By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.
Labor Day has come and gone; the campaign season is now in high gear. Getting to this point was hard for anyone paying attention. It will soon be worse a hundred-fold.
The collective intelligence of the American people is about to be insulted even more shamelessly than it has already been — as the sales campaigns for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump rev up, seemingly without budget constraints.
Now would therefore be a good time to lay in a supply of anti-emetics, before the stores run out.
Ahead lies a barrage of news, impossible to avoid, of an electoral contest that makes a mockery of American “democracy.” That, unfortunately, is the least of it. The more portentous problem is what it is all leading to – a Clinton presidency.
Both Clinton and Trump are dangerous people.
Most people whose heads are screwed on right believe that Trump is the more dangerous of the two. Perhaps he is – in theory. But this hardly matters because the danger he poses is only theoretical.
It is theoretical because he is on track for losing big time. By any pertinent standard, Hillary is a god-awful candidate whom normally forgiving people actively dislike. But even she doesn’t have it in her to flub enough or to be despised enough to lose to the Donald.
Therefore, she, not he, is the danger ahead; too bad that more people, liberals especially, don’t realize it – yet.
Over the next several years, with Commander-in-Chief Hillary in charge, the magnitude of the danger she poses will become painfully obvious even to those who now look forward to her presidency.
But, for the time being, liberals don’t see it; or, if they do, they let anti-Trump hysteria lead them astray.
Many, maybe most, of them realize that Hillary will drop her “progressive” persona as soon as she can get away with it. They realize too that, as President, she will make inequality and the problems associated with it worse.
They may even be troubled by the fact that each day’s news brings fresh evidence of how corrupt she is. “Crooked Hillary,” Trump’s name for his old friend, is, if anything, too kind.
On this, what Trump says is spot on. Having dealt with Hillary and Bill over the years, he knows whereof he speaks. He knows all about crookedness too.
Trump doesn’t try to hide the fact that, like others in the “billionaire class,” he uses money to buy political influence; he actually brags about it. Hooray to him for shedding light on how the system works.
The Clintons, on the other hand, use their political clout and international connections to make money, lots of it, for themselves. Let ethicists figure out which is worse.
That the Clintons capitalize on their connections is not exactly news; they’ve been doing it for years — fooling nobody, not even their supporters.
Perhaps this is one of the many reasons why Hillary’s candidacy is generating so little enthusiasm. She is not even bothering to try running on her merits. How could she? She is running against Trump.
Even those of her supporters who have been with her all along because they want to see a woman elected President before they die are now finding that the only thing that really gets their juices flowing is fear of the orange-haired boogeyman.
They would be better off finding more worrisome things to worry about; Trump’s chances of winning are too miniscule to take seriously.
Meanwhile, harm is being done: anti-Trump hysteria is keeping people from realizing that a vote for Hillary is less a vote against Trump than a vote for war – endless war, hot or cold, anywhere and everywhere that pretexts can be found or contrived.
As Secretary of State, Hillary’s ill-conceived initiatives spawned disasters throughout the Muslim world; as President, her machinations could be catastrophic for the entire planet.
Even if the Trump threat were real, that consideration should at least give pause to lesser evilists now jumping on board the Hillary bandwagon. But they don’t see it.
One reason they don’t is that the foreign and military policies of Nobel laureate Barack Obama have not been all that different from those that his former Madam Secretary has in mind.
But Obama is thoughtful, cautious and irresolute, while Hillary is clueless and trigger-happy. As she continues his “legacy,” even those of us who cannot wait to see the back of him, will soon be missing him sorely.
Nevertheless, Hillary is our future. This may not be quite as certain as that the sun will rise tomorrow, but, even taking into account the possibility of illness and death and of an October surprise, it comes close.
People don’t see that yet either. Before long, though, everyone will realize that Trump never stood a chance, and that worrying about him was pointless. They may also come to realize how deleterious that concern has been.
They will realize that, instead of voting for Hillary against Trump, they could have done their share to change the course of American politics — say, by helping to build the Green Party or by doing political work outside the ambit of this dreadful election altogether.
Even so, there are important lessons to be learned by reflecting on the impending Clinton v. Trump electoral contest.
The basic question is not who will win – we already know that. It is how a political system that purports to be democratic, that claims to deliver what people want, could offer up Clinton-Trump choices for November.
To address that question, it can be helpful to set the facts aside, by entertaining the thought that Trump’s chances are more than negligible.
Then the question how we got into the predicament of a Clinton v. Trump election would be of more than “academic” interest; it would raise issues of political consequence – for now and the foreseeable future.
Many of those questions have to do with the role corporate media have played in bringing this situation about. It is not all their fault, but they have much to answer for.
Even by the standards to which American voters have become accustomed, a Clinton-Trump election marks a new low.
Think of it: an inept toady of the rich and powerful, with a neoconservative worldview and a mindless determination to maintain American world domination by military force is pitted against a billionaire huckster-buffoon, with an authoritarian personality and the maturity of an unhinged adolescent. Could it get any worse?
Hillary Clinton is a living reminder of all that has gone wrong with American liberalism and of all that is deplorable in the status quo.
Donald Trump appeals to the Dark Side of the American psyche. He will not bring fascism – or some twenty-first century equivalent – to the United States, but his success at stirring up racist, nativist and Islamophobic animosities shows that the possibility is there.
How did it come to this?
Corporate media didn’t do it all by itself. But it would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of the role they played.
Presidential elections in the United States have long been contests between tweedledees and tweedledums. For many decades now, one of them, always the Republican, is also tweedledumber – sometimes from conviction, but always to appeal to an increasingly retrograde electoral base.
The 2012 Romney-Obama contest was a case in point; so was the 2008 election that pitted Barack Obama against John McCain. Because Obama had an African father, there was a wrinkle added on, but the basic story was the same.
It was the same too for Bush v. Kerry and Bush v. Gore, and so on as far back as anyone can remember.
The mainstream political spectrum in the United States veers to the right of most of its counterparts in other liberal democracies, so what would count as leftwing in the United States might seem centrist or center-right elsewhere.
With that understanding in mind, it is fair to say that the prevailing assumption is that the Democratic and Republican Parties represent center-left and center-right positions respectively, that they nominate candidates for President accordingly, and that the electorate is divided more or less equally between center-left and center-right voters.
The conventional wisdom therefore is that victory goes to the candidate who wins over the lion’s share of centrist voters.
Lately, this idea has come to coexist with a different set of assumptions, according to which the parties are highly polarized, the center is shrinking, and left-right-center divisions are giving way to differences based on culture and identity.
Republicans, then, draw mainly on an aging white electoral base, while younger voters, people of color, and women of all hues tend to support Democrats.
These understandings overlap, but they are not the same. According to the more traditional view, ideological differences determine electoral outcomes; in the newer view, demography is destiny.
There is merit in both contentions. But because they both focus more on differences than similarities, they both obscure more than they illuminate.
The plain fact is that, nowadays as much as ever, in both theory and practice, Democrats and Republicans are of one mind in pursuing the interests of the economic elites they serve.
The differences that do exist and that loom so large in popular understandings of American politics are cultural, not economic. They reflect differences between the parties’ core constituencies that, in other times and places, would be, at most, of only secondary political importance.
It has always been this way to some extent. What is new is that the differences that seem most salient now, the polarizing ones, are of comparatively recent origin. That cultural retrogrades cluster around the Republican pole, while cultural progressives are Democrats, is new as well.
For a hundred years after the end of the Civil War, Republicans were few and far between in the Solid South; the Democratic Party was the party of segregationists. Because most blacks couldn’t vote, they ruled almost without opposition.
Politically active African Americans in the North were therefore mainly adherents of the Party of Lincoln and the more radical Reconstructionists. New and Fair Deal progressivism drew some politically active blacks into the Democratic fold, and the process continued throughout the Eisenhower years, but even after the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964, African Americans in the north were nearly as likely to vote for Republicans as for Democrats.
With black communities in motion as civil rights and nascent black power struggles unfolded, Goldwater ran not quite as a segregationist, but as an opponent of efforts to end segregation.
Despite this, it would not be for another decade and a half, as Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy began to bear fruit, creating a Solid (white Republican) South, and winning over the hearts and minds of reactionaries and racists everywhere, that African Americans finally abandoned the Republican Party en masse.
Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan and both Bushes courted the Latino vote; and also the Muslim vote, until that became impossible in the Islamophobic atmosphere that the Bush-Cheney “war on terror” unleashed.
We should remember too that in many affluent white suburbs, it was not until well into the nineties that Republicans became full-fledged reactionaries on reproductive rights issues, and other matters associated with gender and sex.
By now, of course, Republicans everywhere are not just more flagrantly pro-business and anti-union than Democrats; they are more socially conservative too.
But even in the cultural domain, there is less difference than meets the eye; and, more importantly, party polarization over cultural issues masks the extent to which between Democrats and Republicans there is nearly total agreement on matters of fundamental economic and political substance.
Cultural differences do matter, of course; especially to the people they directly affect. People of color, (most) women, and the LGBT community are worse off when Republicans are in office. But in the larger scheme of things, no matter which party or which candidate wins, nothing fundamental changes.
There was every reason, a year ago to think that the 2016 election would be as politically otiose as all the others in recent years.
The parties and their media flacks were gearing up for a contest between the two most noxious political families in recent American history: the Clintons and the Bushes.
The only good that could come of that match up is that only one of them would survive.
This happened, the Bush blight ended, but not because Hillary defeated Jeb. Jeb defeated himself — to the point where Trump could obliterate him without even trying.
It was not just Jeb Bush that fell as the Trump phenomenon gathered force; without really trying, and probably without even realizing it, Trump drove a stake through the heart of the monster that the GOP had become.
This has made the current election exceptional – not for its effects on the interests of economic elites, but for its consequences for the duopolistic party system through which those miscreants rule.
How ironic that none of this could have happened without the active, albeit unwitting, support of corporate media, the first and last line of defense of the “economic royalists” Franklin Roosevelt inveighed against!
Media moguls have no fondness for the Donald, and, in all likelihood, most of the people who work for them like him even less. But they made his candidacy succeed – up to and beyond the point where it peaked after he clinched the Republican nomination.
They did it because he was a godsend for their bottom lines. Without Trump, the GOP race would have been a lost cause for them – unless they could find a gaggle of later-day equivalents of Sarah Palin and Christine O’Donnell. Palin could see Russia from her porch, and O’Donnell took out an ad to tell the world that she is not a witch.
When it is all over, I expect that it will come out that Trump never meant for it to happen that he would become the Republican nominee, that he never really wanted to be President, but only to publicize himself and his brand.
But because he couldn’t resist the adulation that benighted voters were lavishing upon him, because the thought of losing, especially to Hillary, was more than he could handle, and because it was so easy for him to win the nomination – his rivals being easy prey — he found himself swept along.
For a while, therefore, it was a win-win situation for him and the media bosses who despised him. He made money for them, and they made him the GOP nominee.
Now, again for the sake of their bottom lines, they are working hard to make it seem that there actually is a contest underway between Clinton and Trump.
Lucky, for them, they will not have to maintain the pretense for more than two months more. Even with all the resources at their disposal, it is hard work making that claim seem credible.
Besides, at this point, news of Trump floundering and flip flopping and otherwise being ridiculous is as good, or better, for their bottom lines, as scaring up fears of an imminent fascist takeover.
Inside tipsters at Politico and similar venues are now saying that Trump is already planning ways to make money off of his defeat — either by buying Fox News from Rupert Murdoch or by starting a rival rightwing news outlet of his own. He could call it “Trump TV.”
Why not? He has a ready-made audience in his electoral base, he has a suitably reactionary and repellent collaborator in Roger Ailes, and his campaign has already raided rightwing journalistic outfits like Breitbart News for top executive staff appointments.
There is still some reason to hope that a resounding defeat in November will launch Trump into a gilded retirement; the world has long had more than enough of him.
More likely, it will open up opportunities for him to do well for himself by doing harm to others, as he has done with his several bankruptcies.
No matter what happens, though, the hope is that he finds ways to land blows on Hillary.
For as long as they have been in public life, the Clintons have been the targets of what Hillary famously called “a vast rightwing conspiracy.” They still are: there are lots of whackos out there who hate them for all the wrong reasons.
But once Hillary takes charge, her bellicose machinations will give rise to opposition to her and to Clintonism (neoliberalism, liberal imperialism, and an economy dependent on perpetual war) grounded in sound reasons and moral concerns – a vast leftwing conspiracy, as it were.
Therein lies another irony. Following Che Guevara’s lead, anti-imperialists used to call for “two, three, many Vietnams.” Now, this is just what the Empire’s new Queen will foist upon the country and the world.
Lyndon Johnson, a far worthier figure than Hillary could ever be, was at one point considered the only defense against Barry Goldwater, the boogeyman of a half-century –in much the way that Hillary is now thought of as the Anti-Trump.
But Johnson’s war in Vietnam made him reviled, and ultimately brought him down. Under Hillary’s aegis, history is about to repeat itself. When it does, the vast rightwing conspiracy she complains of will be nothing compared to the resistance she then will face.
For now, though, the story with Hillary’s campaign is complicated.
Corporate media moguls, like all beneficiaries of the status quo, like her well enough; and the people who work for them don’t know enough to see, much less take the measure of, her cluelessness and ineptitude.
Meanwhile, corporate media are hard at it: marginalizing oppositional and counter-systemic alternatives to the status quo. This is one of their principal functions, and it comes naturally to them.
As sometimes does happen, even in “exceptional” America, there have been progressive alternatives out there this election season– the Sanders campaign, most obviously, and also the Green Party. But anyone who depended on corporate media for news would know little of it.
For them, it is all Trump, Trump, and more Trump. It is as if their aim is to prove to doubters that, for hucksters like the Donald, even bad publicity is good.
Why do they not talk up Hillary, their own candidate, more? The short answer is that she gives them too little to work with. They can get a lot of mileage out of anti-Trump hysteria, but hardly any at all from Hillary herself.
The corporate media strategy, therefore, is to ignore challenges from Hillary’s left as best they can, and to put all their efforts into demonizing Trump.
They have even gone so far as to connect him with Vladimir Putin, the empire’s demon supreme.
Putin is no red, but, in corporate media circles, that hardly matters. Redbaiting is a tried and true method for garnering support for the status quo. Without reds, it makes no sense, but so what! If it will do the cause some good, then trot it out again!
Still, despite all their efforts, they couldn’t marginalize the Sanders insurgency as well as they would have liked. They did do their level best right up to the bitter end, but the news got out nevertheless.
Had Sanders challenged Clinton more aggressively, forcing corporate media to take notice, they might not have been quite so successful at trivializing the support he was receiving by depicting it as a naïve expression of youthful idealism; and they would have been less able to keep news of the machinations of the several political machines that the Clintons have been cultivating over the years – mainly, but not only, in communities of color devastated by Clintonite policies – out of the public eye.
Then the masses of people “feeling the Bern” (how antiquated that expression already sounds!) might actually have gotten somewhere.
But, of course, none of this happened. Instead, the Clinton-friendly movers and shakers of the corporate media world, working alongside Team Hillary, were able to damage the Sanders campaign grievously. But though they denied it victory, even they could not squelch it entirely.
For that, they needed Sanders’ cooperation – something he has been generously providing ever since, by endorsing Hillary, he betrayed his cause on the pretext that he did it to save the world from Trump.
And so now, we have an election in which the main contenders are justifiably despised, in which the outcome is assured, and from which no good will come.
It could still be different if the Commission on Presidential Debates would follow the old League of Women Voters’ rules. If they did, they would be obliged to let Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, and Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, appear alongside Clinton and Trump.
In the ways that Sanders’ politics was good, Stein’s is as good or better. And on foreign policy and military affairs, Stein puts Sanders to shame. Were she able to bring herself out of the margins that corporate media constructs and enforces, the face of American politics would be forever changed.
Johnson could play a similar role for intellectually serious libertarians.
But the Commission, a creature of the Democratic and Republican Parties, isn’t going to let this happen – not without a fight.
Trump could do it on his own, by insisting that League of Women Voters rules apply as a condition for his participation in the debates. As a sure loser, he would have nothing to lose; and he could gain the satisfaction of having helped Stein knock Hillary down a few notches.
If only out of spite, he ought to be waving the “Jill, Not Hill” banner. But, for his own hard to figure reasons, the chances that he will do the right thing are slim and getting slimmer.
This leaves just public opinion. By now, there is enough interest in Stein and Johnson that support is starting to register in polls – for example, in the very large and extensive poll conducted by The Washington Post and Survey Monkey that was published just a few days ago.
Even so, the silence on Stein and Johnson remains deafening.
How different it would be if corporate America would just bugger off, leaving space for a genuine Fourth Estate to flourish.
The last thing America needs is the motley collection of hacks and flunkies they have brought together to serve beneficiaries of the status quo. If nothing else, Clinton v. Trump proves that beyond a reasonable doubt.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).