By David Shribman
Now, finally, there is a logic – a strategic and even ideological rationale – for a presidential campaign that has shattered all the assumptions of logic, all the strategic and ideological precedents, of our politics.
The final debate now in the swiftly receding past, the final balloting now swiftly approaching, the banalities and bathos now reaching their inevitable but welcome ends, we see clearly what this election is about, both its process and its politics.
The ultimate disrupter now has a limited amount of time to disrupt the process that has given him the Republican presidential nominee but now threatens to deny him the ultimate prize. The consummate curator of the conventional now faces the limited challenge of running out the clock on an election that once seemed hers to lose, then seemed determined to assure she would lose, and now seems within her grasp.
In sports terms, we have the two-minute drill against a “prevent” defense. In music terms, we have a master of the scat line against a virtuoso of the sonata-allegro form. Manhattan businessman Donald J. Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton are struggling, respectively but not respectfully, to produce, and to prevent, a surprise symphony.
The remarkable thing about this dispiriting campaign is that neither of the roles these two pugilists have assumed is natural – indeed they are acquired, though to say that they are an acquired taste is to give to them more honor than they require, or deserve. Indeed, these roles go against the instincts and histories of both of the principals themselves, to say nothing of their fast-vanishing principles.
Consider Trump’s background: a businessman, albeit with a showman’s flair. Whether on Wall Street or Main Street or on the downtown streets and coastal resorts from Bay Street in Toronto to Ocean Boulevard in Palm Beach, the business executive ordinarily prizes stability – and yet Trump is the personification of disruption. Now consider Clinton’s background: from the New England afternoons of her antiwar activism to the commencement morning of her Wellesley education to her stereotype-smashing years as first lady in the governor’s mansion in Little Rock and in the White House. Always, until now, she has been the sworn enemy of the status quo – and yet in this race she is the personification of the ancien regime.
In tone and timbre, in insults and importations, Trump and Clinton have shattered that pattern. No one – not even the combatants themselves – can admire the depths to which this campaign has descended, tarnishing our political system even as both weary warriors argue that it merely reflects it. Whether this proves to be the road not taken in the future will make for all the difference in the future of our politics.
In transition are the party alignments (blue-collar voters to the Republican nominee, a patina of elitism to the Democratic coalition); the traditional forms of presidential politics (with party loyalists rallying behind the nominee); the language of politics (Clinton said her rival “choked” in his late-summer visit to Mexico, Trump said his opponent “shouldn’t be allowed to run” because she was “guilty of a very, very serious crime”); the content of politics (whether one candidate was a physical abuser of women and whether the other was an intimidator of women); and the conduct of debates themselves (interruptions, menacing background movements).
We may be witnessing merely the coarsening of our culture – and the further diminution of our politics. The newest Rasmussen Reports survey indicates that half of likely American voters say they will be selecting the lesser of two evils. It is an election of the lesser angels of our nature.