This week’s horrific terrorist attacks on the Brussels airport and metro raised the pressure in the already tight U.S. presidential campaign. Candidates of both parties were instantly measured against voter expectations of how a president could and should behave in a similar crisis. Meanwhile, it was jarring to see a beaming President Obama relaxing at a Cuban baseball game, while grisly photos of the wrecked terminal and dazed, bloodied victims in Belgium were on steady media feed all over the world.
Given that most people, sequestered at their workplace, were unable to monitor the full range of responses throughout the day, the candidate who emerged on top was almost certainly Donald Trump. Despite his alarming enthusiasm for waterboarding and torture, Trump’s central campaign theme of securing the borders and more stringently vetting immigrants was strengthened by the events in Brussels, a historic city whose changing demographics he had already controversially warned about. Trump’s credibility would be enhanced if he treated the vital immigration issue in general policy terms rather than divisively singling out specific groups (Mexican, Muslim), the majority of whom are manifestly law-abiding.
Hillary Clinton’s Brussels response was basically boilerplate, calling for solidarity with Europe and playing chess with Trump to paint him as a greenhorn and hothead. Bernie Sanders (whom I support and contribute to) had little to say, beyond conveying condolences to the Belgian people, because foreign affairs have unfortunately remained a sideline for him. Neither Sanders nor Martin O’Malley ever went after Hillary’s disastrous record as Secretary of State with the tenacity that they should have—a failure of strategy that has proved costly in the long run.
Ted Cruz took the prize for dolt of the day, however, with his call for U.S. law enforcement to “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” What exactly are the telltale signs of creeping radicalization that roving patrol cars would be able to spot—an uptick in Bedouin garb and the waving of scimitars in the street, as in a Rudolph Valentino movie? And how would American police “secure” any neighborhood without violating basic constitutional rights?
Trump may be raw, crude and uninformed, but he’s also smart, intuitive and a quick study who will presumably get up to passable speed as he assembles a brain trust over the coming months. Whether Trump can temper his shoot-from-the-hip impetuosity is another matter. There is a huge gap between the teeth-gnashing fulminations of the anti-Trump mainstream media and the perfectly reasonable Trump supporters whom I hear calling into radio talk shows. The machinations of the old-guard GOP establishment to thwart Trump voters and subvert the primary process are an absolute disgrace. But it’s business as usual for tone-deaf party leaders who, barely more than a day after the discovery of Antonin Scalia’s corpse last month, stupidly proclaimed there would be no hearings for an Obama nominee to the Supreme Court.
Republicans need to wake up and realize that Trump’s triumph is not due to some drunken delusion by a benighted rabble but is a direct result of the proven weakness of their other candidates. Ted Cruz, the last one still standing, is bombastic, sanctimonious and coldly sharkish behind that forced smile. Is Cruz a truly convincing model of Christian values of charity, compassion and humility? Jimmy Carter did it way better than this. Cruz seems consumed by a vainglorious conviction of his own destiny, tied to an apocalyptic view of history. He reminds me of glad-handing televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, who were loved and trusted by so many but whose careers ended in disgrace.
The humiliating wholesale rejection of cash-glutted Jeb Bush, dynastic crown prince, should have clued the GOP moguls into how out of touch they are with primary voters this year. Jeb’s first mistake (perhaps due to his wife’s dislike of the public eye) was not to run for president soon after serving as Florida governor, when he still had his chops. His second mistake was to loaf on the sidelines and play no role whatever in public debates over pressing national issues. By the time he returned to the scene, he was both uncertain and irrelevant. Then someone foolishly prodded him to lose weight, which reduced his gravitas along with the flab by now highlighting his bland, snub-nosed baby face.
Another victim of perpetual-boy syndrome is Marco Rubio, who at 44 seems to have strangely stalled in post-pubescence. How is it possible that Rubio played football (defensive back) in college and none of it shows? During high-wire gigs in Washington or at the primary debates, he chronically flubbed, either by autopilot glibness or painfully palpable anxiety attacks. Oh, right, we’re going to have this skittish, sweaty guy with five o'clock shadow and a bad comb-over going toe-to-toe with Vladimir Putin. Rubio seems bright and affable, but there’s nothing remotely presidential about him.
As for the rest of the GOP pack, they all flamed out in one way or another. Despite his bold history of confronting and defeating the greedy public-sector unions, Scott Walker with his wide, wary eyes and pretty-boy pout looked like a deer caught in the headlights at the first debate. Bobby Jindal and Rand Paul also struggled with boy-regression—is this a Republican disease? On TV, the snarly, petulant Paul, with his sprig of retro forehead curls, looked like a mummified Dorian Gray dressed by Sears Roebuck, circa 1959.
Carly Fiorina: smart and nimble but too taut and wired, like a buzz saw. Too much of a political novice and without Trump’s bumptious exuberance and slashing humor. Her campaign imploded when she went all histrionic (voice tragically breaking) about the secretly taped Planned Parenthood videos, a serious issue that the mainstream media had tried to bury but that should not have been used for blatant political grandstanding. Ben Carson: a thoughtful, dignified private citizen with an illustrious medical career. But was he ever remotely credible as a statesman on the international stage in the age of terrorism? His rote deep-think mode was to close his eyes and press his fingers together, like Madame Arcati conducting a séance in Blithe Spirit.
Chris Christie: the lib Manhattan media just loved him to death. He was their fave Republican—he licked their boots, and they licked his. This blathering, gassy, waddling narcissist with his over-trimmed Pinocchio nose and lispy, quacking voice never had a prayer of a chance on the national stage. The Christie boomlet was always a media mirage. John Kasich: the man who could have been king. I think Kasich won the first GOP debate but then blew it. He has exactly the kind of gubernatorial executive experience and legislative budget-balancing record that are sorely needed in the White House. But Kasich’s unfocused, overblown, compulsively self-referential rhetoric is a major liability. And his skills as a public figure are embarrassingly rudimentary: he blurts, lurches, and waves his arms around like a windmill. He lacks patience, subtlety, and finesse. Not presidential.
So the GOP is stuck with Trump, and through every fault of their own. Are we really hurtling toward a Trump-Hillary slugfest? If Bernie Sanders had gotten a hundredth of the press coverage lavished on Hillary over the past three years, he would have had an excellent chance of overtaking her. But thanks to the outrageous press blackout (Clinton Incorporated’s vast vulture-wing conspiracy), Sanders remains too unknown to too much of the electorate, particularly in the South. The now widespread claims that Sanders voters will automatically vote for Hillary in the general election aren’t true in my case: I will never cast my vote for a corrupt and incompetent candidate whose every policy is poll-tested in advance. If Hillary is the Democratic nominee, I will write in Sanders or vote for Jill Stein of the Green Party, as I did in 2012 as a protest against Obama’s unethical use of drones and the racially divisive tone of his administration.
Voters have a tremendous opportunity this year to smash the tyrannical, money-mad machinery of both parties. A vote for Bernie Sanders is a vote for the future, while a vote for Hillary Clinton is a reward to the Democratic National Committee for its shameless manipulation and racketeering. A primary vote for Donald Trump is a rebuke to the arrogantly insular GOP establishment, which if he wins the nomination will lose its power and influence overnight.
But a Trump-Hillary death match will be a national nightmare, a race to the bottom for both parties, as Democratic and Republican operatives compete to dig up the most lurid and salacious dirt on both flawed candidates. We’ll be sadistically trapped in an endless film noir, with Trump as Citizen Kane, Don Corleone and Scarface and Hillary as Norma Desmond, Mommie Dearest and the Wicked Witch of the West. However, there is one way out to ensure a rational, future-oriented, issues-centered presidential campaign: Democrats, vote for Bernie Sanders!
I just read your column and the three comments from veterans who feel that a free education was a payment for their service, and that is the way it should be.
I went to the City College of New York in the '60s. It was FREE. You only had to have an 85 average in high school, and then all you had to do was pay for books. My sister and I both went to CCNY, and so did at least two or three generations of students who then went on to have good lives because of it. We could not have gone to college otherwise. I do not understand, and neither does my 96-year-old mother, why it was fine for me to have a free education, but not for the students of today. We both wish that Bernie would remind people of these facts when he talks about free college and gets chided for it. There were other free colleges besides CCNY, but CCNY was known for having a high quality student body and giving a high quality education.
Fort Lee, New Jersey
Many thanks for your letter. I totally agree with you, because my excellent college education at the State University of New York at Binghamton (1964-68) was of wonderfully minimal cost. It is a major public scandal that today’s students and their families are being saddled with enormous debt for what is many cases an inferior product. We desperately need “no frills” alternatives in education—colleges that make learning central and dispense with tangential attractions like gleaming exercise studios jammed with expensive state-of-the-art machines. Why are these luxurious amenities now considered indispensable? American colleges and universities need to strip themselves down to the basics.
Subject: Hillary's Reagan AIDS gaffe -- evidence of her endless improvisational pandering or of a minor psychotic break?
I imagine you have noted H.R. Clinton's inexplicable and false statement crediting the Reagans with "starting a national conversation" about AIDS. For gay men of my era, it is more than hard to take, it seems a willful re-writing of history, designed to play to a Republican First Lady funeral audience.
What are your thoughts? Sleeplessness and confusion are not adequate explanations in my mind, once you parse not only what she said without provocation to Andrea Mitchell, but in follow-up tweet and patronizing Medium post. But the Clintons are ceaselessly triangulating, so who know? Your take?
New York City
I think you are quite right to suggest that Hillary was triangulating at Nancy Reagan’s funeral. Thinking she had the nomination locked up, she was pivoting toward Republicans and trying to show she was their gal too. But I also suspect she was having a random senior moment, not unlike her fantasy of running for cover under sniper fire in Bosnia.
The woman Hillary was praising for her pioneering courage in talking publicly about AIDS was actually Elizabeth Taylor, not Nancy Reagan. It’s very telling: Hillary thinks stereotypically of people as faceless members of groups, fodder for polling data and pandering outreach---which automatically triggers, for example, her cringe-making Southern Fried dialect for black audiences. Nancy Reagan (a former actress married to a former actor) had melted into Clan Hollywood. In Hillary’s mind, all actresses are clones, just as all of her skirt-chasing husband’s targets are floozies, bimbos, and nut jobs.
Finally, I want to extend my thanks to Steve Laredo and Roger Longenbach, who wrote separately to question my reference to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “shot heard round the world,” which they maintain was a reference to the Battle of Lexington and not Concord. But as can be seen in an informational page of the National Park Service, Emerson’s “Concord Hymn”, from which that famous line comes, was indeed referring to the fighting at the Old North Bridge in Concord, which his father had witnessed.
Please feel free to send questions to my Salon mailbox (see below).