Our Current Unpleasantness

The Civil War eventually had many other names – looking back on it, white folks in the south started calling it the “War of Northern Aggression” while those southerners who definitely weren’t white decided to call it the “Freedom War” – and those inclined to think of things in terms of heroes and villains decided it was “Mr. Lincoln’s War” or “Mr. Davis’ War” – take your pick. Those who’d rather not think about it at all came up with ways to say the whole thing was best forgotten. They called it “The Late Unpleasantness” or “The Recent Unpleasantness” – a distasteful and unpleasant anomaly that one really does not discuss in polite society – as if someone had just farted. These things happen. Say nothing. Move on.

And what are we to call the 2016 presidential campaign? This seems to be a hot war between the inclusive and pro-government Democrats and the keep-America-American Republicans who hold Ronald Reagan’s view that government is the problem, never the solution. That has gotten more than unpleasant, and there’s the secondary civil war within the Republican Party, between the base, who love Donald Trump, and the donor class and old party hands who built the modern Republican Party, who find him appalling and dangerous. That too is a bit more than unpleasant.

Actually, everything about this presidential campaign is unpleasant. Four years ago it was Obama – calm, reasonable, and gracious, and rather sly and cool – versus Mitt Romney – wooden and clueless and prone to say the wrong thing at just the wrong time, but also polite and good-natured. Voters could hate their policies, respectively, but they were both decent fellows – and the same could be said of their running mates, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan. The 2012 presidential campaign was lively, and often infuriating, but these were good people who disagreed, profoundly, on issues. No one questioned their intentions – what they proposed, certainly, but not their intentions. Few hated them.

That’s not so this year. The Washington Post’s David Weigel explains what we have this year:

The 2016 election is likely to pit Hillary Clinton, who is disliked by a majority of voters, against Donald Trump, disliked by a greater majority of voters.

If the rise of Trump has no obvious precedent, neither does an election like this. Clinton, whose buoyant favorable ratings in the State Department convinced some Democrats that she could win easily, is now viewed as unfavorably as George W. Bush was in his close 2004 reelection bid. Trump is even less liked, with negative ratings among nonwhite voters not seen since the 1964 campaign of Barry Goldwater.

“In the history of polling, we’ve basically never had a candidate viewed negatively by half of the electorate,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) wrote in a widely shared note that asked someone, anyone, to mount a third-party run. “There are dumpster fires in my town more popular than these two ‘leaders.'”

According to RealClearPolitics averages, Trump has an unfavorable rating of 65 percent. Clinton has 55 percent.

But of course some love Hillary:

“Everybody likes her,” said Pamela Hatwood, 51, a nurse on disability leave who was fanning herself with an extra Clinton sign in a sweltering gym in Indianapolis last week – one of many supporters who shrugged off questions about whether Clinton’s appeal was too narrow.

“I think she’s such a strong woman that people get afraid,” said Stephen Yanusheskhy, 40, a health insurance salesman. “I’m not worried about the polls. They’re good one week; they’re bad the next week. I feel like they poll the people they want to get a certain result. But once she actually gets the nomination, people will come out in droves. You’ll see more involvement from the gay community, from women and from people of color.”

Trump is a big motivator for these voters. Clinton’s crowd was never as rapt as when she asked how embarrassing it was to see violence break out at Trump rallies.

“You see it on TV, and you assume it’s some place far away, don’t you?” she said. “You hear this hateful talk about women, and you want to say: Enough, enough! That’s not who we are.”

And on the other side:

Corey Fuller, 41, voted for Barack Obama in 2008, one of the optimists who helped him win Indiana.

“When he first announced, I kind of rolled my eyes, too,” Fuller said about Trump. “But I got it soon enough. I don’t worry about him losing, but I worry about the establishment trying to steal it from him, and that’s sad. I joined the Republican Party this year for this.”

And these folks know what they know:

The idea of Trump losing an election was preposterous. Republicans who have nervously studied the party’s future worry that Trump is too alienating to women and nonwhite voters to even get close to victory. Another theory is that his support could be so robust from white voters – who have steadily trended Republican – that he could capitalize on Clinton’s unfavorable numbers and win.

“Hell, I could beat Hillary,” said John Hook, 50.

Slate’s Josh Voorhees has more:

As you may have heard by now, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will enter the general election as the two most disliked major presidential candidates in modern history. But just what effect will that have on voters? A new Reuters/Ipsos survey shines some light on the answer, and it’s not pretty: Nearly half of both Trump and Clinton supporters say their primary motivation isn’t putting their preferred candidate in the White House – it’s keeping the other one out of it.

They’re actually not thinking of their preferred candidate at all, but for the Trump folks, that might be a mistake:

This doesn’t mean the number of people planning to vote against Clinton (as opposed to voting for Trump) is the same as the number who plan to vote against Trump (as opposed to voting for Clinton). Hillary leads in a still-technically hypothetical general election matchup with the celebrity billionaire by about 9 points in Reuters’ tracking poll, suggesting there are considerably more not-him voters out there than not-her ones at the moment – something that makes sense given that, for all of Clinton’s many problems, she’s not a dangerously unstable demagogue who wears a gold-plated fig leaf emblazoned with the words “unpredictability” and “winner” on it.

That does worry some folks, or many folks, but we are where we are:

The general dislike of both candidates can be explained partly by negative partisanship, which has been increasing for some time. In 2014, Pew researchers found that over the past two decades the share of both Republicans and Democrats who have a very unfavorable opinion of the other party has more than doubled (from 17 percent to 43 percent for Republicans and from 16 percent to 38 percent for Democrats). And those numbers understate just how passionately those intense partisans feel about the opposing side. Among those who stated a very unfavorable opinion, a clear majority said that the other party is a “threat to the nation’s well-being.” If you think that, it’s easy to see why you would be more fearful of the other party’s nominee than you are hopeful about your own.

Still, that the current state of electoral politics – as polarized as they are – doesn’t entirely explain just how unpopular Trump and Clinton are among voters right now. If it did, you’d expect the number of Americans who strongly dislike him or her to largely be offset by a corresponding number of those who strongly like him or her. But, as FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten demonstrated earlier this week, that’s not the case. Since 1980, even the most unpopular nominees didn’t head into the general election with a net-strong favorability rating – that is, the percentage with a “strongly favorable” minus the percentage with a “strongly unfavorable” one – below negative-10. Clinton’s, though, is currently roughly twice that, while Trump’s is more than four times it.

That is a recipe for unpleasantness:

It also stands to reason that the ranks of both competing oh-good-god-anybody-but-him/her camps will grow during the six long and nasty months between now and Election Day. Those anti-Trump primary voters who end up voting Republican in November anyway will almost certainly do it to keep Clinton out of the White House. Similarly, many of the Bernie Sanders diehards who ultimately come around to Hillary will probably do so first and foremost in the name of stopping the Donald. A contest between two candidates who are so disliked, then, could come down to which one can do a better job of convincing Americans of the dangers of their rival. On that front, Hillary seems to have a sizeable head start.

Jonathan Bernstein looks at things from the other side:

Trump enters the general election with the worst polling numbers since polling was invented. But there’s good reason to think that a lot of his negative numbers are relatively soft. Not among the ethnic groups he’s insulted and their allies; he’s unlikely to win them over. But plenty of Republican voters who supported other candidates during the nomination battle, and swing voters who haven’t paid all that much attention yet, are likely to warm to Trump – under one condition: if he is the one enthusiastically backed by his party.

If highly visible Republicans rally around Trump, he’ll wind up looking, to most Republican voters, like a relatively normal Republican candidate, and they’ll support him. If not – if they receive mixed messages – his unfavorable ratings may never recover, and he might never make the election competitive.

This could go either way. The Democrats were violently split during their Chicago convention in 1968, but eventually most party factions outside of the South rallied to Hubert Humphrey, and he came close to beating Richard Nixon. But in 1972, desertions increased over the course of the campaign, and George McGovern lost 49 states.

Of course, it’s very, very early. But so far, the signs for Trump aren’t good.

Trump really should worry:

Trump doesn’t have forever. Right now the incentives for party actors to accept him are at their highest. They can write off whatever they said during the nomination fight as the normal, forgettable exaggerations of a hard-fought campaign – and abandoning him risks turning a difficult general election battle into a rout.

If nothing changes, however – and Trump is currently seven percentage points behind Clinton in the HuffPollster average – then at some point in the next two months the incentives will start shifting the other way. To be the first Republican elected officials to abandon their nominee is difficult; joining an existing group, if the nominee is already collapsing, is a lot easier. It also makes each step on the way easier: from fully embracing the nominee including joint appearances and active support, to grudgingly accepting him without a full endorsement, to quietly refusing to vote for him, to openly supporting Clinton (or perhaps Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson). And the more prominent Republicans travel the more steps down that path, the stronger a signal is sent to Republican voters that this nominee isn’t a real Republican.

And that way lies McGovern.

That’s possible, or the party could line up behind him, enthusiastically, eventually, but there was this weekend. CNN covers the unpleasantness:

Trump’s opponents are still sorting through the wreckage of the GOP primary season for a path forward. But it has become painfully clear over the past five days that party unification will be tough to come by, if it happens at all. Past presidents, party leaders and prominent Republicans are all choosing sides, from unenthusiastic acceptance (Bob Dole) to pledges not to vote for either party in November (former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Lindsey Graham) to musings about a third-party bid (Bill Kristol).

Trump himself enters his first full week as the presumptive nominee by signaling that he has limited patience for or interest in the establishment’s rebellion. He’ll meet Thursday with Paul Ryan, after the House speaker’s extraordinary announcement to CNN’s Jake Tapper that he’s “just not ready” to support Trump.

But Trump has also made quite clear he doesn’t intend to cast off the provocative style on the campaign trail that alarmed the Republican establishment and resonated so deeply with primary voters. After spending days on the receiving end of criticism from the likes of Ryan, Romney and Graham, Trump and his supporters hit back – hard.

And that wasn’t pretty:

Sarah Palin, a key Trump surrogate and 2008 vice presidential nominee, took the unusual step of backing the little-known Republican businessman challenging Ryan for his Wisconsin seat.

“Paul Ryan is soon to be Cantored,” Palin told Tapper Sunday on “State of the Union,” referring to Eric Cantor, the former Republican House majority leader who was shockingly ousted by a primary challenger in 2014.

“His political career is over but for a miracle because he has so disrespected the will of the people, and as the leader of the GOP, the convention, certainly he is to remain neutral,” Palin said. “And for him to already come out and say who he will not support is not a wise decision of his.”

Trump is fine with that:

For his part, Trump didn’t seem too worried about the talk of the GOP disintegrating because of his nomination. Speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” Trump questioned the need for party unity, arguing that his campaign is unlike any before and won’t rely on the same political calculations.

“Does it have to be unified?” he asked. “I’m very different than everybody else, perhaps that’s ever run for office. I actually don’t think so.”

He went on: “I think it would be better if it were unified. I think … there would be something good about it. But I don’t think it actually has to be unified in the traditional sense.”

In short, he doesn’t need them:

Those comments underscore the growing debate over whether Trump’s unorthodox candidacy will doom the GOP in the fall or whether the anxious party leadership has grown so out of touch with the electorate that it’s missing the genuine anger fueling Trump’s rise.

“You have to draw the conclusion that there is some distance, if not a disconnect, between party leaders and members of Congress and the many voters who have selected Donald Trump to be the nominee of the party,” John McCain, the GOP’s 2008 nominee, told CNN’s Manu Raju Sunday on State of the Union. “You have to listen to the people that have chosen the nominee of our Republican Party.”

And as for Trump, he simply wants all of us to hate Hillary:

Trump, meanwhile, is shifting his gaze to the general election by trying to undercut Clinton’s advantage with women. Facing the likelihood of running against the first female nominee of a major party, Trump sought to recast Clinton’s image by reviving the impeachment saga of the 1990s and arguing that she was dismissive of women who had extramarital affairs with her husband.

“Hillary was an enabler and she treated these women horribly,” Trump said Saturday in Spokane, Washington. “And some of those women were destroyed, not by (Bill Clinton), but by the way Hillary Clinton treated them after it went down.”

No one remembers any of that, but he says it happened, just like those thousands of American Muslims dancing in joy in the streets as the World Trade Center came down on 9/11 – he said he saw that on television, in spite of there being no footage of any such thing. Hillary trashed all those women. There’s no record of that, but she did, as everyone knows.

The press has pretty much given up fact-checking these things – there are too many each day – but even Sarah Palin, of all people, wonders about these personal attacks:

Trump is taking a risk with such comments, and even Palin seemed to question their effectiveness. When asked by Tapper about Trump’s critique of Clinton, Palin said, “a lot of people may be obsessed with a public figure’s personal life, and they’re going to get all entangled in, you know, past indiscretions or whatever.”

“But I think, for the most part,” she went on, “Americans are concerned about things like who will be able to appoint the next Supreme Court justices, which will affect an entire generation coming up. I think that’s what people are concerned about, much more so than Bill Clinton’s obvious indiscretions, and Donald Trump having been divorced a couple of times, but owning up to it.”

When you’ve lost the moral high-ground to Sarah Palin you’re in trouble, but Trump is all over the map:

Trump also caused some confusion over the weekend by taking positions on the minimum wage and taxes that are not only out of step with GOP tradition but also his own stances during the primary.

On taxes, he said levies on the wealthy would go up under his administration. He argued that while he supports across-the-board tax cuts, he would likely bargain away cuts for top earners during negotiations with Congress.

“On my plan, they’re doing down,” he said on “This Week.” “But by the time it’s negotiated, they’ll go up.”

He added: “We’re going to submit the optimum … That’s what I’d like to get and we’ll fight for it. But from a practical standpoint, it’s going to get renegotiated. And in my opinion, the taxes for the rich will go up somewhat.”

And after he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer last week that he was “looking at” raising the minimum wage, he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that he hasn’t “decided in terms of numbers.”

“But I think people have to get more,” he said, while acknowledging the shift.

“I’m allowed to change,” he said. “You need flexibility, George, whether it’s a tax plan where you’re going to – where you know you’re going to negotiate. But we’re going to come up with something.”

Who knows where he stands? That’s the problem:

That fear is partly what’s fueling speculation over a potential third-party run from someone like Romney, who met privately with Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, last week to discuss how to get an independent candidate into the race.

Romney has been publicly mum about the prospect. But he clearly telegraphed his concerns about Trump in a commencement speech Saturday at Trine University in Angola, Indiana, in which he warned of “demagogues.”

And then there’s Max Boot:

I worked as a foreign policy advisor to John McCain in 2008, Mitt Romney in 2012 and Marco Rubio this year. All of those candidates, different as they were, recognizably represented Reagan Republicanism.

For the time being, at least, that Republican Party is dead. It was wounded by the tea party absolutists who insisted on political purity and rejected any compromise. Now it has been killed by Donald Trump.

Trump is an ignorant demagogue who traffics in racist and misogynistic slurs and crazy conspiracy theories. He champions protectionism and isolationism – the policies that brought us the Great Depression and World War II. He wants to undertake a police-state roundup of undocumented immigrants and to bar Muslims from coming to this country. He encourages his followers to assault protesters and threatens to sue or smear critics. He would abandon Japan and South Korea and break up the most successful alliance in history – NATO. But he has kind words for tyrants such as Vladimir Putin.

There has never been a major party nominee in U.S. history as unqualified for the presidency. The risk of Trump winning, however remote, represents the biggest national security threat that the United States faces today.

This is getting unpleasant, but Boot knows what he must do:

Hillary Clinton is a centrist Democrat who is more hawkish than President Obama and far more principled and knowledgeable about foreign affairs than Trump, who is too unstable and erratic to be entrusted with the nuclear triad he has never heard of. Even in his prepared foreign policy speech couldn’t pronounce “Tanzania.” For all her shortcomings (and there are many), Clinton would be far preferable to Trump.

Not that he’ll vote for her:

As it stands, I only know one thing for sure: I won’t vote for Trump. My hope is that he will lose by a landslide, and the Republican Party will come to its senses, rejecting both his ugly, nativist populism and the extreme, holier-than-thou conservatism represented by Ted Cruz.

There is no shortage of Republican leaders today – the most prominent is House Speaker Paul D. Ryan – who represent Reaganesque conservatism. (Ryan has pointedly refused to endorse Trump.) As far as I’m concerned, they are the real Republican Party, in exile. I only hope that they – and I – can return from the wilderness after November.

Max Boot is not alone – but he’s not in the Republican majority either. Half of the Republican Party despises the other half of the Republican Party. And more than half of the electorate despises Hillary Clinton. And far more than half of the electorate despises Donald Trump. Everyone despises someone. This isn’t like four years ago, when folks just disagreed, vehemently, about policy. This isn’t like anything we’ve ever seen – but just as the Civil War became “The Late Unpleasantness” to some, perhaps, one day, we’ll look back on this as an embarrassing anomaly, as something one doesn’t discuss in polite company. But someone farted. And we all know who that was.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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