — and only once since the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, which limits the President to two terms, took effect has the same party won three Presidential elections in a row. That was the Republicans, who won with Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and George H. W. Bush riding the Gipper’s formidable coattails in 1988. (Four years later, when he had to run on his own record, he lost.)
Not only is Barack Obama not giving Hillary Clinton the tail wind Reagan gave Bush, but throughout his term Obama has shown that, if anything, he has negative coattails. The much-vaunted “Obama Coalition” has been able to elect only one person, Obama himself. Other than his two wins, the Obama years have been one disaster for the Democratic Party after another, first losing the political momentum to the “Tea Party” movement, then losing the House of Representatives, then losing the Senate and ending up with fewer House members than they’ve had since 1928. Millions of Americans are just itching for the chance to vote Obama and everything he stands for out of office — and with Obama constitutionally ineligible to run for re-election himself and Clinton standing as his surrogate, they’re going to the polls to take out all their frustrations with him on her.
What’s more, Hillary Clinton simply isn’t as inspiring a figure as Obama. Obama won first the Democratic nomination and the Presidency by electrifying the country, and particularly the African-American community, with the promise of the first African-American President and a ringing blow against American racism. (This also accounts for at least some of the venom of the hatred against him; many Trump voters see Trump as the man who will restore what they consider to be the natural order of the universe: a white male, not a Black man and definitely not a woman, as the President.) Obama increased the Democrats’ share of the African-American vote from 85 to 90 percent to 98 percent — and in a country as closely divided politically as the U.S., that boost mattered and gave him a solid political base on which to build his winning coalition.
Hillary Clinton has no such base. For quite a few reasons, the promise of the first woman President just hasn’t seized the social imagination the way the promise of Obama as the first Black President did. Women are a far more politically diverse community than African-Americans, and many of the most active women in politics are dedicated Right-wingers who would no more vote for Hillary just because she’s a woman than Hillary’s supporters in the Democratic party would have voted for Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann or Carly Fiorina.
There’s another reason that Hillary Clinton’s nomination as the first female major-party Presidential candidate doesn’t seem ground-breaking as Obama’s as the first African-American: she’s just been around too damned long. Clinton didn’t win the nomination, as Obama did, by galvanizing rank-and-file Democrats who thought the party had been too accommodating to George W. Bush and his Right-wing policy agenda. Quite the opposite: she fended off Bernie Sanders’ challenge partly by keeping voters of color (older voters of color, anyway) in her camp and using her connections with the Democratic Party establishment. I won’t go as far as some former Sanders supporters and say the process was “rigged” against him, but certainly the Democratic National Committee was overwhelmingly behind Clinton and so were the party’s major fat-cat donors — and that mattered more than it should have.
But the same 25 years in the public eye that gave Hillary Clinton the establishment’s support have also made her one of the most controversial and viscerally hated figures in American politics. Indeed, even when Bill Clinton was President the venom with which Hillary Clinton was attacked seemed even nastier and more toxic than it was against her husband. Part of that was due to what Hillary herself called the “vast Right-wing conspiracy” against her and Bill — she was ridiculed at the time for saying that but David Brock, former Right-wing writer who now runs a pro-Clinton super-PAC, wrote in his memoir Blinded by the Right that “when Hillary Clinton said there was a vast Right-wing conspiracy against her and her husband, I knew she was right — because I was part of it.”
The Right-wing conspiracy against Hillary and Bill Clinton was largely funded by a billionaire named Richard Mellon Scaife, who in 1993 started something called “The Arkansas Project.” Scaife agreed to fund Right-wing operatives to flood the state of Arkansas and offer big money to anyone who could come up with derogatory information about the Clintons. The result was predictable: thousands of people came forward with derogatory stories about the Clintons so they could get some of Scaife’s money. Most of them didn’t actually have derogatory information about the Clintons, but that wasn’t a problem. They just made stuff up — and, amazingly, much of the lying crap about the Clintons dredged up by the Arkansas Project keeps crossing my Facebook page, put there by Bernie-or-Bust “progressives” who are using it as an excuse to avoid voting for Clinton even though, under America’s binary political system, progressives (or, as I call them, “alt-Leftists”) who don’t vote for Clinton are just helping Trump.
But the Right-wing operatives who for a quarter-century have devoted themselves to making Hillary Clinton look bad have an impressive, if unwitting, ally: Hillary Clinton herself. Like Richard Nixon (another politician who had a lot of enemies, reacted to them with a fervor verging on paranoia, and suffered politically from it), she is fanatically secretive. Indeed, her decision to use a private e-mail server instead of the official State Department one as Secretary of State was almost certainly motivated by the hope that that would keep pesky Right-wing propagandists from hacking into her e-mails and releasing their contents out of context. Former Obama advisor David Axelrod couldn’t have been more right when he recently criticized Clinton for her “unhealthy penchant for privacy that repeatedly creates unnecessary problems.”
Clinton held onto the information about her e-mails until an FBI investigation and private lawsuits from Right-wing organizations forced her to release them — and she did so in dribs and drabs that only ensured the story would continue and embarrass her over and over again. Like her husband, with his infamous remark that his answer to a simple question would “depend on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” Hillary Clinton makes legal nit-picking statements that make her look ridiculous — as when she said FBI director James Comey had said she told the truth about her e-mails. Comey had said Clinton was truthful when the FBI interviewed her, but had been wrong when she claimed none of the e-mails on her personal server were classified when she sent them.
She treated the recent concerns about her health the same way, first “playing hurt” — maintaining a heavy schedule of appearances, not before ordinary voters but fat-cat donors, in spite of her pneumonia diagnosis; then collapsing at the most politically embarrassing moment possible, at a memorial commemorating the 15th anniversary of 9/11, and once again releasing the truth in dribs and drabs and thus artificially prolonging the political embarrassment. This sort of behavior has been depressingly consistent for Hillary Clinton throughout her entire public life, and is the main reason why two-thirds or more of respondents to polls say she simply can’t be trusted.
Ironically, some of Clinton’s defenders have argued she concealed her health problems until she couldn’t conceal them anymore because that’s what women have to do in the workplace. “Why do women feel they can’t admit to being sick?” Kathleen Parker wrote in the Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-did-clinton-hide-her-pneumonia-because-shes-a-woman/2016/09/13/e3e9f538-79cf-11e6-bd86-b7bbd53d2b5d_story.html?utm_term=.725d1ea89a59). “You know the answer. It’s because women fear showing any sign of weakness lest others presume the worst — that she’s not as good as a man.”
What struck me about that line of defense was that in some important respects Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have actually reversed the usual gender stereotypes. “Playing hurt” isn’t considered a particularly womanly virtue; quite the opposite, it’s admired in such macho-male venues as the military and the National Football League. In much of her demeanor, from all the wars she wanted the U.S. to fight as Secretary of State except President Obama overruled her, to the tough-love authority she invoked against Bernie Sanders in the primary campaign, to “playing hurt” and not letting anyone know she was sick, Clinton has been living up to the supposed virtues of the macho man.
Meanwhile, despite his surface bluster, Donald Trump — so easily offended, so determined to turn any criticism into the excuse for a blood feud, so sensitive to the slightest insult in the most obscure tweet, so eager to dredge up insults and respond to them long after everyone else has forgotten them — shows all the “weak” stereotypes usually negatively associated with women. Like John Wayne, who somehow managed to convince millions of moviegoers over several generations that he was a macho icon when his mannerisms, including the voice and the famous walk, teetered on the edge of drag-queen (or drag-king) parody, Trump is a delicate feminine flower trying to pass himself off as a tough old-growth tree.
Trump’s Surmountable Advantages
Donald Trump comes into the home stretch of this year’s Presidential campaign with several formidable, though not insurmountable, advantages. First of all, he’s far more credible than Hillary Clinton as an agent of change. Though he’s been in the public eye even longer than she has, and a lot of Americans regard him as a dangerous buffoon, Trump has the huge advantage that he’s not part of either party’s establishment. Once again, he’s helped by America’s damnable two-party political system, and the single-member districts and winner-take-all elections that enforce it, which gives U.S. voters no way to register a protest by voting for an alternative party and actually getting it some government representation the way voters in most European countries can.
Second, he’s running against a candidate who has been part of the political establishment so long she’s virtually a personification of it. The fact that, riding her post-convention “bounce,” Clinton chose to spend two weeks cozying up to fat-cat donors for big checks instead of having mass rallies for ordinary people the way Trump did, just confirmed the instinct of many American voters that a vote for Clinton would be a vote for more of the same — for an economic “recovery” that benefited the 1 percent and left out everyone else, for continued “trade” agreements that grease the skids on the export of American jobs to sweatshops in the Third World, for a government that’s tone-deaf to the concerns of anyone who isn’t rich enough to write big checks to politicians.
Third, as Rick Perlstein wrote recently in Newsweek (http://www.newsweek.com/why-clinton-playing-nice-republicans-ryan-496907), Hillary Clinton really isn’t — and has never been — a Democrat. The first Presidential candidate she ever supported was Barry Goldwater, and if there were still such a thing as “moderate Republican” she’d be far more comfortable in the GOP than she’s ever been in the Democratic Party. In 2015, early on in her current campaign, Clinton gave a speech in Indiana in which she called herself “a moderate, and proud of it.” Early indications, in both that speech and the Atlantic interview in which she criticized President Obama as being too unwilling to use military force abroad — “‘Don’t do stupid’ is not a foreign policy,” she said — were that she planned to run her Presidential campaign in classic Clinton “triangulation” mode, criticizing the extremes of both Left and Right and offering herself as a safe “centrist” choice.
The surprising strength of Bernie Sanders’ challenge forced her — at least in the primary campaign — to abandon triangulation and embrace as much of his progressive agenda as she thought she could get away with. But once she got the nomination, Clinton confirmed the worst fears of the Sandersistas and moved Right with a vengeance. As Perlstein commented in his article, Hillary is running the same sort of campaign Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry did, trying to appeal to independents and “moderate Republicans” (a virtually extinct species now) and drawing a distinction between the “good” Republicans in Congress and the “bad” Republican Trump. The likely result is that, even if Clinton pulls off a miracle and wins the election, she’ll still face a Republican Congress that — as they’ve done with Obama — will systematically obstruct everything she tries to get done on the theory that they can wait her out another four years and then elect Ted Cruz.
“Triangulation” isn’t going to awaken the kind of enthusiasm among the Democratic Party’s base that elected Obama. It isn’t going to reassure the Sandersistas that Clinton can be trusted. Quite the contrary: it will convince them not to vote at all, or to vote for Green Party candidate Dr. Jill Stein or Peace and Freedom candidate Gloria La Riva — which, under America’s electoral system, is functionally the same as not voting at all. It will give Trump the low voter turnout, dominated by his fanatically dedicated supporters, he’s counting on to win.
And Donald Trump has another surprising ally: the media. That may seem strange, given how much of his speeches he devotes to ridiculing them, but the media have been consciously or unconsciously promoting Trump throughout this campaign. They’ve been doing that first by the sheer amount of coverage they’ve given him — far more than Clinton, Sanders or anyone else — and also by blatantly manipulating the coverage to make him look good. On the one joint forum the candidates have had so far — the consecutive half-hour “town halls” on national security issues hosted by Matt Lauer of the Today show September 7, Lauer was shockingly biased. He used half of his half-hour with Clinton to interrogate her about her e-mails, sounding for all the world like the prosecutor in the trial the FBI decided there wasn’t enough evidence against her to hold for real.
With Trump, Lauer was so cozy I sat and wondered if he could have got his tongue any farther up Trump’s butthole if he’d tried. I couldn’t help but think that maybe NBC was particularly biased for Trump because they consider them “one of us” since The Apprentice was an NBC show, or if there’s a general media bias for Trump simply because they think he’d be a lot more fun than Clinton to cover for the next four years. Whichever is the case, though, it’s obvious that — whether it’s the conscious intent of the media people to help Trump win or he’s simply a skilled enough manipulator he’s “playing” them — Trump is definitely coming out ahead in the media coverage and using the media to keep the campaign on his playing field.
If current trends continue, Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States. He will win by a substantial, if not a landslide, majority and he will have a Republican House and Senate as well. Once he’s elected, I predict, he’ll trim a lot of his sails, partly because his fellow 0.01-percenters will take him aside and steer him away from some of the ruinous economic policies (like threatening a default on the U.S. debt and telling our NATO allies we may not defend them unless they kick in more of the cost of sustaining the alliance) that would threaten the world’s economic stability and potentially cost Trump himself and his rich friends a lot of money.
But a Trump Presidency will still be a mega-disaster for the U.S., and in particular for any Americans who regard diversity as one of our strengths as a nation. And so far, no one — not Hillary Clinton, not the Democratic establishment, and not the progressive communities who naïvely thought that “demographics,” particularly the increasing proportion of America’s population who are people of color, would swing this country’s political future towards the Democrats — has figured out a way to stop a Trump Presidency from happening. As I’ve written in these pages before, I’ve heard a lot of people say, in disbelieving tones, “We’d never elect someone like Trump” — and I’ve responded, “I’m sure a lot of people were saying that in Germany in the early 1930’s, too: ‘We’re a civilized country. We’d never let a freak like Hitler take power.’”