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State of the Left US

Parody turns to jeopardy

Claire O'Connor - 20 October 2016

Donald Trump’s race for the White House may be in peril, but so too is a fundamental pillar of American democracy

You need not look much further than Donald Trump’s Twitter account for an encapsulation of his extraordinary approach to this year’s presidential race. One of many early morning Trump Twitter storms, the below posts just about sum up his scorched earth campaign:

Donald Trump’s candidature started as parody - now it is all jeopardy. His presidential hopes are in jeopardy, but so too is a fundamental pillar of American democracy.

Trump started his campaign bashing Mexicans and Muslims, and bragging about his manhood. Now besieged by a sex-talk tape and mounting allegations of sexual misconduct Trump is going to new rhetorical extremes.

In a last gasp attempt to shore up his base he casts himself as the standard bearer of an existential struggle for white working-class males against a system that is stacked against them. It is Trump against the world: against Hillary, against the media, against his accusers, against the Republicans, against the Democrats, against democracy. The press at Trump’s rallies are now escorted by cops in riot gear. Chants of “Paul Ryan sucks” rang out at a recent Trump rally in Wisconsin – Paul Ryan being the leader of the Republican party.  

Trump’s rhetoric is unprecedented, unpresidential and unsafe. It overshadows analysis of policy proposals and partisan tactics in the final days of the campaign.

“It’s not the locker room talk that’s the problem, but the ‘lock her up’ talk”, wrote Charles Krautjammer, a conservative columnist at The Washington Post.

"Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chávez and a cavalcade of two-bit caudillos lock up their opponents. American leaders don't. One doesn't even talk like this. It takes decades, centuries, to develop ingrained norms of political restraint and self-control. But they can be undone in short order by a demagogue feeding a vengeful populism."  

Trump’s latest turn calling the election rigged is a cause of concern for Democrats and Republicans. Trump refuses to say that he will accept the outcome of the election, opting instead to ‘keep us all in suspense’. It’s like he is talking about a detective novel, not the bedrock of democracy.  The peaceful transfer of power has served the US well in its’ 240-year history. Trump could do enormous damage to the legitimacy of the presidency, and the talk of revolution at his rallies is downright dangerous.

When John McCain lost to Barack Obama in 2008, he called to congratulate him saying “my heart is filled with nothing but gratitude for the experience and to the American people for giving me a fair hearing before deciding that Senator Barack Obama and my old friend, Senator Joe Biden, should have the honour of leading us for the next four years.”

Such grace and humility is hard to imagine today. Trump has a very different temperament. This was perhaps best crystallised on 13 October in two back-to-back speeches – two of the most remarkable hours of the campaign. First, an impassioned Michelle Obama gave a searing denunciation of Trump’s treatment of women and girls, reminding voters that this is not normal behavior, let alone becoming of the highest office in the land. Moments later, Donald Trump delivered an all-out angry defense of the charges against him with a blistering attack on the establishment.

Trump may spend the final days of the campaign warning voters that the election is ‘rigged’.  Bernie Sanders tried a similar tack. But both men have tapped into an actual reality which is far more sobering: when the results are in, it will be our job to get the focus back on the 60 per cent of the electorate who feel that the economy is rigged against them. It is that which gave rise to this heated election campaign and it is high time we – that’s us – figured out what to do about it.

Claire O’Connor is former head of policy for the UK Labour party. She lives in Washington DC and runs Leadership Rethought, a consulting firm that teaches, coaches and consults on adaptive leadership challenges

This article is a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's regular insight bulletin reporting from across the world of social democratic politics

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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