COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tuesday nears, after such epic ugliness. “It’s almost over,” friends say. “We’ll finally be done with this.” What a lovely thought. What a naïve fantasy.
There’s no end here, just a punctuation mark, a measly comma between the rancor that has built until this point and the fury to come. And there’s no way to un-see what all of us have seen over these last 18 months, to bottle up what has been un-bottled.
Election Day will redeem and settle nothing, not this time around. No matter who declares victory, tens of millions of Americans will be convinced — truly convinced — that the outcome isn’t legitimate because untoward forces intervened. Whether balloons fall on Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, there will be bolder divisions in America than there were at the start of it all and even less faith in the country’s most important institutions.
The person taking office will do so not on a wave of hope but amid tides of disgust, against fierce currents of resistance. Tell me how she or he moves forward. Tell me how America does.
After I typed that last sentence, I paused for a sip of coffee and randomly tuned in to the conversation at a nearby table in the lobby of my Hampton Inn. A primly dressed, neatly groomed woman in her early 60s (I’m guessing) was complaining about election coverage: what an incomplete picture the media paints; how uninformed most voters are. If she herself weren’t so alert to a full range of facts, she said, she would never have examined a list posted on a relative’s Facebook page.
It named people connected to the Clintons “who died suspicious deaths,” she told her companions. “It sounds absurd to us, because we can’t imagine things like that going on, but we can’t dismiss it. There’s too much evidence.” They nodded raptly.
There was a story by The Times’s Carl Hulse late last week about the growing interest among Republican senators in trying to prevent a President Clinton from appointing any new justices to the Supreme Court. What about the will of the nation’s voters? The deference owed to their decision on Election Day?
These senators aren’t thinking big like that. They’re thinking small, focused on their own rabid fan bases, their invitations to inveigh on the news shows and their Twitter followings, which won’t be fattened by calm and comity.
There are stories all over about a foul odor in the F.B.I., which suddenly looks like the rest of America: polluted by partisanship, toxic with resentment. It’s leaking like mad. Some agents hanker to go hard after the Clinton Foundation, their superiors resist, and accusations of bias flow both ways. Those won’t stop after Tuesday. If anything they’ll intensify. Americans have a whole new object of distrust. Another institution’s reputation bites the dust.
Before James Comey’s reckless disclosure a little more than a week ago, it was clear that Trump’s most passionate supporters, goaded by him, would cry “rigged” if he lost. Now Clinton’s supporters are poised to do likewise if she’s defeated.
The arc of this election has been one of disillusionment, bending toward disarray. Trump’s initial window of opportunity was so many Americans’ belief that Washington, Wall Street and the media had been irredeemably corrupted by self-interested elites. More than a year later, the number of Americans gripped by such cynicism has undoubtedly grown.
How could it not? Consider what we’ve learned about the inner workings of the Democratic National Committee; about the ability of plutocrats like Trump to cheat the I.R.S.; about the fraudulence of his supposed philanthropy; about the disparity between Clinton’s private and public words; about the unprincipled avarice of her husband’s post-presidential days; about the shady interactions between newsrooms and campaign offices? The America on display in this election isn’t a fair or ethical place.
And it seethes with hate. Trump has certainly shown us that. His incendiary words and unconscionable silences gave a green light to bad actors who existed before him but were never so encouraged: the anti-Semites who harassed Jewish journalists on Twitter; the white nationalists who threatened to intimidate minorities at the polls; the misogynists who hurled unprintable slurs at Clinton.
Last weekend a man who was getting a head start on Halloween attended a University of Wisconsin football game in a costume that depicted Barack Obama with a noose around his neck. That’s the kind of depravity we seem to be witnessing more of since Trump came down his gilded escalator and began ranting about Mexican rapists.
He has modeled contempt for civilized norms and even the rule of law, endorsing violence against protesters, expressing admiration for a Russian autocrat, pledging a clampdown on the press, suggesting that Second Amendment enthusiasts might want to take a shot at Clinton, and promising to throw her in jail.
I’m not terrified that he’ll win, because I’m stubbornly confident that Americans aren’t that far gone. But I’m terrified by how lost we nonetheless are, by how little clear direction we have.
What ideally occurs during an election is that some consensus emerges or is forged. It’s not just a candidate who wins; it’s an argument, a vision. At least that’s the goal.
But I can’t identify a single issue like that, domestic or foreign, in 2016, because no campaign in my adult lifetime has turned so little on policy and so much on character.
That was perhaps inevitable with nominees as historically unpopular as Clinton and Trump and with an arsonist like him in the equation. But it leaves us … where? The path ahead is all the trickier because the campaign has widened fault lines not only between Republicans and Democrats but also within each camp.
Even putting Trump’s angry troops aside, it feels as if we’re coming out of this election with four parties: the Paul Ryan Republicans, the Freedom Caucus, the establishment Democrats and the Elizabeth Warren/Bernie Sanders brigade, which is raring to use the muscle that Sanders flexed during the primaries for legislation more progressive than anything that the House would ever approve. Meet the new paralysis, same as the old paralysis. Potentially, worse.
As we approach the finish line that isn’t, Trump prophesies a “constitutional crisis.” Republicans raise the specters of “impeachment” and “indictment.” And Rudy Giuliani demands an assurance from Obama that he won’t pardon Clinton, who is favored to win even though only 47 percent of the people who are planning to vote for her can muster any considerable enthusiasm about it.
From elections past, I don’t recognize this terrain. How can I assume that it’s navigable?
New York Times