Will 2016 be a Pivotal Election Year in the United States?

It seems like only yesterday, because it was.

The electoral circus was sucking up all the political air and, but for a few welcome surprises, events were unfolding in predictable ways.

One welcome surprise was that opposition to neoliberalism was becoming mainstream.   There had been the Occupy movements of 2011, of course; and, despite the best efforts of corporate media, there was some awareness of anti-austerity movements elsewhere. But, before Bernie Sanders’ campaign took off, none of this registered in our electoral politics.

Many Americans had been fighting neoliberalism since the waning days of the Carter administration, often raising more fundamental objections than Sanders now does. But the Democratic and Republican Parties, and their media flacks, had been able, until recently, to confine the discussion to the margins of political life. Now, thanks to Bernie Sanders, even Hillary Clinton finds it expedient to jump on board.

Clinton used to be – and still is — a devotee of all that she now claims to oppose. Before becoming the Queen of Chaos, the First Lady had been an architect of the Democratic Party’s neoliberal turn. The Clintons were not quite there at the creation; they came along too late for that. But they took up the cause, and left their stamp upon it.

Other than setting the cause of health care reform back a generation, this was all there was to Hillary’s “experience” — before she became the clueless and inept “Madam Secretary” whose attempts at regime change around the world have given rise to so much murder and mayhem, and to no changes for the better at all.

Sanders also brought the word “socialism” back into mainstream political discourse. This turned out to be easier than anyone would have imagined – partly because redbaiting doesn’t cut it anymore, especially with the under-sixty crowd, and partly because Republicans have never taken Sanders seriously enough to make it worth their while to go after him.

The only people Sanders’ “democratic socialism” seemed to bother were doctrinaire leftists who keep harping on the obvious: that Bernie is a New Deal-Great Society liberal, not a real socialist, and that he is soft on imperialism. All true; and all worth pointing out – but not more than, say, a couple of dozen times.

The real problem with Sanders’s candidacy is his reluctance to go after the Clintons and the Democratic Party establishment the way that, say, Donald Trump would. The Clintons and their allies are not the most noxious characters around this election season; how could they be with Ted Cruz and Donald Trump in the race?   But because they can win, while Cruz and Trump cannot (unless Hillary badly flubs), they are more dangerous.

Therefore, it ought to go without saying that now is not the time to tear Bernie down. The Sanders campaign is, after all, challenging Clintonism — Democratic Party style neoliberalism and liberal imperialism –more effectively than anything else now happening. And a successful Sanders candidacy can keep Hillary, an exceptionally bellicose and inept Clintonite, from becoming the Democratic nominee and therefore, almost certainly, the next President of the United States.

Another pleasant surprise has been that the glass ceiling argument turned out to be a non-starter — for almost everybody under thirty, and for nearly everybody for whom second wave feminism is ancient history.

Thanks to Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher and others of their ilk, it was hard, even in the old days, to convince anyone with a progressive bone in her or his body that electing a woman President is, or ought to be, Priority Number One or that there is indeed “a special place in hell” for women who think otherwise.

By now, though, it has become hard even to maintain that there is a glass ceiling. In the half century or so that has elapsed since Hillary fans like Gloria Steinem were in their prime, some thirty-nine women have served or are serving as governors of their states. Female governors are as likely to be Republicans as Democrats, suggesting that even the most reactionary and socially illiberal voters could care less about the private parts of the candidates they vote for.

The problem, in 2016, is not that Americans are reluctant to elect a woman; the problem is Hillary Clinton.

I sympathize with women who think that this is the only chance they will have in their lifetimes to elect a woman President. But even if this is reason enough to opt for the less “progressive” of the two candidates running for the Democratic nomination, it is surely not a good enough reason to install a clear and present danger in the White House, a bellicose mischief-maker who favors Cold War brinkmanship and regime change around the world. Neither is it a good enough reason to elect someone committed to the economic policies that made the Trump phenomenon possible, and even inevitable.

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The expectation for the Republican side was that they would put on their usual goon show in dozens of “debates,” that liberal pundits would evince their usual self-righteous indignation over what the candidates would say, and that comedians and satirists would, once again, have a field day.

There was nothing to worry about; the Republicans were bound to lose no matter whom they nominated; and, as in 2012, it would all work out in the end, even for the country club set. Yet again, the lunatics would not quite succeed in taking over the asylum.

It became clear, by the late summer, that Trump would be a serious contender, but no one saw much harm in that either. His racist and nativist schtick was evident from Day One, but it was no worse than the other candidates’, only more blatant, and his bluster added spice to the otherwise dreary goings on. No doubt, Muslims, Hispanics and others thought differently, but the general consensus, even so, was that, in the end, the Donald’s presence on the scene would cause no serious harm.

On the plus side, he was telling the world something that everybody knew, but that no other politician, except Sanders and a few other Democrats, would say: that the system is corrupt clear through. This isn’t exactly news, but Trump would press the point in a voice that could not be ignored and that was credible enough to penetrate even the thickest skulls.

People in the Fox News demographic, don’t much care for evidence, or subtlety or even coherence, but they do take seriously what billionaire blowhards tell them. A billionaire blowhard, straight out of central casting, is exactly what Trump is. And he seemed never to tire of boasting that, when it comes to corruption, he knows whereof he speaks. Being rich enough and, by his own lights, smart enough to have been a major beneficiary, he would proclaim himself an expert on the subject.

What no one counted on was that the more outrageous and vile his anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and misogynistic ravings became, the more successful he would be at winning over the Republican base.

Certainly, no one expected him to cross the line from garden-variety racism, nativism and Islamophobia to twenty-first century fascism or proto-fascism. Trump has not only gotten away with it; his candidacy has flourished because of it.

The Republican Party brought the Trump phenomenon upon itself. It has been recruiting useful idiots into its fold for years; eventually, it became unable to keep them under control.

Now, the Party’s grandees are desperate. Even if only to keep Republicans in power in Congress and in state and local governments, they need a standard bearer that their base would accept and that normal people would at least find respectable. In 2012, they had Mitt Romney. This year, they have nobody.

Though plainly a loser, John Kasich is probably their best remaining hope. But if there is anything even vaguely appealing about him, he keeps it hidden. The man has negative charisma. So far, the only primary he has won – and, most likely, the only one he will win — was in Ohio, his home state. With the national and state parties pulling out all the stops, and with plutocrats aplenty opening up their money bins to stuff his coffers, even that was a struggle.

This is how it came to pass that, of all people, Marco Rubio was, for a while, the great anti-Trump – and neocon — hope. Kasich is a reactionary; Rubio even more so. He is also, as Trump never tired of pointing out, an insubstantial twit. That isn’t necessarily a deal breaker for Republicans – George W. Bush got the nod, after all – but this time it was. Little Marco couldn’t even win his own home state. Seeing the writing on the wall, the grandees pulled the plug.

Ironically, Bush family machinations contributed to Rubio’s downfall. Marco had been a Jeb protégée; then he ran against him. As Saddam Hussein found out too late, you don’t mess with Bushes that way. Or maybe, these days, you can: Jeb did just endorse Ted Cruz, after all.

Cruz is by all accounts, the most hated man in Washington. It isn’t just normal people who cannot stomach him; his Republican colleagues in the Senate cannot either. Also, his politics makes even Rubio’s seem decent and sane. Nevertheless, the rats who have decided not to flee the sinking ship – Jeb, Mitt, Lindsay Graham, the whole sorry lot of them – are now backing Cruz, after having expressed their disdain for him many times over. How pathetic is that!

Trump probably won’t arrive at the convention in Cleveland with enough pledged delegates to win on the first ballot. If that happens, all hell could break loose, especially if, at that point, Cruz is his closest, or only, rival.

The Donald has been talking about riots in the streets. His words, taken literally, leave it unclear whether he is predicting riots or promising to incite them. But now that everybody has some idea of what Trump is like, everybody gets the message.

The Party of Lincoln ought to have come to an end, not with a bang but a whimper, long ago. It deserved it. Now it is looking like there is an implosion coming that will be truly wondrous to behold.

We should be careful what we wish for, however. I, for one, will be pleased as can be to see the back of President Drone. But if Hillary succeeds him, as she most likely will, I expect, before long, to find myself missing him and his special ops assassins big time.

Many of us may also find ourselves wishing that the Republican Party, as we knew and despised it, were still around.   For destroying it, Trump merits praise, of course, but what will he leave behind? His supporters will still be there. So will the theocrats who like Cruz for his politics, not just because he isn’t Trump.

Corporate media have a lot to answer for; their obsessive coverage of the Donald – and of the horse race that he has, by now, essentially won – created the Trump phenomenon. And their malign neglect of the Sanders campaign is a transparent effort to forestall efforts to put the country on a better course, by sealing the deal for Hillary.

Sanders won more pledged delegates last Tuesday – from Idaho, Utah, and Arizona – than Clinton. But anyone who only glanced at the headlines in, say, The New York Times or listened to National Public Radio (NPR) wouldn’t know it; they’d think that Hillary had a good night.

Or, in view of all the coverage lavished on Trump and Cruz, and on the terror attack in Brussels, they might not even know that there had been three Democratic primaries.

Corporate media, and NPR, are amazing. They barely deign even to mention the rampant terrorism in countries devastated by the Bush-Obama wars, and now also in Turkey. But let European or North American cities – Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino – catch some blowback and they talk about nothing else; except, of course, Donald Trump.

However, even they cannot keep Sanders entirely out of the public eye. This is why, despite their efforts, he continues to do well; why, their spin doctors’ blather notwithstanding, his is not by any means a lost or hopeless cause.

It is different with Jill Stein and the Green Party. If Hillary becomes the Democrats’ nominee, the Greens would have an enormous pool of Sanders supporters from which to recruit. Don’t count on many of them crossing over, however. Thanks to media marginalization, hardly anyone even knows that Stein is running or who she is.

Is it not remarkable how differently they cover the “third party” efforts anti-Trump Republicans are thinking of launching? Media that ignore Sanders and marginalize Stein jump on every rumor trickling out of those dark recesses where Republican “moderates” ponder ways to contain the monster they created.

The mainstream line is that real Republicans cannot stomach Trump’s racism, nativism and Islamophobia; and that they are wary of the fascisant ripples emanating out of his campaign. Hardly! What they cannot stomach are the “populist” and anti-interventionist impulses that Trump’s rants set in motion.

This is why many of them are already talking about defecting to Hillary, and why, if Trump prevails and third party efforts falter, many more of them will follow.

If reason were in control, they would be in Hillary’s camp already. She is Wall Street’s best friend, and corporate America’s most biddable flunky. The military and the national security state’s biggest machers love her too; not to mention AIPAC, the jewel of the Israel lobby, before which Hillary shamelessly abased herself just a few days ago.

But, alas, in American politics today, reason plays almost no role.

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You’d never know it from the way that media spin the story, but Bernie is not all that far behind Hillary in pledged delegates.

If he does manage to win the nomination, neither Trump nor Cruz would stand a chance of defeating him in November. Kasich would do no better. The only thing that he has going for him now is that he is neither of the other two.

A turnip could beat Cruz but, against Hillary, the Donald just might stand a chance. In a one-on-one debate, he could walk all over her. He is a lot shrewder than she is, after all, and a far better showman. I don’t believe that he really is a proto-fascist; I think he just plays one on TV – to appeal to the baser instincts of Republican voters. But even if I am wrong, it is plain that, on issue after issue, he could easily outflank her from the left.

If they didn’t have “down ticket” office-seekers to worry about, and if they were guided just by interests and convictions, non-Tea Party Republican leaders would surely find themselves preferring Hillary to any of the three Republican candidates still in the running. But they do have down-ticket concerns. If the leadership bolts, a lot of Republican politicians could be left standing in the lurch.

Also, Republicans have hated Hillary and Bill for all the wrong reasons for as long as anyone can remember. It is therefore possible that many of them will refuse to support Hillary now, even if she is, by far, their best choice.

But if somehow there are large numbers of defectors, especially from leadership circles, we can look forward to interesting times ahead.

In their infinite wisdom, the founding fathers – no mothers among them, except in the colloquial sense – insisted that Presidents be elected by an absolute majority of electors in the Electoral College.   For everything else, they were fine with fifty percent plus one of the votes actually cast; but not for the Electoral College. Go figure!

In all but two states, electoral votes are awarded on a statewide winner-take-all basis. Therefore the Electoral College vote typically reflects a distorted picture of the popular vote — though the candidate with the most popular votes usually wins in the Electoral College too. The last time this failed to happen was in the election that set George W. Bush loose upon the world.

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However, in a three-way race, there is a danger not just that the least preferred candidate might win, but that there would be no winner at all.

If Hillary messes this up too, causing Trump and the GOP establishment’s new party to win enough states to prevent any of the three contenders from obtaining an absolute majority of electoral votes, the race would be decided, as the Constitution prescribes, in the House of Representatives.

There, each state Congressional delegation, no matter how large or small, gets one vote.   This would mean, in practice, that Congressional Republicans, Tea Partiers mostly, would do the choosing. If anything could make the Supreme Court that decided Bush v. Gore look good, this would be it.

When Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, plus three other purportedly impartial Republican Justices, put George W. Bush in the White House, Democrats and Republicans saw to it that no pesky Constitutional crisis would disrupt the good thing that they, and the paymasters they serve, have going. This time around, the body politic is more fractured, and there is less likelihood that Americans would let them get away with anything like that again.

And this is not the only Constitutional crisis looming.

Those founders also insisted that only “natural born” citizens could be elected President or Vice President. Mere citizenship was good enough for every other high office – Senator, Congressman, Governor, and so on. But Presidents and Vice Presidents had to be born in the USA. Who knows why? The founders’ minds worked in mysterious ways.

There are two “known knowns,” as Donald Rumsfeld would say: that Ted Cruz was born in Canada, not the United States; and that Donald Trump is one litigious son of a bitch with a battery of lawyers always at the ready.

We also know that, before he became a contender, one of the ways that Trump used to keep his name in the news, and to win over the moron class, was to champion “birtherism.” Trump lent his celebrity and his riches to the cause of those who sought to delegitimize the Obama presidency by arguing that, having been born in Kenya, Obama was ineligible to be President.

It hardly matters that, in fact, Obama was born in the state of Hawaii. Birtherism is a Republican thing, and Republicans cannot be bothered by facts.

The argument that Cruz would use to defend his own eligibility is that, though born in another country, one of his parents, his mother, was as natural born as any American can be. This, his lawyers will say, satisfies the Constitutional requirement.

But, of course, Obama’s mother was natural born as well.

How will this all play out if and when Trump takes the issue of Cruz’s eligibility to court, as he surely will if he feels he needs to in order to win. As an actually or potentially aggrieved party, he almost certainly would have standing to do that, and if he could, he would.

If it comes to that, what will we learn about, say, the eligibility of Barry Goldwater, who was born in Arizona when it was still a U.S. territory, not a state; or, for that matter, of John McCain, who was born in the Panama Canal Zone where his family was stationed by the Navy? And what about America’s first Presidents, including George Washington, all of whom were born in what were, at the time, colonies of Great Britain?

Were those Founding Fathers, the greater and lesser gods of the American civil religion, messing with us? Or were they, like Hillary, bad at what they did, but good at getting admirers to praise their competence and “pragmatism”?

Either way, it is too bad that there wasn’t a Donald Trump back then, or an Arnold Schwarzenegger, Trump’s successor on “The Apprentice,” to tell them all to clean up their act or else be fired.

To think that just a short while ago it seemed that this election would be another “same old same old” exercise in futility – undemocratic, boring, and ultimately inconsequential, except in marginal ways. It may still turn out that way; indeed, this is still more likely than not. But thanks to Trump, and depending on what happens with Sanders and his supporters, there is now a decent chance that the old order will be shaken to its foundations, and that great changes are afoot.

Needless to say, it could all go disastrously wrong; but so long as it is more likely than not that Hillary is our future, I say: bring it on.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).