Fans are too emotionally attached to the object of their affection to vote responsibly. Fans have no capacity for discernment. And discernment is the life-blood of a healthy democratic republic. The engaged citizen and political actor must be fully armed with robust powers of discernment in order to make informed decisions and be rational actors. I don’t know if America ever lived up to that ideal but it is abundantly clear that we cannot be further away from it than we are today. It is fair to question if we have the collective will or the skill to reverse course and preserve the system that we have built as currently constituted. I think not- and that is probably a good thing. This discussion could quite easily be described as an obituary for the value of discernment in American politics.
It pains me to write these words but on a number of recent occasions Donald Trump has been proven to be right on some critical issues. Those issues never relate to policy of course- he lacks the intellect, background or insight to accurately analyze complex issues beyond how he swirls that thing over his head.
Instead, Trump has been correct on matters revolving around the temperature and tenor of our politics. It was supposed to be the death of his campaign when he said “My people are so loyal. I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and not lose any voters, ok.” But the events of the last week reflect that he was right. Trump does not really have constituents. Trump has fans. For that reason, when the news broke that Trump had gunned down someone on a busy Manhattan street I’d bet my check that the political needle would barely budge.
The outrage would come only from voices and voters that have always opposed Trump anyway and his fans- from those who voted for him in secret to those who shilled for him openly- would be unmoved because they REALLY like having Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court and they REALLY need those tax cuts to go through. We have learned from Donald Trump that there are people in this country- people who are taken seriously and are in positions of great influence- that would sell their mothers to the Taliban for a big tax cut and to ban abortion. Ask them to have a level discussion about the flagrant co-ordination of the Trump campaign with Russian operatives and you get the see no-evil, hear no evil, speak no evil monkey posture until the discussion turns to Hilary Clinton and suddenly they become conscious again.
It didn’t seem possible that American politics could take a turn for the worse when it has appeared we’ve been at our worst for a year now. But something just happened that signaled that we have found a new bottom to hit- and we hit it so hard we knocked a hole in it. Hypocrisy has gone beyond being normalized and is now the celebrated standard operating procedure of one of our major political parties- and it happens to be the one that is running the whole show right now. What is even worse, some in the other major political party are playing along like a paid stooge or a patsy. Kind of like the Washington Generals- the longtime fall-guy opponent of The Harlem Globetrotters- except in this case the game is real and lives are on the line.
Follow the bouncing ball, my friends, because this chain of events is a game changer and we need to be aware of exactly what happened and when it happened. Political scientists and historians will be reflecting on it for many years to come.
The moment Donald Trump decided to go into full on attack mode against Senator Al Franken because of the revelation that Al had an incident of sexual misconduct in 2006, America sustained a catastrophic injury and our national spinal cord was snapped. The crucial connection between our national political consciousness and our body politic was severed and the survival of both is now in imminent danger. Like when that injury occurs in real life, we may not die but we are in the worst shape imaginable and it will be a long and grueling rehabilitation process before we can even walk again.
Here is why this Trump attack represents such a devastating blow: We are in the midst of a sexual assault and child molestation scandal with Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore and Trump has not uttered a single word in opposition to his candidacy. Trump has stood in silence as Moore continues his march from the sticks of Alabama to the glitz of Capitol Hill despite compelling evidence that he sexually assaulted a 16 year old and molested a 14 year old- both while in his 30’s and working as the Assistant District Attorney for Etowah County. And of course Trump himself has at least 15 women who have come out publicly and accused him of sexual assault and harassment- and in response he called them all liars and threatened to sue them after the election. When challenged by the press corps about the apparent hypocrisy in Trump’s attack on Franken, his sickening press secretary answered “The difference is clear. Al Franken admitted wrong-doing and the President has admitted to nothing.”
And with that one statement the social contract that serves as the foundation of our national political consciousness was irretrievably broken. Sarah Huckabee Sanders just articulated the official position that the winning play in American politics today is to lie and deny any wrongdoing regardless of the evidence and attack others who have acknowledged mistakes, apologized for them, and sought forgiveness and redemption. In short: the official position just became to reward telling lies and punish telling the truth at the highest levels of our politics and governance. By any measure that is a death blow.
And it is obvious from a few minutes of viewing Fox News that she has gotten away with selling that toxic position on Trump’s behalf. Discernment died in American politics in that moment because about half of American citizens have agreed to intentionally suspend their capacity for rational thought if any information is presented that happens to conflict with their political party affiliation or political agenda. Our political system cannot operate with a voting public that is willfully ignorant to who and what the candidates are that they are voting for- and because they are no longer interested in utilizing their own basic powers of discernment that is exactly where we are.
The Republicans have abandoned even the pretense of a “country over party” ideology. Their collective answer is “f*ck the country, we can’t let the Democrats win.” Alabamans would rather send a child molester to the Senate than to send a Democrat and they will pretend NOT to know or believe that he is a child molester. To put this in terms these people should be able to understand: there is vastly more compelling evidence that Roy Moore is a child molester than there is evidence that President Barack Obama is a Muslim or was born in Kenya- and a huge majority of them believe that.
And although discernment was mortally wounded at the hand of the GOP voter in the general election of 2016, it was surviving on life support until some on the Democratic side reflected a blindness that is almost as shocking. New York Senator Kristin Gilibrand helped to finish the killing when she decided to weigh in on all of the uprush of press coverage of sexual misconduct in general and threw her lightweight hat into the ring with her announcement that Bill Clinton should have resigned the presidency during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. This was a shockingly stupid statement from a woman who has every reason to know better but evidently had more reason to try and grab some light and attention for herself while the getting was good.
Anybody who cannot distinguish between the facts of the Bill Clinton White House sex scandal and the facts of the scandal surrounding Roy Moore’s Senate candidacy or Al Franken’s juvenile shenanigans ten years before he ever took any government position is either willfully blind or intellectually unfit for the Senate. The inability to recognize how contexts change drastically over the course of two decades is disqualifying for anyone in leadership. But that reflects the sour reality that right after discernment died, our entire system started to circle the drain.
And identifying the reason why this happened also explains the solution that could show us what a healthy political future looks like. We only have the desperation to support abhorrent candidates like Roy Moore or Donald Trump (aka, Putin’s puppet) or to take ridiculous positions to grab attention like Kristin Gillibrand because of our antiquated two party political system.
Our country has long outgrown this system of binary choices that winds up leaving a great number of people voting AGAINST somebody they don’t like rather than FOR somebody they really support and believe in. It is a lot easier to gin up anger and resentment than it is to earn the respect and affection of voters organically. Three or four way hate-mongering is impractical, complex and unpredictable.
The only way to bring discernment back from the dead is to introduce more voting choices and force the two parties to actually build an appeal beyond NOT being the other one. Pay close attention to Trump supporters and how angry they are all the time. Hostility is what they ran and won on and it is what protects Roy Moore from his lecherous and disgusting past right now. They’ve got nothing else so they can’t let it go. And as an electoral strategy it might not be smart to. Because we have seen in the starkest of terms that when people hate your opponent, you can tell them anything and they will believe you and fall in line. That is un-American and whatever it takes we must break that model.