Put a rig on it

9 November 2016 By Rob Cox

Hillary Clinton has been defeated by Donald Trump for the U.S. presidency. She can take solace, however, from not being the biggest loser of the most rancorous campaign of the modern era. Clinton can retreat with a storied career and a well-endowed family foundation. For the many American institutions damaged by the election, a comeback will be harder to accomplish.

While votes are still being counted, some fundamental pillars of democracy and the free market are already emerging tarnished from the White House bust-up. These include the parties and electoral system, the press, pollsters and perhaps most troublingly, the political independence of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the rule of law itself.

Congress already was damaged goods, with approval ratings below 10 percent, well before the candidates hit the hustings. Now, both political parties can be added to the list of the hobbled. While the Grand Old Party has won back the White House and the legislative branch, its successful nominee battled with its leaders and trashed key tenets of Republican orthodoxy such as free trade. Victory aside, it’s not clear what Trump’s GOP stands for.

The losing Democrats face their own reckoning, as perceived scale-tipping for Clinton at the expense of her socialist rival, Bernie Sanders, led to the departure of its own party chair. The inevitability of a Clinton win from the get-go crowded out competition in the field, leaving only Sanders to challenge her during the primary season.

Throughout the campaign, Trump insisted that the Republican primary, and national electoral, systems were “rigged”. Even on Election Day, his campaign filed a lawsuit arguing that a polling place in Las Vegas had improperly remained open to accommodate people lined up to vote. Though he has won, his assertions of vote-tampering, even without evidence, may now find copious support among Democrats.

More worrisome is the politicization of the FBI. Trump branded James Comey, the agency’s Republican director, a traitor when he declined to pursue a prosecution of Clinton over her handling of classified information on a private email server. Then, in late October, Comey took the unusual step of informing Congress that the FBI was reviewing fresh material. Ten days later, and only 72 hours ahead of the national vote, it sounded the all-clear. The public disclosures, which broke with convention, leave Democrats questioning the bureau’s motives.

The so-called Fourth Estate has been challenged by Trump’s unorthodox candidacy. The onetime reality-TV star has lifted ratings, which garnered him $4.6 billion in free publicity, estimates MediaQuant. Though his often outrageous and bigoted pronouncements earned him more negative coverage than Clinton, his victory will bring accusations from Democrats that the media suffered from a form of ratings bias that gave Trump an unfair advantage.

And the media’s data-driven cousins, the pollsters, must hang their heads for prognostications that proved grievously inaccurate. Having similarly failed to project the outcomes of referendums on the UK’s membership of the EU and Colombia’s peace treaty, this is their third strike since June.

America has been in tricky spots like this before, from the contested ballot of 1824 that robbed Andrew Jackson, the original populist, of the presidency, to the contested 2000 election race. A handful of absentee votes and a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court ultimately put Republican George W. Bush into office, leaving half the electorate feeling cheated.

The divisiveness of that campaign looks quaint compared to the acrimony on show in 2016. Trump’s victory may head off the promised insurrections of his more extreme supporters, while forcing a rethink by both parties on the nature of democracy. Either way, a split electorate combined with diminished faith in institutions is serious cause for concern.

 

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