I truly believed America would dodge the bullet. A Trump victory seemed an unimaginable threat to the very survival of the republic. After the most negative presidential campaign that most of us had seen in our lifetimes, due largely to the tactics of Donald Trump, it was inevitable that the body politic would be seriously wounded. But I really didn’t believe that the bullet would hit so close to the heart.
So what happened?
One could say that for the first time in American history, an implacable foe, Russia, was able to directly interfere with the electoral process by hacking into Democratic party files and documents, and then using WikiLeaks to distribute this often embarrassing dirty laundry. Whether the Russians did this to help Trump or to discredit the American political system cannot be proven - but it accomplished both.
One could say that at a strategic moment just nine days before the vote when FBI Director James Comey officially informed Congress that more files from Clinton’s personal e-mail service had suddenly appeared, a late Clinton campaign surge was squelched. And when a week later Comey reported nothing new had been found, it was too late to undo the impact of that ominous earlier warning.
As one reflects on the past year and a half, it is astonishing how far we have traveled from the norms of civility that once guided our political discourse. As of now, literally anything goes. Yet, this is not among the most important of the changes that have been wrought as all the rules of acceptable public behavior and utterances have changed. In my view, the most egregious loss to our society as a direct result of the 2016 presidential campaign and the election of Donald Trump is that truth, no longer seems to matter.
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts. Yet what constitutes fact or truth, is now constantly in dispute.
That’s because the institutions that most Americans used to accept as referees or definers of facts and truth – the universities, religious bodies, non- partisan government departments, the national news media – have for a variety of reasons collapsed.
At one time CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America.” Today, like most of his news media colleagues, Cronkite would be trusted by fewer than two in ten Americans. These days more people are likely to believe something they have read on a fake news posting on the Internet, than what they read in one of the nation’s major newspapers or saw on the network evening news.
There are complex reasons for the news media’s fall from grace, but they can’t blame it all on Trump. Actually, the national news organizations - the cable news networks in particular – bear much of the responsibility for Trump’s surprising success throughout the Republican primaries. It didn’t take cable news long to view Trump’s outrageous threats as great for ratings, which led to them turning over hours of free airtime to Trump, without either editorial or adult supervision.
This was very good for Trump - and very good in the short term for the cable networks who rung up record profits this election season –CNN reportedly in excess of a billion dollars .But in the long term, it was not good for journalism, and certainly not for the country. And by the time the mainstream news media finally began to take Trump seriously and to hold him accountable for the unprecedented mendacity of his campaign, it was too late. His followers, mostly white males without a college degree, had found their man and nothing he said or the news media reported about him could shake that bond.
Trump ran a campaign that was fact free and in which he was the sole arbiter as to what was true and what was false. And whether in fiction, George Orwell’s 1984- or in modern history, Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich – we know that this power to proclaim what is or is not the truth is one of the key distinguishing features of a dictatorship.
But while all of the above contributed to the election’s outcome we would be foolish to ignore the central message. As at the start of the 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution threatened the ways of life of so many ordinary working people, so too in the early 21st century, society is attempting to deal with the consequences of the latest profound changes roiling people's lives.
Steve Schmidt, the Republican pol who ran John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign is one of the smartest people doing political commentary on television and is about as close to being non partisan as you can get. He predicted Hillary would handily win the election, so like most of the rest of us he is not always right.
But somethng he said a week or so ago, and again on election night stuck with me. This is not a quote but it's the essence of his point. In the future, ideology, and where you stand on the right or left of the political spectrum may matter less and less. Instead, draw a horizontal line across the page. Above the line put all the people who have benefited from globalization and free trade agreements, whose lives and careers have been enriched by technology, who do not feel threatened by multiculturalism.
Below the line put all the people whose experience in the last decade or two have suffered because of globalization and the technological revolution and who feel they are going to continue to lose ground. "These are the people who voted for Trump," said Schmidt.
Sad to say, I think there is going to be much buyer's remorse from this group because Trump had made unrealistic promises which he will never be able to deliver on, even if he wanted to.
Immediately after such an unexpected and stinging defeat it is hard to find much silver in this cloud. These may not be the worst of times, but I am concerned about the serious tests of the strength of America's democratic political system and its clearly weakened institutions that we should expect in the days ahead.
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