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In a Hall of Mirrors: Fear and Dislike at the Polls

Photo by RachelH_ | CC BY 2.0

Photo by RachelH_ | CC BY 2.0

The American electorate goes to the polls in November to elect the next President of the United States. To be fair, a little more than half of the eligible U.S. population votes in presidential elections—57.5 per cent in 2012. The rest of the voters do not bother. They either find it too onerous to get to the polling booths (the election is conducted on a workday) or they simply do not find the choices vibrant enough. This election is not an ordinary election. The two candidates are the most hated people to run for the U.S. presidency. Polling data show that the two of them, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, are running very close to each other. What seems to drive voters to the candidates is not enthusiasm for them but dislike of the opponent.

What issues drive the campaign? Nothing of great significance. There is no serious discussion about the problem of economic stagnation or decline for millions of Americans, nor is there a serious discussion about civil rights and gender discrimination. None of these issues seems to merit public debate from the candidates. The questions that rise to the surface are surreal, for example, these two: Hillary Clinton’s health and Donald Trump’s temperament. These dominate the airwaves. What is not considered are fundamentally important issues, such as hunger and war, police violence and land rights.

On the table

What would once have slithered in the back alleys of conspiracy theorists now makes its presence known in the plain light of day. Hillary Clinton almost falls at the anniversary of 9/11, and this evokes for the Right a theme about her being seriously ill. Explanations by the Hillary Clinton campaign that she has pneumonia are not sufficient. Since her trustworthiness is low, the Right picks at every opportunity to suggest that she is lying. Legitimate issues of concern about the corruption between the Clinton Foundation, the U.S. State Department and the Clintons themselves lose their credibility because the Right is promiscuous with its accusations. To suggest that Hillary Clinton’s coughing is hiding something deeper makes accusations about what she is really hiding (such as the deals done through the Clinton Foundation) illegitimate. Peter Schweizer’s investigative report, Clinton Cash, shows how governments and businesses from around the planet ploughed money into the Clinton Foundation so that they could get access to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Bad conspiracy theories crowd out legitimate theories of corrupt conspiracies. Regardless of the quality of the theory, the upshot is that a large section of the population finds Hillary Clinton to be untrustworthy. It is what will motivate it to vote against her.

That the old Grand Wizards of the racist Ku Klux Klan have backed Trump has prashad_the-death-of-the-nation_hi-resbecome the rallying cry for Hillary Clinton supporters. She called a section of Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables”. She was taken to task for demeaning Americans. Nonetheless, there is a considerable section of the U.S. population that distrusts and dislikes Trump. His flamboyance, his disregard for facts, his harsh rhetoric and his mean attitude to the less powerful make Trump anathema to liberals. It is easy to portray him as a fascist. Trump, it is said, is not ready to be President; he is too erratic, far too much a buffoon. That is what will drive liberals who are unenthusiastic about Hillary Clinton to the polls. The point that is often made is “look at the alternative” or, more plainly, “vote for the lesser of two evils”.

The Democratic establishment has seized on positive comments that Trump has made about Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Trump said that Putin was a strong leader and, perhaps most surprisingly, that Putin was a better leader than U.S. President Barack Obama. This fuelled outrage amongst liberals, who moved the needle of rhetoric into Cold War territory. Putin has emerged as a major threat in U.S. domestic politics. The language harks back to the Russian involvement in Ukraine and Syria and to suspicions of Russian hacks of the Democratic National Committee Internet system. Allegations that Putin is interested in interfering in the U.S. election are legion. That he would interfere to elect Trump President is a statement Democratic operatives make with great frequency. Association of Trump with Putin seeks to bring Trump down.

These are the issues that dominate CNN, Fox, MSNBC and the other networks. They study the polls as if they are the entrails of democracy—dead sheep or chickens lying disembowelled on a marble slab. Analysts and pollsters go over the data, wondering whether the issue is really Hillary Clinton’s health and Trump’s racism or just Putin. They do not turn their gaze to other political issues that burn up U.S. society. There has been little serious debate about police violence and the prevalence of guns in U.S. society.

While the media are obsessed with the Hillary Clinton-Trump match-up, Tyre King, a 13-year-old African-American boy, was shot to death by police officers. King was holding a toy gun when he was killed. The Mayor of Columbus, Ohio, where King was killed, said: “There is something wrong in this country, and it is bringing its epidemic to our city streets. And a 13-year-old is dead because of our obsession with guns and violence.”

This cultural problem should be front and centre in the debate, but it languishes on the side. Trump is wedded to the National Rifle Association’s membership, while Hillary Clinton straddles the gap between the Movement for Black Lives and the police unions. Neither is willing to fight the gun lobby and to propose a plan to bring social welfare into areas torn up by the meanness of unemployment and police brutality.

There has been little serious consideration of the endless wars that have not only brought instability to the world but have brought suffering inside the U.S. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Trump has a military background, and yet both masquerade as military people with belligerent foreign policies and a muscular attitude towards military service (a euphemism for war). But neither of the candidates has talked about the nearly 20 U.S. military veterans who commit suicide a day. In 2014, as many as 7,400 veterans killed themselves. That is twice the number of people who died on 9/11. There is little care that Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Yemen remain in conditions of great distress, with over a million people killed as U.S. military power whips its way from one end of Asia to the other end of Africa.

There is no endpoint to this war. It should have been at the centre of this presidential election. “Benghazi”, in this election, refers to Hillary Clinton’s lack of trustworthiness and not to Libya’s wrecked second city. There has been almost no discussion about the great suffering of millions of Americans, almost 50 million of whom live in poverty and tens of millions of whom suffer from acute hunger. Scare public resources continue to go towards the military-industrial complex. Recently, Obama signed a deal to provide Israel with $38 billion in military assistance. That is about $300 from each U.S. taxpayer. The bill for the Global War on Terror has now crept up to $4.4 trillion, a sum that is beyond comprehension. It is a habit of this system to put money into the police and into war rather than into easing the suffering of its own population.

In November, Americans will enter the polling booths. They will vote out of fear of the candidate they dislike. Significant issues that are before American society will not be on the table. No one is going to seriously entertain the questions that bother ordinary Americans who sit with their chequebooks at the kitchen table and wonder about job security, children’s education, prices of essential commodities, the vacations they cannot take and their dreams of a better life. Only shadows of these concerns will enter the stump speeches of the presidential candidates. Trust in the political process is naturally at a low point. Hands will rush to drop the ballots into the boxes, but this haste should not be mistaken for enthusiasm. It is a sign of frustration.

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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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