Ron Lora: The dispiriting 2016 presidential campaign


Ron Lora - Guest Columnist



A presidential election in the United States “may be considered as a crisis in the affairs of the nation….As it draws near, the activity of intrigue and the agitation of the populace increase; the citizens are divided into hostile camps….The whole nation glows with feverish excitement; the election is the daily theme of the public papers, the subject of private conversation, and the sole interest of the present.”

So wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in “Democracy in America,” the most profound investigation of American culture and institutions ever written by a foreign observer. The words of the young aristocrat, only 26 when he travelled the United States in 1831-32, apply today.

American politics is hardly “rational,” though not entirely irrational, either. Style, emotion, and celebrity status do count as we saw in the elections of John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama. Except in unusual years, however, economic well-being remains the default position from which to assess the general health of electoral politics. This year key factors are the shrinking middle class, the large number of working-age Americans either not holding jobs or earning wages inadequate to support a family. Inequality of income and wealth has been growing, with nearly all gains going to the upper two percent.

When growth rates remain weak for several decades, certain darker human attributes rise more readily to the fore, as seen in recent examples of xenophobia, racism, and misogynist talk. We are witnessing this in the political rise of Donald Trump.

This is an uncommon year, however, requiring adjustments in such analyses, for complexities abound. The rapid pace of social change during the past half century affects everyone, bringing significant adjustments in the social and political power of women, the swift acceptance of gay marriage, and the societal influence of previously disadvantaged groups, especially African Americans and Hispanics.

Millions of well-off Americans join in responding negatively to those developments and to Mr. Trump’s mockery of the media and political elite. Nevertheless, surveys suggest that an abnormally large proportion of affluent Americans plan to vote for Ms. Clinton – not because they like the Democratic nominee, whom only 10-15 percent of voters deem “honest and trustworthy,” but because they fear what the New York billionaire might do.

The former First Lady seems like a satisfied person, when nearly half of the electorate does not. She offers “more of the same” at a time when a substantial percent of voters in each party’s primaries opted for change. Her categorization of “the deplorables” among Trump supporters yielded hints of a smug elitism that is also detected in the media. Ms. Clinton acknowledged as much in a leaked email that spoke of her distance from middle class life “because of the life I’ve lived and the economic, you know, fortunes that my husband and I now enjoy.”

The bill of particulars runs stronger against Mr. Trump. There is the matter of his refusal to release tax returns, which for decades presidential candidates have done, his derogatory comments on women and minority Americans, his public threats to prosecute Hillary Clinton and throw her in jail should he become president. He ridicules the very idea that humans may affect climate change. On the international scene he accepts Russia’s expansion of power in its seizure of Crimea and incursion in Ukraine, belittles American security ties with NATO, and most dangerously, against the advice of nuclear weapons experts, is comfortable with other nations – including Iran and North Korea – acquiring nuclear weapons. Risking an erratic temperament in such consequential matters is foolhardy.

Trump’s refusal in the third debate to say he would accept the results of the November election created new anti-Trump voters within the Republican ranks, joining top leaders who have rejected the brash demagogue, including former Republican presidents George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush, as well as former Republican Party presidential nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney.

In a year when voters want change, as was shown also in the powerful primary support for Democrat Bernie Sanders, Trump has had a golden opportunity to help fix our democratic institutions, and by enabling the rethinking of certain party orthodoxies, bring new energies to Republicans. However, he chose to make the election about himself, and in doing so is wrecking the Republican Party.

If Hillary Clinton, a flawed but pragmatic and experienced public servant, emerges victorious on November 8, the person she can thank is Donald Trump.

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Ron Lora

Guest Columnist

Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. He is the co-editor of “The Conservative Press in Twentieth-Century America” and is a recipient of the Distinguished Historian award from the Ohio Academy of History. Contact him at rlora38@gmail.com.

Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. He is the co-editor of “The Conservative Press in Twentieth-Century America” and is a recipient of the Distinguished Historian award from the Ohio Academy of History. Contact him at rlora38@gmail.com.

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