It had been an exhausting, interminable 18-20 months of presidential campaigning during which much of the business of thoughtful American governance had to yield space to the riveting follies of politics. Yet most other countries in the world, not locked into dictators or kings for life, conduct their elections far more briskly and get on with business. Canada with its parliamentary system extended its last federal election campaign to eleven weeks; many were angered that the campaign had been extended even that far beyond the more traditional seven or eight weeks it takes to hold a federal election.
One might have hoped too, that whatever the electoral cost and fatigue had been in the US, the process would at least eventually distill it all down to the finest of candidates, tempered and honed in the exhausting demands of the campaign, to now represent America’s best.
Instead we got what was demonstrably far from America’s finest—two candidates competing for the honor of who was hated the least. Election night left almost no one truly inspired, enriched or empowered by the outcome.
One might also have expected that by now, hallelujah, it would at least be all over, leaving nothing but a few sober post-mortem analyses of events. But even here the agony is exquisitely drawn out in a two month interregnum, closer to purgatory, between the election and the inauguration. The campaign indeed now seems far from over as we enter a new, extended, and possibly uglier period of speculation and spectacle in the parade of contestants now modeling for high office. Here again this interregnum seems unduly prolonged and messy compared to a parliamentary system where a back bench opposition steps in ready to take over within days after election results are in.
Indeed, the circus now shifts to the very nature of the electoral college system itself, exciting partisan passions further as to who the “legitimate” victor is. The challenging of the very legitimacy of winners seems now to have become part of the system—most vividly begun with George W Bush’s appointment as president by the Supreme Court in 2000, followed eight years later with significant parts of the nation questioning Obama’s legitimacy—even his very citizenship.
Conspiracy theories (and yes, in theory conspiracies can exist) continue to flow about what might have been, including whether the FBI had intervened improperly and deliberately to swing the election to Trump. And now it is all eyes on Russia.
The handwriting is on the wall. The specter of Russia has likely now become a permanent beast lurking behind the scenes in the Trump era.
The Russians may well have had a hand in helping hack the Republican and Democratic National Committees. But these Wikileaks also revealed how a corrupted DNC contributed heavily to skewing the Democratic Party nomination process against Bernie Sanders. If the Russians were involved—and we have not yet had an official pronouncement on that, only leaks—such interference is unacceptable and must be fully and publicly investigated. But such investigation should neither distract from nor delegitimize the content of the specific Wikileaks on the DNC which should also be the object of outrage. And now, in perhaps the most volatile delegitimization gambit ever, Trump is now whispered to be “Putin’s candidate,” a Russian pawn who has infiltrated the White House itself. The witch hunt on Russia conveniently displaces the entire substance of critically needed electoral and policy reform.
This is all very ugly stuff. Worse, it looks like questioning the electoral process and the legitimacy of the election itself may become a permanent feature of our domestic politics, inciting further divisiveness and bitterness on both sides of the political divide, rendering the country (even more) ungovernable.
The bread and circuses of the interminable campaign extravaganza now seamlessly transition into the background noise of the entire Trump presidency itself.
Apart from the damage to the moral fibre of the nation and its divisive recriminations, the business of governance continues to be indefinitely sidetracked by such circuses. It blocks sober debate about the sad plight of so many aspects of the nation—erratic foreign policy, runaway military spending, non-stop wars, the failing education system, the degradation of the national infrastructure, the decline of health care and rise of mortality rates, the ignoring of the environment, the need to treat broad ethnic injustices, myths about immigration, the movement of American jobs overseas (as the very essence of how capitalism is supposed to work)—these hard questions all lie unaddressed. And they are much less fun or telegenic than hurling charges about foreign conspiracies and presidential legitimacy.
Who Trump really is remains a major question. While his earlier utterances have been all over the map, his appointments provide more concrete indicators. And so far it doesn’t look pretty. We seem poised to enter a period of extreme retrogression and reaction across the boards, a massive setback on nearly all fronts—unless some welcome surprises are in store from the very people who we wouldn’t expect it from. That cannot be utterly ruled out.
But it is no wonder that the US, for all its massive military power and huge economy, is increasingly becoming an outlier on the international scene. Foreign statesmen both good and bad simply shake their heads in incredulous dismay at the decline of US rationality, prestige and steadiness. But who can avert one’s eyes from a train wreck?
Yet this isn’t new. It’s not as if the US has suddenly turned a corner with this election. US foreign policy has grown ever more isolated from the world and from reality since at least 9/11. Life in this world of denial may even date from the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. That was when the US received what must now be seen as palpably a curse—the transient domination of the entire global scene, when we trumpeted ourselves as the “sole global superpower.” We assumed that such was the new permanent order of the world. We’ve never gotten over it. We’re still trying to maintain that fiction and it’s not working. Trump will find that out painfully soon.
Our domestic political antics exclude us ever further from the ranks of more responsible, sober and clear-sighted states. The rest of the world is simply going to have to go on working around us in damage limitation mode as it has been doing since 9/11. Are we capable of limiting the long-standing damage to ourselves at home? The necessary very heavy lifting seems now almost a bridge too far.
Graham E. Fuller*
* Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com