While we may get another scandal later this week (and why not), it would be fitting if this was how the 2016 presidential election ended: with the media in an utter frenzy and Republicans carried aloft on a wave of joyous outrage over a story about Hillary Clinton that has literally zero substance to it, but consists only of speculation about hypothetical crimes that someone might have committed.
This is what happens when a party nominates Donald Trump to represent it. The Republican reaction to the James Comey mess highlights the moral and psychological compromises the GOP has made in order to justify its choice, and this will poison our politics for years to come.
Right now there are basically two kinds of Republicans, if we set aside that small number who have decided that they simply cannot support Trump. There are the enthusiastic Trump supporters, and then there are the reluctant ones, who find him repellent but nonetheless prefer him to the alternative. Both these groups have convinced themselves that Hillary Clinton is not merely wrong on the issues or even unethical, but positively evil, a figure of such transcendent malevolence that American politics has never seen anything like her before.
Consider this poll out today from Politico and Morning Consult, which asked whether respondents agreed with Donald Trump’s assertion that, as the poll read, “the issues around Clinton’s emails are worse than Watergate.” Eighty-two percent of Republicans said they agreed. Eighty-two percent.
So that’s become an almost universal belief among Republicans: Clinton’s use of a private server for her emails is worse than the worst political scandal in American history, in which an entire panoply of crimes was committed by dozens of people, including break-ins and money-laundering and document-forging and obstruction of justice, in which those who went to prison included the attorney general, the White House chief of staff, and the president’s chief domestic policy adviser, in which the president of the United States resigned after his own party informed him he was about to be impeached and would surely be convicted. The email story is worse than that.
This is not merely wrong or ahistorical. It’s lunacy. It’s like saying, “This paper cut I got on my finger? Worse than pancreatic cancer.”
Or if you’d like a more personal flavor for what this kind of thinking looks like on the ground, here’s how a story yesterday from Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star leads off:
“She’s a whore,” said Jim Brewster, a 62-year-old farmer, as he walked into the bakery for some coffee.
“Murderous, rotten, no-good, pious … bitch,” said Waldo Ward, a 60-something retiree, as he left Walmart with Halloween candy for the neighbourhood kids. “She should be taken out and shot. Absolutely.”
“I confess that I’m a Christian, and I shouldn’t hate, but it’s awful close,” said Charles Graves, a smiling 71-year-old recently retired from a career in logistics.
“It’s not like I’m not a Donald Trump fan,” said Rusty Gibson, 47, an electrician. “But it’s like good versus evil.”
Dale didn’t go a Trump rally to get these quotes; he just visited a random town in Virginia.
To be sure, there are many conservatives who would never use those kinds of terms to describe Clinton, and they can make a rational case for voting for Trump based on simple policy preferences. Despite his obvious lack of sincerity or interest in policy, he’ll have no particular reason not to follow through on most of what he has said he’ll do, if for no other reason than the fact that he’ll fill out the executive branch with Republican officials who will do pretty much what they would have done under any Republican president.
But what those more reasonable conservatives can’t say is that Trump isn’t an awful person. He’s an obvious misogynist, he’s an utter ignoramus, he’s a xenophobic bigot, he’s an appalling narcissist, he’s without question the most startlingly dishonest person ever to run for president, he has an almost pathological need to take vengeance on anyone who criticizes him, he’s an advocate of all manner of violent brutality, he has a long history of stiffing small businesspeople who do work for him, he does things like walk into dressing rooms full of teenage girls so he can watch them undress (a trick he bragged about using on adult beauty contestants), he has mounted one business scam after another to take money from unsuspecting marks, he cheats on his wives, he takes credit for charitable contributions he doesn’t make, he has naked contempt for the most fundamental principles of democracy — in other words, though as far as we know he hasn’t actually killed anyone with his bare hands, Donald Trump is just about the worst human being you’re ever likely to encounter.
So if that’s your candidate and you realize all this — even if you think that some of those personality traits and pieces of personal history are, in the end, not all that meaningful to the job he’s seeking — it’s even more important to argue that his opponent is far, far worse. And given how epically repugnant Trump is, you have to work hard to convince yourself that Hillary Clinton is an absolute monster.
This is what brings enthusiastic and reluctant Trump supporters together: their shared belief in Clinton’s all-encompassing villainy. The kind of rhetoric you hear from Trump every single day at his rallies is unprecedented in modern history, and everyone in the party has become invested in it. Either you’re a Trumpster shouting “Lock her up!” or you’re someone like Paul Ryan whose argument is essentially, “Sure Trump is awful, but Clinton is such an ungodly fiend that we have to support him.” Both groups agree on Clinton, and both have reason to paint her in the worst possible terms, not just to others but to themselves.
At this point there’s absolutely nothing that could persuade either group otherwise, because we’re at the tail end of this psychological journey they’ve been on. As Greg noted this morning, if the FBI ends up declaring that there’s nothing new or incriminating in Huma Abedin’s emails, Trump’s fans will become even more enraged; it won’t be a problem for them to swing right back to believing that the whole Justice Department is in on the conspiracy, or at the very least that the full measure of Clinton’s unspeakable crimes has simply yet to be revealed.
If you think that all this will fade into the past once the election is over, you’re fooling yourself. Republican officeholders will arrive on Capitol Hill ready to wage war on this demon they’ve built up in their own minds — and they’ll know that if they waver, they’ll be pilloried by constituents whose loathing of Clinton has been brought by this campaign to levels that we couldn’t even have imagined before it began. That could well be the central dynamic of the next four years, as Clinton tries to move forward on policy and Republicans compete to see who can present themselves as the most venomous Clinton-hater in Washington. Sounds like a terrific recipe for responsible governing, doesn’t it?