When I was growing up, I lived not far from a paper mill, close enough that the foul odor often defined our existence. Today — metaphorically, but in a very real way — the stench that hangs over our country is suffocating us. This one has many sources: The corrupt economic system, the feckless and greedy operation of our public and private institutions, the resultant anger that is misdirected into bigotry and, most noxious, the politicians who enable all this.
It also darkens our sky, turning the bright hope that has always characterized our nation into a forlorn outlook, even disgust. Case in point: the emerging dreary choice for president between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. If that’s where we end up in the November election, Americans will be forced to vote not for the one to lead the nation, but against; at least those who even bother to cast their ballots.
Those on the right and left can scream about false equivalency all they like, but many on both sides consider one or the other to be the devil incarnate, while millions more are simply antagonized by either alternative. Trump has succeeded with a resentment campaign that opponents consider deadly dangerous. Clinton’s adversaries and even some of her supporters don’t trust her or her promise to reform our financial system, given how she’s accepted outrageous amounts of money from the oligarchs.
Even so, her campaign organization seems finally to be shoving aside the Bernie Sanders insurgency, which was surprisingly successful even as it was fueled by fantasy promises. That’s because she’s been a candidate who is variously described as tepid and terrible. Even she has admitted that she’s not a “natural.”
Trump has exploited every nasty prejudice that still stains the U.S. He has substituted angry showmanship for substance and entranced those of us in the media who long ago made it clear we prefer sound bites to thoughtful discussion. He’s led his followers to such extremes that he’s often characterized as a Hitler in the television and Internet age.
At this point, those are the ones who will head the tickets of our two parties. In the case of Hillary, it looks like she has a clear-enough path, unless her secretive nature and revelations in her still-hidden emails reveal scandalous conduct. Short of that, she’s on a road to the nomination, with Bernie heckling from far behind.
On the Republican side, you have established types who are horrified at the thought of Donald Trump. Some of them are genuinely worried where he would take the country. Many others in the GOP are panicked at the idea that their prosperous existence would be jeopardized if The Donald’s troops were to storm over their privileged positions. And then you have those who are positioning themselves to come to the rescue. There’s John Kasich now, who is the last malleable one standing, and Ted Cruz, whom they despise but at least is not Trump. The problem with Cruz is that he’s perceived as a religious ideologue who is so opportunistic and slippery that he comes across as a Snidely Whiplash, as a friend put it. (If you’re too young to know who Snidely Whiplash is, search “Dudley Do-Right.”
Unfortunately, nobody involved in this inside game wants to do what’s right. The leaders are openly plotting to deny Trump the nomination by manipulating the rules of the convention. In their minds, it would be Trump’s darkness up against their shadiness, with Donny, in his usual subtle way, threatening “riots” in reprisal. In addition to Kasich and Cruz, we have Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan pretending they aren’t available, but I suspect they’re ready to do their Mighty Mouse imitation, singing “Here I Come to Save the Day!”
Yes, it’s like a cartoon. Painted in ugly colors that even stink.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.