Washington, D.C – If you want to see true Americanism at work, election year is your best exhibit. It is a mixture of partisan politics, sports events and showbiz, all rolled into a series of sometimes inspiring, sometimes disenchanting, but often malignantly juicy events containing flag-waving nationalism, ugly defamation war, wide-eyed optimism, embittered working-class populism, and just a dash of wonkiness.
Think Indonesia’s 2014 presidential election, multiplies it by 50 in scale and intensity, minus the dangdut and plus three centuries of two-party political system and the divisive issues and baggage that come with it, and you almost get the picture. Almost. For nothing even in America’s recent history compares to the toxic level of this election.
In fact, there is something seemingly at fault with democracy when Donald Trump, one of the most (if not the most) unqualified – by all standards – persons ever to run for president, even had a slight chance of beating Hillary Clinton, one of the most qualified persons ever to run, in the poll. Anyone with half a brain and a world view that is more nuanced than Sarah Palin’s can see that, and that’s saying a lot. Or maybe that is the point of democracy, to give access to power to the seemingly unelectable.
This came to mind recently as I was sitting in a sea of blue at Wells Fargo Center stadium during the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia. The convention had just been opened by Boys II Men, who apparently have not aged a day (at least seen from where I was sitting), and despite the festivity feel, there is an undeniable current of tension.
It had been an awkward morning for the Democrats, following the leak of a trove of embarrassing DNC emails. Some of those email showed Committee Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz favoring Clinton over rival Bernie Sanders during the presidential primaries.
After an ignominious attempt to conduct the convention in the morning, Schultz finally resigned just hours before it started, and hence begin the effort to dampen intraparty squabbling and to unify the party behind Clinton. The tension would eventually be eased that night, particularly after Sanders gave a rousing speech and officially endorsed Clinton.
In the meantime, from my stadium seat I caught a glimpse on the big screen on stage of Susan Sarandon sitting among the spectators. A couple of months earlier she had claimed that Clinton might be more dangerous than Trump. She still didn’t look very happy now.
Earlier that morning, I had also watched the Bernie crowd rallying on the street, carrying banners that read “Hillary for Prison” and “Bernie or Bust.” And much later on my way back to DC, a couple of these protestors would confront me in a hostile manner at the train station’s restroom for wearing an “H” T-shirt I bought at DNC that I had changed into because I was soaking wet from the rain.
But those few hours sitting at the stadium, watching one politician and figure after another make their best efforts – to rousing cheers (and the occasional jeers from the Bernie-or-Bust crowd) – to convince people that this election was bigger than Bernie or Hillary, I came to understand what was at stake.
This is an election in which the Americans will decide what kind of nation they see themselves. This is not just a poll to choose what kind of future their country will have, which is what an election is essentially all about. Rather this is a referendum to decide the spirit of America they identify the best.
Is this a nation of angry defeatist people (“This country is a hellhole. We are going down fast,” Trump said) who believe only one person can save it? One that embraces racism, bigotry and a general lack of civility, and celebrated political incorrectness as the true spirit of America? Or is this a country that, in the words of President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, is “already great.” One that believes that everyone is equal and whose asset is its people’s resilience and their deep sense of decency and compassion.
The DNC wisely chose to highlight this contrast. They also showed that what makes America great is the diversity that makes up the fabric of its society. On stage was the first undocumented migrant to become a state senator, the first lesbian house speaker, a representative who was active in the civil rights movement, a disability rights advocate, the Muslim parents of an Army captain who was killed in Iraq (whom Trump later appallingly attacked, as you probably have read). On stage was First Lady Michelle Obama, a black woman who noted the profundity of waking up every morning in a house built by slaves merely 200 years ago.
The message: this is what American exceptionalism is all about.
In his valedictory speech during the convention, President Obama referred to America as the “shining city on a hill,” ironically quoting one of conservatives’ most beloved presidents the late Ronald Reagan, a stark contrast to Trump’s dark and gloomy vision. It was a message that continued to reverberate throughout the convention, reinforced by the nominee Clinton herself. When the other candidate gained followers by exaggerating fears and painting America as a nation in decline (touting himself as the only solution), the best way to counter it is to present that attitude as “un-American.”
I must admit, it was a very uplifting message that I had not expected to come at such full force from the Democrat. Neither did the media and the pundits, it seems. They, too, note an apparent political and ideological “role reversal” between the Democrats and the Republicans. The Republicans have traditionally prided themselves as the party of optimism and confidence, who happily flex America’s muscles in the global politics, while the Democrats have been more critical of the nation’s flaws and less eager to assert power internationally.
But there is a strategic interest in this, and not just because Obama, a Democrat, had led the country for the past two terms. With gaffes after gaffes of Trumpism in the past year, the Republicans must have realized that their standard bearer cannot be trusted to change and become “more presidential”. Events in the past week alone have shown that his rhetoric has gone from bad to worse, from ridiculous to seriously menacing.
So, part of Clinton’s campaign has since targeted Republicans who feel increasingly uncomfortable to vote for their own party’s nominee (like the dozens or so GOP and conservative figures who have come out publicly to denounce Trump and support Hillary). By doing so – sometimes moving center right of the political spectrum, such as on security issue – she risks alienating the more progressive and liberal left of the Democrats (remember the Bernie-or-Bust people?), but it is a choice that one has to make when the stakes are this high.
As comedian and political commentator Bill Maher said: “There is no room for boutique liberal issues in an Armageddon election.”
Anyway, when your name is Hillary Clinton, you have lived your whole public life fending off attacks from left and right, and the book-length list of your four-decade long accomplishments are more likely to be ignored than your latest transgression, like an email scandal, which, in fact, has also affected President George W. Bush administration.
Meanwhile, the Donald’s phenomenal rise appears to have stalled and even reversed. The latest polls show Clinton’s lead over Trump continues to widen after the convention, including in states with the closest results in 2012 election. Perhaps America has finally woken up and realized that he is nothing but a big-talking politician, a bullshit artist, a self-promoting and ethically questionable businessman, a schoolyard bully, a Twitter troll, an aspiring dictator, and a dog-whistling racist. And those who haven’t either need to wake up, or, well, maybe they are lost causes to begin with.
Read Devi’s blog on Trump’s nation of fears and follow @dasmaran on Twitter.