It’s hard to escape the feeling that we’re getting what we deserve. Election 2016 is exactly what Election 2016 was destined to be. People say that no one saw it coming—the vulgarity, the unpredictability, the allegations of criminality—and maybe no one did. But we should have.
We’ve been heading in this direction for a while, but the ride was so enjoyable that we never considered the destination. As the culture descended into a blur of rap rivalries and reality shows, we sat glassy-eyed and dumb, papering over the growing emptiness of our civic culture with on-demand episodes of Survivor, American Idol, and of course, The Apprentice. No denominator was too low or too common. We lapped it up and asked for more.
When the telephones in our homes stopped ringing, replaced by vibrations and blinking red lights on our handheld devices, we barely noticed. We had e-mails to read; texts to return; timelines to curate. We were wanted somewhere, by someone. We got likes and faves, and it felt so good to be loved that we grew blind to the cost. The beautifully laid-out magazines on our coffee tables and the richly reported newspapers in our driveways vaporized into thin air, and we shrugged. Our posts were getting a lot of shares.
Political junkies that we are, we spent our evenings listening to other people turn mountains into molehills on cable television. We picked sides. We gave in to the darkest impulses in our political lizard brains. We let the beasts run free, let them pillage. No mercy. We cheered our side’s gladiators.
It was bound to have an effect. Now that we can see plainly that our political culture has been hollowed out like a jack-o’-lantern, it’s fair to ask: How long has it been like this? A decade? Two? The whole time?
We obsessed over Watergate, Iran-Contra, Monica Lewinsky, Plamegate, and Benghazi. Our grandparents obsessed over Hoover (“that bum”) and Roosevelt (“the rotten, no-good S.O.B.”). Somebody once obsessed over Teapot Dome. Telling ourselves that it had always been like this was cold comfort—especially because we knew that it wasn’t true. Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan were friends. We once had friends, too. Now, we unfriend. How can we remain friends with someone who insists on the right to be wrong about politics? The very thought offends.
One lesson of American history is that we like our politics served with a daub of scandal. If it bleeds, it leads. We crave a dash of swagger in our leadership class. Give us something to watch. Give us something to holler about. We refuse to be bored. We won’t watch more than one episode of any show where nothing happens.
So now we have what we deserve, and what we probably secretly wanted all along: a presidential jump-ball between two candidates seemingly willing to say anything to get elected and both lacking what nonpoliticians call a moral compass. Many of us view our vote not as a celebration of a candidate’s virtues but as a mechanism for keeping the other side’s no-good S.O.B. far from the Oval Office. It doesn’t hurt that all the people we’ve unfriended in the last six months will have to eat it—and like it—when their candidate loses, the bum.
As the already-exhausting campaign enters what should be its final week, the whole show has been overtaken by an October surprise to end all October surprises—not coming from either campaign but springing instead from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. On Friday, FBI honcho Jim Comey announced that he would reopen the criminal investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails that he had closed in dramatic fashion last summer.
No one can say with any confidence yet why Comey did it, or what effect his decision will have on the presidential outcome. We only know that this latest development ensures that this campaign’s final week will be madder, dirtier, and more like a desperate knife fight than any that has come before—and that’s quite a bar to clear, considering what kind of campaign it has been.
The darkest hour comes just before the dawn, we’re told. We’ll see. Has it always been like this? Not quite like this.
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