How Did We End Up With Such Unpopular Candidates?
You hear the expression “lesser of two evils” when people talk about how they will vote in November. Poll after poll shows a growing number of voters saying they will vote negatively—they’re against Hillary, so they’ll hold their nose and vote Trump, and vice versa.
It is also likely a large number of discontented voters will simply stay home on Election Day. Both candidates are among the most unpopular and least trusted in American history. One of them will end up in the White House.
How did we get here? Why are the only two mainstream candidates left standing Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?
Hillary Clinton: All Appetite
Hillary Clinton is the archetypal 21st-century candidate’s candidate, a fully formed tool of the oligarchy. Whether she wins or loses in November, she is the model for the next era of American politics.
Clinton sees the people as a mass to be pandered to and manipulated. She is simply a machine to gain power for its own sake (and money). The 1 percent tagged her early as exactly whom they wanted to see in charge, someone who could be bought off, and she was nice enough to create her own vehicle to allow them to do that conveniently: write a check to the Clinton Foundation. As a bonus, it was also tax-deductible.
If Hillary had not existed, it would have been necessary for the wealthy who control most of America to create her.
The Once and Future Hillary
But Hillary did exist, and indeed had spent her entire life preparing for this.
By all accounts an intelligent, committed feminist coming out of law school, she quickly fell into the classic 1950s TV role of dependent spouse—a first lady, first of Arkansas when Bill was governor, and of course again in the White House. Sure, she was given health care to mess around with during Bill’s first term, but when the issue crashed and burned, she was reassigned to make safe speeches calling for more rights for women and girls. Safe in that she was allowed to pound the pulpit for those ideals in enemy territory like China, but not in countries like Saudi Arabia.
She was the good wife. And good wives look the other way when hubby strays a bit, even to the point of having sex in the Oval Office. Hillary knew the Democratic Party would owe her for not blowing things completely apart in a messy divorce certain to reveal even more bad news.
First up was a Senate seat, a springboard for her presidential run. In November 1998, four-term incumbent Democratic New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan announced his retirement, opening a seat in a solidly blue state. In early 1999, the Clintons bought a house in Chappaqua, N.Y., so that by September she was eligible to run as a “New Yorker.” While in the Senate Hillary was served up prime committee slots and voted the safe votes. (The Iraq War vote was safe at the time, of course, as everyone wanted to go to war. Nobody foresaw that one bouncing back the way it did.)
By the time the George W. Bush era finally ended, everyone on earth knew the next president was going to be a Democrat. So 2008 was going to be Hillary’s big moment: the first woman president, the one to clean up the Bush wars, and who knows, maybe she would even score a Nobel Prize. But Hillary misread the degree of change Americans wanted, and in return for putting her plans on hold for another cycle or two, she settled in for four years as secretary of state as a consolation prize. And have you heard? She sat in the Situation Room the night bin Laden was killed!
Taking No Chances
As the 2016 election approached, the Clintons took no chances.
The favors Hillary accumulated as secretary of state via the Clinton Foundation were transformed into money and support. As she pretended not to run, Clinton packed her campaign war chest with big-money speeches. A happy “listening tour” (remember the Scooby Van?) was created to show everyone how human Hillary was. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz lined up the Democratic Party machinery. Designated schlup Martin O’Malley was set up as the loyal opposition so Hillary could create the appearance she was running against someone in the primary.
Then, oops, Bernie.
When Bernie Sanders came out of nowhere (as had Obama in 2008), Clinton again misread or did not care about how much change many Americans sought. As many had long suspected, and as we all now know after the hacks of the Democratic National Committee servers, the party machinery was brought to bear against Sanders. The mainstream media were lined up to belittle, marginalize, and ignore him. The millennial vote Sanders inspired was largely written off by Clinton. Bernie was reduced to a sad, little old man helping to nominate someone at the Democratic Convention he clearly loathed.
Add to that the flood of disdainful remarks that talking-points-prepped Democratic pundits spewed forth, announcing that support for Libertarian Gary Johnson or Green Party candidate Jill Stein is near-treason. A voter’s well-reasoned, act-of-conscience decision to support one of the two is held as nothing less than support for the Dark Lord.
The Democrat machinery and the people who control it made Clinton the inevitable candidate. There was no one else who ever had a chance. America was told to suck it up and vote for her, whether they liked it or not.
Trump Stumbles Into His Role
The Republican Party fully misunderstood its constituency, thinking one of a litter of robo-candidates would be good enough to simply run as Not Obama, Not Hillary.
Each candidate on offer fell into the mold of ultra-mainstream, such as the why-am-I-here Jeb Bush, or the nut-case category, as with Ben Carson. Ted Cruz couldn’t make up his mind, and vacillated between the two options. The plan was likely to meld the two wings into a ticket and scoop up as many conservative votes as possible.
Whatever Trump may have really been thinking when he started his campaign, he stumbled onto something that had been hiding in plain sight. Large numbers of Americans, mostly white and formerly middle class, were angry. They were really angry. They had been left behind as the country changed, feeling like an audience at a magic show who saw the trick done but couldn’t for the life of them figure out how it had happened. These people knew they were getting poorer, they could not find decent jobs, and they wanted someone to blame.
He told them it was not their fault. It was because of Obama, it was the Chinese, it was the Muslims, the blacks, the Democrats, NAFTA, immigrants, refugees—whomever they feared and hated, whatever they wanted to hear. He told them their racism and hate was valid, and gave them a place to express it as no one in the mainstream had ever done in a modern campaign.
Trump became a predator sniffing the wind. When he sensed people were fed up with Hillary’s scamming for donations, he said he was self-funded. When he sensed people wanted change, he said he was an outsider. When voters tired of Hillary’s lawyerly answers and outright lies, Trump came out as plainspoken, even rude and crude. What candidate before had ever spoken of his penis size on the national stage?
Weakness overseas? Bomb the hell out of them. Worried about China? Renegotiate. Tired of terrorists? Torture them, maybe kill their families. Problems with the economy? I can fix it, says Trump, and he doesn’t need to explain how because while no one really believes it, they want to believe.
Whole races and religions were condemned. People were bored with long think pieces and empty political language. Trump dished things out in 140-character Tweets. Voters made up their minds with the same tool they use to follow Beyoncé.
As a sign of Trump’s populism, and his popularity, he has garnered more small-dollar donations for the GOP than any other Republican candidate in history, and all that only since he seriously started asking for contributions in June. “He’s the Republican Obama,” Politicoquotes one operative as saying about Trump monetizing his Republican supporters.
Like nearly every person in the media, and the Democratic and Republican parties, I suspect Trump never expected the ball to bounce as it did when he first started out. Running was an ego thing, an elaborate prank, performance art, something maybe good for business. No such thing as bad PR.
But as others wrote him off, including the oligarchy, Trump learned.
Every time someone said “Well, that’s the end of Trump” after some outrageous statement, Trump learned he needed only to top himself in the next sound bite. People wanted him to be racist, they wanted him to be larger than life, and they didn’t care if he lied or exaggerated. Most of the media, still reporting his latest statement (birtherism, debates are rigged) as a bad thing, still don’t get it.
Face It: They Are Us
America will have Trump or Clinton in the White House for the next four years because they are us.
Clinton is the ultimate end product of a political process consumed by big money. She is the candidate of the 1 percent. She believes in nothing but the acquisition of power and will trade anything to get it. The oligarchy is happy to help her with that.
Trump is the ultimate Frankenstein product of decades of lightly shaded Republican hate mongering. He is the natural end point of 15 post-9/11 years of keeping us afraid. He is the mediagenic demagogue a country gets when it abandons its people to economic Darwinism, crushes its middle class, and gives up on caring what happens to its minorities.
Both candidates are markers of a doomed democracy, a system that reached its apex somewhere in the past and has only now declined enough that everyone can see where we are. They’re us, people. We watched this happen, and we’ll be stuck trying to live with the results.
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during the “reconstruction” of Iraq in his book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. He writes about current events at We Meant Well. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent. His next work will be a novel, Hooper’s War.