If neither candidate suits you, well, we can help
On our way back from the coast on Saturday in bumper-to-bumper traffic just outside Charleston, I saw a billboard that not only made me laugh out loud, but also summed up this year’s election better than any political commentary I have heard or read. Some clever realtor put up a picture of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, with a banner that read, “Moving to Canada? We can help you sell your home.”
It is funny because it taps into an essential truth — that this is a battle between two candidates who could scarcely be more feared or despised by millions of Americans — and in so doing, delivers the punch line in the same conversation taking place in households all across the country: If Hillary is elected, we’re moving to Canada. If Trump is elected, we’re moving to Canada.
Trump is the P.T. Barnum of politics, a charlatan and a blowhard who has come along at just the right time to do what many people — and I admit that I am one of them — thought could not be done. He has won the nomination of the Republican Party without the support of the Fox News and without the support of rank-and-file Republican leaders and commentators, many of whom railed for months against him to no avail. Poor George Will wrote a number of scathing columns, blasting Trump and pleading with the party to come to its senses before it was too late. When it became too late, Will actually left the party.
Welcome to the Twilight Zone of American politics in 2016. Trump does not have the support of the Republican political machine. Indeed, he has thumbed his nose at it, which would have been political suicide in previous elections. But this is not just any election. The immense popularity of Trump and Bernie Sanders reflects a profound dissatisfaction with status quo politics.
Maybe the reason Trump can sneer at the Republican base is that millions of Americans have been voting for the “anointed” Republican candidates for years, and where has it gotten them? It is abundantly clear by now that trickle-down economics does not work. When you cut taxes for the wealthy, you don’t get more jobs for the middle class. You just get a much wealthier ruling class. When you break up unions and fight against even modest increases in the minimum wage, you get a wider and wider gap between the rich and the poor. And you get a shrinking middle class. Add a few wars to the picture — wars you cannot fund due to those tax cuts — and you have a recipe for disaster, which is what we had in 2008 during the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression.
President Obama deserves credit for his role in the recovery, which has been painful and gradual. His presidency has had its share of flaws, but if he could run for a third term, I am convinced he would win in a landslide. Since he cannot, Americans have been forced to choose among a Whitman’s Sampler of “business as usual” candidates or outsiders who might once have been considered too extreme (in the case of Bernie Sanders) or too inexperienced or even cartoonish (in the case of Trump) to be taken seriously as anything more than a novelty. All we have to do to see the American electorate’s anger with politics as usual is to study the success of Trump and Sanders, and then contrast that with the woeful performance of Jeb Bush, who was once reckoned by some to be the most politically astute member of the Bush dynasty.
At least some of Sanders’ success is surely a similar distaste for that other political dynasty, the Clintons. People liked Bill because he had an easy charm and he sold himself as that young upstart from Hope, Arkansas. He was folksy, but he was also a Rhodes Scholar. He seemed like a guy you could have a beer and a barbecue sandwich with, compassionate but also tough if he needed to be. That was the image he sold, and people bought it.
Hillary has been a much tougher sell. Compared to Bill, she can be a little stiff. She is whip smart and tough, but she can also be defiant and tone deaf. Americans were more forgiving of Bill’s faults than they are of hers, fair or not. Many times, you get the sense that she is being judged more on the basis of her personality than her character. She may have prevailed to win the nomination, but the fact that a self-proclaimed “Democratic socialist” with such a slight legislative background got as far as he did against her should be enough to send shock waves through the party.
I have no idea what is going to happen in this election. There is still a long way to go, and Americans are faced with a choice between two candidates that a great percentage of them cannot stand the sight of. Hopefully, the parties will reflect and learn something from all of this. Or Americans will. Or maybe we’ll all move to Canada.