Donald Trump lacks any of the basic qualifications to be president of the United States: he has no experience in public office or political campaigns and no previous serious engagement in public policy issues. And yet Republican voters chose him as the nominee of the party that gave us such presidents as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan.
Trump’s total lack of qualifications pales in comparison to his total lack of any of the character traits that one would look for in any public servant, such as scrupulous honesty, reasoned judgment, and selfless regard for the welfare of others. But Trump has so poisoned this presidential campaign that substantial numbers of Americans tell pollsters that they will be voting for him even though they deem him unqualified for the position.
Hillary Clinton meets the major criteria experience, knowledge, and character but leaves many voters either unimpressed or uncomfortable. From her earliest days in the White House, as the head of a health care reform task force, Clinton has shown an aversion to transparency. Unfortunately for her campaign, she highlighted that character trait by using a private email server while secretary of state. In smaller numbers than for Trump, pollsters find some voters who will plan to cast ballots for Clinton but without completely trusting her.
The life stories of these two popularity-challenged rivals are a study in contrasts. The daughter of middle-class parents, Clinton excelled at elite Wellesley College and Yale Law School and then devoted herself to public advocacy for children’s welfare. Trump was the spoiled brat of a millionaire developer who went into business with a “small” million-dollar loan from his father and set about enriching himself by, among other things, discriminating against minorities in rental apartments.
Clinton married once, victimized to an extent by a sometimes unfaithful husband who, like her, saw political life as an honorable profession. Trump married three times and was himself a boastful womanizer who treated women in word and deed with an utter lack of respect.
Out of office, Clinton earned big bucks by giving speeches to private companies and organizations or foreign groups that could afford to pay six-figure honoraria to the wife of a former president and a would-be president herself. When some of those speeches surfaced, despite Clinton’s non-disclosure, it was revealed that Clinton sometimes sounded different in private than in public. That revelation was shocking only to the politically naïve.
Compared with this peccadillo, Trump’s capacity for dishonesty and deceit is as a mountain to a molehill. His record of business dealings includes hiring undocumented workers, stiffing contractors, and exaggerating his wealth to boost the value of his brand while low-balling the worth of his holdings for tax authorities to keep his taxes low.
As to taxes, Trump is now the first presidential candidate in 40 years to refuse to disclose his income tax returns. After a lot of digging, the New York Times was handed a document that forced Trump to admit that he has paid no federal income taxes for a number of years. Two tax officials from President George H.W. Bush’s administration have shown that Trump also may have avoided Medicare taxes through the years by paying himself little or nothing in salary.
Labor-intensive reporting by the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold also shows that Trump has exaggerated his charitable donations, that the Trump Foundation is primarily funded not by Trump but by others, and that Trump has used foundation funds for himself: settling lawsuits or, in an act of stunning egomania, paying five figures for a portrait of himself.
Despite this evidence, pollsters report that Trump is rated higher for honesty and trustworthiness than Clinton. This counterfactual belief speaks to a collective failure of judgment by the American public and a collective failure of reporting, commentary, and fact-checking by news media. Despite some award-worthy reporting in many print media, broadcast and cable news organizations have given far too much attention to trivia and drivel than to substantive issues or to Trump’s discreditable background and career.
Clinton has waged a mostly traditional campaign built around a slogan of “Stronger Together.” She has detailed policy positions aimed at continuing the social and economic progress of the last eight years at home and confronting the United States’ adversaries abroad with careful diplomacy and disciplined application of military force.
By contrast, Trump has waged a campaign built around a slogan, “Make America Great Again,” that is an unmistakable appeal to the racist and anti-immigrant sentiments among white Americans. On policy, he is a loose cannon of unrealistic proposals like the wall on the Mexican border, irresponsible ideas like nuclear weaponizing U.S. allies, and unsubstantiated boasts about his ability, alone, to “fix” the mess in Washington.
Along the way, Trump has given voice and license to a meanness in political life unworthy of the world’s oldest and greatest democracy. He calls for jailing Clinton and is largely silent as some of his supporters openly suggest killing her. And he demeans the electoral process by charging, with utterly no evidence, that the election is rigged because of widespread voter fraud. The respected Georgetown University historian John McNeil has accurately shown that Trump displays many of the attributes characteristic of 20th century European fascism, including what McNeil calls the “cult of the leader” and the “lost golden-age syndrome.”.
If the polls and projections are to be believed, Clinton will emerge on Tuesday night with an electoral college majority even though her popular vote margin appears to be narrowing after the latest blip in the overblown email scandal. No one expects Trump to go silently into the night as a gracious loser. He has poisoned the body politic. America can be great again but only if Americans come together to get the toxin that Trumpism represents out of our system. Sadly, the evidence of obstructionism among Republican leaders and ill will among Trump’s supporters indicates that the healing process is far from assured and likely to be, at best, slow and difficult.