By David K. Shipler
While Donald Trump reflects the worst characteristics of American society, as many have said and written, he has also emerged as the leading voice of contempt for the country he wants to lead. He doesn’t really seem to like America very much—at least the America that exists in reality: the pluralistic, multiracial, multiethnic, fair-minded America that is engaged with the broader world.
Especially as he sinks in the polls, he is flailing recklessly at the most crucial elements of pluralistic democracy. He has become the leading opponent of a free press and of an electoral process that has guaranteed smooth, peaceful transitions of power for nearly 250 years. Now that he appears to be losing, he has set out to undermine public confidence in the country’s prominent news organizations and in the election itself. And for months he has made pronouncements and promises as if he could, as president, simply dictate and overrun the separation of powers, the checks and balances that the Framers ingeniously created in the Constitution.
A pillar of American democracy is the capacity of the winners of tough campaigns to then govern. Trump could not govern, given the distrust and disgust he has sown at large in the population and among the Republican leadership in Congress. He is now trying to make it impossible for Hillary Clinton to govern as well.
He has urged her imprisonment, called on vigilantes to muster against “rigged” voting at polling places, whipped up a threatening climate against news reporters at his rallies, and peddled fantasies of global conspiracies between the news media and the Democrats. He has trafficked in an item of Russian propaganda, accepting a Kremlin news outlet’s misrepresentation of a hacked email from Clinton’s staff. He even borrowed a smear resembling those in the infamous anti-Semitic forgery, Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in declaring, “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends, and her donors.”
It has become easy to tell when Trump is lying: when his lips are moving. But he tells lies that millions love to hear. And many of those lies are about an America supposedly on the abyss, at risk of an ISIS takeover, in economic free-fall. Even his crude clone, Maine Governor Paul LePage, echoed him recently in picturing the country “slipping into anarchy” and in need of “a Donald Trump to show some authoritarian power.” (LePage later backtracked and said he meant “authoritative.” He also must have meant “slipping into autumn,” judging by the orderly tranquility of the Maine where I’m currently located.)
Political campaigns ordinarily skip over certain problems, such as poverty, and exaggerate others, such as national security risks. Trump has taken this technique to new extremes. Not only has he ignored endemic racism, he has given it license. Its most dramatic manifestation, police shootings of unarmed black men, has mostly led him to champion the police instead of calling for reform.
His head is full of both real and imagined problems, for which he has no actual solutions. He’s been right to illuminate the hardships of the eroding middle class, failing schools, and the violence and joblessness in inner city neighborhoods. But his bumper-sticker answers (end trade agreements, impose law and order) are simplistic or unworkable, and possibly damaging in and of themselves.
Nor could he actually solve the problems he has invented or embellished: a threat to jobs and security posed by criminal immigration, a collapsing military, a specter of pervasive terrorism. In part because these are imaginary, so must his solutions be. A wall that Mexico will pay for. A huge buildup of military strength while cutting taxes. Exclusion of all Muslims and restrictions on those already here, including American citizens. Does anyone doubt that, in response to more terrorism, he would round up Muslims and put them in camps, as the U.S. did to ethnic Japanese during World War II?
Trump sees a besieged and hollowed out America facing apocalypse. And he is the only savior, of course. In his element, at his rallies of adoring supporters, he basks in the cult of personality that he has created, with the unwilling assistance of the news media he now excoriates. A “cult of personality,” for which Stalin was finally condemned by official Soviet histories, is not an ingredient of an open, democratic system.
As Trump goes down, he seems to be trying to take everything down with him: the Republican Party’s establishment, the Democratic candidate, the free press, orderly voting, the legitimacy of the election, and on. He is now waging a campaign against America—not against the millions who lust for a swaggering, bullying figure who will punch every complex problem in the nose, not against the politically and economically alienated who have been wounded with deep anxiety—but against the American processes and principles that have given this country the essential capacity for self-correction.