A Declaration of Independence, from Trump

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Should Donald Trump win the presidency, a prospect that looks almost impossible at the moment I am writing this, he certainly wouldn’t be the first misogynists and philanderer to occupy the White House, but he would be the first populist demagogue since Andrew Jackson who had broken through to that office, and everything he says leads me to believe he would, whether out of ignorance or the desire for the efficiency and the rush of power,  either disregard or even begin to dismantle our now over two century old constitutional order.

Thankfully, and barring some catastrophe, or some scandal regarding Hillary Clinton so troubling it erases her current advantage (a prospect that given the Clinton’s history is uncomfortably possible), Trump will in all likelihood lose. The immediate task will then be to shore up the legitimacy of the system with his followers who will likely doubt the results.

My prayer is that none of the disappointed whom Trump has whipped into a frenzy over a “rigged” election turn his dark and violent words into actual bloodshed. Indeed, Trump may be on the verge of tying together a host of disturbing, contemporary trends to create something genuinely new- a political movement as pure spectacle whose goal isn’t so much power as to nurture the desire for revolution only to feed off of the very individuals it cast as heroes crushed by a sinister and cruel order.

That’s the real danger: that we’re only at the beginning, rather than near the end, of this already exhausting drama. Conservative commentator, and, from the beginning outspoken opponent of Trump George Will thinks that Trump might be like chemotherapy for the GOP, his historic loss ultimately purging it of those who either never held the core principles of America’s libertarian brand of conservatism, or were more than willing to surrender them when it became politically expedient. Yet it is just as likely that Trump will end up being the midwife of a politico-media entity that would be like cancer itself eating away at the legitimacy of the the body-politic in which it lives.

Even discounting the potential for violence that would come from such a permanent movement of this sort, that’s a pretty dark vision, so let me close my eyes and imagine a much brighter scenario. That Trump on losing the election does what every other political figure, regardless of how nasty, has done since the birth of the Republic- that he graciously admits his legitimate defeat. To make my day dream even brighter, after his loss, Trump slithers away from the political world and back under his glittering rock of beauty pageants and Trump Success eau de toilette spray from which he came never to be heard from again.

Now to wake up- even if Trump and his Trumpians disappear from the political scene, it is still the case there will remain a hell of a lot of work to do, which we should have known had we ever watched The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (though I was always a Letterman man myself.) On The Tonight Show Leno used to do a skit where he’d walk the streets of New York. He would stop people and ask questions every American should know about the country’s history and politics such as “What do we celebrate on the 4th of July?” Or “Who is the vice president?”. The gag was just how horribly wrong people answered these questions. It was a funny segment, but also kind of, well… sad.

What we’ve seen in this election is how such ignorance can be turned into a weapon. And I don’t mean ignorance as in stupidly, as in Trump and his supporters are somehow stupid. Trump is anything but stupid, and if the people who follow him whom I personally know are a representative sample, neither are his followers. Rather it’s that that both Trump and his loyalists seem to be either ignorant or uncommitted to the very principles that hold our quite fragile polity together in the first place.

The proof I have of this assertion is not only statements that Trump himself has made, but that he has apparently never lost core on account of them. Instead, what seems to be sinking his campaign is the same sort of sexual character accusations we’ve be accustomed to for quite some time, and which almost destroyed the presidency of the spouse of his rival.

Democrats have aggressively, and sometimes shamefully, tried to personalize Trump’s political attacks, a tactic that’s probably effective, but which muddies the principle- we give rights to people despite the fact that we dislike them. In fact, it’s the people we dislike the most who are in greatest need of rights. Trump, and that means the perhaps forty percent of Americans who think he’s a fit candidate for office, have shown disregard or ignorance of rights guaranteed by the constitution in at least the following ways:

In other words, in modern times we’ve never seen a political figure show such ignorance of, or disregard for, the very principles which hold our country together. More importantly we’ve never seen what is actually an anti-constitutional movement become the animating force behind a major political party. And while some might think this signals that the so-called “American Creed” has had its day, we might also conclude that this election has taught us the importance of not only the constitution itself- in providing protections against want to be tyrants- but the necessity of remembering, or even merely learning- and teaching our children- what its principles and protections actually are.

Painting: “A Christian Dirce”, by Henryk Siemiradzki.

 

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Is the internet killing democracy?

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Standing as we are with our nose so tightly pressed against the glass, it’s impossible to know what exactly the current, crazy presidential election will mean, not just for American, democracy, but for the future of democracy itself. Of course, much of this depends on the actual outcome of the election, when the American public will either chose to cling to a system full of malware,  corrupted and buggy, yet still functional, or risk everything on a hard reboot. This would include the risk that we might never be able to reset the clock to the time before we had plunged over the abyss and restore an order that while outdated, ill-designed, and running up against the limits of both still managed to do the job.

Then again, even if Americans don’t go for a hard reboot, that we is avoid electing Trump, it might not be the end of the sort of virus, or even Trojan Horse, his near election had represented. Perhaps instead we’re only at the beginning of the process where the internet breaks democracy.

In less than six weeks we’ll learn a number of very important things about the impact of the 21st century communications technologies on democracy, including how such technologies are likely to be used in elections. For one, we’ll learn whether the centralized, data driven and highly targeted type of voter mobilization pioneered by the Obama reelection campaign in 2012- and now being replicated by Hillary Clinton- is more effective than the kind of shoestring budget, crowd-seeding strategy of Trump which has been technological in the sense that it takes advantage of the major weakness of our age of balkanized media, namely its inability to hold our attention, and thus its over reliance on scandalous behavior to capture our eyes and ears. Trump has also deftly used platforms such as Twitter to do an end run around established media and political institutions. His campaign is a kind of tabloid-addicted media, Twitter enabled coup against the dominant elites, first, of the GOP, and ultimately of the country itself. And neither the elites nor the rest of us non-elites praying for a Trump defeat would necessarily be completely out of the woods should Clinton actually win the election.

A few months back, in the small city of Altoona Pennsylvania, not far from where I live, Trump gave a speech in which he said that the only way Clinton could win the election was if it was “rigged”. From the perspective of those located in the post-industrial wasteland that comprises much of Pennsylvania  the idea that a Clinton victory is only possible through some type of conspiracy will make a great deal of sense. On the street I live on, perhaps one out of every four homes sprouts a Trump sign. The rest of the town is like that as are many of the small communities between here and Schuylkill county, where Trump’s usual catchphrase “Make America Great Again”, is often replaced with “Trump digs coal”.

Once while driving home from work my eyes nearly popped out of my head as I thought I had spotted a Hillary sign on a local lawn. It ended up being a poster that read “Hillary for Prison.” In all of my travels throughout the state I have seen only two actual “Vote Hillary” signs, and both of them were in the progressive, prosperous bubble of State College. If I didn’t actually trust in much of what the media tells me, and never traveled beyond the Pennsylvania rust belt, I’d guess Trump would beat Clinton in a landslide. I wonder what many of my neighbors will think when he doesn’t.

A replay of the election fiasco of Bush vs Gore might be very different sixteen years later given the fact that Trump has shown such willingness to step outside political norms, and has at least suggested that he might violate the most deeply held norm, that US elections are essentially fair and therefore should not be contested. Unlike the Bush vs Gore election, Trump vs Clinton occurs in an environment where the mainstream media and the leadership of the major political parties face competition from internet (and radio) enabled alternative media, and political actors are able to connect directly with the base of the party. And none of this takes into account the possibility that the election could be disrupted in such a way as to call into question its actual outcome even among those who appear to have gotten the result they were hoping for.

Such doubts might come from a domestic source bent on disrupting the election for political ends, or even the prospect of financial gain, by, for instance, short selling the markets before the vote takes place. Then again, such interference seems much more likely to come from a foreign source, most notably Russia, which has already, it appears, collaborated with Wikileaks to discredit Hillary Clinton. Russia’s real intention here seems less to help Trump and harm Clinton than to spread a pall of suspicion over American elections themselves. Though, given Trump’s ties and affection for the Kremlin a Trump win would be the sour cream on Putin’s smetannik.

Our digital communications architecture might also play a role in this disruption. As Bruce Schneier has pointed out our electronic voting systems are alarmingly vulnerable to being hacked. And unlike when I order an MTO at Sheetz, my vote doesn’t generate a paper receipt. Even an unfounded rumor that widespread electronic tampering had taken place might give an otherwise fair election the taint of illegitimacy. A belief that would be fostered and inflamed by those in alternative media for whom conspiracy theories and the revolt against elites has become their bread and butter.

None of this is to suggest that civil war would be the outcome of a Clinton victory. Rather, it is to wonder out loud whether the internet, and above the balkanization media and erosion of political parties it brings, might just end up killing democracy, whether through a sudden heart attack, which is what an actual Trump victory (or widespread violence in the face of his defeat, or even such violence as a response to his victory) would mean, or, as seems more likely, the kind of slow terminal cancer a Clinton victory lacking traditional legitimacy might come to represent where one- by- one the necessary components of the system decay and ultimately fail in the face of a constantly mutating and spreading enemy that emerged from our own cells.