November 2016

Essays

Richard Cooke

Bonfire of  the narratives

Donald Trump at a campaign event in Des Moines, Iowa. © Daniel Acker / Bloomberg via Getty Images

How did American democracy come to this?

“Novelties”, bookmakers call them. That’s where you can wager on an Elvis sighting or alien contact event, usually at long odds. “Donald Trump is elected president” was once a novelty, but not any longer. At first, the Irish betting site Paddy Power rated him a 66 to 1 chance to become the Republican nominee, then a 150 to 1 chance of becoming president. By May that was 2 to 1. What odds would you take now, on some other former novelties? A candidate drops out during the campaign. Mass civil unrest on polling day. Armed insurrection after it. In Pennsylvania, I met a woman who was voting based on the vice presidential candidates alone. Whoever won the presidency, she believed, would be irrelevant: they would either be impeached or assassinated in their first three months in office. In current conditions, that’s starting to seem like a value bet.

After all, so many outside chances have conspired already to get us here. “Here” is a place where the Republican candidate has not been endorsed by a single major newspaper. He has in fact been disendorsed by more than 160 leaders of his own party, including a third of its sitting senators. The GOP speaker of the US House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, refuses to campaign with him in person. Even two items of confectionary – Skittles and Tic Tacs – have made public statements distancing themselves from the nominee.

Donald J Trump is the most unpopular major political figure in the divided history of politics in the United States. He has been attacked by virtually every establishment institution in the country, and traditional political donors have shunned him as well. And yet he survives, within sight if not striking distance of the presidency, thanks to grassroots donations that broke records and an unshakeable bedrock of support that encompasses almost half the country. Even as he slides towards likely defeat, the best estimates are that he will win more votes than any Republican nominee ever. The two “sides”, Republican and Democrat, now occupy not just different positions, but different realities. There is, though, a rare point of concordance: if Trump is here, something has gone disastrously wrong for America.

It’s not easy to correctly diagnose societal decline. We’re all mortal, so the prospect of everything flourishing as we age, and excelling after we die, is a natural one to resist. Besides, like all big, chaotic things, America always seems to be on the brink of some breakdown. It’s almost a tradition for writers to tar each Republican presidential candidate as uniquely idiotic and dangerous, someone “justly famous for his howlers, blind spots, mangled statistics and wishful inaccuracies. Each time he goes up to speak, you sense that the pollsters are reaching for their telephones, the aides for their aspirins.” (That’s not some ‘On Trump’, but Martin Amis talking about Ronald Reagan in 1979.) We forget all the times the doomsday clock was wound back, the peasants who wandered out of St Peter’s Basilica on New Year’s Day, 1000 AD, unraptured, the bunker merchants tending rusting cans in lieu of Armageddon.

Perhaps things are not as bad as they seem, and we’ve just forgotten how high and dangerous the social fevers of the ’60s and ’70s were, when there were 370 bombings in New York in two years, Detroit burned every Devil’s Night, convention riots were routine, and Kissinger had to talk Nixon out of dropping an A-bomb on Hanoi. But in more recent history, American political careers were ended by sighing loudly at a debate opponent (Al Gore) and yelling during a speech (Howard Dean). This year, it was possible to watch the second presidential debate, see the moderator directly accuse one candidate of sexual assault, and find that a footnote in the subsequent reporting.

Stories that in any other era would have been definitive – the widespread re-emergence of anti-Semitism, WikiLeaks morphing from darling of the left to darling of the right almost overnight, a former CIA director accusing campaign staff of collusion with Russian intelligence, “America’s Mayor” Rudolph Giuliani saying live on television that everyone commits adultery – became incidental, half-buried subthemes of a rangy, monstrous metanarrative. The 2008 presidential election is often described as the first social media election, but the full toxicity and speed of that mode of communication has taken its time to leach into the political fabric of America. Here we are.

There’s an under-subscribed theory that all this is a good thing, well disguised. That underneath the coarseness and vulgarity and strangeness of this election are secret signs of hope, a reality where Trump is not only the most extreme GOP candidate in decades but also the most moderate: anti-war, anti–Wall Street, anti-globalisation. He would have been a different kind of unacceptable candidate not long ago.

It does not feel that way, though, when the cab driver from JFK airport shows you an all-points bulletin text message for a jihadi bomber still at large. (A touching New York detail: the plot was twice foiled by accident, when two separate bags containing bombs were both stolen.) On the ground, this political moment announces itself as the end of something massive, a bonfire of the narratives, where the agreed understandings of how democratic politics should work have disintegrated, replaced by something no one is in control of, not even the protagonists. No matter how bitter the partisan rift of the past, at least one side had optimism and the other had authority. Both qualities have gone.

“How did this happen?” is a question I hear many times in America, from the candidates, from the press, from voters. Its variation – “What is happening?” – is something I’m asked all the time, as though a stranger from a foreign land might carry some antidote. “So, you’ve been to a Trump rally – what’s it like?” I have been to a couple, but attendance doesn’t grant any special insight. Just look at the wildly different results across the genre of Trump Rally Anthropology, where liberal writers get sent into deepest, darkest America to find out what the natives think. For Dave Eggers, writing in the US Guardian, Trump’s choice of Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer’ as a theme song reflected the mood, which was “so gentle, so calm and so welcoming”. Eggers even laced his article with the song’s lyrics, as though they contained some gnomic clue to what was going on. For David A Graham in the Atlantic, such events were frighteningly hostile: “Just below the surface of a Trump rally runs an undercurrent of violence.” These reports describe different people, different places. (“You should have seen Florida,” one reporter told me. “It was like a rock concert for old people.”) But that doesn’t explain the discrepancy by itself. After my first Trump event, in a studio south-west of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I left with the impression that not a single person there really knew what was going on, including Trump himself.


I have to admit – my first impulse on seeing Donald Trump in person was to laugh. He was walking cross-stage, past a statue of Rocky Balboa wearing a TRUMP T-shirt, on his way to a lectern that was bracing itself for gripping. I caught the signature lemon-suck expression on his face, and lost it. I’m not alone in this reaction; other attendant reporters, and even Trump fans, respond the same way. Later, at the first presidential debate, the press-overflow room greeted his arrival with chuckles. One French journalist said, to no one in particular, “Donald is an idiot – how the fuck did he get here?” It’s like the comedy of streaking: taboo violation and an inappropriate context. How the fuck did he get here?

By itself, turning up at a Trump rally is the empirical equivalent of lifting a wetted finger into a tornado. It is too chaotic, too diffuse to understand just by being there. There is a simultaneous impulse to patronise, excuse, exonerate, mansplain, coddle and make fun of the attendees. Here in Pennsylvania, like everywhere else, the Trumpies are pervasively Caucasian, even though the local area, Chester Township, is majority black. In fact, the huge attendance (several thousand) belies a local reality: the counties surrounding Chester Township are exactly the kind of places Trump will need to win. But he is struggling among suburban moderate Republicans, who baulk at things like Muslim internment camps.

The crowd are really from further afield, bus-ins from the surrounding region known as “Pennsyltucky”, a mildly pejorative nickname for the rural areas outside Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. They are people used to being addressed in a mildly pejorative tone. Trump is on a moderating pivot, and has noticeably toned down his racial rhetoric. He’s ostensibly making an appeal to African-Americans, but it’s really for the benefit of those uncomfortable white moderates. “What do you have to lose?” he says to people who aren’t there, repeating the phrase three times in a Marlon Brando-Is-The-Godfather accent that doesn’t quite come across on TV. But there must be something to lose; there are cities where Trump wins 0% of black voters, making him a more unpopular figure than the former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke. (Duke, like most of his ilk, is enthusiastic about The Donald.)

It’s Trump’s rhetoric and persona that have brought him this far, but hearing him speak is not like witnessing a demagogic doomsday device being unveiled. It’s effective, but not ominously so. There are no ums, ahs or hesitations in the whole presentation, partly because he has given it so many times, with only occasional variations and ad libs. Everyone knows this speech. It is the one about the wall, the big beautiful wall that Mexico is going to pay for. It is the one about the way America doesn’t make things anymore, about how once upon a time cars were built in Flint and you couldn’t drink the water in Mexico, and now the cars are built in Mexico and you can’t drink the water in Flint. It is a lament for a country that the crowd no longer recognises, and that no longer achieves greatness. What a relief that someone can finally say it! Trump is controlled, often funny, and extremely vulgar. Parts of the speech are for entertainment purposes only, but you leave not quite sure which parts those are. Stretches about special interests and the media sound a lot like Noam Chomsky.

It might even seem harmless, politics as professional wrestling or pantomime, if it wasn’t for the race-baiting and the nauseating level of excitement that accompany it. Not long before, Hillary Clinton had made this charge against Trump’s hard core of “irredeemable” supporters. This “basket of deplorables” was “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it”. She subsequently walked back from the comment, but it had already become a badge of pride. There are dozens of “Deplorable for Trump” shirts, and women wearing “Adorable Deplorable” versions, and when one reporter hears the crowd has an effigy of Hillary Clinton she says, “Oh you mean a sex doll?” – like seeing a Clinton-themed sex doll at this stage would just be a matter of routine.

Trump crowds are always described as “angry”, but that’s not the first thing apparent in a humid auditorium filled with self-proclaimed “deplorables”. They don’t look livid; they look sick. This time around, America’s malaise has become a literal malady. It’s not just pallid, marbled, middle-aged people making their way with canes either; sometimes it’s inexplicably young men. There is a long rank of wheelchairs by the wall, full of people who shouldn’t be in them. You see these tentatively moving individuals outside the rallies as well, anywhere where private wealth borders on public squalor (a phrase first used about America 50 years ago, and still biting afresh). There’s something almost medieval about it, this physical indicator of decline, as though the crops are blighted outside the imperial capital, and the afflicted aggregate to have their scrofula attended to. The phenomenon, when lethal, even has a name: “deaths of despair”. These are the white suicides and opioid overdoses and cirrhosis cases, seen en masse before only in places like post–Soviet Russia and post-industrial Glasgow, and never on this scale. The Washington Post ran a story called ‘Death predicts whether people vote for Donald Trump’, noting an “eerie correlation” between this kind of mortality and primary votes for Trump by county.

The obnoxiousness is masking pain, real pain. Trump isn’t exactly hiding the fact that he is a braggart and a liar and an asshole. As a child he punched his music teacher because he thought the man didn’t know anything about music, and we know this because he included the story in his autobiography: “I’m not proud of that, but it’s clear evidence that even early on I had a tendency to stand up and make my opinions known in a very forceful way.” The list of policies outlined at the rally wouldn’t fill a Post-it note, and might change without notice. But for Trump’s supporters, all of this is a plus.

They have decided the system is a circus, so they are sending in a clown. Trump marks the point at which many Americans decided their politics was so corrupt that they would elect a man already so corrupt he would be incorruptible. No charge the media throws at him will break his candidacy, any more than pointing out that the Dirty Dozen had criminal charges would be germane. He also knows how to run interference – his time inside the popular media means his language solders right onto the brain stem. In Campaignland you start to find yourself thinking in Trumpisms. Sad!

If polling is accurate, most people cheering the big beautiful wall don’t believe he’ll ever build it, and they don’t care. They see it as a negotiating tactic and a symbol. It was mooted at a time when terrorism was the number one concern for Republican voters, and few other politicians seemed capable of meeting that with any kind of determination. In July this year, Islamic State–linked attacks reached a frequency of one every 84 hours, not including those in the war zones of Iraq and Syria. There was also an embarrassing sense that mainstream governance had absolutely no idea what to do about this. Trump’s wall is questionable as a policy. But as a statement? It is unmistakeable.

Some of those here in Pennsylvania are quite open about misgivings. They cheerily admit they have no idea what Trump will actually do if he’s elected, just that he must be elected. I speak with a man called Harry Dugan. He has a greying five-day growth and is wearing a T-shirt that says “Crooked Hillary for Prison”. It is his 58th birthday today, and he is attending the rally with his son. Dugan is the kind of voter pundits are drawn to: a former registered Democrat in an important swing state, who switched sides the moment Trump began his run through the primaries. Why? “ISIS and the borders and the economy. And [Clinton is] just going to make both of those things worse.” Two of those things are so closely linked as to be one, but which two it’s hard to say. Dugan is not stupid. He does not seem especially motivated by racial animosity. He seems to be someone in somewhat reduced circumstances, willing to bear that personally, but unwilling to see his country humiliated as well. “A lot of people don’t even know what’s going to happen with Trump. They just want a change from business as usual. It’s a gamble. They don’t even know where it’s going.” Trump is an unknown – a dangerous unknown, even for many of his supporters. But they have given up on the status quo changing any other way.

It’s exactly the hollowness of the Trump campaign, the lightness on detail, the shoddy composition, that makes this hope possible. It’s a melange that can’t be unified by logic, but can be unified by style. Trumpies talk about World War Two, and the flag, and how important Trump is, sometimes while clutching my hand. Special hatred is reserved for the media, at least the American media. Soon, CNN and MSNBC will give their anchors security guards at these events.

One young man, a navy veteran, yells “You’re liars” at the press pen, and a city reporter tries a handshake to cool things off, but it’s refused. On leaving, a phalanx of Trumpies gives the assembled reporters the finger, almost ceremonially. Afterwards, I speak with the navy man. What was all that about? He talks to me passionately, lucidly, articulately, but in his argument the stakes and the premises are all wrong, and his pupils are getting pinny. His views have that graduate-of-bong-university feel, where someone has self-educated online too deeply, starting with the wrong set of premises. Why would the media want to destroy society? I ask him. Freemasons.

The persistent thread linking those I speak to is one of humiliation. Where are their meagre pieces of patriotism now? They can’t even get pride by proxy. An honest day’s manual work, community self-reliance, the meaning of America, military service, belief, strength – it was all supposed to pay off, and it has turned out to be just another bum pension plan, being shorted the whole time. Belief in their country has turned out to be a kind of scam, just like everything else has turned out to be a scam, and that belief has curdled into a crisis of faith. Overwhelmingly, they want some sort of revenge. On those who told them otherwise. On those who should know their place. On those who don’t belong here. And they have chosen a bully to enact that revenge.

Imagine, for a moment, being on Ted Cruz’s campaign staff. Preparing for Trump in the Republican primaries. Carefully war-gaming your team positions, strategies, tactics. And then a few short months later, having to prepare a statement in which the senator denies his dad assassinated JFK. I mean, no one believed, genuinely believed, that Ted Cruz was the Zodiac Killer when that claim did the rounds. But didn’t people get a kick out of seeing that cardboard man up there, humiliated, sweating, human? I mean, what’s inexplicable, in current conditions, about the appeal of a Disney-villain cartoon boss turning his catchphrase – “You’re fired” – on his fellow elites?

Those elites are different from their forerunners as well. At least the robber barons built Carnegie Hall and garnered the Frick Collection, even if it was the threat of pitchforks that prompted them. Today tech billionaires are not just occupying different strata from the rest of us, they are trying to occupy a whole other world. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel (himself a Trump supporter, because “disruption”) has invested in immortality, and wants to be given blood transfusions from the young. He briefly tried to build an artificial country off the coast of San Francisco with no laws. Elon Musk (PayPal, Tesla Motors, Hyperloop) wants to die on Mars. There is an unnamed consortium of billionaires trying to prove that we are living in a simulation, and they’re paying scientists to break us out of it. Or some of us out.

In a sense, trying to understand Trumpism at a Trump rally is looking in the wrong place. The rallies are familiar, but not because they supposedly resemble Nazi rallies or lynch mobs, or any of the other retrofits people try on. These events are manifestations of the comments section, the anonymous Twitter egg, the hate email and “shit-post” made flesh. The Swedish police recently did a study about the kind of people who make death threats against the media (often the same ones who make death threats against women). They are usually marginalised men, unsuccessful in school and work, who enjoy poor relationships with women. Here in the United States, these men are now more numerous than ever before. If the vote were restricted to white men only, as it used to be, Trump would win in a landslide. It is not a coincidence that in the first year a woman contends for the presidency the GOP base has nominated a class-A misogynist to oppose her.

This political reality was gestated within digital confines, but has now broken loose. We are living in a simulation, in a way. Only it’s not simulation anymore.


Like everyone else, Thomas Edison got most of his predictions about the future wrong. In 1911, he tried to describe the world of 2011 to Cosmopolitan magazine. It would be full of pneumatic tubes and free gold, and machines that could make everything except hats. But Edison was accidentally prescient about one thing. He believed writing would be distributed on vast compendia of extremely thin slices of nickel, 40,000 leaves thick. “What a library might be placed between two steel covers and sold for, perhaps, two dollars! History, science, fiction, poetry – everything.” Distracted by the lure of knowledge, the great inventor didn’t realise he was describing books made out of razor blades.

We have Edison’s promised library now, all that history, science, fiction, poetry, along with everything else, just about universally accessible and for free. This dawn of knowledge didn’t arrive accompanied by any great sense of optimism. But who would have anticipated, less than a generation later, an American election contested between two of the most widely despised politicians in the land? And one of those politicians not being a politician at all but a casino mogul, real-estate tycoon, one-time professional wrestler, beauty-pageant impresario and reality-TV show host, whose own runner-up for the nomination called him a narcissist and a pathological liar; also an adulterer and a bill-skipper and a draft dodger (this list can keep going), who simply walked into the 162-year-old Republican Party and broke it to pieces in a few months.

That’s a single-layer irony – the president is supposed to be good, and Donald Trump is not good. Politics, especially American politics, is replete with these ironies. We can give some of them significance: for example, if you go to the September 11 memorial in New York, and visit its adjacent shopping mall, it’s the mall that feels like the sacral space, and the queue for the iPhone 7 is longer than the one for the memorial museum. A kind of resilience or an accidental show of human priorities, depending on how you look at it.

The scenario outside the first presidential debate, at Hofstra University in New York, is a single-layer irony. There is an area called Broadcast Alley, where media set up their desks in front of students waving signs, and do pieces to camera in front of a bad brass band. It is modelled on a sideshow, complete with a jumping castle and balloons. There is a virtual-reality booth where voters, either GOP or Dem, must try to solve “extreme poverty”. Voters are ushered into this bogus little environment through two carefully demarcated doors, to “see” extreme poverty they could see in analogue reality just a few blocks away.

Nearby is a Black Lives Matter protest, where college students link arms in silent tribute to yet another man killed by police. Other students, not part of the protest, have signs saying “Killer Bees 2016” and “Trump for Harambe” (a then-trending reference to the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla, shot dead when a child fell into its enclosure).

“They think it’s a joke,” says one of the Black Lives Matter protesters. “That’s the epitome of white privilege, to be going around with a ‘Trump for Harambe’ sign, when our lives are on the line.” Only one of the Black Lives Matter protesters has been admitted to the debate hall; the others, who have more African-American-sounding names, seem to have been weeded out in case of protest. Another asks me about Australia, already planning an escape route if Trump is elected.

Conservative figures routinely describe Black Lives Matter as a terrorist organisation, even though it has been an almost exclusively peaceful movement. Another single-layer irony: inside the debate area, known as Spin Alley, where the media interview campaign surrogates (they have their names on giant sticks so they’re easy to find), is Peter King, a Republican congressman from New York. King has been a leading critic of Black Lives Matter. He was also described by a judge in Northern Ireland as an “obvious collaborator with the IRA”. But he doesn’t see the contradiction. “Ask Tony Blair,” he says, when I ask him about it. Who does what means a lot in American politics – perhaps everything, it turns out. Running down the country, attacking big business, denigrating military allies, bragging about sex crimes, killing police officers. It’s the difference between braggadocio and whining. “Better To Grab a Pussy than To Be One”, as one Trump rally sign put it.

These hypocrisies are what we are used to, and what satirists use for their work. But the influence of technology on reality is creating phenomena that aren’t so much contradictions, but tangled threads of competing narratives. Pull a thread, and the knot tightens instead of unravelling. For example, the world’s leading virtual-reality mogul is a man named Palmer Luckey. He is 24 years old, and often has black feet because he refuses to wear shoes, and his girlfriend dresses up as characters from video games, and he is worth $700 million. He has spent some of this money on an anonymous pro-Trump meme-creation group – hackers? teenagers? – who produce viral pictures, some of which feature a cartoon frog called Pepe.

Pepe has already enjoyed an expansive online life, but has now been repurposed as a neo-Nazi symbol. Luckey’s funding for this “shit-posting” led him to semi-apologise. It also led to two anti-hate groups having an extended argument about whether Pepe really was a Nazi symbol, and to Hillary Clinton’s campaign posting an explainer denouncing Trump’s closeness to Pepe. Do you get a sense of the problem here? How do you interpret an event where a common sense of meaning, or even a structure in which that meaning can be demarcated and slowed down, has collapsed almost completely?


In a campaign about what America means, Hillary Clinton’s main argument is that it means “Not Trump”. It might even be a sign of sexism, some strain of marginalisation, that Clinton can feel like an observer to her own likely election. But if Trump is inexplicable, she is also something of a mystery. And for someone so emblematic of an era – the Third Way triumphalism of the 1990s – Clinton has a knack for getting her timing wrong. As the counterculture flourished in the 1960s, she was a young Republican, a Goldwater girl. It was the only time she did anything radical, and in the wrong direction, so she tacked. “True to my nature and upbringing, I advocated changing the system from within and decided to go to law school,” she writes in her 2003 memoir Living History, a story of hedges, accommodations and measured political considerations that often occlude or overwhelm the personal impulse. She explains:

I could get away with “eccentricities” as wife of the Attorney General, but as First Lady of Arkansas, I was thrown into the spotlight. For the first time, I came to realize the impact of my personal choices on my husband’s political future. Many Arkansas voters were offended when I kept my maiden name, Rodham. I later added Clinton.

Even her name – Hillary Rodham Clinton – is a calculated political decision.

She is a seasoned campaigner, but not an especially effective one. In 2007, she began the primaries strongly favoured against Barack Obama, and lost. Bernie Sanders, a bright-red Vermont socialist throwback who sounds like the dad from the TV series ALF, keelhauled her through the fight for this nomination. It was supposed to be easy, and instead she was reframed again, for anyone who had missed it, as an agent of the status quo.

Midway through the campaign, she even hit a patch of unexpected trouble. I caught up with her in New Hampshire, a place that should now be an easy Democratic win. But then, after a week of bad polling, it was in play. Clinton collapsing with pneumonia (remember that?) hadn’t helped. Her defenders tried to cast this as an omen of her fitness for the presidency: wasn’t working too hard a good thing? Still, even the candidate herself was asking the question: “Why aren’t I 50 points ahead?” She was barely ahead by three, and in New Hampshire that margin had shrivelled to less than 1%.


New Hampshire is one of those jarring contradictions America specialises in, a slow, forested state that retains the death penalty and the motto “Live Free or Die”. Here at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, Sanders and Clinton are appearing together, partly so Clinton can garner some extra enthusiasm from the student crowd. Not a good sign: the presumptive first female president has to turn to a 75-year-old grandpa for youth appeal. There are queues of wellwishers here, but most will be turned away from the neatly ordered chairs and bleachers inside. This is really a speech, not a rally, and panicked volunteers have called in too many reserves. There are also a handful of protesters, supporters of Dr Jill Stein, a Green Party candidate who is shaving a point or two of support off the Democrats.

“Right now you’ve got four people running, and the two top choices are the most hated people in the world,” says Jordan. He is one of those protesters, a former electrician who was energised by the Sanders insurgency and now can’t bring himself to vote for “whatshername”. After Ralph Nader allegedly cost Al Gore the presidency and ushered in the Dubya Bush era, triangulating the progressive vote is a site of past trauma. But Jordan has a retort. “I keep hearing about the Nader factor in 2000, when there was three people running. Well, there’s four people running this time.”

The fourth is Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate. Johnson is so unprepared for the presidency that even he seems to look on his own entry as comic relief, but he still polls around 5% nationally. (A measure of American battle-sickness: among active-duty military personnel, who usually lean hard Republican, this isolationist – “What is Aleppo?” – sometimes hits the lead.) Jordan really seems to believe Jill Stein can win. “She’s honest. She’s healthy. She’s not corrupt. She’s not being bought by big money, super PACs, things like that.” His disillusionment is so deep that he would rather Trump than Clinton, even though he loathes the prospect.

“The only reason people would support him is racism. Just people that are uninformed and full of hate … He talks a lot, but they’re not going to let him do half the stuff he’s saying. I think we’re better off with four years of him than eight years of Clinton. She’s going to start a war [because] she owes a lot of people who gave her money for big favours.” It’s becoming familiar, this idea of the presidency as a puppet show, working from the assumption that the real people running the country are somewhere else.

Clinton may be one of the most hated women in the world, but pinpointing what grates about her persona isn’t easy. Ask supporters why her poll position is so timorous, and they will sometimes blame sexism. A Caribbean woman with green eyes bangs on the metal barrier outside the rally, saying, “Because there are too many men in this country who don’t want to be led by a woman.” That’s true among Trumpies, where misogyny is all part of the sneering, alpha-dog attraction. There are also deficiencies that show sexism’s second-hand effect: to survive in politics as a woman, Clinton was forced to eschew exactly the emotions the public now hanker for. But college students and Stein voters aren’t primarily sexists; they’re left cold by something else.

Clinton sits alongside Sanders onstage, and she listens to Sanders talk, nodding along in a lolling, incessant movement that doesn’t seem to bear much relationship to what is being said. She doesn’t look too awkward or phoney. She’s an engaging listener who seems to fulfil the suite of emotional qualities, or their simulation, that we ask for in television-era politicians. But there’s something inert about her, something that after a few minutes sets some students chewing their fingers.

“Think big, not small – we need to have the best-educated workforce in the world,” says Sanders. “Thing big, not small” could be the inversion of the Clinton motto, and her long period at the top has cemented a belief in slow change. Consensus. The best progressives can hope for. Obamacare, the signature achievement of the current president, and perhaps the American Left in the last quarter-century, is running into trouble already. Even this measure, realised decades after the rest of the world rejected market-based health care, may have been too soon.

One of the least mentioned facts of the 2016 campaign is this: Clinton is also a dynastic politician. She’s a former first lady and secretary of state, and after Bush II presidential candidates with familiar names are on the nose in America. Most recently, Clinton’s focus has been the projection of American power internationally, as well as the projection of foreign power within America, through speaking deals and the like. (“Those millions in speaking fees – let me tell you, it’s not because she’s a good speaker,” says Trump, in one of his better lines of attack.) Foreign policy is at the heart of America’s decline, and burning $6 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan instead of spending it on domestic bridges and schools is her policy as well.

Her speech starts to ginned-up applause and the waving of machine-made banners, all much more decorous. “Debt Free College”, say the signs behind her, and that’s all she has to repeat. Even in a country defined by grotesque inequalities and rampant financial predation, the structuring of American college debt is an outlier madness: more than a trillion dollars’ worth, much held by the government, some at an interest rate of 10%, which cannot be renegotiated. In 2013, the average cost of a medical degree was $278,455. Sanders points out that this absurd expense means not only that education, the road to the middle class, is closed to most but also that well-to-do doctors and dentists have to forget about working in disadvantaged communities. All Clinton has to do is hit these same notes, bash Trump a little, not fall over, and she’ll be fine. For once, this is not a popularity contest.

It’s an unusual choice, then, to name-check the endorsement of the Republican former secretary of the navy. John Warner – “a World War Two veteran” – is on Team Clinton, the first time he’s ever backed a Democrat for the White House. That’s the same John Warner whose name appears on the 2007 National Defense Authorization Act (a multi-billion-dollar increase in defence spending, broadening the powers of the president to declare martial law, eliminating the auditing of expenditure in Iraq), as well as the USS John Warner, the navy’s “most lethal” submarine. Not natural catnip for a college crowd.

This turns out to be one of the last times that Sanders and Clinton will campaign together. Audio emerges of Clinton trying to explain the Sanders phenomenon, a leak that the opposition try to confect into an attack. In reality, Clinton sounds sympathetic on the tape. “So, as a friend of mine said the other day, I am occupying from the centre-left to the centre-right,” she said. “And I don’t have much company there. Because it is difficult when you’re running to be president, and you understand how hard the job is – I don’t want to over-promise. I don’t want to tell people things that I know we cannot do.” This is the enigma of Hillary Clinton: that after 30 years it is still not clear what she believes she cannot do. But it seems to be a lot.

She doesn’t sound angry when she says she is angry. She doesn’t sound hopeful when she says she has hope. When she tries to render her policies down to personal anecdotes, they feel somehow abstract, like they happened to someone else a long time ago. She is now unimaginable as a non-political figure, and faces an impossible task if elected, of restoring faith in the system that has made her who she is.


Outside the hall, the merchandise stands are packing up. One of the vendors has had a slow sales day, his table still piled with Clintonware. He usually sells ice-creams, which is how he got his nickname, Icee Don.

“At the beginning of the election during the primaries, everything was really kind of smooth,” says Don. “Everybody was excited by it. It seems like it’s kind of dwindled now that the primaries are over. I don’t know why. I mean, Bernie Sanders, he had a big wave going. Now the two candidates are Hillary and Trump, it seems the excitement is pretty low now. I’m a merchant, and I sell product, and sales are down. The momentum is down. Morale is not as it was.”

Usually he would pack up his Clinton and Sanders shirts and then head to the next Trump rally, where the market is for “Hillary Sucks – But Not Like Monica” stickers, and T-shirts invoking the size of Trump’s balls. Instead he has to be in court in New York, an unfortunate piece of timing that might cost him a few thousand dollars in sales. Eight dozen Trump shirts are in his van. “His product moves.”

“Honestly it’s funny, I thought I was a Democrat – [but] the one that really could bring change is Donald Trump. Because he’s a gambler. He’s new to the field. He has nothing to do but to change everything around. If any kind of change were to come, even if it’s change for the worse, it would be Donald. A spark is needed. Even if it’s just for six months, seven months. There’s an energy that’s needed. I never thought I would be selling Republican products – ever. But Donald Trump has actually brought revenue to me, because he’s a spark. And that’s what America’s looking for.”

Icee Don is something of a “quiet political activist” himself, someone with an economic revolution in mind, something that would reduce the violence he sees in the street. That’s his product. But what is America’s?

“America’s product is reality … What’s it based on now? Embarrassment. If you watch TV, it’s based on embarrassment. And who can embarrass themselves the most.”

“America’s product,” says Icee Don, “is bullshit.”

Icee Don must be one of the last truly bipartisan men in America, able to mix with Trump fans one day and Clinton fans the next, both assuming he’s onside because of all the paraphernalia. It seems like a perverse version of Obama’s “Red State, Blue State” speech: “The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states. Red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.”

But the acrimony captured in that speech now seems quaint, a golden age of harmony in comparison to what is happening now. And what is coming next.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is a writer, broadcaster and contributing editor to the Monthly.

@rgcooke

Cover

November 2016

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