The 2016 election season started last year with a cheap stunt. The roguish clown Donald Trump set fire to the circus tent, then made fun of the fleeing performers. Many of us laughed in a sick sort of way, enjoying the Republican distress.
Next the campaign became a cartoonish version of reality TV, with naughty name-calling and occasional sexual innuendo. Shock radio, with Trump playing Howard Stern.
Now the nation has reached the final act—the election itself—and it’s not funny. We are watching a dark opera with exaggerated characters. Hillary Clinton is cast as Lady Macbeth, with bloody hands and a sinister laugh. Donald Trump is the hateful con artist on the street corner, selling poisonous drugs to TV-addicted citizens. Customers know Trump’s hate-tinged elixir is probably bad for them, but it makes them feel good.
The suspense is terrifying, but the ratings are off the charts. Because the chaos of 2016 is like watching the great national train wreck about to happen, and there’s no way out. People want to look away but they keep watching with helpless fascination. There’s a sick feeling that the country probably loses, whichever character wins.
Whom should we blame? Obviously Donald Trump, many people would say, but I think that’s way too easy. Trump took down the Republican Party and threatens to do the same with the Democrats because, in his feral cunning, he knew that both parties were fraudulent institutions. Trump would say “stupid.”
He demolished the Grand Old Party while he hijacked the fading working-class credentials of the Democratic Party. He succeeded in this by demonstrating that both parties are out of touch and distant from the very people they claimed to represent.
This was forcefully demonstrated, not by Trump himself, but by their confused reaction to him. Republicans didn’t see it coming, though they had plenty of warnings that rebellion was threatened. Until very recently, Democrats assumed Trump the clown would be their asset, guaranteeing heavy turnout to make sure Trump loses (there’s less talk now of a sure bet).
The confusion and hollowness of both political parties has not been a secret. Citizens left, right, and center have been giving up on electoral politics and the two-party system for decades. The nation’s largest political party is the “don’t bother” party—roughly half of the adult population who see no reason to vote, and nothing in it for them. Instead of scolding them, an active political party might look into the cause-and-effect of dysfunctional democracy and try to change it.
Both Democrats and Republicans took the easy way out in modern politics and accepted the gilded cage of the money-drenched political system. There are no longer real political parties composed of active members and layers of local and national organizations that vet candidates, debate policy issues, and ask grassroots citizens what they think. As I wrote many years ago, the Democratic Party is now simply a mail drop for political money. Likewise for Republicans, except the Republicans are more business-like in harvesting corporate money, fulfilling their instructions.