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Looking into the abyss

  • Published at 12:01 am September 4th, 2016
Looking into the abyss

America may have entered a toxic new political era.

I try not to think of US politics these days because they scare me. This is not because I think that Donald Trump will be our next president, but because I feel that we may have entered a new, and even more toxic, political era.

I think we may be looking into the abyss that the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche saw when he wrote: “If you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” Nietzsche explained what he meant: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”

When Nietzsche referred to an “abyss,” he usually meant the philosophical concept of nihilism, the catch-all meaning of which can be summarised as believing in nothing, having no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy.

Recently, a commentator on a national newscast said that Donald Trump was taking us to the darkest places of human character -- racism, misogyny, violence, and bigotry. In response, his opponent Hillary Clinton is making speeches calling Trump a racist, bigot, misogynist, and purveyor of violence. Where is the alternative liberal/moderate version of the future she should be spelling out?

At present, Clinton seems almost certain to win the election. She is polling up to 10 percentage points better than Trump in recent surveys. The most reliable political poll, which has been spot on in the last several presidential elections makes Clinton the odds on favourite (84%) to win on November 8.

But both candidates have what pollsters call high negatives. About 35% of the voters (even some who say they will vote for her) dislike and distrust Clinton. That would be disaster for most candidates in most elections, but this election is very different; in the most recent polls, 51% percent of the voters said they dislike Trump (even some who say they will vote for him because they dislike Clinton more). So about 85% of the American voters who will vote in the 2016 election dislike and mistrust both candidates.

That doesn’t seem like much of an incentive to vote, but in this election the incentives are all negative. Many Clinton voters will be voting primarily against Trump, instead of for Clinton, as the prospect of a Trump presidency is fearsome. Some of Trump’s votes will come from voters who are voting against Hillary, but the great core of his supporters probably would vote for Trump if his opponent were squeaky clean.

Despite recent changes in his campaign (see below), they evidently are convinced that their candidate remains hostile to immigration, trade agreements, globalisation, minorities, and the like.

Even though she is ahead in the polls, Clinton has not been able to escape the questionable issues that plague her campaign. Yes, some of these stem from Republican efforts to smear her. The entire Benghazi controversy is an example of this kind of issue (only Republicans believe it).

But some have moral overtones, such as the email controversy, are the result of her own, perhaps unwitting, but questionable choices. And some come from the complication of being married to a former president who may also have blind spots when it comes to conflict of interest, and who has been managing and fund-raising for a foundation of which he is justly proud.

We have seen in the past week or so changes in the Trump campaign organisation and (possibly linked to) back-peddling on policy. Trump is trying to repackage himself. In scripted speeches (which until last week he has avoided, preferring to riff off the cuff) he said he regretted some of the things he had said on the campaign trail, and was sorry if he had caused personal pain.

But not only was it a tepid and very unspecific “apology,” (not one such transgression was specified or apologised for), it was as one political blog noted 107 days late. Its lack of specificity and ambiguity did not seem to have mollified any of his targets, including especially the Khan family who he attacked not in the heat of verbal battle, but in interviews hours and days after his callous remarks. This attack hurt him badly, and he knew it; yet no direct apology to the Khans -- or to Carley Fiorina, Megan Kelly, or Judge Curiel.

Trump is reported to be also interested is this vision, and in using such a media outlet to build an alt right movement and/or media empire with the Trump brand on it

Since then, the rebranding has proceeded with hints that he wouldn’t necessarily deport all 12 million undocumented aliens. He seemed to say that he would adopt a plan not much different than the one that the Obama administration is now using.

This, of course, illustrated the dangers of political rebranding, as he was immediately attacked by two of his most well-known and influential supporters, Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter, for waffling on his earlier promise.

There has been much made by the media of a new Trump, as there was of the old one. For the TV networks in particular, the more airtime Trump receives, the higher the revenues. This gave him an advantage during the primaries, but not so much now.

But his core support group, to now, reading between the lines, sees the same nativist, outsider persona he has always adopted. He has not refuted, or even weakened, the basic themes his campaign has been based on. Nor is there reason to believe the apologia that some of his more intellectual supports assert -- that he really doesn’t mean the policy modifications he has hinted at, he is just espousing them to get elected.

Whether his core support would remain firm if he makes it clear he does mean them is questionable. It would signal he really will throw what seemed to be his bottom-line principles under the bus to get elected. If not, then he assuredly has another destination in mind.

And then, other changes he has made this week in his campaign raise another interesting question. How strong, really, is his desire to win? By adding Steve Bannon, who comes directly from managing the Breitbart News site, Trump has dipped deeply into the “alt right” grab bag. The term “alt right,” for those who don’t recognise it, is used to describe a neo-reactionary, populist, nativist ideology that is an alternative (thus “alt”) to mainstream conservatism in the US.

It is opposed, inter alia, to multi-culturalism and immigration. I gather from other writers that Bannon, whose Breitbart site has a small but devoted following, feels that Fox News has gone too mainstream, and he envisages building Breitbart into a rival conservative media voice. Trump is reported to be also interested is this vision, and in using such a media outlet to build an alt right movement and/or media empire with the Trump brand on it.

And thus, the second worst of all possible election outcomes: A President Clinton who lacks the confidence of a sizeable segment of American society and is thus unable to exert strong leadership; and a growing and shrill nativist, populist movement rivaling the “know-nothing” movement of 160 years ago.

William Milam is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, DC, and former US Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh. This article previously appeared in The Friday Times.