I’m getting sick of people saying this, so I need to speak up.
A story today in The Washington Post by the eminent Dan Balz, headlined “Raw emotions persist as Donald Trump prepares for his presidency,” repeats a fallacy that needs to be countered:
But everyone knew or should have known that the wounds from an election that was as raw and divisive and negative as campaign 2016 would not be quickly healed…
No, no, NO!
The problem is not that the election was “divisive,” or even “negative.” Those factors have been givens in American politics in recent decades. We’ve had negative campaigns across the country since the early 1980s, when the old guideline that a candidate would damage himself if he “went negative” died and was buried. Lee Atwater rose during those days, but the rule was being broken by others, such as Robin Beard, who used creative, negative ads against Jim Sasser in the 1982 Senate race in Tennessee (where I was at the time), gaining national attention but failing to win the election (which briefly seemed to confirm the old commandment against negativity).
As for divisive — well, it’s been pretty awful ever since the election of 1992, when bumper stickers that said “Don’t Blame Me — I Voted Republican” appeared on cars even before Clinton was inaugurated in January 1993. Since then, the parties have not been satisfied merely to disagree, but have increasingly regarded leaders of the opposite party to be illegitimate and utterly beyond the pale.
So it is that the terms “divisive” and “negative” say nothing about the recent election; they do not in any way distinguish the presidential election of 2016 from any contest that preceded it.
And yet we all know that this election was different from every one that preceded it in American history, right? So how do we describe that difference?
Well, it’s really not all that hard — although describing the underlying causes is more difficult. The difference is Donald Trump.
This was an election between a relatively normal, reasonably qualified candidate, and a grotesquely unfit one — a crude, rude, petty, childish, ignorant, unstable man who had done nothing in his life that in any way prepared him for the job.
You can complicate it if you wish. Feminists want to characterize Hillary Clinton as a groundbreaking candidate of historic proportions — which is silly. She was as conventional as can be: As a former senator and secretary of state, you don’t even have to mention her time as first lady to describe her qualifications. She was Establishment; she was a centrist (center-left if you prefer); she was someone completely at home in the consensus about the role of the United States in the world that has prevailed since Harry Truman. The main thing is, she was qualified.
Yes, she was the second most-hated major party nominee (second to the man who beat her) in the history of keeping track of such things, which is an important reason she lost. Some people who should have known better hated her so much that they were able to rationalize voting for the astonishingly unfit Trump in order to stop her, so that was definitely a factor. But aside from that, she was a normal candidate, from the usual mold, a person who people who knew what they were about — such as Republican foreign-policy experts — were comfortable voting for, knowing the nation would be in reasonably safe hands.
She was business-as-usual (which also helped sink her, as we know), while Trump was a complete departure from anything that had ever before risen its ugly, bizarrely-coiffed head to this level in American politics. It wasn’t just a matter of resume. This man got up very early every morning to start making statements — by Twitter before others rose, out loud later in the day — that absolutely screamed of his unfitness. A rational employer would not hire someone that unstable to do anything, much less to become the most powerful man in the world.
I need not provide a list of his outrages, right? You all remember the election we just went through, right?
TRUMP is what distinguishes this election from all others. TRUMP is what people are trying to get over — which we can’t, of course, because he’s now with us for the next four years. I ran into a former Republican lawmaker yesterday — a member of the revolutionary class of 1994, the original Angry White Male revolt — who expressed his utter bewilderment and sense of unreality that has been with him daily since the election. To him, as to me, the fact that Trump won the election can’t possibly BE a fact. Nothing in our lives prior to this prepared us for such a bizarre eventuality.
Yes, there are complicating factors — the populist impulse that has swept the West recently, which sometimes seemed would prevent Hillary Clinton from winning her own party’s nomination, despite her socialist opponent’s clear unsuitability and the fact that it was understood in her party that it was Her Turn. The roots of that are difficult to plumb. As is the fact that the GOP was bound and determined to reject all qualified candidates and nominate someone completely unsuitable — if not Trump, it would have been Ted Cruz, whom tout le monde despised. Both factors can be attributed to the populist obsession, but contain important differences.
So yes, there was a force abroad in the land (and in the lands of our chief allies) that was determined to sweep aside qualifications, good sense and known quantities in favor of the outlandish. And that helped produce Trump.
But still, particularly if you look directly at what happened on Nov. 8, the difference is Trump himself.
And that MUST be faced by anyone attempting to explain what has happened.
Ever since he started closing in on the nomination, I’ve been begging everyone in the commentariat and beyond to resist the lazy temptation to normalize Trump, to write or speak as though this were just another quadrennial contest between Democrat and Republican, to be spoken of in the usual terms. I was hardly alone. Plenty of others wrote in similar terms about the danger of pretending this election was in any way like any other.
And now, we still have that battle to fight, as veteran (and novice) scribes seek to describe the transition to a (shudder) Trump administration in the usual terms, even though some have admirably noted the stark difference. (I particularly appreciated the Post piece yesterday accurately explaining the similarities between this unique transition and Reality TV. — which is another new thing, folks, as we slouch toward Idiocracy.)
It’s a battle that must be fought every day, until — four years from now, or eight, or however many years it takes (assuming our nation even can recover from this fall, which is in doubt) — a normal, qualified person is elected president.