WASHINGTON – Good riddance to Campaign 2016, the election that put the “ugh” in ugly.
Headed for history books a week from Tuesday, the duel between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump became a battle of “nasty women” and “bad hombres” vs. “deplorables” and voters who are “irredeemable.”
A beauty queen, a Gold Star family, an ex-president and his baggage, the FBI director, even the pope were drawn into the fray.
At times, the campaign rhetoric has been so raunchy it’s forced middle-school civics teachers to censor their lesson plans. Thank Trump for that.
But Americans can’t say they weren’t warned about what lay ahead.
On June 16, 2015, mere minutes into a rambling campaign announcement speech, Trump was labeling Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals, and pledging to build “a great, great wall” to keep them out.
He’s been horrifying and-or delighting people with his provocations ever since.
Eleven Republicans were already in the race when Trump joined the field, with five still to come — a boatload of current and former governors and members of Congress among them. It was reasonable to view the impolitic nonpolitician Trump as, at best, an improbable choice to win the Republican nomination.
Clinton, by contrast, strode into the Democratic race two months earlier with a commanding resume and a sunny announcement video that instantly made her the presumed heir apparent for her party’s nomination.
She looked poised to finish the business of shattering “that highest, hardest glass ceiling” she couldn’t quite reach in a 2008 race against Barack Obama.
This time, it was Bernie Sanders who crashed her party and put the lie to the conceit of a cakewalk to the nomination. (Three more Democrats later joined the field, too, but without much impact.)
And thus the table was set for one of the nastiest, soul-crushing presidential campaigns in history.
In the end, no matter who wins, the next president will be one of the most unpopular ever.
“If the central promises of modern politics are peace and prosperity, we really haven’t had either for a long time,” said William Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar and former official in Bill Clinton’s administration. “That created an atmosphere of discontent and protest that affected both political parties this year.”
The Republican primaries of Campaign 2016 gave us “Jeb!” Bush and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina and so many others that the GOP debates had to be divided into two segments to cram everyone on a stage. John Kasich was the sleeper who hung in there till the end.
Democrats felt the Bern, even if Sanders’ fire eventually flickered out.
The primaries gave us taco bowls, penis jokes, penis boasts and schoolyard nicknames.
Forget debating the issues. People debated whether Trump was prone to blurting out “bigly” or “big league.” (It’s the latter.)
It wasn’t just Trump who went low in the primary scramble.
Rubio (“Little Marco” to Trump) mocked the New York businessman’s “small hands.” And that triggered Trump’s eye-popping reassurances during a nationally televised debate that there were no problems with his genitals.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie predicted he would beat Clinton’s “rear end” if he met her in a debate. Bush called Trump a liar, a whiner and a jerk. Cruz (“Lyin’ Ted” to Trump) mocked the GOP front-runner for his “Trumpertantrums.”
And so it went.
None of it could trump Trump, with his never-ending fusillade of insults and bluster.
He dissed Sen. John McCain’s history as a Vietnam prisoner of war, mocked Fiorina’s face, and deemed Pope Francis’ criticism of building walls “disgraceful.”
He proposed a “total and complete shutdown” of immigration by an entire religious group — Muslims — to fight terrorism, only later morphing the idea into a call for “extreme vetting.”
For all of that, it turned out that it was Trump, incongruent in his suit and red ball-cap, who best channeled the anger and disaffection percolating among Americans fed up with establishment politics.
Remember when Barbara Bush said the country had had enough Bushes? Her son (“Low-energy Jeb” to Trump) would’ve saved a lot of heartbreak and expense if he’d just listened to mom.
Trump drove the direction of the campaign, said GOP consultant Kevin Madden, “because he went out and took it, blocking the sun from his opponents while they were busy announcing their latest slate of endorsements of local sheriffs or pushing a policy white paper around.”
On the left, it was Sanders, a grumpy socialist, who stirred passions with his promise of a political “revolution” against the entrenched, monied interests on Wall Street. The young voters who’d powered Obama’s campaigns gravitated to Sanders. To Clinton, not so much.
Clinton was busy scrambling to explain her use of a private email setup and what the FBI director called her “careless” handling of classified information.
While Clinton tried to play down the email controversy in public, beneath the surface her aides fretted and fussed over damage-control strategies.
“There Is Just No Good Answer,” Clinton adviser Philippe Reines wrote in March 2015 in one of hundreds of emails flying back and forth in the Clinton campaign on the subject.
We know that courtesy of WikiLeaks, which released tens of thousands of private emails from the Clinton campaign that U.S. intelligence officials said were hacked by the Russians. Never before had the innards of a campaign-in-motion spilled out like this.
That didn’t seem to bother Trump, whose campaign has been one big, long friendly overture to Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Through it all, Clinton soldiered on, even if she didn’t always excite.
The groundbreaking notion of electing the first woman as president had its appeal, but never generated the electricity attached to the election of the nation’s first black president.
Millennials seemed to take the idea of a female president as a given.
Once the voting started in the Democratic primaries, Sanders and his zealous supporters managed to claim victory in 22 states but never could find a pathway to the nomination.
Before the voting started in the Republican primaries, people questioned whether Trump’s lead in the polls was for real.
Would people really cast ballots for the provocateur whose promise to “Make America Great Again” was so light on details?
In a word, yes.
It turns out that Trump really is just who he seems to be.
The businessman and reality TV star who kept promising to be “more presidential” when the time was right never really got there.
After claiming the nomination at his Cleveland convention, Trump picked a fight with an American Muslim family whose son was killed while serving in Iraq. He questioned the fairness of an American-born judge of Mexican heritage. He made flip comments about what gun-rights advocates might do to Clinton if her Secret Service agents weren’t armed.
Clinton made her own errors. She dismissed half of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” and “irredeemable,” and only partly backed down when the comments became public. Maybe her quantities were off, Clinton reasoned, but not her sentiments. It didn’t help that she’d made the remarks before a snickering audience of wealthy supporters at what was supposed to be a private fundraiser.
Her September stumble in the heat after attending a memorial for the victims of the 9-11 terror attacks fed into Trump’s questions about her stamina, particularly when she vanished from public view for 90 minutes. It turned out she had pneumonia, a diagnosis she’d kept hidden from nearly all of her staff.
Trump saw something suspect in that. Supporters said it showed her determination to power through no matter what.
The denouement of the campaign amounted to one long, wearying October surprise.
Tom Hanks drew knowing laughs in a “Saturday Night Live” skit about the final presidential debate when he explained: “Tonight is going to be a lot like the third ‘Lord of the Rings’ movie: You don’t really want to watch. But, hey, you’ve come this far.”
The three debates were the proverbial train wreck that voters couldn’t look away from, setting records for viewership.
In Round 1, Trump dismissed Clinton as lacking “the look” or stamina to be president. Clinton was primed to pounce, reciting Trump’s track record of biting commentary about women’s looks, like when he called a former Miss Universe “Miss Piggy” because she gained weight. Trump was left to ask: “Where did you find this? Where did you find this?”
A new bombshell dropped just in time for Debate 2: jaw-dropping 2005 video of Trump making predatory comments about groping women’s genitals and kissing women without asking.
“When you’re a star, they let you do it,” he boasted in the tape.
Trump apologized, but waved off his comments as “locker-room banter” and said he’d never really done what he’d claimed in the video.
But a parade of women came forward to accuse him of making unwanted sexual advances.
And then came a parade of skittish Republicans bailing on Trump, some withdrawing endorsements, others calling for Trump to drop out of the race.
Trump’s response was to go nuclear against Clinton. In the front row for the second debate, Trump seated three women who had accused Bill Clinton of rape or sexual impropriety, and the nominee used the forum to claim with thin evidence that “Hillary Clinton attacked those same women and attacked them viciously.”
In the final debate, Trump came out with his stunning refusal to say he would accept the results of the election, renewing his complaints that the election was being “rigged” against him.
It amounted to an attack on the fundamentals of democracy.
Clinton called it “horrifying.”
Obama’s blunt message for Trump: “Stop whining.”
Over its long and tawdry path, the campaign added a slew of new entries (and expletive-deleted items) to the political lexicon: Talk of home-brew servers, pigs, slobs, Tic Tacs, the alt-right, the woman card, locker-room banter, and much more.
As Clinton’s edge strengthened in late campaign polls, Democrats dared to begin to exhale. Then the FBI announced that yet more emails had emerged, this time through a separate investigation into the estranged husband of a top Clinton aide — and were also being examined for possible classified material.
Less than half of voters still had a favourable opinion of Clinton. And ever fewer were impressed with Trump.
A Clinton win, said Galston, the former Bill Clinton aide, would be “a victory for competence, qualification, hard work, preparation.” But not, he said, for inspiration or a clear message.
Princeton historian Julian Zelizer said the toxicity of the campaign will be remembered not simply as a fluke wrought by the Trump phenomenon but as part of a trend.
“More and more of the electorate sees themselves as almost living in two separate worlds,” Zelizer said. “And when this happens, you tend to vilify the opponent. It’s not simply another view, it’s an intolerable view.”
Madden, the Republican consultant, warned that in thinking about the future of the Republican Party, “everything has to be with the understanding that Trump is not going away” even if he loses.
“He tapped into a discontent among voters that has to be dealt with,” Madden said.
As the campaign hurtled to its end, a yard sign spotted in Arlington, Virginia, spoke to the ordeal that it has been.
It didn’t promote a candidate but rather an earth-shattering natural disaster: “Giant Meteor, 2016, Just end it already.”