It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair… Charles Dickens
After a bruising, long, tedious and toxic primary campaign, the Republican and Democratic parties, held their modern equivalents of Bread and Circuses spectacles of antiquity, also known as the national conventions, with their uniquely American rituals of color, sound and fury and selected Donald J. Trump the thuggish scoundrel native of New York, and Hillary R. Clinton, the most untrustworthy and calculating candidate in recent years, a New Yorker by choice. Watching and listening to scores of speakers – and yes cheap political performers, particularly among the Republicans- engaging in boundless self-righteousness and moral and political excesses, summoning up fear and trepidation as their primary tools of recruitment, I was reminded of that old Arab proverb describing the dilemma of choosing, when all your options are noxious, and then you realize that your sweetest option is very bitter.
Morning in America, or darkness at noon?
What we saw and heard in Cleveland and Philadelphia was beyond a tale of two cities, or two contrarian narratives; it was a tale of two universes about to collide. Is America a shining city on a hill as President Obama and candidate Clinton assured us, or merely a dark and foreboding crime scene as candidate Trump warned us? Is it “morning in America” or “darkness at noon”? Are we gliding through the best of times, or slouching through the worst of times? In Cleveland, Clinton was accused of cavorting with Lucifer, and like the spectators in ancient Rome’s spectacles, the ravenous delegates/spectators wanted raw meat, hence the chant “luck her up”. Those angry Republicans have no sympathy for the Devil. But in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, naturally the Democrats took the virtual moral high ground and shouted “love trumps hate”. It was a novel idea to invoke love in a political convention, except that this expression of strange love came in the context of scaring the country from the horrors of a Trump presidency, an outcome we have to admit is truly horrifying.
The Republicans told us that the country can become great again if we elect Trump since he is the self-ordained sole and true savior of the realm. The Democrats would have none of this since the country in their tattered book is already great. At a time of social and economic uncertainty at home, with disturbing and rising racial overtones marring the political discourse, with Republicans saying in their convention that Blue Lives Matter, and Democrats responding in their convention that Black Lives Matter and at a time when the world is yearning for strong American leadership, our two parties are engaged in sloganeering.
Failure of leadership
The two conventions were mostly oblivious to the rest of the world, with only few fleeting pro-forma references to the indispensability of the United States. The Europeans, who are almost helpless watching Russia’s Putin chipping away at Eastern Ukraine, while intimidating the Baltic States, and using the refugee crisis to extract concessions regarding the Syrian crisis, are still looking for American leadership. The “Islamic State” will likely be dealt a serious blow in 2017, but it will give birth to more deformed children, in a region that was partially broken when Obama inherited it from George W. Bush in 2009, but that Obama, because of his failed leadership there, will bequeath a disintegrating Middle East to his hapless successor, particularly if that successor is the ignoramus and obtuse Trump. In the face of assertive and belligerent states, which are willing to use force and coercion directly or by proxy as foreign policy tools, such as Iran, Russia and China in their respective regions, the U.S. is still the only outside power capable of applying effective deterrence.
Hillary Clinton’s vision of America’s immediate future is essentially a third Obama term without even the minimum excitementHisham Melhem
It should be stated here, that President Obama’s failure to deter and check the predatory behavior of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Europe, and Putin’s complicity and direct contribution to the campaign of terror and mass murder that the Assad regime, with assistance and direct participation of Iran and its proxies have been waging against the Syrian people, and Obama’s tolerant view of Iran’s destructive rampages in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, have provided Trump with ample ammunition to use against him and against candidate Clinton. Obama’s failed leadership in Europe, particularly extracting a heavy price from Moscow after its occupation of Crimea and its irredentist belligerent moves in Eastern Ukraine, his initial lax and shocking view of ISIS’ threat to the Middle East region and the world, and his abominable response to Syria’s tragedy, are among the many reasons that explain the rise of Trump the home made demagogue. Thus, candidate Clinton is partially responsible for her current tormentor.
Hillary Clinton’s convention speech was conventional. Her vision of America’s immediate future, to the extent that she has such a vision, is essentially a third Obama term without even the minimum excitement. Maintaining the status quo in uncertain and fearful times is hardly innovative, reassuring or promising. Her speech seemed as if it was written by a village and not by a leader or a visionary. While we should not expect poetry and eloquence from her, as we did from the creative wordsmiths who worked and collaborated with the likes of John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Obama, still it was uninspiring and bland prose. But even the prose could not carry far the limited goals she talked about. Candidate Clinton claimed that she sweats “the details of policy”, but there were no details, just broad pronouncements when she promised aid to students and small businesses, and when she declared that “Wall Street, corporations, and the super-rich are going to start paying their fair share of taxes.” For quarter of a century Bill and Hillary Clinton and their friends have basically owned the Democratic Party, which only slipped from their control because of their hubris when Obama exploited their complacency in 2008. Because she lost the 2008 race to Obama, the Democratic orthodoxy in the last 8 years became: It is Hillary’s turn, as if it is written that she is entitled to the presidency to continue the Clinton’s legacy or dynasty. The Clinton brand was so dominant in the Democratic Party to the extent that potential candidates like vice president Joe Biden, and Virginia Senator Tim Kaine did not dare challenge the anointed one, much to the chagrin of many Americans, who find themselves facing choices that should not have been inevitable.
After a year full of outrageous behavior, dangerous and divisive moves and outright bigotry and racism against Muslims, Latinos and others, even calling publicly on the Russian despot to spy on Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump is essentially in a tie with Clinton, 3 months before the elections. It is a sad commentary on Clinton’s candidacy and the compromised leadership of the Democratic Party, as we have seen from the recently leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee aimed at undermining the candidacy of Bernie Sanders that Clinton is still saddled with the curse of being perceived as untrustworthy by a majority of Americans. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed that a whopping 67% of all voters and 74 % of Independents said that they do not trust Hillary Clinton. Candidate Clinton has herself to blame for her recent conflict with the truth, because she knew when she installed a private email server at her residence and outside the supervision of the State Department that she was “extremely careless” and acting according to her own rules . Her obsession with secrecy, her lawyerly answers, her shaving of the truth which are by now part of her political DNA, have made her one of the least liked presidential candidate in recent decades. The fact that her opponent is exponentially worse and more dangerous is no consolation.
Donald Trump is promising change and strong leadership, and those alienated citizens who believe that they have been left behind by the swiftly moving caravan of globalization, are ripe for the plucking, and he is the one who will do the plucking. Shouting, as we have been doing for months that Trump, if elected will lead the country to the cliff and beyond, is like shouting in a nightmare. Trump views the world as a hostile and arid expanse inhabited by packs of hungry wolves. He sees Putin’s predatory behavior as reflecting his status as an alfa wolf.
The election scene is truly foreboding. Both political parties and the election laws are in bad need of reform (overturning Citizens United is a must if the role of money in politics is to be controlled) although it is doubtful that the Republican Party, now that it had been gutted by Trump can be fixed or reformed in the foreseeable future. Obama’s blunders may have helped Trump’s rise, but the Republican Party’s drift towards intolerant nativism, its penchant to wage cultural wars, and the complicity of its leadership with the irresponsible discourse and actions of the Tea Party, are in the main responsible for the Republican Party’s long journey from “Morning in America” to “Darkness at Noon”.
Whither America, with a deeply flawed Democratic candidate and a very dangerous Republican candidate? I am not drawing a moral equivalence here, for Trump represents a clear and present danger against American democracy, but as the saying goes we deserve better options. It is maddening not to be able to choose wisely in perilous times like these. May we not live too long in times when your sweetest option is very bitter.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem