Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump (Reuters/Aaron Josefczyk/Jonathan Ernst/Photo montage by Salon)

Welcome to the nightmare election: Why Clinton vs. Trump is going to be about one thing — fear

Far from a productive dialogue about America's future, both campaigns will be appealing to voters' fears.


Daniel Denvir
May 11, 2016 2:00PM (UTC)

And so it begins: Hillary Clinton vaguely entreats voters to cast aside color-coded maps and “get on the American team” as her allies make “a furious round of calls to top Bush family donors to try to convince them that she represents their values better than Donald Trump.” Meanwhile, Trump publicly scarfs down a taco bowl and exclaims that he "loves Hispanics," insulting Mexican food with the same vigor he has insulted Mexican people. This election is going to be horrible.

November will pit the most unpopular major party presidential candidate in recent history against the second most unpopular one. Eight years after Democrats embraced “hope” and “change,” the presumptive nominees can offer a restless electorate little more than dread. This campaign, of course, will be waged on fear. Trump will tell voters to be afraid of Muslims and Mexicans. Clinton will remind voters that the president has access to the nuclear launch codes, and that Donald Trump is, in fact, terrifying. An experienced hawk versus an unstable isolationist.

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Trump’s clownish demagoguery is dangerous. But it also plays to Clinton’s strength by moving the debate away from the neoliberal economic record that harmed her during the primary. She can both embrace multiculturalism while aligning herself with Wall Street and the national security state. Clinton will likely peel off a good chunk of the conservative foreign policy establishment and in March, she raised a majority of Wall Street donations.

For Republicans, it is useful to pretend that Trump’s outbursts rather than his lack of right-wing bona fides is what offends. True to form, the Cruz camp is mobilizing “to protect against liberal changes to our platform” at the convention and to ensure that “girls go in girls bathrooms.” Today’s Republican Party is composed of one faction interested in Trump’s genitalia and another interested in everyone else’s. But Trump, the establishment would have you believe, is disgracing an otherwise dignified party.

"If the party walks away from any of its clearly cut social, family values issues, it will be an issue," Family Research Council president Tony Perkins told the AP. "We're not just going to fall in line because he's the nominee."

As for Clinton, she can depend on voters like Jan Franck, who told the New York Times that the candidate “could be a sock puppet running against Donald Trump, and I’d vote for her.” A recent Reuters poll found that a plurality of Clinton and Trump voters planned to back their nominee primarily because they wanted to stop the opposing candidate. She can also, of course, depend on a strong base of support amongst older black voters. As historian Eric Foner writes, they know first-hand the real dangers posed by right-wing figures happy to wage an unreconstructed assault on them. Their fear is real.

It’s late in the game, but worth mentioning that Bernie Sanders has had the highest net favorability rating of any candidate. Sanders' popularity might, as some argue, reflect that voters don't know enough about him. But in American politics, the word “socialist” not automatically turning a voter off is pretty good news for a socialist politician. And if someone knows one thing about Sanders, it's that he's a socialist of some variety.

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Barring divine intervention or nearly impossible indictment, however, Sanders will not win. Yet the remaining primaries still hold out the promise of embarrassing Clinton by highlighting her weakness with the very economically precarious white people in states like West Virginia to whom Trump makes his pitch.

“The stress is unbearable, living in poverty,” said Erica Lucas, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail account of a Sanders forum on poverty in McDowell County, where more than half of all households earn less than $25,000 a year. “And you don’t have anything else, so either you take drugs or you fight through.”

The Democratic Party, however, hopes that Lucas might purchase their new hat. It reads, “America is already great.” America is indeed exceptional in that it possesses so much wealth but distributes so little of it to average people.

The Democratic Party might not suffer for their blitheness: pundits are once again insisting that Trump has no chance, and this time he likely doesn’t. But some humility might be in order given the recent epic fail of professional prognosticators and a newly released poll showing the candidates in a dead heat in critical swing states Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. People are already picking holes in the poll’s sample for skewing too white. After the debacle we just experienced, however, it’s probably time to shatter the wonks’ crystal balls.

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As for the Sanders campaign, it has hinted that it would be handling Trump rather differently.

“The Democratic Party is the party that passed the Social Security Act, a 40 hour work week and the minimum wage, Medicare, the Civil Rights Act and much more,” emailed Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver in a recent fundraising pitch. “Surely we can aspire to more than simply convincing enough Americans that a reality television star should never be our president.”

West Virginia voted yesterday, and voters decisively backed Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist in a state the Clintons have always won—in large part likely because of racism in 2008. But this time, Clinton has faced protesters, angry over a to-be-sure taken out context statement that the country was going “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”

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Sanders, who has been far more outspoken about global warming than Clinton, has not taken such heat. Why? I think the answer is obvious and important: Sanders is mapping out a transformational vision of a better future. Advancing a green agenda without proposing a clear economic alternative, as neoliberal environmentalists do, pushes miners into their bosses’ corner.

The Sanders vote, however, requires more scrutiny: more than a third of Sanders supporters said they would vote for Trump over Sanders in November. Some analysts claim that voters casted an anti-Clinton “mischief” vote. This is probably part of the story, given that more than 40-percent of West Virginia Democrats voted for a no-name federal inmate over Obama in 2012. But a more straightforward idea, I think, is just that this chunk of Sanders voters prefer Trump to Sanders and Sanders to Clinton—which means that Sanders would have a better shot at winning them over in November.

It would take in-depth reporting to determine what the West Virginia electorate is thinking and sadly, most people paid to write about this right now are sitting at computers, looking at numbers, far from West Virginia. Whatever the truth, the New York Times' declaration that "Mr. Sanders’s victory was less about policy differences with Mrs. Clinton...than about the state’s demographics" is nonsensical: there is alway a reason that a given demographic group leans in a one political direction or another.

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Sanders success with white working class voters suggests a longtime left-wing talking point was prescient: Highlighting class conflict is the only way to move the anger away from land-use battles and culture-war bigotries. Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy sentenced to a year in prison for safety violations after 29 miners died in one of his mines, knows this is true: He showed up at an anti-Clinton protest.

Republicans are sheltering in place, confident that they can at least hold onto the House of Representatives thanks to the warped and unrepresentative manner in which America apportions the weight of votes. If Trump is blown out in November as expected, lessons will be learned. They are, however, guaranteed to be stupid lessons about the pitfalls of running a candidate with anything short of sterling right-wing credentials. As for Clinton, she will probably win, thanks to the inspiring campaign message, "I'm not Trump." Next time, that kind of message might not win Democrats much at all.


Daniel Denvir

Daniel Denvir is a writer at Salon covering criminal justice, policing, education, inequality and politics. You can follow him at Twitter @DanielDenvir.

MORE FROM Daniel DenvirFOLLOW danieldenvir

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Dem Primary Donald Trump Elections 2016 Gop Primary Hillary Clinton

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