Can the US political system survive this farcical presidential election?
Kevin Rafferty says an ugly campaign just got uglier with the latest FBI bombshell on Clinton’s emails, signalling fractious times ahead no matter who wins
FBI director James Comey broke all precedent and threw a bombshell in the final stages of the US presidential election campaign, revealing that emails possibly involving Hillary Clinton were under investigation.
It’s not clear whether this is a stink bomb, smelly and messy but harmless; or a ticking time bomb that may blow up in Clinton’s face, or Comey’s; or worse, something with the potential to devastate the US political system.
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American “democracy” – and I think it legitimately goes within quotation marks questioning it – has become a laughing stock, given the antics of politicians of all parties in Congress, in the presidential primaries and, most of all, in the verbal slugfest known as the debates between Clinton and her Republican rival, Donald Trump. The bigger issue is that the place and reputation of the US in the world is at stake.
Comey’s statement about the discovery of a fresh trove of emails came just 11 days before most Americans vote next week. It went against the precedent that law officials do not intervene within 60 days of an election. And it was not as if the FBI had discovered a smoking gun. On the contrary: Comey reported that the emails were discovered in a separate investigation. Subsequent leaks said the emails, which may number in the hundreds of thousands, were on a computer of Anthony Weiner, estranged husband of Clinton’s closest aide Huma Abedin. Weiner is being investigated for a quite separate charge of sexting an underage girl. Comey added that the FBI did not yet know the significance of the emails.
So why go public, especially when law enforcement agencies normally keep things secret until ready to bring charges? The emails may not be connected directly to Clinton or may be duplicates of those already checked by the FBI.
The US justice department had warned Comey against going public, advising that it would look as if he were interfering in the vote.
Indeed, Trump jumped in, claiming that this was more evidence of “dodgy Hillary” and her role at the centre of the biggest scandal since president Richard Nixon and Watergate. He accused her of “criminal action”.
In response, Clinton challenged Comey to release the emails. Then, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid accused Comey of playing a partisan game. He also claimed Comey was sitting on “explosive information” of close ties between Trump and Russia.
All this when it seemed that the election could not get dirtier or more bizarre, short on policies, long on insults and innuendoes.
The US Congress has been dysfunctional for decades, with legislative bills bent out of shape by the regular addition of pork-barrel projects to benefit local constituencies; by hardball games over the budget; and by bullying by the gerrymandered majority party in the House of Representatives.
But in the “good old days” – at least 55 years ago when Lyndon B. Johnson was Senate majority leader and commander-in-chief of the black art of politics – deals were done in the legendary smoke-filled back rooms to ensure the budget was passed and legislation went through.
Also, significantly, the office of the president was respected, whatever the personal characteristics of the incumbent. Some of this changed when Barack Obama became president.
In his personal and family life, Obama has been impeccable, a perfect role model. In his policies, he has been moderate. But Obama’s rule has been met by vicious opposition and vituperative comments.
According to Trump, America is poorer and less respected in the world than it has ever been, and it is all Obama’s fault, with considerable assistance from “crooked Hillary”, even though she has been out of office for nearly four years.
All this leaves American voters with a difficult choice. Trump typically complains that the media is against him. That may be because most of the media, apart from Trump’s right-wing nuts, have examined his candidacy and come away appalled and consider him unfit to be president, not merely unprepared for the job.
Besides his constant claim that Clinton’s behaviour was so criminal that she should be in prison – and he would put her there if he had the chance – Trump has insulted African-Americans, Latinos, women, Muslims, people with disabilities, China, Nato – the list goes on. The only person he has expressed admiration for is Vladimir Putin.
On top of that, he has constantly told lies or distorted facts. This week, he claimed that if Clinton became president, 650 million illegal immigrants would flood into the US in a week. The current population of the US is about 320 million. He has luxuriated in not paying taxes and boasted about how he handles women. Most of his campaign has been a mixture of boasts about himself and damnation of Clinton.
Trump has been thin on actual policies, other than his plans to cut taxes to create jobs and impose a massive tariff on Chinese goods. Most economists say Trump’s economic plan is inferior to Clinton’s and would risk an explosion in the US deficit.
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On foreign policy, apart from punishing China, and building a wall on the border with Mexico, Trump would potentially withdraw from Nato and do a deal with Russia to defeat Isis. These are recipes for disaster according to most foreign policy experts.
The real objection to Trump is twofold. He is a businessman with a history of dubious wheeling and dealing and no experience of the very different business of government. Worse, Trump behaves as if he – alone – has a magic wand which will change and renew America and all things instantly. America today, he claims, is in a wretched state; tomorrow, or on January 21, the day after president Trump takes over, all will be new and renewed, with Clinton in prison.
Only a god could achieve this – or a dictator imagine he can.
Trump talks as if he is winning, and opinion polls have narrowed after Comey’s intervention. Clinton, for all her lauded experience in government, as first lady, senator and secretary, is widely distrusted.
We can only hope that if Trump does win, he will turn his back on his campaign promises. Otherwise, the US road to a banana republic will open.
But such has been the ugly campaign that, if Clinton wins, America will continue to slide down the slippery banana slope. The careers of some US presidents have ended in scandal. Others got away with misdeeds or dubious personal conduct not revealed while in office.
A president Clinton would start under a thundercloud. Trump continues to claim the election is rigged, and he may contest and protest against a close result. Even if the result is clear, Trump will lead the opposition in hounding Clinton on her emails and her poor choice of friends. Policies and government risk being buried in volcanic explosions of personal politics.
Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator