The mountebank won

So the mountebank won. The electoral college system designed to protect slave owners did not redeem itself by protecting Hillary Clinton as almost everyone thought it would. Instead, it did as the founding fathers intended. It amplified reaction and the whitelash to eight years of President Obama. Now what?

The honest answer is nobody knows, not even the President-elect Donald Trump. We are in uncharted territory here. In the name of wanting its country back, a rancorous popular minority has handed the highest office in the land and the terrifying powers that go with it to man manifestly unfit for the position.

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are said to be the five stages of grief upon bereavement. One is supposed to follow the other. Among those who thought it unthinkable, Trump’s election is inspiring much the same responses, but simultaneously and spiced with a generous dash of raw fear.

Will Trump take advice? Having steered to victory seeimingly by no compass but his own, will he let others guide him now? The hope — a mix of denial and bargaining, perhaps — is that he will surround himself with a wise and accomplished team to whom he will delegate the task of making America great again and to whose judgement he will defer.

The early signs are not promising. He has yet to make his horse consul, but he has named — as his first appointment — Steve Bannon to be “Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor to the President”.

If you were tempted to think that Trump’s crude appeal to America’s white nationalist id was simply an election tactic he would abandon once in office, Bannon’s elevation demands that you think again. This is a Rasputin figure. Trump may be a tabula rasa ideology-wise, as Obama suggested on Monday, but if Bannon is the guy who gets to do the writing on the empty tablet, be very afraid.

Here’s what John Weaver, a Republican strategist who advises Ohio Governor John Kasich, tweeted on Sunday: “Just to be clear, news media, the next president named a racist, anti-semite as the coequal of the chief of staff”. The latter, Trump’s second appointment, is to be Reince Priebus, now chair of the Republican National Committee, and supposedly some sort of consolation.

“I must admit I was a wee bit surprised,” the chairman of the American Nazi Party, Rocky Suhayda, emailed CNN. “Perhaps the Donald IS for “REAL” and is not going to be another directed by the usual “Wire Pullers” and does indeed intend the ROCK the BOAT?”

Republicans who want to believe in Trump point to the first half of Bannon’s resume: Navy, Harvard Business School, Goldman Sachs, all very establishment, at least on the shiny surface. They pay less heed to his role as chief propagandist for the so-called white supremacist alt-right and his description of himself as a “Leninist”.

“Lenin”, he said in a 2014 interview, “wanted to destroy the state and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” His weapons for achieving this extravagant ambition include breitbart.com, the digital Die Sturmer of Trumpism, of which he was executive chairman before becoming CEO of Trump’s campaign.

Getting ready to shoot nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, last year, Dylann Roof took pictures of himself with the battle flag of the pro-slave Confederacy. He gave his victims his reasons for killing them: “You’ve raped our women, you’ve stolen and you’ve taken over the country”.

The massacre triggered a national debate about the Confederate flag and whether it should continue to be flown on public property. Breitbart, which at one point devoted a special section to black crime, was having none of it. Scarcely were the bodies cold before it ran this headline: “Hoist it High and Proud: the Confederate Flag Proclaims a Glorious Heritage.”

Other choice headlines include: “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew” (an attack on the anti-Trump editor of the conservative Weekly Standard); “Gabby Giffords: the Gun Control Movement’s Human Shield” (about the Arizona congresswoman who was shot in the head while meeting with constituents); and “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy”.

You have to hand it Bannon, though. He’s a shrewd revolutionary. Breitbart is his tool for stirring up the grassroots, but where he has been really clever is in manipulating mainstream media. For this, he bankrolled a non-partisan research organisation, the Government Accountabilty Institute, to dig for dirt that would look plausible enough to chum the water for investigative sharks at outfits like the New York Times and 60 Minutes.

Work product included the book Clinton Cash purporting to expose the Bill and Hillary Clinton’s seedy money-grubbing and influence-peddling. The Times gobbled it up whole, and while much of it was subsequently discredited, the desired damage was done. A parallel expose aimed at the establishment Republican candidate Jeb Bush — Bush Bucks — received less attention only because the target imploded prematurely.

Second only “Make America Great Again”, “Drain the Swamp” was probably Trump’s most effective campaign trail catch line. So far he has only given the swamp a new alligator.

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Gridlock if Hillary wins

By this time next week, one can but hope, the 2016 US election will be over. Barring a black swan event — which is to say one as improbable as that creature — Hillary Clinton will be president-elect. Then what?

Much may depend on the decisiveness of her winning margin. The race appeared to be narrowing in the final furlong. This is not unusual. FBI director James Comey has helped, perhaps unintentionally. News that his agents had come across a fresh trove of emails that might contain some sent by Hillary via her private server while she was Secretary of State perked up Donald Trump’s flagging campaign like a line of cocaine.

With any luck, the lift will prove equally short-lived. If the polls are to be believed, Trump may come close in the national vote next Tuesday but still lose fairly decisively in the electoral college. He has refused to say whether he will accept the result, asserting that the system is rigged. As, indeed, it is. The Founding Fathers rigged it to reduce the risk of the teeming North electing a president who might try to outlaw slavery in the agrarian South.

What would be dangerous in the present instance would be a replay of the 2000 election in which the Democrat, Al Gore, won a popular majority while failing to assemble a majority of the electoral votes awarded by each state on a winner take all basis. He lost when the Supreme Court awarded Florida to the Republican, George Bush, on the basis of still disputed recount. Gore conceded gracefully. Trump has offered no grounds for believing he would behave in a like manner. There could be blood.

A result that is clean and clear will test Trump’s ability to brand defeat as triumph. Branding, an art that has quite a lot in common with lying, is his peculiar forte. A protean character, he should have no trouble finding a formula if he wants one and, as it happens, there is a claim he can legitimately make. He has performed a useful service. He has turned over the rock of American politics and exposed what lies beneath.

Trump may be the Republican candidate, but by no stretch of the imagination has he been running as a Republican. Previously of no fixed political address, he putsched the Grand Old Party with rhetorical techniques that will sound uncannily familiar to readers of Volker Ullrich’s excellent new biography of Adolph Hitler.

He has come within sight of the winning the White House because a significant percentage of American voters, predominantly white working and middle class men, feel betrayed by the GOP of House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, not to mention the lengthy menu of presidential alternatives initially on offer.

Where will the okes go if and when Trump goes back to being a property developer and reality TV star?

Clinton is convinced that, for the sake of the country, she must make a play for their allegiance as profoundly as many seem to hate her. “If we don’t get this right,” she told the New Yorker’s George Packer in a recent interview, “what we’re seeing with Trump now will just be the beginning. Because when people feel that their government has failed them and the economy isn’t working for them, they are ripe for the kind of populist nationalist appeals that we’re hearing from Trump.”

“Getting it right” will be easier said than done unless the Republicans chose to draw similar conclusions from the Trump phenomenon and see their way to cooperating with the new administration. That seems unlikely unless Congress also changes hands next week. The best Hillary can hope for is a tenuous majority in the Senate while the GOP retains a lock on the House.

Things could get ugly. Doug Schoen, who worked for Bill Clinton as a pollster but has taken Rupert Murdoch’s shilling to be a Fox News talking head, drew attention to himself on Monday by announcing he had made “one of the most difficult decision of my life”: while he could not vote for Trump, he would not be voting for Hillary either. His reason: fear that the Republicans would try to turn the email affair into a new Watergate to bring down her administration or at least limit her to a single term.

“I am now convinced that we will be facing the very real possibility of a constitutional crisis should Secretary Clinton win the election…There will be no goodwill or honeymoon period for Clinton. Her…agenda will take a back seat to partisan division…with little chance on constructive legislative action.”

It is hard to see how withholding his vote from Clinton might rescue the country from Republicans bent on her political destruction through the criminalisation of political difference. But Schoen’s prediction of gridlock worse that anything Washington has yet experienced is not beyond the bounds of possibility.