As long as presidential power grows, so will our obsession with it, and the people who occupy the Oval Office.
Persecution, and the fear of it, are the underlying theme of this year’s presidential election. You can see it everywhere. Those who show up to protest against Donald Trump are motivated by fear that if he entered the Oval Office he would use the power of the federal government to harm people like them. Conservatives and Republicans who do not support him have already been harassed, threatened, and abused by his supporters. The writer and lawyer David French, for the effrontery of even considering a third-party run for the presidency, was inundated with ugly attacks on his family.
While there is a lot of fear of Donald Trump, we see the intimidated dealing out plenty of intimidation of their own. The anti-Trump protesters have turned violent at several of his rallies, assaulting and injuring peaceful citizens exercising their right to assemble. They spilled blood as recently as early this month in San Jose. So far, the persecutions committed by Trump’s supporters have been confined to the Internet, but those are bad enough. Just ask conservative pundit Ben Shapiro what it is like to be threatened with gas chambers and ovens. We might dismiss these often anonymous actions as puerile, which they are, but there is a real history behind these images that is not dismissible by decent men and women.
The question of whom to endorse has turned less on the qualifications of the candidates, their lack of qualifications, or even their principles than on a fear of persecution. Let us cite the words of Scott Adams, the Dilbert cartoonist: “But Clinton supporters have convinced me—and here I am being 100 percent serious—that my safety is at risk if I am seen as supportive of Trump. So I’m taking the safe way out and endorsing Hillary Clinton for president.”
Who knows how Adams will vote? All we know is what he fears. He thinks Trump will win but doesn’t want to be hunted down in the aftermath if Clinton wins.
He’s right that a Clinton administration would be more than a little unkind to its enemies. While she was quick to condemn the violence—unlike the Clinton-supporting mayor of San Jose, who blamed Trump for the events in his city—many conservatives and especially Christians are afraid that she will continue the legacy of the Obama administration. This legacy has been one of persecution through bureaucracy, the kind endured by the Little Sisters of the Poor or the Tea Party groups put through their paces by the Internal Revenue Service .
Does anyone doubt that a President Hillary Clinton would staff the Departments of Justice and Education or Health and Human Services with Progressives committed to replacing a robust freedom of religion with a tightly constrained freedom of worship? Will she not appoint judges at all levels opposed to the rights of the unborn? This fear is why the political theorist Hadley Arkes, a constitutionalist of the first order, has with eloquently expressed reluctance endorsed Donald Trump.
As if to confirm every conservative’s fear, Mark Tushnet, a professor at Harvard Law School, was quite clear on his blog about how to press home every Progressive cause in the event of a Clinton victory. His point: “My own judgment is that taking a hard line . . . is better than trying to accommodate the losers, who—remember—defended, and are defending, positions that liberals regard as having no normative pull at all.”
Tushnet certainly hasn’t called for the kinds of physical attacks we have seen from anti-Trump protesters. This persecution is planned for the legal realm, but on the other hand, that does not necessarily make it less threatening.
The election of 2016 is becoming a contest between the extremes, which is ironic because the leading candidates have both been criticized from within their parties as not being true believers. The continued appeal of Senator Bernie Sanders stems from Leftwing fears that Clinton is too accommodating, too willing to compromise, not committed enough to the cause. Cornel West of Princeton just recently called her a “milquetoast neoliberal.” She has had run-ins with Black Lives Matter leaders and is haunted by her close ties to Wall Street. As Sanders has said, “You can’t take their money and take them on.”
Likewise, people on the Right have been asking why Trump is being considered a conservative at all, with National Review leading the charge. He has financially supported Democratic politicians, including the Clintons, and has had little more than a tenuous connection to the Republican Party for most of his adult life. On just about every issue associated with the Republicans since Reagan he has deviated, not only in the past but during this election season. At least no one can fault him for being an ideologue. Rather, he is, like Clinton, an opportunist.
If the American people really wanted to see a contest between Left and Right they could have nominated Sanders and Senator Ted Cruz. In that event, we would have had the prospect of debates about the Laffer Curve, the proletarianization of the working classes, constitutional originalism, the work of Thomas Piketty on equality, and other substantive issues. The ideological choice before the American people would have been clear. Instead, we have a personality contest between two of the most disliked people in American political history—and underlying it will be fear not so much of the candidates as of their supporters.
As unlikable as Americans may find the candidates, if they are the opportunists the critics within their respective parties think they are, we ought to fear the two sets of supporters more than either of them. Trump is inclined to craft his policies according to applause meters and Clinton to take any position to get into the office she has wanted for decades. Their followers are not so flexible.
Whether the fear of persecution is well-founded, the perception is growing that American politics has become a zero-sum game. If your side wins, you will be safe. If your side loses, look out. There is no escape, which explains a lot of the tension, anxiety, and lashing out that we see. Either candidate could make significant headway by cutting into the shrillness of the campaign with a statesmanlike assurance that his or her side is not out for blood. But to reach across the aisle in this way—or, better said, to transcend both aisles in a chastening and thoroughly American call to civility—would mean taking on their most ardent supporters. Do they have the courage to do that, or are they afraid of them, too?