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2016 Presidential Elections Essay

The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism. Trump’s shocking victory, his ascension to the Presidency, is a sickening event in the history of the United States and liberal democracy. On January 20, 2017, we will bid farewell to the first African-American President—a man of integrity, dignity, and generous spirit—and witness the inauguration of a con who did little to spurn endorsement by forces of xenophobia and white supremacy. It is impossible to react to this moment with anything less than revulsion and profound anxiety.

There are, inevitably, miseries to come: an increasingly reactionary Supreme Court; an emboldened right-wing Congress; a President whose disdain for women and minorities, civil liberties and scientific fact, to say nothing of simple decency, has been repeatedly demonstrated. Trump is vulgarity unbounded, a knowledge-free national leader who will not only set markets tumbling but will strike fear into the hearts of the vulnerable, the weak, and, above all, the many varieties of Other whom he has so deeply insulted. The African-American Other. The Hispanic Other. The female Other. The Jewish and Muslim Other. The most hopeful way to look at this grievous event—and it’s a stretch—is that this election and the years to follow will be a test of the strength, or the fragility, of American institutions. It will be a test of our seriousness and resolve.

Early on Election Day, the polls held out cause for concern, but they provided sufficiently promising news for Democrats in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, and even Florida that there was every reason to think about celebrating the fulfillment of Seneca Falls, the election of the first woman to the White House. Potential victories in states like Georgia disappeared, little more than a week ago, with the F.B.I. director’s heedless and damaging letter to Congress about reopening his investigation and the reappearance of damaging buzzwords like “e-mails,” “Anthony Weiner,” and “fifteen-year-old girl.” But the odds were still with Hillary Clinton.

All along, Trump seemed like a twisted caricature of every rotten reflex of the radical right. That he has prevailed, that he has won this election, is a crushing blow to the spirit; it is an event that will likely cast the country into a period of economic, political, and social uncertainty that we cannot yet imagine. That the electorate has, in its plurality, decided to live in Trump’s world of vanity, hate, arrogance, untruth, and recklessness, his disdain for democratic norms, is a fact that will lead, inevitably, to all manner of national decline and suffering.

In the coming days, commentators will attempt to normalize this event. They will try to soothe their readers and viewers with thoughts about the “innate wisdom” and “essential decency” of the American people. They will downplay the virulence of the nationalism displayed, the cruel decision to elevate a man who rides in a gold-plated airliner but who has staked his claim with the populist rhetoric of blood and soil. George Orwell, the most fearless of commentators, was right to point out that public opinion is no more innately wise than humans are innately kind. People can behave foolishly, recklessly, self-destructively in the aggregate just as they can individually. Sometimes all they require is a leader of cunning, a demagogue who reads the waves of resentment and rides them to a popular victory. “The point is that the relative freedom which we enjoy depends of public opinion,” Orwell wrote in his essay “Freedom of the Park.” “The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.”

Trump ran his campaign sensing the feeling of dispossession and anxiety among millions of voters—white voters, in the main. And many of those voters—not all, but many—followed Trump because they saw that this slick performer, once a relative cipher when it came to politics, a marginal self-promoting buffoon in the jokescape of eighties and nineties New York, was more than willing to assume their resentments, their fury, their sense of a new world that conspired against their interests. That he was a billionaire of low repute did not dissuade them any more than pro-Brexit voters in Britain were dissuaded by the cynicism of Boris Johnson and so many others. The Democratic electorate might have taken comfort in the fact that the nation had recovered substantially, if unevenly, from the Great Recession in many ways—unemployment is down to 4.9 per cent—but it led them, it led us, to grossly underestimate reality. The Democratic electorate also believed that, with the election of an African-American President and the rise of marriage equality and other such markers, the culture wars were coming to a close. Trump began his campaign declaring Mexican immigrants to be “rapists”; he closed it with an anti-Semitic ad evoking “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”; his own behavior made a mockery of the dignity of women and women’s bodies. And, when criticized for any of it, he batted it all away as “political correctness.” Surely such a cruel and retrograde figure could succeed among some voters, but how could he win? Surely, Breitbart News, a site of vile conspiracies, could not become for millions a source of news and mainstream opinion. And yet Trump, who may have set out on his campaign merely as a branding exercise, sooner or later recognized that he could embody and manipulate these dark forces. The fact that “traditional” Republicans, from George H. W. Bush to Mitt Romney, announced their distaste for Trump only seemed to deepen his emotional support.

The commentators, in their attempt to normalize this tragedy, will also find ways to discount the bumbling and destructive behavior of the F.B.I., the malign interference of Russian intelligence, the free pass—the hours of uninterrupted, unmediated coverage of his rallies—provided to Trump by cable television, particularly in the early months of his campaign. We will be asked to count on the stability of American institutions, the tendency of even the most radical politicians to rein themselves in when admitted to office. Liberals will be admonished as smug, disconnected from suffering, as if so many Democratic voters were unacquainted with poverty, struggle, and misfortune. There is no reason to believe this palaver. There is no reason to believe that Trump and his band of associates—Chris Christie, Rudolph Giuliani, Mike Pence, and, yes, Paul Ryan—are in any mood to govern as Republicans within the traditional boundaries of decency. Trump was not elected on a platform of decency, fairness, moderation, compromise, and the rule of law; he was elected, in the main, on a platform of resentment. Fascism is not our future—it cannot be; we cannot allow it to be so—but this is surely the way fascism can begin.

Hillary Clinton was a flawed candidate but a resilient, intelligent, and competent leader, who never overcame her image among millions of voters as untrustworthy and entitled. Some of this was the result of her ingrown instinct for suspicion, developed over the years after one bogus “scandal” after another. And yet, somehow, no matter how long and committed her earnest public service, she was less trusted than Trump, a flim-flam man who cheated his customers, investors, and contractors; a hollow man whose countless statements and behavior reflect a human being of dismal qualities—greedy, mendacious, and bigoted. His level of egotism is rarely exhibited outside of a clinical environment.

For eight years, the country has lived with Barack Obama as its President. Too often, we tried to diminish the racism and resentment that bubbled under the cyber-surface. But the information loop had been shattered. On Facebook, articles in the traditional, fact-based press look the same as articles from the conspiratorial alt-right media. Spokesmen for the unspeakable now have access to huge audiences. This was the cauldron, with so much misogynistic language, that helped to demean and destroy Clinton. The alt-right press was the purveyor of constant lies, propaganda, and conspiracy theories that Trump used as the oxygen of his campaign. Steve Bannon, a pivotal figure at Breitbart, was his propagandist and campaign manager.

It is all a dismal picture. Late last night, as the results were coming in from the last states, a friend called me full of sadness, full of anxiety about conflict, about war. Why not leave the country? But despair is no answer. To combat authoritarianism, to call out lies, to struggle honorably and fiercely in the name of American ideals—that is what is left to do. That is all there is to do.

More on Donald Trump’s victory: Amy Davidson on Trump’s stunning win, Evan Osnos on Trump’s supporters, and Benjamin Wallace-Wells on who is to blame. John Cassidy on how Trump became President-elect.Evan Osnos on Trump’s supporters.

UM experts and scholars provide insights into the presidential debates and other topics influencing the upcoming presidential election.

The upcoming Presidential Election is unlike any other. Two very different candidates with widely disparate political experience and personalities square off against each other in a bitter, contentious battle. Neither candidate seems very popular or likeable, yet one of them will be sworn in as President of the United States come January.

What are some of the issues that fuel this campaign cycle and how will that determine how the electorate reacts in November? How will the upcoming debates influence the electorate? What other issues will come to the forefront as we near November?

Our University of Miami experts give their opinions on these topics and others.

Casey Klofstad, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science Department, College of Arts and Sciences:

In many ways this presidential election is unprecedented. The candidates from both parties are perceived as extremely unfavorable. And, while the establishment candidate Hillary Clinton currently leads the race, more recent polls show that her lead over her outsider opponent, reality television star and real estate magnate Donald Trump, is weakening (even here in the critical swing state of Florida with 29 electoral votes at stake).

What is not unprecedented about this election, however, is the critical role of voter turnout. Coming out of the party conventions this summer, Secretary Clinton has arguably done a better job at unifying the Democratic base than Mr. Trump has of the Republican base. However, it remains to be seen whether the millions of Bernie Sanders supporters will be motivated enough to “hold their nose” and turn out to vote for Clinton. Likewise, it is unclear whether the members of the growing GOP #NeverTrump movement will vote against their party identification for Hillary Clinton, in the end change their mind and vote for Trump in the interest of party unity, or just stay at home on Election Day.

In sum, while the cast of characters in this election is unusual, the fundamental rules of the game remain the same: turnout wins elections.

David L. Steinberg, Senior Lecturer in Communications Studies and Director of Debate, School of Communication:

This election is a choice of the lesser of two evils. In order to maintain their bases and to get out the vote, both Trump and Clinton will continue to focus on their opponent’s negatives. This focus on attacks and accusations will likely be fed by the debate moderators, who will be encouraging the combative style that is thought of as “good television.”

These tactics will not generate any shift and will continue the fragmentation of the electorate and the erosion of faith in the legitimacy of the political process. The extent to which either candidate will be able to attract new support or to restore lost legitimacy of the system will be their willingness to offer positive themes, narratives, and (to a lesser degree) coherent policies combining to form an optimistic vision of the future. Such an approach could plant seeds that eventually could drive a constructive dialogue.

Remember, one of these people will be the President, so the impact of the debates will continue after the election!

David Abraham, Professor of Law Emeritus, School of Law:

The immigration debate does not take place in a vacuum. Worldwide, mobility rates are the highest they have been in over a century. The vast movement of people, foreign people, has been very destabilizing to natives precisely because it accompanies the era of neo-liberal globalization that has so undermined the well-being of working Americans.

The loss of jobs to low-wage countries and the movement of people form poorer countries to the prosperous countries of the global north has set off a cascade of calls for protection and exclusion. This is visible in the rise of populist anti-system, anti-immigrant parties throughout Europe and the United States. Add to this economic anxiety the fear of terrorism and linked discomfort with alien cultures, and we have a political witches’ brew.

The comprehensive immigration reform plan almost approved by the Senate but then blocked by House Republicans would have represented a significant change in immigration policy, refocusing future legal immigration while slowly legalizing the 11 million people in the country without valid documentation, many of them deeply-rooted here. But the failure of that effort left President Barack Obama to rely on a patchwork of executive actions like DACA to make life less precarious for many while at the same time increasing the number of deportations of criminals and severe violators. This combination has pleased no one and left the impression that there is no real policy.

The fact of the matter, though, is that neither candidate really has offered an alternative. For all his bluster about building walls and “humanely” increasing deportations, candidate Trump has no substantive vision of what immigration is about. His is a demagogic appeal to fear and vague promises of repression. For all her efforts to ingratiate herself with Hispanics, candidate Clinton’s promises have been vague and not very credible.

Working people, immigrant and native, have since the end of the primaries drawn the short straw this election cycle.

Pedro Villareal III, Assistant Professor, Higher Education Program, School of Education and Human Development:

There is a stark difference between the two major party presidential candidates regarding their policy positions on higher education.

Donald Trump (R) has suggested that he will release his higher education policy agenda at a later date. However, Sam Clovis, a recent addition to the Trump campaign, has been interviewed stating that the campaign is likely to hold a position against a debt-free or tuition-free public higher education, whether at community colleges or four-year institutions. The campaign argues that his plans address the debt issue because he wants to create jobs in the economy. However, with current unemployment rates low for graduates, this may not necessarily address the issue.

In direct contrast, Hillary Clinton (D) has released “The New College Compact” which represents her formal policy position on higher education, a policy that covers a wide array of issues such as college costs, student aid, student loans and college accountability, among others. On college student debt, she has said that she wants to cut interest rates on student loans, allow current borrowers an opportunity to refinance their debt and streamline income-based repayment plans, among other things. In a bold move, Clinton’s proposals would also address college costs by eventually allowing students whose family incomes are less than $125,000 to pay no tuition at public, in-state colleges.

If Trump wins the election, there is little doubt that there will be little movement to address college debt from a political perspective. If Clinton wins, there might be more interest but without congressional support, there is little chance for significant policy changes.

Joseph Uscinski, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science Department, College of Arts and Sciences:

In this election, conspiracy theories abound! Ted Cruz’s father killed JFK, Hillary Clinton has a body double, and Donald Trump is the pawn of powerful Russian interests. And by the way, the election will be rigged!

Instead of focusing on substantive issues, the candidates are instead accusing their opponents of taking part in secretive and nefarious activities. The media seems to relish in the schemes and skullduggery. What can you do as a voter to stay above the fray and know what is true and what is not?

The best advice is to pay attention to several sources of news, in particular news outlets which provide in-depth coverage of political issues. I personally recommend the Monkey Cage column in The Washington Post.

Joaquin Roy, Jean Monet Professor of European Integration, Director of UM’s European Union Center:

Few leading European personalities and analysts had predicted a year ago that the competition for the U.S. presidency would end up between an expected Democratic designee, Hillary Clinton, contested from the left by Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders, and a Republican business tycoon with no practical political experience.

The conflicting opposition and predictions of a policy made Donald Trump a very uncomfortable prospect for a future relationship. Although systematically respectful of a tradition of avoiding to express any preference, the European leadership (conservative or left, north or south, from large and small countries) in private expressed worries on how to deal with a possible Trump victory. In any event, the bulk of the European Union’s establishment never considered this outcome as possible. This feeling could be the expression of a realistic wishful thinking. For their part, public opinion and media reaction on the progress of the Trump candidacy have been a combination of amusement, disbelief and outrage. 

So, a defeat of the Republican candidate would mean the confirmation of a welcome sign of relief. The European leadership did not need another worry to deal with, on top of the economic problems, uncontrolled immigration, terrorism, nationalism and confrontations with Russia. Europe needs a stable relationship with the U.S., a prospect that some of the plans issued by Trump did not endorse. Trade agreements, investment strategies and security projects were placed in danger, with Brexit in the background. Clarification in 2017 is seen as more feasible under a Democratic presidency. 

Note to media: To interview our UM experts please contact Barbara Gutierrez, at 305-284-3205 or at bgutierrez@miami.edu