The Teflon Don and the Triumph of the Republican Noise Machine

The 2016 presidential election was a battle of negatives.

Despite Trump’s numerous well-known negatives — including a history of racist and sexist insults, inexperience in politics, impetuousness, sexual scandals, mediocre performance at the debates, and a 70% untrue rating from PolitiFact — Trump managed to convince almost a majority of voters that he was the better choice than Hillary Clinton.

As Thomas Frank said, the least qualified presidential candidate in history bested the most qualified candidate.

The country is in shock that Trump and the GOP were able to eke out a victory.

Hillary had her negatives too — carelessness with emails, questionable ties to Wall Street, hawkishness, and a legacy of dirty tricks against Bernie Sanders — but it’s obvious to me that Republicans were much more successful at making their attacks stick.

Trump is the Teflon Don.

Hillary is the Sticky Dame: attacks stick to her.

The victory is being explained as the result of a populist backlash against business-as-usual in Washington, D.C. and against a Democratic Party which failed to inspire confidence among white middle class voters. Such voters felt that the Democrats were closer to Wall Street than to Main Street; were more concerned about immigrants than poor white folks; and were more interested in diversity than in traditional religious orthodoxy. Opposition to abortion, gay marriage, transgender rights continues among millions of Americans. Hillary called such people “deplorables” and it’s no wonder they voted against her.

Blue collar whites trusted Trump more than Hillary to win back their jobs. If Trump doesn’t deliver, because of GOP devotion to their corporate benefactors, will the voters turn against Trump and the GOP? Or will the GOP figure out a way to lay the blame on Democrats or someone else? Given the experience with recent Democratic administrations, the latter outcome seems more likely. (See Obama and other reasons for the election debacle.)

Aside from economic and cultural explanations for Trump’s victory, there’s another explanation that should be obvious but that I feel needs emphasis.

The Republican Noise Machine is well-organized, well-funded, and very persuasive. Fox News, Breitbart News, AM talk radio, and a vast array of think tanks and websites relentlessly repeat GOP talking points that reinforce a world view that’s at odds with the world of progressives. Conservatives live in what seems like an alternate reality in which global climate change is a myth, deregulation of Wall Street is good for the economy, and tax cuts for rich people help the middle class.

As Emily Nussbaum says in the New Yorker, speaking of Fox News, “you need to immerse yourself entirely to grok the breadth of its world-building paranoias and mythologies.”

Tens of millions of Americans, and not just uneducated people, buy into that worldview.

The partisan divide is so extreme to propose a quantum multi-verse explanation for the phenomenon, given the vast gulf in facts acknowledged between the two worldviews.

Along with the ability to create alternate realities, with different facts and values, the GOP is brilliant at character assassination and dirty tricks. “Lock her up!” “Crooked Hillary”.

Specifically, for purposes of this article, they live in an alternate reality in which Hillary’s negatives trump Trump’s negatives.

To a large extent, the email scandal was Hillary’s swift-boating: the GOP was able to exaggerate the significance of the scandal.

The Republican Noise Machine was successful at rousing its base and rousing hatred for Hillary, whereas many Democrats and left-leaning independents stayed home or voted third party, refusing to vote for the lesser of two evils. The GOP base seems more willing to vote for imperfect candidates. The Democratic base is more purist.

Just how many people voted third party? According to a USA TODAY/Rock The Vote/Ipsos poll conducted Oct. 24-27. “Among those aged 18-34 who supported the Vermont senator in the primary, 64% said they’d vote for Clinton, while 10% were for Trump, 8% were for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and 8% backed Green Party candidate Jill Stein.” However, it’s unclear how many of these people were Democrats and would have voted for Hillary had Sanders not run.

Unlike the case in 2000, when Nader drew votes away from Al Gore, in 2016 the reason why some Berniecrats rejected Hillary are clear: Hillary’s hawkishness, her ties to Wall Street, the mistreatment of Sanders by the DNC, and the clear flip-flopping on issues such as TPP.

Will Wikileaks help the Republicans and the military-industrial complex?

It will be ironic if Wikileaks — which was supposed to expose and undercut the power of the military-industrial complex — helps Republicans win the 2016 election.

The revelations about the DNC, about Clinton’s Wall Street speeches, and about private emails may flip the election to Trump. At the very least, the revelations will harm down-ticket Democrats and progressives.

There are plenty of embarrassing stories about Trump and Republicans, and about corruption in the military-industrial complex. But rather than using the Wikileaks revelations to undermine Republican interest and the military, the Obama administration went after Wikileaks and its members.   The Republicans, on the other hand, are successfully using the Wikileaks emails to make Clinton and the DNC appear corrupt.

In general, Republicans are better at exploiting and spinning the news. Partly this is because too many Democrats partake of the corruption and hawkishness. Partly it’s because Republicans have fewer qualms about twisting the truth. Mostly it’s because the GOP has a powerful right wing media to broadcast their talking points.

The only reason Trump has a chance of winning — and the only reason why so many people are attracted to Republican ideology — is the prevalence of right wing media: Fox News, AM talk radio, and Internet trolls. On AM radio the conservative slant is relentless and well-orchestrated.  They manufacture an alternate reality in which Sadaam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks, Obama is a Muslim from Kenya, global climate change is a hoax, and Hillary more corrupt than Bush or Trump.  The hatred of Hillary is deep and visceral.

The Republican Noise Machine molds public opinion and has succeeded in elevating the Clinton email issue to an election-deciding scandal. The fact that George W. Bush had a private email server with much more serious repercussions is ignored. As reported in Newsweek’s article The George W. Bush White House ‘Lost’ 22 Million Emails:

Clinton’s email habits look positively transparent when compared with the subpoena-dodging, email-hiding, private-server-using George W. Bush administration. Between 2003 and 2009, the Bush White House “lost” 22 million emails. This correspondence included millions of emails written during the darkest period in America’s recent history, when the Bush administration was ginning up support for what turned out to be a disastrous war in Iraq with false claims that the country possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and, later, when it was firing U.S. attorneys for political reasons.

Like Clinton, the Bush White House used a private email server—its was owned by the Republican National Committee. And the Bush administration failed to store its emails, as required by law, and then refused to comply with a congressional subpoena seeking some of those emails.

Why can’t Democrats exploit such stories to undercut Republicans? Trump should be 20 points behind in this election.

As Bernie Sanders said, the American public is fed up with hearing about Clinton’s “damn emails.”  The emails should be a footnote issue. Instead, Republicans have largely succeeded at elevating it to an election-deciding issue that supposedly illustrates Clinton’s criminality and unreliability.