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Tim O'Shei on this 'smokescreen of a reality show'

Jon Lovitz became famous 30 years ago when he developed a character on "Saturday Night Live" named Tommy Flanagan, a pathological liar who would tell ridiculous and unbelievable tales that would often conclude with a sincere, "Yeah, that's the ticket."

So he might be the first name you think of when the topic is "political philosophers" – then again, maybe he might – but he offered an interesting electoral insight during a stop in Buffalo last month.

“Washington is Hollywood with ugly people,” he said after a 70-minute set at Helium Comedy Club that was dominated by talk of the two people whose names will be linked long after the final state turns red or blue: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

“It’s just two friends vying for the same job,” said Lovitz, noting that Bill and Hillary Clinton attended Donald and Melania Trump's wedding. Then Lovitz launched into an explanation of the similarities between Hollywood and politics. People will say whatever they want – “they don’t even mean it,” and pass it off as “just business” – so long as they win.

“They’ll do and say anything,” Lovitz said. “They don’t care.”

That might be the perfect summation of how the electorate feels generally about their two presidential candidates and specifically about the people on the side they are not supporting.

Maybe they feel the candidates don't care, but with tens of millions of Americans losing sleep and pondering a different version of an apocalyptic future, "care" is one thing that is not in short supply among voters. Neither is horror; a recent CBS/New York Times poll found that 82 percent of the respondents said this campaign has left them feeling “disgusted.”

By Wednesday morning, it's a safe bet that somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 percent will say that the election has them feeling something else: despondent.

Happy Election Day!

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Consider what we’ve endured: The reality TV star Trump bound into the race with broad promises of bringing back jobs and blowing up ISIS. He polarized the electorate with talk of walling off Mexicans and banning Muslims. He blustered through the primaries by name-calling (Lyin’ Ted, Little Marco, Low Energy Jeb). He tagged an opponent’s wife as ugly.

The atmosphere became so poisonous that Sen. Marco Rubio – whom many Republicans quietly hoped would be the nominee – saw fit to make a joke about Trump’s manhood.

A process that should have been classy turned crude and sometimes plain stupid. Trump picked fights with a Gold Star family and a judge with Mexican heritage. When a decade-old tape emerged of Trump boasting about grabbing and kissing women, he apologized by dismissing it as locker-room talk — and alleging that Bill Clinton has done worse.

If Trump is an improv artist in this political variety show, impulsively spewing acidic sound bites and tweets, Clinton has been the ultimate scripted actress. As a former first lady, senator and secretary of state, Clinton’s grasp of policy is wonky. It’s a trait that’s helpful on the job (if she gets it) but doesn’t help her connect with or inspire voters.

“I don’t know how you overcome the fact that most of the world gets to know you through a television lens or larger speeches or interviews with reporters,” Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, a longtime Clinton supporter, said last summer.

Cross-party frustration

Your ballot will tell you otherwise, but Republicans versus Democrats is such a nostalgic concept. Our battles today are more personal; they’re rooted in what’s missing from our lives. It’s the Powerful versus the People, the Entrenched versus the Enraged, the System versus the Underserved.

“Voters have been waiting for someone to speak directly, honestly, throw political correctness out the window and tell them what they’re going to do,” said Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican, of Trump last spring.

Collins was the first congressman to thrown his support behind Team Trump, but his words could easily be applied to Sen. Bernie Sanders. The Democratic socialist came surprisingly close to taking out Clinton in the primaries and ignited a multi-generational movement of liberal activists.

Rep. Brian Higgins put it in perspective around the time of the New York primaries: “You have the Trump-Sanders phenomenon.”

Higgins, a South Buffalo Democrat who supports Clinton, sees the larger problem: A power-loaded system has become blind to the rest of us: Regular people with regular-people problems who, in Higgins' words, share “a deep and pervasive, underlying economic anxiety.”

That’s why Sanders’ message of cracking down the economic elite energized so many educated millennials. They went to college, graduated inconveniently close to the near-collapse of the economy in 2008, and never found the solid life path they expected. They were bailing a boatload of dreams awash in debt while their would-be employers were getting bailed out.

The system promised them a life; they feel they got a lie.

This is also why Trump, despite a litany of grab-them/ban-them sound bites and tweets, still appeals to his own core audience: white, blue-collar, high-school-educated workers who are struggling. Sanders’ core supporters got the jobs they wanted. Trump’s core frets over losing the jobs they had or have, especially to Mexico and China.

In tough talk, they trust. In Clinton, they don’t.

Lies and trust

Whitewater, Vince Foster, Monica, Benghazi, the foundation, the six-figure speeches, the emails — pick your Clinton, pick your scandal, pick your perceived cover-up. Hillary Clinton’s 30 years of public life, both in concert with Bill and standing alone, make her the 800-pound gorilla — an ultra-powerful figure with trust issues.

How much do voters mistrust Clinton? Her average unfavorable rating is 55 percent, according to Real Clear Politics, which is in the same neighborhood as Trump’s 58 percent. Her favorable rating, meanwhile, is 42 percent, while Trump is close by at 39 percent.

Their unpopularity is wildly high and evenly distributed. But another set of data reveals just how deeply disliked Clinton actually is.

Politifact’s Truth-o-Meter, which rates the accuracy of politicians’ claims, shows that 50 percent of what Clinton says is true or mostly true. That’s a touch higher than President Obama’s 48 percent truthfulness and leaps beyond Trump’s 15 percent.

By that measure, Trump lies 85 percent of the time. Over the weekend, on the final Saturday of the campaign, a Toronto Star reporter counted 40 Trump mistruths in a single day. By any standard, that makes Trump a compulsive liar.

Clinton, by lukewarm contrast, lies only half the time. Theoretically, that should make her more trustworthy to voters than Trump.

It doesn’t.

Trump, as a businessman and reality TV star, has held no position of political authority. His rhetoric has bruised the culture – ask any Muslim-American how life has been – but his actual lies have little measurable impact. He has the influence afforded him by fame and his party’s nomination, but has never had executive authority over anything other than his own business.

Clinton, however, is a major player in The System. When she downplays bad judgments about her State Department emails or does a verbal tap-dance around the Benghazi attack, the consequences are greater. She’s held positions of power, positions that make her liable to bear the brunt of our natural wariness of authority.

People are hurting. They blame the System. Clinton is the System.

“There are a lot of trust issues that are harboring Hillary Clinton,” said Ndaba Mandela, who travels the globe speaking on race, education and leadership issues. “Whereas Donald Trump is more of the typical cowboy: gung ho, very out there, trying to be strong, trying to put America back in charge in the international scene.”

Fear and uncertainty

Mandela follows a lesson taught to him by his late grandfather Nelson Mandela, the legendary South African leader who toppled apartheid: Stay out of other countries’ domestic politics. He’s “friendly with Chelsea Clinton” (Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela were friends), has never met Trump, and doesn’t have a “preferred candidate.”

But he does have a view from afar. We are living in “probably one of the most divided times,” he said, and people around the world “are scared of Donald Trump” because of that “typical bully American cowboy kind of style.”

That blunt talk may rattle the globe, but it worked with a large enough contingent of American voters to let Trump run roughshod over 16 other Republican candidates.

“Having two young children, I want them to grow up and have a better situation than where we currently stand,” said Dave Buffamonti, a Trump supporter from the Town of Tonawanda. “The country seems to be going backwards. (Trump) seems to want it to go forward.”

A warm, well-spoken man in his mid-50s, Buffamonti owns a company called Backstage Productions that books bands for bars. Business has been steadily down: As jobs are lost and bars get fewer customers, the owners are paying less for bands, if they’re booking at all.

Buffamonti’s wife is a bartender and they have two kids, a 5-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son who has juvenile diabetes. Medicaid covers their medical bills; they’re getting by. In a 15-minute interview, Buffamonti uttered not a single complaint about his life or his fortunes. He seems happy, blessed to be a husband and dad. And he wants what every parent wants: A better life for his kids. Trump’s tough talk on ISIS is what first seized his attention.

“He said, ‘I want to wipe them out and wipe them out quick,’ ” Buffamonti said. “That’s more encouraging than ‘We have a plan.’ ”

On the support of voters like Buffamonti, Trump may be positioned to win blue-collar, and traditionally blue-leaning, constituencies — including Erie County. This is where standard-fare American politicians failed: They didn’t realize the level of anger and fear that’s permeated their constituency. Sanders and Trump tapped into it, and American politics will be forever changed. Or at least it should be.

But what will that change look like?

Trump and Clinton have written books, crafted platforms and given speeches on their ideas. But even the talking points, much less the details, have gotten buried in this bloodbath of a campaign. So has any excitement over the idea of having a true chief executive apply business principles to government and, even more so, the long-held anticipation of a woman becoming president of the United States.

We don’t know how they’d lead America. But we think we know Trump’s tastes in women. And we think we know Clinton’s email habits.

So yes, devoted Clintonites and Trumpians among us, those who are seeing a Candyland vision of a sweeter future should your contestant — sorry, candidate — win, you’re gulping some rarefied air. The rest of your Fellow Angry Americans are watching this smokescreen of a reality show and sneezing and wheezing.

Take comfort in the knowledge that our 21st-century version of a long national nightmare is almost over. After the votes are counted and we have a president-elect, perhaps the vitriol will die down and the country will come together to rally around its 45th president.

Yeah, that's the ticket.

email: toshei@buffnews.com

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