Political and social situation has deteriorated
There is a sense that the 2016 election is unique. There are two candidates who are enormously unpopular, each utterly loathed by the supporters of the other. Each candidate has sought to make the case that the election of the other would have catastrophic consequences. Each has their albatross to carry, whether it is a mail server or an old video. Many believe that we have never seen an election like this.
Defining how this election is different is important. It is not simply the fact that two candidates who are both widely disliked according to the polls are running. What is distinctive about this election is the extent to which large segments of the electorate are not merely divided but are actually enraged at each other. Supporters of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton not only hate the opposing candidate, but they hold the other’s supporters in contempt.
According to Trump supporters, they are running against the financial, media and other elites who have imposed an alien ideology on the United States in order to serve their interests. Clinton represents that ideology. According to Clinton supporters, Trump’s campaign represents a fascist movement built on racism and ultra-nationalism, presided over by a personality not unlike Mussolini. It goes beyond the candidates, and that’s what’s important. Clinton’s supporters think of Trump’s supporters as rednecks and trailer trash. Trump’s supporters think of Clinton’s supporters as politically correct snobs, attempting to impose foreign values on the country.
It is the bitterness that is striking and the sense that the country has culturally ripped into two parts. But there is a third part of the country as bitter and alienated as the other two. These are the voters that despise both candidates, their supporters and the manner in which they think the country is being wrecked. It is not appropriate to call this group the centre. At the moment, there is no centre, since the Republican is running against Wall Street and the Democrat is saying that not only half of Republican supporters are racists, but that the other half are economic losers.
Historically, Republicans have been seen as backing the financial community, while Democrats have been seen as supporting the little guy. The world appears turned on its head, and the third group wants to take it back to the way it was, ideologically and in terms of demeanour. This group should not be disregarded, as it is rarely aroused, but when it is, it can reset the system.
The political and social situation has certainly deteriorated. But it is important not to think of this as unprecedented. Since World War II, we have seen approximations of this mood twice before. Once was in 1952, when Harry Truman was forced to decline a run at reelection because of overwhelmingly negative poll numbers. The second was in 1968, when the campaign was punctuated by gunfire and riots. This is not the first campaign built around apocalyptic paranoia, where everyone is convinced that if the other side wins, the country will collapse. The personal clash between the candidates might not have been the same, but the canyon dividing the country was.
When Harry Truman declined to run in 1952, Adlai Stevenson won the Democratic nomination and Dwight Eisenhower won the Republican nomination. There was nothing odd about this. What was not normal were the circumstances around the election and the role of Joseph McCarthy. The Cold War had broken out, with a crisis in Berlin and a war in Korea. McCarthy and his team began searching for communists.
Now, that was not unreasonable, although good spies are hard to catch. Obviously, Moscow had spies in D.C. just as Washington had them in Moscow. What McCarthy did, however, was speak of conspiracies so vast they had never been seen before. He created a sense that the United States had been penetrated at the highest levels by communist