Into the Heart of Darkness
I cannot get over Trump’s televised threat to prosecute and jail Hillary Clinton. It is so beyond the pale, such a descent into authoritarian/banana republic/dictatorship territory, that it, along with audience’s reaction, was the watershed moment of the debate for me. The audience had been absolutely silent before then, as the moderators had requested, but when Trump followed up his fusillade of attacking lies and threat to prosecute her, with the comment that if he were in charge she would be in jail, his supporters whooped with glee. It made me feel physically ill when they did that. Because there was no collective intake of breath or shock at the suggestion; no, it was raw approval.
That moment crystallized for me two fundamental and intertwined truths at the exact same time. Number one: the hatred of Hillary Clinton is the product of a misogyny so extreme and so rooted and so elemental that Trump’s supporters — who include female misogynists — would rather violate the bedrock democratic values of our nation than see her elected. Number two: Trump and what he stands for are antithetical to our democracy. Though I have long known that the damage Trump has done to our country is already incalculable, and will continue whether he wins or loses, it became clearer than ever last night that the threat to democracy itself is upon us now, even if he loses, as he is likely to do. Because Trump’s supporters are ready, willing, and able to discard the Constitution to elect this man, and the GOP has been complicit in this process. Trump’s campaign is built on the rejection of American values necessary to our democracy’s functioning, and also necessary to a healthy and fair society, and yet they embrace him. Their embrace of him is also, necessarily, a rejection of competence, of intelligence, of character, of science, of truth, of fairness, of equal rights, of equal dignity, of decency, of empathy, of kindness, of restraint, of both progress and conservatism, and of love. It is an embrace of authoritarianism and the darkest, ugliest, most selfish and base impulses that we have.
I wish it were the case that this starts and ends with Donald Trump. But we all know that it does not and will not. His supporters want, even demand, the anger, hatred, threats and abusiveness that authoritarianism requires — as long as it is the historically marginalized groups that are the victims, so that his supporters can be the “winners.” The Republican Party has not denounced, renounced, or even acknowledged that Trump has repeatedly made statements and threats inimical to a democratic state, and that are unprecedented in the United States from a major party candidate. The risk to our republic is embedded within the Republican Party itself. But to really understand this, we need to look at the GOP’s role in demonizing Hillary Clinton (and before that, Barack Obama). We also need to look at the way in which Trump’s candidacy — in particular his racism and misogyny — are extensions of the same strategy that the GOP has deployed against both Clinton and Obama. Trump is unquestionably far beyond the pale of what any prior Republican candidate has ever been willing to say or do; he has mainstreamed the ideas that fester in the fever swamp of the extreme rightwing, and at which Republican elites typically only dog whistle. But those ideas are what drive the base, and the GOP has been happy to use, exploit, and encourage that extremism for the purpose of getting elected, whatever the consequence to the country. In that regard, this election has been no different from usual.
What the debate did for me last night is distill these issues to their essence.
The GOP is Responsible for the Demonization of Hillary Clinton
As I said the other day, Trump’s supporters have been chanting “lock her up!” and “Hang the bitch” and far worse for months. Trump has called her a criminal repeatedly and threatened prosecution at various times. Chris Christie laid out the “prosecution” against her at the RNC convention, soliciting chants of “guilty!” for each separate “indictment” he had pulled from the Fox News playbook. Guiliani has also said outright that she should be prosecuted. Trump has pushed this issue like he pushed birtherism, deliberately and without remorse, and just as with birtherism, the Republican leadership has been content to use and exploit these lies and attacks, as well as the racism and misogyny that undergird them.
The current Republican-controlled House has repeatedly used its oversight authority to engage in witchhunt after witchhunt against Clinton, seeing the Benghazi attacks not as a tragedy in a long line of tragedies at U.S. embassies in hotspots around the world, from which we need to learn so that we can do better, but as an opportunity to investigate, punish, and destroy Clinton for political purposes.
The longstanding Republican desire to destroy her is itself a form of misogynistic derangement, as they have hated her since she was a FLOTUS who dared to publicly state she was an autonomous person with her own contributions to make, have convinced themselves that she is singlehandedly responsible for Iraq as if Bush, Cheney, the entire Republican establishment and most Democrats had no role in it whatsoever, and have pushed the idea that as Secretary of State her use of a private email server to receive three emails that did not have a “c” in the subject matter line is tantamount to treason and worthy of imprisonment if not execution, notwithstanding that Bush circumvented the law by using a private RNC server for government business and deleted 22 million emails, and that Powell and Rice used private email and many members of Congress use it to this day. The hatred of Clinton is beyond any measure of rationality, disproportionate to any of the worst things she has ever even alleged to have done because the men who do the same do not elicit a fraction of the same vitriol. But it certainly cannot be denied that the hatred for Clinton is deep, and seething, and has been an animating force for the GOP’s base for 25 years now. Indeed, Clinton-hating is a cottage industry and anti-Hillary books routinely top the best seller lists.
The GOP leadership has been happy to exploit this. In fact, we have a current Republican leadership that has a played a critical role in the current misogynistic treatment of Clinton. It cringes that Trump has bragged about being a sexual predator on tape (as it should), but not that Trump’s own surrogates call Clinton a cunt and his advisers openly salivate for her imprisonment and even her execution, because in their minds she is already guilty. And how do Trump’s supporters know she is guilty? Because the unholy alliance between the rightwing media and the GOP leadership tells them so, and because all three — the leadership, the rightwing media, and the base — want her to be guilty. Jason Chaffetz, Trey Gowdy, Paul Ryan, and the whole sick lot of them have participated in the lies for their own ends, orchestrating partisan investigations designed to destroy her, as disgraced almost-speaker Kevin McCarthy admitted in a telling “gaffe.” These people have, like Trump, suggested Clinton is a criminal to serve their own political purposes, and so when Trump’s supporters chant “lock her up” at every rally, the GOP leadership says nothing; those chants are just a rawer version of what they themselves have done.
The Republican-controlled Congress abused its oversight powers to hound her; they instigated repeated investigations; selectively leaked emails to create false impressions; planted false stories about her in the New York Times; pushed the criminal narrative themselves; gave multiple press conferences attacking her as a liar and a criminal over Benghazi; and when eight investigations, multiple hearings and 11 and a half hours of Clinton’s sworn Congressional testimony yielded nothing criminal on Benghazi, and when an FBI investigation yielded nothing criminal on emails, they demanded that James Comey, lifelong Republican, who served as Deputy Attorney General in the Ashcroft Justice Department under Bush, account for himself at hearings because they did not get the answer they yearned for: a criminal prosecution of their rival so that their nominee would not have to face her during the 2016 election. And they are still threatening and demanding more investigations from the FBI. (Talk about fear of a woman president; has any party apparatus ever spent more effort trying to destroy one woman?)
Trump Used The Debate To Attempt to Humiliate Clinton
Trump’s campaign has been fueled by racism from its inception, and its attacks on Clinton have focused on longstanding sexist memes about the looks, stamina, weakness, untrustworthiness, and inappropriate ambition of women.
We all knew the campaign was going to get even uglier as Trump surrounded himself with a cabal of white, male racists, serial sexual harassers and adulterers, alt-right and anti-Clinton conspiracy pushers, and tabloid liars — Rudy Guiliani, Roger Ailes, Sean Hannity, Roger Stone, Steve Bannon, David Bossey; a nasty collection of haters if ever there was one.
We know that in the rightwing gutter, there is a febrile desire to publicly castigate Clinton for the litany of her so-called crimes, and those “crimes” include any and all Republican spin on any event, no matter how trivial, if it can be twisted against her regardless of truth or context or reality. It includes false allegations and conspiracies that also border on the insane, such as her alleged murder of multiple people including her good friend Vince Foster, who committed suicide.
We knew before last night, because the desire to hold Hillary Clinton to account for her husband’s alleged sexual transgressions — notwithstanding his impeachment in the 1990s by a cadre of secret adulterers and child molesters — has been discussed for years in Republican circles. In 2014, Conor Fridersdorf lamented that the temptation would exist on the right in 2016 to go this route and urged against doing so. In fact, at the end of the first debate, Trump himself told us that he had considered raising the issue of Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct, but had “resisted” out of respect for Chelsea; and the next day, his son tweeted about how proud he was of his father’s “courage” in supposedly restraining himself. Trump and his surrogates then pushed their absurd narrative that he had refrained from going low in talking about, thereby talking about it and keeping the idea of front and center in the press for the next week — even as Trump went into a tailspin attacking Alicia Machado after Clinton trounced him in the debate.
But after the video and hot mic came out on Friday, the likes of Bannon and Bossey, aflame with the desire to destroy Clinton, awash in the bile of their misogyny, and salivating at the prospect of a having a national platform for what used to exist only in the murky swamp of the extremist right, did not even try to resist that temptation. Surely they knew that Trump was imploding; surely they knew that wading into this muck in an effort to degrade Clinton would do Trump no favors nationally, but neither they nor he cared. He might be disgraced, but if there was a way to destroy, to humiliate, to debase Hillary Clinton, they were going to try. Even if they could not ultimately stop her victory, they could do their best to destroy her in the process of losing, and amplify the hateful messaging outside of the feverswamp and push it into the mainstream.
And so last night before, during, and after the debate, we saw women who have claimed to be harassed or abused by Bill Clinton — women whose claims were investigated and litigated 20 years ago — letting themselves be used as political props by an accused and self-acknowledged abuser in order to deflect attention from his own abusiveness, and to help him to visit sexualized humiliation upon their own alleged abuser’s wife. We saw this abhorrent man whose life has been spent degrading women weaponize other women to savage his female opponent for her husband’s alleged conduct, as well as for not playing the role of the perfect wifely victim herself decades ago when her husband’s politically-affiliated accusers came forward with the assistance of rightwing operatives to accuse him. Even worse, if possible, also appearing was a woman who was raped at 12, who blames Clinton, ordered by a court to serve as the rapist’s public defender in the 1970s, for the fact that the rapist’s sentence was inadequate. Donald Trump trotted this still-traumatized victim out like a doll to exploit, even as he stands accused of raping a thirteen year-old himself (he denies it), in order to attempt to indict Clinton for another man’s acts of sexual abuse, and dared to imply that she, who has devoted her life to achieving equality for women, does not actually care about women.
The spectacle was nauseating, infuriating, heartbreaking, deeply disturbing, and highly orchestrated for maximal punishment and destruction of Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton, a supposed murderess, liar, enabler, conniver; yet unable to satisfy her husband; a woman so powerful, apparently, that she is, according to Trump in the debates, singlehandedly responsible for every bad thing that has happened in this country for the last 30 years, who could and should have solved every problem in America and in the world herself and who, at the same time, despite her awesome superpowers, is also the most ineffectual person of all time, her accomplishments not accomplishments at all, an evil demon who has ruined the whole world with her emails; a woman who, he actually said, is the “devil.” He then added, in a moment of gaslighting so outrageous that it made me gasp, that she has “hatred in her heart.”
Trump and His Supporters Reject Bedrock Values Essential to a Functioning Democracy
Against this backdrop of hatred and sleaze, we had on the screen at all times Trump, a hulking menace, standing too close on the stage, close enough to hit her, looming over her, sniffing constantly, his face a twisted grimace. His accusation of criminality was a mix of lies straight from the Breitbart/Fox/GOP playbook, a word salad of email and Benghazi.
And then, on that same national stage in front of an audience of tens of millions, the Republican Party’s nominee to be the President of the United States of America announced that if he is elected, he will ensure that his political rival is put in jail.
This is the threat of a dictator, a Putin, a Pinochet, a Baby Doc — not a presidential candidate in a functioning democracy.
Trump’s supporters loved every minute of it. Their seething hatred of Hillary Clinton exceeds any concept of America or American values. Theirs is the mentality of a mob that wants blood. This mob is ready to discard the very idea of America in exchange for Hillary Clinton’s destruction.
It is this same mob that Trump has whipped up with hatred toward so many categories of people in our country. His supporters’ willingness to abandon democratic values to punish and oppress others is the centerpiece of Trump’s candidacy, what guides and drives it, and it is also the reason that we as citizens are sickened and afraid, the reason the comparisons to Hitler are so on point. It’s the reason Holocaust survivors look at this man and know fear even though his most direct threats are visited upon Muslims and not upon Jews. It’s the reason the reporters at his rallies are recoiling in disgust at what they are seeing.
This is the ugly truth: millions of people in this country are willing to throw democratic values away in support of a man who knows less than nothing, a pathological liar and violence inciter, because of their own resentment and bigotry. They have no problem with threatening to jail or actually jailing a political opponent; they crave it.
Trump’s statement was shocking, and yet it is also the culmination of threats he has made continuously throughout this election. These threats, while directly threats against Clinton, are also threats against the integrity of our democracy itself. And not once have I heard a Republican leader condemn this, because winning the White House through the destruction of Hillary Clinton — even if it means the potential destruction of the country — is all that has mattered to them.
Trump has not only said he would imprison Clinton. He has encouraged his supporters to assassinate Clinton — and then pretended he was talking about voting, or being sarcastic. Most of the GOP played along. He has invited the Russians to meddle in the election by hacking into Clinton’s emails — and then pretended he had not. The GOP (while rejecting any embrace of Russia) played along with the spin.
He has said that if he does not win, the system is “rigged.” When he says that, what he means is that African-Americans and Latinos are stealing the election. In this way — though his claims come straight from the extreme right wing — he exploits the Republican party’s longstanding lie that “voter fraud” exists even though there is a one in 33 million chance that a single fraudulent vote will be cast; this is the pretext on which the GOP destroyed ACORN, a venerable community organizing and voter registration group; it is the pretext on which Republicans across the country have passed targeted, discriminatory voter-suppression laws since the second the Roberts Court, in a 5–4 decision (Shelby County v. Holder), gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is central to the lie that the Republican leadership has consistently fed its base for years in order to delegitimize Barack Obama and other Democratic victories that are fueled by the support of people of color.
This strategy is explicitly and deliberately racist, and its insidiousness cannot be overstated. It builds on the idea that people of color cheat the system and it provides the fake moral highground that allows racists to tell themselves that they are not undermining democracy by preventing other people from voting — especially when those people do not look like them. This is an explicit Republican strategy, along with flagrant gerrymandering, that the GOP has been using for years to thwart the popular vote and maintain its power despite the fact that a majority of the population does not actually want them in office. This is fundamentally anti-democratic. The GOP has not disputed or condemned Trump’s claims that an election lost by him is an election rigged by others.
Trump has also encouraged vigilantism by urging his supporters to “monitor” the polls in certain areas — meaning areas in which many Democratic-leaning, minority voters are concentrated. This is an invitation to voter intimidation and is illegal. It is the stuff of dictatorships, as well. Did you hear any condemnation of Trump from Republican leaders when he said that? You know you did not.
And make no mistake about just how deeply dangerous and insidious this rhetoric is, and do not dismiss it as mere rhetoric. What you are hearing is an active call to undermine, repudiate and possibly rise up against this country’s first female president. Campaign advisers like Roger Stone are openly saying a Clinton victory would be illegitimate and promising a bloodbath if she wins. This is an extension of birtherism because the deligitimization of Hillary Clinton’s victory depends on and is directly tied to the otherization and dehumanization of her biggest supporters — people of color, and especially women of color.
Do you see what is going on? It goes like this: “Hillary Clinton is a criminal who should be in jail or killed. If he does not win the election, it is rigged, and it is rigged by allowing Those People (‘you know who I mean’) to vote. Hillary Clinton can be prevented from stealing this election if you monitor Those People and prevent them from casting their illegal votes. But if we do not stop this monstrous criminal from attaining office, there are other ways — the Second Amendment people know what this means. It’s okay to take up arms against an illegitimate government — that’s how our country was formed, after all.”
There is an actual risk that Donald Trump will not accept the results of the election and will exhort his followers to do the same. That is why, at the end of the first debate, Lester Holt felt he had to ask Trump if he would accept the results of the election. That Holt had to ask the question should have sent shivers down spines and warning bells ringing across America. Has anyone ever had to ask a U.S. presidential candidate that question before?
Trump answered yes, but four days later as it the reality of how poorly he had done at the debate began to sink in, he told the New York Times, “We’re going to have to see” and returned to the claims of voter fraud and election rigging with renewed fervor.
Not a word of condemnation about any of this from the GOP leadership. Yes, some have bolted because of the sexual predator comments. But jailing Clinton? Mike Pence today called Trump’s vow to imprison Clinton one of the better moments of the debate. KellyAnne Conway insisted it was a quip.
Re-watch the debate video; you know that was not a quip. All campaign long, Trump’s surrogates have been telling us not to believe our own eyes and ears, just as Trump himself does, just as Pence did at the VP debate. Every time one of these GOP enablers goes on TV and tries to spin what Trump said into something else and translate his appalling conduct into something palatable, or pretend it did not happen, or minimize it, or say it was a joke, they contribute to the defiled public sphere in which lies substitute for discourse.
Even now, many of them cannot bring themselves to repudiate him, though certainly the numbers have increased as his prospects dim. Paul Ryan, the walking definition of a spineless coward, is still endorsing him, though he won’t campaign or fundraise for him. McConnell hasn’t repudiated him. Reince Priebus has reaffirmed the RNC’s support. Mike Pence cancels fundraisers, but “is proud to stand with” Trump and applauds Trump’s promise to emulate a petty dictator. Because let’s face it: although every credible newspaper and magazine recognizes Trump as the national and global security and economic threat that he is, the prospect of a win in which Pence and the rest of the GOP could get total control over women’s reproductive choices and eviscerate the rights of gay citizens is so tantalizing that they have been willing to risk the country for it all along.
Neither Pence nor Ryan nor any one of these hollow men still trying to have it both ways will stand up to speak honestly. They are afraid of the very base whose rabid bigotry they have nurtured, because that base is ready to discard them the minute they repudiate Trump, and because although they know that he is morally repugnant in an overt and personal way, and shockingly unfit, ignorant, and unqualified, Trump’s policies are aligned with the party’s.
These so-called leaders are in a very bad situation. But it is a situation of their own making. I would feel tremendous schadenfreude if I could only be assured that they themselves would be voted out, and that a Trump defeat would not be a combustible situation fraught with the potential for rioting and violence by his angry and hate-filled supporters, whose desire for blood does not seem like it is going to abate any time soon.