By Alan Bean
I was in the middle of a radio interview when I learned that Antonin Scalia was dead. A congressman was part of the discussion and his staffer was checking out her Twitter feed as her boss repeated talking points she could recite in her sleep. In a heartbeat her affect shifted dramatically, her eyes were saucers and her jaw dropped three inches.
She mouthed the words “Oh my God,” as she showed me the news on her I-phone.
Seconds after the enormity of the news registered in my little brain I was doing the political calculus. My heart should have gone out to Justice Scalia’s wife and family, but I am a man of unclean lips.
M first thought: Great, Obama will shift the ideological balance on the court from conservative to moderate in a single stroke.
My second thought: a Republican-dominated congress will never let that happen.
Within an hour or two the presidential candidates (who now speak for the Republican Party) were confirming my worst fears. This isn’t 2000 when the Democratic establishment broke a potentially disastrous stalemate by deciding to punt instead of gambling on fourth down.
Sixteen years ago, the ideological divide in America was crippling. Today, it’s unspeakably worse.
Barack Obama will nominate a worthy person for the position: likely male, hopefully a person of color.
His political base would revolt if he didn’t.
And the Republican-dominated Senate will use delaying tactics to ensure the nomination never comes to a vote.
The conservative base would revolt if they didn’t.
I don’t think it will play out that way; I know it will.
Of course, I’ve been wrong before.
On seventeen separate occasions I concluded that Donald Trump had gone too far for even the Republican base, and I have been wrong every time.
This has been a singularly clarifying election. Everybody has been wrong about everything and that means none of us know what’s going on.
The success of an intentionally obnoxious self-promoter like Donald Trump tells us just how frightened the Republican base has become. It’s afraid of ISIS; afraid of Mexican, Latin American and Syrian immigrants; afraid of bad guys with guns (read, “black males”); afraid of Wall Street fat cats and, most significantly, it’s afraid of establishment Republicans.
The “make American great again” message resonates even though the messenger is a a clown with bad hair and a flair for inserting reality show plot twists into business as usual politics.
“Don’t these people understand that Trump is a very bad person?” I ask myself. Every sensible American, Republican, Democrat and Independent, has been asking the same question. The thought of a Trump nomination has the GOP establishment apoplectic.
I suspect we’re not asking the right question. It seems a lot of folks out there are looking for a bad man. A very bad man. In the Michael Jackson sense of “bad”. They’re looking for an Ayn Randian Superman who will trample long-accepted standards of decency under foot if that’s what it takes for the fittest to survive.
I’m not saying that Donald Trump is attempting a comic take on the Antichrist meme; it’s just that, if this was his intention, he has succeeded admirably.
Trump’s disdain for “the least of these”, his xenophobic jingoism, his delight in torture, his unbounded arrogance, his vanity, profanity and fond embrace of redemptive violence are a demonic mirror image of the kingdom of God Jesus preached.
Ayn Rand despised Jesus as a sentimental weakling, and said so. The Donald can diss Jesus while waving a Bible in the air because, in this Brave New World, that’s all it takes to establish your religious bona fides.
Trump doesn’t know what Jesus stands for and he doesn’t care.
Developments on the blue side of American politics have been equally clarifying.
Who would have known that Paul Krugman, “the most dangerous liberal in America” thinks the moderate pragmatism of Barack Obama is as close to political Nirvana as the American Left will ever get. Sure, every other major democracy enjoys the kind of single-payer healthcare Bernie Sanders is screaming about, but it can never happen here. The heirs of Ronald Reagan have won the ideological argument, Krugman seems to be saying, and we’ve just got to live with it.
Hillary Clinton has the support of the Democratic establishment because she represents the brand of Republican-lite triangulation that might work in these partisan times.
Sure, she gets her money from Wall Street. But isn’t that kind of reassuring? The Republican base will always hate her because she’s . . . well, she’s Hillary. But if Bernie’s ‘billionaire class’ prefer Clintonian triangulation to the Theocratic antics of a Ted Cruz, the election is in the bag.
Some are comforted by this woeful argument; but the party’s emerging base (folks south of 50) is down with Bernie. He’s not as smooth as Obama nor as well-connected as the Clintons, but he’s genuine. He believes what he says, he’s been saying it for forty years, and he says it with conviction.
Here’s another clarifying mystery: a lot of voters are drawn to Trump and Sanders.
Sanders says what he believes in his heart. Trump may lack a heart, but he says whatever he feels like saying at the moment, and some of it is undeniably true. NAFTA (another piece of the Clintonian legacy) has been a disaster for the American working and middle classes, and Trump doesn’t mind saying so.
And isn’t this the dirty little secret of American economic life? NAFTA has been terrific for Bernie’s “billionaire class” and pretty good for the upper ten percent, but its been an unmitigated disaster for the rest of us.
It is an odd feature of our polarized politics that, until this election cycle, no one was free to point that out. But now a potty-mouthed sociopath on the Red Team and a cranky curmudgeon on the Blue Team are stating the obvious, loudly and without apology. And that might be the ultimate point of clarity emerging from the most bizarre political season I have ever witnessed.